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SATURDAY JOURNAL

Life After Death

For Amy Biehl's Parents, Path to Forgiveness Leads to S. Africa

August 01, 1998|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 5 p.m., a brick crashed through the windshield and into Amy's head. She tried to run from the hail of stones. The killer, 19, caught up and tripped her. She fell on a patch of grass at a gas station. Amy's black friends ran from the car to beg for her life. "She's a comrade," they shouted. "A comrade!" But the killer had already borrowed a pocketknife.

That night, Amy's roommate, Melanie Jacobs, was summoned to the Guguletu police station. Amy's body lay outside the back door. Jacobs turned away from the mangled face. But she said yes, that is Amy, because she saw her clunky black shoes sticking out from the pink blanket. Jacobs had hated those shoes because she thought that Amy would not be able to run in them. Please, pick her up, please. The pavement was cold and damp, and Amy hated the cold.

In Newport Beach, Linda had the week off from work. On that bright morning, she went back-to-school shopping with her 16-year-old son, Zach, a high school junior. She and Zach were unloading bags from the car when the phone rang. It was Kim, her oldest daughter, sobbing. "Mom, are you sitting down?"

For a few minutes, Linda was hysterical. "They stabbed my baby," she kept screaming. Five minutes later, the media started calling. Linda had gathered herself. Amy's words came back to her. Zach reached to take the phone off the hook, but his mother stopped him. No, she said. We're going to celebrate Amy's life.

Peter got the news in Salem, Ore., where he flew every week as marketing director for a frozen foods company. He took the next plane home. A neighbor picked him up and warned that satellite trucks had staked out the house. The neighbor plucked a couple of boards off a back fence so Peter could slip in. It would be the last time he ducked the press.

That night, Linda, Peter and the three kids gathered at the kitchen table. Look, Peter said. We can hole ourselves away, or we can use Amy's death to try to do some good. The next morning, the family walked outside to the outstretched microphones.

The media looked for, and found, a hero in Amy. High school co-valedictorian. Stanford honors student. Captain of the NCAA championship women's diving team.

Hundreds of people sent contributions, cards and flowers. Condolence calls and faxes rolled in from Mandela, President Clinton, Coretta Scott King. Two months after Amy's murder, her family visited South Africa at the invitation of Cape Town's mayor. The ANC sent bodyguards with Uzis to guard them.

On that trip, through the fog of confusion and grief, Linda and Peter began to understand the impact of Amy's work. The people she knew! She had set up a meeting between ANC women and liberal female attorneys who she thought might work together. She had taught voters in squatter camps and townships to mark the picture of their favorite candidate in the April 1994 elections. She had worked with ANC activists who now run the country, including the current minister of justice.

Back home, Linda and Peter read their daughter's journals and papers over and over. They used her words, and the donations people kept sending, to start the Amy Biehl Foundation. The Biehls never sought therapy. Instead, they kept returning to South Africa--alone.

The Mothers Meet

Last summer in Cape Town, the hearing room was packed. Linda caught the eye of Evelyn Manqina, the mother of the young man who had stabbed Amy. Evelyn Manqina wore an Amy Biehl Foundation T-shirt to her son's amnesty hearing. The two mothers hugged.

"The message that was sent out," retired Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu says of the gesture, "sent electric shocks down your spine."

Since 1995, Tutu has headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has compiled a history of apartheid-era violence, including murders by state-run death squads and ANC guerrillas. Applicants must provide detailed confessions to be eligible for amnesty. They also must show a political motive--that their actions were part of either an apartheid or anti-government agenda.

Manqina's son, Mongezi, had asked to be pardoned from his 18-year prison term, along with three young men who admitted to stoning Amy. At their amnesty hearings, they approached Linda and Peter in a hallway to shake hands.

"To be honest, I don't have it in me to hate [the killers], I just don't," Peter says.

"To me, I never personalized it with these killers," Linda interjects. "I think you can say who really is responsible for this killing. You go back to the creators of apartheid. These guys were political victims."

Linda and Peter ran into Evelyn Manqina again last winter. She runs a shebeen, an unlicensed pub, at her home, 200 yards from where Amy was slain. She put her hand on Linda's, her eyes sad. He didn't pass, she said. Her son didn't pass his high school graduation exams. Will he take them again? Linda asked. Tell him I hope he does.

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