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SANDY BANKS

Living With Fear at Our Doorstep

November 22, 1998|SANDY BANKS

On a family outing in Oceanside last weekend, the aunt of 9-year-old Matthew Louis Cecchi brought him to a public restroom and waited outside. After awhile, when he didn't emerge, she entered the restroom and found him: His throat had been cut and he was dying. A 20-year-old transient is being held in connection with the killing.

This is an open letter to Matthew's aunt:

I thought about you this weekend as I waited in line for my food at McDonald's and my 9-year-old daughter begged to step away for a minute, to use the restroom down the hall.

I didn't let her go.

I thought about you--with a knot in my stomach--as I dropped my 13-year-old off to meet her friends at a neighborhood theater and watched her walk inside alone.

I thought about you when I had to leave home to take my 7-year-old to soccer practice. I dragged her sisters along--despite their protests--rather than let them stay home alone.

To tell the truth, I tried not to think about you . . . tried to keep your tragedy from interfering, from altering my daily routines.

But it's been hard to shake off the image of you standing outside that restroom door, waiting for a child who would never emerge. And harder still to reconcile the risks we grown-ups take with the threats that line our children's paths--the demons lurking, poised to attack in those few moments we look away.

You did nothing wrong.

You wanted nothing more than to enjoy a family reunion--your sisters and brothers, their children, your parents, camping together in a motor home on a popular stretch of an Oceanside beach.

But a random, murderous attack brought you face-to-face with the kind of danger we would like to deny.

*

I can imagine the care you must have taken to keep your nephew safe. How you walked with him those few steps from the beach playground where his cousins played to the public restroom nearby . . . even how you fended off his complaints that at 9, he was big enough to go alone.

It was dark, after all, and you can never be too careful. So you accompanied him to the restroom door and waited while he went inside.

You weren't alarmed at the sight of the stranger--a slight, young man who looked barely 16--who entered the bathroom as you stood by the door. But when he slipped out and hurried away, your heart started pounding, you began to worry. . . . What could be taking Matthew so long?

When you ran inside, he was already dying . . . his throat had been slashed from ear to ear. A nearby beachgoer heard you screaming, found you cradling your nephew's bloody body, trying to breathe life back into him.

The police say you and your family did everything right.

"They took the kind of precautions you'd expect people to take," Oceanside Police Lt. Dave Heering said.

"The kids were playing not 50 feet away. There were families everywhere . . . a campfire burning in every fire ring up and down that beach. There was nothing to say this wasn't safe. That's what makes this such a tragedy."

*

"Every Parent's Nightmare." That's what your local paper called the crime.

Indeed, it is the kind of case that confirms anew for all of us that the world indeed can be an awful place . . . that evil can ambush innocence, and the most careful of precautions can be undone by the madness in our midst.

Dare to fall asleep in your own home while your daughter has a slumber party a few feet away, and a man can crawl in through your window, kidnap and kill her. Ask the parents of Polly Klaas.

Let your 10-year-old son play with his friends in the street outside your home, and he could be snatched in broad daylight by a knife-wielding man who later will dump his lifeless body in a desert ravine. Ask the family of Anthony Martinez.

Allow your 8-year-old daughter to step outside and bounce her ball in the courtyard of your gated complex, and a neighbor may molest her, and stuff her dead body into an old suitcase. Ask the family of Nicole Parker.

Now your nephew, Matthew Cecchi--straight-A student, baseball fan, best friend to his dad, joy to his mother, proud big brother to little Nicky--has joined that list.

And we are forced to confront new testimony to the impotence of parental concern; the inadequacy of the steps we take to minimize the risks our children face.

" I'm living with it too," Heering said. "I have two young kids myself. And I have to go home now at night and try to reassure my wife that nothing bad's going to happen to them, that we can protect them, that the things we do to keep them safe will be good enough."

*

We work so hard to keep ourselves on an even keel . . . to keep our children afloat in waters that suddenly seem infested with human sharks.

How to foster a healthy respect for precautions without making the kids paranoid; to let them taste independence without risking their lives?

*

Sandy Banks' column runs Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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