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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Shooting Still Reverberates as Hueneme High Students Return

January 17, 2001|KATIE COOPER and JENIFER RAGLAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OXNARD — Melody Perez wished she hadn't looked.

Hunkered down last week in the Hueneme High School cafeteria after a young gunman took a student hostage, Melody stole a glance at the drama just as an Oxnard SWAT officer shot and killed Richard "Midget" Lopez.

On Tuesday, the first day the school has been back in session since the incident, the 14-year-old tried to wipe away the memories of the gunfire, the blood and Lopez collapsing to the ground on the campus quad.

"I've never even a seen a gun before," said Melody, decked out in her soccer team sweatshirt in preparation for a match later in the afternoon.

As students returned to campus, hundreds of friends and family members mourned Lopez, 17, at a funeral and burial service that began at Santa Clara Catholic Church in downtown Oxnard.

Lopez had a history of mental illness, family members said last week. That included talk of suicide, but he told his hostage, Lorena Gonzalez, 17, that he couldn't kill himself for religious reasons.

The drama surrounding the incident six days earlier had a lingering effect on students, many of whom seemed dazed to be back in school. Many also expressed thanks for the quick reactions of school officials after Lopez grabbed Lorena and held a gun to her head.

Senior Juan Pena eagerly shook the hand of Joe Tinoco, the campus police officer who tried to negotiate an end to the lunchtime standoff Wednesday, as teachers and administrators pulled students into classrooms, the cafeteria and the teachers' lounge.

"I'm kind of shaky, but I feel secure knowing there are people here willing to put their lives on the line for us," Juan said.

*

As Oxnard police stepped up patrols around the campus perimeter, school officials offered counseling to students.

By noon, with recommendations from their teachers, more than 50 students had asked to talk to counselors, Principal Roger Rice said.

"Most of them are emotionally upset about the whole thing," Rice said.

As they left the library where the school psychologists and family therapists worked, Maria T. Garcia and Maria Ledezma said they were told to return to their normal routines as quickly as possible.

But the two freshmen said they were still frightened as they retraced their steps from last week.

"I was standing so close to Lorena when he was holding her," said Maria Garcia, 14. "And then everybody started running and I couldn't find my friends."

Jim Lane, the high school's athletic director, said students in his accounting classes had questioned why the police hadn't just wounded Lopez, rather than kill him.

"It's kind of difficult for kids to understand," Lane said. "He was holding the gun, not firing it. They don't see him as evil."

Lane said he considered Lopez a victim because of his mental illness.

"He needed help, but it wasn't forthcoming," Lane said. "But I'm not second-guessing the police."

At Lopez's funeral, the priest tried to assure family and friends that, despite the circumstances of his death, Lopez was in a better place, said Regina Perez, a longtime family friend.

"In our belief, when you commit suicide you go to hell," she said. "The family just needs to know he still went to be with God."

She said she remembered Lopez as a "good kid" who had some problems but was otherwise a typical teenager.

"He was very brave--willing to take a chance," Perez said.

*

Many of the mourners were Hueneme High students. Among them were Anna Raya and Elisa Martinez, both 14, who said they grew up with Lopez.

"I was just thinking about the old days when he was here," Anna said. "We used to have a lot of fun."

"I'm going to miss him," Elisa said.

At the cemetery, Tony Silerio, who lives three doors down from the family, released white doves in Lopez's honor. One by one, a procession of those who knew Lopez paid their respects to his grief-stricken relatives.

"My heart is with the Lopez family," Silerio said. "Sometimes, even, in the area we live in, we don't know the problems and situations we all have."

Silerio also read a poem by Sylvia Lavallee that he dedicated to the troubled teen:

"Give me peace where only sorrow pains this burdened heart of mine; your sweet promise of tomorrow filled with happiness sublime. Now I have a new beginning and no longer walk alone, for I know my lord is waiting in my heart upon his throne."

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