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A Vigil for a Slain Son and Other Lost Children

Justice: The event tonight in Stanton is for Bernard 'B.J.' Garcia Lopez Jr. and the forgotten victims of violence, says Juanita Lopez. The killer has never been caught.

July 29, 2001|THUY-DOAN LE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every day, Juanita Lopez takes out her blanket and spreads it under a young pine tree where wind chimes tinkle in the breeze. She plays soft music on a portable radio while caressing the grass on her son's grave.

"I feel whole here," Lopez said. "I'm here with my past and he was my future. I come full circle here."

After four years, the murder of Bernard "B.J." Garcia Lopez Jr. remains unsolved.

In an effort to bring more awareness to death by violence, Lopez will hold a candlelight vigil tonight to honor her son, who was shot to death June 30, 1997, outside their home on Joel Street in Stanton.

"I wanted to do something for his anniversary, and I have made up my mind not to let anyone forget B.J.," his 50-year-old mother said. "Murder is wrong. I want to catch the person who killed him. This is also for all other forgotten kids. They get murdered. They get buried and they are forgotten."

She hopes the vigil, which she has planned over the last two months, will rekindle public interest in the case. Maybe someone will speak up and help police find the suspects, she said.

B.J. Garcia was the family's only son. He was a popular student at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove. He played on the baseball team and was elected prince at his senior prom. He planned to become a probation officer and work with children, his mother said.

The 18-year-old was shot to death while he was walking friends to their car shortly after 1:30 a.m. A gunman came out of the shadows from across the street and shot B.J. with a handgun. A second person remained behind, watching, police said.

Wounded, B.J. staggered into the house and collapsed in his mother's arms.

Sgt. Steve Doan of the Orange County Sheriff's Department said the case is still open.

"There is no news to report and we're still looking for leads," Doan said. "We follow up any leads we get. This vigil certainly can't hurt, especially if it generates any interest or information."

Taunts From Gang Members

Despite taunts from neighborhood gang members, Lopez keeps signs posted in her frontyard with the sheriff's composite drawing of one of the suspects--and a reminder that there's a $70,000 reward.

At the request of Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, Gov. Gray Davis in May offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer. Lopez has raised an additional $10,000 through events such as breakfasts, luncheons, raffles and carwashes--a sum matched by the city of Stanton.

Since her son's death, Lopez said, she has struggled to carry on with life. She gathers strength by trying to find the killer and reaching out to others who have lost loved ones, she said.

But some days are harder than others.

"I come here to talk to him," she said Tuesday morning as she tended her son's grave in Huntington Beach. "I miss him and I miss seeing him every day. Sometimes I sit here for hours. I get so mad when I fall apart. I have a promise to keep. I have to find the man who took my son."

Christine Lopez, project manager of Orange County's gang victim services program--no relation to Juanita--said families in unsolved murder cases usually must grieve on their own without much community support.

"There's no resolution," she said. "They don't know what happened and why it happened. Victims are locked in reviewing and wondering, trying to get a picture of the murder."

She has worked closely with Juanita Lopez and her family since the murder and said tonight's candlelight vigil is being held not only to honor Bernard but also to commemorate other children lost to violence.

Helping Families of Victims Cope

"Parents do not expect their children to die," Christine Lopez said. "It's a loss of future, a loss of life's purpose. It think it's good for her to have this memorial and it's good for all of us to remember life is precious."

When the community comes together, it helps victimized families cope, said Stanton Mayor William Estrada. He said the vigil will help maintain awareness in the community and show that it still cares about these crimes.

"We need to recognize all the victims of violent crimes, and we need to make sure we don't forget the families, because they are victims also," Estrada said. "We have to make sure the crimes get solved and the perpetrators pay for their crimes."

The vigil, open to the public, includes speakers addressing death by violence. It will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Cultural Arts Recreation Center at 7800 Katella Ave., Stanton.

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