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Homage to a Life Cut Short

Tribute: College will give an honorary degree in slain student's name and show her art.

May 19, 2001|ANA BEATRIZ CHOLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The administrators at Occidental College in Los Angeles are among those who cannot forget Wendy Soltero.

An honorary bachelor's degree in studio art will be presented in her name during graduation ceremonies Sunday. Her artwork, which consists of paintings, video, photographs and sketches, is on display at the college's Weingart Gallery.

Relatives and friends created a nonprofit organization called WendyArts Foundation to help struggling artists.

Soltero, who was a 22-year-old senior when she was fatally shot in Hollywood last October while doing a good deed for two stranded friends, had that kind of influence on people.

Those who knew her describe Soltero as funny and quirky. She was the type of person who would buy a gigantic stuffed animal just to cheer up a friend. She might even pick up a set of plates so a friend upset by a failed relationship could blow off some steam by smashing them.

She was also a talented sculptor, photographer, writer, singer and poet before she took up painting, said school officials, family and friends.

Michael A. McDonald, the college's dean of students, said Soltero's death has been felt most intensely in the art and theater departments, where she took classes and performed, and at the college newspaper, where she was a photo editor.

"It's sort of like, why should this ever have to happen to somebody that is 22 years old?" McDonald said.

The last piece of work Soltero turned in just before she was killed showed an amazing talent, said her painting instructor and faculty advisor, Linda Besemer. The portrait of a friend is hanging above the fireplace at the gallery.

"I think she really didn't understand she had a lot of talent," Besemer said. "A lot of student work looks like student work, but this just takes a life of its own."

Several of Soltero's former professors and school administrators were in Los Angeles Superior Court earlier this month during a pretrial hearing for her alleged killers. About 20 supporters showed up, including Soltero's parents, Gene and Elizabeth Soltero, who live in Dallas.

For the first time, family and friends faced murder suspects Araceli Gonzalez, 19, of Compton, and Demetrio Cabrera, 31, of Los Angeles. At one point, Elizabeth Soltero and Gonzalez locked eyes briefly before the defendant quickly looked away. Soltero said later that she searched for a hint of compassion or regret in the woman's eyes but found none.

"Nobody has a right to do this," she said. "As adults, we are supposed to outlive the children."

Gonzalez and Cabrera, who are charged with first-degree murder, were arrested in the early morning hours after Soltero was shot. They were caught by police officers while in the middle of one of several alleged robbery attempts. Authorities say they believe Gonzalez shot Soltero once in the head.

During the court hearing, Sezin Rajandran, one of the two friends who had called Soltero for a ride home from a nightclub, described how her friend died.

Rajandran testified that shortly after 3 a.m. on Oct. 28, she, Soltero and another friend were talking in Soltero's parked car. Suddenly, a young woman with a gun walked up to Soltero's driver's side and demanded their wallets, Rajandran said.

She nervously described how, as she was scrambling to get her purse from the floorboard of the car, she heard gunfire and saw that Soltero had been shot. Soltero's body slumped against Rajandran.

Rajandran said that Gonzalez then yelled obscenities as she demanded the wallets. Terrified for their lives, the women complied. Gonzalez then allegedly got into a car and fled the scene with Cabrera.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Gretchen Ford said prosecutors must decide whether to seek the death penalty for either of the defendants. The trial may begin later this year, Ford said.

Whatever happens next, Soltero's sister, Karen, plans to keep her sister's memory alive.

In recent weeks, she has kept information about Wendy posted at a small North Hollywood theater. A front-row seat is marked "Wendy's seat." A stuffed dog helps save the spot.

Karen Soltero, 27, has played the part of Anna in a romantic comedy called "The Ultimate Milkshake," which ends its run today.

The two-person play she co-produced has helped her deal with some of her grief. But the performance can be startling to anyone who knows that the actress' sister was slain only a few months ago. There are numerous references to death, caskets and immortality.

Karen Soltero said the play has been only one way to commemorate Wendy. On what would have been her younger sister's 23rd birthday Jan. 12, Soltero and three friends decided to get tattoos that include the letter "W" in their designs.

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