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Crowds Mourn 2 Slain Cousins

Grief: A makeshift memorial in a tight- knit neighborhood draws hundreds.

April 14, 2002|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even in a city where makeshift memorials appear nearly every day, the one last week in Panorama City seemed exceptional.

It marked the violent, unsolved deaths of two cousins who lived on Wakefield Avenue all their lives, inspiring an outpouring of love, tears and memories in this tight-knit middle-class community.

Every night, crowds, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, have gathered to remember John Shellabarger, 26, and Philip Gearhart, 24.

On Thursday night, mourners placed more than 500 candles near the site where the two were shot to death.

The nightmare for family and friends of the victims began early April 6. Neighbors later reported hearing gunshots about 2:15 a.m. No one called 911.

Shortly before 6 a.m., police discovered the two bullet-riddled bodies.

Shellabarger was found slumped over the front seat of his car. Gearhart's body lay nearby on the grass parkway, across the street from his parents' home.

Shellabarger had reportedly been involved in a fight that night at the California Broiler and Sports Bar on Tampa Avenue in Northridge, where he, his cousin and a few friends were drinking.

"There was a minor, one-on-one fight," said Anntonette Watson, owner of the restaurant. She said the two groups were quickly separated and escorted outside.

One of Shellabarger's friends suggested that Shellabarger, a 6-foot, 220-pound former baseball catcher at UCLA, Los Angeles Valley College and Monroe High School, may have been going to the aid of his cousin.

"John was tough, but he never, never started fights," said Chris Stell, 28, who had known Shellabarger for 17 years. "But he was protective of his friends."

Neither Shellabarger, who worked for an insurance company, nor Gearhart, who was training to be a manager at a video arcade, had a criminal record.

"These are good kids," said Paul Shellabarger, John's father, looking at the crowd that had come to pay respects on a recent night. "Look at all these people. This street is like a small town. They've known John since grammar school. Did you know he was a straight-A student?"

As friend after friend spoke about the cousins, Gearhart's father held a candle and listened.

"I can't believe this," said Bill Gearhart, 58, slowly shaking his head. "It's so difficult to handle, because he was so active.

"The outstanding thing I remember is Philip's love for kids," said Gearhart.

He recalled how devastated his son became after learning a young boy he knew had been hurt in an accident. "He just went to pieces."

Philip's best friend, Domenick Poncin, 22, quietly walked past the flickering candles, stopping occasionally to hug friends and family of his fallen buddy.

"When I heard Saturday what happened, half of me died," said Poncin.

Gearhart was tall and athletic, known as a youth for his reckless abandon. Stories were told of him falling out of trees, skating and crashing into walls and snowboarding down dangerous runs.

A few days before he died, Shellabarger was telling his friend Stell about how he had recently proposed to his girlfriend, Maria Miranda, who is in the Navy.

"He took her to Disneyland and he got down on his knees in front of the castle, gave her a ring and proposed to her," said Stell. "He was so happy to start his family. He didn't want to hang out anymore."

A friend of the cousins, Jackie "Zippy" Trinidad, 22, broke down as she tried to tell a story about Gearhart. Shellabarger's sister, Amy Richardson, came to her aid, holding the sobbing Trinidad, who expressed sadness that Gearhart would never again do one of the things he loved best in life--snowboarding.

"Yes, he will," said Richardson, wiping tears from Trinidad's eyes. "Zippy, don't you know there's snow in heaven?"

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