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Taking Lessons From the Sadness

Grief: Friends say they have learned from the death of 15-year-old Deanna Maran, killed during fight at a party.

April 23, 2002|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps Ryan Natale, all of 15, best captures how friends and family struggle to make sense of the murder of Deanna Maran.

"I just want to take it as a learning experience," said Natale, a Santa Monica High School classmate who held Maran in his arms after she was stabbed by a 17-year-old girl at a crowded Westside party. How tragic, he said, that "God had to take someone so great to teach us all a lesson."

Although Maran's was one violent teen death among the many that occur each year in California, her killing has generated a remarkable amount of controversy and national media attention.

First, there was the girl-versus-girl aspect. Moreover, the killing occurred on a tree-lined street in an upscale neighborhood. Maran was known by those closest to her as LaLa, and she was famous for her prodigious appetite. So it was fitting that her relatives, friends and teachers gathered last week to celebrate her life with a feast--chow mein, steamed salmon with dill, satay, strawberries dipped in chocolate. It would have been her 16th birthday.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Concord High--A story in Tuesday's California section implied that Katrina Sarkissian, who fatally stabbed a 15-year-old girl last fall, was once a full-time student at Concord High School in Santa Monica. Sarkissian, 17, took two summer courses at Concord in 1999 but was never a regular student. Such students must pass an interview for admittance and their academic records are scrutinized, according to Susan Packer Davis, Concord's administrator.

Dozens of admirers young and old crowded into the Maran family's Ocean Park home to revel in memories of the brainy, fun-loving sophomore. The partygoers reminisced over scrapbooks and swapped tales about Maran's dogged determination, wacky wit and penchant for treating friends' refrigerators as her own.

A strapping 5-foot-6, 158-pound water polo and volleyball player, Maran was stabbed in the heart Nov. 17. The next day, Katrina Sarkissian, her killer, collapsed while being questioned at a West Los Angeles police station and died at UCLA Medical Center. An autopsy revealed that she had taken an overdose of antidepressant tablets.

Friends of Maran who went to the Saturday night party last November say the stabbing was so swift and unexpected that they had no chance to intervene. Others are tortured by thoughts that they could have stopped a tragedy, if only they had been there.

Questions--the need to take lessons from the tragedy--abound:

How did so many unchaperoned kids--from Santa Monica High as well as from some of the area's best private schools--gravitate to the party that night? Why did some partygoers urge the girls on, cheering, "Fight! Fight!"? Why didn't anyone try to stop it? Where were the adults?

"Everyone's looking for a greater meaning in this," said Harland W. Braun, an attorney representing a girl who some witnesses say had a role in the incident but has not been charged. "If it had happened in South-Central Los Angeles, nobody would be looking for a greater meaning."

The fallout from the party continues. This month, Sarkissian's younger half-sister, whose scuffle with Maran triggered the fight, was charged with one count of battery and one count of making a criminal threat. The battery charge relates to an allegation that she kicked Maran, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

The other charge involves a threat made on the Internet months after the party. The girl, who is 15, is to be arraigned Friday. As for Katrina Sarkissian, Deb Hof, a dean at a private school in Palo Alto, recalls a different girl from the one who has been vilified but whose death, she said, is also tragic.

"She was bright; she was a wonderful kid who had a lot going on in her life," said Hof, who was a dean at Harvard-Westlake, where Sarkissian attended seventh and eighth grades. "I know she was struggling and unhappy, [but] there was a lot to like about her."

Sarkissian, Hof recalled, "looked like a woman at 13 [and] got constant attention from every male on the planet." Her father and mother were divorced, and her mother, Angelique, married ophthalmologist Matthew Bernstein, with whom she had another daughter. The Bernsteins later divorced as well.

In middle school, Sarkissian was a textbook case of a girl who needed adults to guide her and set boundaries, Hof said.

"Katrina was trying to figure out where she fit in," she said.

Hof recalled that Sarkissian struggled during ninth grade at Harvard-Westlake, one of the region's most rigorous private schools. "I think her academic light was extinguished by worries about boys, friends and her universe," Hof said.

"Katrina just wasn't a kid to back down, and then she would be in tears because nobody liked her," Hof said. She withdrew from the school in early 1999 (although her death certificate inexplicably lists her "profession" as student and her "employer" as Harvard-Westlake) to seek a "smaller, more structured school."

At some point, according to her stepfather, Sarkissian landed at Concord High School in Santa Monica. She left that private school as well and, he said, was home-schooled for the last eight months of her life.

Bernstein's chief concern now, he said, is his 15-year-old daughter. She has received 20 death threats, he said, some of which have come to his office. Rattled by the calls, one of his employees quit.

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