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A Helping Hand for Victims

Advocacy: City attorney's assistance program provides the support for crime survivors to put their lives back together.


It was the darkest hour of Connie Gonzalez's life--March 12, 2001, the day she was raped.

In the agonizing days and nights after the attack, she wondered if life would ever be worth living again.

But due largely to the efforts of Esther Niell of the Los Angeles city attorney's Victims Assistance Program, Gonzalez has rebounded.

"Thank God for Esther," said Gonzales, 34. "If it wasn't for Esther's support and caring, I don't think I would have made it this far."

Niell did more than assist Gonzalez emotionally. She helped her get $1,700 worth of medical care and relocation money.

"She even got me Christmas gifts," Gonzalez said. "I love that lady."

Niell specializes in calming nerves and guiding survivors through the days after the crime.

"There are times when the victims are in a highly emotional state," said Niell, 32, a victims' advocate who works out of the Los Angeles Police Department's North Hollywood Division.

This week, as America recognizes Victims' Rights Week, Niell will do what she does all year: visit crime scenes to offer counsel, help find financial assistance or simply provide a gentle touch.

Last year, the city attorney's program helped more than 7,500 victims with financial assistance, supervisor Marlene Ramos said.

In many cases, advocates helped them apply for funds under the state Victim Compensation Plan, which provides up to $70,000 per person to make up for lost wages as well as pay for medical care, funeral expenses and psychotherapy.

The program helps those who were "innocent victims of a violent crime, 100% cooperative with the police, and file their claim within one year, or three years if they have good cause," Ramos said.

The crimes covered are homicide, robbery, assault, kidnapping, hit-and-run and rape.

One of Niell's most challenging cases was the double homicide of the popular owners of Sabatino's Italian Restaurant and Bakery in North Hollywood.

Sabato and Eugenie Russo, both 73, were stabbed to death Nov. 22, 2000, in their home.

"The family was devastated," Niell said. "They got support from the whole community. But some of the people wanted to take justice into their own hands."

Tensions reached their peak in a packed courtroom during the arraignment of Israel Cebrera Pulido, 22, who has since confessed. The case is ongoing.

"It was really, really tense when the family members and friends got to see the person who killed their loved ones," Niell said. "Emotions were running very high. Some of the people wanted to kill him right there on the spot."

Niell simply held hands with the family, calming them as much as she could. She called in two co-workers to help with the family.

Det. Mike Coffey, the lead homicide investigator at the North Hollywood station, deals with Niell about three times a week.

"She's very dedicated, very considerate and very compassionate to her victims," Coffey said. "She really believes in what she's doing."

In addition to paving the way to the state compensation program, the city attorney's office offers emergency cash for lodging, food and other essentials.

The district attorney's office has a similar program, Niell said.

"We do everything we can do to help them get their lives back together," the victims' advocate said.

"For many, it is their first encounter with the police. We try to explain step by step what's going on.

"I love my job," said Niell, who sees up to 90 crime victims a month. "It's emotionally draining and stressful, but I can't imagine doing anything else. If I can help one person, it makes it all worth it."'

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