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The Nation | IN A SNIPER'S GRIP

Specter of Killer Shrouds Victim's Funeral Tribute

October 12, 2002|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — They came to honor a man who lost his life mowing grass for a friend.

Yet the grim echo of a sniper's bullet reached even into Friday's memorial service for James L. Buchanan, a friendly 39-year-old with a penchant for poetry, a man known to everyone as "Sonny."

"This is still happening around us," said Pastor Charles Updike, informing the crowd of perhaps 200 mourners that there had been another fatal shooting.

As police frantically hunted for a van that reportedly raced away from the murder scene in Fredericksburg, Va., mourners gathered in a Baptist church across the Potomac River in Maryland with other thoughts on their minds.

Unlike the taped-off crime scenes that have multiplied around Washington, or the police briefings that now dominate the airwaves, the subject at hand had nothing to do with catching a killer. Rather, talk and tears inside the sanctuary were all about a much more personal matter--the meaning of one individual life, shattered in an instant by a .223-caliber bullet.

On Friday, Buchanan was remembered for the handwritten valentine he sent his girlfriend last year, for the personal attention he showered on young people and for a frigid winter night long ago, when he volunteered to guard a stand of Christmas trees for the local Boys and Girls Club.

"If you look around, you can see that Sonny touched many, many hearts," said Chuck Thomas, a longtime friend, as he addressed the mourners.

In a region that is home to many rich and powerful, the elusive sniper has taken a growing toll on the unheralded working people whose names are rarely in the news. Each has been killed while going about the most routine activities of daily life: Pumping gas. Waiting for a bus. Going to the store. Vacuuming a car.

And as in all tragedies, each victim leaves a personal legacy, some sort of imprint on the circle of survivors left behind.

Premkumar Walekar, a cab driver from India, 54, was "a hard-working person who loved his kids and wife," said his brother, Vijay Walekar. Walekar was slain while pumping $5 worth of gas, moments after buying a newspaper, a lottery ticket and a pack of gum.

Family members described James D. Martin, 55, shot in a grocery store parking lot, as a man "who enjoyed the simple pleasures in life."

Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, left behind a husband, a 3-year-old daughter, and a heartbroken family in Mountain Home, Idaho.

She was "open and friendly with just about everybody," her father recalled in an interview Friday. Marion "Boots" Lewis went on to describe the pain that survivors must now endure: "This animal has denied us of our daughter .... He killed Lori, he killed a part of us."

Several days after her death, the answering machine at Lewis-Rivera's house still played the voice of a little girl informing callers: "Mommy and daddy will come back soon. Bye."

Two shooting victims, their names withheld for their own safety, remained alive Friday. Friends described one of them, a 13-year-old boy who was shot just steps from the front door of his middle school, as an enthusiastic math student and a fan of basketball and football. "He's fun to hang with. He don't start trouble," said Tim Thorne, 13.

Buchanan was shot while pushing a light green power mower along a strip of grass near busy Rockville Pike in the Maryland suburbs. He had recently left the landscaping business and was living at his father's Virginia farm, but he wanted to help out a longtime customer.

Buchanan was remembered Friday as a caring, generous individual who tried hard to be a mentor to young people and routinely became friends with his landscape customers.

Among those who addressed the congregation was Stephanie Lykins, described in the program as his "beloved partner." Friends said they had expected the couple to get engaged in the near future.

Her voice quivering, Lykins read aloud the valentine Buchanan sent her in February, a poem that contained the lines "Sometimes we meet someone whose eyes smile into our soul ... and that someone is you!" Shortly after learning of his death, she added, she drove past a homeless man who sought money from motorists, and she could not help but respond the way she thought Sonny would have: "I instantly rolled down the window and handed the man a dollar bill."

Gregory Wims, vice president of the Boys and Girls Club of Montgomery County, said the temperature was below zero one night a few years ago when Buchanan insisted on guarding a batch of Christmas trees. "He wouldn't leave," Wims said. "He wanted to make sure nobody took the trees. He wanted to make sure that every penny was used for the kids."

One of those kids was George Jones, now a student at Frostburg State University in Maryland. Speaking from the pulpit, Jones recalled how Buchanan took him under his wing and got him work.

Outside the church, as a steady rain fell, Jones said Buchanan always made him feel like an equal--more like they were brothers than a kid being lectured to by a stern, parental figure. The approach touched him deeply: "I never had a chance to say thank you," Jones said.

In Buchanan's honor, his friends are putting together an organization to provide scholarships and educational funds for students in need. The Web site is http://www.sonnyskids.org.

*

Times staff writers Lisa Getter and Robert Patrick contributed to this report.

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