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A trail of death and heartache

'Then I woke up, and she wasn't here'

August 19, 2007|Jill Leovy

After the shooting, 16-year-old Nelli Rodriguez sat in the car, palms up, looking at her arms.

There were two bullet wounds in her forearm. She pressed her hands together. Then she squeezed her arms between her knees and waited for the ambulance.

A family friend, Rafael Rivera, 33, lay near her on the sidewalk. The shooter had come up on a bicycle as Rivera and Nelli were preparing to drive away from East 31st Street and Stanford Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles.

During the shooting, Nelli had screamed twice. After that, she made almost no sound, though her eyes remained open. When the paramedics lifted her, she uttered a small sigh.

Her mother, Leobarda Garcia, pictured at right, knows all this because she made a point to, she said. She questioned everyone, hungry for details of her daughter's last moments.

Garcia was at work when Nelli was shot March 17. Only after the family was gathered at California Hospital did Garcia learn that Nelli's primary wounds were not in her arm.

Two bullets also had torn through her chest. The wounds were barely visible and did not bleed externally. Probably, Nelli herself never knew she had them, Garcia said.

Hours passed at the hospital. Garcia was allowed in the room once, and then a second time. She could barely look. Nelli was on a ventilator, her body swollen. "She always had this very thin face," her mother said. "But her face was so big."

The mother tried to go in a third time early the next day, a Sunday, but found she couldn't bear it.

The day after her daughter's death, Garcia sat in the living room of the family's home, surrounded by relatives. She was on the floor, wrapped in blankets, eyes wide, hair pulled back in a haphazard knot. The room was small, with almost no furniture except some metal folding chairs. There were holes in the plaster, a calendar, and Christmas tinsel decorated the walls.

For two days, the mother hadn't slept at all. Then, early Monday morning, she briefly drifted off, she said.

She dreamed that Nelli was with her, healthy and whole, and she felt a deep contentment. "Then I woke up, and she wasn't here," she said.

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