Here is the woman whose daughter-in-law stabbed her son to death and smothered her two grandchildren in their beds. And there is the mother who discovered her daughter's limp body inside the family van. The timid couple who have thought about taking their own lives since their son was knifed in the back — they come here too.
At the Santa Anita Church in Arcadia, they gather for a monthly meeting of a club no one aspires to join. They are the San Gabriel Valley chapter of Parents Of Murdered Children.
It begins like any reunion, with hugs and laughter and doughnuts and coffee. But when the cups are set aside, when the green vinyl-covered chairs are pulled into a circle, when the overhead lights brighten against the slowly dimming sky, members talk about unspeakable events and haunting dreams.
The only agenda here is to share. Share what it's like to wait for a break in the case, for a killer to be arrested, for a trial to begin, for a parole board to meet. Share whatever you want.
"A lot of times you get the feeling that people think you should've done something to protect them in some way," offers Jan Williams, her voice quiet but steady. "You should have seen something, you should've stepped in."
Williams' son Neal, 27, was stabbed more than 90 times inside his Rowland Heights home in 2007. His sons Devon, 7, and Ian, 3, were suffocated with a pillow, detectives said. Awaiting trial for all three homicides is Neal's wife, Manling Williams, 30.
People have often callously asked Williams: "What did he do to make her mad?"
Since the killings, stress drove her to take a medical leave from her job at Whittier College, during which she learned her position had been eliminated. She has wrestled with depression and endured vivid descriptions of the murders during court hearings.
"I've noticed she looks to see if I'm there," Williams, 52, says of her daughter-in-law, who is being held without bail. "Being a stubborn person, I'm always there. But you have to key yourself up to go to these. I think they'll go on long enough until it kills me bit by bit."
"You've gotta be strong," says Rozanna Lindorfer, 56, as she taps the table with a manicured finger. "Fight till the end. Fight for them."
It's been nearly four years since Lindorfer's son Orlando was shot in Lynwood. The 24-year-old construction worker was walking to a friend's house after his car broke down on the 105 Freeway. Someone shot him twice in the back of the head. Police have no suspects.
Lindorfer and her husband, Steve — Orlando's stepfather — are tired of people telling them to be grateful they have one son left.
"They love you differently, they speak your name differently," Lindorfer says, her voice quivering. "I never knew the difference until one was gone."
Tracy Ponce nods. She and her husband have felt something similar about the granddaughter they've been raising since Eileen, 22, disappeared one February night with the family van. The next day, Pomona police found the vehicle but failed to look inside. The Ponces slid open the door and discovered their daughter's body beneath a pile of blankets. She had been stabbed in the neck.
Caring for a 4-year-old who reminds them of Eileen has been a blessing and a burden.
"I could be the best grandma ever and she's still going to want her mom," says Ponce, 41.
Across the room, Sharon Gentile listens longingly. The years without her son have been an indistinct blur. Bobby, 38, was shot near Lake Elsinore, allegedly by a distant relative who was trying to claim what remained of a $365,000 family trust. It was shortly after cancer had stolen Gentile's mother and her husband had died of heart and kidney failure.
"My son didn't have kids. I'm not a mom or a grandma," says Gentile, 62. "I don't know what I am anymore."
Murder, this group has learned, is a special kind of death. Murder means there was no illness, no accident, no forces beyond anyone's control. It means there is someone to blame, although no promise of punishment. With murder, mourning mingles cruelly with calls from reporters, funerals delayed by autopsies and glacial legal processes.
Justice, if it ever comes, will never be enough. It won't change the unnatural order of things that keeps them up on lonely nights.
After the shock, after the funeral, after the memorials, people around them want to hear that things have gotten better. Friends want to hear they have moved on.
"It wasn't a subject people could easily be around," recalls Robert Hullinger, a retired minister who founded Parents Of Murdered Children with his wife, Charlotte, in their hometown of Cincinnati. The couple's daughter was beaten to death with a hammer by an ex-boyfriend in 1978. Their need to talk about it seemed to make people uncomfortable, even family members.