Merced County residents remember loved ones lost to violence

04/09/2014 6:39 PM

04/09/2014 11:20 PM

Alyna Maria Hernandez never knew her father. He was shot and killed before she was born.

Rodolfo “Rudy” Hernandez was gunned down New Year’s Day 2008 after a dispute with his girlfriend’s brother. He was 27 years old. His killer is serving a life prison sentence.

Alyna is now 5 years old and always tells her heartbroken grandmother, Frances Ruiz, that she “wants to go and visit her daddy in heaven.”

“She misses him so much; all we can do is talk about him, all we can do is remember,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz and her husband, Bernard, gathered with more than 100 people Wednesday at Courthouse Park in Merced for the county’s annual Victims’ Rights Ceremony.

Hosted by the Merced County District Attorney’s Office’s Victim/Witness Assistance Program, the event honors the memories of violent-crime victims as part of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, which was established in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.

“(Reagan) recognized that victims’ rights were being overlooked and there was a lot of focus on defendants’ rights, but not enough for the victims,” said Lisa DeSantis, head of the Victim/Witness program.

District Attorney Larry D. Morse II said 2013 was the most violent year in the history of Merced County, with 29 homicides. “Our goal must always be to create a year when no new names will be added to the roll call of those we’ve lost.”

Such a year would still be too late for people like Diane Reis, whose 19-year-old son Matthew Fisher was gunned down in March 2013. Tragedy struck Reis’ family again on New Year’s Day when her other son, 21-year-old Marcus Fisher, was also shot and killed. Reis said no words could describe the pain of losing two sons in less than a year to gun violence. No arrests have been made in either case.

“I just want them never to be forgotten,” she said Wednesday. “I want them to always be remembered.”

Michael Murray lost his cousin, whom he describes as his brother, in a hit-and-run collision late last year. Ricardo Gonzalez was struck by a vehicle on Meadowbrook Avenue and died 11 days before Christmas. He was 24 years old.

Merced police later arrested a suspect in the case, but prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to press charges against the driver.

“He was born premature, he was like the size of my hand, and he had mental challenges and speech challenges. But he overcame all of the challenges and worked hard with his own business only to end up in a tragedy like this,” Murray said. “It’s been hard for me, for us, ever since and we just want some closure; the person to be prosecuted. I just had to be here for him today.”

Valentin and Maria Urquizo lost their son, Humberto, in 1996 after he was shot six times. He was 17 years old.

“We come every year,” Maria said, wiping tears from her eyes. “It’s hard to talk about.”

A member of U.S. Rep. Jim Costa’s staff also spoke at the ceremony in support of victims’ rights. Costa, D-Fresno, helped co-found the first Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus.

The ceremony was held under the shade of a tall redwood tree, which was dedicated to Merced County violent-crime victims in 1990.

Retired pastor Bill Ruth reminded the gathering that the tree was struck by lightning about six years ago and was badly damaged, but has since recovered and continues to grow.

“It wasn’t looking too good, but now it does,” Ruth said. “I think that’s a good symbol for all of us here.”

Ruth is the former pastor of the Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Livingston.

After the ceremony, grieving friends and relatives tied remembrance cards to the tree, bearing the names of their loved ones.

Sheriff Tom Cavallero was the event’s final speaker. He noted tragic violence can strike anywhere at any time.

“But it is our relentless pursuit of justice,” Cavallero remarked, “not revenge, that defines us as a people.”

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