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Long Beach mother wants memorial to slain daughter to stay put

It began with fresh flowers, but the bouquets quickly withered. So Graciela Fernandez planted a vine that grew long enough to wrap around a wrought-iron heart staked in the ground. She added ribbons of pink and white to the chain-link fence.

One day she arrived to find gifts from a stranger. A birdbath and a bench. The patch of dirt had also been outlined in brick and filled in with wood chips. She sobbed at the gesture.

It's been nearly two years since her 9-year-old daughter Xiomara was discovered stabbed in the parking lot of a Long Beach church. Her stepfather was found beside her with self-inflicted wounds. He survived. Xiomara did not.

Since that Saturday in April 2012, Fernandez has paid weekly visits to the site of her daughter's death.

But Long Beach city officials now say the memorial, which sits just outside the parking lot on northbound Woodruff Avenue, must be removed from public property.

Impromptu memorials are common, cropping up shortly after fatal traffic accidents or shootings. Their power lies in their public placement: signifying a place of tragedy and telling passersby that someone was loved.

Most gradually fade away. Xiomara's has grown and become a weekly refuge for her 42-year-old mother.

At first Fernandez would come to cry and ask the kinds of questions bereft parents pose. Why did my daughter die? How could a young girl be taken so viciously?

Eventually she found peace in the setting. She comes to pray, read her Bible or meditate. She thinks of Xiomara, who laughed often and brimmed with questions and jokes.

She cannot fathom the memorial being moved.

"I want Xiomara's memory to live in the spot where she left this Earth," she said. "This is where I've come to terms with what happened. Being able to come here has given me consolation and maintains my strength."

Long Beach Deputy City Manager Tom Modica said they hope to work with Fernandez on other options, such as planting a tree in a park in remembrance of Xiomara or moving the memorial onto private property.

"We really understand that the family is grieving and wants a place to remember their daughter," he said. "However, there are certain rules about maintaining the public right of way for public services. We have a responsibility to fulfill the law and apply it equally."

The city has a record of one complaint about the memorial. Otherwise, Fernandez seems to have the support of the neighborhood, which was shaken by the events that took place there.

Xiomara had been stabbed in her upper body. She was pronounced dead at the scene. Her stepfather, Jacinto Zuniga Trujillo, was bleeding nearby. The side of a giant metal container bore letters scrawled in blood.

A neighbor discovered the grisly tableau.

Trujillo, 33, was charged with one count of murder with the special circumstance that he killed Xiomara because she was a witness to a crime, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said. He is also charged with five counts of oral copulation/sexual penetration with a child under the age of 10. He is being held at Twin Towers.

Members of Los Altos United Methodist Church, which held a vigil shortly after the slaying, have embraced Fernandez's visits.

"I think there's a real sensitivity of 'What can we do to provide a place of memory and recovery?'" Pastor Mark Ulrickson said.

He said church trustees have had ongoing conversations about exploring ways to help Fernandez keep the memorial, including the possibility of moving it onto their property.

"But none of those really speak to the power of place," Ulrickson said.

The memorial's roadside location has beckoned drivers who pull over to learn its meaning.

Long Beach resident Maleea Ehuan had been curious about the site for months and finally stopped a few weeks ago.

She wrote the name Xiomara on her hand and looked it up online when she got home. The details of the little girl's death made her cry. She hasn't stopped thinking about it and plans to take her children to tie ribbons on the fence.

"If the memorial would have been just in some random park, maybe I never would have seen it, never would have stopped," Ehuan, 44, said.

"The fact that the murder happened right there has a little more meaning. The least anybody could do would be to honor Xiomara by letting her family have a spot to go to where this horrible tragedy took place and maybe make new memories."

On a sunless January day, Fernandez arrives at the site with her 2-year-old daughter.

She hoists jugs of water out of her car trunk and carries them to the plant dotted with pink and white blossoms. She stops to bend over and uproot tiny weeds that have intruded the area, her long blond-brown hair brushing over the wood chips.

There's a chill in the foggy air, but Fernandez's smile is warm.

"My daughter died here," she says. "I don't want to go to another place. She left this world right here."

She says she had seen nothing to make her suspect that Trujillo was abusing her daughter. The couple met when she had three children and was pregnant with Xiomara. They had two children together and Xiomara was raised to believe Trujillo was her father.

Fernandez was working the cash register at a fast-food chain the night her daughter disappeared. She says she tried to reach Trujillo all night, but he didn't answer his phone. The next time she saw Xiomara was in the funeral home.

Since then, Fernandez says she visits the memorial to remind her that all is not lost. There is much thanks to give.

Friends and supporters helped her raise money for the funeral. A native of Michoacan, Mexico, she also recently gained legal status with help from an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Fernandez now has a U visa, which is granted to undocumented immigrants who are victims of crimes.

"When my needs were so great, without even knowing me, people supported me," she says.

A gray minivan suddenly pulls over. A woman gets out and approaches Fernandez. She tells her she lives in the house across the street.

"I love that you did this," she says. "Ever since you put this up, I feel that your daughter has been at peace."

The woman has one request: She'd like to help make the memorial bigger.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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