Stockton Bids Goodby to Slain Schoolchildren
Amid Buddhist and Christian prayers, Stockton paid a moving goodby Monday to the five Southeast Asian immigrant children murdered in a fusillade of bullets last week as they played in their schoolyard.
At a service attended by about 2,800 people, including schoolmates of the slain youngsters, state officials led by Gov. George Deukmejian sought to console the surviving families and Southeast Asian immigrants against losing hope in America. Also on hand were state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig.
As funeral music from the victims’ native lands played softly, a turn-away crowd jammed into the Stockton Civic Auditorium for a community memorial service. Smiling, poster-size photos of the five victims stretched across a stage covered with wreaths and bouquets.
Backed against the stage, four wooden caskets held the bodies of four Cambodian children killed in the still-unexplained rampage of shooting last Tuesday. The fifth victim, a Vietnamese girl, was buried after Roman Catholic services Saturday.
Some of the mourners, many of them from such war-ravaged countries as Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, sobbed quietly. But most mourners’ faces reflected almost no emotion after nearly a week of deep grief. Most wore white, the color of death and mourning in many Asian countries.
Deukmejian, recalling that the refugees fled their violent homelands to start new lives in the United States and yet lost children to a gunman, observed that for many “the world today must seem like a very cruel place.”
‘Decent and Compassionate’
“However, I want you to know that the overwhelming majority of the people of this state are good and decent and compassionate,” the governor said, noting that his own immigrant parents fled Armenia to escape oppression and death at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
“As governor of California, I can assure you that this state is filled with people of good will and brotherly love, who cherish our diversity and will continue to work together to assure that this state remains a land of great hope and opportunity and freedom for all residents--whether they have been here for 10 days or 10 generations. Your sorrow is our sorrow. Your pain is our pain. Your loss is our loss.”
The combat-outfitted gunman, Patrick Edward Purdy, a drifter with a long record of mostly misdemeanor crimes, entered the Cleveland Elementary School playground and mowed down the children and a teacher with at least 106 shots from his military-style AK-47 semiautomatic rifle. The five children died almost instantly, and 29 other children and one teacher were wounded. Purdy then killed himself with a shot in the head from a handgun.
Slain were four Cambodians--Ram Chun, 8; Oeun Lim, 8; Sokhim An, 6, all girls, and Rathanar Or, 9, a boy--and the Vietnamese girl, Thuy Tran, 6.
Van de Kamp told the mourners that “we must learn whatever lesson this terrible tragedy can teach” and he urged that “we do everything possible within our power as mortal human beings to see that this never happens again.”
Despite their grief and feelings of despair, Honig reminded the victims’ families that they “came from troubled places to this land of opportunity” and urged them “not to forget the opportunity of this democracy.”
Stockton police officials repeatedly have dismissed suggestions, raised by some members of the immigrant community, that the youngsters were killed because Purdy held racist feelings against Southeast Asians.
Other speakers included representatives of the Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese communities. No one mentioned Purdy by name, but one speaker alluded to him as “a murderous, criminal gunman who took away five children’s lives and injured a large number of other children.”
At 11:45 a.m.--the approximate time of the shooting--a five-minute period of silence was observed, one minute of remembrance for each of the victims, whose names were recited as a small bell chimed.
Priest and Monks
At the conclusion of the service, where prayers were offered by a Vietnamese Roman Catholic priest, Father Vinh Nguyen, and 11 Buddhist monks in traditional saffron-colored robes, Deukmejian and his wife, Gloria, left their front-row seats and walked to meet the surviving families.
So did Van de Kamp, Honig and several state legislators, including Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).
As Deukmejian bowed in respect to the families, some young women and girls ran with their arms outstretched to the Deukmejians, who hugged them and offered quiet words of support.
Later, the four Cambodian children, who were friends in life, were buried side by side at Stockton Rural Cemetery.
Meantime, at Cleveland School not far away, the healing process appeared to be firmly under way. From a classroom came the voices of children singing, and in the schoolyard several games of tetherball were in full swing.