Grieving Father Decries Violence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Surrounded by relatives in his sister's dining room in Long Beach, Roberto Franco talked about how he had planned his trip from Mexico months ago to help his daughter, Irene, celebrate her 21st birthday.

Instead, he had come earlier this month to express gratitude for the generosity of scores of friends, relatives and strangers after his daughter was abducted from a Carson drive-in theater, raped and murdered shortly before Christmas.

Since his daughter's murder, Franco, 57, has not felt up to returning to work as an independent contractor in Tepatitlan, his hometown near Guadalajara, let alone make a trip to Los Angeles.

"But relatives who couldn't go to Mexico for the funeral wanted to see me," he said in Spanish. "And I came to thank all the people for all their help."

Irene Franco's murder generated an outpouring of generosity--a mortuary in Lynwood donated its services, an anonymous donor paid the expenses to ship the body to Mexico. And Roberto Franco said the family has received dozens of cards in Mexico from strangers who were moved by the tragedy.

Irene Franco was on a date with a friend, Jesus Martinez, at a sprawling drive-in theater near the San Diego and Harbor freeways on Dec. 15 when three armed men approached their car at 9:30 p.m., authorities said.

The men forced the couple into the back seat of Martinez's Pontiac Firebird, jumped inside and drove to a junkyard in an industrial area north of Carson, Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide investigators said.

There, they severely beat Martinez, 26, of Gardena, and repeatedly raped Franco, detectives said. Before driving off with Franco, Martinez told investigators, his abductors told him not to worry--they would drop her off in a few minutes.

The next morning, boys playing in a vacant field in the Wilmington area found Franco's body. She had been shot once in the head. Martinez's car--abandoned and burned--was found the same day in another part of South Los Angeles.

A reward for information leading to the young woman's killers has grown to $30,000, and homicide detectives recently distributed composite photos of the suspects.

"We're saturating the area where we believe the suspects may have come from with flyers and with door-to-door contacts," said Detective Johnny Brown. "Several leads have turned up, but nothing we can discuss."

No suspects are in custody.

"I hope they find these killers," Franco said. "There has to be an end to this violence. These people have to pay for their crime."

Back in Tepatitlan, he said, "the whole town is talking about the murder."

About 30,000 immigrants from the town of 130,000 have settled in Southern California during the past 40 years, family members said, but many in their hometown now say they are afraid to visit relatives here.

As shattering as his daughter's murder was, Franco said reports that he had suffered a mild heart attack after hearing the news were incorrect.

"The news was very painful," he said. "It hit me me so suddenly-- like a heart attack. I fell down with grief. But I didn't have a heart attack."

That pain still has not subsided, and his grief was evident despite his formal demeanor.

"People are able to do terrible things here," Franco said.

He pointed to the case of Charles David Rothenberg, who was paroled recently after serving 6 1/2 years of a 13-year sentence for setting his son afire in a Buena Park motel room. "How can he do that and be freed?" Franco asked.

A widower, Franco is one of 20 brothers and sisters by his father's two wives, and he has six other children of his own. His 19-year-old daughter, Raquel--"practically identical" to Irene--made the trip to Los Angeles with him.

"I don't feel that it is real," Raquel said of her sister's death. "It is almost as though we were the same person. We did everything together. It's like she is still here. I just can't accept it."

Raquel and Irene had come to Los Angeles together on vacation last year, living with a childhood friend in Wilmington. Raquel returned to finish high school, but Irene decided to remain and work before going back to Mexico to begin her university studies.

"The tragedy has drawn the family closer together--even closer than before," said Franco's sister, Angelina Lomeli. "We still cry for her. When even one is missing, it suddenly feels like it is a very small family."

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