A Bittersweet Graduation at Ventura College

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thursday was supposed to be a day of celebration and the beginning of new adventures in life for Rolando Martinez and Jennifer Laubacher.

Instead, graduation day at Ventura College was a bittersweet symbol of what could have been.

Two months before he had planned to receive his diploma, Rolando Martinez and a childhood friend were killed in a drive-by shooting as they left a baptism party with a group of friends.

Jennifer Laubacher and a close friend were killed in a car accident as they were driving home after a party in Fillmore, six months before she was set to don her cap and gown.

The families of the two students had not met before Thursday's graduation ceremony, but they sat next to each other in front-row bleachers to accept the diplomas the two students had earned from the college.

The upbeat crowd fell silent early on in the ceremony when Hector Martinez, a student at UC Davis, crossed the stage to accept a posthumous degree for his younger brother Rolando Martinez.

Juanita Laubacher, a thin, bespectacled woman whose husband died of cancer last week, choked back tears as she accepted a diploma for her only daughter, Jennifer. She sobbed later when she returned to her seat to examine her daughter's diploma. Juanita Laubacher's sister, Mary Arguelles, clutched her hand and passed her a handkerchief.

Seated nearby, Rolando Martinez's mother, Virginia Martinez, also wept and dabbed at her tears as hundreds of family members and friends began to cheer for the 850 other graduates being honored in the school's gymnasium.

Before the ceremony ended, both families quietly left the cheering and music of the gymnasium for the quiet solitude of their homes.

Rolando Martinez, 20, was the son of Jesus Martinez, a mechanic whose family of seven lives in a housing project for farm workers in Saticoy.

Rolando Martinez had been accepted to transfer to UC Davis, where he planned to continue his studies in international relations and economics, his brother Hector Martinez said.

"We always talked about someday starting a business together," Hector Martinez said, adding that his brother also considered a career in teaching.

Rolando Martinez was a history tutor who earned above-average grades, school officials said.

He talked about earning lots of money in his future career so that he could move his family out of their humble home.

"He always said he didn't want to get married right away," Hector Martinez said. "He said he wanted to raise some money to buy a new home for his mother."

Rolando Martinez and his childhood friend, Javier Ramirez, 19, were shot to death and two others were injured in April as they were leaving a baptism celebration. The shooting began when a car pulled into Cabrillo Village housing project and someone began firing into the crowd, sheriff's deputies said.

Although deputies describe the shooting as gang-related, they said there is no indication that the victims had gang ties.

Four teen-agers have been arrested in the shooting. The suspect accused as the triggerman may face a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole if he is convicted in the killing, prosecutors said.

Jennifer Laubacher, an Oxnard resident who would have turned 21 in April, was the only daughter of Juanita and Robert Laubacher, an electronics technician who worked at the Pacific Missile Test Center in Point Mugu.

Nicknamed "Precious" by relatives, Jennifer Laubacher was also a part-time Spanish tutor at the college and had plans to transfer to Cal State Northridge in the fall to learn to become a speech therapist.

"She had a real good diction," her mother, Juanita Laubacher, said. "I guess she wanted to help those who needed help."

Jennifer Laubacher and her friend Leanne Riley, 20, died Dec. 23 when, for unknown reasons, the car the former was driving drifted and skidded into oncoming traffic on South Mountain Road near Santa Paula.

Juanita Laubacher said her daughter was returning home after a party in Fillmore. In the back seat of the car was a large Teddy bear that her boyfriend had given her that night.

A day before the graduation, Juanita Laubacher looked through her daughter's photo album, which along with all of Jennifer's belongings, had remained untouched for the past six months.

She looked at photos of her daughter hugging, laughing and dancing with friends. A picture of Jennifer dressed in a cat costume for a Halloween party forced Juanita Laubacher to laugh. "She was so alive," she said. "She was so full of life."

These days, it's hard for Juanita Laubacher to find a reason to laugh. Last week, her husband lost a long battle with cancer.

She said the last time the family was together was Dec. 20 to celebrate Robert Laubacher's birthday. "I told Jennifer that we were going to celebrate Christmas a little bit early this year," Juanita Laubacher said.

Jennifer Laubacher died three days later.

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