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6 Heroes Honored for Helping Catch Criminals : Law enforcement: Courageous Citizen Awards presented to those who got involved in purse-snatching, vehicular manslaughter cases.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office this week honored six local heroes, including a Paramount father and son who nabbed a purse snatcher and two Whittier area women who chased down a hit-and-run driver and ordered him back to the scene of a fatal accident.

The six honorees received Courageous Citizen Awards in a ceremony Monday in Huntington Park.

The youngest award-winner, 16-year-old Abel Mendoza of Paramount, never even told his Paramount High School buddies about his role in capturing two purse snatchers. “They wouldn’t believe me anyhow,” he said.

On the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 2, Mendoza and his 44-year-old father, Ovidio, were driving to a South Gate bank to make a deposit. In the crosswalk in front of them, they said they saw two men grab a purse from a young woman. The elder Mendoza steered his Mitsubishi truck through traffic to pursue the men.

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According to officials and witnesses, the men ran into an alley, and one hopped a fence into a back yard. Abel dashed from the car before it had fully stopped and also leaped the fence. He chased the man over another fence, into a front yard, across a street and into another back yard before catching him.

Abel, at 5 feet 9 inches and 145 pounds, was smaller than the man he pursued and said he did not know if the man was armed. “When I caught up to the guy, I was kind of worried that he might have a gun or knife,” Abel said.

“I held him down and told him he ain’t goin’ nowhere. He was sweating and scared. He just said, ‘Let me go’ in Spanish, but he didn’t go anywhere. . . . He said he’d been out of a job for a while and he was just desperate.”

Construction worker Ovidio Mendoza said he was proud of his son, but worried when Abel took off after the purse snatcher. “I yelled at him, ‘Don’t get too close.’ My son is too young. He doesn’t know much about how these guys act. He can get killed for nothing.”

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The only blow during the chase came from an old man who mistook Abel for a criminal and threw a punch at him. While Abel and his father caught one suspect, 24-year-old Carlos Palacios, also of Paramount, nabbed the other. All three received the certificates. The purse snatchers are serving one-year jail terms for robbery.

“I’ve got something to tell my grandson,” Ovidio Mendoza said of the experience.

The hit-and-run incident unfolded June 10 in front of Lake Marie Elementary School in south Whittier. Crossing guard Juan Antonio Vela, 66, had just stopped four lanes of traffic along busy Carmenita Road. Two kindergartners were about to step into the street when a blue Honda Civic driven by Patrick Robert McLaughlin approached the intersection at more than 45 m.p.h., witnesses and police said.

McLaughlin, 43, slammed on his brakes and swerved to the wrong side of the road to avoid hitting the cars stopped in front of him. Instead, officials said, he struck the crossing guard, hurling him 30 feet through the air and causing fatal injuries.

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More than 200 feet away, PTA co-president Stella Marker was loading cans and newspapers for a recycling project when she heard the screech of brakes. She ran after the hit-and-run car, which was pulling away despite two flat tires.

Her call for help prompted Daniel Rodarte to join the pursuit on foot. Rodarte, a 53-year-old Pico Rivera resident and mail carrier, was in the area visiting friends.

Meanwhile, Lucia Wilson also had seen McLaughlin pull away from the accident scene. The 46-year-old Spanish teacher had been driving home from St. Paul High School.

Wilson saw McLaughlin pull into an industrial plaza up the street. She blocked his exit with her van.

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Marker and Rodarte, still on foot, caught up to McLaughlin and ordered him to return to the crosswalk.

“I said, ‘You hit the crossing guard. You have to come with us,’ ” Marker said. When McLaughlin appeared to resist, her tone became more demanding. “I started yelling, ‘You will come with us now!’ And he said, ‘OK.’

“It was my mom voice,” Marker said, adding that a four-year Navy stint, a job as a teacher’s aide and her role as the mother of three young boys have helped develop her commanding tone.

McLaughlin, who prosecutors said had a blood-alcohol level almost four times the legal limit, was sentenced in November to four years in jail for vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

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At the awards ceremony, Marker, Rodarte and Wilson received certificates.

Wilson said it has always been her style to get involved, even though it worries her family.

“Anything that I see wrong, I call 911,” she said. “I want to help and I just can’t let people take advantage of other people. . . . I never expected to receive an award. It’s my nature to be this way.”

Marker said she cried when her 10-year-old son, Aaron, told her he was proud of his mother, and her 9-year-old son, Raymond, said “he hoped that he grows up like me.”

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“That meant more to me than the award,” Marker said.


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