Murder Can't Sever Blood Ties : Grieving families and one innocent toddler are left to cope with painful past and uncertain future after teens are convicted of murdering a peer.

Two of the defendants were convicted of murder in the first degree.

Defendants is what the court called them when they were sentenced last month, yet they're just teen-aged kids, high school students from South Orange County, where the depravity of their crime still shocks.

A juvenile court judge had remanded them to Superior Court to be tried as adults.

Destinni Mardesech was 16 when she plotted and witnessed the murder of her child's father, Damian McKenna, who was 19.

Looking at photographs of Destinni will make you scared. She looks angelic, in that slightly rounded Victorian sense, with long blond hair. You could call her well-scrubbed, like somebody you might consider to baby-sit your kids.

Destinni and Damian once had plans to marry, and he bought her a diamond ring. They named their son Logan Miller, and after they'd married, Destinni and Damian planned to change their name to Miller too.

It's the last name of Damian's stepfather, better known as Dad.

But Destinni's friend Ryan Lo fired one or maybe both of the rifle shots that Damian took in the head on the night of Sept. 3, 1991. Ryan was 17 years old.

The judge found another defendant guilty of murder in the second degree. He, too, was at the scene of the crime, an isolated place called Holy Jim Canyon, off Trabuco Canyon Road. Jonathan Freshour was 19.

Damian lay exposed to the elements, and the animals, for four days after that. His family never did see his body. They were told that would be best. The casket at the funeral, which Destinni attended in the role of the bereaved, was closed.

So what did Damian do to "deserve" this end? He had told Destinni that he planned to start legal proceedings to share custody of their son.

Truth is that, to many, this is just another sordid murder, another tale of kids gone bad, better filed away with a shake of the head and a shrug. Then there's this line of thought: At least they got the murderers. There was a trial, justice was done.

Only Damian's family cannot see it that way at all.

Destinni and Ryan, despite having been tried as adults, were sentenced to the California Youth Authority, where no prisoner may be held beyond the age of 25. For Destinni and Ryan that means about six years. Even though, officially, the judge sentenced them to 25 years to life.

Perhaps you do not get it now.

Judge Donald McCartin, due to retire at the end of this month, said that if the two were gangbangers he would have sent them to state prison, where presumably they could rot. But they were not in a gang.

I suppose you could say that these kids just murdered without joining a club. Destinni made sure to get a baby-sitter first, and they had to borrow the gun. And this shooting was not a drive-by. These kids stayed to watch.

What McCartin did was well within his purview as judge. He had a choice, and he made one that Damian's family and friends did not like. Neither did the D.A. "I'm not thrilled with it," McCartin himself said as he handed it down.

Later he told me he was following the recommendation on the psychological evaluations, even though in other cases, he's gone the other way. But he says in this case, the defendants' prior records were clean.

"If I were a betting man, I'd say that in seven, eight years from now, they are not going to be involved again," he says. "That's my call."

Oh well. But not quite.

Carol Miller, Damian's mother, has been asking friends, and friends of friends, to write the district attorney to urge that his office appeal McCartin's sentence. And they have been doing that, John Conley, the assistant deputy attorney in charge of major offenses, reports.

But Conley says he thinks it's going to be tough, although "we are going to try." You can't just disagree with a sentence to appeal, you have to submit evidence that shows it to be against the law.

And there is another avenue, he says. The California Youth Authority could find a prisoner "not appropriate" to be housed there. But Conley implies that Carol Miller not hold her breath. The deadline to file an appeal is later next month.

You might wonder why Carol is doing this, why she doesn't just "get on with her life" as many might suggest. She says is motivated not by vengeance, but by the little boy who shares her home.

Logan's a happy kid who calls Carol "Mom Mom" and variations on the same. To a photographer snapping his picture he yells, "Do it!" and smiles. He is 2 1/2.

Carol and Destinni's mother, Deborah Mardesech, have shared guardianship of Logan. He lives with the Millers in Mission Viejo, but visits his other grandmother every other weekend and on alternate Monday evenings.

Deborah Mardesech tells me that the arrangement is a tribute to the maturity of all those involved. Logan, loved by everybody, comes first. She says she and her daughter have talked a lot about Logan's future, but haven't made up their mind about what legal course they will pursue once Destinni is let go.

Still, Carol Miller is terrified of what might happen to her grandson when Destinni is freed. Logan will be 9 years old, too young to legally determine for himself just where he chooses to live.

"The way the system works, it might take a year or so, but she'll likely get him back," Carol says. "It's almost impossible to have somebody declared an unfit parent."

Carol's faith in the judicial system has plummeted considerably since her firstborn's death.

"I don't want him to hate his mother," Carol says. "I don't hate her. It would be easier if I did. I'm so hurt that when I look at her, I almost don't feel anything. There's just . . . "

Carol pauses here, and places her hand at the base of her neck. But her tears still flow unchecked.

"All the emotions are jumbled up," she says. "I don't hate. I don't love. I'm not afraid. I am angry. I feel cold. . . . All I know is she has totally screwed up my whole family and I just don't want her to screw up Logan's life. It's too late for Damian."

That, says Carol, is why she wants Destinni jailed until Logan is at least 12 years old. "The moral values she could instill in him are awfully scary," she says.

But Deborah Mardesech says her daughter is full of remorse and guilt and in a way, she has died too. She says a daily doze of 500 mg. of Thorazine helps calm her daughter down. Deborah says she expects the time spent in the youth authority will rehabilitate her. The six-year sentence, she believes, was just.

Destinni fell in with a bad crowd, had a baby too young, did something stupid and terrible, and will have to pay the price for the rest of her life, her mother says. But Damian, she goes on, is partly to blame for his death because he went to the canyon hoping to buy drugs.

Deborah Mardesech doesn't expect the Millers to understand that. And they do not.

Indeed, such logic at the Miller home appears obscene. The pain of Damien's absence is sharp and still raw. The details of his murder chill. Carol cannot talk about it without breaking down.

But Deborah Mardesech, who adopted her daughter when she was 17 months old, compares her loss to Carol Miller's. Her anguish, she says, is too large to contain with words.

"It's no different for me, I can tell you," she says. "The difference is she knows her child is gone. She knows where he is. Our pain goes on and on."

Only Logan, it seems, can round the edges, making life worthwhile.

Damian's sister, Tamara McKenna, 17, said this to the court in an attempt to explain how it felt to lose her brother, her best friend:

"Other people don't have to go through life wondering if they are still the middle child or if they are now the oldest child. Other people don't have to go through life watching their mothers cry all the time, or seeing their dad cry for the first time when he tries to tell a friend of the family. . .

"The only things I have of my brother to live with are the memories and his beautiful son. I know I'll lose a few of the memories over the years, but I don't even want to contemplate losing my nephew. He is what keeps my family going on with our lives. Because there are so many days you just want to sit down and cry. When you see him, you realize you can't."

Carol Miller says she would like the justice system to understand.

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