Five months ago, Deborah Luck was a graphic designer who didn’t even know who sat on the Santa Clarita City Council. But a string of personal tragedies since then has transformed her into one of the area’s most visible community activists.
The 37-year-old Canyon Country resident initially gained notoriety after the slaying of her friend, Veronica Estrada, 29, in December. Estrada’s body was found along a dark portion of Soledad Canyon Road near her home in Canyon Country. She is believed to have been strangled.
After Estrada’s death, Luck circulated a petition that helped bring street lights to the area.
But further tragedies soon followed.
It turned out that the man later arrested on suspicion of murdering Estrada was another close friend of Luck’s, Stuart Edward Milburn.
Then, on April 12, Luck’s 11-year-old son, Christopher Kipp Turner, was killed in Arizona by a suspected hit-and-run driver.
“God says He never gives a person more than they can deal with,” she said. “I wish He didn’t think I was so danged strong.”
Her son’s death prompted Luck to launch another high-profile crusade. In the past few weeks, Luck has collected thousands of dollars for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and is campaigning in Arizona for tougher hit-and-run and drunk-driving laws.
“I know my boy’s up there saying, ‘You’ve got to do this, Mom,’ ” she said.
Luck added that she will never be able to go back to the relatively quiet life she led before the recent tragedies.
“You find when you start one thing you see a lot of inadequacies and you say, ‘You know, someone’s got to take care of them,’ ” she said.
Yellow ribbons are still flying in Christopher’s memory outside each house on Luck’s street. Inside her house, the rooms are still filled with flowers and sympathy cards from friends, public officials and strangers who read about her loss.
The cards and flowers, though welcome, offer only so much solace. The house is too full of memories of her son.
“I’m just kind of wandering around the house aimlessly,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”
A similar restlessness pushed Luck into action after Estrada was killed. A few days after the tragedy, Luck and others close to Estrada placed a large sign where her body was found. It asked passing motorists to report any information they had about the case to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials, who at the time had no suspects.
City officials made the group take down the sign after several residents objected to having the scene of the crime so boldly marked.
But by then, the sign had served its purpose, prompting a key witness to come forward, said Sgt. Doral Riggs, a homicide investigator.
Luck was shocked when Sheriff’s Department officials soon arrested Milburn in connection with the crime. Estrada and Milburn were martial arts instructors at a tae kwon do studio.
Luck compared the news of Milburn’s arrest to a second death in the family, but said she is reserving judgment about his innocence or guilt. Milburn, 27, is in custody without bail at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles awaiting trial on a murder charge with three special circumstances. If convicted, he could receive the death penalty.
Before Luck began circulating petitions to urge the council to install street lights on Soledad Canyon Road--an effort that would gather 3,500 signatures--she was a political novice, at best.
“When I started working on the lights I had no idea, I’m ashamed to say, who anyone on the City Council was,” she admitted.
But council members and those vying for three open seats in the April 12 election had little trouble distinguishing Luck. She showed up at one candidates forum with a large sign calling for the street lights, prompting all 11 candidates to make at least a passing reference in support of the idea.
Her son Christopher, a martial arts student of Estrada’s, scooted around the neighborhood on in-line skates gathering signatures for the petition. But he didn’t get the chance to see his efforts pay off.
Christopher was killed instantly upon being hit by a Rolls-Royce Silver Spur while visiting his father in Scottsdale. The vehicle’s owner, Edward Palenkas, 67, a retired businessman, was arrested two days later, but police said they could not prove their suspicion that he had been drinking at the time of the accident.
Hurt and outraged once more, Luck went to the media about her son’s death. Letters poured into the offices of Scottsdale police and prosecutors, including one from U. S. Rep. Howard (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), urging them to pursue the case vigorously.
On April 21, a Maricopa County grand jury indicted Palenkas on felony charges of manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 23 years in prison.
Luck said she hopes to bring a local MADD chapter to the Santa Clarita Valley and will continue her fight in Arizona. And she is increasingly speaking out on other issues.
“Someone in Arizona said, ‘The next time we see you, will it be Mayor Luck?’ ” she said with a laugh. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but in 1996 it could be Councilwoman Luck.’ ”