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Murder Rate Is on the Rise for County’s Children : Crime: Nine youngsters have been slain so far in 1995--triple the number a decade ago. The killers have afflicted a lifetime of pain on the families and friends.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Weapons vary--from knife to gun to fists--and the numbers fluctuate from year to year.

But a long-range trend is growing clear: More children are being murdered in Ventura County.

In 1975, three children and youths under age 21 were killed here in homicides. Three also died in 1985.

So far in 1995, nine have died in homicides--triple the number 10 years ago. Throughout the first half of the 1990s, the death toll of Ventura County’s young has hovered at five or more, save for two years: 1991, when 15 were slain, and this year.

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Suicidal or neglectful loved ones killed five of 1995’s young victims.

But the rest were cut down in a pattern that has grown tragically repetitive in Ventura County since 1990: Suspected gang members shot them to death.

The steady rise in the county’s gang violence over the past five years shows that this generation lacks respect for life, said Oxnard Police Chief Harold Hurtt.

“There’s a sense of hopelessness among our young people,” said Hurtt, whose city has seen four youths slain so far this year--three by suspected gang members and one by a suicidal boyfriend.

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“I don’t think they see living a long time and having kids and grandkids the way we envisioned it,” he said. “They see life as more of a snapshot, and we look at it as a complete portrait.”

And Sheriff’s Sgt. Frank O’Hanlon said there is only one reason more kids have not died in the slew of drive-bys and random shootings peppering the county this year: dumb luck.

“We’ve been very lucky they [deaths] haven’t been more frequent,” O’Hanlon said. “Gang members use firearms, and they’re not real picky about their targets. When you use a firearm in a situation, whether you intend to kill somebody or not, chances are that somebody’s going to die.”

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As they took the lives of their young victims, the killers afflicted dozens of others with a lifetime of pain--parents, brothers, sisters and friends, all suffering anxiety, insomnia, self-doubt and relentless grief.

Debra Forrester is just one of those left with horrifying memories.

Hers are the memories of Father’s Day, when her estranged husband, Larry Sasse, walked their two children into his Simi Valley garage, shot each one in the head, then killed himself.

Their mother is plagued by nightmares.

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Weird, cruel dreams pollute Forrester’s sleep every night, peopled only by her estranged husband, her 4-year-old daughter and her 3-year-old son.

In one dream Breanna and Michael have grown into blond junior high schoolers. But Forrester is forced to have them euthanized because Sasse has done something vague and horrible to them.

In another, Sasse pops up behind Forrester, visible only in mirrors like some burly mustachioed vampire, gloating, “I told you I’d ruin your life.”

“Some nights it’s not so devastating. Some nights I wake up and cry for four hours,” Forrester said. “I will always have a sick feeling. It’s like more of an empty feeling. I think it actually gets harder as time goes on.”

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Shocked and abruptly alone after her children’s murders, Forrester was left with a feeling of intense vulnerability and an aching sense of clarity about the world’s wickedness.

“There are people in the world who will ruin your life and kill everybody you love on the way out,” she told a visitor recently, her jaw set and eyes not quite dry. “There isn’t anything more evil in the world than someone who can kill someone who loves them and looks up to them and trusts them. There isn’t anything more evil.”

Her estranged husband’s drug-fueled fury left her with only toys, snapshots, a little doubleheader gravestone under a spreading shade tree--and her emotions.

After the funeral, Forrester found herself alienated from friends.

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Some stare when she laughs now, as if to shame her back into perpetual mourning. They chide her for not taking the children and running when she had the chance--as though she had any inkling how crazy Larry would get.

All but her family and closest friends have no idea what to say around her, much less how to act.

“Many times, I get in my car and think I’ll just keep going,” she said. “It’d be nice to go away and start all over where nobody knows who you were, nobody knows what happened to you and nobody would judge you.”

Doggedly, though, she is pursuing nursing classes at Pierce College. She plans to earn her R.N. degree by May and a master’s degree two years later that she wants to lead to a job as a nurse-anaesthetist.

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Without Michael and Breanna, life is crushingly empty. But Forrester refuses to languish, to live up to people’s expectations that she should just lock herself away from the world.

More importantly, she refuses to cede any victory to Larry Sasse in death.

“He was telling me [before the killings], ‘You’re going to cry every day for the rest of your life,’ ” she said, her chin thrust forward. “Well, he took away the two things I loved more than anything in the world, but I refuse to let him take away my life. He’s not going to win.”

But she misses them so.

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The sand that always spilled from Breanna and Michael’s sneakers onto the bathroom floor after playtime--she would give anything to have it back.

Halloween was heartbreaking. Christmas will be more so.

Every time a yellow school bus drives past, she thinks of how much Breanna was looking forward to hopping on for the ride to kindergarten.

And she cannot bear to watch parents complain about their children or, worse still, punish them harshly. “I feel like going up and grabbing them by the arms and saying, ‘You don’t know what it’s like,’ ” Forrester said.

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Mothers with abusive or threatening mates should seek help, she said. And they should not stop at filing a simple police or child abuse report.

“I think people need to know that you never think it could happen to you,” she said soberly. “Protect your kids with everything you have. Don’t take it for granted.”

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The Sasse-Forrester slayings on June 18 were perhaps the most shocking of this year’s child killings. But the deaths of the county’s seven other young victims were equally devastating to their families:

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* Gabriel Alcazar Jr., 14, had just moved to his new neighborhood near Oxnard High School last winter. Police labeled Gabriel a gang member, but friends said he was just an easy target for escalating violence between rival Latino and African-American gangs. On Feb. 23, a car drove past him and two of his friends. Police say the occupants flashed gang hand signals, then piled out, chased him into an alley and shot Gabriel three times in the back.

* That same day, doctors at Ojai Valley Hospital called police to report an infant’s death. Two-month-old Rachel Rother had arrived by ambulance just before 7 p.m., emaciated, pale and cold to the touch. She died barely an hour later. A judge sentenced her mother, Pamela Rother, to 10 years in prison last month for starving Rachel to death.

* Armando Rodriguez, 19, was walking with friends on a busy Simi Valley street on April Fool’s Day. A longtime rival rode up on a bicycle and paused long enough to shoot him once in the chest, killing him, police said. Armando’s family insists he was not a gang member, but a hard-working waiter with plans for college. His killer was imprisoned for 19 years to life.

* Leanna Demisla Joseph and boyfriend Elton D. Morrow had been arguing on July 4 at his house in Oxnard, but relatives thought the two had made up when it happened: Elton, 18, shot Leanna, 16, then stuck the gun to his own temple and fired, killing himself.

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* Martin Banuelos, 16, was not a gang member, friends and family say. But he had several run-ins with local gang members at Channel Islands High School. On Sept. 28, Martin was standing on a friend’s porch in Oxnard’s Lemonwood area when a red car pulled up. When he began to argue with one of the passengers, witnesses said, someone fired numerous times, hitting him twice. Martin died less than an hour later. His killer is still at large.

* After quarreling with his girlfriend, Scott Nyegaard of Beverly Hills strapped their 3-year-old son, Ian, into a child seat in the back seat of his gray Infiniti on Oct. 6 and drove toward Ventura County. Nyegaard parked the car just over the county line at a scenic viewpoint overlooking the Pacific. He laid a derogatory note about his girlfriend’s family on the dashboard, shot his son in the left temple, then put the muzzle into his own mouth and fired.

* Pedro Madueno, 16, got into an argument with two men near his home in the 3100 block of Paula Street in Oxnard. Witnesses said Pedro was shot once in the chest, then four times more in the back as he went down. Police have linked the killing to strife among local gangs, but the case remains unsolved.

Until Ventura County looks beyond the police and courts for a cure, said Oxnard’s Chief Hurtt, gang violence will drag on.

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Schools, churches, community leaders and--ultimately--families will have to work harder to instill a sense of right and wrong, self-esteem and respect in Ventura County’s young, he said.

“Until we do that, we’re going to be faced with this frustration and wondering why our kids are killing each other,” Hurtt said.

With more parents working and less supervision at home, kids stray from good behavior, said Francisco Dominguez, director of the El Concilio outreach agency.

“So,” he said, “they become involved in activities that are destructive to themselves and their families.”

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Children are victimized more often these days by adults, too, police and social workers say, because a heedless moral vacuum has built up between violent pop culture, the popularity of guns and people’s growing sense of alienation from one another.

For enraged parents, they say, the act of killing children comes far easier than it should.

“Sadness, desperation, depression, alienation--all of that and the availability of a way to do it” are feeding the rise in the deaths of kids, said Camarillo family counselor Susan Hardy.

Society has lost a sense of shame that once would have stopped some potential killers from bringing dishonor down on their families, said Hardy, who specializes in adolescent problems.

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And guns have become an increasingly popular, impersonal, almost abstract way to kill, she said.

“If you took the gun away and asked that same person to plunge a knife into those children, no way would that happen,” she said of Larry Sasse. With a knife, Hardy added, “You know you’re murdering somebody.”

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Social workers, police and the victims’ families agree: Most of the murderers lacked much sense of the damage they were doing, of how many lives they would ruin.

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Daniel Banuelos suspects his 16-year-old son was gunned down by gang members who just did not like the boy. So far, no one has been arrested for it.

“They don’t think about it. These kind of people, they wake up the next day without a conscience,” he said. “To them, it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

The stout front door that smiling Martin Banuelos used to fling open each night at supper time stays closed now. Most days, with his older brothers grown and gone, Martin’s mother and father grieve alone.

“We’re just so used to him coming home this time of day around dinner time,” said Virginia Banuelos, eyeing the door one recent evening. “We’re just expecting him to come in and eat.”

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Said Daniel, “It’s especially hard because they haven’t caught anybody. . . .That killer’s still out there.”

Virginia was working, and Daniel studying at home when the call came that Martin was shot. They rushed to St. John’s Medical Center, but doctors refused to let them see their son.

“They kept saying they were working on him,” Virginia said. When the doctor came out to say that Martin was gone, staff still would not let his parents see his body.

They had to wait until two days later at the funeral home. And what they saw bore no resemblance to their happy, easy-going sports fanatic son, the boy who hung out with his older brothers tinkering on cars, who planned to marry and have kids at 30, and who dreamed of running his own business.

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Now, barely six weeks after Martin died, his parents still have trouble sleeping. They light votive candles beside his picture atop the TV, but the house is empty without him.

Cranks make taunting phone calls, and police say they have not gathered enough evidence yet to make arrests, despite numerous tips and a $3,000 reward offered by the family. And Daniel and Virginia feel uncomfortable now walking around the neighborhood they have called home for 18 years.

“It’s frustrating,” Daniel said. “Especially when you hear the names of those guys who were involved.”

Virginia Banuelos remembers how she used to nag Martin to clean his room, how he left it suddenly spotless the day he was shot--but for a few rumpled socks on the floor.

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“I washed his clothes,” she said as she sat on his bed, tears tightening her voice to a sob. “But I haven’t been able to put anything away.”

In Simi Valley, Alicia Rodriguez cries, too.

Every day after work, she sits by her son Armando’s gravestone--in the same Simi Valley cemetery where Breanna and Michael Forrester rest--and weeps.

“It’s been very difficult, and we still can’t believe it. Everything has changed,” Rodriguez said last week in frail, hushed Spanish. “I miss him a lot.”

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Armando’s death has pulled a shroud over his family--his mother, his father, Refugio, his sister, Norma, and his younger brother, Victor.

“My mom’s still--every time I see her she’s, like, depressed,” said Victor, 17. “I don’t like to see that. We weren’t like that, never. We were always a happy family.”

What hurts most, he says, is police reports linking Armando to a gang.

In fact, his family said, Armando had been working at a Valencia restaurant for two years. He had just graduated from Simi Valley Adult School. And he had plans to go to Moorpark College.

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“He worked, he studied, he went to the gymnasium--he never had time to be in a gang,” his mother said. “He was very happy, and he liked telling jokes. He had goals. He loved life.”

When the Rodriguez family moved from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Simi Valley several years ago, they never expected anything like this could happen.

Then Victor got the call at home that Armando was shot, and he called his mother’s workplace in Simi Valley and his father’s in Valencia.

Victor and Alicia rushed to the bridge over the Arroyo Simi where Armando lay on the pavement, unconscious and bleeding, but an ambulance bore him away before his father could get there. His family never heard Armando speak again.

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After police arrested suspect Victor Ramirez, Alicia Rodriguez went to court in Ventura every day to watch the trial of her son’s killer.

“It was very difficult to see the guy that killed my son,” she said. “I saw him sitting there with the hands that killed my son.”

Ramirez’s conviction and prison sentence brought no solace, nor did it assuage Rodriguez’s fear.

“They’re not going to bring him back. It doesn’t matter,” she said hollowly.

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Two weeks ago, the Simi Valley Adult School diploma that Armando had earned arrived in the mail. It sits enshrined among snapshots, candles and silk roses atop his parents’ stereo.

At sundown, his brother lights the candles. The light flickers out through pictures of the Virgin Mary pasted to the side of the glass candleholders.

Alicia Rodriguez’s shoulders curve inward, and she starts to cry again.

“If I’d known about [gangs in Ventura County],” she says softly, “we never would have come here.”

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Is there any advice she can offer Ventura County parents?

“Watch out for your children,” Rodriguez says with a level, wounded gaze. “Guard your children. I’m afraid now for my [other] son and my daughter.”


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