Grief and Anger Replace Hope in Town

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A small town's resolve, born of hope, to bring one of its children home alive shifted Sunday to a newer, fierce resolve, born of anger, to bring home his killer.

"A bright star was taken from this community," said Mayor Jan Leja, moments after visiting the parents of Anthony Michael Martinez, bringing what consolation she could on behalf of her town. "They realize now that Anthony is with God now, the bright shining star he was with us.

"We have a great responsibility to Anthony and to all of the other children who can possibly be harmed by [the abductor]," Leja said outside the family home. "We won't stop until this man is caught and he's brought to justice. He will be caught and brought to justice."

The news shuddered through the town along Interstate 10 where, just a few hours earlier, there was still optimism that Anthony would miraculously show up safe.

Despite the discovery Saturday of a body half buried in a desert rock pile, townsfolk had kept a stiff upper lip that until authorities identified the victim, the 10-year-old would still be found alive.

Hundreds of small yellow ribbons were gathered in a pink wicker basket and distributed to everyone. Alongside them was a box with what was left of 2,000 fliers, still being handed out.

Then, at 2 p.m., Yvonne Burkin, Anthony's grandmother, received a call at the motel where she was staying. It was from Tony's parents.

She called a few volunteer searchers who were grabbing a fast lunch at Baker's, a local hamburger stand. The message kicked them in the gut. The Riverside County coroner's office had confirmed and was letting the family know immediately that the body discovered Saturday was Tony's, Burkin said.

The group drove two blocks to the Civic Center, which had served as the search headquarters since Tony's abduction April 4.

One of the men delivered the news to the others. "Yvonne called," he said. "The coroner confirmed it. The body was. . . . "

He couldn't finish the sentence. He broke down in tears.

One man kicked a folding chair. "Dammit," he yelled. Then he kicked the chair again and again, across the front lawn of the Civic Center.

John Ely admitted his worst fear, finally, to himself. "I kind of knew, but you don't want to accept it. We're still going to pass out fliers. We're still going to catch this guy."

His 14-year-old son Jason ran down the street as fast as he could. He just kept running.

Another volunteer sat listless. Finally, he broke down in tears.

Lori Stephenson had just pulled up in her car to get more fliers and saw the people standing about--mothers and fathers hugging their children, embracing one another, tears rolling down their cheeks.

She wouldn't let the news stop her from her mission. Now, it had become a different mission.

"OK, we've got some more fliers to pass out," she said. Then she cried.

The search for Anthony had consumed this small rural town from the first day. This is a place where the cliche is nearly true, that everyone knows everyone else. That's what made Tony's abduction all the scarier.

"That's why we all moved here, because we all know each other. But I guess that's been a false sense of security," said Marie Clay. "The outside has come to our town."

The paranoia brought on by an unknown child stealer has made some people crazy. "I searched my entire yard the other day for my little baby. I was scared to death," said Tamara Walls. "Then I found him sleeping in his bed."

Glenn Stele said no stranger would ever get close to his granddaughter. "If they do, then they're going to have to put me in jail for what I do to that person."

Earlier Sunday, when optimism still coursed through the neighborhoods, the bluejean-and-T-shirt Pure Rock Christian Fellowship conducted its service, an evangelical outpouring of music and prayer tinged with grief over Anthony's abduction.

"It's very tense today," Mark Stamper told 150 people, including many children. He then segued into prayer: "Let the Holy Spirit comfort us. We pray to him. We cry out to him. . . . Lord, there are some things in life that we will never understand. Father, we look to you for comfort and strength, and to lift up [Tony's] family today."

Among the songs of worship and praise: "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Amazing Grace."

In the back row of folding chairs, three young children flipped through a stack of fliers.

One of the singers in the congregation's guitar folk group prayed spontaneously into her microphone: "Lord, we ask that the heaviness that we feel be placed at your cross. We continue to pray in the name of Jesus that everything will work to the glory of God."

The service could not remove the grief that many carried with them Sunday. Corbie Maxwell and her daughters, ages 8 and 9, were among the first to scurry out of the church. Maxwell was in tears.

"Someone in there just told us that it was Tony's body," Maxwell said. "We were really hoping."

Maxwell looked at her two girls. "My kids are staying in the house to play now. School is only a block away, but for the past two weeks I've been driving them. And we put a higher fence around our backyard."

Evaristo Medina, one of Tony's uncles, who spent time with the family Sunday morning, said: "At least we know where he is. That would be the worst thing, to go through life not knowing."

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