Services Held for Toddler
Suzie Marie Pena, the 19-month-old girl shot by Los Angeles police a week ago during a gun battle with her father, was buried Saturday after a spare Catholic funeral notably free of any reference to the controversy or police.
Instead, Father Jose Valdez asked those at San Miguel Church in Watts and people in the community to respond to the toddler’s death by coming together.
“This is hard. This is difficult,” he said at one point, looking at Lorena Lopez, the toddler’s mother, who sat in the front row. “But the Lord knows why this happened.... But there is a message: that this should unify the community.”
The service was exceptionally simple. There were no programs, and only a few bouquets of yellow mums and red roses. The child’s casket sat on an uncovered metal rack a few feet from Lopez.
“We must put our anguish in God’s hands,” Valdez told the crowd of about 90 mourners.
The child’s death July 10 from a gunshot fired by a Los Angeles Police Department officer has prompted demonstrations in the neighborhood around the car dealership in Watts where her father had held off police for more than two hours with a gun, wounding one officer, before he also was shot and killed.
Police have said that Jose Raul Pena used his daughter as a shield, and her death was accidental. The toddler’s family has harshly criticized police tactics.
Valdez delivered a Mass, all in Spanish, reading mourners the story of Lazarus. Throughout, Lopez remained quiet, occasionally leaning on the shoulder of her 16-year-old daughter, who police rescued from the hostage situation.
A few mourners wore narrow black ribbons, and one woman wore a T-shirt bearing the words “Stop the Killing.” And early in the service, when Valdez said the loss “has left us feeling bad,” one person interrupted him, crying out “very bad!” in a loud voice.
But apart from this, there were no outward expressions from those present, at least a quarter of whom were children. News cameras outside filmed the proceedings through an open door.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa arrived late and seemed to take pains to be unobtrusive as he sat toward the back of the church.
Asked to comment as the casket was later taken away for a private burial at Resurrection Cemetery in Montebello, Villaraigosa paused for several seconds, looking down, then spoke haltingly: “This is a time for mourning and reflection. Our entire community is going through an inexplicable pain. Words can’t describe it.” The mayor said questions about the episode would be answered as the investigation unfolds.
His comments were echoed by City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who also attended, and by the family’s attorney, Luis Carrillo, both of whom deflected questions from reporters, saying that the day was reserved for mourning.
Suzie Pena was found dead on the floor of the car dealership after SWAT officers made an attempt to rescue her following multiple exchanges of gunfire with her father. They entered the building at the close of the standoff and became embroiled in a final gun battle with Pena in the close quarters of an interior office, police said.
LAPD officials have not released the names of the officers who fired, and say they have not yet determined which officer’s bullet killed the child.
The funeral service was held beneath overcast morning skies in the tiny church on a narrow stretch of 108th Street near Wilmington Avenue. Mourners filled about three-quarters of the wooden pews.
Upon entering the church before the service, Parks and his wife, Bobbie, found Lorena Lopez in a pew, hugged her and exchanged a few words.
When the service began, Lopez, in white gloves, and her teenage daughter took their places at the front of the casket. The daughter was briefly in protective custody after the shootout, but has returned to her family.
Lopez’s two sons, Carlos, 18, and Ronald, 15, took their places behind them as pallbearers around the toddler’s apricot-trimmed casket.
Lorena Lopez kept her eyes down as she helped roll the casket forward to the altar, then took a seat in the front with her older daughter.
Fifty minutes into the service, Villaraigosa came in from the back and proceeded up the center aisle alone. It was the moment in the service when mourners were being called to greet each other.
Villaraigosa, seemingly unnoticed by the crowd, made his way to family friends and relatives gathered in the front pews around Lopez. The mayor gave Lopez a brief hug, and, for an instant, she threw a white-gloved hand around his neck. The mayor then stepped aside as Parks leaned in to give Lopez a longer hug.
After taking communion with the other parishioners, Villaraigosa knelt to pray in a back pew for a few moments, then sat for the remainder of the service.
At its close, Lopez took her place among the pallbearers, acknowledging the glances and greetings of acquaintances with teary-eyed smiles as she left the church.
As the mourners filed out after her, some noticed that they were passing the mayor, who was standing along the aisle, and reached to shake his hand. A woman who barely came up to the mayor’s chest paused to thank him for coming and then hugged him, sobbing.
As mourners filed out, Villaraigosa chatted with a solemn 18-year-old youth who also had remained behind, and answered his questions with his hands folded. Upon learning the teenager was bound for Columbia University, Villaraigosa hired him on the spot to work in his office.
Villaraigosa later told reporters, “This is a community of hard-working people. They want their leaders to represent them, and treat them as they would anyone.... We will do everything possible to uncover every fact.”
The woman who had hugged him earlier watched. “We are astonished and contented that he came,” said Maria Olivares, 52, an immigrant from Mexico City. “But we want him to please help us.”
She echoed protesters’ assertions that the police had other options and did not have to shoot the child.
Mourner Magdalena Hernandez, 46, disagreed.
“I don’t throw the blame on anyone,” she said. “If I came out angry from my house with nothing, nothing would happen. But if I come out with a gun, what do I think is going to happen? I am the aggressor. The police have to do something.”
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