Friends, family gather at vigil for mother fatally stabbed in front of her children

Selfie of Nicole Santillanes.

Ashley Gjurich was in the middle of a eulogy for her slain sister, Nicole Santillanes, when a small hand reached up and squeezed her shoulder.

It belonged to her 8-year-old niece — Santillanes’ daughter — who had sidled up next to Gjurich when her voice began to crack with emotion.

More than 50 of Santillanes’ friends and relatives gathered Tuesday for a candelight vigil outside a South Los Angeles apartment building where police say the nursing assistant and mother of four was stabbed to death over the weekend by her estranged boyfriend, Richard Lara.


“Everything’s going to remind me of her when I’m going to take care of her kids, because I know she would do the same thing for me,” Gjurich told the crowd, wiping away tears.

Many of those present held prayer candles with Santillanes’ picture and shared tearful laughs over stories about the feisty and outspoken 38-year-old, who also went by “Nikki.”

Tiffany Molina stopped to exchange hugs with several women as she headed to the front of the crowd to remember her childhood friend.

Molina, who lives in Alhambra where Santillanes grew up, said she felt the need to “say something for my bestie, for my ‘compa,’” whose death underscores the difficulties of dealing with domestic violence. “Get out, get help, get therapy, use your resources,” Molina urged those present.

Last year, at least 17 people citywide died at the hands of a spouse or intimate partner, up from the average of roughly 14 domestic homicides annually from the previous 10 years, Det. Marie Sadanaga, of the LAPD’s domestic violence, unit said in an email. That number peaked in 2021, when the city had 22 such killings.

Oralia Alcorta, a longtime friend of the family, said the underlying tragedy of Santillanes’ death is that her “kids are going to have their mom gone and their dad incarcerated.”


The couple had three daughters, ages 7, 8 and 13. Santillanes also has a 20-year-old son from an earlier relationship. The girls were in the apartment the night Santillanes was killed and tried to intervene when their father began stabbing their mother, Alcorta said in a phone interview before the vigil. The oldest daughter was cut while defending her mother, Alcorta said.

Alcorta said she was especially worried about the younger two girls, for whom the reality of their mother being gone hadn’t sunk in yet.

“Later on tonight, they’ll sit down and think about it,” she said. “That’s when it’s gonna hit them.”

Police and relatives say Lara, 38, confronted Santillanes at a liquor store Saturday night. Their argument continued back at their apartment in the 9800 block of South Broadway. At some point, Lara grabbed a knife and plunged it into Santillanes’ face and torso in front of the couple’s daughters, family members said.

One daughter called a relative, who instructed her to call 911. Santillanes was pronounced dead at the scene.

Over the next few days, South Bureau homicide detectives worked to track Lara’s whereabouts through social media posts and surveillance footage. They arrested him Tuesday on suspicion of murder. His bond was set at $2 million.


The arrest came as a relief for members of the Santillanes family, who said they worried Lara might try to abduct his children, after he continued monitoring his daughter’s Instagram stories.

At Tuesday’s vigil, Alcorta watched Santillanes’ two youngest daughters darting through the crowd of mourners. Her brow was knitted in concern. She said the girls seemed fine at the moment, but they had broken down in tears earlier in the day after seeing a photo of their mother.

Santillanes, she said, had been trying to leave Lara for several months, with the support of her friends.

In an earlier interview with The Times, she described Santillanes as a “survivor” who overcame a traumatic childhood in which she dealt with the death of her father and occasional brushes with the justice system. Although most people knew her as “selfless” and “sensitive,” she had a toughness about her that would surface when needed, Alcorta said.

So her friends were surprised that Santillanes had remained in an increasingly toxic relationship, Alcorta said. Santillanes confided that the couple’s arguments sometimes turned physical, Alcorta said. Looking back, she said, it showed the difficulty that some women have in extricating themselves from cycles of abuse.


Santillanes’ children were struggling to process what happened, she said, adding that the youngest two girls sometimes acted as though they expected their mother to come back.

“Nobody really knows exactly how they feel, because one minute they’re OK, the next minute one of them is sitting on the couch looking like she’s just stuck in her thought,” she said. “They’re just trying to deal with it, just minute by minute.”

Santillanes, she said, had always put her children first. She had supported the family for the past few years by working as a certified nursing assistant and she was considering going back to school to become a registered nurse — which she saw as her ticket to financial freedom.

The job fit her caring nature, Alcorta said: “She did have a good heart, she was a sensitive person, she was selfless” and often left “everlasting impressions even on strangers.”

Virginia Molina chuckled to herself as she recalled how Santillanes’ independent streak sometimes tested her patience. But, she would remind herself that Santillanes “had it tough,” said Molina, whose daughter had known Santillanes since Tiffany was 12. Santillanes “had to grow up real fast, and she pulled herself up.”

Tiffany Molina said Santillanes took a job at a care facility where she could set her own hours so she could spend more time at home with her kids. Her patients loved her, too, she said.


“This is a horrible time. It’s horrible that we knew she [was] in that situation and we tried to help her, and she was trying to get out of it,” she said, lamenting “how hard she worked to get the life that she wanted and how someone that supposedly loved her took that away from her.”

Monique Alvarado, who befriended Santillanes in elementary school, said her childhood friend “was actively trying to get away from the relationship.”

“Nikki was a fighter, she was just a really amazing individual who had an amazing tenacity for life,” said Alvarado, a project manager with Los Angeles Mission, a homeless shelter.

Alvarado stopped by the vigil Tuesday, where heads nodded as Santillanes’ oldest daughter said she was “just glad now [her mother is] in a happy place, where she’s safe.”

Alvarado said Santillanes’ case pointed to larger problems with the way victims of domestic abuse are treated in life — and sometimes in death.

Although the city has offered some services for the family, Alvarado wondered whether Santillanes’ children and sister would receive any long-term assistance with such things as therapy.


Too often, she said, offers of help come with strings attached and time limits.

At the same time, she also worried about the possibility of Santillanes’ suddenly orphaned children being taken from their family and forced into foster care — something she said Santillanes had struggled to avoid as she navigated her abusive relationship.

“Really what we need is to create a village of, not stakeholders, but of careholders,” she said.