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At a vigil for a slain son, questions still linger

They numbered only about two dozen and barely drew a glance from diners and shoppers as they walked along Ventura Boulevard, carrying battery-powered candles that lit the night.

The lack of attention didn’t matter to them. This public vigil was a private ritual; a way to remember a young man who died too young and to embrace his grieving mother.

Two years ago, Zachary Champommier was shot to death by law enforcement officers in a Studio City parking lot. He was 18, had just graduated from Granada Hills Charter High, played saxophone and viola in the orchestra.

His death — then and now — was cloaked in confusion and muddied by conflicting accounts.

Initial news reports called him a drug suspect who was shot for running down a police officer. People in my neighborhood, where Zac grew up, called him a “band geek” with a broad smile and big heart.

Zac had borrowed his mother’s Toyota that night and driven from Porter Ranch to meet a man he’d chatted with online. But when Zac pulled into the parking lot, that man was in the midst of a scuffle with cops who’d detained him for peering into a car.

The officers were part of an undercover task force, fresh from a drug raid at a nearby house. They were “debriefing” in the parking lot — wearing street clothes and driving unmarked cars.

They said Zac accelerated toward them and struck a sheriff’s deputy with his car. The deputy and a DEA agent fired six shots. One killed Zac, piercing his heart and lungs.

Sheriff Lee Baca told The Times that Zac’s “aggressive actions” lent him “some degree of fault.” Investigators from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office concluded months later that the officers fired in self-defense.

For Carol Champommier, Zachary’s mother, those judgments only compounded the loss.

“This is an 18-year-old boy whose life was taken for no good reason in a public parking lot,” she said at the vigil on Sunday. “They didn’t tell him to put his hands up. They didn’t tell him to get out of the car. They just shot to kill....

“Then they blew it off … like nobody cares that this great person was taken off this Earth that night.”

::

Zac was Champommier’s only child. She’s a single mother; a teacher at our neighborhood elementary school. I didn’t know Zac or his mother, but he grew up a few blocks from my house.

“I raised him to be a good person, to obey the laws,” Champommier said. “He didn’t smoke. He didn’t do drugs. He never even got a speeding ticket.”

She still has every essay and art project he ever did, and she hasn’t changed a thing in his bedroom. She dreams about him all the time, she said, “remembering when he was a little boy” and reliving the night he died.

Champommier has filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department, the LAPD and the Drug Enforcement Administration, claiming not only that officers shot her son “without provocation, necessity or justification,” but that they “attempted to cover up their misconduct” by lying and tampering with evidence during the investigation.

The lawsuit is set for trial this fall. She wants tactical changes in law enforcement, including tighter guidelines for plainclothes operations in public spots.

“But the driving force,” she said, “is to clear Zac’s name.”

That has become a community concern. Early accounts of his death left locals numb, said Debbie Lopez, a neighbor of mine whose son, Matt, played in the band with Zac.

“The idea that Zac had intentionally sped into a group of law enforcement agents and tried to harm them.... We knew immediately that was wrong.”

Every few weeks for months after Zac died, his friends and their parents held “awareness vigils” near the shooting scene, carrying posters and passing out fliers, trying to find witnesses from that night.

Someone started a website, justiceforzac.blogspot.com, and Champommier posted the coroner’s toxicology report online, showing Zac had no drugs or alcohol in his system when he died.

Parents and teachers at Beckford Elementary, where Champommier works and Zac went to school, have raised money in his name for the school’s orchestra program. His high school held a memorial concert, featuring songs with soloist spots “because solos were something Zac wanted to do,” Lopez said, “but he would never put himself out there for that.”

In a neighborhood where streets are safe and support for police is broad and deep, Zac’s death has been a bewildering wake-up call.

“There’s been a definite loss of innocence,” Lopez said. “You hear about kids getting in trouble, but they’re out at 1 in the morning or they’re in a shady part of town. You think it’s perfectly safe in the Valley to send my child out on a Thursday night to a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard.”

::

I saw familiar faces at Zac’s vigil on Sunday; teenagers I recognized from the neighborhood and parents I hadn’t seen since our kids were small.

Zac’s kindergarten teacher was there. She’d taught my oldest daughter in first grade and raised her three children a few blocks from us. She echoed what everyone seemed to be thinking: That could have been my child.

“I’m here to support Carol,” she whispered, as we watched another mother fuss over the tea lights arranged around Zac’s picture, propped on an easel near where he was shot.

Champommier had written out remarks, so she could speak without breaking down. But that didn’t stop her from crying as she read a poem and rambled on with stories about her gentle, wise-cracking son.

His grandma talked about Zac’s favorite song, a weeping classmate shared a funny anecdote. Then we joined hands and stood in silence. I felt the import of the moment.

We don’t have to know exactly what happened that night to mourn a child and help his mother fill a void.

“I’m thankful to everybody,” Champommier told me later. “It’s the ‘we lost him’ that comforts me. Just the we; that’s what speaks to how special he was.”

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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