It was a balmy Sunday morning like any other in March 2003, when Jesse Cardenas was killed. Gunned down, unprovoked, walking down an Oxnard street. He was 27.

Carlos Prado was just 19 when he was shot dead three years later, riding his bike late one evening on Jackson Street in Oxnard.

Nicholas Dowey, 21, bludgeoned to death after a party in Ojai. Roland Espinoza, 22, murdered in a dark back alley of Oxnard. And 31-year-old Michael Budfuloski, shot to death in front of his Simi Valley home, met the same fate of his father, William, who was also murdered.

They are among the dozens — the hundreds — being paid tribute to at a memorial vigil on Friday for victims of murder and other violent crimes and events. Part of the National Day of Remembrance for Murdered Victims, it will be held at 5:30 p.m. at Plaza Park in Oxnard.

The event, which will feature guest speaker Denise Brown of the Nicole Brown Simpson Foundation, is sponsored by the local chapter of the Parents of Murdered Children (POMC).

“What this day does is we honor the lives and the memories of our loved ones who have been taken in an act of violence,” says Sandy Montes-Cerna, a POMC board member. “Any member of our group has to have had a member of the family

who was murdered. We are survivors of homicide victims.”

Nineteen-year-old Prado was Montes-Cerna’s nephew.

“His murder was devastating to me,” she said.

Group membership is not limited to parents of murder victims; they may have lost a cousin to war, or a sibling to a drunk driver, according to another board member, Anya Reyes, the club’s co-chapter leader.

Cardenas was Reyes’ brother.

Following his death, Reyes, much like Montes-Cerna, did not have a group like the POMC to turn to. The county chapter would not be formed until Oxnard resident Marisa Martinez initiated it two years ago.

Martinez was unavailable for comment. But her motivations for starting the local branch after the 2005 murder of her son, Vincent Martinez, undoubtedly arose through some sort of acronymic epiphany, as documented on the group’s Web site:

Violence Isn’t Necessary, Compassion Excels (VINCE).

When they began their group meetings, people like Reyes, Montes-Cerna, Martinez and other POMC members realized their experiences converged on one distinctive commonality: they could not completely find closure in their collective grief because the crimes remain unsolved, the killers free.

Finding justice inside the grief
Vigilant and determined, Reyes and Montes-Cerna often take their efforts to the streets, literally, canvassing neighborhoods, handing out fliers, trying to track down anyone who may have witnessed the attacks. They persist, though a lack of tangible success is sorely evident.

Reyes explains the possibility that eyewitnesses to any one of the murders could be fearful of retaliation if they offered their testimonies.

“It’s very hard,” Reyes said. “People don’t like to come forward. That’s the sad part in our community. People don’t want to speak up. Maybe they’re afraid something’s going to happen to them.”

According to data from the Oxnard Police Department, in this year alone, seven out of 10 homicides in the city remain unsolved. That’s the largest proportion of open murders Oxnard has seen for the past several years.

Last year, five out of 14 killings were unsolved; in 2007, four out of nine; 2006, six out of 13, and in 2005, six out of 20 that detectives did not solve by year’s end.

Bob Cox, a commander with the Oxnard Police Department, says witnesses who can muster up the bravery and who do come forth can sometimes make all the difference in cracking an unsolved murder case.

“Community support is vital,” he said. “Whenever we do get a new homicide investigation, that’s what we’re looking for, and especially with the older, colder cases. It’s a vital link.”

For Reyes, it becomes an ever-growing paradox. The ability to jog one’s memory about the specifics of a murder becomes more and more difficult after six years. Yet to her, it seemed like only yesterday her brother was senselessly blown away.

One man who can relate to the advocacy, to the pain, is Tim Heyne.

“The useless waste of pain goes on in those who are still living,” he says, “and breathing.”

Heyne came to local prominence in Ventura County after surviving a murder attempt on his life that killed his wife, Jan, and a friend, Steve Mazin, four years ago.

Like the POMC, it was a transformative experience for Heyne, and after a full recovery, the Thousand Oaks man became a gun control lobbyist, chairing the Ventura County chair of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

“Our (family’s) element was a gun-related situation,” he said. “We certainly have a connection to those who have lost loved ones by a bullet.”

Heyne, a friend of the POMC, has spoken before the group on numerous occasions.

“You’re in a room of family members who’ve had a part torn out of them forever. Many of those people can’t get any closure,” he said. “At least in my situation, my family had the closure that the shooter killed himself.”
Paying tribute

Denise Brown, like Heyne, felt a small sense of vindication when the alleged killer of her sister was charged with murder. But when ex-footballer and actor O.J. Simpson was then exonerated of the 1994 double slayings of former wife Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, it became another example of a murder victim’s family coping not just with grief, but that lack of closure.

“Being a sister of someone who was murdered … over time, you are able to deal with the loss and you don’t forget that person, ever,” Brown said. “You remember the happy times. I don’t sit there and dwell on the criminal trial, or the civil trial, or the child custody. I remember the good times and growing up with my sister.

“I don’t want to be sad anymore,” she continued. “I know one day I will see Nicole again.”

After her sister’s death, Brown started the Nicole Brown Simpson Foundation to raise awareness about preventing domestic violence. Montes-Cerna said Brown was someone the POMC has wanted to invite for some time to their Day of

Remembrance, this year the group’s third annual.

At 5 p.m., there will be a release of doves into the air as a pre-ceremony event. The presentation, emceed by Scott Whitney, Oxnard P.D. assistant chief, will include a special speech from Brown, and will also feature a symbolic silent march, and the POMC’s “Murder Wall.”

Those attending are invited to bring pictures, poems, or any remembrances to hang on the wall of a family member or friend who has been murdered.

Reyes is also encouraging anyone who has had a family member die in a violent act to get in touch with the club and attend its meetings. For Reyes, support in numbers is important to the POMC, even if more members means more murders.

“It’s sad it has grown,” she said. “Anytime somebody new comes in, it just brings you back to day one, when you had your loved one murdered. You see them, and see that they’re just at the beginning. There are so many phases we go through.

“Even after six years,” she notes, “we can’t say it lessened our pain. I’m not going to ever see my brother again.”    

paul@vcreporter.com