*Corrected 06.17.13: An earlier version of this story contained inaccuracies regarding Sammantha Salas's murder and trial. We apologize for the errors.
“My daughter was never home late,” George Shi says, his English slow but determined. “She was never out dancing or drinking. She was a good girl. Why they kill her?”
The middle-aged Chinese man sits in a classroom at All Souls Catholic Church in Alhambra. Next to him Martha Silva is perched on a turquoise chair, her husband Brian leaning against a storage closet behind her. The Shis and Silvas — parents who may never have met in other circumstances — have one horrible thing in common: a murdered child. Shi’s 31-year-old daughter Donglei was found strangled to death near Story Park in 2010. That same year, Silva’s 23-year-old son Christian Alcantar was shot and killed in East Los Angeles. Nobody has been charged in either murder.
A retired bookkeeper and energetic grandmother is responsible for bringing the Shis and Silvas together. Tina Yamashiro, 61, is the co-leader of the San Gabriel Valley Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, a national organization that offers free support, education, and advocacy for families of homicide victims. With her husband Ernie, Yamashiro organizes monthly group support sessions with a certified grief counselor, accompanies families to court and legal proceedings, invites guest speakers, and is available for emotional support — even creating holiday packages at Christmas and organizing a summer camp for siblings of murdered children. For families like the Shis and Silvas, this bit of hope can make the long legal battle for justice a little less daunting.
The San Gabriel Valley chapter is particularly interested in growing within the often under-served immigrant residents in the area, according to Yamashiro. "We want to reach out to minorities and immigrant families who don't know about the resources out there," she says.
The Yamashiros are familiar with the legal system and the painful process. On Jan. 26, 2008, Yamashiro’s great niece Sammantha Salas, an Alhambra High School sophomore, was gunned down in Monrovia while visiting her father. Officials told Pasadena Star-News that the 16 year old was "caught in a months-old, racially fueled feud between warring Latino and black gangs" and that she was not involved with the gang activity.
Two years later, two gang members were found guilty for Salas's murder and received life sentences. Yamashiro says that day in the courtroom was a painful victory. “I finally broke down, feeling relieved, but at the same time, tears for the two convicted men's babies,” she says. “There are no winners. After two-and-a-half years, justice for Sammantha. However, we don't get her back.”
Yamashiro discovered Parents of Murdered Children at a memorial for young murder victims after her great niece’s death. Three years later, Yamashiro now runs the group and gives solace to others. At the meeting, she offers Shi a coffee, walking over to the teacher’s desk to pour him a cup and bring back a muffin.
Other than Shi’s angry breathing and the hum of fluorescent lights, the room is silent for a few moments. Shi and his wife are recent members of the group, and they have been utilizing the legal advocacy to understand the American justice system.
“In America, they don’t care,” Shi says. “They don’t care. Detective not do his job.”
Autopsy reports found Shi’s daughter, Donglei, was clearly murdered, showing that she was likely struck on the head, strangled, and raped before being dragged and placed near Story Park on Chapel Avenue in Alhambra. The Shi family has hired a private investigator, has met with the district attorney, and even wrote a letter to President Obama asking for help. Nothing worked.
Donglei Shi is among the 40 percent of unsolved homicides in California between 2007-2011, according to data from the California Department of Justice. Of the nearly 10,000 murder victims in California during that period, 72 percent were under the age of 40. More than 1,000 were under 18.
The Shis have found new resources as members of Parents of Murdered Children. Yamashiro’s niece — Salas’s mother — has advocated on behalf of the Shis, asking the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in September 2012 to have the case file reviewed by the county Office of Independent Review. But no one has yet been charged for the murder of Shi’s daughter.
The Shis have also attended the group therapy sessions, which provided a much needed release. “George’s wife came to our meeting last week, and she just started to weep,” Yamashiro says.
The Silvas understand the devastating loss of a child and frustration in waiting for justice. Their youngest son, Christian, was shot and killed on Aug. 22, 2010, while loading up DJ equipment into his car after a neighborhood party in East Los Angeles. Police have yet to find a murder suspect or motive.
The Silvas have been searching for years for any piece of evidence that could help police track down Alcantar’s murderer. Brian Silva drove around the neighborhood where Alcantar was gunned down for weeks after the murder, asking anyone on the street if they had any information. Martha Silva and her son’s friends held a monthly vigil at the spot where Alcantar was killed, even taking a podium to share stories and memories of the avid exerciser who encouraged his friends to eat and live healthier.
“When he died, a lot of them started working out,” Martha Silva says. “And they went back to school. So at every vigil, they would break down and say, ‘This is for you, Chris. I’m doing good, you’d be proud of me.’ He changed a lot of lives.”
While the vigils helped keep Alcantar’s memory alive, Silva hoped they also reminded any onlookers that the crime still remained unsolved. “I used to take pictures of him, candles,” Silva says, “hoping someone would see and step up and say something.”
For Silva, Parents of Murdered Children has been a way to cope, and sharing her pain with other parents has helped her feel less alone. “I drive to work by myself, and I cry. Every morning. Then when I get to work I dry my eyes and go on,” she says. "I felt better knowing other mothers were feeling the way I was feeling.”
Yamashiro nods as Silva is talking. Connecting with other homicide families and helping them through the grieving process has helped her move on as well. “It’s like you’re in a deep black hole. If you don’t grieve, it gets deeper,” Yamashiro says.
At the end of the three-hour meeting, Yamashiro stares at no particular spot on the classroom’s wall as she tells me about her great niece.
“She was so funny. She had a sense of humor like me, always was sarcastic. I connected a lot with her,” she says softly. “We will never rest until all survivors of murdered loved ones receive justice.”