For the friends and family of Luis Miranda, the 17 year old who was killed in Maxwell Farms Regional Park on Oct. 22, 2007, his memorial table is a place for both mourning and celebration of a life that ended too soon. Their annual vigil, held on the anniversary of Miranda’s death, attracts 50 to 100 loved ones who, bathed in candlelight, quietly recite the rosary in Spanish.
“Dios te salve María, llena eres de gracia,” they murmured on Tuesday night, as a line of Sonoma County Sheriff’s squad cars lined the parking lot and deputies kept a careful watch.
The future of this annual vigil, as well as Miranda’s memorial picnic table in Maxwell Park, was called into question this month. Some organizations – law enforcement agencies included – have suggested the vigil and the table may be attracting the wrong element to a community park, a space shared by the youngsters attending the nearby Boys & Girls Club. Among the throng of mourners at Tuesday’s vigil, a significant number wore red, the signature color of the norteño street gang.
Whether or not Miranda was a member of the gang is up for debate. His parents and friends said, while he associated with gang affiliates, he was not officially involved with any criminal street gang. But it was those associations that led to his murder.
On the day Miranda died, he was hanging out in Maxwell Park with a group of friends, at least some of whom were norteños. When a group of rival sureños passed by, a verbal altercation broke out. The sureños went to a nearby residence to retrieve a 16-gauge, sawed-off shotgun, which 17-year-old Juan Manuel Calderon carried back to Maxwell. He fired three shots, two of which hit Miranda, striking him in the head. The teenager died on the bench that night.
“This table, this is where he died,” said his father, Roberto Miranda, through a translator, his hands gesturing over the memorial plaque that loved ones paid $450 for the park to install. “This table, for us, represents a lot. I would like it to stay here.”
His mother, Oralia, agreed, but said through a translator that she, “Wants the table to stay, but didn’t want any trouble with the police.”
The issue came to light while planning was underway for this year’s memorial, when Luis’ loved ones learned there was interest in both moving the table and the vigil next year. According to vigil organizers, representatives from the Boys & Girls Club, Sonoma Sheriff’s Office and Sonoma County Regional Parks were all present at a meeting during which they questioned whether the table and the vigil should remain in Maxwell Park. On Wednesday, directors of both the Boys & Girls Club and Regional Parks refused to comment on the issue, but Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett confirmed the discussion took place. “I saw it as two completely different discussions,” he said. “One is a question of the vigil; the other is about whether it’s in the community’s best interest to have the bench in Maxwell.”
After the department initially refused the Index-Tribune’s request for an interview, Regional Parks spokeswoman Meda Freeman emailed a statement on Thursday that said, “From what I understand, the sheriff’s office and Boys & Girls Club contacted Regional Parks recently and expressed an interest in having the table removed or relocated. We’re scheduled to meet with them in early December to learn more about the issue. If they believe there’s a public safety concern regarding the memorial table, we’d want to help resolve the issue, but no action has been proposed or decision made at this time.”
Sackett said there are safety concerns to consider. “You have to be careful because you bring people together and they’re very emotional. They’re upset. Then they’re released into the community with no way to diffuse the situation,” he said.
Because the vigil attracts gang members, police usually have a presence during the evening event. Friends of the Miranda family recalled two years ago when 10 members of the Sheriff’s MAGNET (Multiple Agency Gang Enforcement Team) stood nearby while they mourned.
“The people attending the memorial felt that (our presence) was over-zealous and not necessary,” Sackett said. Seeking to be cooperative, in 2012, law enforcement officials agreed to back off.
Sackett said after the memorial last year, some of the attendees came across a group of sureños and a fight broke out at a nearby shopping center, which left one of the sureños hospitalized with stab wounds. Attendees at Tuesday’s vigil vehemently denied that Luis’ friends had anything to do with the stabbing, which remains unsolved because the victim refused to cooperate with police, Sackett said.
“The rumor we heard is that they (the attackers) were at the vigil,” Sackett said. “Based on that, we were concerned about the vigil this year.”
Sheriff’s deputies made their presence known on Tuesday night, when the number of police cars rose from two to four to six by the end of the vigil. Attendees didn’t seem too bothered by the squad cars, but they had strong feelings about any plans to move the memorial.
“I was shocked because, I mean it’s a place where we all get together to remember him,” said Maira Chavez, 21, Luis’ girlfriend, who now works as a dental assistant. “I don’t think it draws a bad element.”
Many pointed out that it’s Maxwell Park, not the memorial table that attracts the bad element. With its convenient location between the Springs and the City of Sonoma, with dark corners and easy escape routes, it’s an attractive place for youth to drink and party.
“People are always going to come here and drink. They always have,” said Tavo Garcia, 25, who has a portrait of his lost friend tattooed on his forearm, surrounded by red roses. “I think for them (police), it’s just a reminder of a bad thing they want to forget. But you can do a lot of good with this.”
Garcia has seen the silver lining inside the tragedy of Luis’ death. He admits, like many at the memorial, that he was not making the best decisions as a teen – prioritizing partying over productivity. Then he and his friends faced the real world consequences of their lifestyle when Luis died violently and suddenly six years ago.
“It’s one of those things that shocks your life,” said Garcia, who is now a successful tattoo artist. “It made me stop doing a lot of bad things. It put a lot of people on the straight and narrow.”
He said at first, many “wanted blood,” but, thanks in no small part to the pleas of Luis’ parents, realized that revenge wasn’t the answer. In 2011, the Sonoma City Council declared Oct. 22 as a “Day of Peace” to honor Luis. It’s a mantra his friends and family deeply respect, making T-shirts every year to recognize the occasion.
“It’s every year, it’s every day,” said Diego Sanchez, 25, one of Luis’ high school friends. “He was a big part of us, he’s still a big part of us.”
A few mourners vowed to fight any efforts to move the memorial table or vigil, adding that they wished law enforcement and the Boys & Girls Club would use it as a teaching moment to demonstrate the consequences of poor decisions to the next generation.
“Why do we create a memorial? To remember and learn a lesson. Do you really think if you take away a bench, you take away the problem?” questioned Michelle Skaff, a close friend of the Miranda family. “Look at the Plaza, the rose garden attracts a ‘bad element.’ Are they going to take the rose garden out because they don’t like who hangs out there?”