Last month’s murder of 15-year-old Hector Hernandez-Valdez horrified the community and drew his friends to the detached garage on East 52nd Street where his killers dumped his body in a recycling bin.
Investigators believe two of his friends, ages 14 and 16, stabbed Hector for drugs and money on June 1, and that there are gang ties all around the case. They believe they solved the crime in a couple of hours.
But as soon as they took down the crime tape, they had a dilemma on their hands – and in the alley.
Hector’s friends started a memorial to him.
Even before they left candles, toys, religious symbols, letters and flowers, they spray-painted the garage door with messages and gang symbols. They held a vigil on June 4 and small gatherings every day. One teen girl would pick a flower and deliver it every day after school. Dozens of older people would come by at night to party and leave their empties.
The main problem lay in the paint. Tagging is illegal in Tacoma. Property owners must cover it with new paint within hours of discovering it, or police will do it for them.
But this wasn’t just another case of graffiti on the eastside. The wall was a place for young people to work through their grief.
That’s what Sector Four police Lt. Corey Darlington considered as he decided when, and how, to dismantle the memorial.
Hector’s friends wanted it to stay forever, and the day after. Patrol officers wanted it gone yesterday, if not the day before.
Darlington and police community liaison officers Lee Ramirez and Don Williams sought middle ground.
“We wanted to recognize the mourning and remembrance process that friends have and respect that healing,” Darlington said. “We had to approach it in a delicate and considerate outcome for all involved.”
They knew they had to remove it at the point when it devolved from a place of healing to an attractive nuisance.
Across the alley, Sieglinde and Bill Damon watched that transformation from their home of 34 years.
The memorial was respectful at first, Sieglinde Damon said. But a week later they saw gang bangers taking it over, drinking and tagging the whole alley.
“Every day they had parties,” she said. “They would be there at 3 a.m. It was kind of rowdy. My husband and I were a little afraid.”
Ramirez already had met with Hector’s mother, explained why the memorial could not last and got her blessing for removing it. Williams and Darlington were doing the same with the young people who congregated at it.
“We explained that it would have an effect on the neighborhood, not to mention Sheridan Elementary School,” Darlington said. “It sends the wrong message, that we allow graffiti and condone gang tagging.
“One of our main concerns was that there would be a repeated violent incident at the same site. We knew gang associates would be congregating there.”
Elliott Morrison, 19, home from Wenatchee Valley Community College, saw it happening.
“The day after it went up, someone tagged, ‘Hector’s last meal.’ I don’t know what it meant, but my mom was upset. It’s a reminder that there have been so many killings. It reminds you it could happen to anybody.”
It’s part of the reason Morrison went east to college. He’s been in trouble before, and he wants to be done with it. He wants to live in a neighborhood where you can walk to the convenience store late at night without being profiled by patrol officers or shot by gang bangers.
He and Darlington are on the same page.
At the memorial, the police lieutenant posted a notice that it would be removed respectfully on June 12. That gave friends time to take important mementos home. Darlington also stayed in contact with the property owner.
On the 12th, City of Tacoma crews packed away the religious symbols so they could be reclaimed. The bottles and toys went into trash bins. When the ground was clear, Williams, Ramirez and Darlington rolled battleship-gray paint over all the tagging in the alley.
It remained pristine for two weeks, until a drizzly morning when a maroon car raced down the alley and someone leapt out and sprayed “RIP Hector.”
Neighbors reported it, and Darlington painted over it, again.
There will be no resting, or breathing, in peace if the murder site becomes a gathering place email@example.com