Erica Escobar was murdered, allegedly by an inmate released early; her father struggles with ‘why,’ but tries to move forward.

Fred Escobar could not hide his tears as he read several emails he had received from whom he calls his “grief relievers.” 

“Life is a gift that we kind of take for granted and most of us never learn how precious and fleeting it can be and now you have more insight into this mystery that most people will ever experience during their lives,” wrote a classmate at the business administration master’s program Escobar is completing.

“Also,” she continued, “you now have the opportunity to live not only for yourself but for Erica as well, knowing that a part of her is living in you.”

Then he switched to a video, which starts with the audio.

“Hi Dad! Can you call me back?” Those were the last words he ever heard from his 27-year-old daughter Erica Escobar. She had called for his birthday.

According to news reports, Erica Escobar and 89-year-old Lucien Bergez were found dead in the man’s home in Culver City in May 2011. Zackariah Timothy Lehnen, a 30-year-old man who was described as a transient, was arrested in connection with the killings; he reportedly had been released from jail just four months before on a non-parole status. 

The event devastated Erica’s family.

“Unfortunately, it’s not until it happens directly to you that you realize the effect these laws have on people,” Escobar said.

He was referring to last spring’s Supreme Court’s order to cut overcrowded prison population by releasing thousands of incarcerated men and women who have committed non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual offenses, such as robbery and carjacking.

Following the ruling, Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature approved a plan to shift inmates from California state prisons to county jails and probation officers. A decrease of 11,000 should have been reached by the end of December. By 2013 there should be 34,000 less inmates in state prisons.

In a Catholic News Service article published by The Tidings (June 3, 2011), many religious expressed their support for the plan, which they considered a “step toward improving inmates’ physical and mental health and religious rights.”

Based on their own tragic experience, however, the Escobar family believes the measure exposes the community to greater danger.

“They could make mistakes as they did with this man who killed Erica,” said Sandy Houston, the victim’s aunt. “They haven’t provided details of how they will release all these people.”

In July, the Escobars joined other families who have lost loved ones at the hands of ex-convicts and in July headed to Sacramento, hoping to persuade lawmakers review the non-revocable parole policy or to at least obtain a reclassification of the “low risk status.” Lawmakers they met with promised to review the matter and their loved ones’ cases, they said.

 “Erica didn’t deserve this,” her father said, choking up, noting that since Erica turned 14 she had lived with her dad and grandmother Imelda Escobar, a lector and Eucharistic minister at St. Sebastian Church in Los Angeles.

“She was very loving and caring,” added Fred. “She loved arts, she loved animals and plants. She loved her plants and flowers and made many beautiful arrangements.” 

He said her brother David, 25, is also having a hard time dealing with her death.

“I was outside looking at Erica’s plants she’s planted over the years,” Fred wrote in a reflection he called “Plants and Flowers.” 

“It was so hard doing this and it brought me very sad and painful memories. My tears could have probably given them a good watering.”

Victims’ Advocate program

Beyond the battle to re-examine the laws and procedures on releasing inmates that can result in violent crimes, however, Fred Escobar and his family have needed, and recently received, emotional support from another source: the archdiocesan Victim’s Advocate program.

Indeed, having a support system to cope with the pain and disillusionment brought on by the murder of a loved one is essential, said Rita Chairez, Victim’s Advocate coordinator, who met with the Escobar family recently.

 “It’s going to be difficult every day of his life for now on,” she told several of Erica’s relatives during the visit that helped them express their emotions and allowed them to brainstorm ideas for potential emotional relief. “It’s going to be difficult for everyone in the family.” 

Chairez explained how in some parishes, such as Dolores Mission, groups of victims have been created to help families deal with their loss and pain. That is because the early release of some inmates is a grim fact as is the poor quality of the California prison system is broken, asserted experts gathered in a September event sponsored by the California Catholic Conference to support victims of crime.

In a visit to the Escobars in mid-November, at the request of the victim’s uncle Joseph Cardenas (a Eucharistic minister at L.A.’s St. Joan of Arc Church), St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Suzanne Jabro, founder of the Get On The Bus program and the Center for Restorative Justice Works, explained to the Escobars that early inmate releases are infrequent.

“People have been paroled,” she told them, “but some don’t see their parole officer so they are out and about. What is real is the system is dysfunctional and I’ve seen this dysfunction for years.”

Sister Jabro, who has been involved in prison ministry and restorative justice for the last 38 years, told the Escobars that while there is “a lot of mental illness in prison as there is in the community,” the Catholic Church and some nonprofits have been promoting restorative justice (working very hard to right the wrong committed), rather than a retributive model of justice (which, in a simple form, is just punishment).

“Restorative justice says victims should come first,” she explained. “Who is hurt? What do they need for healing and who’s responsible to help them to get this healing? Our whole system is built without the victims in the picture.”

She urged the Escobars to seek their healing first in the midst of their loss, which in turn generates compassion. “In the soil of pain,” she said, “that’s where the human heart really meets with other people at a level we’re not used to.”

The healing outreach efforts have begun to make a difference to Fred Escobar, who said he has become more aware of his surroundings. “I’ve become more sensible,” he admitted, and his childhood friend Carlos Tapia noted, “He wasn’t like this before.”

He said he has been offered “mind-boggling” opportunities to share his experience with people going through similar circumstances, which have led him to question “How does the randomness of life connect me to all these sagas in such a short amount of time?”

One of his grieving healers provided the answer in an email: “I don’t think they’re random. You intuitively seek and distinguish them through your newly acquired perception of people and the world.”

In fact, said Escobar, he has surprised himself by impacting the same friends that have supported him in his mourning season. “I’ve been touching people subconsciously,” he said, and pointed to an email he recently received from another of his “healing” friends.

“You don’t know how much this has been helping me too,” the friend wrote. “Watching you transcend to this other person and watching your progress. Thanks for choosing me as the media for your healing.” 

For more information about the archdiocesan Victims’ Advocates program, call Rita Chairez at (213) 438-4820, extension 12.

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