One by one, about 20 people gathered in a Chula Vista park Saturday recalled the worst day of each of their lives.
One woman saw her husband fatally shot in a home invasion. Another lost a son to a drunken driver. Another lost a brother in a gang shooting, same for a couple mourning their daughter.
The memories were painful for the loved ones to recall, heartbreaking to hear, yet healing for members of the San Diego chapter of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, who gathered at Bayside Park for the fourth annual Survivors Speak Healing Vigil Day of Action.
Juan and Elizabeth Muñoz organized the chapter in 2017, two years after the death of their son, Juan Muñoz Jr.
Prior to that, the couple channeled their grief into other forms of activism, such as handing out flyers for Crime Stoppers — the anonymous tipster line and reward nonprofit — and participating in walks for justice.
“That was the only way to survive at that time,” Elizabeth Muñoz said.
Their son — everybody called him Junior — was 18 and returning from a funeral for a friend in Escondido on Oct. 11, 2015, when he passed through National City to drop off a friend.
Gang members who saw them drive past their house followed them for three blocks, then cut off Junior’s car at a stop sign.
“They asked the boys, ‘Where are you from?’ like a gang challenge,” his mother said. “Before they could answer, they shot my son and his friend.”
Junior was killed, and his friend survived. In 2018, the Muñozes opened Junior’s Trauma Care Initiative, a San Ysidro clinic that provides affordable health and psychiatrist services in memory of their son, who wanted to be a psychologist.
The San Diego chapter of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice has about 150 members and holds monthly meetings at locations across the county. Muñoz said members advocate for preventative care, mental health services for youths, trauma recovery and victims’ rights.
Members recently returned from an event in Sacramento, where they advocated for laws to support victims. Saturday’s event was one of many held throughout the country to mark the end of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
Chapter member Essiemae Horne attended the afternoon vigil and recalled how her husband was fatally shot in an early morning home invasion in 2006. Ten years later, her twin brother was fatally shot.
Horne said she began going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings just to be in a supportive group. That was before she discovered the local chapter of crime survivors.
“It means everything to me,” she said about the group.
Maria Pitsenberger shared that she was still dealing with the pain and anger of the shooting death of her sister and nephew in Imperial Beach just four months ago.
The chapter helped her with expenses for the services, and Pitsenberger was among the members who were in Sacramento last week.
“It helped me a lot to process it and hear other people’s stories,” she said.
Adriana Karakey said she lost her daughter, Stephanie Katherine Rodriguez, 23, when she was struck by a DUI driver Jan. 1, 2018. She still is grieving, but also angry that the driver served only two months in prison before being released on parole. He is back in prison after crashing into 10 cars in another drunken-driving incident last year, she said.
“I’m very bitter,” Karakey said. “That’s why I became an activist. We all have a voice, and I can be the voice of those who can’t speak for themselves.”