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Coastal Voices: Life, death, celebration

It is the second Saturday in June. Ron Phillips has just struck his chuck wagon iron, announcing  the opening of the 2011 Farmer's Market.  Old friends and acquaintances set up their spaces, dispensing everything from jewelry, pastries, children’s toys and plants to farm goods and civic organization charity fundraising.

As billed, it’s a market, but also much more. Like baseball, it mirrors life itself, coming in the spring and departing with the onset of winter. It is not lost on you that the assorted wares and offerings are home-grown and hand-made. Its existence, a testament to a thing called community.

Tuesday morning last week, our community was torn with the news of 14-year-old Cecelia Mortensen and her mother’s shootings.  A beautiful and loving child to the people that knew her and saw her daily running to the bus or playing with neighborhood  pets, here in her new home of Crescent City. Until a crazed man followed her to our town and took her life.

Later, I was at Sutter Coast Hospital as Cecilia’s assailant was wheeled in on a gurney, a self-inflicted bullet wound in his right temple, announcing the short time he had left on Earth. The ER trauma team worked feverishly to resuscitate him, no evidence of their knowledge of the monstrous acts he had earlier that day committed apparent in their efforts — only a devotion and dedication to an oath they had once taken as healers, which was nothing less than honor-bound and heroic, which raw sentiment would not subjugate.

Hours later, Jerry Wayne Steele took his last breath. As I walked down the hall, I thanked God for saving the state and my office the duty of dispatching him at some distant time. Without apology, it became easy to celebrate his departure from this world.

As I stepped closer to Cecilia’s door in the Intensive Care Unit, I thought of that beautiful, young girl and the joy she had brought to so many in her brief life. I thought of the dedication and pride she must have possessed in earning a black belt in taekwondo by age 13. I thought of the gift of life her mortal remains would bring to others.

I realized that a mere moment spent  hating the  memory of her killer was a moment we could  not spend celebrating the life of Cecilia Mortensen or life itself. And as such, we refuse to allow his insanity to diminish our humanity.

I entered Cecilia’s room and looked upon the face of this beautiful child and thought of Atticus’ schooling of Scout: “Shoot all the bluejays you want if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

For four days, I watched with pride as Sutter Coast, Victim Witness and my hometown did all it could to lessen the burden for Cecilia and her mother’s tragedy, culminating Friday evening with a candlelight service organized by families who saw Cecilia’s  light in their own children’s faces.

Not the death of evil, but rather this thing called life and the memory of a little girl named  Cecilia who came to our town for only a short time — that is what we shall celebrate.

It is one week later, the third Saturday in June and Ron Phillips has just struck his chuck wagon iron, opening the second Farmer's Market of the season. A lot has happened in the past week. Much to bury and forget — far more to remember and celebrate.

I walk down the row of vendors and friends, taking in their home-made and home-grown offerings.  I hear the easy banter and laughter and smiles of  the people of my community. And somewhere, I hear Atticus telling Scout on the last page about people being nice: “Most people are, Scout... .”

Jon Alexander is district attorney of Del Norte County.

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