Hundreds mourn

By Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat May 01, 2013 12:30 pm

Crystal Walters (right) gets a hug from Justin Fowler at the vigil. Amy Alonzo Rozak / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
As the third day of an investigation into the murder of an 8-year-old Valley Springs girl drew to a close Tuesday, more than 1,000 people gathered at Jenny Lind school for a candlelight ceremony to remember Leila Fowler, a beaming bespectacled third-grader described as smart, funny and friendly.

 Cars festooned with purple ribbons and window messages like “Honk for Leila” and “We love our town” lined Highway 26 outside the Driver Road school.

Those attending the event were given candles and ribbons in pink and purple — Leila’s favorite colors — and then gathered in a quad area.

 “We’re gathered to honor and support dear Leila and the Fowler family and our community during this tragic time,” said Jenny Lind Principal Amy Hasselwander, speaking from the stage lined with photos and candles.

“We hope this will unite and support our community … as we work through the healing process together.”

Leila’s family members, donning Leila T-shirts, wiped their tears and received hugs as they stood in front of the crowd. A photo collage of a smiling Leila served as the backdrop. 

“I wish you could all stand where I am right now and see the love and the care that has filled this place,” said pastor Dennis Baskin, with the Glory Bound Fellowship church in Burson.

Matt Nordahl, a pastor at the Burson Church, offered a prayer for the safety of law enforcement officials investigating the case and the killer to be brought to justice.

Hasselwander returned to the stage to thank the community for its support. “As we say goodbye to Leila, I first want to express how proud I am of the community, students, parents and staff for the support provided this week to help us ensure the safety of our students as well as dealing with the sadness of this profound loss,” she lamented.

Hasselwander read writings by Leila’s classmates, who described her as funny, kind, smart and always smiling. The students also wrote that she wore her eyeglasses proudly and liked monkeys and wolves.

Leila’s third-grade teacher, Pam Smylie, gave an emotional speech.

“I would never in a million years think I would be part of something like this,” she said, her voice shaking. “This does not happen in our communities. This happens on TV and in big cities. It does not happen to a person you know, much less a child you know.”

As a student, Leila was a great listener and always tried her hardest, Smylie continued. Smylie gave her audience a much-needed laugh when she described Leila as “chatty.”

She also commented on Leila’s unforgettable smile.

“What I will always hold in my heart is her smile, her cute, genuine smile that included her eyes smiling through those adorable glasses,” Smylie recalled. “Leila was truly beautiful outside and inside.”

Family members made emotional statements.

“I’m not saying goodbye to Leila, I’m gonna say I’m gonna see you later,” said Leila’s oldest brother, Justin Fowler, who then hugged his father, Barney Fowler, and cried. 

“I just want to thank our community and all of our family and friends for the overwhelming amount of support that you’ve given my family,” said Leila’s mother, Crystal Walters. “It will never be forgotten.”

Several people in the crowd shouted “I love you” to Walters.

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Earlier Tuesday, Jenny Lind students and staff were sorting through the tragedy.

Fifty-five of Jenny Lind’s 590 students were absent Tuesday, which is about 20 more than average, said Calaveras Unified School District Superintendent Mark Campbell.

He said some of the extra absences may have been due to parents’ senses of uncertainty about safety. 

He estimated Tuesday morning that about seven sheriff’s deputies were guarding the Jenny Lind campus and bus stops. Law enforcement will have a “greater presence” at the school until the suspect in Leila Fowler’s killing is apprehended, Campbell said.

He said having law enforcement at Jenny Lind is a precautionary measure that reassures nervous families.

A team of crisis counselors is also working at Jenny Lind and will stay as long as needed, said school psychologist Lisa Shaw.

She said the approximately 30 students in Fowler’s third-grade class are being “very well cared for.”

“We’ve had the school psychologist in that classroom for the past two days. They’ve been doing a lot of processing of it,” Shaw said. “She’s been reading books and allowing them to share their feelings and memories.”

Shaw, who works for the Calaveras County Office of Education, is part of the crisis counseling team that visits schools when tragedy strikes.

Additional help for Jenny Lind children has come from chaplains and from students trained as peer counselors at Calaveras High School, which has sent several peer counselors there over the past two days.

The elementary schoolers are “handling this wonderfully,” Shaw said. “They’re being kind and compassionate with each other. They’re really resilient.”

Fowler had siblings at Jenny Lind, Toyon Middle School and Calaveras High School, according to Campbell.

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Leila was pronounced dead Saturday at Mark Twain Medical Center, after being stabbed in her home by an intruder.

The Calaveras County Coroner said she died of shock and hemorrhage due to multiple stab wounds.

The crime was reported about noon Saturday, when Leila’s parents phoned 911 dispatchers, according to the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office.

The parents were at a baseball game when their son, 12, called to tell them an intruder was in their home, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Jim Macedo said. 

The boy briefly pursued the intruder, who then fled the home, Macedo said.

When he went to check on Leila, he found that she had been stabbed.

Spokesman Sgt. Chris Hewitt said dispatchers called the home on the 5000 block of

Rippon Road and spoke to the boy but declined to release details about the conversation.

Hewitt was not sure where the intruder entered the home but said there were no signs that the homicide happened in the course of a robbery or burglary.

He said Leila and her brother, who were home alone, were in separate rooms before the intruder entered but would not specify the rooms or what the kids were doing at the time. 

He was unsure how long the intruder was inside the home. 

Hewitt said there are seven kids in the family but was not sure how many actually lived in the Rippon Road home.

The boy provided a description of the intruder to the Sheriff’s Office, which was similar to descriptions provided by two neighbors. The neighbors said they saw a man running from the area at the time, but gave two different directions, Hewitt said. 

Hewitt said the Sheriff’s Office has also received many tips that someone matching the description was in the area, but noted that the description is vague.

The Sheriff’s Office is looking for a man about 6 feet tall, with shoulder-length gray hair and a muscular build. He was seen wearing a long-sleeved black shirt and blue pants.

No sketch has been released yet due to inconsistencies in descriptions.

Hewitt said investigators have interviewed family members only as witnesses and will continue to speak with them.

As of Tuesday evening, investigators had contacted most registered sex offenders and parolees in the Valley Springs area. Hewitt said, to his knowledge, none were unaccounted for.

He said “several” knives were recovered from the house after a search warrant was served but was not sure if they belonged to the family or the intruder. He declined to say where in the home the knives were located when they were recovered.

Hewitt would also not disclose where fingerprints and DNA evidence were found or what the DNA evidence is.

He did, however, say that evidence was sent to a crime lab in Sacramento on Tuesday morning and the state has made the case its priority. He was not sure how long it will take to process the evidence. 

Reporter Brenna Swift contributed to this report.