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Murder At Home Plate

What happens when a favorite neighborhood landmark becomes the scene of a murder? It's forever changed.

By Nicole Resz

A LIGHT POST doubles as home plate for the wiffleball games played at the end of the cul-de-sac where I grew up and where my family still lives. A serious sporting event, the street wiffleball games could make or break your reputation back in the day.

But on Oct. 28 last year, at 4:30 in the morning, with a single gunshot, home plate took on a different and chilling significance.

On a routine traffic stop at the end of the normally quiet Calle Almaden, officer Jeffrey Fontana, a 24-year-old rookie with the San Jose Police Department, suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the forehead. He was the first San Jose Police officer killed by gunfire in the line of duty in more than 12 years.

On that morning more than six months ago, this tidy upscale neighborhood in Almaden Valley turned into a frenzied crime scene, complete with rifle-toting officers in combat fatigues, police helicopters, bloodhounds and SWAT teams, all in search of the suspect who had fled.

The chaotic events of that early Sunday morning would forever change the dynamics of the once peaceful Almaden Valley cul-de-sac. While some residents recovered quickly, and others found peace in the dedication of a nearby park to officer Fontana May 6, others remain deeply upset.

One thing is certain: life will never be the same for the residents of Calle Almaden.

Friendships have been tested in the tensions following the murder. A few homes remain more security conscious, now uncertain of the street's safety. My own father keeps an empty-Corona-bottles-and-nylon-string concoction to guard an insecure door in our home.

Some neighbors refuse to walk near the specific spot of the shooting. And some kids won't play on it at all anymore.

 

THOUGH THE BUZZ of traffic sometimes disturbs the air around the 13-year-old street of Calle Almaden, life beyond the white stucco wall that separates residents' backyards from Almaden Expressway is classically suburban. Like many other neighborhoods, flags adorn every tree trunk, mailbox and light post.

But the street in front of these of these two-story, $700,000 homes near Lake Almaden has always been where the real action happens. Whether the site of a makeshift BMX track, a hockey rink, a wiffleball diamond, or a football field, the street is where the neighborhood could be counted on to come to life..

Watching the younger kids play provided entertainment for the neighborhood for years. "The young kids [would] crack me up," my dad remembers. "They'd come down here, in full football gear, pads, helmets and all, and then try to sell us tickets to the games they would have in the middle of the street. Only five bucks, they'd say. And I'd offer them a quarter just to look out my front window and watch, and they'd say OK and go run off and play the game."

These were the kind of kids who always had a new business venture. The kind who would sit for hours in my driveway slurping popsicles and watching my older brother work on his '67 Chevy, spouting off questions until their little brains were full for the day. They were the kind who would sell lemonade for a nickel to girls in pink Barbie cars from a card table that was twice their size.

They were not the kind who had ever experienced violent crime in their own neighborhood, let alone a crime allegedly perpetrated by another young person. Twenty-three-year-old DeShawn Campbell has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and is scheduled for trial in September 2003.

 

THE NIGHT OF OCT. 27 was spent by a few families at a Halloween party at the end of the block. Kymberli Brady attended the festivities with her husband, John.

"We got back at about midnight and the margaritas were flowing pretty heavy. So at 4 I woke up thirsty because of all the salt," said Brady.

Then at about 4:38, while downstairs in her living room, Brady heard what she thought was a car backfiring. But as she sat in her living room, she soon heard sirens turn onto Calle Almaden.

"I came running out the front door, then police started coming out from everywhere, and they yelled at me to get back in the house, which is when I then saw them dragging the police officer behind the fire truck," recalled Brady.

Just a few houses down, the Pezzoni family had been awakened by the fire trucks that parked directly in front of their house.

"I woke up to the sirens and the lights, and right away I woke Peggy up, thinking it was next door," said Nick Pezzoni. "So we ran downstairs and my son and his friend followed us, and when I opened the door there was policemen all with guns drawn, and I yelled at my family to go back upstairs."

Shortly after the shot was fired, the street was flooded with armed officers, detectives and bloodhounds. Special units stationed themselves at the shopping center parking lot across the street from the cul-de-sac, while armed officers stood guard at every resident's front door to ensure that they remained safely in their homes. SWAT teams raided every backyard in the neighborhood, tearing down fences, crawling under decks and scaling walls.

"This surreal, warlike atmosphere took over," said Brady, "people with hounds and automatic weapons strapped over every shoulder. You felt safe 'cause you knew they were on your side, yet at the same time it felt like a war zone."

 

THOUGH A FRIGHTENING scene for anyone to witness, it was the children of the street that most neighbors were concerned about. Peggy Pezzoni still suffers from the fact that her children, Dominic, 14, and Ashleigh, 12, had to experience such a terrible thing.

"I think [about] the kids having to go through this, having to see so much ugliness, so much hatred. People live their whole lives without seeing that," said Peggy.

The Pezzoni kids live closest to where the actual shooting took place, and admit that they were shaken up by what happened.

"I actually saw his body, and seeing a dead body, it's pretty shocking," said Dominic, whose younger sister was equally upset.

"Ashleigh, she cried, and every day when we'd come from school, the first thing she'd do is get out of the car and go over to [the memorial] and scrape off the wax from the candles. It just still upsets me so much," said Peggy.

Nearby, another school-age boy seems more concerned with his dribbling skills than with the murder. Bouncing his basketball on the brick porch of his home, he said that he wasn't really that scared about anything and that he rarely even thinks about it now. "I just sort of forget," he said between dribbles.

However, many adults had more complicated ways of coping with the shooting. One neighbor, who requested her name not be used, admits that she handled everything fairly well in the beginning for the sake of her children, but broke down in tears soon after.

For others on the street, shedding tears wasn't exactly part of their grieving process. Another neighbor, who asked that his name not be published, was especially angry, and stayed so for quite some time.

His home lies directly behind the home-plate light post, and after he heard the gunshot, he immediately ran to his window, and saw officer Fontana lying in a pool of blood directly in front of his home. It was his call that alerted the police of the shooting.

"He was very distraught, very angry, and stayed very angry for a while. But he was very anti-media, anti-press, and he took it out on me," said Kymberli Brady, who works as a reporter for the Almaden Times.

Brady instinctively took pictures from the day of the shooting up until the day the flowers were taken down. On top of collecting the cards and flowers placed at the memorial to give to the family, Brady also placed a copy of a book she had written, which deals with coping with the loss of a child, at the makeshift memorial for Fontana's parents to read.

Some of the neighbors, including the angered neighbor, disagreed with Brady's behavior.

"He accused me of self-promotion. He said that because I work for the media I'm responsible for the kids being violent today. It was his way of dealing with his anger. But you still shouldn't take it out on your neighbors," said Brady.

But others feels that his reaction to Brady's behavior was justified

"He saw it, he's got to live with that forever and he is going to be angry," one neighbor said. "He is not the type of person that is going to sit and cry for a week. He was all mixed up and he wasn't getting any support."

Though his reaction to the shooting is understandable to many, Dr. Lara Honos-Webb, a psychologist at Santa Clara University who has long studied the grieving process, said that the anger displayed is completely normal.

"That sense of being out of control, the anxiety, the tension, is a reflection of fear and that sense of powerlessness and helplessness. When people feel traumatized they find it harder to connect with people," said Honos-Webb.

 

TO THE LEFT of the light post is where home plate used to be. But since officer Fontana was killed, the neighbors tend to avoid the area.

"Every time I drive down the street. Every time I hear a siren," Peggy Pezzoni said she thinks about that night.

And she still takes a short detour when going to her neighbor's house.

"I don't want to go over that spot; it's like walking over him," she said.

Even Peggy's daughter has reservations about playing near that area. "I wouldn't want to play there, 'cause it would kind of freak me out just to go and play in that area like we used to," Ashleigh said.

For one neighbor whose home sits directly in front of where officer Fontana was killed, even backing out of her driveway remains difficult.

"Poor thing. She'd say that every morning she has to drive out of her driveway and it's such an awful feeling for her to back out of that spot, but what can she do?" Peggy said.

A makeshift memorial was tended to for roughly one month by the neighbors, some of whom met nightly there to talk. Floral arrangements were watered and candles kept lit.

"That became our nighttime ritual," said Brady. "It almost became something we all needed to do. It was very therapeutic."

Every neighbor came out at one point to talk, giving people the chance to get to know one another.

"The neighbors really came together. We all got kind of close," said my older brother, Kenny. "I know everybody's name now. What they do. Who they are."


Nicole Resz is a freelance writer and a communications student at Santa Clara University.


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From the May 16-22, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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