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Aurora mother struggles to keep memory of slain son alive

LeticiReyes her home AurorWednesday May 8 2013. In 1998 her sCarlos Lamas was killed drive by shooting. Shortly after Reyes

Leticia Reyes at her home in Aurora on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. In 1998 her son Carlos Lamas was killed in a drive by shooting. Shortly after, Reyes suffered a stroke and lost most of her memories of her oldest son. | Brian Powers~Sun Times Media

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Updated: June 13, 2013 6:54PM



Any mother will tell you: They grow so quickly, these children of ours. One minute they are babes in our arms. The next, they are handing us clusters of soccer field dandelions, soon followed by homecoming corsages we store in boxes with other memorabilia.

And before we know it, the only thing left of their childhoods besides dried flowers are the photographs of dimpled cheeks and the precious memories those pictures evoke.

Only, when Leticia Ruiz tries to recall such images, there is nothing there.

Her 18-year-old son Carlos Lamas was murdered on May 20, 1998, shot in the back while giving a friend a haircut on the front porch of a house on Claim Street in Aurora. A week later, the grieving mother suffered a stroke that left one side of her face partially paralyzed and wiped away memories of her son’s childhood.

According to her family, doctors believe this blackout can’t totally be attributed to the physical aspects of this stroke. That grief — and guilt — has also contributed to the loss of memory. “She is a detaching to avoid the pain,” says daughter-in-law Bernice Lamas who, married to Adam, lives with their four children and Leticia Ruiz in a modest home on Spencer Street in Aurora.

Trauma has been Leticia Ruiz’s companion for most of her 52 years. Divorced from her children’s abusive father, she was working at Easter Seals and raising her three sons when, in 1997, the year before Carlos was gunned down, second son Adam was a drive-by shooting victim. He was 15 at the time and playing football on an empty lot on New York Street when police say a group of girls in rival gangs began firing at each other. One bullet ricocheted and struck Adam in the forehead. Doctors had to cut into his head to remove the slug. Adam was lucky: He recovered with only a scar between his eyes as a physical reminder of the shooting.

It’s the emotional wounds, however, that still haunt the family. Ruiz had not yet fully processed her middle son’s brush with death when she heard sirens in the middle of the day a year later, followed by police knocking at her door. When she was told at the hospital a bullet had destroyed her son’s heart, Ruiz begged doctors to replace it with her own.

He died before she could say goodbye.

Search for acceptance

Ruiz describes son Carlos as intelligent, creative, athletic and kind. One of her precious mementos is a certificate he received from the Aurora Mayor’s Office for his help with the ’96 flood cleanup. But Carlos moved around, going from his father’s home in Texas to his mom’s in Aurora, staying long enough at each place to get in trouble. He never quite knew what was home, brothers Adam and Jonathan tell me. Like so many young males in search of acceptance, he sometimes turned to the streets, fully aware of the dangers they held.

“A mother’s main purpose is to protect her children,” says Ruiz, as tears stream down her face all these years later. And that is why “I feel like such a failure.”

Certainly there is profound sadness in this grieving mother’s words. But from that grief comes strength … and resolve.

William Powell, police chief at the time, promised that before he stepped down, he would find her son’s killer, she told me. The day before he retired, in April of 2008, the APD charged Carlos Perez with the murder of Carlos Lamas. The only problem was, Perez had been deported to Mexico for unrelated reasons, and the APD did not have jurisdiction to find or extradite the alleged killer.

Aurora police contacted the FBI and U.S. Marshal Services, said Lt. Pete Inda, but other than keep a close eye on members of his family still in this area, there is little they can do to bring Perez back here to stand trial.

Still, no matter how frustrating this case has been, on the anniversary of his death each year, Leticia Ruiz makes an appointment to meet with Inda and the detective working the case.

“We are realistic with her,” Inda says. “There are no current leads. We give her what we can, but there is no false hope.”

The lieutenant knows this mother’s pain intimately. After her son was killed, Ruiz joined Inda, who was then a member of the APD’s gang task force, in a series of presentations to local community groups about gang activity. Ruiz shared her story with other parents in the hope her heartbreak would not become theirs.

While Carlos Lamas was not on a gang list, he associated with gang members, she says. And on the morning of his death, his friend had gotten into a fight with a rival gang. Her son was at that friend’s house when the gunman walked past and began firing.

For Ruiz — who became active with Aurora Cares, CASA and victims’ advocacy groups — getting involved has been as much a part of her therapy as the physical rehabilitation she received from Easter Seals after her stroke.

“Every day I remind myself of how much I failed,” she says.

Even Ruiz acknowledges this guilt is probably part of the reason she has no memory of Carlos’ childhood, or that of his brothers. Because most pictures were lost in the flood of 1996, she must “rely on family to tell me things,” she says. Of the few photos she does have, one she carries in her purse is of her son lying in his casket.

Finding closure for his murder is now more important than ever. A couple of years ago, Ruiz, who works for the Kane County courts and is taking law classes at Waubonsee Community College, was diagnosed with liver cancer. Treatment, she says, is not going well.

And so it is with a growing sense of urgency that, a week from Monday, on the 15th anniversary of Carlos’ death, she will meet with police again. Because so many memories of the past are gone, Ruiz can only look to the future … that a killer will finally be brought to justice.

“I feel horrible about what has happened to her,” Inda says. “But I respect the heck out of her for what she’s trying to do.”

To Ruiz, however, it’s simply a story of one mother’s determination.

“It gives me hope,” she says. “It keeps me going.”



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