Murder trial draws teacher of little victim

Tasha Gardner struggles past the pain, trying to understand.

August 01, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The trial is almost too painful for the teacher to bear.

Still, Tasha Gardner sits on a bench in the downtown Baltimore courtroom, wiping at tears and trying to understand why anyone would hurt the shy, sweet children who attended Cross Country Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore.

Gardner taught Lucero Espinoza's third-grade class. The 8-year-old, along with her 9-year-old brother and their 10-year-old male cousin, were brutally killed May 27, 2004, about a month before school let out for the summer.

Testimony continues today in the trial of the two men charged in the deaths of the children. Gardner is watching as much as she can.

"I felt like I needed more of the puzzle," Gardner said. "And I wanted to show the parents that I haven't forgotten about the kids. I think about them every day."

She regretted not bringing tissues as she listened to opening statements in early July. Tears streamed down her cheeks when a prosecutor described the "trail of blood" that she said links Policarpio Espinoza, 23, and Adan Canela, 18, to the slashing deaths of their relatives.

And Gardner sat on a bench outside the courtroom, unable to control her sobbing, one day last week as a crime scene video played for the jury. The footage showed the children's bodies, still dressed in their springtime play clothes, in pools of blood on their bedroom floors of the family's Fallstaff apartment.

Gardner, 29, knew all three of the slain Mexican children. She has sweet memories of them.

Lucero, shy as she was, loved to dance - for anyone, any time. When Gardner's class wrote stories about friendship on Valentine's Day, Lucero's was about her brother, her best friend.

"They were two little peas in a pod," she said.

Ricardo Espinoza and Alexis Espejo Quezada, the siblings' cousin, were in the same fourth-grade class. Alexis, who had just come to the school in January, was always smiling. He burst into laughter when Gardner tried to say hello to in Spanish.

Ricardo was fluent in English and Spanish. He helped Gardner and other teachers communicate with their parents, who she said seemed to have a caring, playful relationship with the children.

None of the three children was terribly extroverted, but they were well-liked, Gardner said. Other kids thought it was cool that they were from Mexico. And they especially liked how the three sold candy at school, perhaps to make a little extra money for their family.

The teacher has painful memories, too. Those begin the morning of May 28, 2004, when a social worker greeted her as she pulled into the school parking. Gardner hadn't heard the news.

The social worker told Gardner something had happened to a child in her class. The rest of the details trickled out slowly. It was Lucero. She had been killed.

Gardner said she was broken up and spent a few moments in the principal's office before going to comfort her pupils. When she walked into her classroom, she assumed Lucero had died in a car accident. And she hadn't been told about Lucero's brother and cousin.

"I was totally unprepared," she said. The kids, it seemed, knew more than she did.

They immediately started bombarding her with questions. "Did all three of them die? Is it true their heads were cut off? Was there blood everywhere?"

Gardner, in her role as teacher, told them to calm down and take their seats so they could talk things out and get the facts straight. She said children have crazy imaginations, and she assumed that's what was at work.

As that horrible day progressed, she realized that much of what they'd said was true.

"The graphicness of it was really, really hard," she said. "It seemed so unimaginable that I just couldn't wrap my brain around it."

The children and teacher spent a lot of time talking that day. They sat in a circle on the floor. They cried. Some children - particularly the boys - reacted strongly, getting angry and even acting out. Girls wept. Some children became angry at other children because they thought they weren't sad enough.

The grief counselors came. The school system's chief executive officer came. The mayor came. Gardner tried arts and crafts as a diversion, but the kids made memorial banners and cards for Lucero.

That school year at Cross Country never did get back to normal.

Lucero's class decided to keep her desk exactly as it was as a tribute to her. When they had an ice cream social at the end of the year, they put a cup on her desk, too. There it sat, melting.

Three trees were planted outside the school in memory of the children. There was a memorial assembly at school. Teachers went to the children's open-casket service in Baltimore.

Everyone was heartbroken when they realized Lucero wasn't in the class picture because her family had been visiting relatives in Mexico when it was taken.

By the time school let out for the summer, Gardner was spent. She said she had pushed aside her own grief to help the children. With no class to attend to, she said, she fell apart.

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