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The grief still burns

The night Veronica Rios was shot to death felt just like this one — oppressive heat with an occasional warm breeze, recalls her mother Valencia.

On that night — Aug. 16, 2001 — Veronica collapsed in a pool of blood at Fifth and Pierce streets after taking a bullet to the neck. Authorities would later learn the gunmen were aiming for an 18-year-old male standing next to her.

On Friday night, the South Philadelphia Community Group organized a solemn candlelight vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of the 15-year-old’s death. The community remembered other murder victims, too.

Before the vigil, Veronica’s father, Joseph Rios, said he would be impossible to miss. He’d be the one in all red.

"Because that’s the blood that my daughter shed," said the 50-year-old.

Valencia Rios, Joseph’s ex-wife, said she felt something was wrong even before Veronica was shot.

That night, inside her home on the 500 block of Watkins Street, she lay awake with what she called an Excedrin headache. Shortly after midnight, Valencia heard shots ring out.

No sooner had she phoned her daughter Monica, who lives next door, than neighbors showed up at Valencia’s door. The news they delivered was something no mother should ever have to hear.

Veronica had been shot, along with five of her friends, and was lying in a pool of blood at Fifth and Pierce streets, the neighbors told her.

Valencia uttered three words: "Oh my God."

After waking her 7-year-old son Louie, she took him next door so Monica could watch him while she ran to the aid of her wounded daughter.

But Valencia was too late.

Veronica, once so full of life, was bleeding to death in the backseat of a police van on its way to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Joseph Rios recalled that doctors infused 50 pints of blood into "my baby." The next morning, Veronica drew her last breath at Jefferson Hospital.

"I don’t understand how you can give somebody 50 pints of blood and they die," Joseph said.

"I have a lot of anger in me," added Valencia. "Disbelief. It’s like a nightmare that is never going away. It’s everlasting pain."

Months before her death, Veronica had moved to Watkins Street from a nearby apartment with her mother and stepfather.

Valencia had granted her daughter permission to spend the night of Aug. 15 at the home of a family friend at Fifth and Watkins streets. Veronica had gone outside to hang out with her friends around midnight.

Valencia said she believed her daughter had been braiding someone’s hair shortly before the bullets began to fly.

The fallen teenager had so many dreams, her mother recalled. Veronica wanted to be a beautician or model most of all, but she also wrote songs and poetry.

"She was very talented and she wanted to do everything. She was so full of life, so full of energy. Everybody liked her. She was a very popular girl," said Valencia.

In loving tribute to the teen, neighbors, family and friends created a makeshift memorial to Rios at Fifth and Pierce streets.

Veronica’s father knows the exact spot where his daughter was struck down. A stuffed red satin heart that reads "I Love You" marks the spot. "That’s where my baby’s blood was," he said, pointing to the heart.

Valencia cannot bring herself to visit the memorial, and has seen it only once since it was erected a year ago. Nor could she bear to attend Friday’s vigil.

Since the tragedy, the neighborhood has taken positive steps.

The South Philadelphia Community Group, which sponsored the memorial event, recently grew out of the Greenwich Square Neighborhood Advisory Council. The grassroots organization is comprised of residents from the area between Mifflin and Dickinson and Fourth and Seventh streets, said Crystal Cooper, who serves on the group’s public-relations committee.

The organization had hoped to turn the vacant building at Fifth and Pierce streets into a community center, recreational site and safe haven for children. The building’s owner was willing to sell it to the group for just $1, but it would have cost too much to repair the years of neglect and structural damage, Cooper said.

A concerned neighbor, Gloria Bryant, intervened and donated a building at 1926 S. Fifth St. that will serve as the community center.

Meanwhile, Malik Aziz, director of Operation Safe Streets, has been working with residents and Councilman Frank DiCicco to clean up the neighborhood’s act.

"We need to stop talking about crime prevention and start doing something about it. We need to look out for each other in the community and watch out for our children," Aziz told the crowd at Friday’s vigil.

Thanks to the efforts of Operation Safe Streets and other organizations like the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, the once drug-infested and crime-ridden area has seen some improvement, said Cooper.

"Fifth Street is finally cleaned up now. You don’t see the drug dealing and people standing outside drinking like you once did," she noted.

Joseph Rios said Friday’s vigil was held in part to encourage the young people of the neighborhood to straighten out their lives and get on the right path.

"Kids are our future. If we keep burying our kids, we’ll have no future," he said. "We’ve got to protect our little ones."

A self-described religious man, Joseph Rios believes he will be reunited with his daughter someday. "I am just holding on. It’s been a year since I’ve seen my baby. I can’t see her no more. When I go to heaven, I will be able to see her."

Until then, Rios said, he will continue to visit his daughter’s grave three times a week.

Alleged shooters await trial

The family of Veronica Rios and others touched by last year’s drive-by shooting have yet to see justice meted out in the case.

However, the three suspects are awaiting a March 2003, trial for murder and related offenses. One of the men — Felix Summers, 22, from the 1700 block of South Fourth Street — was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List at the time of his capture last December. Fareeq Smith, 24, of Spring Garden, and Steve Henden, 23, of the 1800 block of McClellan Street, were arrested shortly after the shooting.

A witness told police that he saw two men wearing ski masks who matched the build of Summers and Smith jump out of a car, allegedly driven by Henden, and open fire on Rios and five of her friends, authorities said.

In an irony not lost on her mother Valencia, the suspects knew Veronica and her friends. "They all grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same schools," she said. "It isn’t that they didn’t know the kids out there. They just had no remorse."

Summers is also charged with the March 1999 shooting death of 39-year-old Charlotte Presley, an eyewitness against him in the January 1999 slaying of 19-year-old James Niles, said officials. With Presley out of the picture, Summers was acquitted of Niles’ murder. Another victim, 22-year-old Diana Meirino, was gunned down on Sept. 24, 2000, allegedly because she witnessed Presley’s murder, authorities said.

Police arrested Summers’ cousin, Alvin Lawrence, 23, for shooting Meirino, but a judge dismissed the charges against him last March. Summers, however, is charged in the case and will be tried in March 2003. The murder victim had a violent past of her own. At the time of her death, Meirino faced charges of attempted murder and other offenses in relation to a shooting at Fifth and Pierce streets in November 2000, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

Among the 60 attendees at Friday’s vigil for Veronica Rios were Meirino’s mother Janet and aunt Grace Meirino. Grace recalled her niece was shot as she sat in front of her house on the 1800 block of South Fifth Street at 3 a.m.

"I will never forget that day when I came down the steps and saw my niece murdered before my very eyes. Never, ever will I forget that, and as God is my witness, justice will be served," Grace screamed before breaking down in sobs.

Standing beside her was Diana’s mother, holding the children her daughter left behind — Tyanna, 4; Shyanna, 2; and Tyron, 13 months.

–by Lorraine Gennaro

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