Local Spin: A Grandpa’s Lament
A 2-year-old girl’s death spotlights media tendencies.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Fermin Gonzales was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1967, sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia and witnessed the kinds of things that nobody, much less a boy barely old enough to be away from home, should ever have to see.
On a rainy Monday afternoon, the former infantryman wanted to talk about subjects that had been weighing heavily on his mind: the violence human beings are capable of committing, and how the media deals with it.
First, though, a more pressing concern surfaced: Would the undertaker do a good enough job on his great-granddaughter’s face so that her family could remember her as she was before?
Priscilla Hernandez died on Dec. 3, when her mother’s boyfriend, David Leonardo, allegedly beat the 2-year-old Castroville girl to death with his hands. Her exact cause of death was listed by the medical examiner as “blunt force trauma.” Gonzales didn’t know if Priscilla’s bruises could be covered, whether the toddler’s split lips could be made to look whole again.
In just a few hours, she was going to be laid out in her casket so her family could see her a final time. Leonardo, meanwhile, was sitting in Monterey County Jail, charged with homicide; his preliminary hearing is scheduled for 10am Dec. 15 in Monterey County Superior Court, but in all likelihood, it will be put off until January or later.
Priscilla’s father is Gonzales’ 26-year-old grandson Nick, who is experiencing out-of-body grief. For weeks before his daughter’s death, his visits with her had been put off, postponed until a later day. Gonzales, a plain-spoken man who clearly relishes his role as a father of five, grandfather of 15 and great-grandfather to 15, now wonders if that’s because the abuse that eventually killed Priscilla had already begun.
But Gonzales was also wondering this: Why did it seem the media was paying more attention to a lost dog than it did to a little girl’s killing? The dog Gonzales referred to is Frosty, a fluffy little white mutt being fostered in Seaside who escaped from its home and was reportedly thrown from a car or hit by a car in the Lighthouse Tunnel in Monterey two days after Priscilla’s death.
He admits his memory might not be exact, but the way Gonzales perceives it, Priscilla got 10 seconds on the local television news, while Frosty got 10 minutes. In one local paper, Priscilla’s death got four short just-the-facts stories, about the killing and Leonardo’s arraignment, and Frosty’s plight received two slightly longer stories; in another local paper, Priscilla’s death received one police brief and one story, while Frosty received none.
On television, one station gave Frosty a 1 minute, 48 second spot and Priscilla 2 minutes, 25 seconds. The other station, the one that so upset Gonzales, doesn’t seem to archive videos for public access.
And in this paper? I apologetically told Gonzales that while we do have an animal blog online (no Frosty stories so far) we also hadn’t written a single word about Priscilla either. We’ll write trend stories and pieces about crime prevention, I told him, but we tend not to cover individual crimes.
“We live in a tourist area where bad news is not good news, that’s what I think,” Gonzales said. “What I think is that we don’t want Joe and Jane tourist to read that it’s murder and mayhem that’s going on. Meanwhile, you give an otter the stinkeye and there’s a $50 reward for your arrest.”
Covering crime is one of the first things most young journalists learn, not because it’s easy, but because it is so hard. You walk a fine line between getting the facts from the cops, the stories of the victims and their families, and the story of the perpetrators, and putting it out there in a way that doesn’t seem voyeuristic. But really, it still almost always seems voyeuristic.
What Fermin Gonzales knows is this: At the next family gathering, when his many grandchildren hand him their own children for him to bounce on his knee, and he laughs and says, “Which one is this again?” Priscilla won’t be there.
“Now one is gone,” he says. “My grandchildren are young and I’m sure to end up with more great-grandchildren, but you lose one and it doesn’t go away.”
He also knows Priscilla deserves at least as much consideration as Frosty.
As I write this, I talk to my oldest son about Priscilla’s story.
“Wait, I don’t understand,” he says. “How does a grown man beat a baby to death?”
That’s another good question to which I have no good answer.
Mary Duan is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.