By William Clark
By William Clark
There is the proverbial saying that nothing great in life has ever been accomplished with ease and without sacrifice.
By all accounts, 38-year-old Reyna De Leon was the embodiment of this maxim. Despite the onset of a life-threatening illness and the amputation of a portion of her right leg due to complications from diabetes, the single mother of two had persevered and was looking forward to a promising future.
Friends and family described her as “a flower that wanted to grow” and “an angel that was ready to fly,” and recently, Reyna had confided to friends that after years of struggle and hardship, she felt her dreams were finally starting to come true.
On a busy thoroughfare less than a mile from the RCC campus, a make-shift memorial of votive candles and flowers marks the spot where, in the early evening of Oct. 26, Reyna De Leon’s dreams perished amid a heap of twisted metal and shattered glass.
According to Riverside Police, at approximately 5:45 p.m. Reyna and her 14-year old daughter, Nicole, were making their way along the 5400 block of Olivewood Avenue, just steps away from their home at the Riverside apartments, when a speeding car traveling in excess of 70 mph suddenly careened onto the sidewalk and struck De Leon in her wheelchair, dragging her some 50 feet before slamming into a concrete light post. De Leon was killed instantly.
The driver, a 16-year old local resident, was arrested at the scene. A 17-year old driver in an accompanying vehicle was also taken into custody. Police believe the two may have been drag racing when the 16-year old lost control of the car and plowed into De Leon. Both drivers face gross vehicular manslaughter charges, according to a press release posted on the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office Web site. Since the two drivers are minors, their names were not immediately released.
Narciso De Leon of Bell Flower, is a soft-spoken man with a quick smile and a lilting Spanish accent. A week after laying his daughter to rest at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Cypress, he began the task of clearing her personal effects from the apartment she shared with her two children.
Accompanying the elder De Leon was his grandson, Jordan, 11, who was at home when the accident occurred and was one of the first to rush to his mother’s aid. De Leon says the boy suffers from nightmares and has become withdrawn and refuses to talk about what occurred that day.
“He’s still trying to deal with it,” he said. “I think he’s still in shock, you know. He saw his mother lying there under that car like that and tried to help her, but she was already gone. He’s probably going to need some counseling to get over it.”
Two hundred yards south of the Riverside apartments, De Leon set about reconstructing a geographical timeline of the accident, painting a grisly portrait of the last moments of his daughter’s life.
“We don’t have the police report, but you can see what happened just by looking around you,” he said, referring to the tell-tale markings littering the area.
“Her and Nicole were walking about here. You can see Reyna’s wheelchair marks in the dirt here,” he said.
Further on, he reached down and gingerly fingered a long, deep scar in the sidewalk where metal splinters embedded in the concrete produced a strange rainbow-colored glow in the late afternoon sun.
“This is where the car hit her and (dragged) her with the wheelchair. After the car hit the light post, the light post broke into three pieces and the car went up the side of that hill, then came back down and landed back on top of Reyna, dragging her along.”
De Leon paused and pointed to two 15-foot long crimson streaks running parallel along the sidewalk. He gently excavated a portion of the caked-on soil from the concrete with the tip of his sandal.
“The fire department covered this over with dirt to try to soak up the blood, but you can still see it,” he said, making a broad sweeping motion with his right hand. “There was blood everywhere.”
Making his way toward the small shrine of candles and flowers, De Leon studied the spot where the battered car came to rest.
“I think it happened so fast, I don’t think she suffered no pain,” he whispered, almost to himself. “She was gone so fast. Nicole was walking right behind her when it happened and by the time she got to her, her mommy was already cold.” He removed his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes. “Just like that, my baby was gone.”
He described his daughter as a person “bursting with life,’ and remembered how excited she would become when discussing her future.
“Oh, she was a real dreamer. She had such big dreams and she wanted to become big. ‘Papi, I’m going to do good for me and the kids,’ she would say. Her dream was to have a job and a house for her and her kids. She just wanted to have the normal things in life like everybody else.”
Reyna De Leon had participated in the RCC graduation exercise in June and was preparing to transfer to California State University, Long Beach where she planned to study psychology. Disabled Student Program & Services noted that she had only one unit to complete before receiving her degree.
De Leon has no doubts that, had his daughter lived, she would have gone on to accomplish even greater things in her life.
“She was going to school to make something special happen. She could have been a psychologist or anything she wanted to be. I get so angry that her life was cut short and those dreams, they were never accomplished,” he said.
Narciso De Leon insists that he does not hate the driver who took his daughter’s life. While he regrets that the young man’s family has not contacted the De Leon family to express their sympathies, he says that he feels sorry for them.
“What he did was horrendous…to take the life of another human being in this way. But we as the parents, we have to teach the kids to have responsibility. We have to control them and try to make them responsible for what they do. But, ultimately, now it’s between them and the law. I leave it in God’s hands.”
This sentiment was echoed by Greg Williams, a resident of the Riverside apartments and a close friend of Reyna’s.
“This is a lose-lose situation. It’s a loss for the (driver) as well as for Reyna’s family,” Williams said. “The easy part is God forgiving him. The hard part is going to be him forgiving himself. I just hope that somebody will help young people to understand that any and everything they do has consequences.”
Williams was present at the scene when authorities pulled the dazed young driver from the wreckage. He said the first thing he noticed was that the young man looked “like a 13-year-old kid.”
“In the beginning, I don’t think he knew there was a woman lying under his car. The authorities were forcing him to turn and keep his head and his eyes trained on Reyna’s body. They didn’t remove him from the scene for hours,” he said.
“Every time he dropped his head or tried to look away, they demanded him to keep his eyes on Reyna. They wanted it to hit home: ‘Look what you did.'”
After a bullet left him paralyzed from the waist down six years ago, he said he was forced to adopt his body to the confines of a wheelchair, but not his attitude.
“Obstacles and hurdles are just like everything else in life: They’re put there for us to get over, around, under or through them, however you can,” he said. “It will always make you a stronger person and will get you to where you’re really trying to go.”
One episode that Williams says reflects the strength of Reyna’s character involved a miniature pink rose bush growing just below his living room window. He says that Reyna occasionally picked a few of the roses just to remind herself to take a moment and savor her life.
“Reyna always said she appreciated little things like that because she was always so bu
sy with school and taking care of the kids,” he said. “She sometimes felt that she didn’t always make enough to time to stop and smell the roses and take a little bit of time to appreciate the normal stuff we all take for granted.”
Williams glanced over at Reyna’s apartment, where Narciso De Leon was just exiting with an armful of women’s clothing. He slowly shook his head as his eyes began to fill with tears.
“All the things going on in her own life, the diabetes, the surgeries, being in a wheelchair…with all the odds stacked against her, she was always moving forward to get where she was trying to go,” he said.
He continued. “What I will miss most about her are those everyday conversations,” he said, quietly. “She was such a caring, outgoing, loving woman…just a joy to be around.”
Staff in Disabled Student Program and Services reacted with shock to the news of Reyna’s death. She was a well-known figure around the office, and many remember her as a passionate and vocal proponent for disabled students’ rights.
Reyna was also a familiar face in the newsroom of the RCC Viewpoints newspaper. She often approached newsroom staff to apprise them of conditions on campus which might prove detrimental to disabled students, such as broken and cracked sidewalks and potholes in the road. Friends of Reyna De Leon’s are still coming to terms with the senselessness of her death; they say it is difficult to comprehend why such a vibrant and brilliant woman with so much promise should have been taken so early.
Reyna’s father says his faith in God has been a source of comfort, and he believes there is a purpose in everything, no matter how tragic.
“We all loved her, and she had big plans to fill in her life. But I guess God had an even bigger reason for wanting her with him in heaven,” he said.