MODESTO — Where a young man died, an Oklahoma redbud tree now rises, planted by neighbors, friends and family Saturday in Creekwood Park in memory of Tylor Crippen.
Crippen, 18, was stabbed to death Jan. 29 while walking through the neighborhood park with his girlfriend. Three teenagers have been arrested in the case.
Stepfather Steve Hachey said the family is coping, "but 8:30 at night is kinda tough, especially Tuesdays. That's kind of our hit time," Hachey said.
Violet Crippen gathered handwritten letters to her son to plant with the tree. "The idea is these words of love will grow with the tree for him," she said before tossing them in and joining dozens of mourners in putting a shovel of dirt into the hole.
Her letter, she said, "says how much I love him and how much he meant to me."
Neighbor Kelvin Coenen told those gathered that the tree is starting to bud and in a few weeks pink blossoms will stand out among the nearby evergreens. A hawk circled the group before flying off at the short ceremony's end.
Crippen grew up in the neighborhood and lived nearby with his father, Carlos Serrano.
Coenen said his death shocked the close-knit community. "It's really touched the neighborhood. It's our park," he said. "I helped put the playground in. It's all a terrible tragedy."
Although he had been taking his evening walks elsewhere, Coenen said he now makes a point of walking through the park. "If anything, we need more activity here. People walking dogs, riding bikes. It needs to be a place of activity," Coenen said.
Julie Hannon, director of Modesto's Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department, said she encourages those living near parks to stay alert and form Neighborhood Watch groups. "We need them to lend their eyes and ears," she said.
Over the past two to three years, rising levels of crime and increasingly destructive vandalism such as burned slides and smashed picnic tables have been seen in all city parks, Hannon said.
Neighbors said Creekwood Park, which shares the block with Bernard Hughes Elementary School, has become increasingly dangerous over the past few years.
"I don't let my son come here," said Jackie Tagre, even though she grew up playing in the park and recently moved back.
"The last year, it's been out of control," neighbor Sandra Conchas said. "There are gangs. We see fights. The school's on lockdown at least twice a week."
Conchas, who teared up through the ceremony, said two years ago her eldest son was attacked and beaten by teens, but was able to escape. "I look at Violet. This could have been me," she said. "This could have been me."
But just as planting the tree was lauded as a symbol of hope, neighbors said Crippen's death has spurred a change in the community.
Police patrol cars drive by in the afternoons, scattering the threatening groups of teens that gather daily. More eyes are peering out of windows of the houses that surround the park.
"Hopefully this will help bring people together and change things," Tagre said.
An account has been set up with the Stanislaus Community Foundation in the name of Tylor Crippen-Creekwood Park Foundation. Donated money will go toward installing a park bench by the tree and funding an annual scholarship at Johansen High School. Go to www.stanislauscf.org or call (209) 576-1608.
Bee staff writer Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339.