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Thursday, March 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Grieving family finds joy in honoring son's memory

Seattle Times staff reporter

MOSES LAKE — At first the tears fell often, in great shuddering waves.

Cristina Vela struggled just to leave the house.

Manuel Vela Sr. was just the opposite. He had to get out among people who would console, encourage, help him forget the pain.

Of course, nothing can make up for the loss of a son. But as the Velas have learned in the decade since their son, Manuel Jr., was fatally shot in his Moses Lake classroom, joy again will visit those who grieve. Life can be celebrated alongside a grave. Even forgiveness is possible.

Today, they will remember those lessons as they gather for what would have been Manuel Jr.'s 25th birthday.

He made it only to 14. On Feb. 2, 1996, then-14-year-old Barry Loukaitis burst into fifth-period algebra class at Frontier Middle School, pulled a deer-hunting rifle from under a black trench coat and began firing. Manuel was dead in an instant. Classmate Arnold Fritz and teacher Leona Caires were also killed. Student Natalie Hintz was wounded in the arm, but survived. Loukaitis held the class hostage until another teacher risked his life and tackled the boy.

Manuel Jr. was buried in the frozen soil of Moses Lake, where his grandfather toiled decades earlier as a migrant laborer. He was one of the first victims in what would become a spate of school shootings that shook not only his tiny hometown, but the foundations of suburban America.

After Moses Lake there were Paducah and Columbine, Jonesboro and Springfield.

Over the years, many Frontier teachers have moved on. Manuel Jr.'s former classmates are in their 20s now, some with children of their own. Some still struggle, and one wound up in prison. Town officials chose not to hold a ceremony last month to mark the 10th anniversary of the shooting, although a memorial was erected in 1999.

Meanwhile, the Velas have had to learn that tragedy doesn't come with exemptions from the day-to-day. There are other children to feed, clocks to punch, holidays to plan.

How does a family go on in the face of such pain? The Velas do it by remembering. Cristina and Manuel Vela Sr., along with their surviving sons Nicolas, 19, and Dylan, 9, paint a moving story of love and forgiveness, of turning tragedy into redemption.

"Some people say time heals," Manuel Sr. said. "I like to say it teaches."

Of course, they didn't know this at first. Back then, nothing could console them.

Fulfilling a promise

Cristina was five months pregnant with Dylan when Manuel Jr. was killed; doctors feared she might lose the baby. She didn't, but she couldn't bear to go back to work as a teachers aide until the next year.

Nicolas was 9 when his big brother was killed. He didn't sleep in his own room for more than 1 ½ years, not until Loukaitis was finally sentenced to life in prison.

Manuel Sr. couldn't stop thinking he had failed his son.

Back in 1989 or so, on a family vacation in California, father and son had seen cyclists riding through the redwoods. "I want to do that," Manuel Jr., 8 or 9 at the time, told his father.

"We'll do it, son," Manuel Sr. remembered saying. "The year you turn 15, me and you are going to take this ride through the redwood forest."

It was a promise — and as time passed, Manuel Jr. made sure his father was going to keep it. In late 1995, he patted his dad on the belly, saying he'd better start working out to prepare for the bike ride.

Manuel was killed exactly one month before his 15th birthday. They had planned to take the ride that summer.

"I couldn't fulfill my promise," Manuel Sr. recalls saying over and over. The thought made him cry.

Amid the tears, one of Manuel Sr.'s brothers got an idea: He would ride the redwoods with him — on Manuel Jr.'s mountain bike.

"I'll ride the bike," he said.

Then another joined in. "I'll ride the bike, too."

Soon, the Velas came to see the ride as a way to begin healing.

In the months to come, they spent all their free time planning and preparing for the ride. Campsites were reserved, a route was mapped, bellies were slimmed.

None of this was easy, of course. At the time, it seemed memories brought pain. And there were complications. The Velas now had an infant son. And Nicolas was begging to ride, but how could they let him on this dangerous route? On the other hand, how could they not?

In August 1996, it all came together and they got on their bikes. They began in Grants Pass, Ore., in the Rogue River Valley. Those who couldn't ride, like Cristina and baby Dylan, shuttled back and forth by car, bringing the riders water and encouragement.

"Every time they'd pass by, they'd yell, 'Keep going!' " Manuel recalls. "It just choked you up every time they did that."

Memories and laughter

The clan rode south, taking turns on Manuel Jr.'s mountain bike as their legs burned. Riding alongside trees reaching hundreds of feet into the sky, they thought about how these giants were alive during Christopher Columbus' voyage. Some were alive in Jesus' time. They thought about how Manuel Jr. would live in their memory forever.

"We'd sit around campfire and talk about things Manuel used to do," Manuel Sr. recalls. "Pretty soon we'd start to laugh."

Cristina smiles when she remembers how Manuel Jr. liked his clothes ironed with sharp creases, even though the other kids poked fun and called him "Lines."

Manuel Sr. remembers how his son loved music, and how they learned after his death that all the girls wanted to dance with him.

They remembered how his friends called him Baby Blue, for his favorite color.

Each night they talked and each night they laughed, all the way to Crescent City, Calif., nearly 100 miles from their starting point. Nicolas hopped on his big brother's bike and rode for the final stretch. Finally, they heard the rumble of the Pacific and saw joy in every crashing wave.

"Everybody was about in tears at that time," Manuel Sr. recalled of reaching the ocean. "We accomplished what we said we were going to do."

As the months passed, the family went back about their business. They endured the first Thanksgiving without Manuel, the first Christmas and the first anniversary of his death.

"We learned to talk about it," Vela Sr. said. "We learned to console others who have gone through the same pain we have."

Cristina finally was able to clean out Manuel Jr.'s room, a task she had been dreading.

They could easily have let go of the bike ride and all it entailed. But they couldn't. "It keeps him alive for us," Manuel Sr. said.

The next year, they decided to do it again, this time taking a different route along the Oregon Coast. They rode again and again, until 10 years had passed and they still couldn't stop. This year will mark the 11th annual ride.

On one ride, they met some victims' parents from Springfield, Ore., which suffered its own deadly school shooting in 1998, and tried to help as best they could.

Grieving and forgiving

Of course there were hurdles. People say Manuel Jr. regularly taunted Loukaitis and that's why he was targeted. The idea causes the Velas great pain. They also struggled when Nicolas was about to enter Frontier Middle School and would have to pass by the room where his brother was killed.

And they faced the death of Manuel's grandfather, who had gone from being a migrant worker to owning produce-hauling trucks. In his last days the elderly man was consumed with worry about meeting the Lord with anger in his heart toward Loukaitis.

"I don't want to go with this bitterness," Emilio Vela whispered on his deathbed in 2003.

"I sat there with him," Manuel Sr. recalled of his father. "I said it's time to get rid of all that. It's time to forgive so we can be forgiven."

The two men formed a pact: If one would forgive, the other would follow. "We prayed and said, 'Barry, no matter how much you have offended us, we forgive you,' " Manuel Sr. said. "I have let it go. May God bless him."

It was the only time during a long interview that tears welled up in Manuel Sr.'s eyes.

Today they will visit Manuel Jr.'s grave at Pioneer Memorial Gardens, just as they have done for the past 10 years. They will bring blue balloons and write messages on them to Manuel. Then they'll release the balloons and watch them float toward heaven.

"This is your dad," Manuel Sr.'s balloon will say. "Happy birthday."

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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