Inside a green home with a wide concrete porch on Fulton Street, Wynonia Kingle hugged an aunt she thought had died eight years ago.
Phyllis Cervantes, 73, squeezed her niece’s right forefinger and smiled.
As niece and aunt sat side-by-side chatting, across the street people held hands at a vigil on the sidewalk where Mark James Gassett, 37, had died last week – one of three men killed by a lone shooter on a rampage in downtown Fresno.
It was fitting that the man’s memorial and women’s reunion on Thursday would somehow be interwoven.
Every Wednesday, Cervantes walks the couple of blocks to the Monie Market at Fulton and Divisadero streets. Last week, on her way to buy a soda and chips, Cervantes stopped to pray in front of Catholic Charities. A memorial of candles and flowers had been placed there to honor David Martin Jackson, 58. He collapsed and died just outside of the building’s parking lot, running from a bus stop to try and escape Kori Muhammad, the accused shooter.
The third man to be killed, Zackary Randalls, 34, was shot as he sat in a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. truck on Van Ness Avenue. Muhammad also is accused of killing a Motel 6 security guard, 25-year-old Carl Williams III, on April 13.
Dozens of people have prayed, cried, sang and given praise at sidewalk memorial services for the three men since their senseless slayings. But as Cervantes clasped her hands and prayed, her reverence was captured in a photograph that was published on The Bee’s website.
Kingle, 55, who had been following stories about the deadly shootings in the media, recognized her aunt in the photograph.
“We had hunted and hunted and hunted for her,” Kingle said. “We were told she was deceased, but I could never find any record of her death.”
Eight years ago, Cervantes, a disabled field worker, had disappeared without a trace. She had been living in an apartment that provided assistance to people with disabilities. Cervantes needed help after having had several strokes, beginning in her 40s.
Kingle’s mother and Cervantes had routinely talked on the telephone, but one day, Cervantes didn’t answer a call. When Kingle went to the apartment to investigate, her aunt was gone. No one would tell her where her aunt had moved – or if she was all right.
We had hunted and hunted and hunted for her. We were told she was deceased, but I could never find any record of her death.
Wynonia Kingle, of Fresno, niece of Phyllis Cervantes
Now she had proof that her aunt was alive. And Kingle, a Fresno accounting manager, had a clue how to find her.
Cervantes had to be living in some type of assisted residence near Catholic Charities. Kingle pulled up Google Earth and looked at all the buildings within a few blocks.
She had a good feeling about Home Sweet Home, located about a block from Catholic Charities, and called the telephone number.
Maria Praise, the Home Sweet Home owner, answered the telephone.
Praise had long ago given up on finding Cervantes’ relatives. Cervantes could not give Praise names or telephone numbers and efforts to trace the family had failed. All Praise knew about Cervantes was that she had shown up at Catholic Charities frightened and asking for a new assisted-living home; and Praise had taken her as a client.
Now a niece was asking if she could come to Home Sweet Home. “What a joy,” Praise said.
Can you imagine? It’s beautiful. It was the right time because we could see the tragedy also brought happiness.
Maria Praise, owner of Home Sweet Home
Kingle came alone. She wanted to make sure Cervantes would remember her, and if her aunt would be OK seeing relatives.
She needn’t have worried. “I walked in and she knew who I was,” Kingle said.
Praise had no doubt Cervantes would recognize her niece. They share sparkling blue eyes and have other resemblances, she said.
Cervantes speech is halting, and she struggles to put thoughts into words, but she said: “I remember everything but it’s hard to talk.”
On Thursday, Kingle asked Cervantes if she remembered her name. Cervantes smiled, “Baby,” she said. Kingle laughed; “she always called me the pretty one.”
Kingle’s call to Home Sweet Home came as Praise and the women in her charge were reeling from the shootings near downtown. Praise said she heard several gunshots as she took out the garbage Tuesday and had glimpsed the shooter in the alley behind her business. She ran back inside to get her clients secured behind locked doors.
The reunion of Cervantes with her family has given reason to rejoice, Praise said.
“Can you imagine? It’s beautiful. It was the right time because we could see the tragedy also brought happiness.”