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Schoolgirls’ fight ends in death, leaving haunting questions

This news story was published on February 28, 2012.
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By Ruben Vives, Scott Gold and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — It began with an incident that seemed relatively harmless, even timeless: Two little girls. An argument over a boy. An arrangement to meet after school. A pause, while a few friends gathered around and the girls put their hair up in buns. Then the fight. It lasted just a minute — two flurries of punches, a busted lip and separate paths home.

But six hours after Friday’s fight in Long Beach, Calif., 10-year-old Joanna Ramos was dead. Officials launched an investigation over the weekend and on Monday they delivered a pronouncement that stunned an already shaken community. Joanna, coroner’s officials determined, had died of blunt-force trauma to the head — and her death was ruled a homicide.

Joanna’s mother, 41-year-old Cecilia Villanueva, said Monday she was desperate to find out what happened in the alleyway off Anaheim Street. Investigators, she said, have ordered classmates who witnessed the fight not to talk to her or anyone else, an apparent effort to preserve the integrity of the investigation.

“All I know is just rumors,” Villanueva said in Spanish at the family’s duplex, seven blocks away from Willard Elementary School, where Joanna was a fifth-grader. “We keep hearing different things. We heard she was bleeding from the nose after the fight, that she was hit multiple times in the head by this other girl. We just don’t know what happened. The only one who could have told me what happened is gone.”

Long Beach police called the case highly unusual and delicate, given the age of the victim and the potential suspect, and the seemingly benign origins of the fight. Officials said they have no idea what the outcome of their investigation might be, nor whether criminal charges might be warranted.

Law enforcement sources said officers will interview students, teachers and parents, and will look at Joanna’s medical history to determine if the fight might have aggravated an existing condition.

The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, said that at first, it appeared that neither child had suffered serious injuries. No weapons were used, they said. Detectives are looking into whether classmates had goaded the girls into fighting.

The results of the investigation will be forwarded to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, but the sources emphasized that the existence of an investigation does not necessarily mean that charges will be filed. Indeed, the situation was so unusual and fluid that administrators at Willard Elementary School hadn’t determined Monday whether the other student involved in the fight should be disciplined.

“This is a difficult situation for all of us to understand,” said Long Beach Unified School District spokesman Chris Eftychiou. “There are so many questions, but we have to be patient and let the police do its job.”

Joanna’s family moved to Long Beach from nearby Hawaiian Gardens in December 2010. A new face in a working-class community a mile from the tonier shoreline neighborhoods, Joanna was picked on periodically at school. There were suggestions that she had been bullied on occasion. But she was a happy child for the most part — “she didn’t like fighting,” Villanueva said.

She liked to sing and hoped one day to be as famous as Selena, the late Tejano music sensation. She enjoyed watching “Glee” and telenovelas, particularly “Atrevete a Sonar” — “Dare to Dream.” She would have turned 11 on March 12 and had plans to visit Knott’s Berry Farm with a cousin, a friend and her two older sisters.

“We used to make fun of her because she wanted to grow up so fast,” said her 19-year-old sister, Diana Urbina.

Villanueva spent Monday afternoon laying out the outfit that Joanna will be buried in — a white dress that she wore last fall to a relative’s quinceanera, with Hello Kitty earrings — on a sofa in the living room.

Joanna attended her normal day of school Friday and was on her way to an after-school program about 3 p.m. The fight, her mother said, appears to have taken place in the 15-minute window between school and the after-school program.

At 3:20 p.m., the school called Villanueva to report that Joanna was not feeling well. Villanueva asked her niece, 20-year-old Silvia Catalan, to pick up Joanna. Catalan called a short time later: “Someone hit Joanna on the head and she doesn’t feel well.” Joanna was throwing up, Catalan said.

They met at Joanna’s grandmother’s house, a short distance away. When Villanueva pulled up, Joanna was lying in the driveway. Joanna said she wasn’t feeling well. She threw up again on the way to the family’s home.

They got home a little before 5 p.m. Joanna reclined on a love seat near the front door and said she wanted to sleep. Villanueva, fearing she might have a concussion, told her not to fall asleep, then left the room to find her medical insurance card so they could go to the hospital. When she returned, the family dog, a miniature Schnauzer mix, was standing on Joanna’s chest, barking at her.

Joanna had lost consciousness.

Villanueva told her husband — Joanna’s stepfather, 36-year-old Teofilo Villanueva — to rush Joanna to St. Mary Medical Center. There, emergency workers revived Joanna. But a doctor determined that Joanna had blood clots in her head and would need immediate surgery.

In the elevator on the way to the operating room, Joanna’s heart stopped. Doctors and nurses tried to resuscitate her, but by 9 p.m. she was dead.

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