Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Latoyia Figueroa's Father Is Starting His Support Group

This is similiar to the organization started by Shawna Hawk's mother Dee Sumpter when her daughter was murdered in February 1993. I hope his group be successful in bringing to the public's attention concerning murders of young people in the Philadelphia metro area as well as the nation.

Who'll mourn La'Toyia? Her father has a dream
By Annette John-Hall,Inquirer Columnist

Melvin Figueroa hopes to start a foundation to help find missing people like his murdered daughter, whose picture he holds. Melvin Figueroa suffered a stroke a couple of months ago. He was diagnosed with diabetes. He's now on a half-dozen medications.
Stress will do that to you.

Figueroa is only 47. But he sounds old and tired, like a man who's survived unspeakable tragedy.

Like so many other parents during a blood-drenched summer in the city, Figueroa endured the worst - in his case, the disappearance and murder of his daughter, La'Toyia.

So forgive him if he hasn't been glued to the TV lately. The nonstop coverage of Jessie Davis - the nine-months-pregnant Ohio mother who went missing before authorities charged her cop boyfriend with her murder - reminds him too much of the ordeal he went through trying to find La'Toyia.

Not that he could ever forget.

Next month, it will be two years since 24-year-old La'Toyia disappeared and was found murdered, her body left in a vacant lot with the trash, her 5-month-old fetus dead inside her.

Her boyfriend, Stephen Poaches, was charged with her murder and eventually sentenced to life in prison. Life - at least he has his.

There are many similarities between Davis' and La'Toyia's cases.

Both were young and pregnant. Both went missing. Both were found murdered, the leading cause of death among pregnant women in the United States. Both met their fates at the hands of men they thought loved them. And both left behind children, for La'Toyia, a daughter, now 9.

The value of life
But there's one big difference: Davis was pretty and white; La'Toyia, pretty and Latina.
Which meant that Davis' story and all of its titillating elements - an interracial coupling, love triangles, bad-cop drama - warranted the CNN crawl, 24/7, interview after interview, and the usual pundit parade.

La'Toyia? It was almost two weeks until the local papers even picked up her story. Only a few months before, the national media fixated on the sentencing of Scott Peterson, whose murder of his pretty pregnant wife, Laci, was played out over and over for three years.

It was only after a local blogger contacted CNN about La'Toyia's case - and the inequity of her coverage - that her story got heavily publicized, which finally brought out search parties and pressured authorities to prioritize her case.

For a minute, the stations took a break from blanket coverage of Natalee Hollaway, the missing teen in Aruba. Suddenly, La'Toyia was not just a missing pregnant woman but the face of the forgotten minority.

'I have to humble myself'
Figueroa is painfully aware of the racial inequities and class distinctions that dictate which stories the media decide to cover. Paris Hilton, anyone?

Seems the media declare that bad things are not supposed to happen to white women. With poor women of color, they're expected.

"As a father, I felt some kind of way about [Laci Peterson] being white and my daughter being Hispanic," Figueroa says. "Now there's a book and a movie going to be made about [Peterson] and nothing about my daughter . . .

"I get angry about it but I have to humble myself."

Because the truth is, Figueroa doesn't wish what happened to La'Toyia on any family, no matter what color. The loss of a child feels the same to every parent.

"If I had money in my pocket, I would go out to Ohio and support [Jessie Davis'] family. It's a blessing that they had people to help them search for her, because I had to go out there by myself every day to search for my daughter [until her disappearance was publicized]."

In all of these cases, the obvious question looms: What in the name of an unborn child would possess a man to kill the mother of his baby?

Figueroa thinks he knows. "Sometimes men don't want to raise their children but they don't want no other man to raise them, either," he explains. "That's the motive for all this."

So murder makes their lives easier?

"If you don't want to be a father, it don't cost nothing to be a deadbeat dad," Figueroa continues. "If you're not happy with a young lady, that don't give you the right to take her life and the life of a child."

As unbearably heartbreaking as La'Toyia's death was, Figueroa came out of it a changed man. He's more spirit-filled, more committed to helping folks who have lost loved ones to violence as he has.

And there are plenty of them. Here, in a city with a murder rate that just hit 200, Figueroa's work never ends. Despite his weariness, he organizes candlelight vigils, visits families, even pays his respects at visitations and funerals.

His dream is to open the La'Toyia Figueroa Foundation, which would assist relatives in finding missing loved ones.

In the meantime, he knows the perfect person to play La'Toyia in a film: newly crowned American Idol Jordin Sparks.

"She has her eyes, her smile," Figueroa says. "I hope God will open the door and let that movie be made."

Because there's more to La'Toyia's life than we will ever know.

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