Perhaps Ryan Natale, all of 15, best captures how friends and family struggle to make sense of the murder of Deanna Maran.
"I just want to take it as a learning
experience," said Natale, a Santa Monica High School classmate who held
Maran in his arms after she was stabbed by a 17-year-old girl at a crowded
Westside party. How tragic, he said, that "God had to take someone so
great to teach us all a lesson."
FOR THE RECORD
Concord High--A story in Tuesday's California
section implied that Katrina Sarkissian, who fatally stabbed a 15-year-old
girl last fall, was once a full-time student at Concord High School in
Santa Monica. Sarkissian, 17, took two summer courses at Concord in 1999
but was never a regular student. Such students must pass an interview for
admittance and their academic records are scrutinized, according to Susan
Packer Davis, Concord's administrator.
Although Maran's was one violent teen death among the many that occur each
year in California, her killing has generated a remarkable amount of
controversy and national media attention. First, there was the
girl-versus-girl aspect. Moreover, the killing occurred on a tree-lined
street in an upscale neighborhood. Maran was known by those closest to her
as LaLa, and she was famous for her prodigious appetite. So it was fitting
that her relatives, friends and teachers gathered last week to celebrate
her life with a feast--chow mein, steamed salmon with dill, satay,
strawberries dipped in chocolate. It would have been her 16th
Dozens of admirers young and old crowded into the Maran
family's Ocean Park home to revel in memories of the brainy, fun-loving
sophomore. The partygoers reminisced over scrapbooks and swapped tales
about Maran's dogged determination, wacky wit and penchant for treating
friends' refrigerators as her own.
A strapping 5-foot-6, 158-pound
water polo and volleyball player, Maran was stabbed in the heart Nov. 17.
The next day, Katrina Sarkissian, her killer, collapsed while being
questioned at a West Los Angeles police station and died at UCLA Medical
Center. An autopsy revealed that she had taken an overdose of
Friends of Maran who went to the Saturday
night party last November say the stabbing was so swift and unexpected
that they had no chance to intervene. Others are tortured by thoughts that
they could have stopped a tragedy, if only they had been
Questions--the need to take lessons from the
How did so many unchaperoned kids--from Santa
Monica High as well as from some of the area's best private
schools--gravitate to the party that night? Why did some partygoers urge
the girls on, cheering, "Fight! Fight!"? Why didn't anyone try to stop it?
Where were the adults?
"Everyone's looking for a greater meaning in
this," said Harland W. Braun, an attorney representing a girl who some
witnesses say had a role in the incident but has not been charged. "If it
had happened in South-Central Los Angeles, nobody would be looking for a
The fallout from the party continues. This month,
Sarkissian's younger half-sister, whose scuffle with Maran triggered the
fight, was charged with one count of battery and one count of making a
criminal threat. The battery charge relates to an allegation that she
kicked Maran, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County
district attorney's office.
The other charge involves a threat made
on the Internet months after the party. The girl, who is 15, is to be
arraigned Friday. As for Katrina Sarkissian, Deb Hof, a dean at a private
school in Palo Alto, recalls a different girl from the one who has been
vilified but whose death, she said, is also tragic.
bright; she was a wonderful kid who had a lot going on in her life," said
Hof, who was a dean at Harvard-Westlake, where Sarkissian attended seventh
and eighth grades. "I know she was struggling and unhappy, [but] there was
a lot to like about her."
Sarkissian, Hof recalled, "looked like a
woman at 13 [and] got constant attention from every male on the planet."
Her father and mother were divorced, and her mother, Angelique, married
ophthalmologist Matthew Bernstein, with whom she had another daughter. The
Bernsteins later divorced as well.
In middle school, Sarkissian was
a textbook case of a girl who needed adults to guide her and set
boundaries, Hof said.
"Katrina was trying to figure out where she
fit in," she said.
Hof recalled that Sarkissian struggled during
ninth grade at Harvard-Westlake, one of the region's most rigorous private
schools. "I think her academic light was extinguished by worries about
boys, friends and her universe," Hof said.
"Katrina just wasn't a
kid to back down, and then she would be in tears because nobody liked
her," Hof said. She withdrew from the school in early 1999 (although her
death certificate inexplicably lists her "profession" as student and her
"employer" as Harvard-Westlake) to seek a "smaller, more structured
At some point, according to her stepfather, Sarkissian
landed at Concord High School in Santa Monica. She left that private
school as well and, he said, was home-schooled for the last eight months
of her life.
Bernstein's chief concern now, he said, is his
15-year-old daughter. She has received 20 death threats, he said, some of
which have come to his office. Rattled by the calls, one of his employees
Of Maran, he said: "She might have been a great kid, but that
night she acted very unwisely and aggressively. As a result, Katrina's
dead and [my daughter] is still not out of the woods."
Natale's account--corroborated by other witnesses--of the
Sarkissian's half-sister was horsing around, chasing one
of Natale's friends around the backyard. They repeatedly upset a flower
Maran, known for being fearless, grabbed the girl by the
shoulders, telling her to stop. "I don't recall the exact words," Natale
said, "but she said something like, 'Show respect for someone else's
house.'" The other girl told Maran not to touch her; they pushed each
other and then began fighting.
The other girl was thrown off a
short ledge and landed in a flower bed, still holding Maran's hair. Some
boys broke up the tussle. Maran began shouting "Samo! Samo!"--a nickname
for Santa Monica High. It was clear that the other girl, not a Santa
Monica High student, was humiliated. "She was dirty but not hurt. Her
pride was hurt," Natale said.
Then, Natale said, he overheard the
girl on her cell phone: "Katrina, you've got to get here right now. Some
bitch just pushed me down."
About an hour later, as Maran was
trying to find a ride home, Natale said, Sarkissian pulled up in a white
sport utility vehicle and asked, "Who pushed my sister?" Maran raised her
The girls argued for about five minutes and then, Natale
recalled, Sarkissian rushed Maran, and the two pushed each other. One or
two punches were thrown.
Sarkissian quickly ran away, and Maran
stumbled backward. Another girl, he said, came in and grabbed Maran,
pushing her to the ground and holding her down.
After a few
seconds, that girl backed off. Sarkissian's half-sister came up and kicked
Maran's midsection. By that time, Natale said, some kids were yelling
"Fight! Fight! Hit her already."
"No one even knew what happened,"
he said. "Not a single witness saw a blade at any time."
weapon was ever recovered. Authorities concluded that the weapon was a
"punch knife," in which the blade pops out between the user's
Maran, wearing a dark blue sweatshirt and jeans, got up,
stumbled and leaned against a tree, staring off into space. Natale, who at
the time had a cast on his right wrist, tried to pick her up but "she was
completely lifeless." He then saw that his cast "was completely stained
At that moment, he said, everybody panicked. When
another student pulled up in his car to join the party, several kids piled
Maran into the back seat. They sped off for Santa Monica Hospital,
apparently unaware that UCLA Medical Center was blocks away.
heard later that one boy in the car had his hand on Maran's chest and felt
her heart stop beating. She was declared dead just after
What, her friends have wondered since, can be learned
from such a tragedy?
James Yoo, 15, who attended the party, said it
taught him to be less eager to lash out at people who annoy him. "I'm just
more cautious about fights," he said. "I just let things go."
Lee Livingston, whose son Tim rode the bus with Maran to the party and
then watched as she was mortally wounded, it has reminded him that parents
need to set and enforce rules. But parenting teenagers, he said, involves
leaps of faith.
"You pray to God they're telling you the truth," he
said. "We have reiterated the rules. We keep bringing it up and telling
him, 'You've got to let us know where you are.'"
If this has been a
grim lesson in growing up, Maran's death has also shown teenagers that
it's possible to simultaneously mourn and celebrate a life. Witness the
empty chair in the alto section of the Samohi Chorale.
voice is no longer raised in song, but her picture hangs on the choral
room bulletin board. In March, two choirs dedicated their performance of
the Mozart Requiem to her. She had struggled with some of the passages,
said choral director Christopher Rhodes, but she was "always very much the
cheerleader, saying 'Don't give up.'"
At the birthday gathering,
partygoers admired the shrine that Maran's mother, Harriet, maintains in
front of the house, with its crown of large plastic sunflowers. Not long
ago, that shrine drew a visitor, Julie Freitas, who three years ago also
lost a child when her son was murdered.
She has since become a
friend, visiting once a week with muffins and conversation, seeking to
help the Marans along a "long and pretty unbearable journey of
The party at the Maran home helped too. It was good,
somehow, to see so many of Deanna's friends--hugging, laughing and, of