Column: The View From Here: Meleia Willis-Starbuck: More Than a Memory By P.M. PRICE

Tuesday October 04, 2005

There are words for certain people who have lost loved ones; a widow, a widower, an orphan. But what do you call a parent who has lost a child? I pondered this question with Kimberly Willis-Starbuck, mother of Meleia, lost to us all in a tragic shooting in Berkeley on July 17. 

With the recent arrest of Christopher Hollis, the young man accused of murdering the Berkeley High grad and Dartmouth freshman, there is new speculation about exactly what happened and why. The Starbucks have been asked by the local police to refrain from public comment about the case until the investigation has run its course. 

Meanwhile, Kimberly adds to the shrine she began creating the night her daughter died. That night, Kimberly lit 11 candles and had them burning on the dining room table. The shrine now holds photographs of Meleia as a baby and with her little brother, Zach; Meleia with her high school class in Cuba. There are colorful handmade books she made at Park Day School and there’s an amusing photo of a Louis Vuitton purse Meleia bought in Paris and had to return the next day. “She didn’t have enough money to eat and buy the purse,” Kimberly laughs. The shrine extends up two adjoining walls displaying her admission letter to Dartmouth, a soccer trophy, a beautiful doll she made when she was ten, her yearbook, a Good Citizenship Award she received from the City of Berkeley and more. 

“On one wall,” Kimberly says, “I have things connected to her death and the beautiful memorial her friends and my friends put on for her. There is Rafael Casal poem that he read, a letter from one of the deans at Dartmouth, letters from Barbara Lee and Barbara Boxer citing what an incredible young woman Meleia was and how she gave back to the community. There’s also a letter from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors stating that they adjourned their regular meeting on July 18 out of respect to Meleia’s memory.” 

And more, Kimberly says, “There’s so much more.” 

At the time of the shooting it was widely reported that Meleia called Christopher Hollis for assistance after having been confronted by a group of young men, including several Cal football players, who referred to Meleia and her friends as “bitches” after the girls refused their advances. It was while Meleia was standing on the sidewalk as her girlfriends waited for her in their car, patiently explaining to the young men why it was disrespectful to call them “bitches” that Christopher Hollis arrived on the scene and allegedly shot at the group from a block and a half away, fatally wounding his good friend, Meleia. 

Who are these Cal football players and exactly what was their involvement? Which one called Meleia a “bitch”? Were any threats of physical violence made? We, the public, along with Meleia’s family and friends, have a right to know. I called Cal Football Coach Jeff Tedford’s office and was referred to Kevin Klintworth, Associate Athletic Director for Communications. I wanted to know what these young men are taught, if anything, about social issues and interacting with women. Klintworth said that he thought there was some sort of class or orientation, but he wasn’t sure what it was. 

At press time, he had not gotten back to me with the details. 

The San Francisco Chronicle on Oct. 2 reported that, according to George Strait, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for public affairs, Cal football player Gary Doxy, although wounded at the scene, did not realize his flesh wound was related to the gunshots, therefore did not reveal his injury to the police until a month later. Rumors of a cover-up are beginning to emerge, not uncommon when it comes to protecting potentially big money-making athletes. 

Christopher Hollis is being represented by renowned Oakland attorney John Burris. Burris was quoted in this newspaper describing Hollis as “funny, intelligent and dependable—maybe too dependable.” I certainly hope that this seemingly innocuous comment isn’t an indicator of an attempt to mitigate the severity of Hollis’ alleged crime by trying to lay a foundation upon which to later blame the victim. 

Meleia deserves better. 

I hope that the politicians, community activists, university officials and other dignitaries, who praised Meleia so ardently for her short life’s full work, do not allow her memory to be tarnished for any reason. No reason would be good enough. 

Back in Georgia, where Kimberly and John Starbuck had initially moved to be closer to Meleia, they are planning a trip to Dartmouth next week to attend a memorial in celebration of what would have been Meleia’s 20th birthday on Oct. 10. Towards the end of our conversation, Kimberly tells me that they have kept Meleia’s phone answering message just so that they can hear her voice. Sometimes the phone rings in the middle of the night and they know not to answer it. It is one of Meleia’s many devoted friends calling so that they, too, can hear her voice one more time. 

I asked for the number but I haven’t yet been able to call it. It hit me while talking to Kimberly that it was Sept. 30, my own daughter’s birthday. Arianne would have turned 18. She died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (crib death) at 3 months of age. Even during those short three months, Arianne made a powerful impact upon everyone she met with her wide, intelligent eyes and her intense gaze. She seemed an old soul. Who knows what she would have accomplished in 19 years or 90? I’ve given birth to two other wonderful children since her death and I still miss her terribly. 

“Meleia is still here,” her little brother Zack insists. “She’s just on a different plane,” he explains. “She sees us. She hears us. She’s in my heart and she’ll always be there.” 

I know exactly how he feels.›