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Criminal Justice

A Christmas Shooting Left Her Son Dead. It's One Of Several Unsolved Killings in Pasadena

Three people, two adults and a child, stand in a parking lot. A man has his arm around the child.
Sarah Toni Mendoza, right, speaks to friends at the holiday toy drive she organized in Pasadena this month.
(Emily Elena Dugdale
/
LAist)
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On Dec. 18, 2015, Robert Calderon took a photo with his mother, Sarah Toni Mendoza, in front of their Christmas tree. Then he dropped her off at a holiday office party in The Paseo, Pasadena’s outdoor mall in the civic center district.

Mendoza recalled that Calderon, 27, was in a great mood. He’d recently graduated from college. He was interviewing for jobs. He was about to spend the evening watching Star Wars with his girlfriend. “He was really happy where he was in his life,” she said.

4:37
A 2015 Christmas Shooting Killed Her Son. Now She Tries To Keep His Memory Alive

Calderon gave his mother a kiss before driving away. “Mom, I love you,” he told her, according to Mendoza. But something tugged at her throughout the night. A bad feeling. When she tried calling Calderon to pick her up at the end of the night, he didn’t answer.

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A man in a red sweatshirt and Santa hat stands next to a woman in a royal blue dress and a black coat in front of a Christmas tree.
Robert Calderon, left, with his mother, Sarah Toni Mendoza, a few hours before his death in 2015.
(Emily Elena Dugdale
/
LAist)

After several attempts to reach him, her worst fears were confirmed the next morning. The phone rang, and the coroner’s number flashed across her phone. At the same time, four Pasadena Police Department officers showed up at her doorstep.

Calderon was found suffering from gunshot wounds around 10:45 p.m. on the sidewalk outside an apartment complex on North Mentor Avenue. He died at the scene.

L.A. County is still offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of his killer.

But Mendoza worries the case is being forgotten. “I know COVID hit, but the phones still work,” she said, adding that she hasn’t received an update in a long time.

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Calderon’s death is one of several caused by longstanding gun violence in Northwest Pasadena, In recent years, the city has brought in gang intervention workers to mediate gang conflicts, and will start using ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection software, in early 2022.

An Uptick In Gun Violence

At a city council meeting in July, gang interventionists presented data showing a 26% decrease in violent crime dating back to April.

But Pasadena has recently experienced an uptick in gun violence in the city's northwest.

In early December, a mass was held for 13-year-old Iran Moreno Balvaneda, who was shot and killed by a stray bullet in Northwest Pasadena while playing video games in his room just before Thanksgiving.

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They always say, ‘Oh, there's no crime in Pasadena.’ And there is crime in Pasadena.
— Sarah Toni Mendoza

In October, city officials called an emergency meeting at Robinson Park to address a span of six shootings in a one-week period in the area. Neighbors packed the room and demanded more police resources.

Iran's cousin Maria Balvaneda said the family still has no answers about the November shooting. Like Mendoza, she’s concerned about cases pilling up and gathering dust.

“They’re starting to accumulate on all these cases," Balvaneda said. "And I feel like they just leave them behind. As a new case comes, they just forget about the old case.”

Pasadena’s reputation as a safe, affluent city belies the trauma of persistent gun violence that many families experience, Mendoza said. “They always say, ‘Oh, there's no crime in Pasadena.’ And there is crime in Pasadena,” she said.

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She’s worked for the city of Pasadena for 40 years, and after her son’s death, she started a support group for other grieving mothers of victims of gun violence.

Three people speak in an office with bags of toys cloy by. One woman has a T-shirt and carries jacket that both say "Lady Lowrider" in a fancy script.
Sarah Toni Mendoza, left, talks to Lady Lowrider Car Club president Sandy Avila, who lost her husband to gun violence nearly 20 years ago.
(Emily Elena Dugdale
/
LAist)

“I met a mother that lost all three of her sons … [she] lost them all one year back to back. So, when I think I had it bad, she had it worse than I did,” she said. “That group helped me to see I wasn’t the only one.”

Unsolved Cases

Pasadena police spokesperson Lt. Bill Grisafe said the department’s record keeping isn’t great for decades past. But he confirmed that Pasadena currently has 14 unsolved homicides from the last 10 years.

Part of the problem with the unsolved cases is that people who have information on shootings don’t feel comfortable cooperating with police, said Police Chief John Perez.

We all know who did it. But somebody’s not stepping forward to report it.
— Pasadena Police Chief John Perez, discussing certain murders in the city.

“We all know who did it,” he said, regarding some of the cases. “But somebody’s not stepping forward to report it.”

“It's emotional, it's hard. These are things that sit with you for a lifetime,” Perez said.

Pasadena’s former City Manager Steve Mermell, who retired in early December, agreed. He used to meet with and console people like Mendoza.

“It’s horrible to speak to the mother who’s lost a son, and to tell them, we believe we know that there’s people in the community who are aware who committed these horrible acts, who killed your child, and they won’t come forward.” he said. “That’s the reality.”

A handmade sign on the back of a low rider pick up truck reads: "Toys Here" People are filling the truck bed with toys.
Members of the Lady Lowrider Car Club unload toys from a truck for the toy drive organized by Sarah Toni Mendoza.
(Emily Elena Dugdale
/
LAist)

Remembering Those Lost

Mendoza honors her son by organizing a charity event every year. This year, she got the Lady Lowrider Car Club to coordinate a toy drive that culminated with a dropoff at the Pasadena Federal Credit Union.

Women in matching pink and black jackets drove up to the bank in a vintage truck and unloaded tricycles and garbage bags full of toys.

There’s so much of that in the city of Pasadena that people don’t know about.
— Sandy Avila, commenting on gun violence.

Mendoza was not the only one there who lost family members to gun violence. Sandy Avila, the president of the Lady Lowrider Car Club, lost her husband to gun violence nearly 20 years ago while she was pregnant with their daughter.

“There’s so much of that in the city of Pasadena that people don’t know about,” said Avila, who also grew up with Calderon. “We know about all this stuff, and we’ve been through it.”

Mendoza asked Avila if the police ever caught the person who killed her husband. She shook her head. She said she’d never heard anything from the police after his death.

A red wreath hangs on a tree and red flowers are placed at the vase along a residential street.
Each year, Sarah Toni Mendoza decorates the tree next to where Calderon died.
(Mariana Dale
/
LAist)

As Mendoza piled toys into a basket, she said she’s never not thinking about what happened to Calderon.

“Christmas is always a reminder of my son,” she said. Every year, she decorates the tree next to where Calderon’s body was found. This year, she wrapped a red and white wreath around the trunk, and left poinsettias and candles at the base.

“I'll never be a grandmother, I'll never go to his wedding,” she said. “I had one son, I have no other children.”

I asked her if, in the future, she’d want to sit down with his killer and have a conversation. She nodded.

“I know people wouldn't understand that about me,” she said. “But I do want to know what happened. And I want to hear it from the person that did it.”

In the lobby of the bank surrounded by toys, Mendoza paused for a photo with Lady Lowrider members. A little boy peeked out from behind his father’s legs.

Mendoza pulled him into the photo. “You can be my little son for the day,” she said. 

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