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Sandpaper on the soul Patti March spent five years searching for justice in the gunshot death of her troubled teen son, Gary. Along the way, she became a tireless advocate for others who lost a loved one to homicide. A man was recently sentenced in Gary's slaying, but the pain and the questions continue.
Patti March
Toby Jorrin/Tribune

Patti March says she and her husband, Earl, spent countless hours sitting at the spot that changed their lives five years ago -- this stretch of drainage ditch behind the public library at 3400 Juan Tabo Blvd. N.E. where their son, Gary, was shot to death. The concrete is festooned with memorials spray-painted by Gary's friends.

By Leslie Hoffman
Tribune reporter

     Patti March had waited more than five years for this moment.
     She stood by as other mothers fought and struggled to find the words; she was there when other families poured their loss out before a judge, bleeding grief from wounds too profound for healing.

Gary MarchCourtesy of the March family

Gary March's junior year photograph in 1993 was his last school picture. The teen dropped out of Eldorado High School later that year.

     She knew how they had wondered -- if it was enough, if their descriptions of pain and hurt and permanence would mean more prison time for the person who had stolen the life of a loved one.
     She stayed up nights, thinking about what she would say to the judge before he passed sentence on Shawn "Shyboy" Loyd, the man convicted of gunning down her 18-year-old son, Gary, in a Northeast Heights drainage ditch in August 1995.
     Be brief, she told herself. Don't waste his time. He has heard it all before.
     Patti March wanted something more as she contemplated her speech before the judge -- something beyond just an emotional unleashing.
     She wanted answers.
     "I wanted to challenge Shyboy. He thought he was the big, tough man, and now he could tell us what really happened to Gary," she says. "But that, of course, didn't happen."
     Loyd, 26, gave no answers, denied any role in the killing and was sentenced to life plus 1 1/2 years on Aug. 25. A jury in April had convicted him of killing Gary, a young man who once called Loyd a friend.
     So marked the end of one very personal journey for Patti March and her family -- and the beginning of another.
     The Marches would go from a quiet life in a quiet neighborhood to one spent prowling drainage ditches and monitoring police scanners looking for clues about Gary's slaying.
     Patti March would become the anchor for her husband and daughter. She would be blown through a tempest of dead-end tips that pushed her on to find a break in her son's murder case.
     Slowly, she would emerge as the Nadine Milford of Albuquerque families hit by homicide -- becoming a familiar name, as the bereaved Milford had done in her quest to change DWI laws -- while navigating a course to move her son's case through the system.
     But now, with the closing of a case and the beginning of the rest of her life, Patti March is learning that finding justice and seeing her son's killer brought to justice is one thing; learning to move on is quite another.

A troubled life

     Patti March, a petite and youthful-looking 42-year-old computer programmer, never imagined she would become an activist. She was just the mother of two who, along with her husband, had dreams of owning a family software business.
     The couple had moved their family to a middle-class neighborhood in the Northeast Heights when Gary and his younger sister, Christina, were in elementary school.
     Before the move, Gary, a precocious kid with a reputation at school for socializing instead of working, had started to fall in with a group of kids at Acoma Elementary School, a group whose favored pasttime was getting into trouble. Patti was glad to get her son a fresh start.
     "Gary always seemed drawn to the kids who were in trouble," Patti says.
     After the move, Gary fit in well at John Baker Elementary. He was a hyper but happy kid who loved to skateboard and hang out in the neighborhood. He and his sister turned their block into a giant playground, spending summer afternoons at nearby Lynnewood Park and using the maze of ditches that ran down from the foothills as their own personal highway system.
     "People always use to think we were twins, and we would spend all our time together," says Christina, now 22, who was a year younger than Gary.
     But kids with problems still enchanted Gary.
     Maybe it was the desire for a sense of belonging or a youthful desire to rebel against his parents that pushed Gary. His mother can only guess.
     But by the time Gary was in middle school, he was running with a crowd that worried Patti and her husband, Earl -- kids who were skipping school and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
     Shawn Loyd was a member of that circle, the Marches say. He was several years older, and some saw him as a leader among the group and a guy Gary looked up to.
     But Loyd was hardly a role model. He had been in and out of trouble and had acquired a felony record at age 19, according to court records.
     That's when calls started coming from teachers: Gary was not in class today; Gary refused to run around the track in gym today.
     Then there were the nights he came home with his eyes glazed or speech slurred.
     Patti says she understood. She, too, had experimented briefly with drugs as a teen-ager in the 1970s, but it was a phase she quickly passed through.
     "I knew he would grow out of it," she says.
     But once the teen's attendance dropped off in high school and he started spending more and more time with kids who partied hard, Patti and Earl gave their son a choice.
     "We told him at that point, if you refuse to show up for class, then you have to quit school and get a job," she says.
     Gary dropped out of Eldorado High School and easily got his general equivalency diploma.
     But not much changed.
     Patti stayed up some nights sitting on Gary's bed, waiting for her wayward son to climb through his bedroom window. The world of drugs and alcohol that had once only been a passing fascination for the teen was quietly tightening its grip.
     But Gary showed signs that he had not totally lost his way and that, maybe, he could still escape. In the spring of 1995, Patti says he told his family he wanted to change things -- get off the drugs, find new friends. They arranged for him to move to Roswell, where he lived with his aunt's family for three months.
     Gary wrote his family letters from there, including one saying "how right we were" to help him break away from his old life, Patti says.
     "He was taking steps to push away from that group," Christina says.
     But when Gary returned from Roswell, he rejoined Loyd and the old group of friends and, for a while, returned to a life of late-night parties and drugs. He tried his hand at several jobs, working nights at Arby's and as a waiter at the Ramada Inn on Hotel Circle Northeast.
     But the lifestyle he said he'd break from still lingered.
     About a month before he was killed, Gary's parents issued another ultimatum: Clean up or move out.
     Gary left and went from his grandmother's house to sleeping in the neighborhood park to living with a friend of Loyd's who offered to rent him a room, Patti says.
     In the week leading up to Gary's death, his family was hopeful. He was talking about saving up money to start his own business, telling his mom, "Don't worry about me. I'm a businessman. I'm a businessman," she says.
     To this day, Patti March isn't quite sure what her son meant. Maybe he was selling drugs for Shyboy. Or did he have another job lined up?
     By then, Patti says, Gary's thin frame bore the telltale signs of methamphetamine use.
     On Friday, Aug. 19, 1995, Gary threw a party at his new place and all the familiar temptations were there, according to prosecutors -- marijuana, speed and booze.
     State witnesses who testified at the trial said Loyd had told people before the party that he was angry with Gary for "messing up" his methamphetamine business. There was also talk of a $50 debt owed to a friend of Loyd's.
     Gary himself told several people at the party that he feared Loyd might want to hurt him and that Loyd had asked him to go for "a walk," according to testimony.
     Witnesses said they saw Gary talk with Loyd and another friend in a back bedroom the night of the party.
     Gary soon left. Loyd followed sometime later.
     Gary's family says he was the trusting type and may have agreed to met with Loyd.
     At about 1:20 a.m., someone at an apartment complex near the arroyo at Juan Tabo Boulevard and Jane Place Northeast reported hearing gunshots in the field behind the complex.
     The next morning, a woman walking her dog along the arroyo discovered the body of a young man slumped against the side of the ditch with two gunshot wounds to the head.
     Gary March's battle against the demons was over.

The search

     "The morning the detective came to her house to give the death notice, Patti literally went out in her pajamas and took him to places where Gary may have been the night before," former senior trial prosecutor Gloria McCary says.
     Patti March wasted no time in starting to search for leads in her son's death, and she had an immediate pool of suspects.
     The whole family went to work on the case, fanning out with wanted posters and pictures in the hunt for Gary's killer or killers.
     "We just kind of went into overdrive," Earl says.
     When someone started ripping down the wanted posters, Patti said she started stapling every inch "so if they wanted to rip them down, they'd have to do it inch by inch."
     The Marches combed the Northeast Heights ditches, spending countless days and nights waiting, looking for people who knew Gary and may have heard or seen something.
     Earl got a police scanner and they learned the codes police use to talk with dispatchers. The Marches believed those who knew something about Gary's slaying would get in trouble again, and they wanted to be there when it happened.
     "It was just like we were mini-investigators or something," Earl says. "It was nonstop. We ate, breathed and lived on this 24 hours a day."
     Any scrap of information they uncovered went straight to the Albuquerque police detective, Sgt. Damon Fay, who was assigned to the case.
     "The police told us to quit listening to everything we hear," Patti says. "I'm sure we got annoying."
     The Marches pored over the police reports and studied their son's autopsy results, even tracing the path of the two bullets through his skull on a Styrofoam head to see if they could come up with anything.
     But as the case wore on into 1996, it also wore down the grieving, angry mother.
     She needed a place to go where others understood her struggle.
     The answer came in a small group of kindred souls who had formed a local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. They, too, were mothers and fathers who'd buried their own children.
     "They're the only people who really truly understand," Patti says.
     The organization was small and needed help. So Patti volunteered to help construct a Web site for the group, teaching herself step by step.
     "I created the Web site as a tribute to him and it gave me a sense of satisfaction to put up memorials and unsolved pages for the victims," Patti says. "I don't think they should be forgotten by society."
     Patti's involvement quickly mushroomed. She got to know other mothers, other families. They asked her questions about police investigation and procedure.
     Patti was transforming into not only the fiery unofficial spokeswoman for her family but also the spokeswoman for the families of other victims of crime who wanted results from the system.
     "If families don't get involved, your case can get lost with all the others," she says.
     And the Marches would not let their son's case slip away.
     For months, tips led nowhere. There was talk among the neighborhood kids about who may have done it, but everyone was reluctant to come forward.
     About a year after the shooting, the breath of life Gary's case needed came in the form of a witness in whom Loyd was said to have confided the night of Gary's death.
     By the summer of 1997, the witness -- Lea Smith, a self-described "drug buddy" of Loyd's -- was giving police what they needed to crack the case.
     Smith told police Loyd had come over to her house in the early morning hours of Aug. 20, 1995, holding a gun and saying he had gotten rid of Gary. Then, she said, he threatened to harm her if she told anybody, according to court testimony that came out later.
     Loyd was indicted by a grand jury in November 1998. But in many ways, the case had only just begun.

Unanswered questions

     By the time Loyd was formally charged, Patti March had become an increasingly familiar fixture in courthouse halls and at her group's office, now called the New Mexico Survivors of Homicide.
     She knew how the system worked and helped stricken families navigate through it. She continued to put in countless hours, posting more memorial pages and unsolved case files on the organization's Web site.
     By 1999, she was a member of the group's board and its president.
     "I think what she did was expand from the role of a grief-stricken and distraught mother to the larger role of saying, 'These families need a spokesperson, and the system needs to hear from them,'" prosecutor McCary says.
     When Loyd's trial date came up this past April, Patti and her family realized that a monumental stage in their own case might soon be complete.
     It was an excruciating 1 1/2 weeks. The case the Marches had meticulously cared for now was in the hands of 12 strangers -- the jury.
     "The best I can describe it was like sandpaper on the soul," Patti says. "That's how much anxiety you have."
     It was hardly a slam-dunk for prosecutors, who had no physical evidence linking Loyd to the crime.
     Assistant District Attorney Kenny Montoya told jurors that Loyd killed Gary March because it was "just another progression in the drug trade."
     The state relied heavily upon the testimony of Lea Smith, the only witness who could tie Loyd directly to Gary's death.
     But Loyd's attorney, Lee McMillian, attacked Smith's credibility, arguing the woman, who had a criminal record, was "squeezed" into testifying by police who had threatened to press charges on an outstanding narcotics warrant if she didn't cooperate in the case.
     There were others, McMillian argued, who had a better motive and opportunity to kill March.
     "At least four people were present at the shooting, and I think it's actually possible that Shawn Loyd was there but he did not pull the trigger," McMillian said in a recent interview, adding his client was a "welcome mat" for other kids in the group, not a leader.
     But the five-woman, seven-man jury convicted Loyd on one count each of first-degree murder and bribery of a witness.
     Even so, many of Patti's questions remained unanswered. "How much did he suffer? How much did he know? How much did he struggle? What did he say?" she says.
     At sentencing, Patti hoped to get some of those answers.
     In a statement she read to the judge, she said, "Even though it was clearly a cowardly act, in his world view it made him (Loyd) a big man on the streets.
     "Now that he sits before this court, and it is time to be accountable, I would say to him if he is such a big man, then I dare him to stand up and tell us and tell his family exactly what happened to Gary March."
     But Loyd denied any role and told the judge he knew who killed Gary March but couldn't say.

An uncertain future

     Despite Loyd's conviction, the murder investigation is not over for the Marches. They agree with defense attorney McMillian on one point: They strongly believe there are others out there who may have been there in the ditch that night.
     "I had zero relief from the trial or the sentencing," Earl says. "It's just one phase of this whole thing."
     They continue to collect court records and police reports. They still work over the familiar ground.
     But they also know that life can't just be about the case anymore.
     Patti and Earl are trying to restart the family computer business. They had all but shut it down after Gary's slaying.
     Christina is attending Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute, working her way toward a degree in accounting, with possible plans to go into the FBI. The family might move from the house, which holds haunting memories of a family once made up of four.
     For Patti March, there is also a new mission.
     Working at the Survivors of Homicide office on a recent Monday afternoon, Patti says the organization has given her a broader cause to focus on as her son's case has wound its way through the system.
     "She is absolutely unique," McCary says. "I've never had a victim like her and I've been prosecuting homicides for a long time."
     Patti was there at the May sentencing of three men who pleaded guilty for the 1998 shooting death of University of New Mexico scholarship student Albert Marquez outside his West Side home.
     She spoke out with other crime victim advocates and law enforcement officials when the state Supreme Court earlier this year invalidated all pending Bernalillo County grand jury indictments because of faulty grand jury instructions.
     Yet, despite all the attention and distractions, the movies in Patti's mind continue to play.
     And that is the reality of Patti March's journey.
     While she has found a new life as an activist and advocate, much has not changed since the knock on the door on that late summer morning in 1995. There will always be questions without answers, grief without solace.
     "This is where my family and I have to decide what we're going to do with the rest of our lives," she says.
     The reality is that no matter how hard this mother fights for justice or closure, there can never truly be victory.
     Every day, when Patti March wakes up and every night when she goes to sleep, she glances at a small blue and white ceramic urn.
     In it -- her son's ashes.

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