A mother’s strength in the wake of her son’s gruesome murder and detectives’ compassion while investigating sexual assaults were highlighted Wednesday during a National Crime Victims’ Rights Week ceremony in Santa Maria.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley presided over the ceremony at the Santa Maria-Bonita School District’s Souza Support Center a few blocks from the Santa Maria Court Complex.
Dudley presented Maria Navarro with the Citizen of Courage Award.
Navarro, whose 28-year-old son, Anthony Ibarra, was tortured and fatally stabbed March 17, 2013, sat through the months-long trial of the multiple defendants charged in the slaying.
While the torture and killing occurred in a house on West Donovan Road in Santa Maria, Ibarra's body was found in a U-Haul truck parked in Orcutt.
The mother heard gruesome testimony about her son’s final moments of life, and later spoke during the sentencing hearing for the five men convicted of murdering him.
“Her words were awe-inspiring,” Dudley said, adding that Navarro faced her son’s murderers fearlessly and with courage while telling the judge how much the loss hurt the family.
“From our first conversation with her on March 21, 2013, to today, she has been an inspiration and an example to us all,” Dudley said.
In accepting the award, Navarro said her faith and support from the Victim Witness Unit helped her "keep on going" through the trial process.
“I’m proud of you, Anthony,” she said, looking up. “I know he’s here and he’s happy for me that I’m strong.”
With members of the Santa Maria Police Department and District Attorney’s Office filling the audience, Dudley noted the importance of crime victims’ rights in the job performed for Santa Barbara County residents.
“Our role is to support victims and seek justice for all,” Dudley said.
During the ceremony, Santa Maria police detectives Jose DeLeijia, Michael Huffman and Cassandra Stowasser received the Victim Service Award for their “tireless efforts” for the Sexual Assault Response Team.
“Their work investigating and interviewing victims of sexual assault and child abuse demonstrates a dedication to serving victims of crime with compassion, empathy, professionalism and a deep understanding of the complexities and nuances of these cases,” Dudley said.
As SART members, the detectives provide expertise in talking to victims, often traumatized, too young or wary to say what happened.
SART — Dudley called the members “heroes” — is a multidisciplinary response approach whose members conduct interviews and medical examinations in a coordinated effort.
Huffman and DeLeijia attended the ceremony, but Stowasser was unable to be there due to training.
“This award is especially meaningful because it is about the victims, and many times the victims’ families,” said Huffman, his voice choking with emotion. “That’s the reason why we give all when we investigate these cases so that at some point they can have closure or some sense of justice for traumatic events that they’ve had to experience.”
Police Cmdr. Phil Hansen said Huffman’s emotional moment was genuine.
“People tend to think of police officers as hard cases and people that can compartmentalize their emotions and not care about this stuff,” Hansen said. “They do. Believe me, they do. And it takes a toll.”
During the ceremony, Dudley handed out the third media award to Catherine Remak, from K-Lite radio.
“Are you kidding me? I had no idea,” Remak said after Dudley announced the recipient.
A radio personality, Remak serves as the calming voice in reporting news and provides a platform for social service agencies and crime victims, Dudley said, noting the recipient also works at the Santa Barbara County Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.
“We as a community are comforted by the sound of her voice and the wisdom of her words,” Dudley added.
The inaugural media award went to Tom Bolton, executive editor of Noozhawk, in 2014.