Coping with homicide at age 11
Vanisha Stevens is 11 years old with a wavy brown ponytail and wire-rim glasses.
She likes to dance in her socks, keeps a secret diary, and wants to be a pediatrician.
On Sept. 5, her mother, Michelle Moore, opened the front door, and saw a business card flutter onto the carpet.
Vanisha was at school. Moore reached down and picked the card up. On one side was the name of a homicide detective. On the other was a scrawled message: "Urgent. Please call."
Herbert Stevens, Vanisha's father, had been fatally shot at 1756 W. 39th Street by an unknown gunman. He and Moore were separated. But Stevens still saw Vanisha nearly every day, playing tag with her in the house or taking her to the mall. Moore hung up the phone, and thought, "How will I tell her?"
She decided to let Vanisha finish school. Afterward, Moore took Vanisha to her grandmother's house, hoping to get her daughter into a supportive setting before breaking the news.
But Vanisha was too old to fall for that. She walked into her grandmother's house, and, before anyone else could speak, said: "OK. Who died?"
Moore could only answer: "Your dad."
At first, Vanisha screamed and cried. They gave her tissue and she tore it up. She threw herself on her mother and her sister. Then she grew quiet. She asked her mother to take her home.
After that, she didn't cry any more. Days passed. Moore was at a loss. "She was scaring all of us," Moore said. "She was just calm. Like nothing ever happened. Just being supportive to me. Wanting to know if I was OK, and telling me that I've got to be strong."
Vanisha described it like this: "When I first found out, my world collapsed," she said. "Then in a couple of days, I was a brand new person. It was like nothing had ever happened. Like it wasn't real. Like it was just a rumor."
She insisted on going back to school at Foshay Learning Center.
"What are you doing here?" asked her math teacher, Olga Mangiwet. Vanisha gave her an answer that seemed too detached and practiced: "I said, 'I need to go to school. I need to learn and get my education. I can't let this get in the way,'" Vanisha recalled.
"So calm," Mangiwet recalled thinking.
Like Moore, she was disturbed. She decided the best course was just to listen. One day, Vanisha brought the funeral program to show her. They thumbed through it together.
At home these days, when her 4-year-old cousin wakes up fussy from a nap, it is Vanisha who scoops her up and rocks her.
Her mother isn't sure what to do.
On the one hand, Moore is proud of her daughter's courage, which seems to belong to someone older. On the other hand, she's troubled by it.
"I kept looking at her, thinking, 'Is she going to cry any more? Will she hold this inside?'" Moore said. "I just pray for guidance."
Above, Vanisha; her father Herbert Stevens holding her when she was toddler; her math teacher, Olga Mangiwet; and, near right, Vanisha, with cousin Emilee, 4.
Herbert Stevens was a graduate of Los Angeles Trade Tech college who had worked at the Department of Water & Power as an electrician and also worked as a neighborhood handyman. Investigators think he may have been killed simply because he looked much younger than his 47 years: Vanisha said he came to her school once, and her teachers mistook him for her older brother.
Detectives are seeking any information, including anonymous tips, on the shooting, which happened at 1756 W. 39th Street at about 2:20 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5. Although another shooting occured earlier at Martin Luther King Jr. Park a block away, it was not related, police believe. LAPD Dets. Robert Lait and Stacey Szymkowiak can be reached at (213) 485-1383.