Saturday, September 23, 2006

Foster alumna is murdered

A difficult life tragically ends in school garden
Woman's body found by young students checking vegetables
Simone Sebastian, Jim Herron Zamora, Henry K. Lee. San Francisco Chronicle.
San Francisco, Calif.: Sep 21, 2006. pg. B.1

Cynthia Lynn Hudson grew up in foster homes and spent her adult years homeless, fighting cocaine addiction and struggling with mental illness. Her tumultuous life ended in a community garden in West Oakland, where shocked elementary school students found her battered body Tuesday.

Police, parents and school officials were at a loss Wednesday to explain the unspeakable tragedy to the children at Lafayette Elementary School who used the fenced plot of land -- where a piece of yellow police tape still hung -- to grow vegetables and flowers.

"It's scary," said Waynette Lovely, whose 6-year-old daughter attends the school. "This happening in the garden is scary, and the kids finding it is even scarier."

The garden, where students have planted tomatoes, arugula, eggplants and other vegetables, is surrounded by a fence about 5 or 6 feet tall just outside classroom windows at the school at 17th and Market streets. The gardening program is run by the city Parks and Recreation Department.

About a dozen students between 7 and 10 years old, led by a Parks and Recreation Department employee, entered the garden after school Tuesday and found Hudson's body, said department spokeswoman Kip Walsh.

"They walked to the garden as they always do to check on the vegetables they planted," she said. "One of the children saw the body, and they immediately called 911."

Homicide Sgt. Dom Arotzarena said it appeared Hudson, 47, was killed inside the enclosure. "None of the evidence indicates that she was dumped at the scene," Arotzarena said. "We're not ruling anything out, of course, but it appears so far that she was killed there in the garden area."

Investigators confirmed that Hudson suffered severe trauma but declined to say how she was killed.

Hudson is the youngest of five siblings who grew up in foster care in Berkeley and Oakland, said her sister, Brenda Smith. She said their mother was mentally ill and their father was absent. Hudson was 2 when the siblings went into foster care, she said.

"Cynthia's been homeless for many, many years, literally living on the streets for at least 10 years," said Smith, 52. "She's been mentally ill all her life, and she's been in and out of jail for a long time."

The family stabilized when the siblings were taken in by Sallie Anne Jones, who became their foster mother and looked after them even as adults, Smith said. After Jones died in the 1990s, Hudson ended up on the streets.

"She didn't spend much time in shelters," Smith said. "My sister lived on the streets -- sometimes she kept all her things in a shopping cart, but she had nowhere to go."

The only bright spot in the past 10 years for Hudson came early last summer when the Berkeley Drop-in Center helped place her in an apartment near downtown Oakland, Smith said.

"I saw her last week," Smith said. "She wasn't using (drugs), and her face looked brighter and healthier. My sister was doing about as good as she ever lived."

Court records show Hudson has been arrested numerous times for drugs and unprovoked attacks on people in Berkeley, including yanking a child off a bike near a school, pushing a woman to the ground and slapping another person in the face. Her most recent arrest came Aug. 21 for allegedly stealing meat and frozen squid from an Oakland market. She has also been held several times for psychiatric observation.

Walsh said the employee who was with the children when Hudson's body was discovered was "very disturbed and upset."

Counselors were on site at Lafayette all day, district officials said, and a letter was sent to parents alerting them of the incident.

It's the second time this year that Lafayette has been a crime scene. In May, a man reportedly entered the school through a hole in a gate and attempted to sexually assault a 6-year-old girl, which prompted the district to add security.

Outside the garden, where children have painted wooden benches and signs labeling each vegetable, there was a single white candle Wednesday, with the handwritten words: "Garden Angel; May her soul rest."

Parents said they occasionally hear gunshots in the neighborhood but believe it is usually safe. But they are starting to question their own perceptions.

"Now I have my kids asking, 'Is Oakland a really bad place to live?' " said Javona Thomas, who saw the police at the garden Tuesday while picking up her 7-year-old son. "This is a nice neighborhood. It's rare that you see cop cars just pull up."