A Tree Grows for Kyleigh
Family of Slain Point Pleasant Borough Woman Asks for Donations for Memorial Sculpture, Foundation
Even in death, there is life.
Even in the loss of Kyleigh Sousa, there is a tree growing in her name, springing forth, reaching towards the sky.
Even in the pain suffered by her family and friends, there is art flowing from a sculptor's hand, creating a likeness of the young woman taken from this life far too soon.
Even as darkness falls on all the possibilities that could have been Kyleigh's, a light shines for others on a path towards healing.
A small dogwood tree facing the river beach in Point Pleasant where Kyleigh Sousa used to spend time with friends, a bronze sculpture that will watch over Kyleigh laid to rest, and a foundation to raise money for violent crime victims like her, are signs of Kyleigh's spirit, pushing forth.
Although that energy is no longer moving on Earth, it's moving others on Earth to create, to help each other, to find new growth, to keep her spirit alive.
Kyleigh, 21, had lived in Point Pleasant Borough for the past six years.
She was killed in May while out with friends near her university dorm in Arizona. But her family feels her spirit and wants to keep her memory alive.
"I just want people to hear her story and feel compassion," says her mother, Karen Montenegro who, along with her husband, Nicholas Montenegro, and son, Michael Sousa, 18, lived on River Avenue with Kyleigh. "I want to keep talking about Kyleigh. I feel like if I don't, it will be like she's gone for good."
The family wanted to plant a dogwood in her memory because that was her favorite kind of tree. "We wanted to plant a tree for Kyleigh near the river because she used to go to the river beaches all the time," says Montenegro, referring to the tree planted near the Bennett Cabin at the Riverfront Park on River Road and Maxson Avenue.
"She loved the water. She loved going to the river and the ocean and working in the candy stores on the boardwalk during the summer," she said.
Eventually, the family will have a memorial plaque installed in front of the tree.
Kyleigh also leaves behind her father, Duarte Sousa, Point Pleasant Borough, and a brother, Bernie Sousa, 33, who lives with his wife, Lauren, in Horsham, Pa. Bernie Sousa says his father does not wish to be interviewed.
"But I really want everyone to know he's hurting as badly as the rest of us," Sousa says. "He still has me and my brother. But he had a special relationship with his daughter. She was his only daughter.
"My father realized he needed to get back into his routine, so he went back to work," Sousa says. "He's a strong guy. He realized he couldn't just sit home and be miserable. But when we lost Kyleigh, we all lost a piece of ourselves. When my father was visiting me a couple of months ago, he said, 'Life just isn't the same without her and without her here.' "
Montenegro and her family are asking the public for donations for the creation of a bronze statue in Kyleigh's likeness and, separately, for the Kyleigh Sousa Foundation (www.kyleighsousafoundation.org), which will award a scholarship to a borough high school student and another to a student at Arizona State University where Kyleigh was a junior majoring in pre-law and communications.
The family also hopes to use some of the funds to help violent crime victims and their families. Montenegro said she has been moved by the support from residents and businesses who want to help honor her daughter's memory.
Memories are all Kyleigh's family and friends have had since May 26 when she was killed near her dorm in Tempe, just east of Phoenix.
Montenegro says her daughter was with a close friend late at night after she was done working at a local restaurant. Kyleigh and her friend were about to go into an International House of Pancakes when a driver stopped to ask for directions. Her friend went over to talk to the driver as Kyleigh was waiting at the door, waiting to go in and texting a friend.
After a few minutes, she walked over to the car.
"She was wondering what was taking so long," Montenegro said. "Her friend was giving the driver directions. Then the driver said to Kyleigh, 'You're really hot. You're really beautiful. Why are you with this guy? Kyleigh just laughed and said to her friend, 'Come on, let's go,' turned to leave and that's when he grabbed her purse.' "
The family is not divulging the friend's name because he is an eyewitness in the ongoing investigation. Montenegro said that when her daughter was killed, it was obvious that asking for directions was just a ruse.
Police say the driver, Jose Luis Marquez, 20, grabbed her purse and drove away, even as Kyleigh got tangled in the strap and was dragged 30 feet before dropping to the asphalt parking lot.
During the investigation, Marquez was identified as the suspect vehicle driver and person who grabbed the purse from Sousa by others who had been in the vehicle at the time, according to the police report.That, combined with tips from eyewitnesses outside the car and an image from a traffic camera that took a photograph of Marquez's rented car, led police to build a case against him. The image had been shot on May 10, 16 days before the homicide, but it was used by detectives who matched it later with witness descriptions of Marquez and the 2008 gold-colored Charger he was driving, according to police.
Police arrested Marquez at a home in Phoenix on Dec. 6, charging him with first-degree murder. Marquez was indicted on charges of first-degree murder and robbery on Dec. 15, is being held in the 4th Avenue jail in downtown Phoenix on $1 million bond and had a Dec. 23 arraignment. According to the dictates of the Arizona court system, a "not guilty" plea was entered automatically, as is done with most defendants.
Marquez will not have the option until later in the legal process whether to plead guilty or not guilty. Police say the investigation is continuing and may lead to charges against passengers in Marquez's car. Marquez is due to appear in court on Feb. 10.
The arrest was what Montenegro was hoping for, but not because she thought it would make her happy. It won't bring Kyleigh back, it won't take away the pain, and it won't make her stop missing the daughter who filled up her heart and her life.
"I really want to clear up a misconception that people have," said Montenegro. "People think I'm happy now because the guy was caught. There is no joy, there is no peace in this. At most, maybe my daughter is in a little more peace. But that's about it.
"People have been calling me up in a celebratory way and I'm thinking, 'Wait, we're not happy.' I can't eat. I can't sleep. I live on coffee and, if I'm lucky, maybe a bowl of soup. A lot of people have said they're sorry and they wish they could do something to make me feel better. I can't think of anything that will make me feel better."
A string of special occasions, that make the void of such a painful loss gape even wider, has been well under way.
First there was Nov. 18, Montenegro's birthday.
"Every year Kyleigh would call me at midnight on my birthday because she wanted to be the first to wish me happy birthday," Montenegro said. "She would joke and be silly. It really hit me when I didn't get that call this year."
Then there was Thanksgiving and now there is Christmas.
"I am afraid of the day," Montenegro said. "I see the lights and all I see is a little girl squealing early in the morning, waking up her brothers and opening her presents. How do you get up on Christmas morning without your kid?"
Then there will be New Year's Day and Feb. 8, Kyleigh's birthday. She would have been 22.
Then, three months later will be the one-year anniversary since Kyleigh was taken. Montenegro said she is hoping the bronze sculpture will be finished by then and placed in Greenwood Cemetery where Kyleigh is laid to rest.
However, that might be a hard deadline to make since the family is still trying to raise money to pay $45,000 for materials for the sculpture, Montenegro said. Sculptor Brian Hanlon is not charging the family for labor.
Montenegro emphasizes that any donations that had been made to the foundation will be used only for that and not for the sculpture. She said anyone wishing to donate to the sculpture or the foundation can express a preference on their checks.
Montenegro says she's been able to minimally return to working part-time at her husband's law practice in Brick Township, where she and her family had lived before moving to Point. She helps her husband run a business that helps senior citizens with administrative tasks related to health care and wills.
"Sometimes I go in for a couple of hours, sometimes the whole day," she says. "Sometimes I really don't know why I'm even getting out of bed."
Sousa says it's hard moving forward, but that he felt he had to return to work. He is a medical representative for Stryker and spends most of his time as a surgical technician assisting in neurological and facial reconstruction at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
Going back to work was one thing. But there are other things he can't handle yet. He says he and his wife are postponing starting a family.
"It's hard to even think about," he said. "My sister used to bust my chops every time we saw each other, saying, 'When am I gonna be an aunt?' It's not something I thought I would ever have to start without Kyleigh being involved.
"I'm sure at some point my wife and I will do it. I just have to wait until I'm at the point where I'm ready. I don't want to have an overwhelming amount of sadness overtaking the joy. When something like this happens, it completely shatters your world."