Rays of sun danced through the trees in Hyder Park on Thursday as leaves rustled in the wind and storm clouds cleared from the sky. People streamed into the park from all corners, cars lined the curbs, a couple pushed a dog in a stroller toward a picnic table dressed up with a rainbow cloth and a picture of a mother and her daughter.
By about 7:30 p.m., more than 200 people were gathered around the bright table set up for a vigil remembering Laura and Shanta Hanish in Southeast Albuquerque. The mother and daughter were killed last week in their home just a couple blocks away. Jesus Cartagena Jr., Shanta’s ex-boyfriend, is being charged with their deaths after turning himself in to police in El Paso on Saturday.
Their family, friends and co-workers dotted the crowd, their arms wrapped around one another’s shaking shoulders as they listened to shared memories.
“She was like a superhero or something,” Xavier Suarez-Reidy said. He was in Shanta’s graduating class at Amy Biehl High School, and they had both gone on a class trip to Italy after their junior year.
Suarez-Reidy broke his arm on the trip and said that afterward, Shanta always helped him with his bag and even nursed him on the flight home when the change in pressure caused his arm to hurt, sending him into shock.
“She woke up from a dead sleep and looked at me and asked if I was OK,” he said. “From that point, on she was just nannying me on the plane, getting me to drink water and eat food. I credit Shanta with a lot, and I am very grateful to her.”
Jesus and Shanta were dating at the time, and he was also on the trip. Suarez-Reidy remembers looking over at them while they were asleep on the plane. Shanta’s head was nestled on Cartagena’s shoulder, his head atop hers.
“I remember thinking it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and that if I ever fell in love I wanted it to be like that,” he said. “When (they found the bodies), I just kept thinking, ‘It can’t be him; it can’t be. If it is, I didn’t even know him.’ Well, I guess I didn’t.”
Thursday, people passed out small candles, turning around after one was lit to share the flame with another. They held the candles close, cupping a hand around them to protect them from the wind, sharing mournful gazes each time they shared a flame.
Anne Chamberlin met Laura when they both worked for the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, and for the next 25 years they were friends. Her favorite memory of Laura was a cold, difficult day of cross-country skiing on a rugged mountain trail.
“I was absolutely miserable, but she was great,” Chamberlin said. “She just kept encouraging me. By the time we got back, it was dark and she had carried my skis for the last mile. That’s Laura in a nutshell. Always up for adventure and always patient.”
Hearing stories about Shanta was wonderful, she said, because the two were so close and never had problems when Shanta was growing up.
“They were so much alike, it was really amazing,” Chamberlin said. “It felt like Shanta really picked up her values.”
Everyone who shared a memory of Laura mentioned her character.
She had spent 25 years working for the Law Office of the Public Defender, and her co-workers said she was always gentle and gave her love unconditionally. One of the women who helped organize the vigil told the crowd through tears, “We know Laura would never demonize the person who did this to her and Shanta.”
An older woman who had taken water aerobics and swimming lessons with Shanta at Highland Pool, where she worked, said Shanta gave her courage. A friend from her elementary school sang a song for Shanta and her mother.
A small band with two guitars and an accordion played softly from the edge of the crowd as cars passed.
After anyone with words to share about the mother and daughter had a chance to do so, the mourners came together at the bright picnic table and wrote on cards and colored paper, which they hung on trees wrapped in white ribbons around the park.
With their heads hung, they began to quietly disperse. As the park emptied, a pastel cotton candy sunset bloomed overhead. The trees were laden with a rainbow of envelopes, and the table was covered in flowers.