COVINA (AP) — Five years after a man dressed as Santa Claus massacred nine members of her family on Christmas Eve, the surviving daughter of the Ortega clan worked to master her mother's pozole recipe to serve at a traditional family dinner that's now forever tinged with tragedy.
The recipe was one from Leticia Yuzefpolsky's childhood and a reminder of festive meals she hadn't enjoyed since Bruce Pardo walked through the door of her parents' home in Covina five years ago, killed her family and burned the place down. In a matter of minutes, Yuzefpolsky lost nearly everyone she'd looked up to: her parents, two brothers and two sisters. Her two sisters-in-law and 17-year-old nephew also died.
But she was far from alone in her losses. Thirteen sons and daughters lost at least one parent that night.
Yuzefpolsky, the youngest of five children, became the reluctant matriarch, maintaining the tight-knit family's traditions and happier memories. The remaining family meets for dinner, exchanges gifts and shares memories.
A Christmas Day trip to church now is followed by a trip to the cemetery.
Pardo, her former brother-in-law, had carried a small arsenal of guns and fuel to torch the family's home that Christmas Eve. It was part of a plan triggered by his ex-wife's decision to divorce him. An FBI profile found that his actions were likely spurred by extreme narcissism and obsessive compulsive disorder.
When Pardo was severely burned in the attack, he ditched his elaborate getaway plan and killed himself with a gunshot to the mouth.
Meanwhile, Yuzefpolsky's family scrambled to pick up the pieces. With his parents dead, one nephew became the guardian of his three minor siblings. Yuzefpolsky and her husband took in her sister's youngest daughter.
Her then-8-year-old daughter Katrina was wounded by a gunshot to the cheek after Santa came to the door.
Yuzefpolsky worked to save Christmas for her kids — telling them that wasn't the real Santa — and calling friends from the hospital to make sure gifts were put under their tree. The kids were later sent to a camp that helps with grief.
For Yuzefpolsky, now 41, years of therapy have helped, though she still suffers from some anxiety and nightmares.
"I lost my identity completely," Yuzefpolsky said. "I always used to tease them that I have five sets of parents ... everyone telling me what to do and how to do it. I can't even tell you how much I miss them."
An overwhelming but hard-to-describe feeling of loss often sneaks up on her, especially in December.
"Everywhere you turn there are memories of what we used to have, and then memories of that night. You can't escape it," Yuzefpolsky said. Christmas "will always be there, and we continue to celebrate it."
The family has been especially touched by others' tragedies, particularly during the holidays. When a Connecticut woman lost her three daughters and parents in a house fire two years ago, Yuzefpolsky encouraged her daughters to write letters to the woman. Last year, when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at a Newtown school, they again wrote letters.
"Katrina usually writes: 'It'll be hard, but just have hope. Don't give up,'" Yuzefpolsky said.
That's most likely the family's abiding message.
"We have to keep moving in our everyday moments," she said. "There are those moments we think we've been through the worst so this cannot break us."
For the small Covina Police Department, whose officers responded to one of Los Angeles County's worst mass murders, memories also persist. The 10 detectives who worked the case all remain with the department. Some of them sometimes swing by the now-empty lot where the murders took place, sure they can still smell the smoke in the air.
The case — with its house fire, many crime scenes and multiple victims on a rainy holiday — has proven to be a teachable moment for other departments around the country.
And though the active investigation wrapped up roughly three years ago, the department continues to keep in touch with family and survivors pursuing leads and following up on details — especially around Christmas.
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