By Lisa P. White and Katherine Tam
Catalina Torres survived domestic abuse and became a strong advocate for a nonprofit group that helps victims of domestic violence.
“She was a battered woman who became an advocate,” said Maria Preciado, Torres’ close friend. “She took negative experiences and turned them into positive things.”
In a tragic turn of events, the 44-year-old STAND Against Domestic Violence volunteer lost her life Saturday, an innocent bystander in a deadly domestic disturbance involving her cousin’s estranged husband.
The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office identified Felix Sandoval Jr., 49, of Martinez, as the gunman who fatally shot Torres and Martinez police Sgt. Paul Starzyk in an apartment behind Elegant Hair Design salon, located at Pacheco Boulevard and Morello Avenue. Police shot and killed Sandoval in the same unit.
More details emerged Sunday in the triple shooting that stunned the county hub and its small police-force.
Officers were called to the salon about 11:35 a.m. Saturday on reports of a domestic disturbance. Sandoval broke the salon’s front window with his hand and entered holding a gun, police said. According to witnesses, he was looking for his estranged wife, salon owner Margarita Sandoval.
Martinez police Chief Tom Simonetti said Felix Sandoval, who was waving the gun around, never fired a shot in the salon, but confronted his teenage daughter in the parking lot behind the salon and told her he was going to kill his wife and his other children. Sandoval ran to an upstairs apartment on the opposite side of the parking lot where Torres, an unidentified woman and three of Sandoval’s children were, the chief said.
Moments later, Starzyk and a K-9 officer arrived at the scene. They heard gunshots and climbed the stairs to the apartment.
“If we know there’s violence of this nature going on, in the old days it was lock it down and call for SWAT. But they made the correct decision that there were people’s lives in danger and they needed to get in there,” Simonetti said.
A gun battle erupted as the officers attempted to enter the apartment and Starzyk was shot twice, Simonetti said. When a third officer reached the apartment he saw Sandoval, who also had been shot, lying on the floor with the gun still in his hand. When Sandoval moved, the officer shot and killed him, the chief said.
Sandoval and Torres died at the scene. The children, who were hiding in a closet, and the second woman were uninjured, police said.
Felix Sandoval owns the apartment building, but it was unclear who lived in the apartment where the shootings happened, Simonetti said.
According to Contra Costa County Superior Court records, Margarita Sandoval requested a restraining order against Felix Sandoval in July 2007. She filed for divorce a month later and the order was extended until 2010. A settlement conference was scheduled for Oct. 27.
Margarita Sandoval could not be reached for comment.
Sheriff’s office spokesman Jimmy Lee said autopsies will be performed today to determine the causes of death.
Elegant Hair Salon, which sits next to a tattoo parlor on a nondescript strip mall, has established a reputation in Martinez as the top hair styling spot, especially for proms and other social events, clients said.
On Sunday, the door was closed and wooden boards covered the broken window. Patrons and Torres’ friends laid flowers at the entrance of the salon where Torres worked part time. One message read: “Our prayers are with all of you during this sad time. May God be with you all.”
Torres, nicknamed “Cata” by family and friends, was divorced with children and had just become a grandmother, her friend Preciado said.
She fought through dyslexia and graduated from Diablo Valley College, then returned to campus to teach math, her friend said. She participated in Puente, a club encouraging minority students to continue their education by transferring to four-year colleges.
“From third grade and on, I could never get math, but she could teach you. The way she did it, she made it so easy,” said Delin Finley, Torres’ former student. “She knew what it was like to not be able to learn.”
A mile away at the Martinez police station, well-wishers placed flowers and lit candles in memory of Starzyk near the entrance.
Starzyk, a 12-year veteran of the force and a married father of three small children, began his law enforcement career as a Martinez cadet. Budget cuts forced him to join another department, but he returned to Martinez and became a member of the Central Contra Costa Narcotics Enforcement Team. Starzyk, 47, also supervised field training officers who work with new recruits.
Starzyk is the second officer in Martinez police department history to be killed in the line of duty. The first fatality was in 1973.
Starzyk’s death has hit the close-knit department hard and grief counselors are available, Simonetti said. Officers from Pleasant Hill, Concord and the California Highway Patrol will patrol Martinez streets for the next day or two.
Police are working closely with Starzyk’s family to plan his funeral, which is tentatively scheduled for Thursday. They are also setting up a college fund for Starzyk’s children, Simonetti said.
“The people of California are forever indebted to Paul’s tireless service, and we will never forget his selfless dedication to public safety,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement Sunday. Flags flew at half-staff at the Capitol.