More than 60 friends and family members gathered at Carl Levin Park in Harker Heights on Tuesday evening for a vigil honoring Angelica Santiago, who was 18 when she was murdered two years ago.
They released red balloons — her favorite color —with their thoughts, prayers and wishes written on each one.
“It just brings happiness to see all these people here that are still celebrating her life, even though it has been two years,” said family member Cassandra Black. “It’s just a good time for us to come together and remember the time that each of us had with her.”
“This is going to be a tradition from here on out,” said Angelica’s uncle Christopher Santiago. “Her son is going to continue this when he gets older, too.”
Angelica’s son Matthew was only 1 when his mother was killed.
“Angelica touched everybody’s hearts. I miss her every day and I can’t wait to see her again,” Angelica’s uncle said.
The vigil, originally an idea of one of Angelica’s friends, was open to the public, and several park paused during their walk to take part.
“A lot of people heard of the story and a lot of people were touched by it. People reached out to me that I didn’t even know,” said Angelica’s mother, Carmen Santiago. “I just want to share it with everybody and make sure that it’s not forgotten.”
After the balloon release, the Santiago family lit candles and shared stories about Angelica, letting her be a continuous part of her son’s life.
“I just don’t want him to forget who she was. He knows who she is, he just didn’t get the chance to really get to know her,” Santiago said. “But he knows who mommy is and that’s what’s important.”
This was the second vigil held for Angelica, but one significant detail was different this year.
“The most special thing about this get-together is that there is a conviction,” Black said.
Matthew Scott Stoddard, who was Angelica Santiago’s boyfriend at the time of her death, was convicted of her murder June 21 after pleading guilty. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison by Judge John Gauntt in the 27th Judicial District Court.
“We are not only celebrating her life but celebrating the fact knowing the person who is responsible for this is not free to hurt anyone else and is actually paying for the crime that he committed,” Black said. “There is just a sense of relief.”
Stoddard initially told police that Angelica Santiago shot herself while he was in the bathroom. Further investigation by the Bell County district attorney’s office led officials to believe otherwise.
While the Santiagos never believed Stoddard’s suicide accusations, they now can find a sense of closure.
Family friend Vanessa Sowers has known Carmen Santiago for 25 years and had been close to her daughter Angelica.
“I don’t think Carmen has been able to grieve her daughter’s passing,” she said. “She has to raise Matthew on her own and it’s just hard for everybody. She (Angelica) was a young soul who lost her life way too soon and we miss her so much.”
While the Santiago family continues to celebrate a life lost too soon, they want to reach out to other women in similar situations, suffering domestic violence.
“She tried to reach out, she tried to get help, but she never followed through,” Santiago said. “If you know something is not right and you don’t feel good in a relationship, follow your gut and go through with it. Even if there are children involved, the best thing to do is separate.”
According to her mother, Angelica wanted to leave the night of the murder.
“This is what happens when relationships escalate, things happen that you don’t want to happen,” Santiago said. “Regardless of how you feel about it, get out.”
The vigil ended with lots of tears, hugs and smiles for Angelica. Now the family looks forward to another occasion for their lost daughter.
“Angelica’s 21st birthday is on July 27th, so it’s an important one for her,” her mother said. “We usually save that day for family only and have a birthday party for her at home.”