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By RANDI ROSSMANN

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Grieving family members and friends of a young Santa Rosa man stabbed to death Sunday remembered him as a good stepfather and uncle.

Juan Carlos Angel-Esparza, 20, died Saturday evening after being stabbed multiple times, said Santa Rosa police Sgt. Steve Fraga.

Angel-Esparza had been sitting on a bench at Kawana Elementary School when he was approached by assailants, according to family members.

Police Sunday afternoon hadn't released any information regarding a possible motive.

Gang and violent crime detectives continued investigating Sunday while a patrol officer remained on duty for hours at the school's entrance at the end of Moraga Drive. The campus was roped off with yellow police tape to keep people away from the homicide scene.

"He at least got to experience being a father with his girlfriend's son," said his sister, Maria Angel.

Her younger brother wasn't the biological father but had so taken to the little boy, he was thoroughly enjoying time with the toddler, she said.

Angel-Esparza lived with his sister in the Cypress Ridge apartment complex. It is separated from the south Santa Rosa school by a community garden and parking lot.

Saturday evening he was spending time across the way on the school campus when he was approached and some kind of confrontation ensued.

"He was sitting on a bench talking to some friends," said his sister.

She was home when he was attacked and was alerted to the violence, she said. She ran to the school to find her brother, who was mortally wounded.

After being stabbed multiple times in the upper torso, the young man apparently collapsed outside the school's multi-purpose room in an order school corridor.

The elementary school campus and adjoining park facilities are a popular gathering spot for area residents, as well as suspected gang members up to no good, said neighbors Sunday.

The school, in the South Park neighborhood off of Petaluma Hill Road, is frequently tagged with gang graffiti by feuding gangs. Neighbors said the problem appeared to have been getting worse.

The belief in the neighborhood Sunday was the victim wasn't a gang member but apparently was killed by gang members.

The violence, which occurred just after 5 p.m. Saturday, led to a flurry of activity in the older subdivision neighborhood including police and ambulance response, a gathering of distraught family members and knots of concerned neighbors brought outside by the loud whine of sirens.

Sunday, the older elementary school campus was quiet and empty except for a Santa Rosa fire crew cleaning up at the scene and a police officer stationed at a front gate.

Monday morning it will be home again to hundreds of K-6 students, many of whom will know something bad happened there over the weekend.

Maria Arevalos, a mother of young students at the school, said her children were scared about going back.

"They're afraid because it's at the school," she said. "If they can't be safe at school, where can they be safe?"

She feared they wouldn't want to go to school but she knew they should, Arevalos said.

"I just told them sometimes bad things happen to good people and for them not to be afraid but to be careful," she said.

School officials and teachers Sunday were organizing a response for Monday morning to help their students and families, including bringing counselors onto campus and planning classroom talks.

Veteran teacher Martha Menth said she was saddened by the death of the young man. But she also was angry and frustrated that violence occurred on campus, knowing it would frighten the school community.

"I'm very upset. I feel terrible," said Menth, who teaches a 5-6 grade combination class this year and who has been at Kawana for 23 years.

Kawana teachers work very hard to help their students, many of whom struggle with poverty and gang issues, she said. Teachers there preach the importance of school as the way to move beyond them.

"You've got to come to school. Education will get you out of this," is a top message from teachers, she said.

A school marquee Sunday included that message: "Reading is the key to success."

Menth is in charge of the marquee message. Friday morning before school she found it covered in gang graffiti and cleaned it off before students arrived.

A reward was being offered for $2,500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible.

The money is available through the Take Back Our Community Program offered by the Sonoma County Alliance.

Fraga asked anyone with information to contact detectives at 543-3590.