A family's pain: 4 bodies found

'Unbearable,' only surviving daughter cries

By Erinn Hutkin
January 13, 2005

He spoke with one dark dreadlock limp over his cheek and a look of defeat in his red-rimmed eyes. He spoke softly, slowly and thoughtfully. A man who had something to say. His story.

"That's Raven's paw prints right there," Jimmie Wallet said, tugging his leather vest, where a little green hand print stood frozen in paint. "My 6 year old's."

Before dawn Wednesday, workers and friends unearthed little Raven's body from 13 feet of mud and rocks and debris cemented with dirt. Included among the rubble were a skate helmet and clothes her grandma bought her last month for her birthday.

Her body was found with those of her sisters' -- Hannah, 10, and Paloma, 2, nicknamed Paloma-loma-lou.

They were found with their mother, Mechelle Wallet, 37, bringing the number of fatalities in Monday's mudslide at the 156-home community north of Ventura to 10.

They were a family separated and missing. Now, they were together again. They were found Wednesday among broken belongings and broken shoes shortly after 2 a.m.

Jimmie Wallet was there digging from the start. He knew workers found the bodies of his family by the way rescuers were walking. No greeting of "Hey." No little wave.

They were carried on stretchers by family and friends, pallbearers on a slow, final march.

"There are no words to explain the pain I'm feeling," said Wallet's oldest daughter, Jasmine, 16. "It's unbearable."

About five months ago, the family moved in with a friend of Jimmie's at La Conchita.

Life was never better

The couple, who married in 1988 after meeting in junior high, were separated for a while, but life was never better in La Conchita. Jimmie and Mechelle reconnected as best friends, as soulmates.

"Ahhh," he sighed at the memory. He called it Never Never Land. There was a bus converted into a music studio. Banana trees. DJ's, art and painting. Fifteen or more dinner guests every night.

He never saw his children so happy.

"It was for my kids," he said of the home. "Paradise."

But Monday was when paradise came to an end. It was not a normal day. There were rains the night before and a tornado watch in the morning. Highway 101 was closed, and nobody could leave La Conchita. Residents planned a barbecue. People could walk across the freeway. Ride bikes. Look at cars stuck in the mud.

Jimmie and the family planned to go treasure-hunting on the beach -- looking for arrowheads that might have washed ashore. Mechelle heard there was the possibility of a landslide.

"Yeah, right," is what Jimmie said most people thought. "We're going to stay."

Leaves to buy family treats

He walked down the street to buy ice cream at the corner store. He wanted to give the kids a treat while he and Mechelle packed belongings in case they decided to leave.

The market was closed, and as Jimmie talked with neighbors about what they would barbecue, the earth came crashing down.

Mud flowed like a faucet was turned on -- houses, trailers, cars hit the backs of homes. Everything smacked each house with a boom, with explosions, like there was dynamite in every room.

Jimmie Wallet's little girls were in there.

The mud gushed down the hill, hit a retaining wall, formed a "y" and rolled straight for Jimmie's house.

He ran toward the home, maybe 60 feet. The flow stopped just yards in front of him. He did not know it at the time, but mud pushed his home across the street. A tree fell, hit his house and split the structure in two.

Jimmie ran to the spot where his house stood just seconds before. Instead, there was a 30-foot pile of mud. Nothing but mud.

His first and only thought was that he wanted his family.

"Go find those people," he thought.

Instead, he saw a little girl pinned under an armoire. He could not lift the bulky furniture. With the help of someone nearby, they set the girl free.

Then, Jimmie started digging. Digging and screaming and calling his wife and daughters' names. He dug with his fingernails, on his hands and knees.

He leaves, returns after chase

Monday, the first day, he dug with Orion Womack, whose dad owned the house where the Wallets lived.

Charly Womack's body was pulled from the rubble later that day.

Jimmie Wallet left La Conchita late Monday night when rains came and rescue crews left -- heeding the advice of geologists who warned of another slide. Then he came back. Under the mud, Jimmie thinks he heard daughter Raven's voice, the girl who did not breathe when she was born but learned to scream loud enough to make him hold his ears. He dug where he heard her moan. He thinks he heard his baby cry her final scream.

Tuesday, while returning to La Conchita, Jimmie drove through a California Highway Patrol checkpoint on the 101 at California Street. He was pursued north to La Conchita because deputies did not recognize him.

On scene, officers pointed a gun at Jimmie. He was pepper- sprayed but released and allowed to dig at the pile. Under normal circumstances, said county sheriff's spokesman Eric Buschow, he would have been arrested.

Early Wednesday, Jimmie said, rescue workers gave him a gift. They dug out his family.

That evening, he sat on a mattress in a relative's Ventura home. His one surviving daughter sat crying behind him. He called her "baby" as he was interviewed for NBC's Today show.

The interviewer referred to Jimmie as the "public face of grieving."

Instead, he said, he's just a man who knew he had to find his family. Period.

"I'd rather not be focused on. I'd rather have them here with me," he said. "I want to be greedy and I want to be a little selfish. I want them.

Yeah, I want them."

Copyright 2005, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.