About a mile from where Charlie Keever and Jonathan Sellers were found dead 19 years ago along the shores of the Otay River, a park named in their honor opened Monday in Imperial Beach with more than 100 people in attendance.
"It's so beautiful. I'm so proud of it," said Jonathan's mother Milena Sellers-Phillip shortly after seeing the park for the first time. Sellers-Phillip was especially interested in parts of the nautilus shell at the center of the park that glow in the dark.
"It will look like stars on the ground. I always felt like my son, he was an angel down here and now he's back in the sky, and he left us these beautiful stars. So I'm looking forward to seeing it at night," she said.
Native vegetation at the Jonathan Sellers and Charlie Keever Outdoor Educational Activity Center was planted by school children from Imperial Beach.
A trail leads to a 30-foot spiral shell center covered with blue and teal glass and dotted with the occasional photo of Keever and Sellers.
Along the edge of the glass floor is a quote from Rachel Carlson which reads "There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature. The assurance that dawn comes after night and spring after the winter."
Telescopes pointing north, with its vantage point at the bottom of San Diego Bay, have a picturesque view of the San Diego skyline and can see cars moving on the Coronado Bridge 10 miles away.
The space on the northern tip of IB next to the Bayshore Bikeway in the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge will act as an attraction to local residents and visitors and an outdoor classroom for South Bay students.
"It's a reminder of how important our children are," said Bill Holmes about the park. Holmes was the lead investigator on the case. "Both mothers were very persistent in wanting to know what was going on with the case for the entire eight years until we caught the guy."
DNA evidence led to the arrest of Scott Erskine, who has been on death row at San Quentin State Prison since 2004. Until he was arrested, the case weighed heavy on Holmes, who worked with a team of officers on the case sometimes at night or on weekends.
"It would weigh on anybody, especially if you're a parent. I have children who were the same age as these two boys when this happened, and it was horrendous. Something you'll never forget. You always think about it," he said.
Sellers-Phillip and Keever were joined at the event by their children, grandchildren and other family as well as members of the foundation started in their son's names to support the families of homicide victims and promote child safety.
Also in attendance were former principals and instructors of schools the boys attended, California Conservation Corps staff who helped prep the park space, Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox, Imperial Beach Mayor Jim Janney, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore and County of San Diego Parks and Recreation officials.
Mayor Sanders had only been chief of police for a month when the murders took place in 1993. He received a personal thanks through tears from Charlie's mother Maria Keever because he "put himself in my place at that time."
"You know, I think when we look at these two women, they have handled this tragedy in ways that all of us hope that someday if we ever have to face anything so horrific could do," Sanders said.
The park was put together with $175,000 in funding from the County of San Diego. Mayor Sanders and both mothers credited Supervisor Greg Cox with leading the effort to ensure the park was built.
Sellers-Phillip sees the space as a celebration of life, a place to stop and see birds, plants, water and life in motion.
"My kids can come here and not feel sad but feel happy and I like that, and other kids can come here," she said. A twin, Jonathan was the fourth of six children.
Students from Bayside Elementary School and other nearby schools will continue to plant vegetation at the park, a San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge official said.
Jonathan and Charlie's deaths created a special bond between Sellers-Phillip and Keever. They had never met before their death, she said, but now are "spiritual sisters."
"Charlie tried to get her to come see me. Alton and Jonathan tried to get me to go over there, but Maria works, I was working, and our schedules just never meshed you know until that night when Maria came to the door looking for Charlie. And ever since then for the most part we've been together," she said.
On March 27, 2013 the Jonathan Sellers- Charlie Keever Foundation will mark 20 years since Jonathan and Charlie were killed while recognizing the loss of other homicide victims at the San Diego County Swiss Club. The foundation will hold its first fundraiser June 1 of next year with a bike ride past the park to Coronado along the Bayshore Bikeway.
The new park is part of a series of changes in the northeast corner of Imperial Beach. In the future a Bikeway Village may be built next to the park, and part of Pond 20 may become a mitigation bank or be developed.