Theresa Azhocar's door was the first I knocked on as a reporter-my only option when I couldn't track down her phone number. On a Friday afternoon in April, I tapped on the screen door of Azhocar's home in Chula Vista. A short woman with a broad smile, green eyes and curly auburn hair appeared. I told her I wanted to talk to her about her daughter, Theresa Cruz.
Cruz had been in prison for 13 years, there for her role in the non-fatal shooting of her ex-husband in 1989. Seriously addicted to anti-anxiety medication at the time, and facing the possibility that she'd have to turn over custody of the couple's 5-year-old son to her ex-husband, Cruz waited in a car while three men shot her ex in the legs. Family members said the ex had stalked and harassed Cruz for five years prior to the shooting, even after she ended the relationship. In 1991, Cruz was found guilty of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and assault with a deadly weapon.
I sought out Azhocar because Cruz was coming up for parole again and I thought hers was an important story-letters from her four children in her court file were heartbreaking-they adored their grandmother (Azhocar) but wanted their mom home. Cruz had received glowing parole recommendations in the past, but the Board of Prison Terms had said no five previous times.
Azhocar said she'd be happy to talk to me; weekends were better. What ensued were several weeks of Azhocar postponing our meeting for one reason or another. She'd laugh at her crazy schedule, but she insisted that we meet. We finally did, first on a Saturday morning and then on a Friday evening.
A friend of Azhocar's said she had the “gift of making everyone feel like they were the most important person in the world.” I wouldn't so flatter myself, but that Friday evening, amid the chaos of grandkids, great grandkids and other family members who stopped by, Azhocar's focus was on telling me about her daughter. She'd leave the room to pull up a stack of court records, then a scrapbook she'd put together on her daughter's case. She showed me snapshots of Theresa taken in the prison's visiting room, depicting a stunning woman, her smiling face pressed against her grandson's tiny mug.
Azhocar tried to describe her 15 years of frustration with the legal system, the prison system and a capricious parole board. Talking about these things seemed therapeutic for her-by helping an outsider understand what she had been through, she gave herself a chance to try to make sense of it as well.
Last week, I got the news that Azhocar had died on Dec. 7 from aggressive cancer that spread to her liver, gallbladder and stomach. She lived six weeks past her diagnosis.
The timing of her death was heartbreaking. On Oct. 21, five days after Azhocar's diagnosis, Cruz was denied parole for the sixth time, told “don't give up” and that they'd see her next year. Cruz's request to attend her mother's funeral was also denied.
At the hearing, when asked by the board why she deserved parole, Cruz was barely able to focus on herself.
“Life has a way of changing,” she told the board, “and I just found out that this beautiful woman who gave me her life is going to die. I didn't want to cry up here,” she told the board, “I want to go back and take care of my mom.”
When Cruz went to prison, Azhocar got custody of her three daughters, the youngest only a few months old. Later, Azhocar got full custody of Cruz's son. When she took in the girls, she had already spent her savings on her daughter's trial. “There was no place to get help,” she told me. Cruz was convicted on Valentine's Day. “The kids came home with all these valentines,” recalled Azhocar. “They wanted to see who would get home first to give her this big heart, and she wasn't there.
“How do you prepare someone for that?” she asked. “Families of people who commit crimes are victims, too, because we hurt and there's no understanding for us.”
Azhocar's advocacy work moved beyond her daughter's case to issues concerning women prisoners and children of incarcerated parents. She spoke at conferences and rallies about how successful rehabilitation depends on an inmate maintaining a bond with her kids. She'd drive her daughter's kids to the prison in Chino every other week, which meant a five-hour, round-trip drive and a five-hour wait. “I tried to keep the bond there,” she said.
AB 231, 1995 legislation authored by then-state Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, passed largely because of Azhocar and Cruz's daughter Andrea's testimony at legislative hearings. The bill ordered the Board of Prison Terms to take into account a broader definition of so-called Battered Woman's Syndrome when making parole decisions. The text of the bill references Cruz's case.
Board of Prison Terms spokesperson Tip Kindel said that although the board had, since 1991, considered a woman's history of abuse, AB 231 helped codify what constitutes evidence of abuse. Twenty-four women have been paroled based on claims of physical or mental abuse since 1991, Kindel said. The majority of these paroles came after AB 231 passed.
Azhocar also helped found the San Diego chapter of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners in 2000. She became the heart of the chapter, said its director, Janice Jordan, helping to organize rallies, book drives and letter-writing campaigns. “She's ‘mother' Theresa,” said Jordan. “It ended up as a big joke-I told her, ‘I'm going to put you up for sainthood,' and she'd laugh.”
Azhocar's long-time friend John Reimann said her activism over the past decade made her a stronger person. “I remember asking her one time which Theresa she liked better, the one that she is now, or the one she used to be-the shy one-and she kind of gave this little smile and said, definitively, ‘I like this one better.'
“She really rose to the occasion as few people do.”