First published in the Nov. 20 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The crowd murmured in anticipation as many attendees angled themselves to get a glimpse of the metal box, still covered with a red cloth.
Utility boxes do not ordinarily attract as much attention as this one, located at the intersection of Glenoaks Boulevard and Andover Drive in Burbank. But scores of people stood on the street corner in the hot sun on Nov. 13, greeting friends and family with hugs as they arrived. A few held balloons they planned to release to honor the people they had come to remember.
When city workers finally unveiled the artwork, some of those who gathered wept.
The recently painted metal box depicts the faces of three young people — Burbank resident Jaiden Johnson, Pasadena resident and John Burroughs High School alumnus Cerain Baker, and Calabasas resident Natalee Moghaddam — who died in a fiery car crash just feet away from where the equipment is located. The mural-like artwork serves as a memorial to the three friends, whom police said were killed on Aug. 3 when two vehicles that were racing struck their car. A fourth occupant, who authorities have not publicly identified, was hospitalized but later discharged.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has charged the teenage drivers of both of those vehicles with murder.
Burbank resident Shemika Jones, a close friend of the Baker family, said the 21-year-old Cerain was like a nephew to her. She worked with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to determine a way to honor those who had died, eventually deciding to have the utility box painted and dedicated in their memory.
“I was compelled to step up and try to contribute in some way, because their lives matter and they should never be forgotten by this community,” Jones told the crowd.
The families of the three crash victims unanimously selected a design created by Glendale artist Ricardo Cerezo, Jones said. The cost of the artwork was paid for by an anonymous donation, according to Parks and Recreation Director Marisa Garcia.
Cerezo said he didn’t know the crash victims personally, but added that he felt close to them while painting the electrical box.
“I tried to leave a message of respect for each other [and to show] how the community is being affected by the actions of others,” he told attendees. “I hope that this is going to be a good way to remember them, and to bring peace to the whole community.”
Friends and family members praised his design, eagerly crowding around the utility box to see the artwork up close. Cerezo had also painted an orange sunset on the bottom portion of the box, which he explained represented the night the three people were killed.
“Thank you to everybody involved in doing this right here,” Tony Baker, Cerain’s father, told the crowd. “It really means a lot to our families. … Thank you for the effort and the work, everybody involved here. Y’all didn’t have to do this and we appreciate it.”
Anet Banipal, a friend of Moghaddam’s mother, was also one of the few to speak publicly. Before reading an original poem in Farsi, she noted that it is sometimes hard to know how to support the families who lost their relatives.
“What can you do in a situation like this? … The best thing that can help them is to contribute your time,” Banipal said.
The crowd was reluctant to move to the reception at McCambridge Park. Many wanted more time with the artwork. Eventually, though, a large portion of the attendees departed, regrouping at the park for pizza and drinks. Many of them wore white.
Jones, who credited other family friends such as Klarissa Curtis for helping organize the event, explained she asked attendees to dress in white as a way to represent light.
“In a dark moment, we wanted to do the opposite,” she said.
Indeed, many at the reception laughed with each other and swapped stories as music played from a speaker. Members of the three families — some of whom had known each other for years — embraced each other, reminiscing on shared experiences.
And a balloon drifted slowly into the sky as the celebration continued.