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'Tabasha was my baby'

Two-year-old Aurora Criado couldn't quite manage the word "Grandpa." So the toddler gurgled her own special word for the man she never got a chance to meet when the two spoke on the phone.

"The sweetest word I ever heard in my life came from Aurora's mouth. She called me 'Brampa,' " said Willie Johnson, who goes by his Muslim name, Marzuq Ziyad.

Ziyad, 57, was on the phone with his long-lost daughter, Tabasha Paige-Criado, 30, her husband, Jordan Criado, 51, and their four young children just hours before the small home on West 10th Street erupted in violence and flames, becoming the site of the largest single homicide case in modern Jackson County history.

Ziyad said he moved to Medford four months ago to fight domestic violence in the community where he lost his daughter and grandchildren one year ago come Wednesday.

"I'm just sick of all kinds of domestic violence," Ziyad said. "Anything I can do to stop domestic violence, I am ready, willing and able to try."

Ziyad never got to meet his youngest daughter in person. He said he had had an affair with her mother, but he did not know about Paige-Criado's existence for many years. He said he is not listed on her birth certificate but that the family resemblance was clear and Paige-Criado acknowledged his paternity.

Earlier attempts to meet in person had failed. Six months before the tragedy, Ziyad found Paige-Criado on Facebook.

"I sent her a message and said I was looking for my daughter," Ziyad said.

They began talking on the phone regularly. The night before the killings, the topic was their long-overdue family reunion, Ziyad said.

"Tabasha was my baby," he said. "We were planning for me to come out for a visit. We were going to have a barbecue. The whole family was getting happy."

The 911 call came in at 9:23 a.m. on July 18, 2011. Smoke was billowing from the residence. Dozens of firefighters, police and ambulance crews raced to the scene. The first victim was carried from the home 16 minutes later. The last at 9:43 a.m.

The front lawn resembled a MASH unit as rescue personnel feverishly searched for pulses, pulled aside bloody clothing, pumped on small chests and poured their own breath into tiny lungs filled with toxic smoke. But the damage had been done. Within hours, Paige-Criado and her four children were pronounced dead at local hospitals. Criado lay nonresponsive in the intensive care unit at Rogue Valley Medical Center.

Responders, neighbors and community leaders were in shock. Ziyad learned of the deaths two days later.

A medical examiner determined Paige-Criado died as a result of multiple stab wounds to the neck and abdomen. Two of her boys, Isaac, 6, and Andrew, 5, suffered stab wounds to their necks. The other two children, Elijah, 7, and Aurora, 2, died of carbon monoxide poisoning from inhaling smoke.

Criado spent days on life support, suffering from carbon monoxide and cyanide poisoning as well as a laceration to his left wrist. He is in the Jackson County Jail facing 36 charges — 24 counts of aggravated murder and four counts each of murder, first-degree manslaughter and first-degree arson. The various charges address the five victims and the different legal theories related to their deaths, Chief Deputy District Attorney Beth Heckert explained.

The case is slated for trial on Feb. 12, 2013. Criado could face the death penalty, Heckert said.

"That would be up to a jury to decide," she said.

If there is a trial, Ziyad will be there. But he doesn't want Criado to get the death penalty. Nor does the rest of the family, he said. Shortly after the killings, Paige-Criado's other family members called for patience and forgiveness.

"Some families would be wanting to flip the switch (on the electric chair)," he said. "But the whole family was praying he wouldn't die."

Ziyad said he has been told by investigators and jail officials that Criado seeks death as a way to be with his deceased family members, a desire Ziyad describes as selfish.

"The death penalty won't do nothing but reward him," Ziyad said.

Ziyad wants Criado to accept responsibility for what has happened, and spend the remainder of his life atoning for his sins and saving others from this pain.

"Selfishness is what got him where he is. You're responsible for the sins you do," Ziyad said. "He needs to see beyond the misery he is facing. He needs to purify his soul and make something positive come out of this. He may be able to get his sins lifted and get to paradise."

A victim of child abuse himself, Ziyad said there had already been too much violence in his family before losing Paige-Criado and his grandchildren.

Ziyad spent a dozen years in prison following a shooting death in his California home in 1990. Ziyad said he was trying to get his stepson's friend, a gang member who brought drugs into his home, out of his house by scaring him with a shotgun. There was a struggle over the weapon and the gun discharged.

Ziyad's second-degree murder conviction was overturned when an appeals court ruled that critical evidence — including the victim's criminal history and that Ziyad is legally blind from macular degeneration — was not presented to the jury, said Garrick Byers, his Fresno, Calif., public defender at the time.

"He didn't mean to shoot the guy. He was trying to scare him," Byers said, adding the appeals court ruled Ziyad's case had to be retried or his sentence commuted to voluntary manslaughter, which carried a 10-year maximum sentence.

"He had already served his time," Byers said. "They let him go."

While his appeal was working its way through the justice system, Ziyad had an opportunity to speak with fellow inmates about their lives, and how to turn the violence around.

"I've seen all sides. I've sat with murderers on death row. They've told me things they never told their attorneys or their psychiatrists because I was in the same fix as them," Ziyad said.

Ziyad was released from prison on July 18, 2002. The 10th anniversary of his release falls on the one-year anniversary of the Criado killings.

Criado spent the 1990s behind bars as a sex offender in California after he pleaded guilty to eight counts of lewd conduct with a child under the age of 14, Sacramento County court records show.

Ziyad said Criado's family had cut him off following the sex abuse charges. Paige-Criado told Ziyad her family was to embrace her husband as one of its own, even as her talk of leaving Criado "was a constant thing," Ziyad said.

Ziyad was aware his daughter was unhappy in her marriage. But she insisted she was not physically afraid of Criado.

"She told me, 'Daddy, I've been in the military. I can take care of myself,' " he said.

Police had dropped Paige-Criado off at her house at 7:30 that morning, after her husband reported her missing at around 5:30 a.m. When police left her at the house, they didn't notice any signs of fear or other problems between the couple.

Ziyad doesn't know what happened in those hours that took things in such a tragic spiral.

He wonders why Criado didn't call him for help. Perhaps Criado was unaware of how to reach out to him, or where to ask for help closer to home, he said.

"So many people told me about Jordan. What a loving father he was," Ziyad said.

Ziyad has written Criado a letter, asking to be placed on his visitors' list. So far Criado has not replied, he said.

"I'm told he usually tears the letters up," Ziyad said. "I suppose I'll write him another one."

Ziyad wants to see more money spent on domestic violence education and prevention. Educational programs should start in elementary school before children have a chance to end up in bad relationships, he said.

"I don't think there is a Utopia. But I would like to see better programs for people," Ziyad said.

In addition to the five lives lost on 10th Street, five more women have died from domestic violence in Jackson County in the past two years, said Ginger Hahn, chief executive director of Community Works.

Last week Hahn, local law enforcement officials and other domestic violence experts from Jackson and Josephine counties met at the request of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The group detailed grim consequences if Congress fails to reauthorize and fully fund the federal Violence Against Women Act. Jackson County desperately needs the $500,000 in funding supplied by the act, Hahn said.

Medford police Chief Tim George said domestic violence cases continue to climb in 2011 as they have consistently since 2008. There were 121 cases filed in 2008, and 351 cases in 2011. The uptick is distressing, he said.

MPD has a domestic violence advocate assigned to its department from Community Works to increase victim outreach and to aid police in better interacting with victims. That position and many others are on the line if Congress fails to fund the act, experts told Wyden.

"Money is being spent on the wrong priorities," Ziyad said. "The politicians need to understand you are dealing with human lives here. People are dying needlessly. And this recession is adding to the problem."

Out of these tragedies comes a collective mission to make sure communities are safe for children, women and men, said Dee Anne Everson, executive director of United Way of Jackson County.

"It illustrates we have more work to do, sadly," Everson said. "The whole incident put us on a map no community wants to be on."

Everson said Ziyad reached out to her a few weeks ago. He told her his story, asking to be connected to programs where he might help.

"He has a real commitment to making sure this doesn't happen to any other woman, or child, or family," Everson said.

Everson said gifts come in strange ways, and Ziyad is a gift to this community. Ziyad already has been doing "street outreach," she said.

"He sat out on the courthouse steps and he met a woman in need of treatment and shelter," said Everson.

Ziyad took down the woman's number. He gave it to Everson, who was able to connect the woman with Dunn House, a women's shelter run by Community Works.

Community Works is hoping Ziyad will participate in its upcoming activities for Domestic Violence Awareness week in October.

"It's so critical to have the community involved in this issue," said Hahn. "We have to have the voices of the people who are affected by the problem working on the solution."

When not working to end domestic violence, Ziyad, who is on disability, volunteers at local organizations and tends a plot of vegetables at the Medford Gospel Mission's community garden. His garden is filled with tomatoes, green onions, okra and rhubarb. It was planted in honor of his youngest daughter and his four grandchildren.

"I believe something good can come of this," Ziyad said. "I don't believe God put me here for no reason."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Willie Johnson, who goes by his Muslim name, Marzuq Ziyad, says he was on the phone with his long-lost daughter, Tabasha Paige-Criado, and her children just hours before they were killed in their home on July 18, 2011, in the largest single homicide case in modern Jackson County history. - Bob Pennell