MEDFORD, Ore. — 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 their small home 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.”
Community in shock
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 said he 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.