They were there to remember Bella Seachrist, 3, who was found unresponsive in her Oakmont home June 9.
First responders noted the girl was malnourished and badly bruised. She was taken to a hospital, where she died.
Last week, a five-page criminal complaint was filed against the girl’s father, Jose Salazar-Ortiz Sr., 29, and stepmother, Laura Ramriez, 27. They were charged with homicide, criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault of a child, aggravated indecent assault of a child and endangering the welfare of a child. Ramriez’s sister, Alexis Herrera, 20, also faces the same charges.
According to a petition now circulating on Change.org, Bella was removed from the custody of her mother, Nicole Seachrist, at 10 months old. Her family and community members allege that the Allegheny County Bureau of Child Youth Family Services did not administer adequate wellness checks, which they say allowed her to be horribly abused.
In the complaint, police said Bella experienced extreme physical abuse, including being punched and kicked, beaten with a wooden spoon and belt, locked in a closet and tied to a banister with shoelaces.
“Nobody was talking about it. It was just being lost. It’s crazy because our granddaughter was taken and she was never checked on,” said Stacey Seachrist, Bella’s maternal grandfather. “This should have never have happened.”
Bella’s maternal grandmother agreed.
“It was horrific, what has happened to her,” Dolly Seachrist said.
Since Bella’s death, a group of Oakmont women started planning the vigil and started the petition on Change.org.
They want to start “Bella’s Law,” said Angel Walker, one of the organizers, to reform BCYS policy and require continued monitoring and wellness checks for children who go through the system.
“We just want to bring awareness to child abuse and the flaws in the system that are failing these kids and their mothers. There are laws that can be fixed and they should be looked at,” Walker said. “We just don’t want her to be another statistic.”
Walker said she wants people to know Bella’s story, even the most gruesome details.
Another organizer, Angelina McDade, said more vigils and fundraisers are in the works. McDade said the community wants to cover all of Bella’s funeral expenses and help Nicole Seachrist travel back and forth to court hearings from her home in New Castle.
The biggest objective, McDade said, is to change the law.
“Our goal is to make sure that these kids are taken care of until they’re 18,” McDade said.
At the vigil Sunday, local pastor James Grantz read Scripture with a broken voice, trying to provide solace in a situation where he said, there was, admittedly, little to find.
“We all have many different emotions, with anger being at the forefront,” Grantz said. “Let anger’s fundamental purpose be to motivate us toward positive, loving action that will leave things better than when we found them.”
“This needs to be changed,” he said. “This is where a system failed us.”
Following Grantz’s words, the 30 or so attendees participated in a moment of silence. Tears streamed down the faces of Bella’s mother and other extended family. Small children sat cross-legged on the asphalt, bowing their heads. Afterward, Nicole Seachrist released a bundle of balloons into the wind while the attendees flooded the sky with thousands of bubbles, in Bella’s memory.
For so many in the tight-knit community of Oakmont, Bella’s death is haunting. Neighbors were stunned as they recounted the details of her case. They described the street as friendly and “kid-centric.” On Sunday, many wondered aloud, how did this happen, here?
“I just need it to stop replaying in my head,” said Stephine Davis. “I go to bed with it on my mind. I dream about it. It just hit close to home… I question myself. Maybe if I would have went that way, that day, I would’ve seen her… It just hurts real bad to know there’s nothing we can do about this now.”
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