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Arrest gives Marelichs mom some comfort
Kelly Marelich - photo by Photo Contributed

On the particularly bad nights Gloria Henderson still reaches for the ice cream. 

It’s a temporary reprieve – albeit the slightest one possible – from the thoughts and the questions that are constantly running through her head. 

Why did her vibrant and outgoing 22-year-old daughter, Kelly Marelich, have to die?

Why did it have to be violent and why did the person responsible sink so low as to dispose of her body in a dumpster?

Will that person ever be brought to justice?

On Wednesday that last question became a little bit more clear after the Manteca Police Department announced that the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office will be formally charging 49-year-old Stockton resident Richard Howard Watkins with Marelich’s murder.

But it’s a Catch-22. 

Now that that the police have publicly named the man responsible – who, ironically, is already a prisoner at Deuel Vocational Institute and has been there since a month after Marelich’s body was discovered behind a dental clinic on South Main Street on March 15, 2014 – the next phase of the process will begin. 

And it’s not like the wounds of the last nine months are anywhere near close to being healed. 

“As a parent or as anybody that loves Kelly we’re just all doing the best that we can. When you know things that cause your child to die you get these pictures in your head and you know that if you keep them in your head that you could probably go insane or just not want to get up anymore,” Henderson said. “You can’t always control your conscious or your nightmares. These things hit you really hard or blunt and it’s not a horror movie – it’s what happened to your child.”

While the ice cream helps on an interim basis, so does remembering the happy times with a girl, Henderson said, that loved to talk and loved to think and loved to learn. She had a big heart and big dreams that loved to sing Frank Sinatra and spread an infectious sort of joy that could turn an entire room into a group of friends in a matter of seconds.

Her background has also given her places to turn for help. 

As a hospice worker Henderson has had her fair share of experiences with death and dying and knew the bereavement and support groups in the area that assist people in processing the complex feelings that go along with losing somebody extremely close to them. 

Then there were the legitimate blessings. 

Marelich’s sister, Candace, had a baby on Dec. 17 – Henderson’s first granddaughter – that helped add a little bit of perspective on some of the good things that live can bring. 

Some things, however, will never fade away. 

“You try to focus on the good and you try to hope that she gets justice but not even that will change anything so I try not to focus on that being an ending to this,” Henderson said. “It’ll be a part of our lives forever.”

And then on the other side of the fence there’s Steve Marelich. 

While Henderson was initially reluctant to learn anything about the case or how her daughter died, Marelich served as the family’s liaison to law enforcement and served as go-between and a rock for those around him to lean on. 

But he had his own feelings to process. 

The girl that he remembers having long conversations with about topics that ran the gamut – structured and regimented debates that he knew were going to take huge blocks of time whenever they began – wasn’t there anymore. 

That smile wasn’t there anymore. That laugh wasn’t there anymore. 

“She liked to discuss things and I think that it came out of an interest in the world around her,” Marelich said. “She was so fun to be around. She loved music and writing – ever since she was a little kid she’d write stories and poems and besides not being able to watch her become the woman that she was supposed to be, I’m going to miss those conversations the most.”

Taking up that role as the middleman for the family has also taken its toll. 

Phone calls and meetings with investigators and prosecutors, he said, are some of the emotionally taxing events that he’s ever taken on. 

He knows that they’re necessary. He knows that the process is part of what is necessary to preserve the memory and the legacy of his daughter – his beautiful, smiling, witty and sharp daughter – and punish the man responsible. 

None of that makes it any easier. 

“I’m okay when I’m talking to them, but when I get off the phone sometimes I have to take off the next day,” he said. “I call my boss and tell him, ‘I don’t have it in me – I’m not up to work today.’ I can deal with it when it happens, but it’s afterwards that really gets me. 

“There was so much support though early on from friends and family and co-workers and people and it’s just one of those things where you don’t have words – what do you say in a situation like this? If this was an automobile accident it would still just as much to lose her but knowing it was a senseless act of violence and we’re going to have to go through this for the next year or two – that’s the torturous part. But I’ll deal with it because there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can do to help her now – I can’t call and say, ‘I’ll pick you up today instead of tomorrow.’ The only thing that I can do is get up every day and take care of her sister and her mom the best I can and see this thing through and see that he gets the justice that he deserves coming to him. She was beautiful. I miss her every day.”