smiles when she flips through one of the many albums of memories that her son’s friends compiled for her. Funny pictures, pensive pictures, band pictures—all featuring her handsome 18-year-old with a contagious smile and soulful eyes.
“It’s amazing how many people tell me they’ve been touched by him and his spirit,” she says. “I mean, people who never even met him.”
Carol closes an album and tears well up. “What do you do when the core of your life is suddenly gone—taken away from you like that?”
Her only child—her best friend—Zac, was shot and killed by plainclothes police in the well-traveled parking lot behind in Studio City on June 24, 2010. She knows that the anniversary of his death looms in a few weeks, and perhaps the friends who knew him will once again that day, as they did last year.
“I know that I spent 18 years with him, and suddenly at 48 I find myself without him,” Carol says. “I know I will never be the same.”
She also knows that in a few short months, on Nov. 16, a judge in federal District Court will hear a civil suit she has filed in Zac’s behalf against the government in Carol Champiommier vs. the United States of America.
Carol just spent another Mother’s Day without Zac, and his former school, Granada Hills Charter School, just held another memorial concert in his memory. And so, she agreed to talk to Studio City Patch not so much about the lawsuit, or the way her son died, but how he lived. How is this first grade teacher from Beckford Avenue Elementary in Northridge coping these days?
And how is this mom remembering her son after facing the biggest nightmare that a parent can experience—losing a child.
“It’s not easy,” says Carol. She looks out the window at the tree in the courtyard of her Porter Ranch home where she lived with Zac.
She has imagined a noose hanging from that tree and she was in the noose. Thoughts like that are distant now.
“The anti-depressants have helped,” she smiles.
She has a garage full of his artwork, every report he wrote, all of his toys, even his baby clothes. His room upstairs is pretty much the way he left it the night she last saw him.
Photos of his friends are on his nightstand. On a mirror he proudly displayed his “I Voted” sticker for the first election he cast a ballot in only weeks before he died. And, in his bed is a beautifully carved wooden box that contains his ashes.
“I don’t know, it may sound strange, but I do take him with me sometimes,” Carol says. “The first time I strapped the urn in the passenger seat I reached over and I felt like he was holding my hand.”
She knows someday she will spread his ashes. She knows someday she will have to get rid of his stuff, do something with his clothes. But not right now.
Carol sighs, “Part of me says he’s still out there and he will come home.”
She knows he won’t, and she knows there’s nothing she could have possibly have done to prevent his death. She also realizes the frighteningly stark reality that there’s no way parents can ever protect their children at all times.
“If I couldn’t protect my child, no one can,” she says. “He was a homebody, he wasn’t trouble. He never even got a parking ticket.”
Somehow, though, police thought he was a threat and said he was driving his car toward a sheriff’s deputy, so the deputy and a drug enforcement agent fired six shots at him, according to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department internal investigation. Zac died in the parking lot.
“I think the people of Studio City should know that this time it was him, but next time it could be their son or daughter,” Carol warns. “And it could have been prevented.”
In the past nearly two years, Carol has become acutely aware of how often things like this do happen. She saw the intense publicity of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, when the unarmed teen was gunned down in a state where a lax gun law prevented the shooter from being arrested—at first.
Zac’s case wasn’t hyped in the media like that one.
“In fact, I go there in Studio City and talk to the store owners, and people who are there don’t even know that an unarmed teenager was shot and killed there,” Carol says. “They never heard about it.”
But now, with speculation on the Internet, and from the few statements released from police, there’s a subtle smear campaign that this mom thinks she needs to stop.
Was Zac trying to run over the sheriff’s deputy? “Everyone who knows Zac knows that he would be the first one to avoid a conflict and would have tried to get the heck out of there,” Carol says.
Was Zac part of a pending drug deal? “He hated drugs of all kinds, he hated it when I smoked cigarettes,” says the mom, who saved a note he once taped to one of her packs saying: “Think of me when you open this.” When the toxicology report on her son came out, she posted it online immediately so that people would know he had no drugs or alcohol in his system. She questions why the law enforcement officers who pulled the trigger weren’t equally screened. “Zac was so straight-laced, if someone talked to him about pot, he’d report it to the dean’s office.”
Was he there for a gay sex hookup? The guy he was meeting, 29-year-old Douglas Oeters, he never met face-to-face before. Later, it came out that Oeters had a conviction in Ohio of a charge related to soliciting sex from a minor. “All of this is such nonsense,” Carol says. “And the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter why is he was out there, he didn’t deserve to get gunned down like that for no reason. He did nothing to deserve that.”
Zac was, in fact, a honors student and a proudly self-professed “band geek” who loved to play saxophone both in the school band and the orchestra, where he also played the viola.
As part of the Band Council, he dealt with parents a lot. Many of the parents continue to tell Carol, “Thanks for bringing up such a nice kid, he was such a good friend to my child.”
One band mom wrote on a note that was cremated with him (along with scores of other notes people gave), that said, “When I get to Heaven I’d be listening for your sax playing.”
Carol laughs, “Yeah, he was an exceptional kid, people liked him.”
She looks around her living room and points out his books: collections of H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, a book of great philosophers and “The Tao of Pooh.”
“What kind of kid reads books like that?” his mom asks.
Zac was a child when his mom went back to school to get her teaching credentials and her master’s degree. “He was a true gift for me, my life changed when I had him,” she recalls. “He was at my college graduation, and it's sad that I will never be at his.”
Memorials in honor of Zac do help Carol cope with his loss. There’s a memorial fund at his high school, and the music teacher, “Mr. Mac” Jeff McCandess, knew that Zac’s biggest regret was saying, “I never got to do a solo.” And so, the teacher holds a memorial concert where everyone gets a shot at a solo number.
At the school she teaches, Beckford, (where she also taught her son) there’s another foundation in Zac’s memory. Recently, students she taught there in Zac’s class greeted her and shared some personal memories.
“I don’t know if he knew how much he was loved,” Carol says. “It makes me happy to watch these tributes and memorials. It’s heart-wrenching, but then, it shows how his memory lives on.”
For the last few weeks of his life, Zac took more pictures of himself than perhaps he did ever in his life. “It was like a premonition he never spoke of, something in the air,” his mother says.
“He also liked angel wings,” she says, pointing out a logo he designed of a Z bracketed with wings. She found a series of photos of him with outstretched arms, in front of fountains, with friends, and even on his last trip with the band in school in May when there was a freak snowstorm in Crater Lake and he made snow angels for the first time.
And the last photo ever taken of him, at the crime scene of the shooting, with his body splayed out, his arms were up and out, like angel wings.
“He was someone people could relate to,” Carol says. “He had a very good nature.”
She sighs. “One thing he really didn’t like from the time he was very little was unfairness,” she says. “He didn’t like it when people were treated unfairly. It is with complete irony that his life ended like it did.”
She adds, “And I have to realize that I could not protect him enough in the end.”
(See videos and photos of Zac in the gallery above, and please add your thoughts and comments in the box below. If you have additional photos, you can add them by signing in and the clicking ADD YOUR PHOTO near the gallery above.)