Rillito community mourns slain civic leaders - The Explorer: Import

Rillito community mourns slain civic leaders

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Posted: Tuesday, April 19, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:50 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

April 20, 2005 - In July 2001, Pat Gremmler stood among a group of protesters and pickets at Arizona Portland Cement's corporate office in Glendora, Calif., where she voiced her concerns about the cement plant's emissions through a loud bullhorn.

"It was wonderful," she told former EXPLORER reporter Patrick Cavanaugh in an interview later that year.

Until the time of her death, Gremmler, a resident of Rillito since 1936, was the voice of her small community, living in the shadows of the Arizona Portland Cement plant.

Subject to its emissions, Gremmler believed the cement plant contributed to the respiratory problems and cancers affecting Rillito residents over the years.

She led her community's efforts to address these concerns, working with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to rectify past permit problems and force the facility to comply with state and federal regulations.

"She was so friendly and warm. And, at the same time, she would not let you off the hook," said Colleen McKaughan, associate director of the EPA's southwest region air division. "She kept pushing you to do more, to be a better agency and I think the folks in EPA are very sad."

Last week, the small community of Rillito said goodbye to Gremmler and her husband, Carl, who were well respected, not only by their friends and neighbors, but by those whom Gremmler challenged to take action.

Pat Gremmler, 72, and Carl Gremmler, 76, were found brutally murdered inside their home April 12. Homicide detectives said the couple died of multiple sharp edge trauma wounds.

Their grandson, Christopher William Lambeth, 20, who had been living with them, is being held in Pima County Jail and is charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Family friends say Lambeth was known to be violent and suffers from a mental disorder. He was arrested by Pima County sheriff's deputies after he was found sleeping inside the heavily-vandalized home. Deputies said he could have been living among the bodies for several days.

When the Gremmlers didn't show up for a Sunday church service, a family friend said he became concerned for their welfare. On the morning of April 12, he traveled to their residence at 11511 N. Casa Grande Highway, Interstate 10's frontage road, where he discovered broken windows and called police.

"God works in mysterious ways," said Rose Augustine, a longtime friend who partnered with Pat Gremmler on a number of environmental and community projects. "Pat and Carl were together for many years and they are together even in death. They went together. I don't know if that's a comfort or not, but they couldn't be separated."

Heaven may be richer, but the community of Rillito is poorer after the beloved couple passed away last week, friends and family members said April 13 during a candlelight vigil that lasted well into the night.

Augustine said she felt helpless when she first heard news, but immediately got on the phone and organized the event to mourn her fallen friends. About 100 people attended the vigil, which many described as an outpouring of love from the community that the Gremmlers cared so much about.

"Pat loved everybody, everything," Augustine said. "I don't think there was a stray dog around the neighborhood that she didn't pick up. She helped the animals as well as she helped her neighbors."

Friends say the Gremmlers were trying to help their grandson by letting him stay with them, though they feared his violent behavior.

"He kept breaking everything in the house," said Augustine, who kept in touch with Pat Gremmler about the situation and knew of Lambeth's mental disorder. "She loved him and she felt sorry for him. She was a very loving, caring person."

Augustine said she remembered Gremmler telling her she couldn't sleep at night because Lambeth was living with them.

"If she slept, her husband had to stay awake. They were afraid of him, yet they couldn't allow him to go out on the street and they couldn't get any other help," she said. Augustine said she thinks the family was a victim of the state's inadequate mental health services, because they couldn't get proper treatment for Lambeth.

Jesse McKnight, a pastor of the local Baptist church and president of the Rillito Water Users Association, said the Gremmlers were a pillar of the community and like mother and father to him. He led a prayer during the candlelight vigil, saying the Gremmlers lived the words they preached.

"They've been a great example to each and every one of us in the community and, father, the things they've done, we pray today they continue to be done by the rest of the community," McKnight said as mourners gathered and shed tears.

Teresa Leal, an activist with the Sonora Environmental Research Institute, said Pat Gremmler wasn't just part of an organization or a movement, but "she herself was a movement."

"There was such a beautiful and stoic way that she moved around," Leal said, adding that Gremmler often hosted community meetings in her own house and served everyone refreshments.

"At the same time, she was pushing around the documents, the information, the knowledge that people need to survive and make this life a lot better, because it's not good," she said. "Because people are dying, people are on respirators, because people have leukemia, because people can't get up in the morning. And that was her concern."

Leal said Gremmler's passing was a lesson for everyone, as well as an inspiration. Her death will not stop the cause she fought for, but will only make it stronger, she said.

Gremmler was going to meet with Leal and the EPA April 13 to work on soil sampling issues. Leal said she hopes to have an environmental health education center built in Gremmler's name one day.

"From us who were working with her on soil sampling and air quality, that's a commitment to work toward and she will be with us in spirit," she said. "She may have left us materially but she's still an inspiration."

Gremmler organized a community group and brought workers from the cement plant together to find common ground on air quality issues. She also argued for a comprehensive health survey in Rillito that's still ongoing and will attempt to answer the question of why there are so many ill people living in Rillito.

Representatives from Arizona Portland Cement said cameras may soon be put up along a fence line near the cement plant to monitor particulate matter in the air.

"When we talk about the contamination, it not only was the community being exposed, but the workers there in the plant being exposed to the same elements," Augustine said. "There was a need there and she helped bring all of them together."

The plant has been fined by government agencies in the past for its handling and reporting of toxic chemicals discharged into the air above Rillito, a tiny pocket of unincorporated Pima County surrounded by the town of Marana, north of Avra Valley Road along Interstate 10.

Gary Henley, a cement plant worker, said Gremmler was always concerned about others, including the workers at Arizona Portland Cement.

"She helped by supporting us and helping to convince the state to look at the permitting process," Henley said. "We wanted quality and we wanted things done because we work in it."

Through her efforts, Gremmler organized neighborhood cleanups. During holidays like Thanksgiving, she often lent a helping hand to the community by preparing dinner for elderly or sorting out food baskets for the needy. On Christmas, she and Augustine collected toys to make sure children got something special.

"She never complained," Augustine said. "Whether she was sad or not, she always had a smile on her face. I always told her, 'You know, Pat, I wish I had your energy.'"

Gremmler hosted tours of the Rillito area for EPA, known as the "toxic tours," pointing out what was happening in Rillito and the contamination residents said they were being exposed to.

"She was right up front. If it hadn't been for Pat, nothing would have been done," Augustine said. "We opened the dialogue for the community to talk to EPA."

Gremmler also helped run the Rillito Water Users Association, keeping a database of about 200 residents, and helped raise money for school supplies at the nearby schools.

"She pretty much took care of the whole community," said Annie Shellberg, postmaster of the Rillito Post Office, which is just down the road from the Gremmlers' house.

Karen McCollum, one of the Gremmler's two daughters, recalled the retail store her parents operated on the property of their home. It used to be the place children would run to get candy when they got off the school bus, she said.

"It was the community hangout," she said.

Carl Gremmler apparently ran such a tight business that he was audited by the IRS one year and the agency ended up owing him $2,000, she said with a laugh.

Carl Gremmler was a paratrooper who served in the Korean War and a member of the Tucson Model A Club. He enjoyed refurbishing old cars and helped organize many Tucson area parades in which the cars were showcased.

Dick Upton, vice president of the Model A Club, said he knew Carl for more than 30 years and fondly remembers the many trips they went on together, including bus trips to California. The Gremmlers would have celebrated their 49th anniversary this week, he said.

McCollum and her 21-year-old daughter Megan wiped away tears to joke for a brief moment as they recalled the time Pat Gremmler caught a customer stuffing frozen burritos down his pants in their store. As the man walked out of the store, Pat Gremmler tackled him and, sure enough, found a stolen burrito, she said.

"My parents were very loved," McCollum said. "They were two people in a small community, and they were very loved."

Lambeth is the son of McCollum's sister Lisa, who did not want to comment. McCollum said it's horrific that a family member is involved in the murder and hopes it doesn't cause a divide in the family, "But no one's to blame."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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