A longtime labor activist and a member of the executive board of SEIU-United Service Workers West was stabbed to death at a Los Angeles apartment development as he tried to stop a teenager from entering the building to attack his girlfriend.
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José Tomas Mejia rose early on June 16 as he did each morning. He left his wife some cash to run errands and got ready for his janitorial job at Park La Brea, a sprawling apartment community in Los Angeles’ Mid-Wilshire neighborhood.
“He got up and stared at me for a moment and then he left,” said Dora Molina of the last time she laid eyes on her husband.
Around 1:15 pm Mejia called Molina on plans after work; it was a routine grocery-shopping trip. She would leave the house as he got off work and the two would meet at the supermarket.
As 4 p.m. approached, she called him to let him know she was on her way. Mejia did not answer. When she arrived at the supermarket she called him again. No answer. She sent him text messages. Still, no answer.
“With the cart full of groceries, I didn’t know whether to leave it or not,” Molina said.
She tried to stay calm but it was impossible. Around 5:30 p.m., she received a phone call from David Mejia, Mejia’s cousin, who said he would pick her up without offering an explanation. Her mind raced. She thought he had fallen at work or had a major accident.
“He told me: ‘Be strong, we don’t know what’s going on but we’re going to confirm,’” Molina said. “I never imagined he had died in cold blood.”
Killed at work
José Tomas Mejia, 50, was murdered on June 16 at Park La Brea as he tried to stop a teenager from entering a building to attack his girlfriend. When the 17-year-old saw Mejia, he tried to take his keys but Mejia refused. The suspect stabbed him multiple times.
David Mejia and Jose Mejia’s brother, Fermin Pineda, were the first ones to be notified. They arrived at the crime scene, but were not allowed to see the body.
Pineda, 32, said authorities initially did not provide details. They were also unable to see Mejia because of the extent of his injuries.
“The authorities were able to identify him by his identification card that he had around his neck,” Pineda said. The county coroner asked them a week later to identify the body after an autopsy had been performed.
David Mejia said Park La Brea has 18 buildings and roughly 5,500 apartment units. About 80 janitors work there.
The cousin, who is also an organizer with SEIU-USWW, said the development has experienced problems as people experiencing homelessless try to get in to use the bathrooms.
“The cleaning workers have told us that they have felt threatened,” David Mejia said.
So far, Prime Group, owner of Park La Brea, has not commented on the killing. It’s unclear if Prime Group directly hires Park La Brea’s gardeners, janitors and security guards or if the owner hires subcontractors.
Decades of labor activism
José Tomas Mejia was a longtime labor activist and a member of the executive board of SEIU-United Service Workers West. The immigrant from El Salvador played a major role in the union over the last 25 years.
Mejia left San Miguel, fleeing war when he was just 17 years old. Soon after, he was able to obtain his Temporary Protected Status.
As a member of SEIU-USWW Mejia became an activist to protect the rights of women and men who experience domestic violence, fought for immigrant rights, and participated in self-defense workshops.
He was known as a “compadre,” a name given to members of the Ya Basta Center who advocate against patriarchy, sexual violence, domestic violence and other dangers faced by immigrants working night shift as janitors.
“He died protecting a woman,” said Alejandra Valles, treasurer of SEIU-USWW. “He died at the hands of the violence he was trying to prevent.”
Valles said Mejia’s death will not go unpunished and the union is already working to fight for his wife to receive workers’ compensation for life, since Mejia died in his work area. Valles said the union will also advise the family one a criminal lawsuit.
Pineda said his brother will be buried in Los Angeles, his adopted homeland. Pineda said his 74-year-old mother is devastated but agrees her son should be laid to rest where his wife decides.
A dream achieved
For now, friends and family are focused on helping Molina make the house payments. Owning a home had been one of Mejia’s proudest achievements.
Shortly after they were married in 1995, Mejia told Molina one day they would leave the small apartment they rented where the landlord was very strict.
“He would tell me, ‘One day we are going to have our little house where we are going to live happily the years that God gives us together,’” said 60-year-old Molina.
Their dream came true last year when the couple bought a home in South Los Angeles.
She remembers her husband planting plants around the house and showing it to any visitor that stopped by.
The couple had no children of their own, but Mejia loved Molina’s three children and her grandson as if they were his. It was very common to see the grandson at labor events.
“We say he was her favorite son,” said Pineda, his brother. “Those are very big shoes to fill.”
A GoFundMe account has been set up for Mejia’s family.
This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.