By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette — Loretta Jo Gates' three children sent their mom a giant balloon the other day.
The youngest, Peter, 4, seemed to get a kick out of helping to release the string, but the two older girls had written messages to their mom and taped them to the triple heart-shaped balloon. Mariah, 5, wrote "I love you," in the careful precision of a new kindergartener. Kyla, 11, didn't let anyone see what she had written before taping her message to the balloon. Moments later the trio stood at the edge of a backyard patio and released the balloon into the autumn sky, watching as it made its way up toward Heaven where they believe their mother to be.
To a visitor listening to family members share stories about the 30-year-old Niagara Falls woman who was recently brutally murdered, it is clear that Gates may not have been with her kids as much as they might have liked. But, like many children born to imperfect mothers, they simply loved the mother they had. Despite what family members described as her efforts to battle a drug habit, the children just miss the mom that they knew.
Scott Martin, father of the youngest two of her three children, knows about addiction. His drug of choice was alcohol, and when Loretta went into rehab a couple years ago and he had custody, the two were taken from him after he was charged with drunken driving. Martin was able to have custody restored after he successfully completed a Family and Childrens Services program that fortifies parenting skills. A Gazette story detailed his success. Martin has been sober, he says proudly, since then.
Loretta was not always so successful finding peace and sobriety. She was working to stay clean at the time of her death, according to Martin. And, regardless of her challenges, she still touched the hearts of many she left behind.
"I thought she was absolutely beautiful," he said, describing how they met at a mutual friend's house. "I told her she had the prettiest blue eyes I had ever seen. We talked every day after that night."
Now, Martin and his children are struggling to cope with Gate's death, he said. Peter, 4, doesn't really understand, although, no doubt, he someday will. Mariah, 5, stands in front of a display of photos of her mom created for the memorial service and, unprompted, seeks out her mother. "Mommy," she says pointing to one photo. "Mommy," she says again, pointing to another. "These are all pictures of mommy."
It's hard for her," Martin admitted. "This morning she was up at quarter to four, screaming for her mother."
Recently, despite his lawyer's advice, he said he agreed to joint custody because he said Loretta was doing so well in her rehabilitation. Even though they hadn't lived together for the last year and a half, Martin expresses gratitude to her. "She gave me two of the most beautiful children in the world."
Family members know all three of Loretta's children will be challenged living with the memory of their mom's unthinkable death. Gates was missing for about a week after leaving her mom's house to go to the store. Parts of her body turned up in the Niagara River last month and more were found in a duffle bag in Hyde Park Lake. State Police have joined the efforts of city police detectives and the investigation is ongoing.
"We're continuing to follow our leads," said Niagara Falls Police Supt. John Chella said on Thursday.
In the meantime, family and friends continue to grieve. Gate's mom, Tammy Mattoon Gates, reached by telephone, said simply, "I will always love her and I miss her so much."
Loretta's father, Arthur, who works in shipping at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, was interviewed along with the children and other family members and friends, and remembers his middle child from that marriage as a playful, good kid. "She was doing so well, fighting this addiction," her father said. "Then something went wrong."
Her uncle, Bobby Gates, said that Loretta had recently phoned him to talk about faith. Gates, who said he was born again while serving time in prison for burglary, said that she and he had spoke at length after she inquired about God. "I don't know if she had any inclination that this was going to happen," he said of the murder. "But, she did say she accepted God and I know she's been saved."
Kyla's grandmother, Melinda Minteer, has had custody of the 11-year-old for the past three years, as Kyla is the daughter of Minteer's son, Chris Lewis. Minteer said that Loretta loved all her kids and "tried to create happy times when she was with them." Kyla, when asked her favorite memory of her mom, said simply, "her rubbing my back," recalling Loretta's loving touch.
A click on a Facebook page titled "Justice for Loretta Jo Gates," which includes comments, pictures and videos, indicates a large community of people who also care about Gates, including a family friend who is holding a fundraiser for her Nov. 24. Michael "Jabba" Ward, a local music promoter who has held two successful events called "Jabbapalooza," is planning a music fest for his birthday and said all the proceeds will be given to the Niagara Falls Police for a reward to anyone who provides information leading to the arrest of Loretta's killer.
Although a site for his concert has not been selected yet, six bands have already volunteered their time for the event and the details will be available on the Loretta Jo Gates Memorial page on Facebook.
Many others have lent a hand to the family as well. Martin's friend, Lisa Nicoloff, who often watches the two younger children, said that her own daughter's dance teacher at Adele's School of Dance offered a year's worth of free lessons to Mariah. "I just melted," Nicoloff said when she heard of the offer, adding "every little girl loves to dance."
Family and friends have also joined together to hold a fundraiser from 1 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the Sheraton at the Falls, 300 Third St. More information can be obtained by calling Arthur Gates at 998-0778.
Many are already reaching out to the children. Martin's friend, Lisa Nicoloff, who often watches the two younger ones, said that her own daughter's dance teacher at Adell's School of Dance offered a year's worth of free lessons to Mariah. "I just melted," Nicoloff said when she heard of the offer, adding "every little girl loves to dance."