Mike Rice became teary-eyed as he talked about the “celebration of life” that friends and family of Barbara Latiolais are holding today in a private location.
“I just try to imagine what me and Barbara would be doing together if all this hadn’t happened,” said Rice, a 60-year-old retired fireman, adding: “I’ve seen terrible things but it’s different when it happens to someone you love.”
In a crime that horrified Castro Valley, two local youngsters, one of them distantly related to Rice, are accused of strangling Latiolais in her home on San Carlos Avenue, stealing Rice's gun collection, and then setting her body and the house aflame in an effort to conceal evidence of their crime.
“This happened early in the morning and I got this unbelievable phone call,” Rice said Friday.
Now the Castro Valley man has set up “The Barbara Latiolais Memorial Fund” to help her daughter, Lalanya Felix, 40, who lives in Tracy with her two girls, and Mike’s son, Ryan Rice, 24, who lives in Texas and who Latiolais helped raise.
“I can take care of myself, this is for the kids,” he said
Make donations in person or by mail at any Wells Fargo branch. Write “Barbara Latiolais Memorial Fund” and account number 1392401558 on the check. Online contributions are also possible but the process will vary from bank to bank. If needed, Wells Fargo’s ABA routing number is 121042882.
Rice thanked Castro Valley residents in advance for the many kindnesses they have already show.
“Every time I go to the house, there’s flowers there,” he said.
Still, he is haunted by the ironies of the tragedy.
Family visit took him out of Castro Valley.
“All of this happened while I was visiting my mom in Utah,” Rice told Patch Friday.
The trip was somewhat unplanned. He normally visited her in the spring but her Alzheimer’s disease was getting worse.
“I felt like this might be the last time I could see her that she would recognize me,” he said.
He left not suspecting that he had invited one of the accused killers, Christian Birdsall, 16, into his home.
Birdsall was very distantly related to him. Over the last six months Rice said he had taken Birdsall under his wing for what he thought was their mutual benefit: he needed someone to do yard work and Birdsall needed spending money.
“Barbara encouraged it,” he said, choking up.
As police now believe, based in part on statements from the suspects, Birdsall and a friend, Cody Nicosia, 18, came to the house while Rice was away and allegedly strangled Latiolais, stole several guns, some money and a car, then took time out to lunch and party, before coming back to set the fire that drew firefighters and ultimately detectives to the home on San Carlos Avenue. (Read the police account of the crime here.)
Now all that Rice has left are some photographs that escaped the flames and the memories of more than 30 years that they lived together as a couple.
“She was the love of my life,” he said.
They met in Fremont when he was 25 and she was 23. Latiolais already had a daughter from a previous relationship. During their many years together there was a rough patch during which they separated and Rice had a son with another woman before he and Latiolais got back together.
“That was as it should be,” said Sandi Bell, mother of Ryan Rice, whom she helped raise with Mike Rice and Barbara Latiolais in a co-parenting arrangement. “We remained good friends,” she said.
Bell echoed the terrible irony that it had been Barbara’s idea that Mike Rice mentor Birdsall. “She felt sorry for him that he (Birdsall) didn’t have a father figure in his life,” she said.
Despite the tragedy, Rice said he plans to rebuild and reinhabit the house on San Carlos. "I want to get the place back to normal," he said.
The private ceremony planned for Saturday will give family and friends a chance to remember Barbara Latiolais.
“We did everything together,” Mike Rice said.
Favorite activities included long walks with their two Australian cattle dogs, who came through the fire okay but spooked.
Shopping for dinner could be an adventure, Mike said. A special treat might be driving out to the coast and having a seafood dinner.
"We loved to visit the national parks,” Rice said Friday, giving a visitor one of the memorial cards that will be handed out at Saturday’s service. On one side the card bore an image of the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. “We’ve been there,” he said before words failed him.