The Tannery grieves for Madyson Middleton
The scent of flowers, burning sage and melting candles fill the Tannery Art Center’s courtyard—the smell of a memorial.
It’s just after 8:30 p.m. on Friday, July 31, and dozens of people huddle around a shrine dedicated to Madyson “Maddy” Middleton, the 8-year-old girl who was slain on Sunday, July 26, in this same arts complex that she called home. Stuffed animals rest on bouquets of flowers between glass candles and bobbing balloons on this clear night.
The mourners—many of them Tannery residents—throw their heads back and howl at the blue moon in honor of Middleton and her favorite animal, the wolf.
This has all been part of the healing process. Just a few days earlier, the campus was much quieter. After the initial horror of a 26-hour search that ended in the worst way imaginable, her body discovered in a recycling bin, many Tannery residents kept to themselves.
“Last week, everyone was in shock. This week, you’re starting to see people who have studios and have a presence here realizing that they need to move forward with their daily lives,” says Jess Brown, chair of the Tannery board, which is currently overseeing building the center’s Bud Colligan Theater. “Even though this has affected them, and most likely changed them as a person, they’re trying to move forward.”
But everywhere, there are constant reminders of what happened. At 8:15 a.m. the day before the Howl for Maddy, 10 news cameras crowded the front row of a Santa Cruz County courtroom. A 15-year-old in a green shirt and handcuffs skulked in, shoulders hanging down.
Adrian “A.J.” Gonzalez had always been known around the Tannery as a quiet, nice kid and an amazing yo-yoer. Now he was scheduled to be arraigned as an adult on murder and sexual assault charges. It only took a minute for the judge to OK a request from public defender Larry Biggam, who’s representing Gonzalez, to delay the arraignment until Sept. 21.
Outside the courtroom, Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeff Rosell said he is confident in his case. Biggam said his job is to make sure “the minor, like every citizen accused, receives a fair trial.”
At the Tannery, residents are shocked that this tragedy could happen in their artist community, which was designed to be an affordable creative utopia. More than that, they say they are coping with the loss of two children they watched grow up. They’re trying to help two mothers grieve, mourn and heal.
“We’re one family,” says Tannery resident Setorro Garcia. “It’s a tight-knit community.”
One week after Middleton first went missing, longtime Tannery resident Kirby Scudder takes me on an evening walk around the campus. “It’s been a hell of a week,” he says.
“Our biggest concern is for the two families and the mothers. We’re deeply concerned about them,” says Scudder, who is dating Laura Jordan, Middleton’s mother. “That’s really job one. And then, of course, what it did to the community. It’s like having a tsunami come through here. And there’s no preparation for something like this. No one has the skills to comprehend it or deal with the aftermath of what happens. So, we’re trying to figure it out day by day.”
And so people are moving forward. Last week near Middleton’s memorial, Gonzalez’s sobbing mother, Reggie Factor, and Jordan shared a loving embrace. Tannery artists have already put up a mural—a tree near the courtyard with Middleton’s face in the center and bunches of leaves on which people can write a message for her. People are offering counseling, acupuncture and other services at the Tannery through Aug. 9. Residents have been coming together at potlucks in large donations of fruits, veggies and savory meals, including contributions from businesses like Beckmann’s Bakery and Chipotle.
A week before this evening stroll with Scudder, he and other Tannery residents were searching in the woods for Middleton all night. The search continued the next day, on Monday, July 27. Santa Cruz County Sheriffs, K-9 units, San Mateo County Sheriffs and the FBI all joined the search. Initially, many figured a homeless person was responsible for Middleton’s death, as the center is met by a bike path that runs down the levee path to the beach. The search ended on Monday at 8 p.m., 26 hours after it began. That’s when an SCPD officer found Middleton’s body in a Tannery recycling bin. Police arrested Gonzalez soon after.
Scudder has been trying to avoid reading the news or hearing any more grisly details. He already knows about as much as he can handle.
As I talk to him, a man with tears in his eyes approaches us. Gilbert Rivera, a Watsonville resident, had been hanging out at the Tannery’s Artbar and Café and talked to Middleton minutes before she was seen for the last time. He’s just come from a movie theater, where he was trying to watch Southpaw, the Jake Gyllenhaal boxing film, with his girlfriend. He walked out crying.
“I can’t sleep. I can’t watch movies. Movies aren’t the same,” says Rivera, who also helped search for Middleton. “It didn’t hit me then. A week later, it’s hitting me now. I’ve been up for three days.”
“We’re just trying to heal our wounds here,” Scudder says. “Overall, I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”
Scudder has lived at the Tannery for 10 years, first as a caretaker for the property before it opened. He worries that longtime critics of the project, which provides affordable rents for artists, will use this incident to put the complex, which opened more than six years ago, in a negative light.
But Brown, the Tannery board’s chair, thinks people will look past that. “The community’s quickly going to see how special and wonderful this Tannery Arts Center is, and embrace it as a special part of our community,” Brown says. “And the tragedy that happened is difficult to understand. But we definitely don’t want it to define the center.”
MADYSON’S MEMORIAL Visitors and Tannery residents have been paying respects to beloved 8-year-old Madyson Middleton. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER