On Sept. 21, 2014, Pati Navalta Poblete’s world fell apart.
That’s the day her son Robby was shot and killed in Vallejo. He was only 23 at the time, with his whole life ahead of him.
“He was actually just on the verge of getting offered a full-time job,” Poblete said.
Robby worked as a fabricator at a biotech firm, and was learning to weld. He’d been hired as a temp, but the firm had offered him an interview for a full-time position, his mother said.
On the day he was murdered, he’d laid his suit out on his bed for the interview, she said. His family buried him in that suit.
Her son’s death has had a profound effect on her life for the past 3 1/2 years, Poblete said. She’d moved to Fairfield just a year before his death, and that’s where she was when she got the call from Vallejo police.
She couldn’t drive the stretch of Interstate 80 between Fairfield and Vallejo for a long time. It triggered panic attacks. Sometimes she had flashbacks of that drive — a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.
She wanted to run away — not just from Vallejo or Fairfield, but from the United States.
She wrote letters to Robby.
“Those letters were just seeking answers and begging for a response, and I knew I would never get it,” she said.
Religion offered no comfort. A life-long Catholic, she turned away from the church at first. People told Poblete that Robby’s death was part of God’s plan, or he was in a better place, but she couldn’t imagine God’s plan including so much grief and heartbreak.
“All of that just made me angry,” she said.
A writer herself — Poblete was a Bay Area journalist who’d served as a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and community editor for the Vallejo Times-Herald — she looked for books by other mothers who had lost their children, who struggled with the grief and anger it brings.
She found self-help books about dealing with grief, or religious books about loss.
“None of them spoke to me,” she said.
On the day Robby was killed, he’d left a stack of books by his bed. Robby loved to learn, Poblete said, and his selection of books was designed to feed his curious mind.
“He had a lot of different interests, from surfing to long-distance cycling to yoga and meditation,” she said. He loved music, especially blues and opera.
He’d always been introspective, a contrast to his more extroverted sister. He was especially interested in yoga and spirituality at the time of his death, Poblete said.
“He was a big guy, and yet here he was in these yoga poses,” she said.
The books by his bed covered spiritual topics: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism. Poblete began to read them.
The book about Buddhism was the turning point. One idea stood out: “In this life, pain is inevitable but suffering is not. We can do something about our suffering,” she paraphrased.
Instead of being lost in her grief, Poblete realized she could do something about it.
She began to travel — not to run away from her pain, but to face it. Her first visit to Thailand was difficult, but she made it through.
Another trip took her to Mount Shasta, where she visited a Buddhist monastery and sat in silent meditation.
She began to consider how she could take her pain and grief and use it to create something good in Robby’s memory.
“As long as you’re still alive and you have a purpose, why not create a better place here?” she said.
Now, Pati Poblete runs the Robby Poblete Foundation.
When she started the foundation, Poblete wasn’t ready to get into politics, she said. She was still too emotionally vulnerable. So she looked at other ways she could reduce gun violence.
“I found that a lot of crimes that are committed with guns are committed with guns that are stolen from homes or out of cars,” she said.
The gun used in Robby’s murder was one such firearm, and stolen guns used in one crime often go on to be used in others.
Buybacks of unwanted guns take them off the streets, but a lot of departments can’t afford to host them. So the first thing Poblete did was organize a fundraiser for an annual buyback program in Solano County.
The guns purchased through buyback programs are usually sold for scrap metal, but Poblete didn’t want destruction — even of guns — linked to her son’s name.
“I wanted it to be about transformation and hope,” she said.
She remembered the sculptures that Robby was starting to make from scraps as he learned to weld. Now, the Robby Poblete Foundation hosts The Art of Peace, an annual sculpture exhibit. The first exhibit will be unveiled on Friday.
“You have these beautiful pieces of art, and they’re all made of guns,” she said. “To me that was very meaningful.”
Third, she’s working to launch a vocational training program, including welding and metal fabrication.
That was inspired not just by Robby, but by the four suspects arrested in his murder, who will go on trial this month. As Poblete learned more about them, she found that they had a long history in the criminal justice system, and they’d been failed more than once.
“I kept thinking, what if they had learned a skill?” she said.
Violent crime often starts with desperation, she noted.
“Even though the foundation has Robby’s name, it’s really focused on the people who killed them, and how could we have prevented them going down this road,” she said.
Finally, she’s been working to write the book she wished she’d had when Robby was killed. It’s not a true crime story, but a memoir of her journey of grief, loss, acceptance and activism.
“It’s not an easy book to read because I don’t hold anything back,” she said. When she wrote about the panic attacks she experienced during her frantic drive to Vallejo on the day of her son’s death, she was reliving them, she said.
“I was picking at my own scabs,” she said.
She wanted to lay everything out on the page, but she also wanted to show her path to a better emotional place — a place where she could channel her grief into something positive.
“I kept thinking, what could I have done as a mother?” she said. “It wasn’t what I could have done for my son, it was what we as a society could have done for the people who did this to him.”