BLAIRSVILLE — The consensus has been clear for some time now, since the discovery two weeks ago of the body of a kidnapped Penn Hills area toddler in the vicinity of Pine Ridge Park in Burrell Township.
Don’t let Nalani Johnson be forgotten; keep her memory alive, area residents have said.
It appears now that the little girl — who would have turned 2 years old on Sunday — will most likely be remembered in a place more connected with her brief time alive rather than the location where she was discovered dead.
Sentiment for a local memorial, so strong that it prompted mourners to start an online petition drive, called for renaming Indiana County-owned Pine Ridge Park as Nalani Johnson Park instead.
And if not that, then a playground or a bench within the park should honor her, petition leader Nadia Tillman wrote on the change.org website that is collecting the petition signatures.
As strongly emotional, however, was the response from others in southern Indiana County, among them Michelle Krivansky, who took to social media to call for keeping Pine Ridge Park under its longtime name.
The Indiana County board of commissioners, who have ultimate control over the park, today joined the sentimental response to Nalani Johnson’s tragic death but said a memorial close to her family would be most appropriate.
The commissioners acknowledged the petition effort, which had amassed 19,591 signatures late this afternoon, and called it commendable. But they’ve also heard the lobbying of constituents who oppose putting a reminder of the tragedy in the park.
In a prepared statement issued Monday morning, the commissioners took middle ground.
The board is amenable to placing a memorial bench that already has been offered by a Blairsville funeral home and monument company, but have no plans to rename the park, according to the statement.
“The commissioners will consult with members of the Parks and Trails Advisory Board for guidance on the placement of a memorial bench in her honor,” the commissioners wrote. “However, we feel that a toddler park would be better suited to a location closer to her own home, as opposed to here in Indiana County, and urge organizers to work with her family to help that happen.”
Rick Shoemaker, director of Shoemaker Funeral Home & Monuments, said Monday that Tillman approached him about a bench and that his company has agreed to furnish an engraved granite memorial bench to honor Nalani.
“We told the young women behind this that we would sandblast the wording that they want, and we would put it where they want us to put it,” Shoemaker told the Gazette. “But we said, ‘you have to get permission from the Indiana County commissioners to do that.”
That would seem to satisfy the basic thrust of the petition campaign.
“Pine Ridge will always be associated with this terrible tragedy, so (it) might as well be used to allow Nalani’s memory to live on,” Tillman wrote at change.org in the appeal for signatures.
It also seems to answer the concern that Krivansky expressed in Facebook comment that attracted near-viral response on the social media.
“I think it’s the family’s decision, whether to have a memorial here. It makes more sense to have memorial where that little girl lived and played, rather than them having to drive up the highway,” Krivansky told the Gazette.
“The kids around here — they didn’t know that little girl, and I don’t know of any ties they had to the community. I feel the little girl needs to be honored in some way but it should be up to the family, rather than a petition from people who didn’t know her.”
What also is important to the commissioners is to not lose sight of what Pine Ridge Park has represented since the county established it.
“Indiana County parks have been created for the rest and recreation of families and we feel that their collective legacy should be defined not by a senseless act of violence perpetrated against a helpless child, but by the natural beauty and quiet respite they provide.
“These areas of Indiana County have been set apart for just those reasons, and we hope that those who use them will continue to enjoy them as they have always been intended.”
Nalani Johnson’s death remains under investigation by the Indiana County coroner’s office, the Allegheny County police and the Allegheny County district attorney.
Investigators in the Pittsburgh area arrested Sharena Nancy, 25, of Penn Hills, on kidnapping and related charges on Sept. 2, the day before searchers found Nalani’s body, still strapped in her car safety seat, in an unspecified place in or near Pine Ridge Park.
Allegheny County’s top prosecutor, Stephen Zappala, said almost two weeks ago that he believes Nancy acted alone in the kidnapping and death of the child, and that he expects to charge her with homicide when a final autopsy and toxicology report is released by the Indiana County coroner’s office.