Recently diagnosed with high blood pressure and diabetes, Leoncio Loza followed doctor’s orders to be more active and took daily walks along a bike path in Northeast Washington’s Kenilworth Park.
On the afternoon of March 21, the 75-year-old, who three decades ago fled civil war in his native El Salvador, was on one of those walks when he was attacked and stabbed during what his family thinks was a robbery. He died Friday after 10 days at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
The assault, now a homicide, came hours before another man was attacked along the same path but in adjacent Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Police said Monday that at this point in the investigations they have found no links between the cases.
Loza’s wife and children are trying to sort out the sudden death of a man who recently retired as a landscaper after raising a family and working hard for years. They await the return of his body from the medical examiner’s office and plan to hold a funeral Mass in Washington.
“He was the most humble, kind man,” said the Rev. Blake Evans, pastor of Nativity Catholic Church in Northwest Washington’s Brightwood neighborhood, where Loza attended Mass seven days a week. Evans added softly, “A gentle soul.”
Loza lived in a two-story house on Meade Street with his wife, Elida, their daughter Reina and her four children. He had lived in the home, a few blocks from Kenilworth Park, since coming to the United States 35 years ago and being granted asylum. He became a citizen a few years later.
Leoncio Loza spent much of his time gardening, nurturing the flower beds that line the yard. He took joy in the world around him, his family said, especially when it involved a plate of camotes, or sweet potatoes, laced with cinnamon and sugar — a traditional Salvadoran dish that reminded him of his native country. “He was very talkative,” Reina Loza said. “He loved to talk to people. He wanted everyone to come to church with him.”
Leoncio Loza was attacked about 2:30 p.m. on the Anacostia River Trail. Police said he was stabbed repeatedly, including in the head. The second attack on the trail came about 6:30 p.m., less than a mile away, where police said an older Hispanic man was struck in the head and body. He survived.
U.S. Park Police, which initially oversaw both investigations, had only vague descriptions of the attackers, and they did not match. In Loza’s case, the assailant was described as a black man about 20 years old and 5-foot-10. He was wearing a green jacket and dark pants. In the second attack, it was black man about 30 and the same height but wearing light pants and no shirt.
Loza’s family said investigators told them that some of his mail was found in a car abandoned near the park. A spokesman for D.C. police, which is now leading the investigation, declined to comment on details of the case, but said a motive has not been determined.
Another daughter, Elva Loza, said her father had taken to the park after a doctor advised him to get more exercise. “If he wasn’t attacked, he would have lived for a long time,” said the daughter, 36. “He was a very active man.”
After coming to Washington in the early 1980s — his wife and three of their four children soon joined him — Loza steadily built a new life, working various jobs in restaurants and then as a landscaper before retiring a few years ago.
He had recently begun volunteering at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Adams Morgan, mostly helping other Salvadorans seeking food and other services.
“He was very engaged with the Salvadoran community,” Elva Loza said. “Everywhere he went, he made new friends.”
Every day for the past 10 years, he made his way up to Northwest Washington’s Brightwood neighborhood, where he attended weekday and Mass at noon and Saturday Mass at 8 a.m. in the chapel of Nativity Catholic Church on Georgia Avenue. On Sundays, he attended the 1 p.m. service in Spanish.
Evans said Loza could not speak English but he liked to sing in church. “He was always happy when people would sing parts of songs in Latin,” the priest said. “He told me, ‘I know the words. I can sing them.’ ”
The church posted two Facebook tributes to Loza, one urging prayer before he died. It noted that a knife wound had damaged Loza’s brain and left him unable to talk, and that he opened his eyes for the first time seven days after the attack.
The second posting came the morning of his death — with Evans trying to match words to the persona of the man he had to eulogize: “Lord have mercy and reward this simple man for his incredible faith.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.