YORK — Family, friends and domestic violence outreach advocates gathered at Short Sands Beach under cold gray skies patched with pockets of light Friday night to mourn and publicly acknowledge the death of Rhonda Pattelena, the 35-year-old Massachusetts woman who died in a gruesome attack on the beach a week before. Her domestic partner has been charged with murder.

Pattelena’s best friend organized the celebration of her life at the Pavilion at Ellis Park in front of Short Sands Beach, one of Pattelena’s favorite places to visit. At least 200 people gathered under a wooden gazebo in front of the beach for the 7:15 p.m. candlelight vigil, which was open to the public and was intended to help reclaim the beach as a place of love and light.

The memorial began against a backdrop of an outgoing tide and faint yellow light fading on the horizon.

Pattelena was a medical assistant, and was studying to become a nurse. Friends described her as strong, courageous and caring, both a great mom to her three kids and a committed caregiver to the many she watched over in her professional work.

Friday night’s memorial was a loosely organized and emotional affair, with brief prepared remarks from Sherry Edwards, deputy director of Caring Unlimited, York County’s domestic violence resource center, and heartfelt remembrances from Pattelena’s friends and family. Many wore T-shirts with Pattelena’s image and adorned themselves in purple, which represents courage and survival, and honors victims and survivors of domestic violence.

Others carried flowers and balloons, and a small memorial of flowers and photos formed at the head of the beach. Those who gathered struggled against a cold, stiff wind to keep their candles lit, but huddled in small circles to break the breeze and give each other comfort and warmth.

“Thank you for the gift you gave this broken world,” said one woman, who paid tribute to Pattelena for the care she provided her mother in a dementia facility in Massachusetts. “There was no stronger advocate for the residents than Rhonda.”

Jeffrey Buchannan, 33, of Bedford, Massachusetts, is charged with a single count of murder in Pattelena’s death. Buchanan is being held without bail in York County Jail, and a judge has granted his attorney’s request for a mental health evaluation.

A childhood friend who helped organize Friday’s vigil, Melissa Matranga of Reading, Massachusetts, said the York beach was one of Pattelena’s favorite places. She was a single mother of three boys, ages 17, 14, and 2. The boys will live with their grandmother, according to family.

Rhonda Pattelena’s sister, Jessica Pattelena, speaks about her sister at Friday’s gathering in York. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Rhonda Pattelena Photo courtesy of Melissa Matranga

A grandmother of the one of the boys, who did not identify herself, said the family “appreciates all the love and support from everyone here and everyone from where she is from” in Massachusetts who traveled to the memorial.

The family declined an interview and asked for privacy.

Amid tears of rage, another friend vowed justice. “It’s disgusting what happened to her. We want justice, and we’re going to get it,” the woman said to applause. “We’re going to get it.”

Multiple people called 911 just before 4 p.m. March 26 to report the assault on the beach, which was captured on surveillance video. They described a man beating and dragging another person behind a rock. An autopsy concluded Pattelena died of blunt force injury to the head, and police collected a rock as evidence. Police quickly detained Buchanan, who told authorities he “blacked out” at the time of the attack, according to a police affidavit.

Caring Unlimited, a domestic violence resource center, livestreamed Friday’s memorial for those unable to attend. Domestic violence advocates were on hand, and Edwards encouraged anyone to talk with them. “If you do need to talk to somebody tonight, please be sure you do that,” she said.

At the time of Friday’s vigil, a GoFundMe campaign created by Matranga had raised more than $49,000 for Pattelena’s family. “Rhonda was a beautiful, loving, caring and generous person, she had such a big heart, she was always smiling and laughing,” Matranga wrote on the GoFundMe website. “She was so full of life.”

Loved ones grieve at the celebration of life for Rhonda Pattelena at Short Sands Beach in York, which was one of Pattelena’s favorite places. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Edwards said it was important to celebrate Pattelena’s life on the beach she loved so much. “This is a place that was a favorite place for the family, and they want to take it back and create a good memory,” she said in an interview before the vigil began.

For the community at large, it’s vital to acknowledge what happened and find a way to make it stop, she said. “We all need to stand up and take notice. When horrible events like this occur, it gives us pause to really think about, how do we prevent this from happening again? As a community, it’s important we do that – and unfortunately, we tend to do that when tragedies like this occur,” Edwards said.

“Rhonda deserved to live and we deserve to have her light shining among us.”

For a brief moment on Friday, her light broke through the gray, shining down on those she loved the most in the place she loved the best.

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