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40 years after daughter’s murder, Auburn woman still fighting for victims’ rights

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Harriet Salarno, the founder of Crime Victims United, was featured in the Auburn Journal on May 19, 2020

More than 40 years have passed since Catina Rose Salarno was shot and killed by Steven John Burns, her high school boyfriend, at a corner of the University of the Pacific campus in Stockton.

Catina’s mother, Harriet Salarno, suffered the unthinkable: She lost a daughter, a teenager about to begin her college education at a university with an impressive reputation.

Harriet Salarno mourned, as any mom would. Now 87, she mourns to this day in her Auburn home.

“I still pray to her every day,” Harriet said this week in an interview with the Auburn Journal. “There must have been a reason this tragedy happened. Maybe it was to do something about it.”

There’s no maybe about that. Harriet Salarno has been doing something about it since Catina’s death. Harriet was the architect behind Marsy’s Law, the California Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008. She was an advocate at the capitol for public safety and victims’ rights. She turned Crime Victims United, the organization she founded, into a powerful organization.

Harriet Salarno recently was nominated by Crime Victims United as one of Fox 40’s “Remarkable Women.”

“Our office said we have a remarkable woman here,” said Sheryl Petersen, community outreach director for Crime Victims United. “She has been doing this for a number of years. We think she would be a perfect candidate for this.”

While Salarno lost one daughter, she influenced another. Nina Salarno-Besselman is a former Placer County district attorney and now an assistant DA in Orange County who learned much “from watching my mom.”

“It started with her. She’s grown it not only in the state but in the nation,” Nina said. “Mom took the philosophy that CVU needs to engage with other nonprofits. She’s grown it into a very powerful and very balanced organization. My mom has a very balanced perspective to public safety and rehabilitation. She has been an ardent voice for victims.”

When the Salarnos relocated to Auburn, Harriet said she became very involved and started going to Sacramento, talking to legislators. Harriet met and became friends with former Gov. Pete Wilson. She said she was instrumental in getting Doris Tate, the mother of actress Sharon Tate, and Dominick Dunne, the father of actress Dominique Dunne, involved in her cause. Sharon Tate was 8½ months pregnant when she was murdered by members of the Manson family in 1969. Dominique Dunne was strangled by her ex-boyfriend in 1982, three years after Catina Salarno’s murder.

“Now we’re really a voice in the capital,” Harriet said.

She began doing research and learned victims can appear at parole hearings. It paid off when Burns came up for parole for the first time – 10 years after he killed Catina.

“They had to let us in. We sent letters all over protesting his parole hearing – ‘48 Hours,’ ‘20/20,’ ” Harriet recalled. “When we got to the prison, guards were lined up and said this is the first time we ever saw someone come and speak for the victims. We had a couple-hundred people come up protesting. The Board of Prison Terms didn’t know what hit them. ‘48 Hours’ got to go in. All the people got to see it.”

Burns, now 59, wasn’t granted parole then, and he remains locked up now, at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla. He most recently was denied parole – for the 11th time – last August and won’t be eligible again for seven years. Harriet, Nina and four other family members attended the hearing.

“When my sister died, there was nothing for victims’ rights,” Nina Salarno-Besselman said. “As a prosecutor and assistant DA in Orange County, you see that change, having a voice, being counted in the system. She’s brought that balance into the system, which is critical, but with a care for people.”

Nina was the youngest advocate to testify on then-President Ronald Reagan’s task force on the criminal justice system and its treatment of victims. She’s also the proponent for Keep California Safe on the 2020 ballot, “but Mom is heavily involved in that and has been campaigning as well.”

According to the website, the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2020 “fixes four specific flaws contained in recent criminal justice reforms — addressing violent crime classification and serial theft, as well as parole reform and DNA collection.”

Harriet Salarno said she was “honored and surprised” by the Fox 40 honor, though she noted she’s “not in it for the recognition.”

“The victims, they just don’t have many people that speak out for them. I touched a lot of people that I never met,” she said. “Faith has a lot to do with it, too.”

While Harriet influenced daughter Nina’s career path, it was Harriet’s late husband, Mike, who was instrumental in hers. And today, she says she’s “busier now than ever.”

“I feel like I’m starting all over again,” Harriet says. “We’re trying to make public safety a priority again. I’m 87, and I hope to be 97 and doing this.”

See article in the Auburn Journal…/40-years-after-daughters-mu…/

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