Ariana Ruiz and her four sons. Photo: Courtesy

A mother of four who was found dead in a tent at a Berkeley homeless camp last week did not live there, had never been there before, and was found without her phone or pocketbook, her family told Berkeleyside this week.

Ariana Ruiz, 40, lived in Oakland in an apartment on Grand Avenue and may have gone to the camp to meet up with a friend, her cousin Fulvio Cajina said Thursday morning. That friend has since vanished, however, and the family was shocked to learn Saturday about Ruiz’s death.

“She wasn’t living at that camp. She was looking forward to life,” he said. “You always have these older family members you’re expecting to hear news about — but never the young ones. The family just doesn’t want this to be ignored.”

Relatives have launched a fundraiser to help Ruiz’s four sons, ages 12 to 19, including 18-year-old Jayme who just left for college to study graphic design in New York at the Rochester Institute of Technology. All money raised will be used to pay for the boys’ education, the family said.

Cajina described Ruiz, growing up, as “the tomboy of the group” of cousins. They were just nine months apart in age. “She was very outgoing, always smiling, always happy. She had these incredible blue eyes.” Ruiz — who could not hear — grew up in San Francisco, but attended the California School for the Deaf in Fremont. Once, when she was 13, unbeknownst to her family, she took her bike and rode BART to school. “Everyone was looking for her. She was very independent, very adventurous, athletic. She was the cool cousin. She wore the Birkenstocks.”

Cajina said, from what the family has been able to piece together, Ruiz went to the dentist in Berkeley last Thursday. She texted a friend that she was trying to get a ride back to Oakland. But she never made it. At some point, she went to the homeless encampment in South Berkeley, on the east side of the BART tracks at 63rd Street, possibly to visit a friend who was staying there.

Cajina, an attorney, has since gone to the camp to speak with several occupants who told him they had never seen Ruiz before Thursday. From what they told him, later in the evening that day, she appeared to be “in distress,” he said. She was having trouble walking, and tried to ask for a phone, but was not given one. One of the men at the camp took Ruiz into his tent, and she seemed to go to sleep or fall unconscious. The man told Cajina, in the hours that followed, he recalled Ruiz grasping at or squeezing his arm or hand. In the morning, she seemed to be sleeping when the other campers left for a bit. When they came back, she was dead, they told Cajina.

“No one ever called an ambulance,” Cajina said, adding that he doesn’t think the campers realized Ruiz was Deaf. “She was trying to communicate and no one put it together. She must have known she was in distress but she couldn’t get help.”

Cajina said the family had been disturbed to learn Ruiz had no pocketbook or cellphone — her main way to communicate with the hearing — when her body was found. Her purse was empty, and she had only her hearing aids and some hair ties when authorities found her. She had no official documents, which the family believes she would have had with her for her dentist appointment. Cajina said the missing items raise a lot of questions: “We know she wouldn’t have given up her cellphone. It’s akin to gagging her.”

Neither the friend the family believes Ruiz went to meet, reportedly named Candace, or her boyfriend Spanky were at the camp when Cajina visited to learn how his cousin ended up there. And neither person has been seen since, he said, though word has it they left the camp for a hotel, despite generally having no money for that kind of expense.

“Those two people were gone,” Cajina said. “We know Ariana’s pocketbook is missing. We’re trying to get police to do an investigation. She was our family member, a beloved family member. She has four kids and I think they’re entitled to answers.”

Members of the Lopez family, from left: Steven Lopez, Adrian, Ariana, Jayme and Edward Ruiz, and Zenon and Martha Lopez. Photo: Courtesy

Ruiz’s younger brother Steven Lopez, who lives in Pacifica, said — through an American Sign Language interpreter — that it was frustrating and overwhelming to have so little information. He said he didn’t know of any obvious troubles in his sister’s past that might have led her to the camp.

“It’s part of what is so confusing to me and to the rest of the family,” he said. Lopez had visited his sister, with their parents, at her Oakland apartment, and also met her roommate. “Things were going fine,” he said.

Lopez said he and his parents, who also live in Pacifica, and his older sister Karla, have asked Cajina to try to learn more about the circumstances at the camp, so the immediate family can focus on the children, and on memorials for Ruiz coming up Sunday and Monday at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland.

“Right now my priority is honoring her and doing right by her,” Lopez said. “We’re asking people to respect our family, to let us have that time and space to move on, and to be respectful of her.”

Lopez said he had been looking in recent days at family photographs, and found that his sister always had a ready smile on her face, and was often flashing the sign for “I love you.” She loved art and dancing, and was a warm person who was quick to give hugs and show other physical signs of affection. Like Ruiz, Lopez and their older sister, Karla, are Deaf, and he said that was a huge part of Ruiz’s identity, upbringing and spirit. He said Ruiz had been very involved, since childhood, with San Francisco-based Project Insight, a city organization for the Deaf and visually impaired, and frequently attended Bay Area Deaf events.

“She would always say American Sign Language is the only 3-D language,” he said. “Other languages are on paper or spoken only. They don’t come at you in 3-D. She was very proud of that.”

Ariana with scissors she helped craft from wood while in high school. Photo: Courtesy

Ruiz was also a proud alumna of the California School for the Deaf (“Eagles all the way!” he said, in reference to the CSD mascot). She felt great pride that her son Jayme was a CSD grad, too, and that her 12-year-old, Adrian, was a current seventh-grader there.

She had a “raw talent” for woodworking and, as a high-schooler, was part of a team of CSD students who crafted a huge pair of scissors from wood that is still on display in San Leandro at the Deaf Counseling Advocacy & Referral Agency, Lopez said. “She was always looking for creative ways to express herself through art,” he said. “She was always warm to family or friends, or ready to make a friend.”

Ruiz later attended Ohlone College in Fremont, but was primarily focused on raising her four sons. In addition to Jayme and Adrian, there’s also Edward, a junior at Terra Nova High School in Pacifica, and Bobby, 19, who lives and works in San Jose, and has his eye on college, Lopez said.

“They all are looking to honor their mom,” he said.

Ariana Ruiz and her sons. She called them her “four little Stooges.” Photo: Courtesy

Lopez said his sisters were born in Nicaragua in the 70s, and had no access to Deaf education there. They created their own form of sign language at home to communicate with each other. Their parents, wanting access to better schools for the girls, and fleeing Nicaragua’s civil war and revolution in the 1980s, immigrated to San Francisco, where Ariana and Karla grew up, and Lopez was later born.

Cousin Cajina said Ruiz had been excited for the future, and had plans to get into yoga and take cooking classes. She was preparing to get braces and planned to get a new phone. And, of course, there was her family.

“The smallest of her boys is 12 years old,” Cajina said. “She had a lot to live for.”

The family is now waiting for the coroner’s office to complete the autopsy report, which will take several more weeks. Cajina said they haven’t heard much from police after providing some initial statements. But they don’t want Ariana’s case to “fall through the cracks,” he said.

BPD said Thursday it is waiting for the coroner’s report, and that the case is still an open matter.

“We’re waiting for more information,” said Police Lt. Dan Montgomery. “We want to know everything we can possibly know.”

A memorial service to honor Ariana Ruiz’s life will be held Monday, Oct. 16, at 10 a.m. at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, at 4499 Piedmont Ave. The family will also have a public viewing Sunday, Oct. 15, from 4-7 p.m., at the same address. Learn more about the fundraiser for the Ruiz boys. The family asks anyone with information relevant to the case to email cousin Fulvio Cajina.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...