Children took turns being pushed on swings and scaled up the new playground equipment, while residents walked their dogs along pavement paths carved in grass.
A large inflatable movie screen was set up in the park, and neighbors laid out blankets and lawn chairs. When the sun set, “Kung Fu Panda 3” played for Tustin families.
Community groups set up booths and passed out popcorn and other treats, and members of the Tustin Police Department handed out paper police hats, books and stickers.
Frontier Park has come a long way in a year.
Toward the back of the park at Red Hill and Mitchell avenues, where gentle hills drop to areas hidden from street view, lay a memorial of sunflowers, chicharrones and a balloon — reminders of what happened in the park a year ago and the changes it brought about.
Just after 3:15 p.m. on Aug. 18, 2015, Robert Carranza was stabbed in the park after an argument with another man. The suspect, a convicted felon who currently is on trial for murder, is accused of stabbing Carranza in the neck.
Carranza, a 39-year-old Tustin resident, stumbled to the nearby AM/PM. The clerk recognized him and tried to help, repeating to the dying man, “Stay with me, hold on. Keep looking at me.”
Although police administered aid when they arrived, Carranza did not recover from his injuries.
Frontier Park had been a problem area for non-violent criminal activity such as drinking in public and drug use, and also was known as a hangout for some gang members.
The way the park is laid out made it easy to hide from passersby. Its grassy hills — once characteristics of a frisbee golf course — creates shallow valleys for park-goers to huddle out of sight.
Officers who patrolled the city’s south side frequently stopped to check for illegal activity at Frontier Park, but Carranza’s murder was the final catalyst for major change.
Tustin PD adopted the park as part of its program, Project 365 — a community service effort that combines enhancing public safety and improving residents’ quality of life.
“We kicked off a multi-level effort to make it a priority to go in and fix that park,” said Lt. Jeff Blair.
The city removed old playground equipment and replaced it with a new facility and splash pad, which is quickly becoming a community favorite.
Workers removed graffiti and cleaned up the bathrooms and park tables. Plans to level out the grass areas and add more lighting are also in the works, police said.
Police also conducted a crime impact operation, in which they saturated the area with officers to send a clear message to criminals, gang members and those who liked to party there: “Frontier Park is no longer yours.”
And it worked.
Calls for service in the area are down, and the community is again frequenting the park for recreation.
Tustin PD and the city on Aug. 18 hosted one of their weekly summer movies at Frontier Park to celebrate the changes and ceremoniously return the park to its residents.
“We wanted people to know that it is OK to go back to the park,” Blair said.
But the celebration was bittersweet for some who attended.
Tustin police invited the Carranza family to show them the positive changes that had come from such tragedy.
Deborah Carranza, Robert’s mother, showed up to the event with some of her children and grandchildren to remember her son who she said had “a smile like sunshine.”
The Tustin resident said she knows her son wasn’t perfect, but he was a good man. Carranza had a checkered past and had been working hard to stay on the straight and narrow.
“We want our family to remember the happiness he gave us,” she said.
The father of three played hard with his children, nieces and nephews, and family members described him as a child at heart.
Carranza also loved to help others, his family said, and often would go to the 99 Cent Store and pick up toiletries and other items to hand out to the homeless.
“He’d give someone the shirt off his back if they needed it,” his mother said.
Tustin Gang Unit Det. Ronnie Sandoval said the officers knew Carranza well, but not because he caused trouble.
Although Carranza had some criminal history, he was respectful and cooperative with Tustin PD, Sandoval said.
“He was honest and trying to make his life better,” Sandoval said. “He was talkative and happy go lucky. He never gave us any problem.”
Sandoval said Carranza’s murder struck a chord with members of the gang unit because they crossed paths with him often.
“This was someone we talked to all the time,” he said. “We really knew him.”
It has been a tough year for Carranza’s family, who often visit the park and leave memorials near where he was stabbed.
They decorated for Halloween and Christmas, and made sure to leave some of Carranza’s favorite items at the site throughout the year.
“It just makes me feel better to come here and leave something to remember him,” said Carranza’s sister, Amanda Cuellar, 26. “I didn’t just lose a brother, I lost a father figure.”
Deborah Carranza said she continues to have days where she is overwhelmed with sadness.
She still keeps the last lunch her son packed in the fridge — a Coca-Cola and a Cup O’ Noodles.
“It’s one of the first things I see every morning, and it makes me feel better” she said.
As Deborah Carranza looked around the park on that recent Thursday, children ran past her to get to the new playground and kids played tag in the grass.
She felt hopeful.
“I am not happy that this happened, but I am happy that so much good has come out of it,” Deborah Carranza said. “I believe things happen for a reason.”