South Park residents gathered at their local community center twice in the last two weeks: once to mourn the slaying of a neighborhood woman...

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South Park residents gathered at their local community center twice in the last two weeks: once to mourn the slaying of a neighborhood woman, and again Tuesday to keep the promise they made in her honor — to get to know their own neighbors.

Late last month South Park residents poured in by the hundreds to pay tribute to Teresa Butz, who was raped and killed in her home July 19.

At that gathering, they lit candles and wiped away tears as Butz’s 14-year-old neighbor spoke, her head down and her voice shaking, about how she had run to Butz’s aid the night she died, bringing towels to stop her bleeding.

Together, South Park residents promised to look out for their neighbors the way that 14-year-old looked out for hers.

Tuesday night, they took a step toward that promise as families and community members gathered for National Night Out, a crime-prevention program that encourages neighbors to meet and work together to solve neighborhood issues.

The South Park event was one of many around the region Tuesday night.

“Really, how we solve crimes is when communities come together” as they did Tuesday night, said John Diaz, interim Seattle police chief, who attended the South Park event. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels also attended.

Neighbors Laurie Milodragovich and Paul Mai said a longing for community brought them to the annual event.

“We’ve always been a close neighborhood,” Mai said. But when women were attacked so close by, “it made us more aware of what was going on around us.”

As Milodragovich looked around the community center at the families smiling, eating hot dogs and watermelon, she shook her head. “It’s a different place,” she said, remembering the mournful, somber vigil she’d attended two weeks ago.

Tuesday, it was clear people were making an effort to get to know their neighbors better. The event was a testament to how the neighborhood had grown closer and looked out for each other more after one of their own was slain, residents said.

“I can see the community coming together now,” said Albert Barrientes, uncle of the 14-year-old. “Before, nobody wanted to talk to you. Now, people I don’t even know come up and hug me.

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

The Night Out movement started small with about 400 communities in Pennsylvania in 1984. On Tuesday, more than 10,000 communities in all 50 states, U.S. territories, military bases and Canadian cities participated, roping off residential streets and gathering block-party-style.

The number of local Night Out gatherings has increased in the past few years. The Seattle Police Department registered more than 1,000 block parties this year, compared with 992 in 2008, 774 in 2007 and 893 in 2006.

Communities throughout Washington participated in Night Out. Some 100 block parties were registered in Pierce County, about 80 of them in Tacoma. In Bellevue, residents gathered at a police station.

Redmond police said they designed the event to be a going-away party for criminals.

Lindsay Toler: 206-464-2463 or