Ceremony memorializes Washington County crime victims
The idea for the Washington County Crime Victims' Memorial Garden began with a chance meeting in 2007 between Cathy Loos and Melinda Poland.
“It's a blur now because when you lose a child, it's all a blur,” said Loos, a Bentleyville resident whose daughter, Alexzandra, was killed in 2004.
When the two women met in the office of Betsy Dane, director of the Washington County District Attorney's Crime Victims/Witness Assistance Program, they shared one tragic thing in common — each had lost a teenage child to a negligent driver.
Danny Poland Jr. was struck and killed Sept. 20, 2000, while crossing East Maiden Street in Washington by a drunken driver.
Alexzandra Loos, a WPIAL track star as a freshman at Bentworth High School, was struck and killed by a speeding vehicle almost four years later.
Loos and her husband, Jim, paused to recall the moment shortly before the National Day of Remembrance of Homicide Victims day was held Sunday afternoon at the Crime Victims' Memorial Garden, located behind the Washington County Courthouse.
Even as she talked about the origins of the garden, Cathy Loos paused.
“You think you can talk about it, but things get caught up in your throat,” she said.
“It catches up with you. It doesn't get any better.”
The garden was built by state grants obtained by former state Sen. J. Barry Stout as well as state Sen. Timothy Solobay, the Looses said.
All of the money for the garden is raised, mostly through a steak dinner each year and the sale of T-shirts.
On Sunday, Kathy Kunco donated $1,600 to the garden in memory of her daughter, Karissa, who was stabbed to death in 2012.
A garden with the names of the victims etched in stones was chosen because they knew names could and would be added over the years. In 2010, two years after it was dedicated, there were 30 stones. At Sunday's ceremony, over 100 names were present in the garden.
The families of the victims have become close, by necessity, Cathy Loos said.
“If we had not gone through these tragedies, we would not have met some of the people,” she said. “It helps to know you're not alone in your suffering.”
The families of the crime victims gathered at the garden for the memorial event. Each was invited up to the podium to pour colored sand from a small glass with their loved one's name etched on it into a large vase. The gesture was to symbolize unity among the victims and their families.
Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone said the event was an opportunity to reflect on the impact of murder and remember the sadness that every day brings for the survivors.
He recalled Robert Kennedy's famed “Mindless Menace of Violence” speech, made the day after the murder of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King.
“It is not the concern of any one race,” Kennedy said. “The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.
“Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created?...
“Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”
Vittone said Kennedy's words denote that violence affects not just the families but “destroys the fabric of our community.”
“I know some of the personal stories of this here and I am amazed by your strength and willingness to go on,” Vittone said. “Today, we acknowledge the personal struggle that you undergo daily to live the remainder of your lives. We acknowledge your strength.”
Vittone said his office works diligently to bring the perpetrators to justice. But he acknowledged that “we cannot fill that hole in your heart, which is the constant reminder of the ravages of violence and crime.”
Sunday's ceremony marked the fifth anniversary of the unveiling of the garden, noted Pam Tarr, whose son, Thomas Tarr Jr., was murdered in 2006 in North Franklin Township.
“The garden does provide a long, lasting tribute to lost ones who have passed away as well as a soft place for the survivors to remember,” Tarr said.
Tarr said prisoners being escorted from the county jail to the courthouse for trial must daily walk past the garden.
“This garden reminds them that their act of violence has caused continued grief for the victim's family left behind,” Tarr said.
Pastor Rick Bruckner, who lost his niece, Jenna Gilmore, in a fatal crash in 2010, addressed the families.
“Let me assure you, you are not alone,” Bruckner told them. “God is with you.”
Bruckner said that, while they are known as crime victims, they are heroes to him.
Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or firstname.lastname@example.org.