Homicide ‘survivors’ have only their grief, each other

By Patrick Boyle
© The Washington Times
Nov. 10, 1991

“Let me tell you about how my son got killed.”

The woman in the yellow dress with the black dots is sitting in an old schoolroom, surrounded by a dozen strangers. For an hour they have been sharing stories about their murdered children and husbands, and now they listen to the newest member of the group.

The woman tells what the murderer did to her son: “He took a .45, put it to his head and blew his brains out.

“It’s been two years. I can’t sleep.”

Helena McLaughlin, who sits a few chairs away, knows the feeling.

It’s been more than a year since her only child was murdered, but she still takes prescription pills to dull the headaches. She occasionally rubs two of her fingers that are partly numb from nerve damage. Over her heart she wears a button with her son’s picture on it.

“I don’t feel like doing anything,” Mrs. McLaughlin says. “As far as going out, I’d rather stay with myself. Me and my son, we had this very close relationship. It’s hard.”

It’s hard for everyone here, which is why they are together. They are living victims of Washington’s murder epidemic.

In the past three years some 1,700 people have been murdered in the metropolitan area, leaving as many as 17,000 “survivors” – the parents and grandparents, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, cousins and friends of murder victims.

Long after the victims are buried, the survivors struggle. And with the murder total climbing daily, jurisdictions have created support groups to help them.

For eight weeks The Washington Times was allowed to sit with the D.C. group and listen. Each Thursday night they gather, like members of a macabre club, in Room 116 of the old Randall School in Southwest: people like Madeline Pepe-Smith, who moved into a shelter with her 3-year-old boy after her husband was slain; Laura George, whose family sought counseling after her son Dwight was killed; and Lucille Dunn, who once fled from a grocery store – leaving her cart of food in the checkout line – after seeing a woman in the next aisle who had confessed to helping a man hide her son’s body near a trash bin.

This is how they live, or try to live, with murder.

Nearly 3 million adults in America today have had an immediate family member murdered, according to a study funded by the National Institute of Justice and published last month. Counting close friends and more distant relatives, such as uncles, the study estimates that 6.7 million adults – about 3.7 percent of the adult population – are homicide survivors. The study, published in Behavior Modification magazine, didn’t count surviving children.

Parents of Murdered Children says that on average a murder directly affects 10 family members and close friends – and that their problems are usually ignored.

“Survivors of homicide victims have never been seen as victims of crime,” says Nancy Ruhe, executive director of the Cincinnati-based group. “No one pays any attention to family members. We assume you should be over it in six weeks.”

Is there a difference when a loved one dies from murder rather than accident or illness?

“The extra dimension is the ingredient of human cruelty,” says John Stein, deputy director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance.

Survivors say they are tortured by knowing someone purposefully killed their spouses and children.

Two weeks after her son was murdered, a woman named Peggy makes her way to Room 116 in the Randall School. She wears a bright-green sweat shirt and dark glasses and slumps in one of the old office chairs arranged in a ragged circle in the middle of the room. When it’s Peggy’s turn to talk, she tells how her son was found in his car with a bullet hole through his neck. Police told her he was killed by someone in the car, probably someone he knew well.

“That’s the hurtin’ part,” she says, a pained look etched on her face, a sob escaping from somewhere deep within. “It must be somebody that’s looking at me every day. I look at people every day and wonder whether this is the one who did it.”

The sadness hangs heavy in the air, an unwelcome but ever-present guest in Room 116. Experts call it post-traumatic stress disorder.

“These people have distressing images about the crime,” says Dean Kilpatrick of the Medical University of South Carolina, who headed the study funded by the National Institute of Justice. “They have trouble concentrating. They have bad dreams about it. All the types of things you see in combat veterans.

“It’s not just grief. It’s much more than that.”

Peggy’s tears have set off sobs around the room. One of those crying is a woman whose husband was killed this spring.

“I was scared to go home,” she says. “We live around the corner from where he was killed.”

She also fears for her future and her 3-year-old daughter. “She’s changed,” the woman says. “She says, `Mom, when is Daddy coming back?’ I have to go over this and over it. People don’t realize – the babies.” Her voice cracks and she lowers her head in her hands. “He was my best friend. I can’t go to no one and say, `My daughter needs a pair of shoes.’ I got a daughter on my own. It’s not fair!”

“It’s not fair!” says a woman a few chairs away.

Besides revealing the lingering pain of murder, the group also reflects the heavy toll murder takes on young black men in this area. Of two dozen survivors who came here during eight recent weeks, all but one are black. All but four had sons killed. The others lost husbands.

People in the circle are holding hands now. Walking in the middle is Delano Foster, the social worker whose job it is to help people here cry, talk and express how they feel. He knows too well how they feel.

Mr. Foster’s father was murdered on his first birthday, 34 years ago. He can’t remember ever having an actual birthday party. “That’s a difficult day,” he says.

As the years passed, he says, he learned what happened to his father and went through the stages: grief, depression, anger. “That anger hangs around for a long time,” he says.

Mr. Foster is a thin man with a gentle face and a low, soothing voice. This spring, he began running the survivors group, which was created three years ago as part of the D.C. Department of Human Services’ victim assistance program. In July, just months after he joined, Mr. Foster’s brother was murdered.

As sad as the group members are for him and each other, they are glad to know people who understand firsthand what they are going through. “Your friends get tired,” says Gertrude Martin, whose son Jerome was killed in November 1989. “After a while they feel `You’re not the first person to have a death. Why do you keep harping on it?’ ”

Here the group members can share experiences, listen, give advice, pass around family photos. Several have become friends, there to offer a comforting voice on the phone in the middle of the night.

Laura George comes to the meetings wearing a white sweat shirt with a black-and-gray print of her son’s face.

Dwight George was killed outside a D.C. nightclub on Feb. 23, 1989. According to the story the family got from police, a fight between groups of men in the club escalated outside. Dwight, 20, and unarmed, ran when someone pulled out guns. He was chased and shot 10 times.

Her anger radiates from her like heat. She has intense eyes, a tightly set jaw and a harsh tone – a look and a sound that is common among the survivors.

“It has affected all of us deeply,” Mrs. George says of her family while sitting in their Fort Washington home. “It’s a mind-boggling guilt trip. I started blaming myself, saying if I had done this differently, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. There were a lot of days when I blamed my husband. There were a lot of days when we were in here and we had nothing to say to each other.”

Her husband, Lee, doesn’t come to the meetings. Few men do. Like several people in the group, the Georges have discovered how differently men and women grieve. While Mrs. George will sometimes look out her kitchen window and cry over Dwight, Mr. George controls his grief and focuses on keeping their lives on track. That has caused friction.

“There were times when I felt his emotions were saying that we have to go on with our life, there’s nothing we can do,” says Mrs. George.

“Somebody was going to have to be strong enough to hold this family together,” says Mr. George. But he is bitter, especially toward young men and the courts. Dwight was killed by a teen-ager who under his plea bargain may serve less than six years.

“I have a chip on my shoulder,” says Mr. George. “I always will.” Their youngest daughter, now 15, virtually “shut down,” Mrs. George says. “She and Dwight were extremely close. Really close. It’s almost as though she stayed in a total state of shock for practically a year. There was a dramatic drop in schoolwork. . . . She didn’t attend any of the [funeral] services.”

“I didn’t want to believe he was dead,” the girl says.

But Mr. George and his two daughters say Dwight’s death affected Mrs. George the most. She says she is sometimes so consumed thinking of Dwight that she neglects everyone else:

“The girls are constantly saying, `But Mommy, he’s not your only child. What about us?’ ”

Some have a death wish.

“If I could get away with it, I would. I won’t lie to you,” says Mrs. Pepe-Smith. She looks at her 3-year-old boy as he plays with a big cardboard box on the carpet in the middle of the circle. “If I didn’t have to be taken away from him, I would do it.”

She’s talking about killing whoever killed her husband. She and several of the survivors say they fantasize about revenge, but they don’t really want to carry it out themselves.

“I’m in favor of capital punishment,” says Mrs. George, drawing nods and “Yes!” from around the room. For some, this is not what they believed in before the murder. They now look at many things much more harshly. “I had one sense of values,” Mrs. Martin says. “With all that’s going on, it’s changing my value system.”

What they see going on is criminals walking free or doing little time, and easy time at that. In jail, Mrs. George says, “they’re sitting up there watching TV, they’re playing baseball.”

But they don’t want to put other parents and spouses through this pain. Sitting in their circle on this Thursday night is a woman who knows the pain from both sides. Earlier this year one of her two sons was murdered. Now, her other boy is in jail for murdering one of the suspects.

Aside from the grave, the hardest place to go is court.

“Going to court tears me up,” says the woman in the yellow dress who described how her son was killed by the man with the .45-caliber pistol. In one sense, Mr. Foster says, the arrest, trial and sentencing of killers help survivors move on with their lives. But what happens in court often infuriates them.

“You have no rights,” says Mrs. George.

They find that a murder trial has two sides: the accused killer and the government, which represents the victim. The families are often no more than mere spectators, seldom consulted or told much about the case. To them, the rules are slanted for the accused. They sit through hearings, postponements and legal motions that can drag a case on for more than two years, putting their lives on hold.

“They’re traumatized by how they’re treated by the system,” says Cheryl Tyiska, director of victim services for the the National Organization for Victim Assistance. “It’s not because the system means to be cruel, it’s because the system is about business.”

Mrs. Martin sat in court watching Jerome’s accused killer and his family and listening to the story of how her son was murdered. Then her worst fear came true: The suspect was found not guilty.

“When they said, `Not guilty,’ ” she recalls, “his family jumped up and cheered.”

Mrs. McLaughlin is jealous. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever be in court. Police haven’t arrested anyone for Kelvin’s murder.

“If I could get that behind me, maybe I could get on with doing other things,” she says. She doesn’t want vacations or a social life. “I can’t see myself doing anything but working until I can get this taken care of,” says Mrs. McLaughlin, a private-duty nurse.

She smiles a lot but is suffering physically as well as emotionally. About a month after Kelvin’s murder in 1989 she began getting the headaches – cluster migraines, her doctor says. He says they may last years. She’s told that the numbness in her fingers – which used to run up her right arm to her shoulder – will fade. “It’s just nerve damage,” she says.

She has created small memorials to Kelvin: the button and shirts with his picture on them, and Kelvin’s room, with his posters on the wall and clothes in the closet. “Whenever I feel real down, I need something to pick me up, I’ll go in and lie on his bed,” she says. “Sometimes I carry up a scrapbook or two.”

She has found friends in the group, such as Mrs. Martin. At the end of each meeting they and the others stand in a circle holding hands, while Mrs. McLaughlin leads them in prayer.

“Forgive us our trespasses,” they say in unison, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”