Saturday, April 14, 2018

In Memoriam, Victims Lost to Violence

Susan Slankard rings a memorial bell for her daughter Molly McAfee, McAfee’s fiance Adam Buchanan and her grandson Gavin Buchanan, who were murdered in 2015, at the end of a ceremony to mark National Crime Victim’s Rights Week Wednesday at the Matt Garcia Career and College Academy in Fairfield.
PHOTOS BY JOEL ROSENBAUM -- THE REPORTER Susan Slankard rings a memorial bell for her daughter Molly McAfee, McAfee’s fiance Adam Buchanan and her grandson Gavin Buchanan, who were murdered in 2015, at the end of a ceremony to mark National Crime Victim’s Rights Week Wednesday at the Matt Garcia Career and College Academy in Fairfield.

It was a somber event, a call to observance, with prayers, art, speakers, a moment of silence, the ringing of bells, all to remember victims of violence, many of them young and close to the very heart of life at their time of deaths, and to remember and console family members and relatives who continue to struggle in the aftermath of senseless tragedy.

Under gray skies, a cool, sometimes brisk wind blew across the lawn at the Matt Garcia Career and College Academy in Fairfield, where several hundred people, most of them academy students, gathered Wednesday for a memorial ceremony to rededicate a monument at the Civic Center Drive school, a local event to honor all those affected by violence in Solano communities and to mark National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

The roughly one-hour ceremony, held at the campus for the second time in as many years, was coordinated by the Solano County District Attorney’s Office and the Solano Family Justice Center.

In a brief interview moments before the ceremony began, Teresa Courtemanche, the mother of school namesake Matt Garcia, a Fairfield city councilman fatally shot a decade ago, said support services for violent crime victims’ families were “better than they were, but, still, we need to do more.”

She said that surviving family members, in some cases, have been unable to receive supportive services, such as mental health counseling, and that she and others may take the cause to the state Capitol in Sacramento.

Looking toward the several-sided, pyramid-like metal monument with text and inscriptions and a bell hanging in its interior — the piece sculpted by local artist Chad Glashoff — Courtemanche said the ceremony was a way to “remind people at anytime, anywhere can be a crime victim.”

Her son, a staunch youth advocate before and during his time in office, one of the youngest city officials ever elected in California, was gunned down Sept. 1, 2008, while visiting a friend in Cordelia and declared brain dead a day later. He was 22, and the two men charged with the crime, an apparent case of mistaken identity, were sentenced to prison in 2010.

Asked what the ceremony meant to her, Courtemanche said, “Personally, we need to help each other.”

And, she added, it is necessary for everyone to be aware of crime or potential violence.

“If you see something, step up, tell someone,” Courtemanche said.

Supporting youth and stopping crime was among her son’s chief priorities and it is important “to keep Matt’s dream alive,” she said, adding, “Support youth — it will help to stop crime and strengthen the community we live in.”

In her brief remarks, District Attorney Krishna Abrams, standing at a lectern just a few steps from the academy’s classrooms, a cluster of colorful balloons fluttering in the wind in the near distance, said survivors of crime and crimes victims’ families continue to cope with anger, frustration, sadness “because of a senseless act of violence.”

While the U.S. justice system will never be able “to restore your loss,” ceremonies such as Wednesday’s are a chance to support victims and communities, she said.

Fairfield Mayor Harry Price, looking at the expanse of students seated in white chairs, said that the city’s youth can build “a better tomorrow” by being vigilant in preventing crime.

“When you see something, say something,” he said.

Wendalyn Fabian, field representative for Assemblyman Jim Frazier, delivered a proclamation, and academy Principal Dennis Foster called on everyone, especially youth, to “find solutions to strife and conflict” without violence. The ceremony, he added, symbolized “a call to action.”

Artist Zachary Young, who painted a mural on the concrete adjacent to the lectern and also seemed to direct his remarks at the students, said violence and crime prevention “starts here, starts now, it starts with you.”

Willie Graham, pastor of the Christian Body Life Fellowship Church in Vacaville, recalled his last meeting with Matt Garcia, saying, “He believed in investing in others,” that his legacy will be a life lived according to firmly held beliefs.

“We are a people of joy, of hope,” Graham continued. “As Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream lives on, Matt’s dream lives on.”

He called on area youths “to take up the banner,” to make the community and the world a better, safer place for all.

In her remarks, Courtemanche, representing the Matt Garcia Foundation, said she had been living “this nightmare of losing your child to violence.”

Addressing some of her statements to several parents of violent crime victims, the so-called “Angel Moms,” who sat in a row just beyond the lectern, Courtemanche said, “We continue to be here for each other.”

Five Angel Moms — Susan Slankard, Vernalisa Gutierrez, Gina Liberto, Isabel Reyes and Rita Edmonds-Norris — also spoke.

As Courtemanche held up a poster of the Slankard’s slain family members, Slankard recalled her 8-year-old grandson who wondered how he would be protected from a violent crime.

“Let’s help them, too,” she said, an allusion to how crimes reach far beyond immediate family members and a reference to the week’s national theme, “Expand the Circle, Reach All Victims.”

As each mother spoke, Courtemanche continued to hold up memorial posters of the slain victims, Jesus Amaya, Phillip Liberto, Eric Reyes and Chad Edmonds, among them.

Gina Liberto recalled the day her son died, saying, “It changes your whole life forever,” but the tragedy is somewhat eased with crime victim support services, notably “the reassurance that someone is on your side when all hope is gone.”

Edmonds-Norris, whose son was slain in 1993, likened her many years of coping and struggle to “crawling across broken glass,” experiences that included police investigations, media attention, a “horrific” trial, and unprocessed grief that may lead to illness, depression “and the pulling away from friends.”

“Grieving is a lifelong process,” she said.

A few moments later, a group of academy students, lined in a row, rang small handbells. The Angel Moms each stepped up to the metal monument and rang the bell inside, the sounds echoing somewhat across the lawn and Civic Center Drive.

In his event-ending statements, Angel Aguilar, director of the Solano Family Justice Center, urged all “to take a stand against violence.”

“We do it as a community and how we treat each other,” he said.

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