Local victims of crime were remembered Tuesday as the Highland County Prosecuting Attorney’s Victim/Witness Program held its fifth annual candlelight vigil at the Hillsboro Church of Christ.
Victim advocates help to ensure that victims of crime have a voice and that victim’s families are supported. As the vigil began, Hillsboro Church of Christ Minister Jim Bush reminded those gathered, “There is a God above that sees all your heartache.”
“As I look among you this evening, it is ever bittersweet that our group of friends and Highland County victims has grown”, said Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins.
The vigil, to honor local victims of crime whose pictures were arranged on a table and illuminated by candlelight, was held in conjunction with the 2014 National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
Two additions were made to the table of photographs for this year’s vigil – those of Jada Beth Williams and Garin Niehaus.
Williams’ uncle pleaded guilty to murdering the 5-year-old and last year was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Niehaus’ mother and her boyfriend earlier this year pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and each were sentenced to seven years in prison.
Collins said that National Crime Victims’ Week is a time for people “to honor those who have been hurt by crime and to celebrate the many successes of the victims’ rights discipline” across the country. The victims’ rights field has “survived and prospered only because of those incurable optimists who won’t take no for an answer when victims rights and dignity are at stake,” she said. And, because of “those who believe that victim safety, information, and involvement provide a strong foundation for our pursuit of justice and offender accountability.”
“It is fitting that this is also Child Abuse Prevention Month,” Collins said. Last year the courts saw “murder, manslaughter and the preventable loss of child victims. It also provided Highland County with a look at three amazing young ladies who had the strength to face their abuser and say ‘no more,’” she said.
The “young ladies” Collins referred to testified last year in a case where Casper Andy Lawson was convicted on multiple sex-related charges, which included two counts of rape. The girls ranged in age from 11 to 15 at the time of the trial.
Highland County Sheriff Richard Warner talked about his own experience with the victim/witness office, and said that in his more than 20 years of law enforcement, a member of the office has never once not responded to a scene when called on. No matter the day or the hour, they have come when they are called, he said.
Warner also spoke of the three girls Collins talked about. He talked about their fear of facing their abuser, but how the victim/witness staff stepped up to “make those little girls feel safe in the courtroom.”
The girls faced their abuser, Warner said, and they relived their nightmare in the courtroom. The man that hurt the girls was convicted by a jury and sentenced to two life sentences.
“On behalf of all law enforcement here, we appreciate everything you guys do,” Warner said to the victim/witness staff and volunteers.
Gail Stroop, who lost her husband in a three-car accident in September of 2010, spoke to attendees about losing a loved one to crime, saying that they are likely “all living a nightmare that will never go away.” She talked about what helps get her through the grief, which is writing poetry, and she shared two of her poems with the audience.
Also part of the vigil, Noreen’s School of Dance honored victims with a choreographed performance to Melissa Etheridge’s “This is Not Goodbye.”
Garin Niehaus’ aunt, Emily Hall, told the crowd that after months of searching for the young boy, the “unthinkable” happened when he was discovered in a makeshift grave off Diven Road last May.
She said that through this “darkest” year of her life, the staff of the Highland County Victim/Witness Office has gone “above and beyond” what their job descriptions likely entail.
Through tears, Hall said they have held her hand, stood by the family, and offered their support whenever it is needed. And when she spoke of the devastation that followed the discovery of her nephew, she said she “found good in complete strangers” with the victim/witness office.
She said many people across the county would have had a much harder time without the support of the victim/witness office, and it is that support and compassion she will never forget.
Following Hall’s words, those gathered were invited to light their candles as the lights were dimmed. And as each candle flickered and burned brightly in the dark, “Precious Child” by Karen Taylor filled the silent spaces.
The vigil was closed with a prayer by Lloyd Shoemaker asking that everyone present be a representative of peace, justice, and God’s grace.
Victim/witness director Barbara Shoemaker closed with a prayer of her own, asking that no new victims are added to the vigil.
Angela Shepherd can be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @ashepherdHTG.