For many, Christmas is a time to celebrate family and togetherness, but some families find that sense of togetherness colored by the knowledge that someone has been forcefully taken from their lives and will no longer be there in body to share in the holiday spirit.
Charity Ochs of Sublette still remembers vividly the day she lost her father to violent crime on July 27, 1991, when he was stabbed to death in Garden City at the corner of St. John and 10th streets in the early morning hours. She was 17 and about to enter her senior year of high school.
Twenty-six years and many parole hearings later, she was able to take some time for herself to accept how far she has come in her journey forward in the company of other people who have felt the same unique sense of loss.
Garden City was the first stop in a four-part statewide reception tour that honors those whose lives have been lost to violent crime. Monday’s event marked the inaugural inclusion of Garden City in a tour that has gradually expanded over the last decade, and other attendees included Garden City Mayor Melvin Dale, members of local law enforcement, victim advocacy groups and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
Schmidt said the event serves as an opportunity for those mourning victims of violent crime to interact with professionals in the Kansas criminal justice system who have seen the cases come and go but who will often never forget the sense of tragedy they leave behind.
“The act of having a loved one taken from you at the hands of another is a unique experience, and really for those who haven’t experienced it or worked closely with families that have, it’s sometimes difficult to understand how truly unusual it is,” Schmidt said. “I think that can be isolating for some families who live with that.”
In response, the annual remembrance reception tour gives those victims a place to grieve or fondly remember their loved ones in solidarity. At Monday’s event hosted at St. Catherine Hospital, two “angel trees” were festooned with decorations left by those who came to honor their loved ones.
A presentation given with names and photographs of Kansans lost to violent crime was expansive and telling in the way that it captured an essential truth: We or our loved ones can be ripped from the world at any time, no matter our age.
Dorthy Stucky Halley, director of the Victims Services unit of the attorney general’s office and president of the Kansas Organization for Victim Assistance, said the presentation represented only a portion of those who have lost their lives to violent crime in Kansas, the majority being homicide victims and people killed in DUI accidents.
“We know that this can be an extremely challenging time, and the thing that always amazes me during this time of year and as we do these remembrance receptions is that the amount of grief is unbelievable and the amount of strength is awe-inspiring,” Halley said. “We think back to the different decorations that are brought for the tree each year, and it is some of that that sustains us as we do our job and keep working on the next case.”
Lisa Rincones and Kerri Cole of Family Crisis Services in Garden City were proof that even those involved in victim advocacy can become victims themselves. They left a small silver angel on the tree in honor of Perla Rodriguez, a victim advocate killed last month in Wichita.
Garden City Police Chief Michael Utz gave a speech detailing some of the travesties that the Garden City community has borne since the Clutter murders in 1959. He said that in his 34 years of service with the GCPD, he has “seen too many senseless deaths.”
“I can remember almost every homicide scene clearly,” he said, briefly recounting his experiences at the murder scene of an 11-month-old shot and killed by his father. After killing his child, Utz said, the man killed his wife and then committed suicide. “This senseless violence has to stop.”
Utz said there have been two homicides in 2017: 23-year-old Carlos Romero Martinez, Jr., was stabbed to death in July at a party in his own home, and 67-year-old Robert Becker was riding his motorcycle in October when he was fatally struck by another vehicle from behind. Both alleged perpetrators are facing second-degree murder charges.
Utz also touted the dedication of his department in pursuing cold cases. The police department reopened a cold case from 1983 in June when they arrested a 67-year-old Garden City man in connection with the murder of 37-year-old Ignacio Vasquez, who was stabbed to death in the parking lot of a local night club.
“Detectives continually worked that case from 1983 to this year,” Utz said. “And one thing that amazed me was our personnel at the department continued to reach out to the victim’s family and went up to Nebraska to visit with them, and the siblings came to Garden City. I got to meet them, and they were very much appreciative of our continuous efforts.”
Utz embraced Ochs as she prepared to leave the reception. Utz was a detective working her father’s case after he was killed, and Ochs said the police department’s dedication really made a difference in her life at the time.
“I can’t speak enough for that man,” Ochs said of Utz. “Our family loves him. He has always stayed in touch. He has gone to parole hearings. He is just a very special person to us.”
Karla Shore also spoke highly of the police department’s dedication. Shore is the mother of 21-year-old Karlton Waechter, who was shot and killed in April 2015 in Garden City. Shore said the reception brought her peace and comfort — “knowing I’m not the only one.”
“His life was taken too soon, but it always goes forward, one foot in front of the other,” she said.
The Garden City visit was the first of four stops the reception will be making throughout the state. Stops are still slated in Wichita, Kansas City and finally Topeka throughout December. Halley said the angel trees will remain at the attorney general’s office in Topeka for viewing when the tour reaches its terminus. And, Schmidt said, “We’ll be back next year.”
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org.