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'We remember them'

April 11, 2005|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - As the tears continued to build in Julie Gehr's eyes, she struggled successfully to get through her speech at a memorial service Sunday for crime victims and their families.

The grief paled in comparison to the pain Gehr endured waiting nearly a decade for justice to be served, in the form of a conviction of the man who killed her grandparents.

The 16th annual Maryland Statewide Memorial Service for Crime Victims and Their Families drew more than 100 people to the Hagerstown Seventh-day Adventist Church on Mount Aetna Road. The event kicked off National Crime Victims' Rights Week, which ends Saturday.

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On Sunday, family members participated in victims' name readings and listened to speeches and musical selections throughout the service, which lasted just more than one hour.

The first and last lines attendee John Lyon read from "We Remember Them," a responsive reading penned by Marilyn Gilbert, seemed to sum up what many of those who had driven to the church from around the state have faced:

"As we open our eyes each morning and see the dawning of another day, we struggle to accept the reality of a world without them ..."

" ... We go on, though not the same, accepting some small solace in the fact that nothing is ever lost, and they are loved so much. We remember them."

Jill Ritter, director of the Washington County State's Attorney's Office's Victim Witness Unit, said Sunday's service was the third time Hagerstown has been selected to host the event.

"This year was the first time I think the survivors said something personal before they read the names or said their speeches," Ritter said.

She said the event, in some ways, serves as a way for families to act as counselors for one another.

"They've all been through the same thing," Ritter said. "I can tell them about the justice system, but I haven't gone through it."

The theme for victims' rights week this year is "justice isn't served until crime victims are," according to the Frederick County Sheriff's Department.

For Gehr and her family, the words are not just a slogan, they signified something they lived with for eight years.

Gehr's grandparents, Daniel and Wilda Davis of Hagerstown, were murdered in their home during a robbery in February 1994. It took two trials and eight years before someone was convicted in the crime, in 2002, she said.

Gehr, of Big Pool, said her family would never be able to have closure, but they did want "justice" every day for those eight years.

"That guilty verdict was one of the sweetest words I've ever heard," she said.

Gehr said being consoled by friends is simply not enough because most cannot truly relate to victims' families.

"When you go through things like this, it's hard to find people to talk to, someone who does know what you're actually going through," Gehr said.

At the end of her speech, Gehr offered an open invitation for anyone struggling with a similar situation to reach out to her.

Ethel Nicely, of Silver Spring, Md., attended the service for the first time Sunday.

Nicely, whose son, James Cooper, died in 2003 after being shot in the head, said she was looking for a way to come to closure and meet others who know the pain of a "sudden event that forced a change in your whole world."

"It lets me know that a lot of people are in the same place as I am," Nicely said. "They're walking with a loss. You can't even explain it to someone ... "

Diane Miller said she believed the service was important not only to bring those with a sad common bond together, but so "those people aren't forgotten, especially since they died in a violent way."

Mary Jane Bittner, the grandmother of Miller's husband, was killed in an August 2002 car crash involving a drunken driver in Washington County, Miller said.

"Participation is a good thing for people," Miller said. "This is a great program."

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