It was an overcast October Saturday at the Joint Forces Training Base at Los Alamitos, Calif. The 7 a.m. start time was daunting, but I'd promised to go.
I'm glad I did.
It was the annual "Survive and Thrive" 5k run/walk event put on by a group called Crime Survivors. Note that it's not crime victims — it's crime survivors. And before you ask: No, I didn't run, but I did walk.
The woman who started Crime Survivors is Patricia Wenskunas, my hero.
She is a blonde dynamo, a catering event planner by trade and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and attempted murder. She speaks gently, but her message packs a wallop: Crime victims deserve consideration — at least as much consideration as the criminal gets.
It was a point I heard repeatedly from the crowds who attended this annual event, all touched in life-changing ways. Several participants wore T-shirts with the image of their dead loved one, taken away in a sudden spurt of violence.
Many told me what they'd endured: childhood rapes, adult sexual assaults, domestic violence deaths or family who were killed by repeat drunk drivers. Several spoke of senseless murder. Every single person said after police arrived to tell them the awful news they were left in a foggy swirl of loneliness. They spoke of how hard it was to heal and to discover the pathway to their own recovery.
"Hi, I'm Diane Dimond. May I ask what brought you here today?"
Juenenne, a woman about my age, silently pointed to the picture of her handsome son Jake Eric Jackson on her shirt. Her chin quavered, her eyes brimmed and suddenly there we were — two total strangers standing on a parade field on a distant military base full of victim's rights advocates — hugging each other.
"He was at a club one night. There were a couple of guys disrespecting a young lady, and Jake stepped in to help. He was hit in the face and wrestled with one for a minute. One took out a gun and shot Jake in the chest. As he lay dying, the other man kicked him and stomped on him."
Juenenne had driven nearly two hours that morning from her home in Phelan, Calif., as a step along her path to recovery. She hoped mixing with others who shared similar pain might ease her sorrow.
After the speeches, Patricia invited a few family members up to the front to hold and then release beautiful white doves into the overcast sky. As touching music played, Patricia gave a lingering hug to each survivor, and then the doves flew off, one by one, instinctively circling overhead, waiting for the others so they could fly off in unison. Their unity in the dreary sky was inspiring. That's when I first noticed Mary Ann, who was certainly thinking of her dead son, Jonathan, as she released her dove.
On the walking path, lined with 3 foot tall pictures of lost loved ones, Mary Ann and I talked. She'd been angry at her 17-year-old son for getting his 16-year-old girlfriend pregnant. In a huff, he'd jumped on a bike at midnight and ridden off down the street. A carload of gang members happened by and inexplicably shot Jonathan dead. Mary Ann, a nurse who is married to a police officer, was pushing a baby carriage as we talked. Inside was little Shayla, the new grandbaby, who will never know her father.
"I don't know what I'd do without this child," Mary Anne said as she clenched her teeth against the tears.
Juenenne got justice. The two men who killed her son are in prison. Mary Ann has not, and that is part of the problem so many victims of crime face. Their terrible loss is made more burdensome as they try to navigate the justice system. Police are too busy to deliver updates on the case, the court proceedings are confusing, and the parole system is frightening. On this staggeringly long journey to justice, these folks feel victimized again and again.
I wish we could clone Patricia's Crime Survivors group nationwide. They help educate the public and the police about victim's rights. They push to change laws and attitudes. Crime Survivors donates thousands of adult and child emergency victim bags to law enforcement every year so officers can offer a victim something. The bag contains a list of vital phone numbers, toiletries including a toothbrush, a first aid kit and a journal with a pen so victims can write down their thoughts on the road to survival.
Our system simply doesn't help crime victims. I hope you never have to experience what they've gone through, but odds are you might. Next week, the 'Victim Crime Clock' and why your family could be next.
For more information on Crime Survivors visit www.CrimeSurvivors.com
Visit Diane Dimond's official website at www.dianedimond.com for investigative reporting, polls and more. To find out more about Diane Dimond and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.