Canadian County crime victims honor the past, look to the future with vigil

By Shane Smith

There are a few who may, at times, question the severity of sentencing in certain criminal cases.

“What’s the big deal if I take a few pills before driving?” “I can sell my prescriptions to friends; it’s not really hurting anybody.”

On the other hand, there are those who have been dealt a devastating blow by criminal activity. People like them, as well as law makers and law enforcement, urge the public to take a hard stance on crime of all types, asserting that there are always consequences — especially for the victims and their families.

The annual Crime Victims’ Vigil was held Monday at the Canadian County Courthouse in El Reno to commemorate National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The importance of this topic is stressed by District Attorney Mike Fields, who says that there are many victims who don’t get the recognition or the assistance they deserve.

He also said that the statistics may not show the entire picture —many victims simply choose not to speak up.

“We know there are still far too many challenges and barriers that keep victims from coming forward,” said Fields. “There are still far too many people living with the consequences of crime, and they suffer in silence because they don’t know where to turn. This vigil reminds us of this reality and pushes us to make resources and services for survivors more accessible and inclusive.”

The event began with the Presentation of Colors by the Yukon Police Department Honor Guard. After that came a speech from Fields and a proclamation by County Commissioner David Anderson, followed by a brief musical performance by Colin Forsey of Our Glass and Shana Ford of Main Street.

Judith and Kendall Schwartz, of Kingfisher, were present as guest speakers.

The annual Crime Victims’ Vigil gave attendees an opportunity to speak about their own experiences with tragedy and abuse. Each victim was applauded for the courage it took for them to stand before others and share their stories. Photos / Faith DeSplinter

Their lives were almost cut short two years ago in a car accident caused by a drug-influenced driver who struck their car.

“It felt like a train hit us,” said Judith. “I suffer from PTSD from the crash, but we’ve both got to keep going.”

Judith suffered a broken sternum, back, ribs, and a bleeding spleen, while her husband endured a broken neck.

The man who caused the accident had been huffing aerosol close to the anniversary of the death of one of his children, who had been thrown from a vehicle due to a domestic fight involving drugs. The Schwartzes say that they understand the pain that drove the man to make the mistake, but that it’s still no excuse. Even so, they pray for his healing and hope he can get his life back on track.

“I refuse to carry around the baggage of anger,” said Judith. “He had to be hurting too, and I can understand the horror and the grief. I understand that there are people who feel like that — but they need to stop what they’re doing so that they don’t hurt anyone else.”

After the speech, vigil attendees were given a chance to speak about their own experiences with tragedy and abuse.

Neta Mills, an El Reno native with ties to California, was the first to speak up, detailing the deaths and the chaos she had witnessed within her family. She admitted that people had to be held accountable, but she also emphasized the belief that drug users and those walking down a wayward path need help.

“You have to know their story,” said Mills. “To help them, you have to find out why they’re hurting. You have to listen to them, and you have to know their story. Maybe they were abused, maybe they had bad parents — you never know the lives of other people.”

She also said that she is advocating for abuse victims, including her loved ones, and saying “no more” to death and destruction.

Several victims spoke up as well, including those who lost family members in heinous acts of murder. One of the speakers was Sarah Burdine, vice-president of the Oklahoma Homicide Survivors Support Group. In 2012, she lost her son to a random and senseless shooting. Though she’s suffered incredible tragedy, she says her goal with the group is to “hold the umbrella for someone else’s storm.”

Each victim was applauded for the courage it took for them to stand before others and share their story.

The vigil also was attended by dozens of court officials, victims’ advocate groups, and Bikers Against Child Abuse. At the very end, the lights were dimmed as attendees each lit a candle, dedicating the spark and the flame to lost loved ones. Some dedicated their candles to victims the world over.

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, April 7-13, started in 1984 as a way to bring victims’ rights to the public eye. The Canadian County vigil has been held annually since 1993.

Those who have suffered pain at the hands of crime are urged to come forward to law enforcement and to victims protection groups such as Oklahoma Homicide Survivors Support Group, which can be found at ohssg.com or on Facebook.

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