By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
There were carols and warm holiday-season embraces as those who had come gathered near the Christmas tree to contribute yet another ornament to its decoration. Made of glass and pewter, cloth and silver, each was in the form of an angel. And on this December Sunday, when an unseasonably warm breeze floated across the isolated hilltop in southern Tarrant County, the mood was upbeat, the purpose clearly a celebration.
It is not easy to explain. Only the 100 or so on hand, each bringing a toy to be placed beneath the tree and later donated to charity, could fully understand the reason--the need--for the gathering. Forming a backdrop for the event were rows of neatly arranged crosses, each representing a tragic loss suffered, each bearing the name of someone--many of them children--who had been the victim of a bygone homicide.
Hidden at the end of rutted and potholed Mosier Valley Road, just a few miles off FM 157, Our Garden of Angels is a unique memorial to both life and death, a place that was never really planned but simply grew out of the grief of a mourning grandmother and friends who helped her. This is more than a roadside memorial. Rather, it is a quiet, manicured, softly lit half-acre with a brick walkway, concrete benches and a man-made waterfall spilling into a shallow pool. Newly planted live oaks and pear trees will soon provide shade, and the crepe myrtle bushes that border the area will burst into bloom. And there are the white, wooden crosses, 44 of them, erected in honor of those whose lives were claimed by society's misfits and psychopaths.
Some you've heard of or read about: There is a cross bearing the name of Amber Hagerman, the 9-year-old Arlington girl taken from a soccer field and murdered in 1996; ones for 17-year-old Justin Ray and 14-year-old Joey Ennis, victims of the maniacal September 1999 Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting spree by a deranged Fort Worth man named Larry Gene Ashbrook; and one for Amy Robinson, the Grand Prairie 19-year-old who in 1998 was the torture-murder victim of two men who abducted her as she rode her bicycle to work. In a corner of the garden, near its entrance, is the small statue of an angel, placed there in memory of 6-year-old Opal Jennings, the Saginaw child who was abducted from a vacant lot near her grandmother's home in March 1999, never to be found.
It was not always families who requested the crosses. In the gruesome aftermath of the recent killing spree of Arlington mechanic Terry Lee Hankins--he murdered his estranged Mansfield wife and two children, then later confessed to killing his father and half sister Pearl (Sissy) Sevenstar almost a year earlier--it was teachers of 20-year-old Sissy who wished their former student be remembered.
At least the man who bludgeoned Sevenstar to death, then hid her body in a car at his auto repair shop for months, is behind bars. In addition to Hagerman and Jennings, the abduction and murder of 4-year-old Christy Ryno, also remembered in the garden, remains an unsolved case. A twin, she was taken from her Arlington apartment in 1999, her body discovered less than a mile away a week following her disappearance. Russell Yates, father of the five Houston children recently killed by his wife, has called to inquire about having crosses erected in their memory.
Most of those memorialized, however, are victims whose names never appeared in headlines, whose untimely loss was never felt by the masses. "Here," says Brenda O'Quinn, whose 17-year-old son Michael McEachern was slain in 1995, "everyone is important and not forgotten. That's the purpose of this place. We come here to remember them in life and make sure others do as well."
It is a feeling shared by 50-year-old Grand Prairie police Officer Gary Brooks, making his first visit to the garden to view the recently erected cross for his 27-year-old son Garry, who was murdered while the nation still mourned the World Trade Center tragedy in New York. "Because the world was so focused on the terrorist attack," the patrolman says, "Garry's death went virtually unnoticed. That didn't seem fair to me. Here, he will be remembered."
Donna Norris, the mother of Amber Hagerman, fully understands. "I feel honored to have a cross for my daughter here. I don't want her to ever be forgotten."
To those who visit it regularly, the garden has become something of a sanctuary. "On birthdays and holidays I go to the cemetery," says Carolyn Barker, the 59-year-old maternal grandmother who raised Amy Robinson, "and always feel an overwhelming sadness. But when I come out here, I can feel good again." She does not attempt to explain why.
The reasons for collectively memorializing those who died so violently are numerous. Some simply want a place to visit and remember. Some wish to make a statement, to feel assured that the world has not forgotten the nightmarish tragedy that ripped through their lives. For many, the garden has become a gathering place where they can draw strength and understanding available only from those who have suffered similar losses. Others hope that even in death their loved ones can make a difference.