The Garden of Angels

With statues, crosses and Christmas ornaments, parents mourn and celebrate the memory of children taken by violence

Over the years, laws and ongoing legislation have resulted in the wake of the deaths the crosses represent. The Amber Plan, named in honor of Hagerman, is designed to quickly alert authorities and the public to the abduction of a child and is now used nationwide. To date, seven abducted children in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone have been safely recovered because of it. U.S. Representative Martin Frost is now promoting an Amy Robinson Memorial Act that would require that employers notify parents if their children are working alongside a person ever convicted of a violent crime. Robert Neville, one of those responsible for Amy's murder, had been a co-worker and previously convicted as a sex offender, Barker points out.

Such are the myriad reasons that Our Garden of Angels has grown to a point where efforts are now under way to secure adjoining property for expansion. In truth, there is an ugly and heartbreaking story that echoes from each cross in the garden. Yet while those who visit do not pretend to have forgotten their nightmarish experiences, they have chosen to use the memorial as a place for remembering the good instead of the bad, for reflection on lives lived, however briefly, instead of the horrible way in which they were ended. For most, arriving at such a mind-set was no easy journey.

Stacey Hassler by the crosses that memorialize her daughter Summer Little and Summer's unborn son, Jacob. "Out here, you don't dwell on the negatives."
Mark Graham
Stacey Hassler by the crosses that memorialize her daughter Summer Little and Summer's unborn son, Jacob. "Out here, you don't dwell on the negatives."
Ray Stewart, a victims' advocate in the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office, had difficulty dealing with the murder of his own daughter.
Mark Graham
Ray Stewart, a victims' advocate in the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office, had difficulty dealing with the murder of his own daughter.

Ray Stewart remembers the morning he rose from another night of restless sleep and sat on the edge of his bed. Crippled mentally and physically for more than a year, he realized the time had come to make a decision. On that day in 1986, he would either end his life or find some new purpose for it. Debilitating back problems had made work impossible, forcing his wife to take a job. The physical pain and the vanishing feeling of self-worth, however, were secondary to another agony with which the now 65-year-old Stewart was wrestling.

It had been an October afternoon in 1984, he recalls, and his plans were no more ambitious than watching a Cubs-Padres playoff game on television. Ignoring the pain generated by an unsuccessful disc fusion and a series of spinal injections, he was slowly making his way to the bedroom when the passage of a low-flying CareFlight helicopter caused the house to shutter. Then the telephone rang.

It was his daughter's mother-in-law, and her voice sounded pinched and distressed. "Is anyone there with you?" she asked. No, Ray replied. His wife had gone shopping with her sister. "Are you sitting down?"

Moments later he received the news that would send him into an 18-month depression.

A man had followed his 25-year-old daughter Sheri home from a Watauga supermarket and, posing as a utility worker, managed to gain entry into her nearby home. Brandishing a knife, he had forced her 5-year-old daughter into the bathroom, then, during an attempted rape, stabbed the young mother.

A 16-year-old next-door neighbor, hearing screams, placed a 911 call. When officers arrived, the intruder--a convicted felon named Jerome Lutterell--answered the door and at first tried to persuade the officers that a "family squabble" had occurred but had been resolved. When police insisted on entering the house, Lutterell shrugged, stepped back and said, "You might as well go ahead and arrest me. I think I've killed her."

Before Stewart's son could arrive and drive him to the hospital, his daughter had been pronounced dead. Days later he attended her funeral in a wheelchair, already thinking of suicide. Even the knowledge that his daughter's killer received a life sentence offered him little solace.

That day in 1986, then, he awoke and determined the cause that would make his life worth living. His physical condition improved, and he began making regular visits to the Tarrant County Courthouse, sitting in on trials, introducing himself to families enduring the same experience he'd barely survived, offering whatever comfort and understanding he might provide. In time, he started a support group called Families of Murder Victims. In 1989 he was offered the job of "victim assistance liaison" by the District Attorney's Office. It is a position he holds today.

"People have no idea how valuable the service he provides is," says Barbara Salter, whose son was murdered in 1986. "He not only understands what the family of a victim is going through, but is also able to explain the workings of the judicial system. There are a lot of good and caring people working in victims' assistance, but having someone who actually knows what you're going through is a rare bonus."

Carolyn Barker had begun attending the twice-monthly meetings of Stewart's support group shortly after her granddaughter's death. Determined to attend the trials of the men who had killed Amy Robinson, she reached out for Stewart's help.

He sat with her through the proceedings as the grim and senseless death of her mentally challenged granddaughter was revisited.

Amy, who suffered from a genetic disorder known as Turner's syndrome, had been on her bicycle, en route to her job as a grocery sacker at an Arlington Kroger store on the February day in 1998 when self-proclaimed racists Robert Neville and Michael Hall decided to find a black person to kill. Unable to locate the particular youngster they had planned to murder, they were driving along Division Street in Arlington when they saw Robinson. Part Cherokee and dark-skinned, she became the target of the hate crime they were determined to commit. Promising her a ride to work, they put her bicycle in the back of their pickup, stopped to purchase wine coolers for themselves and a soft drink for Amy, then drove to the isolated area at the end of Mosier Valley Road on the far eastern edge of Tarrant County.

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