The Garden of Angels

Mark Graham

"It is not known precisely where angels dwell--whether in the air, the void, or the planets. It has not been God's pleasure that we should be informed of their abode..."


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.

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.

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.

There they tortured their victim, shooting her with a pellet gun and a crossbow before Neville ended her suffering with a shot from a .22-caliber rifle. They left her body lying in a field of weeds beneath an electrical tower, laughing as they drove away. "I guess she'll be a little late for work," Hall later admitted saying.

The following day, realizing they had not checked to see if Robinson had any money they could have stolen, they returned. While there, Hall fired seven additional shots into the girl's body "to see what it felt like."

Seventeen days passed before Amy was found. Neville and Hall, arrested on the Texas border while attempting to flee into Mexico, quickly confessed to authorities and a stunned television reporter, laughing as they boasted, providing the gruesome details of Robinson's abduction and death. "She trusted us. It was easy," Hall bragged into the camera. Each would receive the death penalty.

It was as she attended Hall's trial that Barker decided she wished to visit the place where her granddaughter had died. She was surprised to find that a small cross had been anonymously placed at the site. Handwritten on it were the words, "In God's Hands."

"Part of the American Indian philosophy," Barker explains, "is that one's spirit ascends into heaven from where the person dies. For that reason, locating the place where Amy was killed was important to me." In time she began to contemplate putting a more permanent memorial to her granddaughter at the site. During a support group meeting, Greg Price, a carpenter dealing with the murder of his Haltom City nephew, suggested she erect a larger, more permanent cross. If she liked, he volunteered, he would build it.

From that suggestion, Our Garden of Angels would eventually grow.

"Amy," Barker says, "had always enjoyed being around people, didn't like to be alone. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of placing a cross where she died. The only thing that troubled me was the idea of her being out there by herself."

Friends in the support group understood. Vernon Price asked if she would mind if he placed a cross in memory of his son next to the one Greg Price (no relation) was building for Amy. In short order, others embraced the idea. Originally, then, Amy's cross was joined by four others: Vern Price, a stabbing victim; Bobbie Kafka, a victim of domestic violence; Marty Klozik, the victim of an argument over a debt; and Chad Houston, murdered during an altercation outside a neighborhood pool hall.

"It was nothing formal or fancy," Barker says, "just a place we could go and remember our kids." In time, 27 crosses were placed among the weeds. It was Barbara Salter who first suggested they call the spot Our Garden of Angels.

Then, in November 2000, construction began on the extension of Trinity Boulevard. Its planned course included the state-owned land where the crosses had been placed. Randy Miller, CEO of the Fort Worth-based A&A Construction company that had contracted to participate in the road-building, had long been aware of the memorial, passing it on the shortcut he took home from work each evening. "I'd watched as the number of crosses grew, and became curious," he says. Finally, a friend explained that they were erected on the site of Amy Robinson's murder. "So, it concerned me when I realized that the new road would cut through the memorial. I went to my partners and suggested that we donate a portion of a little pie-shaped piece of land we owned nearby." Soon after getting their go-ahead, Miller stopped at the small field of crosses one afternoon and introduced himself to a woman who was cutting away weeds. "It was Amy's grandmother," he remembers, "and I explained what we had in mind to do."  

Receiving eager approval from the families who had erected crosses, Miller took his plan several steps further. He contacted an architect friend to ask if he would design a memorial park on the site where the crosses would be moved. Soon, companies such as GIO Garden Design, Aquatic Landscapes and Acme Bricks volunteered material and manpower. "Everyone just came together to make it a reality," the 38-year-old Miller says. Today, he occasionally takes his wife and children out to view the memorial, which he insists is still not finished. He has plans to erect a donated flagpole, install an irrigation system, perhaps even pave a parking lot for visitors. "I'm not a particularly religious person," he says, "but I see this as a sacred place. I hope to be some small part of it for years to come."

"In truth," Stewart says, "Randy Miller became the driving force behind the garden."

On February 23 of last year, the new Our Garden of Angels, befriended by strangers and having taken on something of a life of its own, was formally dedicated. "I don't think anyone ever had the slightest idea that it would become what it has," Stewart says. "That it just happened, that it grew into something that has benefited so many just makes it that much more special."

For Arlington's Stacey Hassler, 41, it is the lone place she can go to escape the anger over her daughter's death and the ongoing frustration she feels for the slow-moving legal system. "Out here," she says, "you don't dwell on the negatives. This garden has changed me a great deal. When you go through the loss of your child you suddenly find yourself in a world you don't understand. Everything looks the same, smells the same, tastes the same, but, really, everything is different. You feel crazy.

"I had a difficult time dealing with that until I met the people involved with this place." Now, she makes the trip to the end of Mosier Valley Road at least once a week.

On the first day of November 1999, Summer Ann Little was 20 and four-and-a-half-months pregnant with her third child when she was strangled and drowned in the bathtub of her East Arlington apartment. "For some time after my daughter's death, all I could feel was the anger. I was angry at the man who killed her, angry with the justice system that has kept postponing his trial, even angry at Summer for putting herself in a position where something like that could happen to her," Hassler says. (The trial of Nathaniel Doss, charged with the young mother's death, is scheduled for sometime in March 2002.)

"Friends kept telling me I needed to get some help," Hassler admits. "But I had no intention of spending time with some person who could never understand what I was feeling, what I was dealing with, because they'd never been through it. I was convinced there was no one else in the world who could relate to the pain I was dealing with."

After her husband, Ron, died in an automobile accident, she reluctantly attended one of the twice-monthly meetings of Stewart's support group. "That," Hassler says, "changed everything. Carolyn Barker told me about the garden and took me out to look at it. The minute I saw it, I knew I wanted a cross there for my daughter and Jacob, my unborn grandson."

Now, she says, she often brings Summer's daughters, 4-year-old Kayleigh and 2-year-old Sandra, along. "They bring little things they've made to place near 'Mommy's cross.' They talk with her and enjoy playing near the waterfall. They love it here."

The garden, then, has become a haven to young and old. Vernon and Linda Price are among those who delight in watching Hassler's grandchildren at play.

When a close friend stabbed the Prices' son to death on Mother's Day in 1999, they were suddenly distanced from their newborn grandchild. Their distraught daughter-in-law, feeling the need of support from her own family in California, chose to move there after her husband's death. The Prices understood and supported her decision but endured a new wave of sadness. "What happened," Vernon says, "not only took our son, but put us in a position of not being able to see our grandchild nearly as often as we would like."  

For the Richland Hills couple, the garden became a welcome refuge. Living just a few miles from the site, they volunteered for the role of caretakers, seeing that wind-blown trash is collected and no weeds invade the area. It is in their garage that the lights for the Christmas tree and the wreaths that adorn the fence during the holiday season were carefully stored until recently put in place.

"There's a peaceful feeling here that I've experienced nowhere else," Vernon says as he walks along the brick trail that winds toward the cross that bears his son's name. "It is not a sad place, whether you're here alone or in the company of others who have lost loved ones. This is where our healing took place."

His wife agrees. "You can talk to people until you're blue in the face, trying to explain what the garden means to us, but unless you've shared a similar experience, it is an impossible task. That, I think, is why there is such a close kinship among those who have crosses here. You come here and you meet people who understand, who can share your feeling without so much as a single word being exchanged."

In October, when the man accused of their son's murder was acquitted during a trial that lasted only 11 hours over a two-day period, many of those who are regular visitors to Our Garden of Angels joined the Prices in the courtroom. "It was a difficult experience," Vernon Price says. "Sitting there, aware that three years after the crime occurred the prosecutor was unable to locate two important witnesses, listening to the judge repeatedly telling the lawyers to 'hurry things along' because he had other cases to try, and then hearing that not guilty verdict, brought back all the ugly thoughts we'd dealt with after the murder."

Then they visited the garden. "There is no violence here," Linda Price says. "This is not a place for feeling anger or hatred or pointing fingers of blame. Here, we celebrate the lives of those whose names are on the crosses. We think and talk about the good times. We laugh and joke. And in doing so, gain the strength to look ahead to another day."

In his cluttered garage in Fort Worth, 51-year-old Greg Price is working on three new crosses that will be dedicated this week. Like all others he's built--including the one for his nephew--the white crosses are 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. (Those he makes for children are a foot shorter and only 2 feet wide.) The crosses include the name, birth date and date of death of those they honor. If a family is able, it reimburses Price the $40 that materials cost him; if they can't, he does the work gratis.

"Every time I do a cross," he says, "it reminds me just how fragile life is. Each one we've put out there is special to me because it has provided me an opportunity to help someone. That's what the garden's all about." With that he pauses for a moment. "Still," he continues, "it's been a bittersweet experience. I've met so many really wonderful people--but only because someone they loved died."

Several miles away, in a quiet residential area of Grand Prairie, patrolman Gary Brooks sits in his living room, watching as his grandson wrestles with the aging and docile family dog. A man who has encountered countless instances of death and violence during two decades as a law enforcement officer, he admits that dealing with a murder that visited his own family has been difficult.

"In my business," he says, "you never expect the chief and the department chaplain to come knocking at your door, notifying you that your own kid has been killed. You never think that you might be in a position of asking for time off to figure out what to do with the rest of your life. Or to have to place a long-distance call to an ex-wife and tell her that her child is dead. Suddenly, you find out that there are a lot of hard things in life to deal with, things we never anticipate or really understand."  

Such were the feelings he was dealing with on that Sunday as he paid his first visit to Our Garden of Angels. As he mingled among those who had survived similar experiences, he felt the weight of his burden begin to ease. "What is happening here," he told his wife, "is a good thing."

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