A Grief That Is Shared : Loved Ones of Murder Victims Gather to Vent Their Anguish

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In a voice choked with sadness and rage, George Escalera described how his 19-year-old son, Steven, was shot and killed during a traffic altercation with another motorist.

Gripping a tissue moist with tears, the 60-year-old Anaheim man told a group of parents: "I can't get over it. It happened Dec. 13, 1991."

His voiced trailed off into an anguished whisper: "Yes, I want revenge. My son did nothing to him."

About 20 parents nodded and wept in grim understanding. They too had lost children through the violence of others.

Escalera was speaking during a recent meeting of the Orange County chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, a national group that helps families and friends cope with the loss of murdered loved ones.

Since the group formed a local chapter in 1985, more than 200 people have joined. With each passing month, it gains two or three new members, said chapter leader Kathy Hess.

The number of potential members continues to grow at a steady rate. In 1993, Orange County recorded 196 homicides, up from 173 the previous year. The homicide rate has increased over each of the past five years, with a total of 818 people dying at the hands of another person between 1989 and 1993, according to state Department of Justice statistics.

For Escalera and the other parents, such meetings are the one place to go where people understand the unique horror and suffering caused by the murder of a loved one, especially the murder of a child.

"The other people that you talk to don't understand. They think, 'You buried this kid years ago. Get on with your life,' " said Linda Smith, 46, of Huntington Beach.

"But it's not like your grandmother dying or having a kid die from cancer. It's like someone rips your chest open and takes your heart out," she said.

Her 14-year-old son, Nicholas, was shot to death in 1992, and she credits Parents of Murdered Children with helping her cope with the emotional trauma.

"I thought I was going nuts, but then I came here and found out what I was going through was normal for a situation like this," she said.

Brought together by tragedy, the group includes people from all walks of life who meet on the second Wednesday of each month in Santa Ana to draw strength from each other and to vent their anguish.

At each meeting, parents and in some cases brothers, sisters or friends talk about the murders that scarred their lives. A separate group just for brothers or sisters of murder victims also meets the same nights in a separate room.

During a recent meeting, Linda Wallace described how her 9-year-old daughter was stabbed 57 times by a woman who broke into her house several years ago.

"Knowing that she got the death penalty helps a lot, but it doesn't bring my daughter Autumn back," she said.

"Time goes on and it gets a little better every year, but the grief never goes away. You just have to learn to live without them," said Wallace, 45, of Garden Grove.

Jim Stephens, 62, offered his advice to other members: "Don't let people tell you how to grieve."

"If someone says, 'That was years ago, you shouldn't still be grieving.' You tell them to go to straight to hell," said Stephens of Garden Grove.

Stephens, whose 28-year-old stepson, Robert Fiebrantz, was murdered eight years ago, said grief threatens to overwhelm him each time Robert's birth passes, and on each anniversary of his son's death.

Another common sentiment expressed at the meetings is anger at the justice system, which many members say victimizes families for years after the crime. Members commiserate over looming parole dates and early-release programs that shave off time for the killers of their loved ones.

"Not only do we have to go through the murder, we have to go through the court system" and then the penal system, said Pam Johnson, 36, of Huntington Beach, whose brother was killed during a robbery. 'It's a continuous price we have to pay."

Just being able to express their frustrations makes many people feel better. Still, Linda Smith lamented that the group does not reach every one who needs it because so far most members of the group speak only English.

"There is not a Hispanic group, but there needs to be a Hispanic group. There should be one for the Vietnamese. They're losing their kids as fast as we are," she said.

Also, members said they think some men may avoid joining the support group because they consider it a sign of weakness. At the most recent meeting, about 80% of the group were women.

Tom Hess, Kathy's husband, said he joined the group reluctantly.

"There's a lot of fathers out there trying to be big boys. When I first came here, I thought POMC was a joke. Well you can see that I don't feel it's a joke now," said Tom Hess, 42, of Diamond Bar.

Kathy Hess said the past week has been especially difficult because her daughter Amy would have turned 20 on Friday. The teen-ager was 17 when she was found shot to death in her car.

"I get angry at her birthday because we shouldn't have to go through this. It's not fair. I want her back," said Kathy Hess, 42.

In bittersweet remembrance of their daughter, Tom Hess added that "the thing I miss most about my daughter is to smell her. You just want to walk into her room and smell her pillow or whatever."

He added, "That's all I got left."

More information on Parents of Murdered Children can be obtained from P.O. Box 28864, Santa Ana, CA 92799-8864 or by telephone at (714) 647-7508.

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