In Their Memory
BY NICOLE MARSHALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008
7/13/08 at 4:15 AM
Families honor lives of their slain loved ones
One year to the day after Elizabeth Wagoner was murdered, her mother got a tattoo in honor of the 10-year-old girl.
The tattoo depicts Elizabeth's first baby picture as well as her last photo, taken at school just hours before she was abducted and killed.
"It is a memorial, but it also gets people to ask, 'Why did you do that?' And then I get to tell them, and they are more aware that, yes, this does happen, and it does happen to people on a daily basis,'' Lindsay Wagoner said.
But it's also a way to keep her daughter close at all times.
"The last time I saw Elizabeth, she was in her casket at the funeral home, and she was so cold, and I will never forget that. So having her face on my leg helps me feel like she is still alive inside me, even though I know she will always be in my heart.''
After Joseph Adetula, 18, was shot to death July 4, 2005, his father, Dayo Adetula, created a nonprofit foundation in his son's name and taught himself about crafting a Web site so he could tell his son's story to the world. Now, pictures and stories about Joseph's unsolved homicide are on 10 different sites.
"When this happened, I didn't know anything about the computer, but learning let me channel the anger into something else,'' Adetula said.
He even posted a picture of his dead son in a casket. Adetula shows it to teenagers when he speaks at schools about violence.
"These kids think, 'It won't happen to me.' But seeing is believing. You have to show them," Adetula said. "Maybe we can change some kids' minds. It might be graphic, but that is what it is.''
Maggie Zingman has traveled more than 7,800 miles in a pink and purple SUV wrapped in pictures of her daughter, Brittany Phillips.
Making her trips across the country keeps Brittany's memory alive, she said.
"There are probably 30,000 people who now know her and will remember her in some way,'' Zingman said.
But she's also on a mission to catch the rapist who killed her 18-year-old daughter more than three years ago — and to change laws in an effort to save other lives.
"Everyone kept saying what I was doing was unbelievable, but I feel any parent would do the same,'' Zingman said. "If you fall apart, so does their memory.''
Trees and gardens. Candlelight vigils and balloon releases. Statues and charities.
Legislation seeking justice.
Each in their own way, families seek to honor and memorialize homicide victims.
"When you talk about memorializing your loved one, I don't think there is anything you couldn't do,'' said Nancy Ruhe, executive director of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children.
Families contact the group more than 1,000 times a week, often seeking ways to memorialize victims. Those ways include the group's Murder Wall, a traveling tribute honoring the slain.
"It does have a great healing factor," Ruhe said. "And I often saythese loved ones will live long after we are all dead and gone, because there is their name, there is their age and everything about them, and for generations to come, people will come up and see a name and find out who that loved one was.''
Lindsay and Bill Wagoner honor their daughter's life in many ways.
Elizabeth's bedroom remains the way she left it the day she went for a walk and never came back. Her killer, Daniel Johnson, lived nearby and lured her into his home.
Police captured him within 14 hours, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The urn with Elizabeth's cremated remains sits in the Wagoners' living room. They still sing her a bedtime song every night and light 10 candles — one for each year of her life — plus one more to represent their bond.
"It is extremely comforting, because as horrible and traumatic as this whole thing was, we don't want that to be what we keep of Elizabeth,'' Bill Wagoner said.
Like Dayo Adetula, the Wagoners use the Internet as a means of honoring Elizabeth's life. Both parents have created their own MySpace pages that tell her story. Lindsay Wagoner even created a page from Elizabeth's perspective.
Thousands of Web sites serve as digital diaries of lives claimed by violence. Families use sites such as MySpace to post pictures and videos, seek killers in unsolved cases and network with others who share the same pain.
"If you Google the word 'murder,' the number of Web sites memorializing loved ones is unbelievable,'' Ruhe said.
A variety of sites memorialize several other Tulsa homicide victims, including Joshua Ray Minton, a 2-year-old boy who was murdered by his day-care provider on May 17, 2007, and Monica Decator, who was killed by her boyfriend in April 1997.
Laws for loved ones
Ruhe said the drive to change or create laws in the names of homicide victims is a powerful means of memorializing a death.
"All those laws we don't even think about on a daily basis get passed to prevent crimes from happening or prevent someone else from going though the same thing that family member has gone through, and they do it in memory of and to pay tribute to their loved one,'' Ruhe said.
She cited Megan's Law as an example. The law is named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, a New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a child molester who had moved across the street from her family. They were unaware of his criminal past.
After her death, Megan's parents sought to have communities warned about sex offenders in the area, and all states now have a form of Megan's Law.
In Oklahoma, legislators passed the Nik Green Law in honor of a state trooper who was shot to death Dec. 26, 2003, by a man who was operating a methamphetamine lab in a car. The law requires that over-the-counter cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine — meth's primary ingredient — be placed behind pharmacy counters.
Also in 2004, the Mary Rippy Violent Crime Offenders Registration Law was passed. It is named for an 89-year-old Wewoka woman who was strangled by a neighbor who had served time for first-degree manslaughter and felonious possession of a firearm. Neither Rippy nor her daughters were aware of the killer's violent past.
Now anyone who is convicted of or receives a suspended sentence for a violent crime is required to register with the Department of Corrections and a local law enforcement agency.
Zingman describes her cross-country travels as a "caravan to catch a killer,'' but her goal is even larger than that. She also seeks to strengthen rape laws and draw attention to the DNA testing backlog.
"I do believe weak rape laws allowed him to possibly slip through the system," she said of her daughter's killer.
Ruhe said Zingman's travels show the lengths to which parents are willing to go to send a message about violence in the United States.
"When you see mothers out there going across the country trying to get some type of attention to the plight that their daughter suffered, it really does speak to the need to stop the violence,'' she said.
Special days, special names
Most families have one method of memorializing their loved ones in common.
After a homicide, families often pay increased reverence to the victims' birthdays and death dates. Victims' advocates say it isn't unusual for families to have even larger celebrations for homicide victims' birthdays than they do for living family members.
The observances recognize the loss of what could have been.
"The way Bill and I honor Elizabeth's birthday every year is to release balloons at her school,'' Lindsay Wagoner said. "There are balloons for how old she would have been — this year it would have been 13 — and we always have one white one for her being an angel."
The death dates, or "angel dates," as Wagoner calls them, are seared into families' memories by unexpected loss.
"When they are taken — whether it be a car crash or murder or cancer, whatever type of death when it is unexpected or painful — those are days you don't ever forget,'' she said.
Another way victims' memories live on is through namesakes.
Five babies born to one family have been named in honor of Marjonna King, a baby who was killed by her father, Edwin Bell, on Feb. 12, 1999. Bell killed Marjonna along with her two sisters; their mother, Markita King; and his own mother, Linda Farris, before turning the gun on himself.
In the years since the killings, Miracle King, Markita's sister, has had four children and named each a variation of Marjonna. Markita's brother, Maurice King, named his son, who was born exactly one month after the homicides, Marjon.
Miracle King's children sleep in a bedroom decorated with pictures of Markita King and her children. She had planned to tell them about the shootings when they were older, but talk in the community about the mass slayings made its way to her oldest daughter, age 7, before she was ready to tell her.
"She knows her cousins and aunt were killed and that their daddy shot them,'' King said. "She had questions. She wondered why someone would ever do something like that.''
Going their own way
Not everyone can face the pain of making memorials a part of their daily lives, a choice Bill Wagoner said he understands.
"The bond we had with Elizabeth was not something Lindsay and I were willing to let go. At the same time, at times it is really painful. It is a balance that Lindsay and I have chosen to make. We would rather hurt than forget,'' he said.
"But I can easily, easily understand how some people would go the other direction. The pain is just so much. They just cannot go through it. They have to avoid it.
"It is not something anyone can judge. An individual who is going through what we are going through has to go their own way. They have to find a way to make it through it.''
World staff writer Curtis Killman contributed to this story.
Nicole Marshall 581-8459
A tattoo of murder victim Elizabeth Wagoner, as a baby and how she looked at the time of her death, adorns the right calf of her mother, Lindsay Wagoner, as she poses with her husband, Bill Wagoner, in their Tulsa home.
Maggie Zingman is the mother of Brittany Phillips, who was 18 when she was killed more than three years ago.
Joseph Adetula's memorial Web page at www.josephadetulafoundation.org.