Crime victims and survivors gather for Tree of Angels ceremony
By BRITTANY FHOLER
The Coryell County Crime Victim’s Office held their third annual Tree of Angels ceremony and reception to honor and recognize the county’s victims of violent crimes and their families as well as the survivors at the Coryell County Historical Museum Center Monday evening.
Prior to the reception, held in the Gilbreath room on the second floor at the center, family members placed an angel ornament on a Christmas tree on the first floor in memory of their loved ones while survivors were able to place a dove ornament.
The dove ornaments were a new tradition started this year by Brandy Johnson, the Crime Victim’s Office Coordinator, to show the survivors that they are just as special as any other victim, and that they have a story to tell as well.
Johnson also is the force behind the change in the mood of the event. In previous years, the event was more somber and formal, which can be heavy for the families, she said. She wanted to have a more light-hearted feel this year, so she asked the families of different victims lost to violent crime to send a picture and a funny story or heartwarming moment to show a different side of that person.
On the bar top, there were pictures of Raymond Litchfield, Lloyd Bennett, Paula Allen, Chad Lee Dunbar, Michael Paradise, Michael Grant, Charles (Carlos) Richard Rosales, Daniel Cooper and Thomas Smethers paired with a funny story or heartwarming tale.
Johnson said that this added touch helps take the label of victim off of them, and makes them seem human.
Under the Christmas tree in the Gilbreath room were gift bags filled with a gift for the survivors, with quotes on the knickknack to remind them that they’re still alive for a reason, Johnson said.
The ceremony used to be held jointly with Bell County, before it was decided that holding a ceremony in Coryell County would be easier and would allow the families the opportunity to be more engaged, according to District Attorney Dusty Boyd.
“This is an opportunity for the office, through the DA’s Office and the Crime Victims Office, to have the opportunity to fellowship and to bring our victims and our victim’s families together, in what would otherwise be you know a festive and happy time of year,” Boyd said. “We understand that there’s a lot more gravity this time of year for people who are challenged with the loss of loved ones and the experiences that they’ve had to go through because of those dynamics.”
The ceremony lets the office show the families that they are still cared for and even if the case was closed years earlier or is pending, those families are “still in this fold with us, and we’re still in this fight with you,” Boyd said.
So much of the judicial system is cold and sharp, but this event offers a chance to meet with the families outside of the courtroom or office, Boyd added.
The families also would get the chance to connect with others who have gone through a similar experience.
Johnson and Boyd both explained that while they can offer their support, they can’t say they know what the families are going through.
“These people here can, and that might help them to the holidays to understand there’s other people struggling through this too, so that’s kind of our whole mission with this,” Boyd said.
Boyd shared some of the cases that have stayed with him, including that of Paula Allen, who died in a fire set by her husband in 2011. Boyd said he inherited this case from the previous District Attorney and called it a dynamic case, with lots of moving parts such as the arson. This was one of the first big cases to get resolved with Boyd as District Attorney.
Another case Boyd mentioned was that of Thomas Smethers, who was murdered in the Copperas Cove Walmart parking lot in October 2015 during an apparent drug deal gone south. Smethers’ killers were found guilty, one of capital murder and the other of murder and aggravated robbery, after a three-week long jury trial held a couple of months ago in October. Boyd said this case had a lot of different variables, including 49 witnesses and 300 pieces of evidence.
“What that case encapsulated was that people were human and you have a right to life,” Boyd said. Just because someone engaged in making poor decisions doesn’t mean their right to life deserves to be taken, he said.
Smethers’ mother, Sally Barrese, was at Monday’s ceremony and reception with her husband Anthony. Johnson explained that with the recent conviction of Smethers’ murderers, the whole thing was still raw for Barrese, but Barrese shared the story of when Smethers was a little boy watching her put on lipstick and perfume and asked for “ipstick and presume.” Barrese said she gave him Chapstick and cologne in his Christmas stocking instead.
Barrese said that Smethers’ family only ever knew him as being a good father, brother and son, which is a legacy that Johnson said they would keep alive.
Johnson said that Barrese and her husband and sister have a special place in her heart after the time they spent together during the case.
“I can tell you that Sally and her husband and her sister are more like family at this point than a victim’s family that I’m here to support,” Johnson said.
Barrese added that this event, honoring victims like her son, meant the world.