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26 years of mourning:

Candlelight vigil unites St. Louis-area families of homicide victims

 

By Ashley Jost St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jan 1, 2018

 

ST. LOUIS • An invitation in the mail meant a lot to Niobe Perkins.

It meant she wasn’t forgotten, and neither was her son, Trevion Watkins, 22, who was shot and killed in October.

The invitation was for the annual candlelight memorial service Sunday afternoon, mourning those who lost their lives to violence in 2017.

A similar letter went out to more than 200 other families of people who were killed in St. Louis during the most violent year the city has seen in more than 20 years. Letters went out to the families of victims from St. Louis County, too.

Perkins hadn’t heard about the annual service before the letter came.

“For someone to contact us and even think about us at this time means a whole lot,” Perkins said. “He’s not just a name on a list.”

Hundred of grieving loved ones filed into the pews Sunday at Williams Temple Church of God, 1500 Union Boulevard, for the 26th annual memorial service. As they walked in, volunteers passed out candles, which family members lit and held onto as the names of the victims were read. Other volunteers passed out tissues. Sunday wasn’t about politics. It was about the families and their mourning, and that’s made clear before the first hymn.

The messages were similar, from St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar to newly named St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden: The violence has to stop.

As of Sunday afternoon, St. Louis’ homicide tally had reached at least 205. The youngest victim in the city was 3 months old.

Belmar said St. Louis County police had investigated at least 56 homicides, including that of a man found dead late Sunday morning, a few hours before the vigil. The youngest victim in the county was 9, according to Belmar, who said these lives had been “stolen.”

In one of his first events as St. Louis’ police chief, Hayden promised the crowd that something would change so that there wouldn’t need to be so many mourning loved ones at next year’s vigil.

“We’re going to curb violence in the city,” he said. “That is the least I can do for you.”

Easing the pain

Among the speakers was grieving grandmother, mother, activist and former Missouri lawmaker Betty Thompson.

“Neighbors used to love each other,” she said, while the crowd cheered. “What happened to that love? What happened to that love? Where did that love go?”

Thompson lost her grandson, Tyrell Thompson, in 2016 when he was fatally shot in a botched robbery. Her son, Tyrone Thompson, a former Pagedale police chief, was killed the same way six years prior.

“We’re here not because your child has died, but because they lived,” she told the audience.

There’s something about being around people who have experienced something similar. That’s why DoaJai Elliott came Sunday.

She and her family were mourning the loss of her brother, Jerome Baker, 28, who went missing in 2016. Police were able to confirm this summer that remains found in a vacant St. Louis home were those of Baker.

“This is a way to remember him,” Elliott said. “I like being around people who know what you’re feeling.”

Some family members in the crowd sobbed as the names of loved ones were read.

Jeanette Culpepper, president and founder of Families Advocating Safe Streets, started this annual event in 1991 to mourn the murder of her son, Curtis Weldon Johnson Jr.

Sunday was one of the biggest turnouts Culpepper said she had ever seen. She sends invitations a week or so beforehand but doesn’t “hound” the families more than that, because “everybody grieves differently.”  “There’s no medication for the pain,” Culpepper said. “There’s nothing no one can say. But I tell them, at a later date the things you heard here might come back and ease the pain.”