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Tree of Angels event provides comfort for victims' families

By Angela Ward
Dec. 3, 2012 at 11 p.m.

HENDERSON - Linda Luna got a chance to remember her daughters among kindred souls Monday evening.

Luna's daughters, Melissa and Melanie Rios, died in a car wreck in 1987 when they were eight and five years old. Her then sister-in-law, who was driving, was speeding and lost control of the vehicle. Luna said her participation at the Tree of Angels in Rusk County helped to ease the pain just a little.

"This is my first time to take part in this event," Luna said. "I think it's wonderful that they have something for those of us who have lost loved ones. It's a tragedy that you never forget, a wound that stays open forever."

The Tree of Angels is provided by county officials as a way for people who have lost loved ones to violent crime, have friends or family members who are missing, or who have been victims of violent crimes themselves to reconcile the happiness of the holiday season with their own feelings of loss.

Luna was accompanied to the event by her youngest daughter who, along with Luna's son, was born after the two older girls died.

Luna at least knows what happened to her daughters. Other people participating in the Tree of Angels are more in limbo regarding their loved ones.

Beth and Craig Lund also were first-time participants at the Tree of Angels. Their son, Benjamin Lund, disappeared in 2005 when he was 19.

"We're here to help spread the word," Beth Lund said. "We really don't know what happened to him, but somebody out there must have the answers."

Participating in the Tree of Angels is an annual tradition for Cathey Gorden and her mother, Shirley Stiefel. The two women come to honor Stiefel's father and Gorden's grandfather, Charles Shirley Edward, who was shot and killed in 1974.

"He was killed by his stepson," Gorden said. "I never really had a chance to get to know him."

Stiefel said she appreciated having a chance to remember her father and spend time with other people who understand the kind of pain she's experienced.

Marie Martin, who helps organize the event, has a brother who's been missing since 2001. The family believes he is dead, but there has never been a legal resolution to the case.

"All of us who have been victims of violent crimes, or who have lost loved ones to such crimes, always wonder why," Martin said. "For some of us, that's a question that will never be answered. Other people are uncomfortable with our grief during what is supposed to be a season of joy, so we have this event to be with those who understand our feelings."

Julie Lepelley , whose son was fatally shot in 2005, said the staff at the district attorney's office had helped her family deal with the tragedy.

"Families of victims of violent crime go through much more that those who die of natural causes," Lepelley said. "The holidays are a lonely, difficult time for many of us."

However, Lepelley said, her faith in God has given her hope and allowed her to move out of the total despair she was in during the months immediately following her son's death.

Families placed a variety of ornaments on the tree to remember their loved ones. While angels predominated, there were also bells, ceramic cowboy boots and ballet shoes and handmade ornaments containing pictures of the victims.

Rusk County Judge Joel Hale, who was one of several county officials present, said it was important for him to take part.

"We can't ever really know what these families are going through, but we can show them we support them and empathize with them," Hale said.



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