(This story originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)
BRADENTON — More than 70 people sat Thursday evening before Penny Hedrick at the Riverwalk.
Shaking, the 57-year-old spoke into a microphone in the Mosaic Amphitheater. She told them she is a homicide survivor.
“Thirty years, one month and 19 days ago, my father (Loal Goatcher) was murdered,” Hedrick said. “March 4 is the anniversary date and it’s emblazed and etched in my brain and I will always remember it. Any of you here who have lost loved ones, you usually do remember the day. It’s very challenging to go through that day.”
The Palmetto resident was one of several people who shared personal testimonies at the 30th Annual Victims of Crime Candlelight Vigil. The Manatee County Victims’ Council event is held for crime victims, including family members, to cope collectively with their own personal tragedies. The evening included the release of white doves, a keynote speech by Susie Brown, unit manager of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Victim Advocate Unit, and testimony by domestic violence survivor Arlene Maltes.
Hedrick said she calls herself a homicide survivor because she was left to deal with the pain, impact and consequences of the murder.
“When they first told me that my father was murdered, I was shocked. I was numb,” she said. “I went into some denial and disbelief and anger — lots of anger.”
Hedrick spoke about the many consequences of crime, including emotional pain and physical trauma. She also spoke about the financial burdens suffered by victims of crime such as funeral expenses, lost wages, medical bills and expensive relocations for domestic violence victims.
Hedrick wanted to let others know there’s hope.
“There is hope, thanks to victims of crime who went before us, thanks to victim advocates and thanks to law enforcement officials across the country, the state and the county,” she said.
Seated in the front was Jill Mullins, whose husband, Pat Mullins, was found with a gunshot wound to his head Feb. 6, 2013, near Emerson Point. He disappeared Jan. 27 while testing a boat motor on the Braden River.
The 55-year-old Bradenton resident hasn’t given up hope someday she’ll find out what happened to cause her husband’s death. She brought four framed photos of Pat to the candlelight vigil, which were placed on one side of the amphitheater.
“It shows the real person,” Mullins said, describing each photo.
Beside them was a small stack of business cards with the headline: “Who killed Pat Mullins? father, son, husband, friend, teacher.”
Mullins’ sister, Jodi John, also came to the vigil.
“I’m glad this event is happening,” the 61-year-old Sarasota resident said. “I wish that there was even more opportunities for victims to network and be able to support each other.”
Toward the back sat Andrea Poston, 47; and her parents, Mark Miller, 73; and Mary Miller, 72. All wore matching shirts with the image of Tamara Elizabeth Toy, whose body may have been buried somewhere in Manatee County by her boyfriend, Glenn Bivens, who later committed suicide in jail. Poston, who traveled from West Virginia to attend the vigil, said they are still searching for her older sister’s remains.
The vigil was a good way for her to connect to other families who are crime victims.
“We have no place that we can go and say: ‘This is where our loved one is,'” she said. “It gives us someplace to kind of feel connected.”
Natasha Nixon, president of the Manatee County Victims’ Council, said she was happy with the turnout and the survivors who spoke had empowering messages.
Just outside the amphitheater stood 29-year-old Arceli Cortez Ruiz, whose brother, Oscar Cortez Ruiz, was shot in the early morning hours of March 29. The 24-year-old later died at Blake Medical Center.
“He was the best brother — so good, so caring,” the Ellenton resident said, tears filling her eyes. “I’m very sad. … We didn’t expect this. … We didn’t expect news like this.”