PHOENIX – It was her turn to speak, but Carol Martin couldn’t find the words.
She scanned the faces in the circle of mothers, each of whom was sharing the story of how her son was slain. Martin’s eyes settled on the tear-stained face of Victoria Garcia, whose grief was only 4 months old.
It had been more than 11 years since Martin’s own son was shot and killed, but the rawness of Garcia’s feelings was harrowing.
“Hearing her talk, I was reliving David’s death like it had just happened to me again,” Martin would later explain. “The pain you experience from an act of violence robs you of so much. For the parent of a child who’s murdered, your sorrow can surprise you, whether it’s been days since they died or years.”
Martin, 62, was one of six mothers who gathered last weekend for a three-day retreat in Pine, about 100 miles north of Phoenix. They came to find solace, guidance and hope. Like Martin, some members of this fated sorority came to find a new focus in their life. Others, like Garcia whose loss was so new, just wanted to know if their lives could ever be made whole. Some brought family members for emotional support during the weekend.
If the mothers were seeking a place of understanding, it would be here, in the mountain home of Roger and Carol Fornoff.
Twenty-five years ago this Saturday, the Mesa couple’s daughter was kidnapped, raped and smothered. The brutal death of 13-year-old Christy Ann Fornoff rocked the Phoenix area.
In the wake of her death, the Fornoffs have turned to help others like them, sharing a cabin that serves as a retreat.
On this weekend, the Fornoffs welcomed the women, members of the metro Phoenix chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, an advocacy and education organization. While the couple manned the kitchen, keeping meals and snacks at the ready, Beckie Miller led the retreat. Miller’s world was shattered in 1991, when her 18-year-old son, Brian, was shot by a gang suspect who was arrested and served seven years.
“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t live,’ ” Miller, 54, told the women as they began their sessions. “My son had such promise and was looking forward to a good life. I couldn’t believe he was gone.”
The six mothers, too, had lost sons. Four died of gunshot wounds. One was stabbed, the other bludgeoned.
“No matter how they died, it was senseless,” Miller said softly.
She took out a candle and asked each woman to light it and talk about the death.
Garcia began to speak, barely above a whisper. She held tightly to the candle as she lit a match in her son’s honor. Victor, 24, had been riding in a car in Phoenix with his cousins on Jan. 8, when an altercation erupted with someone passing by. Garcia was fatally struck by a bullet near his heart.
“I don’t understand what to do now that he’s gone,” said Garcia, 54, her voice choking. “We always had had each other. I should have been there for him, and I wasn’t.”
As they headed for bed that night, the women were physically and mentally exhausted.
“But it was good to just get to talk, knowing there were people who have been through the same thing,” said Amy Shaw, who lost her 17-year-old son, Ronnie, on Jan. 12, 2008.
It would be the next day when Shaw, 36, disclosed her rage, not only over the stabbing of her son but against herself. She can’t get out of her mind the image of her son, bloody from three stab wounds, her hand gripping his as he died.
“I’ve been so mean to other people, trying to deal with this,” she said. “And that’s not me. I want to scream, and I feel so out of control. This can’t go on. My pills to help me sleep don’t work anymore. I just have this anger that won’t go away.”
It’s not unusual, Miller said, for life to unravel.
“Your world is nothing like it ever was,” she said. “You lose friends, relationships, your health. You sleep too little, you sleep too much.”
The women said they were tired of people telling them that their time for grieving was up, that they should move on for their own well-being.
That kind of advice can be hurtful, said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, assistant director of the Office of Forensic Social Work at Arizona State University.
“Research shows it’s hard to compare the parents of murdered children with any other grief group,” she said. “These are people who must contend with the horror of violence (plus) the death of a child.”
The sudden absence of a loved one is something the Fornoffs know all too well.
The early evening that Christy Ann disappeared, she had been on her paper route, collecting from her subscribers for The Phoenix Gazette, once The Republic’s sister paper. Two days later, her body was found near a trash can at the Rock Point Apartments in Tempe. Donald Beaty, a maintenance man at the complex, was convicted of her sexual assault and murder and is on death row in Florence.
Carol Fornoff, 69, said she could have become mired in her grief. Instead, she started support groups and spearheaded a movement that led to the 1990 passage of Arizona’s Victims’ Bill of Rights, a measure designed to balance the rights of victims with the constitutional rights of the accused.
A $1.5 million settlement against the apartments where Beaty worked helped the Fornoffs buy the cabin in Pine. Outside, it reads, “Christy House in the Pines.” So far, more than 2,200 people have stayed at the cabin while attending one of the retreats the couple have hosted. For their home to become a haven was the dream for the religious couple. When they bought the cabin 15 years ago, splitting their time between Pine and Mesa, they pegged their recovery on helping others.
“We certainly don’t think of her 24 hours a day, but there’s times when it all hits us again,” Fornoff said. “We understand what other parents go through. When you remember the life of a child, that can make every parent feel good.”