Nancy Horneman speaks about her children, who were killed by her husband in 1999, during the Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force’s candlelight vigil in Largo Central Park Feb. 24. Behind her are silent witnesses holding the names of victims of domestic violence who lost their lives in Pinellas County in 2012.
LARGO – A dozen candles flickered inside of white paper bags on the night of Feb. 24, each adorned with a purple ribbon and the name of a Pinellas County resident who was killed in domestic violence last year.
Behind the table, 12 silent witnesses in white T-shirts held signs with the names repeated: Shelley Gold, Irene Polukoff, Judith Lee Davis, Donalyn Walsh, Stacie Diane Wolski, Vicki Marie Bolling, Ingrid Agbebaku, Carole E. Wilhelm, Belinda Joyce Thomas, Jennifer Lee Zale, Russell Byrd and Michael Gene Espy.
The Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force held the candlelight vigil in Largo Central Park to remember each one.
Chad Herman, a motivational speaker and a survivor of domestic violence stemming from his childhood, faced the small group of loved ones and community activists clutching candles.
“This is … about every child that has listened to the pain, screams, the body parts hitting against walls and doors and those who have actually lost their family member because of it,” he said. “This is for all those children who cowered and wished it would end and it never did.”
It was important to remember each person who died in 2012 as a result of the violence, he said.
“They died, they lost their lives and the only thing they truly wanted was to be loved,” he said. “And their love, their partner, took that away.”
A cycle of violence
2012 was worse than usual for domestic violence-related deaths in Pinellas County. Five of the cases ended in suicide, and in one incident, the reported victim, who was never arrested or charged, killed her aggressor.
But the vigil was an attempt to make the statistics, which the Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force reviews for trends each year, more personal.
With tears streaking her face, Nancy Horneman clutched a candle and a memento of her personal tragedy: a framed photo of her two children. Stephanie was 4, and Gus was 2 when they were killed on Aug. 13, 1999 in Plantation.
“My husband took their lives and then tried to take mine. But he didn’t get me, and he killed himself instead,” Horneman said.
The vigil provided an outlet for her to help others, she said
“I’ve committed my life to being an advocate, speaking out, sharing my story,” she said. “I’m just very blessed that I have that ability to be able to speak out. I’ve made some differences, which means their lives were not taken in vain.”
Horneman recently moved to St. Petersburg and expressed a wish to be an advocate in Pinellas County. It was important to speak up about the issue.
“It’s not one of those things you can brush under the carpeting. Thank God we’ve become a society where that’s not the case,” she said. “In fact, when I was growing up, and my parents were beating each other, nobody wanted to hear about it.
“That’s what I thought love was all about.”
A case close to home
Marie Johnson of Largo attended the vigil with her daughter Donelle to honor the memory of 29-year-old Laura Taft, their neighbor who became like an adopted daughter and sister.
“She wound up calling me ‘Mom,’” Johnson explained. “I was like her mom away from mom.”
Taft was found stabbed to death on Feb. 17, 2010, 11 days after her 5-week-old infant had been found dead. Craig Wall – Taft’s boyfriend, the baby’s father and the primary suspect in their deaths – will be tried for first-degree murder in October this year, according to Pinellas County court records.
Taft left behind her son, Conner, who was almost 6 and was fortunately staying with his father at the time of Taft’s death.
“Up until the day she died, she was planning a great big birthday party for him,” Johnson said.
According to police reports at the time, Taft had moved into a new apartment after her infant’s death and filed for an injunction for protection against her boyfriend. Wall was charged with violating that injunction on Feb. 15. He was let out on bail, and two days later, his girlfriend was dead.
Johnson said she and others had been worried for Taft’s safety, especially when Wall convinced his girlfriend to move out of the trailer park where she had neighbors to support her.
“We were crying when she was leaving, we told her, ‘Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go.’ She went anyways,” Donelle explained. “She was pregnant. And she says, ‘I’m having his baby. I’m in love with him.’”
Wall treated her well in the beginning of their relationship, which started not long after Taft divorced. He bought her lots of things – a car, jewelry and flowers – often without any specific occasion to celebrate. She was hooked, Johnson explained.
But the relationship turned sour. Johnson said she remembered one occasion when Taft came to her neighbors and told them that Wall had kicked her out of the car and forced her to walk home, despite her pregnancy. Johnson thinks there might have been violence already in the relationship, but said she “cannot prove it.”
There’s not a day that goes by when she doesn’t think of her adopted daughter, she said.
“She befriended everybody. If you were down in the dumps and she saw it, she’d bring your spirits up. Very up,” she said. “She was a good mom. She was thrilled about the baby.”
Johnson said she herself is a victim and survivor of domestic violence, having escaped and divorced her husband who used to beat her. But even when she saw Taft struggling in her relationship, she didn’t know what resources were available to victims of domestic violence, like the domestic violence center, The Haven of RCS.
“Now we know. We have places and phone numbers to give to people,” she said.
The Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force has identified several trends in domestic violence cases that end in death since they began reviewing them in 2000. In only 10 percent of those fatal circumstances did victims seek help from a domestic violence center, and in only 14 percent of cases did they file for an injunction for protection. In 70 percent of cases, friends, family, co-workers or neighbors knew about the partner violence.
More data, domestic violence resources and an annual report from the task force is available at www.dvtf.org.
To get help, call the domestic violence hotline at 442-4128. To contact the Haven of RCS, call 441-2029 or visit www.RCSpinellas.org.