Minnie Warrick’s name is among those engraved on the small, smooth rocks that outline a recirculating waterfall in the Crime Victims’ Memorial Garden behind the Washington County Courthouse.
But her name did not appear without some hesitation from her family.
“I connected with a great-niece on Facebook, and her initial reaction was no,” said Betsy Dane, administrator of the District Attorney’s Crime Victims/Witness Assistance Program, who was seeking permission to add Warrick’s name to the garden.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to see her name and see her as a murder victim. She was so much more than that,’” Dane said. “Then she changed her mind.”
Most of those remembered in the garden were strangers, unknown to each other in life, but brought together in death by senseless acts of violence.
Warrick was among three women who were killed karate-style by Roland Steele in 1985. Warrick, 86, Lucille Horner, 88, and Sarah Knutz, 85, all of East Washington, were leaving a charity luncheon at the former Club International at the Millcraft Center in Washington June 21, 1985, when Steele, formerly of McKees Rocks, conned them into letting him drive their car. The women’s bodies were found later that day under a pile of old tires in Cecil Township.
On Sept. 22, family, friends and the community will commemorate the garden’s five-year anniversary and celebrate the lives of loved ones lost to violent crimes during the National Day of Remembrance. The ceremony will be held from 1 to 5 p.m.
“It’s once a year that’s dedicated just to remembering,” Dane said. “That’s one of those basic human needs people have. It’s especially poignant when a person you love has been a victim of homicide. They’re afraid their loved one will be forgotten.”
The memorial project began to develop in 2005 after two victims’ mothers, Melinda Poland and Cathy Loos, approached the county with the idea. Poland’s 16-year-old son, Danny Poland Jr., was struck and killed Sept. 20, 2000, while crossing East Maiden Street in Washington by a drunken driver who had two prior DUI offenses. Loos’ daughter, Alexzandra, a WPIAL track star as a freshman at Bentworth High School, was struck and killed in 2004 by a negligent driver while she was walking home from school with a friend on Route 2010, a half-mile east of Chippewa Road in Somerset Township.
The garden was dedicated on Sept. 25, 2008, and has since served as a source of great comfort for family and friends, uniting them in their grief as well as their memories. Today, nearly 100 crime victims’ names appear in the garden.
“I know it’s been powerful,” said Dane, recalling Kathleen O’Hara’s reaction after she visited the garden in honor of her son, Aaron Land, one of two Franciscan University students who were kidnapped from their Steubenville, Ohio, home, in May 1999 and brought to Washington County, where they were shot to death execution-style.
“When she came for the second trial, she said she was happy how it was set up,” Dane said, adding, “I like to walk by and see the birds in the fountain.”
The birds hold a special significance for the nephew of Thomas Tarr Jr., who was shot and killed near the entrance to Woodland Hills Apartments in North Franklin Township in the early morning hours of Jan. 8, 2006. He was 24.
“When the birds come down, my grandson will say, ‘There’s Bubby.’ He just thinks that’s wonderful because Bubby has a place,” said Tom’s mother, Pam Tarr.
Tarr and her husband, Tom, try to visit the garden at least once a month, and she will be one of the speakers at the National Day of Remembrance ceremony.
“Me, personally, it just means too much to me,” said Tarr, struggling to find just the right words. “Tommy will always be remembered. He will never be forgotten. He’s always going to be here. The garden means love, peace … just everything.
“Where Tommy died, I can see it from there. It’s right by the jail. Those people have to see it every day. It might put something into their head.”
The Tarrs attended their first National Day of Remembrance in Washington, D.C., in 2007, one year after their son was killed. They added Tommy’s name to “the murder wall,” Pam Tarr said, and later became actively involved with the memorial garden at the courthouse, serving as guardians with a handful of other family members.
Tarr has witnessed firsthand what a heartwarming tribute the garden has become among the community.
“A lot of people will go up, look and stand in awe of it. Look how many names are there. This is unbelieveable,” Tarr said. “It shows Washington we’re a community.”
The names include crime victims from high-profile cases in Washington County, including Ohio business consultant Ira Swearingen, who was kidnapped Dec. 12, 1999, from the parking lot of a Somerset Township adult bookstore, beaten, robbed, shot point-blank between the eyes and rolled off a cliff, and Maria Plute, 43, of Peters Township, who was shot by her husband during an argument in October 1997 before he set the house on fire, and cases that didn’t receive a lot of media attendtion. Some of the crimes have been solved; others haven’t.
There are names of toddlers, such as 11-month-old Orlando Guarino Jr. and his 2-year-old sister, Dreux Guarino, who, along with their mother, Ashley Guarino, 22, were killed by asphyxiation by their father and husband, Orlando Guarino, on July 9, 2008; children, like 9-year-old Michele Brianna Klingensmith, who died July 12, 1997, after she was shot by her father, Robert Dale Klingensmith, during a domestic dispute at his West Finley Township trailer; and teens, including 18-year-old Amanda Rozanc of Muse, who died of head and chest injuries Jan. 8, 2007, after she was ejected from a car that went out of control on a curve on Muse-Bishop Road.
Elderly crime victims, such as Freda Dale, 89, of Peters Township, who died Jan. 29, 2003, of a heart attack following a brutal home invasion, and Opal Bedillion, 80, of East Finley Township, who died Jan. 8, 2012, when her throat was slit after she opened her door, responding to a call for help, also are remembered in the garden.
Homicide victims from decades ago are among the names in the garden. They include Mary Irene Gency, who was 16 years old when she was brutally murdered on Feb. 13, 1977, her nude body left in a snow-covered field in Fallowfield Township, and Christine Guenther, 15, of Peters Township, who disappeared Oct. 26, 1981, after leaving Peters Township High School to catch a bus to Pittsburgh for a doctor’s appointment. Five days later, her body was found, covered in brush, by a hunter in a rural area of South Fayette Township. She died of head wounds believed to be inflicted by a small axe.
The names of more recent murder victims also have been added, including Timothy McNerney, 21, the Washington & Jefferson College football star who died Oct. 4, 2012, during a robbery near campus, and Vince Kelley, 46, of Washington, who died of multiple gunshot wounds June 16 when he tried to stop an armed man who had robbed Citizens Bank at Giant Eagle in Strabane Square.
“We’re going to have folks who attend who lost someone in the ’70s, then some who lost someone six weeks ago. They have different wisdom, different experience,” Dane said. “I’m really struck by some whose names are in the garden. With some, there’s been no prosecution. Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, their families have never had experience with the system to get that peace … it’s especially powerful.”
For the first time, the names of first responders killed in the line of duty have been added to the garden. They include East Washington police Officer John David Dryer, 46, who was shot and killed Dec. 19, 2011, during a traffic stop on Interstate 70, and South Strabane Township police Officer Nathan Burnfield, 27, who was killed Nov. 4, 2008, when he was struck by a tri-axle dump truck after he removed a tire that was obstructing one of the westbound lanes of Interstate 70 near Bentleyville.
Not only did Tarr’s brother, South Strabane Township police Officer Carmine Molinaro, work with Burnfield, but the family also knew Burnfield since he was a youngster.
“I talked to his mother the day before he died. She was saying how sorry she was about Tommy. The next day, I get this phone call,” Tarr said. “I’ve gotten really strong. If you tell people your story, they feel bad, but they can gain knowledge from what people go through.
“It’s a hard thing to get involved in,” said Tarr, referring to meetings she attends with other families of crime victims, “and I know from experience it is because it brings back so much. It took me five years to learn to laugh about Tommy again.
“But it is also the most rewarding thing you can do and sends a powerful message to the community. Later on, you want to do it because it means more to you. The garden means a lot to me, and I know it means a lot my family.”