By AMANDA KIMBLE
ERATH COUNTY (November 22, 2016) – For many people, Christmas time is the most joyous time of the year. For survivors of violent crime, the holiday season can stir feelings of pain and loss, aggravate old wounds and leave them feeling alone in a world of despair.
The Tree of Angels is a beacon in that darkness, intended to bring comfort to survivors of child abuse, domestic abuse and other acts of violence. It also stands in support of community members who’ve lost loved ones to such crimes.
The Erath County district attorney’s office and the 266th Judicial District’s victim services staff hosts its 15th Annual Tree of Angels ceremony at 7 p.m. on Monday, December 5 in the Donald R. Jones Justice Center in Stephenville.
“It’s a way for the community to come together and support victims and give them an outlet to express their loss with others who have experienced similar circumstances,” Laurie Gillespie, event organizer and victim services coordinator, said. “It gives them a sense that they’re not alone.”
T.K. Roberts, who found her parents’ bodies following their violent murder, will serve as guest speaker during this year’s ceremony.
Jerry Thomas, 45, and Kelly Thomas, 41, were killed by a 19-year-old family member and his friend in 2001. Bobby DeWeese, the couple’s troubled nephew, plead guilty and was sentenced to two life terms. A jury found co-defendant Zachary Smith guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.
District Judge Jason Cashon had served as assistant district attorney for less than a year when the crime occurred.
“It wasn’t enough,” Cashon said when speaking about sentence 10 years after the crime.
“That Friday morning, the victims’ daughter was bringing their granddaughter over for a visit,” Cashon recalled. “They found their mother and grandmother, Kelly, on the ground outside. Jerry was also shot to death inside the home. That horror is something they’ll never forget.”
Roberts is one of the survivors invited to place on ornament on the Christmas tree each year. The tree stands just inside the glass windows of the justice center foyer and will remain lit into the New Year.
“Survivors can drive down Graham Street throughout the season and see the lit tree as a reminder of the unity and support it offers,” Gillespie said.
Some survivors hang the same angel ornament each year while others bring new one, each representing the passage of time.
Gillespie has worked as a victim advocate for 18 years, and said the Tree of Angels is another way to keep her connected to individuals she will always consider a part of her extended family. Most of them are people she stood beside during a process that spanned investigation, indictment and disposition of the case.
“There is a woman who comes in memory of her nephew,” Gillespie said. “She has been coming to the Tree of Angels for since the first annual event.”
While the tree stands as a sign of comfort for survivors of local crimes, Gillespie said those of crimes that occurred in other locations are also invited to take part in the event.
The public is invited and encouraged to attend the event as a show of support.
The Tree of Angels was initiated in Austin in 1991 by People Against Violent Crime.
Above all, it is an expression of the realization of love. Since its inception, the Tree of Angels has become a memorable tradition observed throughout Texas communities within 32 counties and in Australia.
On March 21, 2000, the United States Patent and Trademark Office registered the Tree of Angels. On November 9, 2000, former Governor George W. Bush issued a statewide proclamation designating the week of December 4-10, 2000 as Tree of Angels Week in Texas.
This proclamation acknowledges that in 1991, Verna Lee Carr of PAVC established the Tree of Angels and gave tribute to Nell Myers for her life-long dedicated work and many achievements for victims of crime.
In 2002, Erath County victim services staff began a Tree of Angels program to remember victims and their families and to honor surviving victims of violent crime in our community.