2019 has been the 2nd deadliest year for the River City in two decades, and for every victim of a violent crime, comes the possibility of a ripple effect of grief and pain.
The harsh reality of it all, impacts those left behind; including, but certainly not limited to two Peoria women, whose children were murdered thirteen years apart.
Sherrce Abbey’s life was turned upside down in April, after her 19-year-old daughter, Charee Alexander was stabbed at Schmoeger Park. She was caught in the cross hairs of an argument spurred by a love triangle, when Jatarra Johnson, stabbed her in the neck.
“That’s hard to describe – that one of your kids is never coming home again.” said Alexander’s mother Sherrce Abbey.
Abbey said she and her daughter were attached at the hip. She had to make the tough decision to take Alexander off life support a day after the incident. In exchange, Alexander saved five other lives, through organ donation.
“I miss her everyday. It’s not a day that I don’t think about her.” Abbey shared solemnly.
Charee Alexander was 7th on Peoria’s list of homicides in April; a list that has tripled in seven months. And in that time, Abbey’s pain has not subsided. “People say it gets easier. It doesn’t. I go out to her grave and I see grass is growing…like ‘this is real’ she’s gone.”
And on the opposite end of Peoria is another woman. A stranger to Abbey, but with plenty in common.
“I wake up and realize this is my reality; he’s not here.” That’s how Yolanda Wallace described many of her mornings.
Wallace, a trauma survivor and activist, has made it her mission to provide support for families affected by violent crimes and tragedy; including everything from suicide to car accidents.
Her son, Jon Buckley was gunned down in front of his home in 2006. When grief struck, Wallace learned the hard way, that there was no group she could turn to.
“There’s diabetes, asthma, blood clot, heart disease… There’s cancer survivor’s support, but there are none for murder victims’ families.” Wallace expressed frustration at the abundance of resources for nearly every ailment someone may face, all but one.
For a city whose homicides have gone from an average of one a month in 2017 to an average of once every two weeks in 2019, Wallace said she’s disappointed by the lack of response from Peoria leaders.
“This is not something that our city has taken hold on, to see it as an important thing that we need to create resources for these families.” she said.
Peoria Police have made efforts to reduce the violence – offering cash rewards and protection for those who come forward with tips on crimes and putting in more community hours.
Through initiatives like their Resident Officer Program and Don’t Shoot, PPD Chief Loren Marion III and his officers have made countless public denouncements of violence; along with desperate pleas to the community – often reminding them of the intense toll it has on the city’s financial and emotional well-being.
Assistant Chief Michael Mushinsky of the Peoria Police Department, penned the following letter to the public as a response to a 25 News request for reaction to the consistent violence; further highlighting the department’s efforts and goals to prevent untimely deaths.
“In 2018, the City of Peoria had 15 homicides; so far in 2019, there have been 22 homicides. Gun violence has caused the majority of these senseless deaths. The men and women of the Peoria Police Department are committed to getting guns out of the hands of criminals and off the streets. As of November 8, 2019, officers seized 303 illegal firearms versus 268 illegal firearms seized for all of 2018.
Officers and detectives do an outstanding job investigating each and every incident. Community involvement is also key. Partnering with the community through organizations such as PCAV and Crime Stoppers, we have seen an increase in people coming forth with information that has led to the quick solving in a number of these incidents.
Unfortunately, in some of the cases, the incident began as a fight between two parties that escalated to violence; there is not a lot we can do to prevent these instances. The Peoria Police Department is committed to focused deterrence which has had success in preventing retaliatory shootings.
I want to be sure to emphasize that all homicides are a loss, regardless of the number, even one is too many. Each incident is a loss to our community; the victim and the offender. Both have a family that has lost a loved one – one to homicide and the other to incarceration. Each has left a family behind to grieve the senseless loss.” –Assistant Chief Michael Mushinsky
“What I get concerned with in a community of this size, is that ripple effect. It’s more likely to affect more people in a small amount of space.” stated Dr. Venus Evans-Winters.
Dr. Evans-winters – a professor & clinical therapist – is one of the very few professionals in the Peoria Metro that specializes in helping survivors of violent crimes.
She paints a grim picture of the side effects families endure, after someone is lost to murder.
“…higher divorce rates, higher rates of depression, higher rates of grief overall. It can include higher rates of anxiety. Higher rates of family discord.” she listed.
Wallace acknowledged more recent efforts like OSF Strive a Trauma Recovery program at OSF St. Francis Medical Center. She also recognized Peoria Community Against Violence –a grassroots organization that works to rally support for families affected by violent crimes.
Still for Wallace, that’s a drop in the bucket, and Dr. Evans-Winters explained a fractured family tree is yet another casualty.
“Symptoms that we tend to associate with drama, like grief or depression may manifest as psychological withdraw from workplace, family and friends or schools…” she outlined. “People sometimes just feel mad at the world.”
Some of those emotions rang true for Sherrce Abbey, whose family chose to handle the grief of losing Charee Alexander, in separate ways.
“My son plays football all day. My daughter stays at work. I never really get to see my other kids because everybody in the family is finding their own way of trying to deal with it, by staying busy.”
And because children are the most fragile, an unexpected loss from violence can be the most detrimental for them. Alexander’s siblings validated that.
“It’s been really hard for me. She was my best friend.” Shatiya Alexander says she and her sister were more like twins. They did everything together. She could barely fight back tears at the mention of Charee’s name.
For their younger brother Carlos Zolicoffer, the healing process has been one of distractions – turning to his friends for comfort.
When asked if his school, or any outside organizations reached out Zolicoffer after his sister was fatally stabbed, Zolicoffer offer a blank ‘no.’ “People don’t really understand.” he said.
But they should, considering how often it happens and how wide spread the effects of trauma are – according to Yolanda Wallace.
The Jon Buckley Memorial Garden Wallace created, sits behind the RiverPlex. It was an idea born after the death of her son. Wallace said she recognized that grieving families needed a place just for them – to honor their loved ones lost to tragedy and to have a community of people nearby, who could empathize with their suffering.
“One victim has parents on both sides. They have friends, coworkers or schoolmates. Where do you think all those people go? They go back into our community.” Wallace declared. She explained the detriment caused by a lack of attentiveness to violence survivors – not just to their families, but to Peoria as a whole.
Wallace also added how many of her efforts to heal and bridge the gap from one of pain to one of progression; has been passed over, time and time again by local leaders. “I have to speak for my dead son! No one’s saying a word about it, but giving us a pat on the back -‘good job’…it’s terrible!”
Sherrce Abbey agreed. In her opinion; the resources that do exist, aren’t well promoted in the communities who need them most, nor do they get to the core of a family’s grief, she exclaimed.
“They don’t reach out. They just put barbecue grills out there and some bouncy houses and call it a stop-the-violence act.” she critiqued.
During Abbey’s daughter’s vigil, Terry Burnside a Peoria community activist and violence survivor introduced one of the few resources in the area that do specifically address the type of trauma caused by losing a family member from murder.
It’s called Crime Survivors For Safety And Justice (https://cssj.org/).It’s a national network meant to link crime survivors together to create healing communities and shape public policy.
The Peoria Chapter, is the only resource of it’s kind in the area; and as many of it’s members shared; long overdue.
Both Abbey and Wallace were still united under the belief, that the next parent who has the unfortunate task of burying a child after a senseless act of violence; should talk to someone whose been through it.
“I wanted to be able to speak to speak to someone who’s been in my situation and tell me how to deal with it.” Abbey shared.
“Go and visit another survivor.” Wallace echoed.
If you or someone you know is suffering from PTSD, emotional distress, grief or anxiety due to a violence crime – please refer them to the resources above. They do not have to endure that battle alone.