When an unstable person starts shooting their beleaguered family members are also made into victims. They must live with the regret, shame and guilt of what their loved one has done. Case in point, Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords.
How wonderful to see the recent photos of a smiling Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as she left the hospital five months after being viciously shot in the head by 21-year-old Jared Loughner. Our hearts went out to Giffords and to the families of the 19 other victims, six of whom died.
But what about the family of Jared Loughner? Did you stop to think about them? The pain and suffering of Jared's parents makes them victims, too. And, in the end, if Jared is declared fit to stand trial, Arizona's death penalty might be used to take away their only son.
It is easy to forget about the plight of the families of those who commit these murders -- Tucson, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Oklahoma City, to name just a few of the most infamous. When families are remembered it is often with pointed fingers of blame and condemnation.
Whether the offense makes national headlines or not, these ghastly crimes have two things in common: Nearly all involve shooters who have been clinically diagnosed with mental illness. (Loughner is a paranoid schizophrenic.) And, second -- their families will never shake the shock, guilt and embarrassment of having a relative who kills. In addition, these families have usually struggled for years trying to manage their loved ones' psychological deterioration only to be told by medical experts to take them home, give them their medication and hope for the best. When the worst arrives these folks are often left on their own to cope. Victim assistance programs don't consider the killer's family might need help, too.
You likely never heard of Bill Babbitt, but as he told me his story the other day we both cried.
"It is the epitome of suffering," he said as he told me about his little brother, Manny. "I've lost the love and support of much of my family over it." You see, Bill was the first to realize his brother had caused someone to die, and he turned him into police.
The story of Bill, now a 68-year-old war veteran living in California, is too rich in detail to adequately fit in this small space, but the summary is this: Manny's mental problems began in 1962 when his bike collided with a car and the boy was thrown into the air. He escaped death but was never "right" after that. At 17, Manny joined the Marines. He wasn't bright enough to pass the written test, but during the Vietnam War the military needed every good man. Handsome Manny did two tours of duty and was so badly wounded during the bloody 77-day siege at Khe Sanh that his seemingly lifeless body was rescued from an active battlefield and medevaced out among a pile of corpses. Manny had sustained another major head wound.
Once home, post-traumatic demons set in and Manny was sent by the VA to two different mental institutions. Finally, big brother Bill brought him to live at his house. Bill could tell from the frequent nightmares that his brother still was not "right."
One rainy night in December 1980, Manny was out drinking with friends, some PCP laced marijuana was passed around and on the walk home Manny's demons returned.
The wet weather reminded him of Vietnam, a wide street morphed into the airstrip back in Khe Sanh and a loud TV set blaring a war movie sent him over the edge. He opened the homeowner's unlocked screen door, as if to get closer to the war action, and encountered 78-year-old Leah Schendel. There was a violent scuffle and the elderly grandmother died of a heart attack. He wouldn't remember, but Manny grabbed a piggy bank and some rolls of coins as he fled.
Bill and his wife found the unexplained money, along with a cigarette lighter bearing Schendel's initials. After reading about their neighbor's death, the Babbitt's knew what they had to do to get Manny the help he desperately needed. Bill turned in his own brother and as the squad car pulled away, he told me, "I ran alongside and said, 'Manny, Manny... please forgive me!' And he said, "Billy, I already have forgiven you.'"
Manny didn't get the mental health treatment he needed. He got a bad lawyer who never mentioned post-traumatic stress or head injuries during the trial, and on May 14, 1982, Manny was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Upon hearing of his situation, the U.S. Marines sent officers to San Quentin prison where they pinned a Purple Heart on Manny as he stood shackled before them. He was executed one day after his 50th birthday. His brother Bill was on hand to watch.
"It seems like it was just yesterday," he told me through tears, "or just an hour ago." Being a victim often lasts a lifetime.
This is the other side to the too-frequent stories we hear about "mad gunmen" who seemingly kill for "no reason." There is almost always a reason. And most often it's family members who plead the loudest for help. Let's remember them, too.
Diane Dimond can be reached through her web site: www.DianeDimond.com Her latest book is "Cirque du Salahi", the inside story about the so-called White House Gate Crashers, available through Amazon.com.
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