Three Mass Shootings and Two Vigils with One Hitting Close to Home

There have been three mass shootings across the country in the last week.

On January 23, 2019, a 21-year old man entered a Suntrust Bank in Sebring, Florida and killed all five people present, none of whom he knew according to news reports. His victims were all women: Cynthia Watson, Marisol Lopez, Debra Cook, Ana Pinon-Williams, and Jessica Montague. The alleged shooter is Zephen Xaver, who is currently under arrest for five counts of premeditated murder.  A vigil in honor of these victims was held on January 27, 2019.

On January 26, 2019, a 21-year old man from Livingston Parish, Louisiana killed his girlfriend, her father, and her brother at their home then drove to his parents’ house and killed them. His victims were: Summer Ernest; her father, Billy Ernest; and her younger brother, Tanner Ernest, 17 as well as his parents Elizabeth and Keith Theriot. His name is Dakota Theriot. He was arrested at his grandparents’ home near Richmond, VA and now faces five counts of murder. According to a comment I received (see comments below) the community did not hold a vigil in honor of these mass shooting victims. The first funeral was held on Saturday,  February 9, 2019, two weeks after the shooting occurred.

And on January 24, 2019, the third mass shooting occurred in my community.  In this case, a 21-year old man from Bellefonte, PA who graduated high school with my son shot and killed four people in State College, PA. The victims included himself, two men visiting State College from Ohio, and an 83-year old man who was killed on his 60th wedding anniversary. He also critically wounded a fifth person.

The shooter was Jordan Witmer, a 2015 graduate of Bellefonte Area High School who had just finished a 3-4 year stint with the US Army. The critically-wounded woman is Nicole Abrino, who was or may have been his girlfriend at the time of the shooting. The father and son were Dean Beachy (age 62) and Steven Beachy (age 19) from Ohio; they had attempted to intervene in the argument between Witmer before the shooting occurred.  George McCormick was murdered in his home after Witmer fled the scene at P.J. Harrigan’s Bar and Grille. After crashing his car, Witmer broke into the McCormick home in Ferguson Township and then shot and killed Mr. McCormick. Witmer then died by suicide.  George’s wife, Joann Shaw McCormick was unharmed; she had locked herself in their bathroom and called 911.

Abrino (age 21) of State College was shot in the chest and is currently in stable condition at UPMC in Pittsburgh. She has had two surgeries so far to deal with her injuries, and a GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help her family pay for her medical expenses.

After the shooting, McCormick’s family reached out to the other victims with a message of condolence. Kristine McCormick Vahey, younger sister of George McCormick, offered her condolences to the other victims of this mass shooting, which was published in StateCollege.com:

“The family of George McCormick would like to offer our condolences to the Beachy family on the loss of their loved ones and prayers for Nicole Abrino and her family. We would also like to offer our condolences to the family of Jordan Witmer. While we don’t understand and may never understand why this happened, we know that the Witmer family is also grieving a loss.”

And, just like in Florida, our community held a vigil to honor these mass shooting victims.  I attended this vigil.  We came together to honor the first responders, the victims (including Jordan Witmer) and the families of this shooting and called for some actions to end this type of violence.

Picture of several of the vigil attendees at the Allen Street Gates holding candles at the vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in State College. In the background is a Penn State Police officer, the Engineering building, and the main gates to Penn State University.

The State College and Bellefonte, PA communities come out to honor the victims and first responders of the mass shooting in State College. Vigil hosted by Standing at the Gates for Justice, Third Way Collective and Ni-Ta-Nee NOW.

Due to the solemnity of the event, I did not create a video.  So that you get to an idea of what was said, I have culled several news reports of the vigil to obtain quotes from the speakers and some of the people who came to the vigil.  Here are these comments:

“In the wake of the violence that has taken four lives and left one hospitalized, we thought it was fitting to have it this week, honor those victims and remember their lives.” (quote from WJAC-TV)

”We enter into silence today, remembering the employees of P.J. Harrigan’s and the Ramada Inn and Conference Center. First responders, law enforcement and medical professionals. Nicole Abrino, the single gunshot survivor, and her family as they mourn and heal. Those whose lives have been taken forever: 19-year-old Steven Beachy, his father, Dean Beachy, and 83-year-old George McCormick, a longtime State College and Penn State community member. And Jordan Witmer, the Bellefonte grad who perpetuated the crimes, and his family as they make sense of what happened.” (quote from The Centre Daily Times)

  • Ben Wideman, campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State and chief organizer of this vigil

“The violent loss of our friends and neighbors is all but unbearable. And so, God, we come today asking you to help us fathom that which is unfathomable.” (quote from WPSU Radio)

—Carol Thomas Cissel, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in State College

“I just feel a little lost, actually, because I don’t totally know what the solution is. We need a different way of expressing or dealing with issues, more sensible gun regulation but also mental health, but I don’t know totally what the answer is or what formula it should be.” (quote from The Centre Daily Times)

Michele Hamilton, President of Ni-Ta-Nee NOW, one of the co-hosts for this vigil

“I think certainly something like what happened this evening, to draw people together and say, ‘this didn’t just affect those families that were involved, but it affected all of us.’ This to me is actually the beginning of healing — allowing people to connect to each other and finding resources, whether it’s faith, communities, Tides or just one another, to band together and say ‘let’s support each other.’ The very first thing is to know you’re not alone.” (quote from The Centre Daily Times)

  Tides Program Director Evelyn Wald (Tides is a local non-profit organization offering no-cost support to families coping with the death of their loved ones)

Yes, we all need to heal.  Here in Bellefonte, many people knew Mr. Witmer. My son didn’t know him personally but said he recalls that Witmer was well liked. At one time, Witmer lived about two blocks away from us. The community, his former neighbors and family state that they had no idea of any violent tendencies. All are hurting.  We can’t condone what any of these shooters did.  But we can mourn.

I agree.  We should never have to deal with any form of violence against others. Mass shootings or otherwise.  But we can come together to mourn and then work to reduce these kinds of incidents in the future.

Meanwhile, I think Patty Kleban sums up the thoughts of those of us who attended the vigils both here in Pennsylvania and Florida. She wrote the article titled, “In the Face of Tragedy, a Victim’s Family Responds with Grace”  After quoting Kristine McCormick Vahey, she eloquently ends her article:

Life is short, and we never know what we have beyond right now. Hug those close to you. Forgive your enemies. Show others grace and compassion. Perhaps by sharing our love, we may give others — and ourselves — hope.

2 thoughts on “Three Mass Shootings and Two Vigils with One Hitting Close to Home

  1. Hi please correct last names of the 3 Ernest family members who were killed in Louisiana….and there was no vigil there. First funeral is Sat Feb 9. Thank you and yes gun violence affects all of us…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gwen, thanks for the update. I have updated my blog to reflect your comment.

    Like

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