Murder victims remembered

'This is a group no one wants to belong to,' one mother says


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Cindy Lang never wanted to be leader of the Pittsburgh chapter of Parents of Murdered Children.

"This is a group no one wants to belong to," said Ms. Lang, whose 17-year-old daughter, Dana Pliakas, was murdered in North Braddock in 2003. The killer has since been sentenced to a life term in prison.

"You never get through it," Ms. Lang said. "But, you just try to do something positive from something tragic."

Ms. Lang has plunged her grief over her daughter's death into involvement in the organization, which during a beautiful fall day Saturday drew nearly 100 relatives and friends of murder victims to Greensburg to mark the fourth annual National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims. More than 300 chapters nationwide also marked the day.

For some, the ceremony has become part of a new ritual they'd rather not be part of, but one that gives them support.

"I come here, and I know I'm not alone in this," said Greg Corwin of Oakdale, who came for the first time since his son, Scott, 27, was murdered in Savannah, Ga., in 2004. Scott Corwin's murderer has not been caught, which is the source of most of his father's ongoing anger.

"But I've only been dealing with this for six years, and to hear some of these families not knowing [who killed their child] dealing with this eight, 10 years, it's tough," the elder Mr. Corwin said.

In the past, the local chapter held its ceremonies in Pittsburgh. But members of the 11-year-old chapter -- formed by the parents of Melissa Thoma, 26, who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 1998 -- this year hoped to spread a message of support to families and friends outside Allegheny County by holding it in Westmoreland County.

"I don't want them to think it's not for them because the title says 'Pittsburgh chapter,' " Ms. Lang said.

During the 90-minute ceremony, hugs and tears abounded as family and friends listened to poetry and inspirational songs. They released red and white balloons bearing names of victims into the sky as they exclaimed: "We remember them."

The Rev. Dan Lawrence began the ceremony in a straightforward tone, telling those gathered: "I do not understand what you're going through because I have not lost a child ... All I can do is call on God and help him to help you fill in the pieces."

His prayer was equally blunt.

"God, there are people here who are very angry with you and they want answers," said Rev. Lawrence, senior pastor at Murrysville Alliance Church.

And during short speeches from a half-dozen relatives memorializing their loved ones, they also heard updates on various legislative actions.

Sol Toder of Mt. Lebanon, whose daughter, Nan, 33, was murdered in her suburban Chicago hotel room in 1996, said "Nan's Law" -- the measure his family has proposed -- probably will not pass in the state legislature this year, but he hopes to try again.

The law would require all hotels and motels in Pennsylvania to perform criminal-background checks on any employee with key access to rooms. Ms. Toder was killed by a hotel maintenance employee with room keys.

Relatives of Jennifer Daugherty, 30, who was tortured and killed in February in Greensburg, said they're still trying to get a state law passed that would allow charges to be filed against someone who hears or sees but does not report a crime being committed. Neighbors heard screams and noise on the night Ms. Daugherty died but did not call police, saying they'd grown used to frequent disturbances in the apartment where she was beaten and stabbed.

Gary Cuccia, whose 16-year-old daughter, Demi, of Monroeville, was stabbed to death by an ex-boyfriend in 2007, said state legislation his family proposed to require dating violence education in schools had been watered down by the Senate to a recommended course.

Still, he told the audience: "Do not grow weary. Keep up your strength and we'll continue to make a difference."


Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579


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