Survivors Recall Lives Cut Short By Violence

Sept. 25, 2008 — The atmosphere was somber Thursday at Government House on St. Croix as Leitha Cummings and Sonja Cirilo spoke of their tragic losses and how they are coping with life without murdered family members.
They told their stories of grief to more than 50 people Thursday at the second forum marking National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, recognizing the struggles of surviving family members and loved ones.
The first forum was on St. Thomas earlier in the day.
Gov. John deJongh Jr. and first lady Cecile deJongh along with the Women's Coalition of St. Croix hosted the second annual event.
"This day of remembrance is something that needs attention," Cecile deJongh said. "We are here to give comfort and pray for you."
Cummings spoke about her late daughter, Natasha Cummings, and her then three- month-old grandson Thai, both of whom were murdered by Jose Carrillo III, Natasha's boyfriend and Thai's father. Carrillo is currently serving time for the crime.
"I had a double dose to take — losing my daughter and grandson," Cummings said. "May 15, 2004, is a day I'll never forget — the earth stood still. There is no end to the grief that is unbearable."
She said she still hears her front gate open and expects to see her daughter and her beautiful smile. She has another grandson, Nikoli, now nine, who survived after being told to hide in the closet by his mother. Cummings said he is doing better after grief counseling, but he is still afraid his father knows where he is and will kill him, said Cummings.
"Women's Coalition held me and carried me along on this long journey, and they still carry me," Cummings said.
Cummings' faith has also helped in her healing.
"We have the power of God to transform ourselves," Cummings said. "Take the problem to God and the healing begins. Love, live and forgive to move forward and everything else falls into place."
Guest speaker Sonja Cirilo also endured a double tragedy when her mother, Nancy Parrilla-Cirilo, was stabbed to death by her husband, Sandro Cirilo, who then killed himself on Sept. 26, 2003. She and her brother, Nikolai now 9, were not at home during the murder and suicide.
Cirilo, 15, had a particularly hard time talking about her loss because tomorrow is the anniversary. She broke down at times but was able to gain her composure with the help of Sheelene Gumbs and Emily Martin, grief counselors for Women's Coalition, at her side.
"Domestic violence took my mother," Cirilo said. "I feel guilty — I knew what was going on and I should have done something. I was aware but scared, I felt alone and couldn't trust anybody."
She said Clema Lewis, co-director of Women's Coalition helped her so much in dealing with her loss.
"She taught me the best way to cleanse a grieving soul is to cry," Cirilo said. "She said crying is something the strong do."
Cirilo said she stays strong for the sake of her brother.
"We are survivors," she said. "That is in the past and we are the future."
Audience members also were invited to speak about murders affecting them.
Caroline Sackey spoke about her 19-year-old son, Vincent Lawrence Jr., murdered over one marijuana plant; Gertrude Phillip talked of her daughter's death. Jaslyn Williams told about the disappearance of her brother, VIPD Officer Wendell Williams. She said closure has been hard for her because all that was ever found was his burned-out car seven years ago.
The governor and first lady helped audience members place paper candles with names of deceased loved ones on a large live potted memory tree.
"This forum was to let survivors come and tell their story," Gov. deJongh said. "And to let them know we care. This is about listening, sharing and educating the community. The community needs to reach out and help others — it makes us remember responsibility to our community."
The governor and his wife joined about 75 others at a similar forum in the morning on St. Thomas at Government House. Sponsoring that forum was the Family Resource Center, the St. John Crisis Center and the government of the Virgin Islands. Testimonials were given by Festina DaSilva, Celia Carroll, Sarah Smith and George Reid.
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