Numbed by Grief, Wracked by Reality
By Michael E. Ruane, Justin Blum and Annie Gowen,
A blood-stained lottery ticket from the pocket of an immigrant cabdriver.
The memory of a phone call from a gas station in Virginia, and the warning a faraway wife was hesitant to give.
A mint-condition '66 Corvette in storage in Pennsylvania that a brother with a war wound and good heart will never drive again.
Things left behind in the path of a killer. The sacred evidence of lives ended and dreams crushed by a madman with a rifle. The psychic wounds of family and friends that must be healed after each jagged turn in a murderer's journey.
Yesterday, as authorities tried to track down the killer who has slain eight people and wounded two in a 10-day span across the Washington region, those left in his bloody wake spoke of their pain and of the uncertain road they now walk the best way they can.
On the battlefield, there is a name for the accidental victims -- collateral damage.
But the unintended victims in the peace shattered by a sniper have no particular name. They are simply called "the victim's family."
A Vague Premonition
Jocelyn Bridges hesitated Friday as her conversation with her husband came to a close.
Ken had called just before 9:30 a.m. from an Exxon station about 50 miles south of Washington. For days, reports of the sniperterrorizing that region had been front-page news back home in Philadelphia.
She thought about warning her husband -- "Be careful" -- but stopped short. She had cautioned him before. Now he was headed home to safety. He said he would use the restroom before driving north up Interstate 95 from Spotsylvania County.
The gas pump was still in his car when the single shot was fired.
The first phone call came later that day from Ken's colleagues in Philadelphia: There had been another sniper shooting in Virginia. They couldn't be certain, but that looked like Ken's car on the television screen -- and they couldn't reach him on the cell phone he carried everywhere.
Jocelyn Bridges -- wife of 25 years and mother of their four girls and two boys, ages 12, 15, 16, 20, 22 and 24 -- waited for the news to come. This time it came from the FBI, confirming the fears spawned by her earlier phone conversation.
Ken Bridges, 53, had been killed by a high-powered bullet that ripped into his back as he stood by the gas pump.
Word spread through the East Germantown neighborhood where they had lived for 18 years, among the broader community of friends Bridges had made during his career promoting black entrepreneurship, and across the country via the Internet chatroom on his business Web site.
More than 100 friends made their way through the police barricades set up Friday night outside the three-story brick home, located in a neighborhood of spacious houses with lush, green lawns, high shrubs and graceful, old trees.
Jocelyn welcomed them quietly.
"There was not much conversation," said Jocelyn's father, Vann English. "We were sharing grief."
Said neighbor Laverne Wiggins: "She hugged me and told me she knew it was all right. I was more hysterical than she was."
Yesterday, as a light mist fell, cars clogged the driveway and the street leading to it. They came bearing food -- doughnuts and jugs of juice. They helped as best they could as Jocelyn went about making funeral arrangements.
She sat in the dining room, her face graced with a beautiful smile that could not disguise the stress, her hair neatly arranged despite a lack of sleep from the night before. She talked with visiting friends about their lives -- about school, about illness, about their children -- and she took phone calls from others offering condolences from afar.
She did not dwell on her husband's death or her future without him, but she did reminisce.
"He was just perfect," she told longtime friend Gary Shepherd. "He was perfect from the time I met him."
If he was stern with his children, "it was because of love."
She did not talk of their walks, hand-in-hand, through the neighborhood or the bike rides or the leaf-raking together.
How to Tell a Child?
"Our Sarita has been killed."
Anna Elida Ramos watched her brother-in-law, Carlos Cruz, standing in the bedroom doorway, his face twisted in anguish, his voice speaking unbelievable words.
The phone call had come to the house they shared less than 90 minutes after Sarah Ramos, 34, became the sniper's fourth victim, shot dead as she sat on a bench outside the post office at Leisure World on Oct. 3.
Her 7-year-old son, Carlos Jr., had gone off to school that morning. Now, Anna Elida and Carlos Sr. pondered what to do in this moment of ultimate crisis. Should they rush to retrieve him from the school? No, they decided, they would let him finish the day and ride home on the school bus.
And, so, the boy came home in blissful ignorance that his life was forever altered. He settled down in front of the television set to pass the time until his mother returned from work.
How about now? Anna Elida whispered to Cruz. No, not yet, her brother-in-law responded, let's leave him in peace a little longer.
So, Anna Elida visited her own grief. How could it be that she would never again hear her sister burst into a snatch of song? Never again unwind with her on an evening stroll after a long workday? Never again share in the challenges and joys of building a new life for their families far from their native El Salvador?
Then, at about the time that Sarah Ramos normally would have walked in the front door, Cruz and Anna Elida sat down beside little Carlos. Anna Elida willed herself not to cry as Cruz spoke simply.
"Your mother died today."
Carlos Jr. looked at him blankly, so Anna Elida tried to explain.
"We won't be seeing her anymore," she said. "But she has gone to heaven, and she will take care of all of us from there."
The boy turned back to his cartoon show.
A week has passed, and he has yet to shed tears in front of them over his mother's death.
But there are signs that he is beginning to understand. He has taken to sleeping a lot. And two days ago, he approached Anna Elida with a simple question.
"Can I call you Mama now?"
"Si, mi amor, si," she answered, struggling to keep her eyes dry. "I will be like your mother now."
The Future Grows Cloudy Andrea Walekar's plan was this: She would graduate from the University of Maryland with a degree in business management in May.
Her parents, Premkumar A. Walekar and Margaret Walekar, would beam proudly at their oldest child -- tall and beautiful in her cap and gown -- from the audience.
Cabdriver Premkumar Walekar, 54, had immigrated to the United States at age 18 from Pune, India, and had always stressed to his children, Andrea, 24, and Andrew, 23, the value of education.
Then Andrea would move out of her parents' home in Olney and get her own apartment, maybe even give the bright lights of New York City a try.
Her parents would retire in happiness to the small bit of property back in India that Walekar had purchased for their golden years. Their future seemed bright and prosperous.
But at 8:12 a.m. Oct. 3, a single flash of gunfire shattered her family's dreams when her father became the sniper's third victim -- slain while filling his cab's gas tank at a service station in Aspen Hill.
Yesterday, Andrea Walekar pondered those dreams.
Her graduation: "My dad was looking forward to it," she said. "I was going to be the first one in my family to have a degree from America. . . . I know it's going to be a really sad day."
Andrea Walekar has spent the days since her father's death trying to be a help to her mother, a nurse at Montgomery General Hospital. She runs errands, tidies up their home.
Neighbors and friends have come by nearly every day, bringing casseroles and trays of food. Strangers stop by with flowers and cards. On Thursday, a neighbor dropped by and -- without ceremony -- mowed their lawn.
"I don't even know what time it is, what day it is," Andrea said. "I can't believe . . . that a week flew by."
The other day, a Montgomery County police detective brought over some of her father's personal effects -- his wallet and other items he had with him when he was shot.
There were lottery tickets her father had purchased inside the gas station just before he died. Now they were darkened with the stain of his blood. There, she said, was "reality."
While Andrea tries to keep busy, she is haunted by the mundane.
"Every time I hear the garage door open, I think my father's coming home," she said.
Choosing to Trust His Faith
Bob Meyers was already up and shaved early Thursday when someone rang the doorbell at his home in Perkiomenville, Pa. It was 5:30 a.m.
"Whatever this is," he thought as he headed for the door, "this can't be good."
Meyers, 49, knew full well the weight of dreadful news. Two years earlier, his wife of 27 years, Judy, had been killed in a car accident. His son Aaron had been home to get that call, and he had gone to his father's workplace to break the news.
This week, Bob Meyers opened the door to find his nephew Jason and Jason's wife, Christine. They said they had bad news, but they wanted to tell Aaron at the same time and went to wake him up.
All four then gathered by the fireplace inside. Bob figured it probably wasn't about his elderly parents, because he and his three brothers, Larry, Greg and Dean, would be the first to know. He sensed, though, that it had to be family.
It was. This time it was Dean, 53, his next older brother who lived in Gaithersburg -- struck down Thursday night by the sniper that Bob and the rest of the world had been hearing about all week.
It was odd, Bob thought: Watching the news the night before, he had seen reports of the latest killing and film of the Manassas gas station across the street from the office where his brother worked. Gosh, he thought: "First he was shooting where Dean lived. Now he's shooting where Dean works."
He never dreamed that the victim might be Dean.
Dean, whom he had looked up to as his closest brother, who had taught him how to ride a bike when they were kids, who had gone off to Vietnam after high school and nearly been killed in an ambush. He had come home with a gimpy arm. Gentle, generous "Uncle Dean" to Bob's four kids, the third oldest of four brothers raised in a white stucco Cape Cod in Pennsylvania farm country northwest of Philadelphia, he was the sibling who had moved away, but not too far away.
Dean, who loved hot cars -- he kept his Corvette in storage near his family -- and baseball. Who had gone to Penn State, landed a good job outside Washington, had bought a townhouse in Maryland and stayed there.
When his wife died, Bob Meyers figured that he could take one of two paths: He could be bitter and angry at the cruel loss, or he could trust in God. Being a man of faith, he chose the latter.
Last Thursday, he and all the family decided that they would do the same this time.
"Our considered view as a family was that you've got to decide for yourself whether you're going to be bitter or angry against God or you're going to believe that God is big enough and strong enough and powerful enough that He knows what's going on," he said. "The answer to that is that you just have to trust Him . . . instead of questioning and moaning and becoming bitter, instead of thinking about all the wonderful things we've been privileged to experience."
A few hours after the news arrived on Thursday, the siblings gathered to grapple with the most wrenching task: how to break it to their parents, Harold, 83, and Rose, 86. Both are frail, and Rose's mind is no longer clear.
They prayed together, then drove to the little house in the crossroads village of Zieglerville, where the brothers had grown up.
They decided to tell only their father. They took him aside and told him that his son, who had survived the war, had been killed by a deranged sniper at a gas station in Virginia.
Next Saturday, they'll lay Dean Meyers to rest near his grandparents in the family plot in the little cemetery of Christ Evangelical Congregational Church.
"Everybody had a unique place" in the family, Bob Meyers said. "It was like a table with four legs, and now there's going to be a corner that's not supported."
A Moment of Shock
Marion Lewis was out in the middle of the Idaho nowhere, running a noisy, dirty rock crusher from dawn to dusk.
His truck had a two-way radio, but he would have had to drive a mile -- maybe more -- in the hills before he could have reached anyone on it, and there was no reason that day to think that anyone might be trying to reach him.
So not until shortly after 7 that night, after he got back to the little gas station motel where he was staying for the week-long job, did Lewis get word.
Marion, 50, picked up the phone. His wife, Jo Lynn, was crying. Nearly 2,700 miles away, in suburban Maryland, their daughter Lori Lewis Rivera had been shot and killed.
He heard little else, his mind crashing between shock and denial. He remembers only a single question, he said yesterday. "What happened?" And then again, and again, "What happened?"
Everything about that first night remains a blur. "I'm not sure I remembered my own name, much less any of the details or what was going on or what was said."
Then there was the trip to Washington, to get to Lori's husband, Nelson, and the couple's young daughter, Jocelin. He packed a suitcase. He and his wife went from Mountain Home to Boise, then flew to Seattle, then took the red eye to Dulles.
Marion slept, exhausted, on the plane. "We were spared the necessity of thought." Three days later, surrounded by in-laws they had never met, they sat through Lori's funeral service. She was 25.
Marion recounts it all slowly. In a long-distance phone call, his words are interrupted intermittently by gulping sobs.
"We're surviving," he said. " 'Okay'? I'm not sure. 'Okay' may be too strong. But we're surviving."
Blum reported from Philadelphia.