Katy Vilardo leaned back on her sofa next to her cat, Otis, opened her laptop and steeled herself.
“When I would get in the car in the morning,” the 33-year-old typed, “the first thing I would do is call mom and dad.”
It had been more than a year since she discovered their stabbed and bloodied bodies in their Maryland home. The arrest of a longtime neighbor and his guilty plea were also over. Armed with a machete, he had broken in just past midnight on Mother’s Day in 2015, slashed wildly and repeatedly, and within hours slipped off to a vacation cruise in Alaska.
What had yet to be decided was whether the killer would one day get a chance at freedom or stay locked up for the rest of his life.
Katy was trying to have her say. But that meant writing a victim impact statement, a process that for months she had avoided starting.
The statements have become a staple in courtrooms around the country, often read to judges. In rape and robbery cases, it’s the victims who speak. In homicides, it’s the family members.
Behind the brief, public recitations are lengthy, private and heart-rending struggles to find words for the unspeakable.
To be able to get through a day, Katy constantly pushed back against dark, crushing images: that morning her parents hadn’t shown up for the Mother’s Day picnic, the blood on the walls, the wounds, her dad’s eyes still open.
“I am not ready to go back there,” Katy had told her therapist.
To write her statement, she would have to.
Until the early 1980s, victim impact statements were not standard. Judges would listen to prosecutors, defense lawyers and often the defendant before handing down punishments. Victims and their relatives would watch silently from their seats.
The Charles Manson cult murders in California played a role in changing that.
The mother of Sharon Tate, one of the Manson Family’s victims, battled to speak at parole hearings for the defendants.
About the same time, a broader victims rights movement was afoot, and a 1982 President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime put forth recommendations that victims and their families be allowed to speak in court.
Victim impact statements spread nationwide — and victim advocates applauded.
“You have a voice in the process,” said Jeff Dion, a lawyer at the National Center for Victims of Crime whose sister was strangled by a serial killer.
He has helped hundreds write their statements. Piecing them together, he says, “is part of trying to learn how to live again.”
It demands thinking about everything that happened, ripping apart your heart to lay bare the pieces in the formal setting of a court, and knowing there will be but a few minutes to sum up a life.
“It’s really personal,” Dion said. “You feel a lot of pressure to get it right.”
In court, impassioned victims’ calls can extend to asking judges for stiff sentences, requests that have long made defense attorneys uneasy.
“It’s important for victims to have some role, to give the sentencing judge an insight into the person they are speaking about,” said John Blume, a Cornell Law School professor who has studied victim impact statements. “The part where it’s more troubling is when they are advocating for a particular sentence.”
“Some judges get stampeded by emotional victim statements,” said Phil Armstrong, a longtime criminal defense attorney in Montgomery County, “and can lose sight of other legitimate goals of sentencing.”
As Katy Vilardo began writing her statement in November, she found the first part, where she wrote about her parents’ lives, comforting.
Her mom, Jody, was raised in Upstate New York, graduated from Cornell University and moved to New York City, where she met Dick, a gregarious Italian from Long Island who had been the first member of his family to go to college.
They married, moved to Maryland and soon were raising Katy and her brother, Andy, three miles west of downtown Rockville. Dick was a developer in the hotel industry, Jody an accountant. In retirement, they treasured living close to Katy and Andy, his wife, Lindsay, and their two young children.
As she kept writing, Katy, who works in the revenue management division for Marriott hotels, thought about the core of her dad. At 65 when he died, he still wore his emotions on his sleeve.
“He would always hug me, or hold my hand, or rest his head on my shoulder,” Katy wrote. “He coined the term ‘He needs one,’ when we were kids, meaning we should go give his father, my grandpa, a hug or a kiss. He later in life would say this about himself. ‘I need one.’ ”
Katy wrote of her mother, killed at 67, saying that they had been best friends. She told of how her mom overcame breast cancer twice without ever seeming to complain:
“Strength I didn’t know was possible,” Katy wrote.
After nearly three hours on her sofa, rearranging anecdotes and swapping words, Katy called her mom’s college roommate and then a friend, reading her draft to them as they cried. Katy made more revisions.
But were the changes enough?
At 11 p.m., she texted her father’s only sibling, Laura Melnik, on Long Island and minutes later was reading to her.
Katy had captured the essence of her parents, her aunt, crying, told her. And then Melnik said something that nearly echoed Katy’s therapist.
Those traumatic images that flashed in her mind, the therapist had said, were the brain asking, “Are you ready to try to deal with this?”
“You’re missing the big piece,” Katy’s aunt told her. “How this affected you.”
A week later, in Olney, Md., Andy, a manufacturing engineer for a defense contractor, sat at his kitchen counter, opened his laptop and began to confront what he had avoided: the rage the crime planted in him.
Andy knew the killer, Scott Tomaszewski, from when they were kids.
The Vilardos had always welcomed him into their home. They trusted him to housesit while the family went on vacation.
Yet for reasons unknown — not unearthed during his interrogation, not during his plea hearing, not by mental health professionals who had examined him — Tomaszewski broke into the house while wearing a mask and attacked.
He went first after Andy’s dad, who was in bed, then Andy’s mother.
Before Tomaszewski left, he opened the refrigerator and grabbed a ginger ale.
Andy wanted the judge to know how excited his wife and two children — then 3 and 1 — had been on Mother’s Day as they drove to a park, expecting to meet Katy and his parents for a hike and picnic.
“Where’s Nana? Where’s Grandpa?” his son had asked. “Why aren’t they here?”
For more than an hour, Andy, Lindsay and Katy had been unable to reach them. They left the park and headed to Jody and Dick’s house.
Katy was in her car alone, ahead by several minutes.
Andy’s cellphone rang. Lindsay answered it by hitting the speaker button on a screen in the car where their children were riding.
“Something’s wrong!” his sister shrieked. “They’re dead!”
His wife’s hand shot over to the Bluetooth to turn down the speaker.
At 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 13, Katy, Andy and Lindsay took seats in the second row of a courtroom in downtown Rockville, with family and friends nearby.
To the Vilardos’ right sat Tomaszewski’s parents.
At the front of the courtroom, Tomaszewski slouched in his chair.
The sentencing hearing was called to order, and 40 minutes in, Katy walked to the witness stand, carrying her statement.
From her seat, Katy saw she was angled almost directly at Tomaszewski, nothing but a glance away.
“It is near impossible to comprehend that I had to write this,” she said, looking up at Circuit Judge John Debelius.
She had tried to keep out the worst details. Back when the extended family had been discussing funeral arrangements and what clothes to pick for her mother, Katy’s mind had flashed back to the crime scene, and she had blurted, “What about Mom’s neck?”
In her statement, she consciously avoided that level of recollection to spare relatives added pain.
“I still feel that I am the luckiest girl in the world,” she read, her voice cracking. “That is solely because my parents were Dick and Jody Vilardo; Dickie V and Jode; Daddio and Mom.”
She pushed through, getting to the passages she had added after the talk with her aunt.
“This tragedy has shaken my independence, which my parents and I were so proud of,” she said. “I spend hours fighting the images I encountered that morning and the unimaginable impact of post-traumatic stress disorder. No one should ever have to see anyone maimed the way I saw my beloved parents in the home we treasured so dearly, whose doors were opened to the demon who committed this crime.
“I don’t sleep well. I can’t read a book. I see a team of physicians, have been prescribed medication, and I have put my life on hold. It is a daily struggle to choose to be positive in a world where I have seen my absolute worst nightmare unfolding before me.”
Dick’s sister spoke, then Lindsay, then Andy.
“The only thing that could make what we have been through worse,” Andy told the judge, “is to live with the fear that this monster could one day see freedom.”
Two hours into the hearing, it was the judge, Debelius, who spoke.
He described the murders as savage and reflected on what he took as the nature of the elder Vilardos.
“Maybe somewhere in their hearts, they would reach deep and find some ability to forgive or to understand,” the judge said. “I don’t know. I think it’s beyond what I’m capable of. But it sounds like they were better people than I am.”
Katy and Andy locked in on the judge as he wrapped up talking about the way their parents had lived and the people left behind — and it was then that they knew the hopes they had for their impact statements might be realized.
Debelius handed down his sentence.
Two life terms in prison, with the condition there never be a chance of parole.