Survivors still cope 20 years after girls murdered

Twenty years ago, Pastor Timothy Dotson stood in the Richards, Raff & Dunbar Memorial Home and implored God to put his “hope into our hopelessness,” his “thoughts into our confused minds” and his “spirits into our hearts.

“Then, maybe somehow, Father,” Dotson said, “we’ll be able to cope with what we feel here today.”

That day and the next, hundreds who gathered in the funeral home for the funerals of 12-year-old Phree Morrow and 11-year-old Martha Leach struggled to cope with what they felt: riptides of grief, anger, shock and hopelessness.

Last week, some of Phree Morrow’s relatives gathered at the pond and memorial park where the girls were murdered to honor their memories and find comfort in one another’s company.

Not everyone could attend, of course.

All praise and recognize the time, effort and money Vern Donnelly and daughter Angela Ward selflessly have put into transforming the killing ground into a peaceful park. But while some are amazed by the peaceful feeling it gives them, others find the location remains too painful to visit.

And for many who attended those funerals, Dotson’s prayer has yet to be fully answered.

Sixteen at the time, Dawn Palmer Saum remembers that summer as the one when she really got to know her baby sister, Phree.

Because Phree’s mother, Suzy Palmer, and father, Bennie Morrow, parted on bad terms, “we hardly ever got to see her,” Saum said of her half-sister.

But with Mr. Morrow working long hours, “we had her most of the summer” and “we got pretty close.”

That we also included Phree’s cousins, Angela Jones and Iris Palmer Dunn.

“We had a lot of fun,” said Jones. “We all joked around and played around.

“My Aunt Suzy, her mom, lived right down from Schuler’s Bakery.”

Dunn remembers staying at her Aunt Suzy’s, visiting the bakery for donuts and a convenience store for pop in what seemed a careless childhood.

“It was one of those feelings. We thought we were safe,” she said.

Phree loved to climb trees, eat Schuler’s, go roller skating and do “regular kinds of stuff,” Dunn said. “She was one of those people you just loved being around because she was so full of life.”

Heather Smith, Martha Leach’s sister, was 10 at the time, and has similar memories of her.

“She liked to dance,” she recalled.

Her love of trolls was shown by their appearance on her T-shirts and sweatshirts.

She also loved to drop chocolate chip cookies in milk, let them dissolve, then devour them with the help of a spoon.

Martha Thompson, her granddaughter’s namesake, remembers lending her granddaughter money to go roller skating in those days before the 12th birthday that would have arrived two days after the girls’ bodies were found.

“She was just a lovely little girl. Like her grandma, she loved everybody.”

“We used to call her News and Sun,” said Jetti Vlaskovich, Martha Leach’s mother. “She always had something to talk about. She’d tell you everything you wanted to know and everything you didn’t want to know.”

Since her daughter’s murder, the news of that awful day 20 years ago has been, in some way repeated.

“It’s something you wake up with every morning and go to bed with at night. It’s right there in your brain. You can’t get rid of it.”

In a world in which people so often say the worst thing for a parent is losing a child, Vlaskovich has found one reason to be thankful.

“I’m glad at lest she was found,” she said, evidence that she’s given serious consideration to the hellish alternative.

Although her sons were too young to remember, Vlaskovich said she regrets the effect it’s had on her daughter, Heather, whom she says “never really had a childhood.”

Smith agrees that she gets “paranoid if I’m out places sometimes,” won’t answer a knock on the door when she’s alone, and even if sitting in a car while her husband goes into a convenience store, locks the car doors and is “always looking around.”

She and her cousins who have gone on to become mothers also find themselves constantly worried about their own daughters and trying to imagine the unimaginable happening in their lives again.

To that end, Smith credits her mother with being “a very strong woman,” whose willingness to share memories of Martha has helped her.

Said Smith, “How it affected us was nothing compared to how it affected her.”

“This is my bad week,” Vlaskovich said Tuesday. “Yesterday was the day she was buried.”

And last week was the week of Martha’s birthday.

Phree Morrow’s mother and father passed away in the past year. A sticking point for many who survive is that William Sapp, thought to have been the ringleader of the group of six convicted in the girls’ killings, still survives on death row.

In his homily at Phree Morrow’s funeral, Pastor Dotson offered another prayer:

“Father, help us to realize that there is an eternity to gain, an eternity where there is no crime, where there is no sin.”

Twenty years after the murders, those yet to reach that eternity are living in a world in which loss, crime and sin continue to hold sway.

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