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Parents of Murdered Children Must Restart Lives

Lori O'Meara's son, Nick Shomaker, 15, died of a gunshot wound. Pam Dade and William Smith are not sure how their daughter, Erica Heather, 14, was murdered. Stephanie Strosnider's daughters, Jessica, 3, and Brittany, 2, were shot in the head by their father, who then turned the gun on himself. Mary Ellen Van Nederynen's son, Eric, 15, was shot to death on his way to the grocery store. Carolyn Hornbaker's son, Patrick, 32, met a similar fate in his own home.

Several area parents who have lost children to homicide talked individually about their nightmares and how, despite the pain, they had to find ways to move on with their lives.

FOR ASHBURN residents Dade and Smith and Purcellville residents Carolyn Hornbaker and her daughter, Leah Hornbaker, misery has been compounded by knowing their children’s killers are still at large.

"My heart, my mind and my soul won't rest until we've captured these savages," Smith said last week. "Until our last breath, with every resource we can find, we will fight to capture our child's murderers and put them where they belong, behind bars."

Erica's mother, Pam Dade, said she too wanted justice in her daughter’s case.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think, 'Whoever is responsible, let this be the day they have to pay.' … In the name of Jesus, let there be justice for Erica." Erica Heather Smith was found in a partially covered grave 11 days after her parents reported her missing.

The Hornbakers spoke of a similar yearning in Patrick’s case, having waited five years for an arrest. "That's part of the helplessness you feel," Leah Hornbaker said. Patrick Blair Hornbaker was shot to death in his home.

Both families are seeking justice while knowing it won’t provide closure. "Our life has changed forever," Smith said. "Our family circle has been broken."

Carolyn Hornbaker said her son's murderer killed "a part of all of us. It’s as if they ripped the heart out of our family."

LORI O'MEARA, who lost her son Nick Shomaker to murder, agreed. Authorities determined Nick’s shooting death was a case of involuntary manslaughter. Another teenager, Matthew Lathram, pulled the trigger.

"It's bigger than [you]. It's not just you," she said. Her parents, for example, were left grieving the death of their grandchild and the loss of a daughter who will never be the same. Nick's death also shattered the lives of his father, Kevin, and brothers, Jordan, now 20, and Colby, 16, and extended family, she said.

Eric Van Nederynen left two brothers, Patrick, 24, and Christopher, 26. Erica Smith left her younger brother, William, who was 10 at the time, and sisters, Jazzmine Dade, 21, Nicole Antoinette Smith, 24, and Bianca Jontee Smith, 20.

Strosnider's mother, Betty Loy, turned to a support group, Parents of Murdered Children, to seek help for their family's pain after the murder of her young granddaughters. It was one of the ways that she and her daughter were able to rebuild their lives. But they waited eight years after Jessica and Brittany died to attend training and start the group.

"I had to wait on her," Loy said, referring to her daughter. "Her anger had built up to the point you had to deal with it or it takes you over. Someone told her that she didn't need a counselor, she needed a group. So she said, ‘Start one.’"

They already had attended a Winchester chapter of the organization, but decided not to return because the girls' paternal grandmother was seeking support there.

PARENTS OF MURDERED CHILDREN Inc. is a national organization providing ongoing emotional support for parents, immediate family members and other survivors to help them build a new life and to promote a healthy resolution. It is open to families who have lost children to murder, manslaughter, drunken driving and suicide. The chapter in Stephens City is the closest chapter for Loudoun County residents.

Nancy Ruhe, national executive director for more than 20 years, said parents and family members find solace there because they are with other parents who have been devastated by the loss of their children.

"More importantly, they are there for the long haul … as opposed to family and friends who think you should be over it by now."

She said parents who lose children to circumstances other than homicide share a similar grieving process, but the dimension of cruelty in homicide is compounded by desperate feelings of injustice, distrust and helplessness that can go on for years.

"Everyone talks about closure, but the only thing that closes is the lid on the coffin," Ruhe said.

The Hornbakers said they found great comfort attending meetings at the Shenandoah Valley chapter in Stephens City.

"It's a good feeling to be around people who understand," Carolyn Hornbaker said. "For a long time, you think you are the only person on earth going through this. When you meet them, it's just like you have known them forever. It's such a support."

Dade said she and her husband found the meetings beneficial, but they stopped going because of their long distance from her home.

O'MEARA CHOSE therapy over the chapter's monthly meetings. "It seemed like too much sadness, too much grief, in one room."

She learned her feelings of devastation after her teenage son died were not abnormal. "I didn't even know there were stages of grief," she said.

It was good to talk to someone who was neither a friend nor a relative, she said.

Recently O'Meara watched a television interview of a well-known newsman, who began to cry after mentioning that he lost a son 40 years ago. The encounter gave her an acceptance that the pain would never go away.

"You have to accept it doesn't get better. It just changes," she said.

She knows the pain will remain under the surface most of the time and then she will burst out crying without warning.

Somehow she made it through her first Mother's Day, but she said she could not bear to do it this year. She continues to mother her other two sons, Jordan and Colby, but certain rituals bring too much heartbreak.

Another way for O'Meara to move on is through her faith in God and life after death. "I truly believe this is not all there is," she said. "Nick and I will be together again."

VAN NEDERYNEN, a youth minister, said her faith has been her saving grace after her teenage son was shot.

"My grief was overwhelming. People would ask me how I could be so strong," she remembered. "I assured them it wasn't me but God and those around me that were holding me up."

She also uses forgiveness as a healer, forgiving the man who killed her son. Naquan Supreme Perry, 20, was linked to Eric’s death, as well as a homicide in Union County, N.J. He was killed Oct. 27, 2000, after he fired upon New Jersey officers who were trying to arrest him, according to police reports.

STROSNIDER USED denial to get through the first eight years after her daughters were slain.

"I was in a blur, because I kept thinking the girls were on vacation. It took me that long to grasp they were not coming back."

Pam Dade said she is still in denial. The fact that her daughter Erica's body was decomposed and authorities suggested that the parents not identify her made it easier for her to make believe. "She's out there and she's coming home. She can't get to a phone. Or I think she's away, off to school. You have hope that maybe a 1 or 2 percent chance she's out there. They made a mistake. I think if I really knew what's happened to her, I might end up in an insane asylum."

At the same time, she performs rituals in her daughter's memory. Every Christmas, she and Smith and their son, William, place a white candle, an angel, a cross and a picture of Erica on the kitchen counter. She buys a teddy bear for Erica every year. They take balloons to the cemetery on Erica's birthday, matching the number to the age she would have been if she were still alive.

THE HORNBAKERS take balloons and a wreath to Patrick's grave. "Traditionally, we take the same wreath, add little things. This year it's a cross that lights at night. We try to add something every year," Carolyn Hornbaker said.

The family inscribed "See ya in the spring" on the tombstone, reflecting his usual reluctance to say goodbye.

O'Meara said Nick's father finds comfort in visiting his grave weekly, but she does not.

Eric Van Nederynen's mother said she found some peace in designing a tombstone that represented his love for Christ, the outdoors and music. The words from a Christian song are inscribed on the stone: "Dance then wherever you may be."

Strosnider said she has not placed tombstones on her daughters' graves. "That's one thing left I cannot deal with," she said.

Despite her initial resolution to not have any more children, she fell in love with Clark Quinn and they had two girls, Cassidy, 5, and Skyler, 3. Skyler is the "spitting image" of Brittany. She had feared getting too close to her children only to have them torn away again.

"After having Cassidy, I think I should have done it a long time ago. … Not to replace them, but to have them in your life. You cannot replace the child you lost, but you certainly can fill in the wound some."

Smith said the need to continue fathering his son helped him to move on despite his heartbroken state. "As a father, I have to be strong enough to help this son grow up to become a man. No matter how painful for me, it has to be equally painful for him."

Erica's mother said her children and the quest for justice prevented her from giving up on life. "I'd come home and all I wanted to do was to go to bed. But then I asked myself, 'Do I want to lay here and die or fight for justice for Erica and be a mother?"

LEAH HORNBAKER said she had to reach the conclusion that her brother, Patrick, would have wanted her to survive this tragedy. "We know all of us will be together again someday," she added.

Her mother said the support she received from family, friends, the church and law-enforcement authorities helped too. "You need people to help you, to pick you up, even if you don't want to. Take all the help that is offered or you can find."

Strosnider said she counted on her two closest friends who knew the right things to say. "We can talk about it. Most people shut away. They don't want to hear about it. They kept the girls alive for me. "

Van Nederynen said four months after her son Eric’s death, most everyone else had moved on and she was still up in the middle of the night. She gave herself plenty of time for tears. Slowly she built herself up to working full time, which helped occupy her mind.

"The journey continues as God is still healing me slowly and gently," she said. "My Lord God continues to heal my brokenness."