When David Crittenden heard the sound of a gun cock, his life changed.
As a group of teenagers with hoods pulled up over their heads approached Crittenden, 20, he searched for ways to stop them. When they held a gun to his head and started yelling “Y’all know what this is. Y’all are gonna give us all your stuff — your keys, money, your wallets, everything,” Crittenden didn’t know what to think.
“My thought process at that point was just, ‘OK, now I don’t want to get shot,’” said Crittenden, who was robbed about 9 p.m. Feb. 23, 2010, in Temple when he and high school friends were sledding in the neighborhood.
Since the incident, Crittenden, an armed robbery survivor whose case resulted in a guilty verdict, shares his story every year during the Bell County District Attorney’s Victim Impact Panels.
The office holds the panels three or four times a year in conjunction with the adult probation department, where prisoners listen to victims of various crimes.
“I am always so humbled to hear other victims speak. Many of them are parents or grandparents who have lost someone in a violent murder or a drunk driving accident,” said David’s mom, Marleea Crittenden. “I usually leave those meetings thinking how blessed we are that the boys were only a victim of armed robbery.”
Even though her son’s case could have been worse, Crittenden said advocates treated the case the same as a homicide.
“If a burglary of your home is the worst crime that’s ever happened in your life, it’s horrible,” said Jill McAfee, a victims and witness coordinator for the county. “It changes the way you do everything, so who’s to say that that victim does not deserve the same amount of care as a homicide victim?”
Despite having to wait three years for the guilty verdict, Rosa Reed, whose husband died after his motorcycle was struck by a drunk driver, said she didn’t despair as the advocates guided her through a dark tunnel.
“From the first step you walk in the door, they’re there for you. ... You don’t have to keep identifying yourself or a case number,” Reed said. “Those people are wired for this. They live it, breathe it. They want to be there for you. They assured me that justice would be served.”
Continue to provide care
The coordinators take care of victims even after their trial is over and continue to provide counseling services and programs as well as offer referrals to organizations which can help them psychologically and financially.
They work with the local nonprofits, Bikers Against Child Abuse and Mother’s Against Drunk Driving. They’ve also had two cases featured on “America’s Most Wanted” in the ’90s, which were solved due to information obtained after the episodes aired.
Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza is president of the National District Attorneys Association, which is the oldest organization of criminal prosecutors in the world, according to its website. The organization serves as a nationwide, interdisciplinary resource center for training and research and provides prosecutors with cutting-edge practices.
After Thanksgiving, the faces of victims and survivors are placed on ornaments that hang on two “Tree of Angels” at the Bell County Expo Center in Belton. McAfee said more than 300 victims participate and visit the tree numerous times throughout the holidays.
“Christmas is a hard time for crime victims, and this is a way that they can still (honor), remember and include their family member in Christmas preparations,” McAfee said. “So many of them tell us, once they’ve done this, they can then enjoy Christmas because they’ve included (their loved one).”
Reed is grateful for the victims advocates, who were there for her every step of the trail.
“They make you feel so special that you don’t even realize that they’re going to be taking care of three or four other people’s tragedies later on that day,” Reed said. “You feel like you’re the only one that they’re taking care of.”
Reed said the strong and compassionate advocates seem to have a bottomless reservoir as they continue to hold onto hope and give victims the courage and strength they need to get through trials. McAfee said she’s able to help these families because it’s her calling.
“There’s no way you could do this for 29 years without being where you’re supposed to be,” she said. “So anytime I get to a point where I think, that’s it, I can’t take any more ugly, I can’t take any more pain ... God gives me grace.”
McAfee said working for Garza, who is 100 percent pro-victim, makes her job easy.
“When I look (the victim) in the eye, I know what I’m telling them is the truth and we’re going to be there for them,” she said. “I get back more than I give and I have lifetime friendships from doing victim assistance in this job, because life doesn’t quit when the case is over. Some families, you just can’t give them up. They just become a part of your heart. You’re there at the very worst time of their life. You’re there when they thought they could not survive and they did.”