By Jennifer Phonexayphova

Killeen Daily Herald

For the past three years, Wanda Shelton has journeyed from Gatesville to the Bell County Expo Center to place an ornament on the Tree of Angels in memory of her son.

Shelton lost her son, Jacob, to a violent crime committed by his peers in 2001. She has been visiting the Tree of Angels every year and said it is something she will attend for the rest of her life.

"It is great to have a time of the year around Christmas, because it helps me to keep his memory alive," she said of her son. The last time she saw him was on Christmas.

For the past three years, the Bell County Crime Victims' Coalition has gathered members of the community to remember and honor victims of violent crimes with the Tree of Angels, where survivors and victims' families come together to place an angel ornament on a special Christmas tree.

Every 3 minutes, a violent crime occurs in Texas, and each time, one or more people become victims, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

About 250 people from Bell and surrounding counties arrived at the Bell County Expo Center on Tuesday night to participate in the ceremony and lend support to each other, including survivors from the 1991 Luby's massacre.

Kelley Fitzwater and her husband were at the restaurant at the time of the shootings and, while it is something that has been difficult to cope with over the years, Fitzwater said they were able to put the past behind them and see themselves as survivors rather than victims, thanks to the support of family and friends.

Reita Hill, statewide grant administrator for the MADD Texas state office, said the holiday season is especially difficult for families who have lost a loved one to a violent crime, and the Tree of Angels allows them a time of remembrance and hope.

"This event is so important, because it gives them a time to be able to focus on that loved one that is no longer with them and it gives them permission to celebrate the holidays with the rest of their families and not feel guilty," she said.

In addition to survivors and victims' families, various local and state offices were present to lend support, including the district attorney's office, the county attorney's office, judges, the sheriff's department and police departments, MADD, Women's Advocacy Project and BACA.

Jill Hargrove, the victim's coordinator for the district attorney's office, welcomed the crowd. Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza spoke, lending support to families struggling through the criminal justice system.

"At the end of the day, we want you to have at least felt encouraged and feel justice has been done when you leave the courtroom," he said.

"You all share a common bond of supporting each other by placing an ornament on the tree," he said. "Each ornament represents someone and signifies that they will not be forgotten."

The guest speaker for the evening was Raven Kazen, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Victim Services. She urged victims and their families to continue supporting one another and to help one another battle the common hardship of losing a loved one.

"Tonight you've come together as one," she said. "No one can understand how you feel but each other."

With the words of hope and encouragement echoing in their minds, members of the audience came to the tree to hang their ornaments, each one representing a different life and different heartaches. This year's tree was dedicated to Lila Price, a child abuse investigator with the Temple Police Department, who was killed in 2004. Her niece, Christina, placed an angel on top of the tree in Lila's honor.

Afterward, candles were lit and proudly held high, as families held hands.

While the ceremony may have been brief, the memory of those represented will live on in these people's hearts forever, Kazen said, and they must continue to support one another to get through difficult times.

"When you go into battle, you don't go in alone, you send a convoy," Kazen said. "We are a convoy of victims, but because we stand together, we cannot be moved."

The Tree of Angels will be on display at the Bell County Expo Center until early January.

Contact Jennifer Phonex

ayphova at Jennifer@kdh

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