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October 16, 2018

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Families of slain victims find solace in downtown Healing Garden

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Christopher DeVargas

Ron Cornell, a member of the local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, points to a picture of his son Joey, who was fatally shot in 1998 when he was 16 years old.

National Crime Victims' Rights Week

Sharon Gentile, 70, points to a photo on her shirt of her son Robert Launch slideshow »

A car accident victim survives but loses an arm, said Ron Cornell Wednesday evening from the Healing Garden in downtown Las Vegas, using an analogy about grief he learned years ago.

“Will I recover?” Cornell asked rhetorically. “Yes … but I’d never be the same person ever again.”

“We lost a piece of our heart,” said the 62-year-old Las Vegas man about the day in 1998 when his teenage son was fatally shot. “We’ll never be the same again.”

Cornell, a member of the local chapter of the national organization Parents of Murdered Children, and other advocates gathered at the Healing Garden to commemorate National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, an awareness campaign that aims to inform survivors that they’re not alone and that there are services available in U.S. communities.

The Remembrance Wall at the garden serves as a reminder of 58 other families experiencing similar grief. “It doesn’t go away. For the survivors of those that were lost on (Oct. 1), it’s a life-long sentence that we have to serve,” Cornell said.

Addressing the roughly 20 in attendance in a brief ceremony, many known to him, Cornell spoke about his son, Joey. “Finding a way to celebrate then and now is hard. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but we’re going to try to center this around a celebration of life.”

In an impromptu alternative to candlelight due to high winds, they snapped and shook glow sticks, placed them around their necks, clapped for Cornell, and hugged each other.

Later, Cornell not only told the story about how his son became a victim of a neighborhood spat, but about how the 16-year-old high school student wanted to pursue a culinary career, about how he’d been staying at a cancer-stricken family member’s house to help out, and about his son’s anti-gun-violence school essay the elder Cornell found after his death.

Referencing a poem he’d read, Cornell, who wore a T-shirt and pin commemorating his son, told the advocates to take time to reflect on the loss of loved ones. “Just remember, they’re right by your side, and light a candle, watch them dance and maybe they’ll brighten your day.”

Sharon Gentile, 70, has adopted the Healing Garden as a physical place where she can remember her son, who was slain 13 years ago.

After Robert Austin Bukey’s death, his ashes were spread, leaving his mother nowhere to grieve him, the woman said. And the garden has been therapeutic.

“I don’t have a resting place, but I come here and I feel ...,” Gentile paused. “To me, this is just love, this is just pure love.”

She spoke lovingly about her son, who was trying to enroll in college at the time of his death. “He loved tinkering,” Gentile said, laughing. “He used to get a car and pull it all apart to see what made it tick, and he couldn’t get it back together again.”

The white T-shirt Gentile wore Wednesday — front and back — was covered not only with an image of her son but of other slain victims she’d learned about while doing advocate work in California, where later this year, Bukey’s killer will face a parole hearing.

Gentile on Wednesday brought along a petition to block his possible release. “I’m going to fight it,” she said. “I’m going to fight it every way I can until my last breath.”

What moves Gentile to advocate for victims and their families after all these years? “I don’t want to have to think of anybody going through what I went through, and what I’m still going through.”

For more information on other National Crime Victims’ Rights Week events in the valley, visit here.

For more information on the Parents of Murdered Children local chapter, visit its Facebook page.