Sitting silently among the others gathered to remember crime victims and their families, Erma Atkins remembers her daughter with tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. Her friends and her daughter's friends, who've gathered with her to remember, share in the sentiment.
"She was such a sweet girl and such a good friend to my daughter," said Doris Hallmark. "I thought of her as another daughter and when she was murdered, just murdered in cold blood, it just hurt us all so. I'm glad we have this, it helps us remember without feeling so alone. We've been here every year."
Hallmark's husband, daughter and her husband gathered with her and Atkins as they joined with other Erath County residents to remember those lost to violent crime.
Laurie Gillispie, victim assistance coordinator with the District Attorney's Office, has provided residents a place (the lobby of the courthouse annex) to remember those who have suffered and show their support and love.
An Angel Tree, decorated with white lights and various ornaments stands tall in the annex all season. It's a place to remember the good times and the people who have been lost, Gillispie said at the event. The ornaments all have names and dates written on them, or photos of lost loved ones.
"Sometimes you're somewhere and you see that ornament or that thing that just makes you stop and think, 'that is so them!' That's what the tree is here for," she said.
Tree of Angels was initiated in Austin in 1991 by People Against Violent Crime and Verna Lee Carr. The event recognizes that the holiday season is a difficult time for victims and their families no matter how many years or days have passed since their loss.
"It is a reverent forum for the community to join together to remember, include and support victims of crime who are a part of our lives and communities," Gillispie said. "And above all, the tree of angels is an expression of the realization of love."
Guest speaker, Kevin Fincher, recalled a story of an Erath County man, Bruce McKinney, who was kidnapped and murdered in Somervell County. The case took 12 years to solve and it was hard on the man's family. Fincher said it was nothing short of a miracle the case was solved and the family got resolution, but not before the man's grandfather died not knowing what happened to his grandson.
"It's events like this that bring the community closer together, that bring families affected by crime together," Fincher said. "Bruce's family is here this year, they've been here every year and I see so many other familiar faces here. This is what gets you through the hard days, each other, knowing you aren't alone in your struggles."
On Nov. 9, 2000, then Governor George W. Bush issued a statewide proclamation designating the week of Dec. 4-10, as Tree of Angels week in Texas. Governor Rick Perry since issued a statewide proclamation designating the first week of December as Tree of Angels week in Texas every year. In 2001, Erath County victim services staff began a Tree of Angels program to remember victims and their families.
"This is such a wonderful event, the county does such a good job with it," Hallmark said. "We make it a point to be here every year for Erma, yes, but for us, too. To remember one of the sweetest girls I've ever known and I'm grateful for the chance to do it here, with others who understand."