Vigil addresses aftermath of fatal violence

The interminable pain of losing a loved one to violence drew about 200 people to the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County’s 24th Annual Candlelight Vigil and Memorial Service on Thursday, April 23, where they heard words of comfort, hope and challenge.

The West Goshen Township Police Department's Honor Guard waits to lead a procession to the Victims' Memorial in Kardon Park.

The West Goshen Township Police Department's Honor Guard waits to lead a procession to the Victims' Memorial in Kardon Park.

The annual remembrance of Chester County homicide victims and law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty coincides with National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. It offers those left behind an opportunity to come together to share their grief, pay tribute to their loved ones, and draw on each other’s strengths.

Held at Central Presbyterian Church in Downingtown, the service included an Honor Guard processional by the West Goshen Township Police Department, bagpipes by Westtown-East Goshen Officer Robert Keppard, and vocals by retired State Police Lt. Kevin Pierce. It also featured three speakers, all of whom offered different perspectives on the grieving process.

Westtown-East Goshen Regional Police Chief Brenda Bernot said she erroneously believed she understood the depth of victims’ losses from three decades of involvement in the legal system: from delivering the news to families that their relative didn’t survive to participating in the perpetrators’ prosecutions. She said her view changed on March 28, 2008.

Participants in the 24th Annual Candlelight Vigil and Memorial Service hold candles that have been lit by members of law enforcement.

On that date, as the commanding officer of Troop J, which includes the Avondale barracks of the state police, Bernot faced one of her most difficult responsibilities. She had to break the news to the family of Trooper Kenton E. Iwaniec that he had died of the injuries he sustained when a woman with a blood-alcohol level more than four times the legal limit slammed into his Hyundai Elantra head-on as he headed home after his shift.

Although the 24-year-old was a recent graduate of the Police Academy, his positive attitude, enthusiasm and kindness had endeared him to his co-workers and his superiors, who were all devastated by his death, Bernot said.

She said that among the excruciating duties that troopers had to perform was retrieving an engagement ring from the glove box of Iwaniec’s mangled vehicle at a salvage yard. Iwaniec was planning to give the ring to “the love of his life,” an opportunity violently stolen from him, she said.

Bernot said those experiences forced her to recognize that the pain of loss had been unfathomable until it hit home. “I’m hoping that they made me a better police officer,” she said. “I’m hoping they made me a better person.”

Debby Iwaniec, the mother of Trooper Kenton Iwaniec, who was killed by a drunk driver, participates in the service at the Victims' Memorial.

Debby Iwaniec, the mother of Trooper Kenton E. Iwaniec, who was killed by a drunk driver, participates in the service at the Victims' Memorial. Members of the family travel each year  from western Pennsylvania to attend the vigil.

Kevin Mengel Sr. described his own nightmare: the fatal bludgeoning of his 33-year-old son, Kevin Mengel Jr., on Jan. 17, 2010, at the hands of his wife and her then-boyfriend. Mengel said he had hoped for some solace when Morgan Mengel received a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and her accomplice, Stephen Shappell, was ordered to spend 40 to 80 years behind bars.

“It didn’t give me any peace of mind or consolation for the loss,” he said. “I had to find a way to move forward.”

Mengel, who pointed out that everyone grieves differently, said what has helped him cope is telling his story, which focuses on how precious time is. Mengel said he and his son, the father of three children, shared a stubborn streak that periodically led to stalemates with no contact between them.

In December 2009, Mengel said his wife Carrie – who was then his fiancée – persuaded him to reconcile with his son after a lengthy disagreement. “Now I thank God for Carrie and her intervention,” Mengel said, pointing out that he enjoyed six months of his son’s love and companionship before he was killed.

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Westtown-East Goshen Regional Police Chief Brenda Bernot (left) and Chester County Sheriff Carolyn "Bunny" Welsh listen as victims share their remembrances.

“Know that time is a gift from God that we cannot control,” he said.

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan also reflected on the need to capitalize on time while one has it. Reciting an excerpt from a sermon delivered upon the death of a king, Hogan noted that all of the lost loved ones represent royalty to their family and friends – those mourners who unwittingly find themselves members of a grief-stricken club that no one would ever seek to join.

Hogan posited a question: What if they could spend one more day with the person abruptly taken from them? As he asked the audience to consider what activities they would pursue or places they would visit, he acknowledged the futility of such a dream but offered an alternative: “Take that day and give it to someone who is still here with you.”

The day would be dedicated to “your lost loved one” but would take advantage of the time that still exists with someone else you hold dear, he said. “Next year, come to me and tell me the story of those 24 hours,” Hogan requested.

In between the speakers, Chester County Detective Harold “Butch” Dutter, president of the Chester County Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 11, read the names of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, and Peggy Gusz, executive director of the Crime Victims’ Center, and Deputy District Attorney Carlos Barraza recited the names of the homicide victims, a list that now exceeds 450.

Then the crowd walked with candles to the Victims’ Memorial in Downingtown’s Kardon Park. Using cellphones for extra illumination and clutching tissues, victims’ friends and relatives lingered at the spot where their loved ones’ names were inscribed on bricks surrounding the memorial.

John Sciandra said he was 12 when his 17-year-old brother, James J. Sciandra Jr., was murdered. “Thirty-seven years later, it’s still hard,” he said.

Sciandra said he particularly appreciates the Victims’ Memorial as a peaceful place for reflection. He said his family lived close by so he can visit often and feel his brother’s presence.

He said he also gets some comfort from the knowledge that others have experienced the same kind of violence. “The D.A. was right when he had we’re in a club that no one wants to be in,” Sciandra said.

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