Akron resident Bruce Pittman knows what violence can lead to.
Police found his brother Michael in a house on Baird Street in July 2009 with a single gunshot wound in his chest.
His brother had been killed over $5.
“It hurts. … We don’t fight violence with violence,” Pittman, 49, told an audience of 200 other relatives of homicide victims in the atrium of the Oliver Ocasek Building on Monday night.
One by one, the survivors approached the front of the room to read the names of 793 Summit County homicide victims.
Each survivor gave a somber remembrance of a family member or friend. Some recalled the closure they found when the justice system convicted their loved one’s killer. Some voiced frustration in never knowing who committed the crime.
“I hope every day that someone is checking into it,” said Marion Breen, 65.
Breen, an Akron resident, hung a ceramic angel with her father’s name on one of three Christmas trees as her brother Lothar, 64, steadied his sister with an arm on her shoulder.
Their father, Alfred Gebauer, watched for the mailman one morning 12 years ago, as he did every morning. When he entered the house with his newspaper, an assailant attacked him and his wife, Gerda. He died four days later, and she suffered a broken jaw and a brain hemorrhage.
The police never found the killer or killers who made off with $350 in stolen items.
“We don’t have him under the tree at home, but we have him on the tree here,” said Marion, pointing to the white angel swaying back and forth.
There are 22 new names to hang on the trees this year. Last year, 26 people were killed in the city, all of gunshots.
In 2010, the city had 22 homicides. The Akron Police Department’s website lists more than 70 cold cases, or unsolved homicides, since 2002.
One of those names belongs to Samuel Hughes Jr., a 31-year-old Akron man found dead in his home in 2006. A police report indicates blunt force trauma but no culprit.
“It’s hard not having closure,” said the victim’s mother, Susan Hughes, who attended the event with her son’s best friend, Robert Root.
She said she has God to rely on for support, but the event does offer some additional peace and comfort.
“It gives the families and the survivors the opportunity to remember,” said Missy Klein, director of services at the Victim Assistance Program, which hosted the 18th annual Angel Tree Ceremony and Homicide Memorial Service. “Sometimes after someone dies, they just fade away.”
In its 40th year, Victim Assistance Program offers emotional and practical assistance to families after a homicide, as well as continual education and advocacy for the community. A 24-hour hot line for survivors is open seven days a week. The program’s services — which span crime scenes, hospitals and home visits — are free and confidential.
In 1990, when Mike Pratt attended the trial of his brother’s murderer and accomplices, advocates from the Victim Assistance Program joined him in and out of the courtroom. They counseled and consoled him in his time of need. His brother Roger had been slain by a college roommate on a gas well road in Hudson in 1988, and the Victim Assistance Program has been there ever since.
“Our advocates are in place to navigate the aftermath of homicide,” said Klein.
Klein oversees advocates and services provided to surviving family members and friends of homicide victims.
Unwilling to talk about the things that have driven her to help others, Klein sympathizes with those she helps.
“When I started, I said that if I could just help one person, then I’ve made a difference.”
Homicides, Klein said, affect more than the immediate families. The deaths can ripple through a community.
“It’s like throwing a pebble in the water.”
Along with the angel trees, Victim Assistance Program will donate food baskets to be delivered to victims’ families in the spring by Akron police officers.
Along with three trees covered with white angels, about 150 photos lined the “Wall of Remembrance.”
“It puts a face to those who have passed,” Klein said.
The names and photos will remain in the government building through the new year, said the Rev. Robert “Bob” Denton.
“It is a sobering reality,” said Denton, who steps down this year as executive director.
Denton wants the public and elected officials to never forget the victims of crime.
“Those are 700 dead bodies,” he said.
Guest speaker James Nice, Akron police chief, urged the community to help police solve cold cases and help prevent new ones. He also told residents to lobby their judges to keep convicted criminals behind bars. He said many have been released because the jails do not have the monetary resources to keep them.
“We must be vigilant in stopping this trend,” he said of the murders and the releases.
Nice encouraged the city’s residents to maintain civility and “treat each other with respect and kindness,” so that no new angels would be added to the trees next year.
Doug Livingston can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3302.