Published December 4, 2014
By Patrick Lacombe, The Belton Journal
The holiday season normally brings a time of cheer and comfort by being around friends and family; however, for families and friends who have lost a loved one to a violent crime and to survivors of violent crime, the holidays can leave a void and pose challenges to carry on.
To give victims’ families a safe place to remember and pay tribute to their loved ones, the Bell/Coryell County Crime Victims Coalition held their 11th annual Tree of Angels ceremony Tuesday night at the Bell County Expo Center.
Participants were encouraged to bring an angel ornament to place on one of two trees adorned with special angels in recognition and honor of crime victims and survivors of violent crime. For participants who have previously brought ornaments, the angels were available to place on the tree or exchange for a new one.
According to Jill McAfee, Director of Victims Services with the Bell County District Attorneys office, over 300 people attended Tuesdays ceremony.
“There are those in terrible mourning and they are feeling like their loved ones are left out during the holiday season, so this is a way to start the holidays by honoring them,” McAfee said “It kind of frees them up to be able to move on. We help them from the time of the crime through the trial, and even through the parole of the offender. I’ve been there 29 ½ years, and I’m now at a point where offenders are being paroled that we put in prison for life. It’s a real stressful time for victims and their families.”
Debra Meyer was in attendance at the ceremony. Meyer’s husband, Jay Harlan, was murdered in 1994 by a friend that he was trying to help. Meyer started attending the Angel Tree ceremony a year later in Austin, and every year since until the coalition started in Bell County 11 years ago.
“These people are my angels,” Meyer said. “They have been here for me every step of the way. They help with the grief process and set you up with counseling or anything else that you need.”
Speaking of the man who murdered her husband, Meyer said, “I forgave him the day he was sentenced because I know Jay would have wanted me to. Jay was a kind man and was one that never hung on to hate. I was allowed to address the court before he was sentenced, and I had my pocket bible with me and I read from it. I told him that I had to forgive him because hate would eat me up, and it’s not good for me and not good for you. As bad as it was, Jay would have forgiven him also.”
Harlan’s killer received a 99 year sentence, which was the maximum sentence for a non-capitol crime.
The ceremony closed with a candle lighting to remember and pay tribute to all crime victims. A reception was held after the ceremony.
In 1991, the Tree of Angels was initiated in Austin, Texas by Verna Lee, Executive Advisor of People Against Violent Crime, to recognize that the holiday season is a difficult time for victims and their families. This special event in December honors surviving victims of violent crime and victims’ families by making it possible for loved ones to bring an angel to place on a special Christmas tree.
On March 21, 2000 the United States Patent and Trademark Office registered the Tree of Angels. On Nov. 9, 2000, former Governor George W. Bush proclaimed Dec. 4-10 as Tree of Angels Week in Texas.