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  • Lezlie Sterling / The Sacramento Bee

    Victoria DiFilippo sets loose a lit lantern in memory of Jessica Funk-Haslam during a vigil on the one-year anniversary of her slaying.

  • Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

    Foon Rhee is a Bee associate editor.

Op Images: Grief, but also grace in the face of tragedy

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am

As a journalist, the toughest stories for me were the ones about life and death.

Thirty years later, I can still remember one of my first assignments as a summer intern – to ask a family for a snapshot of a clerk killed in cold blood during a liquor store holdup. I sat in the car for quite a while, waiting for the courage to knock on the door.

Over the years, when I had to talk to relatives devastated by heartbreaking tragedies, it never got much easier. One story that stays with me to this day is the child stolen from a mother’s arms by a tornado.

The hardest to deal with were murders, especially of children. You couldn’t blame Mother Nature or just blind fate. You had to confront the fact of evil in the world.

But through all the grief and pain of survivors, I’ve also seen their grace and strength. That remarkable resilience is what always reminded me of the basic goodness of people, and kept me searching for those stories.

Those memories and emotions came flooding back when I covered the chilly candlelight vigil in March marking the one-year anniversary of the slaying of 13-year-old Jessica Funk-Haslam.

Her brutal killing had frightened an entire community. Feelings were still raw among the friends and family who huddled at Rosemont Community Park, within sight of the ballfield dugout where her body was found. Some talked about their fear that the killer was still living among them, maybe even in the crowd. Everyone spoke bravely about not forgetting her, and not giving up hope.

Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the chances of catching the killer might be as fleeting as the lit lanterns that floated into the darkness.

Not long after, I also wrote about the advances in DNA as a crime-fighting tool – not quite as easy as “CSI,” yet still amazing. California has vastly expanded its DNA dragnet; since 2009, anyone arrested for any felony has had to give a sample.

I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised that the two stories would intersect.

Five months after the vigil, out of the blue, detectives announced an arrest in Jessica’s case. It came from a match between DNA found at the crime scene and a sample given by the suspect, Ryan Douglas Roberts, 23, after his May arrest on suspicion of domestic violence.

I don’t think families of murder victims ever get “closure,” but I do think they can get a measure of justice. There are many, many more Jessicas out there, hundreds upon hundreds of unsolved homicides across California. We can’t forget that they’re waiting for justice, too.

Read more articles by Foon Rhee



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