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Victim advocate retiring from business of grief

Joan Shirley has been the face of anguish and courage, and the voice and guide to hundreds of families who, like her, are dealing with the trauma of losing a loved one to violent crime. Twenty years after her son’s slaying in 1999, Shirley has decided to retire as a victim advocate. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Joan Shirley was making one of her regular visits to the stone memorial at Piñon Heights and Jennifer in the Sandia Knolls subdivision of the East Mountains when the girl on a bike rolled up with a few questions.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

The girl said she often rode past the memorial, read the three names engraved in the stone and wondered who they were. She had figured out that the dates on the stone were their birthdays and the latest date – May 29, 1999 – was when something had happened to them.

She had done the math. They were boys, not much older than she was.

Shirley told the girl that one of those boys was her son.

And then in her gentle, effective way, Shirley told the story again of how Kevin, 17, was driving home with friends Matthew Hunt, 17, and Luis Garcia, 16, from an end-of-school-year party when the three were shot to death right there where she stood.

For years, everybody knew that story, one of most baffling, troubling and intensely investigated homicides then and now.

It took 7½ years, but a suspect was arrested. Three years after that, a jury acquitted him.

“It used to be that all you had to say was ‘East Mountain triple homicide’ and people knew,” Shirley said. “But it was 20 years ago. A whole generation has grown up. That girl on the bike wasn’t even born yet. Most all the neighbors up near the memorial have moved.”

Shirley is moving on, too.

This high school photo of Kevin Shirley, which sits on a shelf in his parents’ living room, became ubiquitous after he was killed along with two friends in 1999. But mother Joan Shirley says the first time she saw the photo was in media reports on the homicides. The photos arrived in the mail several days afterward.

Since 1999, she has been one of the most recognized faces of anguish and courage. She became one of the most effective and compassionate advocates and advisers for those whose loved ones died violently. She has been a frequent presence in courtrooms, holding the hands of dazed family members. She has been the calm voice in the cacophony of despair. She has been my guru of grief. She has been my friend.

But now, she said, it’s time for her to tell a different story, time for her to step away from the work that has sustained her and hundreds of others in their darkest moments.

Shirley is retiring from the business of grief.

Since Jan. 1, 2012, she has been the victim advocate for the Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death, a nonprofit agency in Albuquerque that provides information, referrals, advocacy, support and shoulders to cry on for the families and friends of victims of violence.

The agency is the creation of Shirley and Executive Director Pat Caristo, both of whom saw a need to support people surviving the loss of a loved one in a sudden, violent manner.

“We exist because a detective cannot call you every day and talk to you for hours, and that’s when we say, ‘Call us,’ ” Shirley said. “We exist because the reality is that criminal justice and death are not like how they are portrayed on TV.”

Since opening its doors, the Resource Center has helped more than 400 families, Shirley estimates.

Previously, Shirley served as a victim advocate for both the New Mexico Survivors of Homicide and French Funerals and Cremations. She’s also been a member of the New Mexico Intimate Partner Violence Death Review Team and has worked with the Greater Albuquerque chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a support group for families grieving the death of a child of any age.

It was quite a change for a woman whose life before that night in 1999 had centered on raising her children and helping to raise other people’s children in her home-based day care. To battle the darkness of her pain, she became a light for others in the darkness.

“You have to bring meaning to the loss, or else it all feels so useless,” she said. “When I took my job as an advocate, I realized I couldn’t take my own trauma into the office with me. But my trauma helped me know how to help others in trauma. I could talk about Kevin every day, tell his story.”

Telling his story took away the power that trauma had over her, she said. Listening to others tell their stories, she hopes, has helped take away trauma’s power over them.

Now, it’s time for someone else to listen to those stories.

Shirley is 68. Her husband, Wayne, has been retired for nine years, and she’d like to share more of those golden years with him.

And now she has a 13-month-old granddaughter to babysit. In a full circle moment, she is back to having a home day care, only this time just for one special little girl.

There are still days, she said, when the anguish of losing Kevin, her only son, tears at her heart. Days, she said, when she wishes she could stand there at Piñon Heights and Jennifer for those last five minutes of Kevin’s life to see for herself what happened and why.

But those moments pass, and life continues.

And she rolls on.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.


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