I met them in the worst moments of their lives, the grief so strong I could feel it coursing through the telephone or across their living rooms or in courtroom hallways.
As a former cops and courts reporter, I spoke to a lot of these folks whose lives were suddenly undone by the violent death of someone they loved. It’s a part of the job some journalists hate, but I saw it as an honor.
Most of these people were generous and gracious in their thoughts, and sometimes that was because they still wanted to talk about their grief and loss but felt their pain had become a crushing weight on those around them. But here I was, a fresh ear, a dry shoulder, willing to listen for as long as they needed.
Sometimes I listened for years.
If the death of their loved one was by homicide, I often became a guide through the minutiae and machinations of the murky criminal justice system they were pushed into. I was often easier for families to reach than overworked and ever-changing prosecutors and detectives or the victim advocates whose numbers were never enough to cover so many cases.
I accessed records, phone numbers and services for them, explained the process, kept them apprised of pertinent court dates and updates, rattled cages when necessary.
I was thankful I could help, but this isn’t how it’s supposed to work. It occurred because too often the justice system doesn’t work.
Fortunately, in 2012 two women with the help of a third opened the Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death, a nonprofit agency in Albuquerque that provides information, referrals, advocacy and support for the families and friends of victims of violence – all at no charge.
Executive director Pat Caristo and victim advocate Joan Shirley, who has since retired, accompanied the families to court, referred them for counseling, helped them understand their rights as victims, helped them understand that in their pain they were not alone.
They are the bridge, they say, across the gaps in the availability of information and resources for victims.
This Monday, the Journal published a guest column Caristo wrote in response to an Aug. 13 editorial that expressed the need for solid solutions to combat the high numbers of homicides in the metro area and to fix the broken criminal justice system.
Caristo, who knows more than most about the human cost of homicide, offered some solutions.
“While crime statistics and numbers of killings are astonishing, our loved ones should not be referred to by a number,” Caristo wrote. “They were living souls, a person who was and is loved and who had meaning.”
Those who loved and knew those living souls ask for two specific things, she said:
• Information on how the system works, what comes next, what and who can offer assistance. Caristo suggests providing survivors with detailed information sheets and a list of referrals, resources and contacts – all of which her agency can help provide. She also recommends periodic contact between law enforcement and legal teams and the survivors.
• Understanding that survivors are struggling through grief to comprehend a cumbersome justice system.
“Please be mindful that our sense of order and control was taken away,” she wrote. “We are grieving and picking up the pieces, and we don’t speak the language of the system.”
Caristo was a longtime police officer and investigator. Her private investigative agency, NIA/NM, has provided pro bono work for families of victims of unsolved homicides and missing children for decades. She has been involved with past victim advocacy groups, including the New Mexico Justice Project and New Mexico Survivors of Homicide.
But if Caristo’s name is familiar, it’s because she was the longtime private investigator involved in seeking answers in the July 16, 1989, shooting death of 18-year-old Kaitlyn Arquette.
Late last month, that case made headlines again after Albuquerque police say a man named Paul Apodaca, a prime suspect according to Caristo’s investigation, confessed to several rapes and at least three homicides, including Arquette’s.
Caristo had been hired by Arquette’s family. Arquette’s mother, author Lois Duncan, continued to quietly support Caristo’s work with families of victims of homicide, including those who have benefited from the Resource Center for Victims of Violent Death.
More than 32 years ago, Albuquerque police ignored Caristo and the wealth of knowledge she and her agency have. It would be shameful for police and other leaders in the criminal justice system to ignore her again.
It seems she won’t be.
One of the people to reach out to Caristo after her guest column appeared Monday was Terry Huertaz, the newly hired victim liaison manager for the Albuquerque Police Department.
Huertaz is no stranger to dealing with the pain and confusion victims of crime face. For years, she was the executive director of the state Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
I can’t help but think Huertaz and Caristo joining forces is a good thing for those whose lives have been torn asunder by violence. And no, that won’t stop the homicides from happening, but it seems a good first step toward helping those living the worst moments of their lives, their numbers increasing by the day.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.