Sunday, February 26, 2006
A Decade Later, Hollywood Video Slayings Still Haunt Families, Survivors
By Tracy Dingmann
Journal Staff Writer
Ten years ago in Albuquerque, an "evil act by evil people" put five innocent victims in their graves, two killers in prison for life and an entire city in a state of shock.
Police and the media instantly dubbed the case the Hollywood Video murders, after the store where the first three victims employees Jowanda Castillo, Zachary Blacklock and Mylinh Daothi were found dead March 3, 1996, after an apparent armed robbery.
The next day, police found the bodies of Blacklock's grandparents, Pauline and George McDougall. They had gone to pick up their grandson at work and were instead driven into the East Mountains and shot.
Even those not connected to the killings were shocked by the carnage. But the survivors friends, family members and law enforcement officials who worked the case have borne the brunt of the suffering these past 10 years.
In the aftermath, family members dealt with the pain differently.
Some, like Daothi's sister, Ruby, simply left town. Others became advocates for crime victims. They include Holly Lawrence, who lost a cousin and her grandparents, and Lori Banuelos, who lost her daughter.
"I think it changed all of us," said Sandy Dietz, a former victims' advocate in the Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office who spent hours with the survivors.
"This was not a gang homicide, these were not people who got into a fight," she said. Dietz retired in August as head of the county's Victim Impact Program after 22 years on the job.
"Not that anyone ever deserves to be hurt or injured, but these were people going to work and grandparents going to pick up their grandson, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee," she said.
"They weren't taking drugs or going to a bar or doing any of the things that might put you at risk. They were people who were just working and trying to make a life. It just made the whole community feel how vulnerable we are."
The young victims in the store had each been shot three times in the back of the head; the elderly McDougalls had been shot nine times each.
At the time, it was the worst mass killing in Albuquerque's history.
The fact that the robbers continued their spree by kidnapping and killing the McDougalls really upset people, said former Deputy District Attorney Julie Altwies, who led the prosecution team and is now a Metro Court judge.
"Part of it was the number of victims and part of it was the brutality and the circumstances surrounding it," she said. "I think the three victims inside the store touched everyone, and then to compound it by what happened to George and Pauline really grabbed the heart of the whole city."
About the only heartening event in the days after the killings was the way the community joined together, said Janet Blair, who was then-director of communications for Mayor Martin Chávez. Banks, businesses, media and private citizens scrambled to donate money to a reward fund.
"We raised almost $100,000 in 10 days," said Blair. "It was the best example of public response it was the public responding to the horror of the case."
Indeed, the money helped smoke out the killers. Acting on a tip from the reward hot line, police arrested ex-cons Shane Harrison and Esther Beckley nine days after the killings. The tipster was Beckley's boyfriend, who said she told him she and Harrison had committed the robbery and killings.
But finding the killers did little to salve the grief of those left behind. Hearing Beckley describe the slayings as a robbery gone wrong during Harrison's trial was never a justification for survivors like Lawrence.
"It never made sense," said Lawrence, 35. "They didn't do it for the money. You don't rob a store for $1,080 and leave $3,000 behind. I think they just wanted to kill people."
Harrison and Beckley were imprisoned for life for the murders of the McDougalls but were never convicted for the killings inside the store.
Beckley pleaded guilty to killing the McDougalls and agreed to testify against Harrison. In exchange, the state dropped plans to seek the death penalty against her.
At Harrison's trial, jurors found him guilty of killing the McDougalls but deadlocked on the other slayings. After numerous delays caused by Harrison's appeals, District Attorney Kari Brandenburg announced in 2001 that she wouldn't retry Harrison.
The decision wasn't popular with all of the survivors, said Altwies, who was on a team of deputy district attorneys and surviving family members Brandenburg consulted.
"I can't say I'm happy about the result," said Altwies. "I'm comfortable with the fact that both of them will die in prison and won't ever get out to prey on anyone else. But I don't know that it was a result that made anyone happy.
"I think she made the right decision, but it was a tough call for everyone."
'It left me
a lot stronger'
Today, the Hollywood Video store at 333 San Mateo SE is open for business.
The Oregon-based company shuttered the store after the slayings but reopened it in 1998 after adding a garden memorial outside.
The company last week issued a "no comment" to any questions for this story.
Sara Leiker once worked at that Hollywood Video but never goes near it now. In fact, Leiker moved to Boston shortly after the killings and returns to Albuquerque only for short visits to see her mother.
Leiker was 17 years old when she reported to work one Sunday and discovered the bodies of her three best friends. She had left the store just hours before her friends had insisted she go home early because she was sick and she had returned first thing in the morning to open up.
"Jowanda drove me home with the last bit of gas she had in her car," Leiker said. "I've always had feelings of guilt but also a feeling that there is a reason I'm (still alive). It's obvious to me that I could have been there."
Leiker knew Harrison as a customer he had a Hollywood Video card and frequently visited the store.
"He was kind of weird and always acting suspicious. Sometimes, I think about it and wonder if it was revenge," she said. "I remember us kind of making fun of him and chasing him out of the store."
In fact, Harrison approached Hollywood Video the night before the killings, but Leiker turned him away because the store was closed. He left angry, she said.
"I actually talked to him then, when he tried to get in, but we were closed," she said. "I was the only one alive from the night before."
She later picked Harrison out of a lineup and testified at his trial.
After the trial, Leiker studied to become a medical researcher in Boston and worked with prestigious programs at Harvard and MIT. Now 27, she is married and firmly established in the Northeast. She thinks about her friends every day but said the pain has faded with time.
"I haven't let it ruin my life," she said. "It left me a lot stronger. I used to be shy; now I'm outgoing. I used to not tell anybody about the murders, and I used to push people away for fear of losing them, I guess. Now when my friends get worried about me, I tell them why I'm sad."
Leiker said she marks the anniversary in her own way.
"I used to get tattoos, but I'm not doing that anymore," she said, laughing. "I have three tats one for each of them.
"Now I usually take the day off and do something for me. It's a day I celebrate being alive."
'They're in heaven'
Holly Lawrence tries to savor the sweet memories of her grandparents like George McDougall's can of Copenhagen, Pauline McDougall's worry stone, or the way the couple, married 54 years, always seemed to have a pot of coffee waiting at home.
The McDougalls had a pot brewing the night of the murders, but they never made it home to drink it. The couple went to Hollywood Video about 1:30 a.m. March 3 to pick up Blacklock, whom they treated like a son, said Lawrence.
Lawrence was among family members who gathered at Hollywood Video the morning after finding the McDougalls' car missing and the coffee still brewing.
The family guessed long before getting official word that Blacklock was dead inside the store, said Lawrence. It was another 36-hour wait to find out what happened to the McDougalls.
Lawrence dealt with the killings by plunging herself into the details of the case and speaking out often. She became a victims' advocate and worked to secure rights and resources for others who had lost loved ones.
"I wanted to be able to give something back," she said. "I knew there were victims out there who wouldn't be as assertive in getting the answers they needed."
Because of the high-profile nature of the case, the survivors of the Hollywood Video slayings got more assistance and attention than many crime victims. Hollywood Video paid for all five funerals and helped pay for relatives to travel to Las Cruces for Harrison's trial, Lawrence said.
Hollywood Video also helped victims of other crimes by agreeing to donate a percentage of profits from the reopened store to local victims' rights groups, including New Mexico Survivors of Homicide. The agreement, which spanned three years, generated about $50,000 for the group, said president Patti March.
Today, Lawrence belongs to no formal organizations but said she still cares deeply about crime victims. After speaking out for a long time, she said, she and her family decided to move on.
"We were not willing to be victimized anymore by Shane Harrison," she said. "Because then he basically would have gotten us, too."
Lawrence said she marks the deaths of her relatives in different ways.
"My sister and I have gone back in other years to visit the store memorial, but we're not grave visitors," she said. "My relatives aren't there they're in heaven."
A strong belief in God has helped the family survive the experience, said Lawrence.
"It was an evil act by evil people," she said. "For my family, faith is very important. We certainly leaned on God that's what got us through it."