The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 03, 2021 1:00 am

Victims' families find friends in JAVA

Founded 3 years ago, group boasts 3,500 members

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

They found each other through grief and frustration. 

Three years later, the leadership team of #JAVA – Justice Accountability & Victims Advocacy – says it can look back and see the impact the organization has made for others touched by tragedies, including homicides. 

“I had no experience in what was involved in a homicide case and even what it does to a family,” said Theresa Garcia Juillerat, one of six women on the JAVA leadership team. “It's not OK. We collectively knew it was time to speak out, time to bring families together.”

Stacey Davis and Amy Miller-Davis, who are not related, founded JAVA in September 2018 after experiencing the pain of personal tragedies. At a  memorial service Sept. 25 for the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, nearly 60 families lined up to say their loved one's name out loud and chime a meditation bell. They represent some of the families who have come together because of JAVA.

The organization's mission is to support its members and hold the criminal justice system accountable. It has expanded since the women held their first meeting three years ago. Now incorporated as a nonprofit, the Facebook group has more than 3,500 approved members and includes men. 

From rushing to homicide scenes to supporting shell-shocked families to navigating the bewildering legal system, JAVA members try to be at a family's side for every need.

They lend a hand when victim impact statements need to be written to help in sentencing decisions. They provide for families' basic necessities, such as food and cleaning supplies. They link families to community resources for funeral planning, repast dinners and pastoral care.

“We check in with families to let them know they are important and not forgotten about and not alone on this journey,” Davis-Miller said. 

Their work is not to be confused with that of Fort Wayne Victim Assistance, a unit of the Fort Wayne Police Department. Victim Assistance helps all victims of crime in Allen County, through all law enforcement agencies,  “to empower and address the needs of crime victims impacted by violence and abuse through advocacy and support,” director Jessica Crozier said.

JAVA is not associated with any governmental agency and focuses on homicides. 

Gratitude for JAVA's work is found on its Facebook page. And at one of JAVA's recent events, followers expressed their appreciation.

“I don't ever feel that they don't understand what I'm coming from,” Tina Barela Djurdjevich said at the recent National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims event. Her son, Steven Gibson, 28, was shot Aug. 13, 2020, and died three weeks later at an Indianapolis hospital. No charges were brought against the shooter who claimed self-defense.

“They are just amazing people. I am so glad we found them,” Djurdjevich said.

With Davis by her side, Djurdjevich said she met with Allen County prosecutors and found it was easier to understand “the lingo. She messaged me right away and said 'Tina, I will go with you.'” 

Miller-Davis and Davis found each other through their own family homicides.

Davis' son, Codi McCann, 22, was shot dead as he sat in a car behind the State Grill on East State Boulevard on Dec. 6, 2016.

Miller-Davis' nephew, Spencer Smith, 20, was shot dead Aug. 19, 2017, as he ran from his pursuers at East Central Towers.

Davis, a data analyst for a health insurance audit company, recalls she could barely function after her son was killed. She couldn't get out of bed, found it difficult to put one foot in front of the other and thought of all the mothers and fathers out there living through the same ordeal.

“When I started coming out of the fog, I started looking for other families who'd had homicides,” Davis said. She found Miller-Davis through Miller-Davis' sister.

“We were really trying to figure out what our rights were, who do we talk to like for the progression of our cases, why isn't anyone arrested, that kind of thing,” Miller-Davis said.

They initially joined with the short-lived group, Flip This City, formed in early 2018, dedicated to ousting Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards. Richards won reelection in 2018 and remains in office. When that dissolved, they came up with the name JAVA, with the word “justice” at the forefront.

Miller-Davis, a systems analyst for a downtown corporation, brought in three women she'd known for a long time, each with her own set of skills.

Angie Gill Gulley, in retail management, came to do anything needed and now specializes in the search for missing persons. JAVA is responsible for lining downtown Clinton Street in February with special ribbons for National Missing Persons Day.

Garcia-Juillerat, a medical informatics analyst, lost her son last year to a fentanyl overdose. She now focuses on helping families struggling with the explosion of drug overdoses and working toward legislation that would recognize drug overdose as a homicide in some cases. 

Nicole Gaunt, a licensed social worker, is a resource for families who need mental health counseling and advice, particularly in prisons and jails.

Recently, Dee Campbell, whose grandson Kevin Nguyen, 25, disappeared in December 2018, joined the leadership team.

JAVA members sit with families as they grieve in their homes and help with funeral arrangements, often providing refreshments. They attend court hearings, trials, sentencing hearings and pass tips along to homicide detectives.

They attend vigils, speak to media, host events like Black Balloon Day for overdose victims, arrange transportation and held monthly meetings until the pandemic limited that activity. At the meetings, family members would often stand up and speak from the heart.

Timika Bonner's son, De'Onta Bonner, was 18 when she found him stabbed to death nine years ago lying in the grass between two homes on the southeast side. She compares life before and after JAVA.

“I was alone, lost, confused, like I'd lost my mind,” said Bonner, who often records vigils and other events on video to post on JAVA 's Facebook page. “I knew to get dressed and take showers, but I couldn't put a meal together. I didn't cook. I would crawl back in the dark and shut everyone out.”

Now it's different. “I'm not alone. I get a lot of comfort, not only comfort, but support. When I'm out there, it gives me purpose,” Bonner said. She leans on her faith in God.

“Our grandbabies keep us going,” Bonner said, standing with Dawn Harper. 

Harper's son, Marcus Harper, 23, was stabbed last year in a McDonald's parking lot in Los Angeles during an argument provoked by his attacker.

After a homicide, “everybody disappears. Their life goes on. Our life stops,” Harper said.

Trying to make sense of a different state's legal system, Harper got direction from JAVA members. Her son's accused killer now awaits trial.

JAVA members interact often with local police and prosecutors. Both departments have participated at JAVA summits and meetings. 

“The Fort Wayne Police Department supports victim advocacy and encourages all victim support groups to utilize available resources to help comfort, counsel and advocate for those grieving families who are suffering the loss of a loved one because of a crime,” Jeremy Webb, FWPD public information officer, said in an email. 

Chief Deputy Prosecutor Michael McAlexander said the relationship between prosecutors and JAVA was antagonistic at first but has changed. 

“I like to think it's been based on mutual respect and a search for the same goal. And I think they've learned more how the system works and what they can and what they can't do,” McAlexander said. 

Coincidentally, homicides have been solved at much higher rates since the city's police department augmented its homicide unit in late 2018 and appointed Sgt. Tim Hughes to reorganize it, Davis said. 

Solve rates have jumped from the 40 and 50 percentile rate for 2015 through 2018 to more than 80 percentile in 2019 and 2020, according to FWPD data. But JAVA continues to hold the department accountable. 

“We want them to incorporate their new practices and to look at old cases under the new light. We want them to go out and reinterview witnesses when appropriate and put new sets of eyes on old cases,” Davis said. “Sometimes this would include going over evidence police already have.”  

JAVA members are such a familiar sight at crime scenes, Gaunt said. It's not unusual for the members to interact with officers. 

In December, Gaunt arrived quickly at the MUSE on Main, a live music venue, when other members of the organization alerted her to a possible homicide there. 

“JAVA's here!” a young officer yelled to the other officers as he started putting up the yellow tape.

This story has been corrected.

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