'I will make sure he pays': Mom's fight to keep daughter's killer in prison is a model for victims

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 22, 2014 

  • VICTIMS' RIGHTS WEEK

    This year “National Crime Victims Rights Week” is April 6-12.

    As in the past, the victim advocates here in Columbus will gather families for a trip to the state Department of Corrections headquarters in Forsyth, where they meet members of the parole board, review their cases, talk about the loved ones they’ve lost and the perpetrators still imprisoned.

    The advocates have a bus for those in need of transportation; others may follow in their cars. All are to gather at 7 a.m. April 7, in the Peachtree Mall parking lot between Johnny Carino’s and Macy’s. They’ll have coffee and donuts before they hit the road.

    Anyone who wants to go must register in advance by calling 706-225-3618. The bus leaves at 7:45 a.m. and returns by 6 p.m.

    At 2 p.m. April 12, a Crime Victim Memorial Service will be held in the plaza of the Columbus Government Center, 100 10th St. After the ceremony, participants will drive to the city’s homicide brick memorial off Lumpkin Boulevard.

    Each brick costs $50, and anyone who’d like one placed in memory of the lost must fill out a form by March 28. The number to call for that is 706-653-4426.

The exhausted 18-year-old gently rocked her infant daughter to death.

The baby already was brain-dead, her brain activity down to 4 percent from an injury inflicted by the mother's 24-year-old boyfriend. Evidence would show he smacked the 4-month-old's skull against a headboard.

As her firstborn died in her arms, the baby's last breath a smell she would never forget, the mother made a vow.

"When I held my daughter, I vowed to her: 'I will make sure he pays.' I vowed that to her as she died: I will make sure he pays."

She did.

For 26 years, she missed no parole hearing for the man who murdered her child. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles never reviewed his case without letters and petitions the mother wrote or solicited. Board members marveled at her persistence.

But the killer's prison term is ending, and as he prepares for his freedom, he will see her face again, one last time, and hear what she has to say to him, in a program that lets victims address convicts up for release.

The mother who was 18 the day her daughter died March 14, 1987, today is Dana Reynolds, 45, who works downtown with her husband Michael Reynolds, a Columbus attorney. Her daughter was Brittany Wardwell, fatally injured May 11, 1987, in a house on Glenview Drive.

Storm of grief, anger

The house on Glenview, off Amber Drive north of Buena Vista Road, was the home Dana's then-boyfriend Jose Antonio Lopez shared with his parents. She called him Joe. They'd known each other since they went to Spencer High School, where Dana had dated a friend of his.

After high school she began dating a bagboy she worked with at a grocery store, where she was a cashier. He got her pregnant. They married and wound up living in a Columbus trailer park before he moved her to Vermont to isolate her from her family, she said.

She was still pregnant when she fled home to Columbus, to have her daughter here. She lived in a battered women's shelter near the hospital, so she could walk there for exams.

Brittany was born Jan 16, 1987.

Dana was pushing Brittany in a stroller one day at what was then Columbus Square Mall on Macon Road when she bumped into Joe. Once reacquainted, they started dating. She began spending nights at Joe's home.

It was the week after Mother's Day, 1987, when Dana left Brittany in Joe's care while she worked a temporary job at Pratt & Whitney.

Around 4 p.m. that day, Joe called her at work. He told her he had spanked Brittany: "She wouldn't quit crying, so I spanked her."

Dana didn't take him seriously.

"I laughed, thinking he was just joking around," she recalled. "And I said 'Whatever.' And he said, 'Well, she just wouldn't quit crying so I spanked her.'"

As she left work, headed to his Glenview Drive home, a thunderstorm started, as if on cue, an omen of the tempest that would rage through her life for years to come.

"It was pouring down rain, and my windshield wipers fell off my car. I was driving a '75 Chevy Nova. You could not see the hood of your car. I was going fast. I had the pedal to the metal."

Joe was gone when she arrived. His brother was there, and he told her to go to the hospital; Brittany had fallen off the bed.

"So I get back in my car, and it is pouring buckets, and I'm flying to The Medical Center," Dana recalled.

The hospital staff immediately ushered her in.

Still Dana thought Brittany had no more than a bump on the head -- until the police came and said they needed to question her.

"I'm just all like, 'Why?' I thought she just had a bump on the head, seriously."

Then the officers focused on Joe.

"They said they were going to take him in for questioning, and the minute they said it, my mom looked at him and said, 'How dare you?' And he said, 'I swear I didn't do anything.'"

Around 4 a.m., the lead detective in the investigation met Dana at the hospital. His name was Ricky Boren.

"He said, 'Did you know your child has been abused?' And I said, 'Why? What are you talking about?' And he said, 'Well, Mr. Lopez admitted to beating your daughter.' And I'm just thinking, 'This is Twilight Zone.'"

The first court hearing was May 15, 1987, the day before Brittany's funeral. The detective testified Joe told police he couldn't take any more of Brittany's constant wailing, and he lost control after the baby vomited on him.

"He said he was constantly yelling, 'Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Be quiet!' He said he just couldn't take it," said the investigator who today is Columbus' police chief.

Embraced by her mother, Dana stood and glared at Joe and made only one statement to the judge: "I hope he rots in jail."

Sequestered as a witness, she didn't hear others testify the next year in the murder trial. Gray Conger was the prosecutor. The late Pete Quezada was the defense attorney, who Dana said brought a bed to the courtroom trying to show Brittany accidentally sustained her fatal injury.

'I failed her'

Convicted of murder, Joe went into the Georgia prison system April 4, 1988, and Dana made sure he stayed there, because of her death-cradle vow to Brittany:

"There's not a day that's gone by that I've forgotten what happened. There's not a day that's gone by that I've forgotten what she looked like when she died. … It became an obsession with me to make sure he stays in there as long as he could. I failed her, when she was with me. I failed her. And I felt like I had to do this for her."

Joe came up for parole eight years later. Dana got notice from Georgia's Pardons and Paroles Board. She wrote the board letters; so did her family.

But that wasn't all: She also took a petition around, told her story to strangers and sought their support. And they gave it. "Strangers in the street, people I didn't know would sign it, and add their addresses."

Dana knows her campaign eventually must end. Joe will be released from prison. She can't keep him there forever.

Needing guidance and support to face this inevitability, she turned to the Columbus-area judicial circuit's victim-witness advocates.

"That's when I contacted Shelly," she said, "because I thought, 'Maybe I need some backup here. What can I do to get more support?'"

Shelly is Shelly Hall, director of the six-county victim-witness assistance program, who sees Dana as a role model for other victims' families.

She said some families don't know they have to lobby to keep a killer in prison, because the perpetrator's family always campaigns to get the offender released.

If the state Board of Pardons and Paroles hears only from the criminal's family, that's all it has to go on.

"People get released all the time," Dana said. "You're going to get their pastors writing character statements, and their family writing what a good boy he is, and that goes in his file, so when Pardons and Paroles pulls his file for review, they've got a stack of letters praising him, but nothing from the victim's family or the victim."

She made sure the board saw the void in her life, the gap that remained even after she remarried and had three more children: "I would send pictures of me and my family, and there was always a place in that picture for Brittany, and I would say, 'Look at this spot where she would have stood.'"

Seeking survivors

The Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit's Victim-Witness Assistance Program wants more families to learn from Dana's example. But first it has to find them.

Toward that end Shelly Hall is compiling a database of old cases for which her staff needs family contact information.

So far she has found 1,376 cases to track, the oldest the murder of Norman Calhoun on Aug. 21, 1959. She does not know the details, only that someone bought a commemorative brick bearing his name for Columbus' homicide victims memorial, off Lumpkin Boulevard between the South Commons and the Chattahoochee RiverWalk.

His is among the many cases for which the program has no family contact.

"It's unbelievable how many have drifted off," said Shelly. "Of course, a lot of these were committed before our office existed. … Really the city's computer system didn't exist when these were committed. A lot of these are 1977 to '88, these murders, so there's no place that they were entered in a computer."

Some of the perpetrators still are coming up for parole, and often parole board workers can't locate the victims' remaining family, so they give up.

"Many, many times they can't get in touch with a family member, so they don't attempt anymore. By law they have to try three times, and that's it. As long as they show that they tried, they're off the hook," Shelly said.

Sometimes the effort is futile: "It's pitiful. It's an address that existed 35 years ago," she said.

She wants her office to take up that slack, to reach any remaining survivors, establish contact and inform them of the services available.

"Our work is never done," she said. "We have ongoing services. Because of the victimization that somebody went through, we offer services forever."

At 2 p.m. Saturday, April 12, a Crime Victim Memorial Service will be held in the plaza of the Columbus Government Center, 100 10th St. After the ceremony, participants will drive to the homicide memorial.

Each brick in the memorial costs $50, and anyone who'd like one placed in memory of the lost must fill out a form by March 28. The number to call for that is 706-653-4426.

That's also the number Shelly wants families to call to provide contact information. She may not hunt down all the survivors she seeks, but they can call her and let her know if they want notice of parole board hearings and other updates.

If a family shows even "the least bit of interest" in a parole hearing, victims' advocates will pitch in to help, she said: "We have a team of people who will write letters and sign petitions, and they carry so much weight, they really do. And I'll tell you what, Dana is just living proof of that."

Dana Reynolds will be among those reading the names of the dead during the April 12 memorial service.

Unforgiven

One day, Dana will do something no one here has done yet: She will face the former boyfriend who killed her child, in a "dialogue" program that allows survivors to address perpetrators about to be released.

She doesn't know what she'll say to Joe. Whether he says anything to her is her choice. She hasn't decided that yet, either.

"I don't want to forgive him," she said. "And I question myself spiritually. I don't want to forgive him, and that's not what this is about, but if he is going to get out, I have to accept it."

Though she cannot forgive, others can, and the dialogue program gives them that chance.

"A lot of people want to forgive the offender, and it's an opportunity if they want to. It's an opportunity for them to say what they want to say. They told me that if I don't want him to speak, then he can't speak. … I just know that I want to say what I need to say to him, to walk out that door and pray that I can breathe again. That fight is over. That 20-something-year-long fight is over."

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service