Seeing Crime Guns Destroyed Gives Solace to Victims' Families
By PAM BELLUCK
New York Times
January 4, 2006
SOUTH PORTLAND, Me. - Kelly DeCambra made her way through a seven-inches-an-hour snowstorm to a dingy Maine State Police garage where, among the brake parts, transmissions and a flat-bed tow truck, she hoped to find a fragment of solace.
It would come in the form of a Ruger .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk revolver, caked with blood and the memory of Ms. DeCambra's son, 21-year-old Lionel St. Hilaire, who was shot to death with it last year.
The mother had come to watch the gun that was used to kill her son be sawed into pieces in an acrid plume of white-hot sparks.
Ms. DeCambra's act of witness was made possible by a law Maine enacted in 2001 that requires handguns used in homicides to be destroyed when they are no longer needed for evidence. Before that, guns were often sold or auctioned by police departments to raise money for other equipment.
Gun control advocates, gun rights supporters, and law enforcement officials say they believe that Maine is the only state where the police allow victims' relatives to watch a gun's destruction, and the acts of witness are arranged informally by the police, not spelled out in the law.
Supporters of the law, including the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, acknowledge that in a state like Maine, which in the last decade averaged about 20 homicides a year, destroying such weapons takes only a few guns out of circulation. But the requirement that crime guns be destroyed reflects a trend among police departments nationwide.
A few states, including New York and Wisconsin, require at least some guns to be destroyed, and others, like Washington, have rescinded bans on destroying guns used in crimes.
Several municipalities have passed ordinances to prevent crime guns from being sold, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police passed a resolution six years ago encouraging police departments to destroy guns used in crimes .
"It's just a culmination of factors," said Gene Voegtlin, the association's legislative counsel, based in Alexandria, Va. "Did police agencies really want to be in a situation where they were offering guns back to the public? A lot of the weapons that are confiscated aren't necessarily the highest quality, so there are some safety issues involved, liability issues involved." The association's resolution urges police departments not to sell their old police guns or trade them in to a manufacturer for new ones, a practice that began to be common in the 1990's.
Efforts to prevent the resale of guns have been spurred partly by highly publicized crimes like those committed by Buford O. Furrow Jr., a white supremacist who in 1999 used a gun that had once belonged to the police department in Cosmopolis, Wash., to wound five people at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles and kill a Filipino-American postal worker.
Although some police departments destroy guns, often by melting them down, others, usually smaller departments, still sell them.
"You got to use every penny you can get," said Roberto Fulgueira, the police chief in Sweetwater, Fla., who last year traded in his officers' old Glocks and some crime guns, saying he needed about $15,000 for new Glocks for his 65 officers.
With the money, he said, "I bought all my men guns, I bought bulletproof vests, and I still have a credit."
Maine's law came about because of Debbie O'Brien, a Kennebunk woman whose 20-year-old son, Devin, was shot to death in 1996. When she learned that the state police would probably sell the gun used to kill her son, Ms. O'Brien said her reaction was, "Oh, my God, the police are here to help you and the next thing you know they're turning around and selling a gun, making money off my dead son."
Ms. O'Brien lobbied for the proposed law, saying that she told the state police, "Look, if you need money, let's do bake sales."
"You're in hell," she said. "You're just struggling to have a life, and then I realized that would include the gun."
William Harwood, a gun control advocate in Maine, and Robert M. Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said the original proposal was for all crime guns to be destroyed. But because of the state's strong hunting lobby, they said, the final law included only handguns used in homicides.
"To be candid," Mr. Harwood said, "the legislation had as much symbolic importance as it does deterrence."
But the symbolism is powerful, said Ms. O'Brien, who watched the .22-caliber handgun used to kill her son be cut up six years after his death.
"It was just a very important day for my husband and I," she said. "This was a weapon that changed our lives."
For Ms. DeCambra, watching the destruction of the gun used to kill her son - even though it was done without ceremony in a stark garage - seemed the closest thing she could find to justice, and a way to ease her feelings of helplessness and guilt that she had not been there to help her son when he was gunned down by a woman's former boyfriend.
Ms. DeCambra said she never saw her son's body because it was already being autopsied by the time the police notified her.
She said she had been unable to see punishment imposed on her son's killer, Zachary Fenderson, who had found his ex-girlfriend with Mr. St. Hilaire one night, because Mr. Fenderson immediately shot and killed himself.
Ms. DeCambra said she was even thwarted when she tried to put up a cross in a wooded area across from the house where her son was killed. She said someone removed each cross she tried to erect - a wooden one, a steel one, even one anchored in cement. "I haven't had any control over anything," said Ms. DeCambra, 38, a bartender at Mulligan's in Biddeford, Me. "When I brought children into this world, it's my job to protect them, and I couldn't do that. I feel like I failed him."
Ms. DeCambra, who had her first child when she was 14 and who gave birth to Mr. St. Hilaire when she was 16, has had a rocky life, plagued with early drug use and health problems that required a pacemaker and several operations. Her son, she said, was molested as a child, acted out in school and was sent to residential treatment centers. At 12, she said, he was molested by a center staff member, who was convicted. At 18, he was jailed for two years for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.
"I'm the first one to say my son wasn't perfect," she said. "But he's not a monster. He was my son, and I loved him very much."
Seeking to grasp the enormity of her son's death, Ms. DeCambra asked for the crime scene photos of his body, which she keeps along with an evidence bag containing his crumpled clothes.
Seeing the gun destroyed seemed a tangible way to address her grief, and she brought along her 24-year-old daughter, her 18-year-old son and his pregnant fiancée, her 2-year-old granddaughter and two friends. Without fanfare, a state police detective, Jeff Linscott, brought out the long-barreled Ruger revolver. He said many victims' relatives do not attend gun destructions, recoiling at the thought of seeing the weapon.
Ms. DeCambra hid her face and wept, her hands shaking, as a mechanic used a red chop saw to slice the gun four times, the pieces to be tossed on a scrap pile of used brake rotors and other metal parts.
"I have the same nightmare over and over," Ms. DeCambra said. "I'm watching him get shot, and I can't stop it. I need to do this."
Katie Zezima contributed reporting from Boston for this article.
That's messed up.
You want solace? Watch them kill the murderer with his own gun! That would be poetic justice.
Oops, it's a dupe.
Go here for discussion already in progess -