Wednesday, April 21, 2010

CCSO Crime Victim Advocates Named Best In Florida

What started out as a check by deputies on the welfare of a mother and five children at their North Naples home in September 2009 quickly unfolded into the most violent crime in Collier County history.

Angela Larson and Lisa Fuller confirmed what family members waiting outside had suspected - that the six people inside the home had been murdered.

The two Collier County Sheriff’s Office victim advocates spent countless hours in the weeks that followed providing necessary support and direction to the surviving family members, many of whom lived in Haiti, and friends of the victims.

On Wednesday, Larson and Fuller were honored as Florida’s Victim Advocates of the Year in a ceremony at the Capitol hosted by Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum to recognize National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

Larson and Fuller, both 13-year CCSO veterans, were nominated for the award for going beyond the call of duty after the slayings of Guerline Dieu Damas, 32, and her children Michzach, 9; Marven, 6; Maven, 5; Meagan, 3; and Morgan, 19 months.

Mesac Damas has been in the Collier County jail since Sept. 22, 2009, following his release by Haitian authorities from Haiti, where he fled after the murders. He faces six counts of first-degree premeditated murder in the deaths of his wife and five children.

In addition to informing the immediate family members of the crime, Larson and Fuller needed to determine how they would handle all of the unanswered questions such as what happened and why; would Mesac Damas be located and arrested, how would the family execute a proper burial for the six victims and where would the money to pay for the burials come from, what would become of the victims’ belongings, and how do the surviving family members move on.

Many of the relatives of the victims lived in Haiti, and Larson and Fuller ensured that the surviving family members were brought together to say their final goodbyes. The two advocates helped facilitate the issuing of visas to bring the family to the United States. Due to the financial burden for the surviving family members, the advocates quickly submitted paperwork and secured state funding to cover the burial expenses of all six victims.

Because of the extensive media coverage surrounding the case, the victims’ family members were immediately put in the spotlight and their privacy was challenged. Larson and Fuller helped the family prepare formal statements to address media requests and community concerns.

Larson and Fuller both helped coordinate the planning of the funeral, which drew thousands of mourners. The advocates escorted immediate family members to and from the funeral, arranged for additional transportation for extended family members, assigned the procession, arranged for security, and most of all provided emotional support to the family and community.

Through their efforts in the case, Larson and Fuller helped to raise the level of domestic violence awareness in the community. The advocates gave a special tribute to the six victims and their family members during an annual candlelight vigil in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month held outside the county courthouse in October.

Larson said one of the most satisfying moments came when she and Fuller went with detectives to tell the family that Mesac Damas had been apprehended in Haiti.

“We felt vested in this case and it was important for us to share that with the family,” said Larson, Victim Services supervisor.

Angela Larson, center left, supervisor of the Collier County Sheriff's Office Victim and Senior Assistance Office, and CCSO victim advocate Lisa Fuller, center right, were honored Wednesday as Florida's Victim Advocates of the Year at a ceremony at the Capitol hosted by Gov. Charlie Crist and Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum.