Take a Virtual Tour of the Garden of Angels
Hidden at the end of rutted and pot holed Mossier Valley Road, Our Garden of Angels is a unique memorial to both life and death, a place that was never really planned but simply grew out of the grief of a mourning grandmother and friends who helped her. This is more than a roadside memorial. Rather, it is a quiet, manicured, softly-lit half-acre with a brick walkway, concrete benches and a man-made waterfall spilling into a shallow pool. Newly planted live oaks and pear trees will soon provide shade, and the crepe myrtle bushes that border the area will burst into bloom. And there are the white, wooden crosses, 80 of them, erected in honor of those whose lives were claimed by violence.
Carolyn Barker started attending the twice-monthly meetings of Families of Murder Victims, determined to attend the trials of the men who had killed Amy Robinson, her granddaughter. Carolyn reached out for help to Ray Stewart, who had founded FOMV.
He sat with her through the proceedings as the grim and senseless death of her mentally challenged granddaughter was revisited.
Amy, who suffered from a genetic disorder called Turner's syndrome, had been on her bicycle, en route to her job as a grocery sacker at an Arlington, Texas grocery store on a day in February, 1998, when self-proclaimed racists Robert Neville and Michael Hall decided to find a black person to kill. Unable to locate the particular youth they had planned to murder, they were driving along Division Street in Arlington when they saw Amy. Part Cherokee and dark-skinned, she became the target of the hate crime they were determined to commit. Promising her a ride to work, they put her bicycle in the back of their pickup, stopped to purchase wine coolers for themselves and a soft drink for Amy, then drove to the isolated area at the end of Mossier Valley Road on the far eastern edge of Tarrant County.
There they tortured Amy, shooting her with a pellet gun and a crossbow before Neville ended her suffering with a shot from a .22-caliber rifle. They left her body lying in a field of weeds beneath an electrical tower, laughing as they drove away. "I guess she'll be a little late for work," Hall later admitted saying.
The following day, realizing they had not checked to see if Amy had any money they could have stolen, they returned to the scene. While there, Hall fired seven additional shots into Amy's body "to see what it felt like."
Seventeen days passed before Amy was found. Neville and Hall, arrested on the Texas border while attempting to flee into Mexico, quickly confessed to authorities and a stunned TV reporter, laughing as they boasted, providing the gruesome details of Amy's abduction and murder. "She trusted us. It was easy," Hall bragged into the camera. Each would receive the death penalty.
It was as she attended Hall's trial that Carolyn Barker decided she wished to visit the place where her granddaughter had died. She was surprised to find that a small cross had been anonymously placed at the site. Handwritten on it were the words, "In God's Hands."
"Part of the American Indian philosophy," Barker explains, "is that one's spirit ascends into heaven from where the person dies. For that reason, locating the place where Amy was killed was important to me." In time she began to contemplate putting a more permanent memorial to her granddaughter at the site. During a support group meeting, Greg Price, a carpenter dealing with the murder of his nephew, suggested she erect a larger, more permanent cross. If she liked, he volunteered, he would build it.
From that suggestion, Our Garden of Angels would eventually grow.
"Amy," Carolyn says, "had always enjoyed being around people, didn't like to be alone. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of placing a cross where she died. The only thing that troubled me was the idea of her being out there by herself."
Friends in the support group understood. Vernon Price asked if she would mind if he placed a cross in memory of his son next to the one Greg Price (no relation) was building for Amy. In short order, others embraced the idea. Originally then, Amy's cross was joined by four others: Vern Price, a stabbing victim; Bobbie Kafka, a victim of domestic violence; Marty Klozik, the victim of an argument over a debt; and Chad Houston, murdered during an altercation outside a neighborhood pool hall.
"It was nothing formal or fancy," Carolyn said, "just a place we could go and remember our kids." In time, 27 crosses were placed among the weeds. It was Barbara Salter who first suggested they call the spot "Our Garden of Angels."
In November 2000, construction began on an extension of Trinity Boulevard, and in its course was the state-owned land where the crosses had been placed. Randy Miller, CEO of the Fort Worth-based A&A Construction company that was a participant in the new road construction, was long aware of the current memorial. "So, it concerned me when I realized that the new road would cut through the memorial. I went to my partners and suggested that we donate a portion of a little pie-shaped piece of land we owned nearby."
Receiving eager approval from the families who had erected crosses, Miller took his plans further. He contacted an architect friend to ask if he would design a memorial park on the site where the crosses would be moved. "Everyone just came together to make it a reality," Miller says. Today, he takes his wife and children out to view the memorial, which he insists is still not finished. He has plans to erect a donated flagpole, install an irrigation system, and perhaps even pave a parking lot for visitors. "I'm not a particularly religious person," he says, "but I see this as a sacred place."
Ray Stewart says that Randy has become the driving force behind the garden.
On Febuary 23, 1999, the new "Our Garden of Angels" was formally dedicated.
For Stacey Hassler, Our Garden of Angels is the lone place she can go to escape the anger over her daughter's murder and the ongoing frustration she feels for the slow-moving legal system. "Out here," she says, "you don't dwell on the negatives. This garden has changed me a great deal. When you go through the loss of your child, you suddenly find yourself in a world you don't understand. Everything looks the same, smells the same, tastes the same, but, really, everything is different. You feel crazy."
"I had a difficult time dealing with that until I met the people involved with this place." Now, she makes the trip to the end of Mossier Valley Road at least once a week.
"Carolyn Barker told me about the garden and took me out to look at it. The minute I saw it, I knew I wanted a cross there for my daughter and Jacob, my unborn grandson."
Now she often brings her grandchildren along to visit the garden. "They bring little things they've made to place near 'Mommy's cross.' They talk with her and enjoy playing near the waterfall. They love it here."
The garden has become a haven to young and old.
When a close friend stabbed Vernon and Linda Price's son to death on Mother's Day in 1999, they were suddenly distanced from their newborn grandchild. Their daughter-in-law, needing support from her own family in California, chose to move there after her husband's murder. The Prices understood and supported her decision but endured another wave of sadness. "What happened," Vernon says, "not only took our son, but put us in the position of not being able to see our grandchild nearly as often as we would like."
For the Prices, the garden has become a welcome refuge. Living just a few miles from the site, they volunteered for the role of caretakers, seeing that wind-blown trash is collected and no weeks invade the area.
"There's a peaceful feeling here that I've experienced nowhere else," Vernon says as he walks along the brick trail that winds towards the cross that bears his son's name. "It is not a sad place, whether you're here alone or in the company of others who have lost loved ones. This is where our healing took place."
"You can talk to people until you're blue in the face, trying to explain what the garden means to us, but unless you've shared a similar experience, it is an impossible task. That, I think, is why there is such a close kinship among those who have crosses here. You come here and you meet people who understand, who can share your feeling without so much as a single word being exchanged."
"There is no violence here," Linda Price said. "This is not a place for feeling anger or hatred or pointing fingers of blame. Here, we celebrate the lives of those whose names are on the crosses. We think and talk about the good times. We laugh and joke. And in doing so, gain the strength to look ahead to another day."
In his cluttered garage, Greg Price is working on three new crosses that will be dedicated soon. Like all other's he's built - including the one for his nephew - the white crosses are 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. (Those he makes for children are a foot shorter and only 2 feet wide.) The crosses include the name, birth date and date of death of those they honor. If a family is able, they reimburse Price the $40 that the materials to create the cross costs him; if they can't, he does the work gratis.
"Every time I do a cross," he says, "it reminds me just how fragile life is. Each one we've put out there is special to me because it has provided me an opportunity to help someone. That's what the garden is all about." "Still," he continues, "it's become a bittersweet experience. I've met so many really wonderful people - but only because someone they loved has died."
In a quiet residential area of Grand Prairie, patrolman Gary Brooks sits in his living room, watching his grandson wrestle with their ancient and docile family dog. Gary, a man who has encountered countless instances of death and violence during two decades as a law enforcement officer, he admits that dealing with a murder that visited his own family has been difficult.
"In my business," he says, "you never expect the chief and the department chaplain to come knocking at your door, notifying you that your own kid has been killed. You never think that you might be in a position of asking for time off to figure out what to do with the rest of your life. Or to have to place a long-distance call to an ex-wife and tell her that her child is dead. Suddenly, you find out that there are a lot of hard things in life to deal with, things we never anticipate or really understand."
Such were the feelings he was dealing with on that Sunday as he paid his first visit to Our Garden of Angels. As he mingled among those who had survived similar experiences, he felt the weight of his burden begin to ease. "What is happening here," he told his wife, "is a good thing."
Such are the many reasons that Our Garden of Angels has grown to a point where efforts are now under way to secure adjoining property for expansion. In truth, there is an ugly and heartbreaking story that echoes from each cross in the garden. Yet, while those who visit do not pretend to have forgotten their nightmarish experiences, they have chosen to use the memorial as a place for remembering the good instead of the bad, for reflection on lives lived, however briefly, instead of the horrible way in which they were ended.