‘I will survive’

Canadian County vigil brings out tears, dark memories

Crime victims and their families light candles at Monday's vigil. (Photo by Tim Farley)

By Tim Farley

News Editor

Tears flowed as Tonia Byers told her story about four years of child sexual abuse during an emotional crime victims vigil at the Canadian County courthouse Monday.

Byers, who uses poetry to deal with the horrific experiences, said she spent years grieving the loss of her “innocence”

“I had days filled with sadness. I grieve the lost years I will never get back,” she said.

Making life more difficult was the death of her 20-year-old daughter and granddaughter last year. The two perished in an accident at Interstate 40 and Morgan Road. An investigation is ongoing.

“There’s this black abyss you feel when you’re grieving. As a child, I saw myself being pushed down this black hole,” she said.

But from the outside, everything appeared normal. Byers was on the school honor roll. She participated in gymnastics and was a cheerleader. She was outgoing, never argued with her parents and was surrounded by friends.

Yet, on the inside, she was struggling and continued to deal with it years later. As a 16-year-old, she attempted suicide.

“I wanted to end it all, but God had other plans for me,” she said, as tears streamed down her cheeks.

Strangely, Byers learned to thank the person who abused her.

“I am who I am today because of that,” she said. “Things may happen that seem horrible and you ask why? It’s not about the why for me. It about the what. What am I going to do now? I may never understand the why, but tragedy and grief doesn’t have to consume me. I will survive. What happened to me was outside my control. What happened to me was done to me, not by me.”

Byers encouraged others in the courtroom to use the adversity in their life and become stronger people.

“You survive. You put one foot in front of another,” she said. “There is courage in strength and there is life after grieving. It feels beautiful to be alive.”

As crime victims, Byers said people must find their voices and speak out for their rights, just as criminal defendants have specific constitutional guarantees.

“We must stand strong and speak up for truth and justice,” she said.

During a Speak Out portion of the vigil, anyone present was allowed to talk about their experiences as a crime victim or the family member of a victim.

Corey Carson, whose wife was killed in a DUI accident, thanked the district attorney’s office for their work and dedication in prosecuting the case. The defendant pleaded guilty and received and was sentenced to life in prison.

Carson brought his two daughters, ages 10 and 6, to the vigil.

“It’s really good for the girls to see they’re not alone and others have experienced bad things,” he said. “This is also their first time in the courthouse.”

As a single father and a business owner, Carson talks daily with his daughters about issues surrounding their mother’s death and their lives moving forward.

“We’ll talk about this (vigil) on the way back to Yukon. It’s good for them to be around people with similar losses. I think it’s therapeutic,” Carson said.

Carson’s wife, Amanda, was killed Dec. 31, 2016, when a vehicle driven by Craig Maker crashed into the Yukon woman’s car. Amanda Carson’s two daughters recovered from their injuries, but foreign exchange student and friend Hu Huong died, suffering from severe head trauma.

Anna Sage Romero spoke about her daughter, Alisa Sage, who was killed by a family member four years ago. The man was convicted of manslaughter and remains in prison.

“It’s not over when someone is taken. The grief continues. That’s why I’m here,” Romero said.

Trey Brooks was at the vigil in memory of his father who was murdered in Oklahoma City. The killers have never been captured.

“It’s hard to go through,” he said. “I wish the people who did this had been caught.”

Canadian County Sheriff Chris West took the microphone to thank the victims for their courage.

“We have brave people who are willing to stand up,” he said.

Canadian County District Attorney Mike Fields advocated for passage of State Question 794, which is a proposed constitutional amendment voters will decide in November. The measure would give victims and people directly impacted by a crime specific rights.

“Far too many have felt what it was like to be a victim of crime. We need to expand the reach and scope of victims’ services,” Fields said.

Referring to Byers’ comments, Fields said, “We know there are silent victims all around us with unseen scars. We need to reach out farther and speak out louder. They need to know there is hope.”

The proposed constitutional amendment would grant specific rights to victims, including the right to be:

Treated with fairness and respect for the victim’s safety, dignity and privacy.

To reasonable and timely notice of proceedings upon request.

To be heard in any proceeding involving release, plea, sentencing or parole of the accused.

To reasonable protection.

To reasonable notice of any release or escape of the accused upon request.

To refuse an interview or other request made by the accused.

To full and timely restitution.

To proceedings free from unreasonable delay and a prompt conclusion of the case

To confer with the attorney for the state upon request.