BRADENTON -- A blend of hope and grief hung over the Riverwalk on Thursday evening. Just before 6 p.m., people began trickling into the Mosaic Amphitheater for the 28th Annual Victims of Crime Candlelight Vigil. Hosted by the Manatee County Victims' Council, the event was held for crime victims and family members of those fallen due to crime to cope collectively with their own personal tragedies.
Natasha Nixon, president of the Manatee County Victims' Council, said the theme of this year's vigil was "30 Years: Restoring the Balance of Justice." It coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Crime Victims' Rights Act.
"Thirty years ago, crime victims had virtually no rights and assistance," Nixon said earlier this week, adding that they were often excluded from courtrooms and weren't granted victims' compensation. Now, victims have more rights. Nixon said the Manatee County Victims' Council wants to raise awareness that victims are here.
"Their tragedy is real," she said. "I want them to know that they're supported by this community."
Ken Followell, president of Male Survivor, an organization that supports men who have been sexually abused, led the night dotted in testimony and prayer by Arlene Maltes of Lineage of Faith Church.
"I've been impacted by crime, and I know the way that it impacts all of our lives, so thank you for being here with us," Followell told the crowd.
Some family members held photos of their deceased loved ones. Some stared ahead in silence.
James Wischer, a Crimes Against Children detective with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, took the stage to share what his life was like after his father abandoned his family in 1969.
"Unlucky for me and my siblings, what was coming next was a morally-indiscriminate, situational child molester," he said, adding that it's a fancy term law enforcement officials use to categorize a pedophile. "The man who came into our life shipwrecked our childhood for the next 10 years."
Wischer escaped the abuse in 1980 and said it took him two decades to heal.
"The norm for people who go through what me and my siblings went through is to not recover, unfortunately," he told the silent crowd. "I'm the exception. I am well. I am healed."
His message was that others can do the same.
Toward the back of the amphitheater, a handful of agencies had booth tables covered in pamphlets, colorful pencils and bits of helpful information for people to take home.
On the far left, community relations specialist DeEtt M. Bailey represented Family Resources, a private, not-for-profit organization that offers programs in both Manatee and Pinellas counties.
"We're here to support the families and the victims of crime," she said, "whether it be a sex crime or some other sort of crime -- to let them know that we support them as an agency."
After the testimonies were voiced and several white doves were released in honor of loved ones fallen from crime, Pamela Cash stayed around for a bit with some of her family members. The 49-year-old from Bradenton held onto a cross made from two pieces of wood nailed together.
Tacked onto the cross was an image of her smiling son, Dakota Smith. Smith was shot dead Feb. 20 near Norma Lloyd Park. The 15-year-old's death was the first homicide in Bradenton this year.
Cash said she copes with her son's death one day at a time.
"I keep praying and knowing I'll see him again one day in heaven," she said, her voice breaking. "That's what keeps me strong -- what keeps me going every day."
Cash said Dakota was going to his friend's house and was supposed to meet up with her afterward at their home.
"It seemed like that he was gone longer than usual, and I was gonna get ready to walk down to the street to his friend's and then my youngest son came up and said that he was shot and he was dead," Cash said.
She refused to believe it and said she ran all the way from their duplex home to the crime scene.
Now, she wants justice served. No arrests have been made in the case.
"I feel God will get justice for him because he was a good boy. He didn't bother nobody," said Cash.
Tears welled up in her eyes.
"He just turned his life around, asked God in his heart in September," she said. "I was seeing the changes in him."
Amaris Castillo, Law Enforcement/Island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.