MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. (AP) - The unmistakable signs of the season, including a glittery tree decked with tinsel and lights, will still be seen in this Merritt Island home this Christmas, as relatives once separated by distance and time come together in celebration.
But the festive chatter around the dinner table will be tempered for a few moments, first as the candle flickers to life next to a portrait of Andrea Levine and then by the painful flood of memories from a horrible September night in 1990.
That was when Doug Levine - then 15 - and his parents heard knocks booming at the front door. Next came stunned tears as the Levines heard the news that their vibrant, red-haired daughter, Doug's sister, had been slain.
"I had really fond memories of her," said Cocoa Police Detective Doug Levine, who now investigates homicide cases. "We had just moved to Merritt Island. My parents were devastated, it was their wedding anniversary."
Levine stepped forward this month to share his story of grief during an annual memorial organized by the Brevard County State Attorney's Office for families who have lost loved ones to homicide. On display a few feet away: A cotton quilt made up of photos and other sentimental items from homicide victims, including his sister.
"The holidays are extremely rough," said State Attorney Phil Archer, who oversees the prosecution of the county's murder cases. "You remember things ... most people have good associations with the holidays. But then knowing that, that person is yanked out of their lives, that makes it very tough to get through."
Several surviving family members listened amid the tears and quiet of the ceremony. Others surrendered emotions about the hurt, the anger and loss that followed the aftermath of being told a son, daughter, mother, brother or other relative was killed by violence.
"It's not only a reminder to the families, but to me and my staff," Archer said. "This is why we do the job we do. We want the families to understand our commitment to fight the evil that brought them to this point."
The advocate's office created the homemade quilt woven with album-cover-sized patches made up of pictures, appliques and even clothing from homicide victims. The quilt - similar to the AIDS quilts that memorialize victims of that deadly disease - originated a decade ago when a State Attorney's Office victim advocate suggested the idea. So far, the quilt has about 50 squares honoring the memory of Brevard County-related homicide victims.
"It's free to any survivors who want to add a square," said Lisa De Anda, coordinator for the Victim Advocate unit, which acts as a liaison for survivors dealing with the criminal justice system. The quilt is on permanent display at the State Attorney's Office in Viera.
"People have written things on the squares," she said. "We had a victim that liked to bowl, so there are appliques of a bowling ball and pins. One is a picture of a young man who liked to fish. What people need to know is that there is no time limit on grief. People grieve these losses forever."
Levine, inspired by his sister's murder to go into law enforcement, first learned about the quilt five years ago when he was speaking before a holiday memorial. He stepped into the room where the event was being held and was met with his sister's black-and-white portrait staring back at him from the quilt.
"They had asked my mom to contribute to the quilt, and she gave them my sister's picture," he said. "By then, I was a detective with Cocoa and hadn't told anyone that my sister had been murdered. You have to understand that I had always felt there was a reason for me doing what I'm doing, and when I saw that, I just knew I was doing the right thing.
"Coming to the memorial has actually brought me to terms with what I went through. I'm able to deal with the family members of homicide victims and let them know that I knew exactly how they felt. What this quilt does is keep the memories alive and lets people know that these are not lost souls," he said.
Levine, in addition to speaking at the memorial, said he now shares his experience with fellow detectives.
"I tell them that no matter the circumstance, how or why, what the person did, these victims never deserve to be unlawfully killed. At some point, they were somebody's little boy or girl in their jammies or out playing football."
The victim advocates reached out to the Levine family, who had been in Brevard County less than a year, shortly after the devastating news of Andrea Levine's murder. She was the victim of convicted killer George Russell, who stalked and killed his victims in the suburbs of Seattle in 1990.
Seattle Police said she was home Sept. 3, 1990, sleeping, when Russell broke into her ground-level apartment and bludgeoned her to death. Russell was arrested nearly two weeks later. The case made national headlines and became a case study for criminologists.
"At that age, it was not something I could understand," Levine said. "My family had never dealt with that type of grief. I shut it out, my mom, she was bedridden and had to be medicated. It was the first time I ever heard my father cry."
The first Christmas, ordinarily a time when family members would either call or come over, was very somber, overshadowed by the slaying.
"We still decorated, even started a Christmas tree. But it was my parents attempting to carry out some normalcy," he said.
Even though the slaying was in Washington state, the victim advocates reached out to the family, helped arrange for counseling for the parents and prepared them for Russell's trial, along with the gruesome details that would emerge. Over the years, the family developed their own holiday customs.
The Levine family still talks about Andrea, her zest for life and love of animals. Every Christmas, a candle is lit and set next to her picture.
"It's a beautiful picture ... the same one that is on the quilt. We've learned to deal with the pain. You don't shut it out. You see certain things or smell something that brings back a memory," said Levine, who talks to his two children about the aunt they never met.
"I cope not just with Christmas, but every day. Twenty years later, everything, the memories are still very vivid."
Information from: Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.), http://www.floridatoday.com
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