News & Features » Cover Story

Tried by Deadly Acts

by

comment
No matter that the vigil may not have been in a style befitting the Harveys. That it was too bright, too drowned out by whirring generators and much too religious. "God loves the Harvey family more than we do," Pastor Joe Ellison told the crowd, and invoked the 23rd Psalm. When asked by a fan about his faith some years ago, Brian Harvey had explained: "I don't really believe in God. However, I think I'm a pretty spiritual person. I have a lot of faith in humans. I believe we're capable of incredibly beautiful things (as well as incredibly evil)."

No matter, either, that the city leaders and neighbors who spoke at the vigil had little firsthand knowledge of the Harveys — of their hopes and dreams, passions and pursuits. For a community in pain, the crowd itself was important. Those who came did so to connect, if only through an awkward sign of solidarity.

The brutal murders of Bryan Harvey, 49, his wife, Kathryn, 39, and their two daughters, Stella, 9, and Ruby, 4, shattered the lives of an extended family of friends and relatives too many to count and prompted an outpouring of empathy and support.

And yes, the deaths prompted more of a public response than others. More because of the mystery and mayhem that marked the case, because there were no survivors of this nuclear family, because two little girls were bound and killed, because people felt as if they knew the Harveys, somehow, even if they didn't. Or maybe because they wanted to be like them — a loving family, a part of the community.

This same community was "united in sadness" last week, as Alane Cameron Miles, co-minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church, said at the Tuesday night vesper service held in the Harveys' honor. If the Harvey tragedy weren't unbearable enough for a community, Lewis A. Casper and his daughter, Roicana, had been murdered the same day. There would be more vigils and memorials to come.

Once reality set in, shock made way for sadness. It was a sadness that gripped, that felt insatiable at first. All you wanted to do was make it stop and, conversely, you prayed it never would. The onslaught of violence left us empty, longing to fill a void — if not with answers, then with something, anything.

The question became, What can I do?

For the desire to do something was urgent, as a city coped with a nightmare it couldn't explain. As investigators relied on a crime scene to speak for victims who couldn't speak for themselves. As speculation increased and word spread. As people near and far, with or without merit, weighed in through any available forum. As we cringed when "Inside Edition" blared, "It's being called the New Year's Day massacre."

The collective response to the Harvey murders reflects the way we live and an increased reliance on information, says Donelson R. Forsyth, a professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Forsyth, a leading scholar in group dynamics, studies social psychology and why people feel, think and act as they do.

That people are prone to identify with the Harveys and feel a strong connection to them is understandable, he says. "They were a key symbol of the community and represented the way Richmond should be," Forsyth says.

But as such, celebrity came to them in death. Those who didn't know them wanted to know everything about them. Even a U.K. news outlet seemed concerned about Kathryn's famous half-brother, Steven Culp, who played Rex on "Desperate Housewives" — not to mention the E! channel. Likewise, people sought meaning and looked for symbolism in the smallest of places: in a story about a cake baked by Stella, a picture of Ruby at her preschool or a sheet of lyrics penned by Bryan.

The Harvey tragedies are at the heart of a phenomenon that occurs when private agony becomes public. "You have to talk about it," Forsyth says. "At the same time you feel guilty talking about it, because with such a horrible crime almost anything you say sounds mundane."

He draws an analogy of the Harvey slayings and their effects to those of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. "It's almost our own 9/11," he says. "Someone has attacked the community by attacking people who are what's good about Richmond."

As in the wake of 9/11, Forsyth says, people search for answers. They search for new information about why and how such heinous killings occurred. They search for ways to express their emotions and, especially, their fear. The byproduct is often obvious: They share memories; they place flowers in front of a store; they light candles.

But headline stories are fleeting things, however compelling they may be. By Thursday night, Channel 12 had bumped a story about developments in the Harvey case to spot two on the 6 o'clock newscast, making way for a lead story on losing the bid for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Do we even wonder why? Meanwhile, radio reporters were running out of new stories about the Harveys and the Caspers. And newspaper columnists had started reflecting, seeking meaning in it all.

The stories that hold our attention most seem to be about matters of life and death. The Harveys' story tells both. It will, perhaps, as long as we let it.

It's why so many accounts and rumors about the Harvey slayings ran rampant — in newspapers, on TV, on Web sites and in offices and chat rooms — and why people who may not have known them intimately seemed as if they did.

"Information is key to how we process it," Forsyth says. In the week of the killings, little new information was revealed. Prosecutors and police vowed to stay silent unless they had something to say. But moments of silence are never truly silent, and sources seemed to appear from somewhere — or from someone somebody had heard from.

Speaking to the crowd during the Wednesday evening vigil outside the Harveys' South Side home, Com-monwealth's Attorney Michael Herring pleaded for patience. Could we have afforded it? By Friday, Jan. 6, when the mayor released a statement declaring an "absolute war on violent criminals," no suspects were in hand.

So for days, much of the same information was rehashed. Consequently, Forsyth says, news was presented that was irrelevant or should have remained off-limits. "It's a fine line between invading someone's privacy and respecting the needs of the community" to feel safe, he says. Accounts that revealed explicit details about the nature of the deaths, he says, and stories — even poignant ones — about the Harvey children, were inappropriate.

Then came Saturday.

During the weekend, news broke of another family slain. The bodies of Percyell Tucker, 55, his wife, Mary Baskerville Tucker, 47, and her daughter, Ashley Baskerville, 21, were found. They'd also been bound by duct tape in their Broad Rock Road home and slain. These murders quickly became a link to the Harvey case.

By Sunday, the Harvey tragedy again was front-page news, when Ray Joseph Dandridge and Ricky "Cooley" Javon Gray were arrested in Philadelphia and charged in connection with the seven Richmond slayings. Suddenly, new information spilled.

Police revealed that robbery was a likely motive. Richmond learns that, despite what investigators initially had said, items appeared to have been taken from the Harvey home, that their house seems to have been unlocked, and that the horrible crimes were not committed by someone the family knew.

The revelation became a puzzling one, if not more jarring: The crimes against the Harveys appeared to be random. In the case of the Caspers, no answers had yet been found. As for the Tucker-Baskerville family, police said there was a link between the killers and the daughter, Ashley Baskerville.

And for a community in pain that had received so many answers in such a short time, a new struggle begins in the second week of 2006. Even when we have information, can we believe it? Are we less outraged, or more? What do we do with feelings of revenge? And does the information make us feel any safer?

In time, Forsyth says it could. Eventually, emotion surrounding the Harvey slayings will fade, he says, and could precipitate a change in a society's actions, thoughts or prejudices. Meanwhile, he likens the public reaction to the deadly Beltway sniper attacks in October 2002. Fear was rampant. "Richmond got very worked up about it with the same sort of rumors and thirst for information," Forsyth says, adding that the public's attention was distracted by wildly inaccurate information — such as the shootings being the work of terrorists. It sparked fear and lasted a long, long time.

Bryan Harvey's musician friends have plans under way to purchase the house on West 31st and Chesterfield streets, raze it and turn it into a park. The effort could give those searching for answers something constructive to do. And it could give a "community that wants to calm itself," as Forsyth puts it, something lush and green that lasts a long, long time.



Editor Jason Roop contributed to this story.



More "United in Grief"...

Add a comment