In bygone years, journalists were supposed to stick to the “W’s” – Who, What, Where, When, Why …and How to present a factual account of a journalistic piece. However, as a survivor of crime, I now clearly see that reams of paper and ink are devoted to the “who” meaning the perpetrator and the “what” with a more than healthy dose of sensationalism, frequently at the expense of the crime victims. Victims’ families are nearly ignored in this process. The more grisly the better in journalism and viewers flock like a feeding frenzy. Like it or not, that’s the way it is.
This leaves them as “second class citizens, “out in the cold”, “at the back of the bus” and “a virtual afterthought at best!” Do journalists really give the public what they want? Or, is this just rationalization or an excuse for reprehensible behavior in presenting such a skewed image of the people and circumstances involved? I would like to think that the general public, irrespective of their thirst for the immediacy of social media, would “take the high road” if guided.
What is “the high road?” The high road would include: presenting a balanced picture-not to sensationalize; to stick to verified factual information; to not “rush to judgment “ for the sake of beating to the punch a competing news organization; to humanize the victims above all else, rather than used as a pawn in the ever complex judicial chess game.
The truth is, if journalists did a better job of humanizing the victims, I’m certain there would be positive “spill over effect” to court personnel and the enforcement of crime victims’ constitutional rights!
Enter, Stage Left, my customized victim impact writing service designed for victims “lost in the media swirl” who desperately need a cohesive, objective, experienced voice to convey the heart and soul of their loved one!
A prime example of getting caught in the abyss of the horror of mass homicide without as place to turn is Philip Russo, widower, former husband of Shelia Russo passionate advocate for the downtrodden, working as the Tribal Administrator on tribal land in Alturas, California (although the mass shooting took place in the tribal office, the building itself does not sit on tribal land). In February, Phil’s entire world “faded to black’. It all went horribly wrong in an instant!
In order to assist Phil in his quest to the correct the misconceptions of this tragedy, to focus on all victims, including the memory of Shelia, (as opposed to the press the murderer has received,) I submitted selected interview questions to Phil to reflect upon. Readers should keep in mind that his responses reflect a very new and early and very thoughtful perspective
In addition, in more than 30 years of working with crime victims, I have NEVER heard of a more egregious failure of “the system,” a more convoluted, complex, bureaucratic wasteland forced upon this man; lacking in sufficient resources for a crime victim in my life, all due to many circumstances beyond Phil’s control. It is the proverbial “black hole “you would not wish upon your worst enemy.
This is the very circumstance, which calls for others to step up and step in, including assistance with victim impact, where applicable!
However, on the positive side, I must say at the outset, with people connections, resources and some support, Phil is just beginning to “see the light of day” ever so slowly, with his overwhelming sense of grief the most difficult part of his battle.
I am honored that he chose to participate and offer his voice for the benefit of others.
Questions and Responses for Phil Russo
Thus far, what is the one most difficult lesson you have learned about being a victim of violent crime?
Personally speaking, it was the realization that all of the programs and people everyone thinks are out there to aid someone in my situation are either nonexistent or were or little to no help to me. I went through all of the traditional sources for victim’s assistance, not one was able to connect me with the help I was seeking. I was thrown into a quicksand of red tape. Having to jump through hoops to complete paperwork and make phone calls. Dealing with bureaucracy is the last thing you want deal with when you’re experiencing debilitating grief. For me, the ability to speak with people who had experienced losing someone to gun violence, just as I had, was crucial. I’ve had the good fortune to speak with many other survivors, who tell me they all had the same experience. It was only through reaching out on my own that I was able to find people like you, who were able to put me on the right path. I feel grateful for having come across the people I’ve met through social media. If it weren’t for all friends that I’ve made by striking out on my own for help, I don’t know where I’d be today. I’m lucky in that whatever it was that possessed me to use social media to reach out has led to meeting so many caring people. I hate to think about all the other victims who aren’t as lucky as I am in that regard. On the positive side, one of the enlightening things that I’ve learned is that in times of tragedy, you need to surround yourself with caring supportive people. When Shelia was first killed, I was determined to make it through this on my own. I realized though, that I was never going to make it alone. I needed help. So I opened my heart and reached out to others and it has made all the difference.
What is the biggest misconception that the media has concerning this horrible crime?
There are a few things. First, regarding Shelia’s role in all of this, Shelia’s job as Tribal Administrator was to implement the decisions made by the tribe. Shelia had no role in the decision making process for the recall elections or the evictions. Her job was to merely oversee the proceedings to make sure they were carried out per the tribe’s by laws.
Then, there are some who are of the opinion that this is just a common occurrence with Native American’s on reservations. I believe this is a misconception fueled by prejudice.
Regarding the matter of the embezzlement, it’s hard for me to believe that Cherie Rhoades would kill 4 people and try to wipe out the entire tribe merely over her eviction. There were 19 people in the building that day, and according to testimony by law enforcement, Rhoades made statements that she intended to kill everyone. Remember, this is woman who was receiving $80,000 a year and living in her house for free, simply for being a tribal member. She could have simply packed up and moved elsewhere very easily. Sources put the dollar amount of the embezzlement at $50,000, but that was just according to the 2012 financial audit. The accounting records for the previous years were so poorly kept, that they were going to have to recreate them forensically. Cherie Rhoades was the chairwoman for 10 years. I believe that if they dig deeper that they would find a lot more.
Hypothetically speaking, do you feel that if but for multiple victims, victims within the same family and culture as the perpetrator, your wife’s murder would not have “gotten lost”? Why/Why not?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I don’t know why this story, as a whole, has gotten very little attention. Even some of the activist groups that I’ve become a member of didn’t even know this shooting occurred. I’m not sure if it’s because of all the reasons you’ve listed or our extremely remote location. Those all very well could be the reasons. Then again, maybe not. I’m not sure why. I’m still trying to figure this out.
In your opinion, what can realistically be done to incentivize journalists to begin focusing on crime victims versus the perpetrators?
I’m not sure if it’s a matter of trying to incentivize or the need to humanize them… People have commented to me that the media is just giving the public what it wants I think that’s a cop out. People are still going to read the stories to learn the facts. I believe that media can still report the news without glorifying the perpetrators and all of the sensationalism. I can understand why some people are apprehensive about talking to the media. They’re afraid of being taken out of context and exploited and rightly so. It certainly does go on, but I think that we as victims need to speak out more. We need to talk about our loved ones. We need to tell the stories of their lives and all the good things they did so that they are remembered for WHO they were and not by how they were killed. Remember, for every positive story that we DON’T tell, the media will only publish the negative. I want people to see real cost of this violence, the human factor. I think that honoring the victims is something that everyone can relate to and hopefully, in some way, it may help to bring an end to this violence. I think that we also need to hold the media accountable for what they publish. If you see an exploitive news story, call the news director or station manager where the story appears and let them know that it’s insensitive to the victims. It’s just something that needs to be taken on one battle at time. That’s activism 101.
One of the ironies of this case is that your wife’s background was rich in accomplishments with much to be written about as a feature story. What would your feature story include about Shelia?
The wonderful thing about Sheila is that for all of her accomplishments, she always remained just a humble country girl from Bakersfield. Shelia was one of the most caring, loving, non judgmental and down to earth people that you’d ever meet. She was driven by an innate passion to help others and it was her compassion that was really the key to her success. Major accomplishments aside, it was all the little things she did in between that made Shelia who she was. After her death, people that had known Sheila in the past came out in droves to contact me. People I never knew or heard of before. They shared wonderful stories with me about Shelia had impacted their lives. They told me Shelia was a mentor to them, how Shelia gave them jobs when other people gave up on them. One woman told me how Shelia was able to “work her magic” and save her grandmother’s house from being taken away by the Bureau of Land Management. People were so compelled to reach out to tell me, they sent their cards and letters in care of the Modoc County Sheriff’s Office because they had no other way to reach me. Even in her free time Shelia took every opportunity to write in public forums about issues that were important to her. She was very well educated on the issues of the day and not afraid to debate on healthcare and immigration reform, environmental and climate issues, and marriage equality. In true Shelia fashion, always fighting for the underdog. Not more than a week before she was killed, I asked Shelia the question if what she did for work seemed like a job to her, or if she loved it so much that it didn’t seem like work. She thought for a second and then answered me. She said that she loved what she did so much, that to her, it wasn’t work at all. In fact, she would do it even if she was never paid for it. It was just a way of life for Shelia. That’s the kind of person Shelia was.
People have asked me if this tragedy has hardened my heart. The answer is no, and quite frankly just the opposite is true. It’s really caused my heart to open more. I hate to sound cliché, but it does make you realize what is truly important in life and how trivial most the things that conflict us really are. Sheila already firmly grasped this “big picture” of life, even without suffering the tragedy. The things that meant the most in life to Shelia were her children, her family, friends, her love for nature and animals, and her desire to do good things in her lifetime. A few years ago, Shelia posted on Facebook “What makes life worth living is working to create the mark that you leave on this world”. The people who have recently come to know Shelia through me all tell me how inspirational her story is. This is the reason why I try so hard to tell her story. I know that Shelia will continue to inspire and open hearts. This is the gift that Shelia has given to me. This is the mark that Shelia has left on this world. This is the Shelia that I want people to know.
Comments and Conclusions:
I am truly touched at the thoughtful, sensitive nature of Phil’s reflections, revelations and truths regarding the circumstances and the character of his wife – even at this early stage in his journey. There truly is no “right or wrong responses” when we try to access one’s intellect combined with places in the heart… It is only through the process of reaching out to others in times of need that we really begin to understand the richness of life itself. Sheila would have wanted it that way. I feel it! We will attempt to keep you updated on this story. To contact Phil Russo: firstname.lastname@example.org;
Contact me for information about Victim Impact Statement Services available if you have the need: Email email@example.com