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The candles on Elliot Street

One year after fatal stabbing, family and friends remember David Snow

BRATTLEBORO—“I never realized how deep my love for him was,” says Yvonne Shippee, mother of David Snow, who was stabbed to death on Elliot Street last year.

On the one-year anniversary of his death, candles, framed photographs, flowers, a sign bearing the handwritten words “Violence is not the answer/Love is” and notes of remembrance marked the spot where Snow was killed on June 15, 2009.

In discussions regarding Elliot Street, many people in town refer to Snow’s death as “the stabbing.”

According to police reports, Snow, 27, died at 3 a.m. after Andrew Sheets, 41, stabbed him in the neck when Snow stepped between his younger teenaged brother Travis Sprague and Sheets during a confrontation.

Witnesses reported Sheets, who believed he’d been “ripped off” on a drug sale and later tested positive for cocaine, was acting aggressive and threatening to “kill someone.”

He stumbled across Sprague and friends hanging out on Elliot Street by the entrance to the parking garage. Sheets confronted Sprague, accusing him of stealing his money.

Snow happened to be out walking his dog when he saw Sheets threatening his little brother and stepped in, telling Sheets to calm down.

A year later, Snow’s family and friends gathers on the ramp from Elliot Street into the parking garage.

Sprague stands with his hands in his jean pockets, shoulders hunched forward. He stares at the ground as he speaks. There are circles under his eyes. He moves like he’s been hit by a Mack truck that repeatedly backs up and runs over him again.

“He was a hero,” says Sprague.

He remembers his big brother as a rebel everyone could relate to and go to for help.

“He’d give you the shirt off his back,” he says.

Sprague says that Snow’s death left his family an “emotional mess.” Only their little sister, Hollie Shippee, has her act together, says Sprague.

Shippee and Sprague say that if the situation had been reversed and Sprague was threatening Sheets, Snow would have protected Sheets.

Because that’s the type of person he was.

‘Was’ can be a hard word to say

Elizabeth Evans Pittman, bereavement care coordinator for Brattleboro Area Hospice, describes grief as “our holistic response to the loss of anything we have an attachment to.”

Grief hits people emotionally, mentally and physically, and runs its own course on its own timeline.

Pittman says that for parents, grief can take on other dimensions.

“The death of a child is out of the natural order, and it seems abysmally wrong to be out of order,” she says.

Parents also feel they are charged with protecting their children no mater what. The children can be toddlers playing on the swings or adults with their own families, but the parent still carries the feeling of responsibility.

Pittman says when children die, parents often say, “But I should have been able to protect them.”

Barbara Rosof, M.S., writes in her book The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child that murder comes with a “set of unique complications.”

Specifically, families deal with the fact that someone deliberately hurt their child. They also cope with the legal system and judgments from society.

Common experiences for the parents Rosof interviewed include a desire for revenge, frustration and anger at a legal system that was “supposed to protect them,” hearing judgments about their child or accusations that the death was the child’s fault, endless round-robins of “what if,” and guilt.

“Grief is an organic process. If we try to just make if be something, we’re missing an opportunity [for growth],” says Pittman.

Pittman says a community’s response to grief after a tragic event can be complicated. On the one hand, those affected by death are coping with emotions: anger, fear, loss of a sense of safety or peace. On the other hand, daily life still goes on: the bills need to be paid.

People can also feel confused if the event impacts them emotionally but they did not personally know the people involved.

But, she says, sometimes what a community needs to do is “bear witness” and say “this matters. We don’t want this happening in our community again.”

Everybody’s sons and daughters

Shippee holds a red velvet album filled with photos and other remembrances of her son.

She flips through the pages looking for a picture of his headstone’s design. Earlier that morning, family had met at Snow’s grave. They wrote letters to him with “the things they’d never had a chance to say,” tied them to helium balloons and let them go.

“I exist,” says Shippee. “That’s it.”

She says she lost a whole year of her life after Snow’s death. She was in a fog, out of work for 10 months and still feeling like she has “a permanent hole” inside.

She’s grateful to have her other children Sprague and Hollie Shippee, to care for or she would have completely fallen apart.

Shippee says there was a lot of talk about her children in the press and from other people after Snow died. People asked what her kids were doing out late at night. She said people assumed they were bad kids.

She is angry because Snow was a “peace maker” and Sprague was “barefoot and unarmed.” What harm were they doing? she asks.

And, she asks, what was a 41-year-old man doing approaching kids on the street?

The kids hanging out on Elliot Street? “They’re people’s kids. Everybody’s sons and everybody’s daughters. Aren’t we suppose to protect our youth?” she asks.

“Hello? Remember David?” asks Shippee, angry and afraid the town has forgotten him.

Anger coats the words of the friends gathered.

“He [Sheets] killed someone who never hurt anyone,” says Nicole Grover, 21, a friend of Snow’s and a former Brattleboro resident.

Grover says Brattleboro changed about five to six years ago. She remembers when people used to sit on the street painting and “getting along.”

Now she describes the situation as “pure violence,” where people get killed “over stupid stuff.”

She says she moved out of the state because she didn’t like the area anymore.

The friends gathered say the biggest problems are the lack of jobs, a lack of respect between townspeople and nothing to do especially for people between 18 and 30. They also feel that the kids on Elliot Street get lumped together in a generalized group labeled “bad youth.”

Grover adds that in her opinion the cops are getting “worse.” She remembers a time when a Brattleboro police officer confiscated a friend’s skateboard. The cop told the friend heroin was safer than skateboarding. This memory makes Grover angry.

Karl Blank of Brattleboro says he sees apathy in town, where people complain about things but do nothing about changing the situation.

He says he knows he could attend Selectboard meetings, but he believes his opinion wouldn’t make a difference to how the Selectboard feels on issues. This is the source of his own apathy, he says.

Selectboard members voted at their June 15 meeting on measures to improve conditions on Elliot Street [The Commons, June 16]. The measures include developing a neighborhood watch, installing wireless portable cameras and maintaining increased police patrols.

‘No one wants to join’

Shippee and Sprague have found support with families who have also lost children. They attend a Parents of Murdered Children (POMC) support group meeting with six other families.

POMC is a national organization providing emotional support to families and friends who have lost people to violence. The group meets the first Thursday of each month at the Keene Public Library from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

“Don’t know what I would have done without that group. It’s the group no one wants to join,” she says.

“I never thought it would happen to me,” says Shippee, who offers some advice to parents whose children are still alive.

“Know where your kids are,” she says. “Love them no mater how mad you get, even when they’re running out the door and your yelling at each other, always tell them you love them.”

“Never let them think otherwise,” she says. “Life is unpredictable.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #55 (Wednesday, June 23, 2010).

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