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Families of Homicide Victims Share Journey at Candlelight Vigil

The families and friends of more than 15 homicide victims came together to remember their loved ones and share their personal stories at a candlelight vigil 20 years after the murder of Jonathan Sellers, 9, and Charlie Keever, 13, near Imperial Beach.

You still get sad, you still get mad and nightmares are the norm, said Allison Cave, Amber Dubois' 10-year-old sister.

"Having really bad dreams are really usual and I'd like to mention that when I was little people used to come up to me and say, 'Your hair is so pretty.' Now they come up to me and say 'I'm sorry for your loss,'" she told a crowd of about 100 people at the San Diego County Swiss Club Wednesday.

Families of homicide victims came together in a banquet hall off Main Street in Chula Vista Thursday to hear music, pray, hold a candlelight vigil, remember their loved ones and share their own stories.

The family and friends of more than 15 homicide victims were in attendance.

In its second year, the annual get together was held to recognize homicide victims across the region but to especially remember Jonathan Sellers and Charlie Keever.

20 years ago Wednesday Keever and Sellers were riding their bikes when they were abducted and murdered along the shore of the Otay River at the end of Saturn Boulevard, according to keynote speaker and San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

After the two boys bodies were found, it took another 11 years before a conviction was secured. For the murders, Scott Erskine has been on death row at San Quentin since 2004.

A foundation was formed in their memory which seeks to support the families of homicide victims. A park named the Sellers & Keever Outdoor Educational Activity Center was opened near the river in Imperial Beach last fall.

Some of those who spoke Wednesday described journeys out of depression, a fear of men and overcoming grief.

Candy Biller talked about her sister Michiel Hyder-Blamey, who was killed in 2000 by her husband, the same day as Jonathan and Charlie.

"It was during the trial that we learned Michiel had not died right away and was alive when animals came into the field where she lay dying and fed on her body. I cannot begin to describe the horror upon learning the details of her death," she said.

Biller's sister was a California Bureau of Investigations special agent in a family with several members of law enforcement, Biller said, which led her to ask how this could happen to her sister and family. It took time to learn that killers don't discriminate because of age, color or background.

After the murder, when she was exhausted and smiling felt like a betrayal, Biller quit her job as a San Diego County Sheriff's Department deputy sheriff, then spent more than two years in bed, she said.

"My heart always surprises me cause it's more willing to crack open than I expect it to be and whatever floods in is not in my control," she said.

Therapy and support from the family of other homicide victims walking the same path helped her get out of a deep hole of depression and put herself back together, she said. Incredible agony always rests under the surface but it no longer controls her life, Biller said.

She now works with the families of other homicide victims in the Palm Desert-area to urge law enforcement not to "forget the faces" of homicide victims.

Biller imagines that "those of us that have been left here to mourn" all sit on a river bed and throw stones to watch the circles ripple across the water's surface. It feels like isolation until someone else listens and says me too, she said.

"Because death is an awkward subject. It's a language none of us is fluent in, and no matter how much experience we have, we reach for the right words that we hope to bring out, but what matters most is the effort. It matters that someone else is thinking about you on that day that might over time get easier," Biller said.

Melissa Scharbath of Carlsbad was very close to her older sister Kathy before her death in 2011.

Now sister scenes on TV, certain smells, people with a similar loud laugh and anyone with long blonde hair reminds Melissa of her sister. The two used to speak on the phone regularly on the drive home from work.

Her sister's death changed her life forever, but continuing to speak with Kathy helps, Melissa said.

"I take things day by day and find time to talk to Kathy. I feel her around me all the time. She's constantly giving me the guidance and support that I need to move on," she said. "Kathy may not be present, but I can feel her giving me the strength to move forward."

Jonathan Sellers' principal Connie Smith also addressed the crowd at the banquet hall Wednesday, and started by remembering the African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child."

When Jonathan and Charlie were killed, it deeply touched a family but also affected a village.

It was spring break, but the school was opened and staff, students and their families showed up.

"We need to have some comfort together because nobody knows what to do," she said. "And children talked and they cried and parents said what are you going to do to keep my children safe?"

At that time the San Diego Police Department was called to make their presence felt and comfort members of the community, Smith said.

When students returned to Juarez-Lincoln Elementary School after spring break, instead of a memorial, a celebration was held with balloons, a big picture of Jonathan and pencils to write notes to his family. Psychologists and district staff were there to help explain that sometimes bad things happen to good people.

"It not only takes a village to raise a child, it takes a strong village, standing together to keep the village together so that the safety net is tightened and we can have fewer of these situations," she said. "Will we get rid of the violence? I don't know. I'm an optimist. I'd love to say yes. But it's going to take all of us working together to do that."

Following a reading of the names of homicide victims, Maria Keever and Milena Sellers-Phillip thanked the audience. Sellers-Phillip also announced that the meaning of March 27 has changed for her since her eldest son's family welcomed a baby girl to the world Wednesday.

"God is so awesome," she said. "He took a negative day that's always been so difficult and made it something positive because now we'll be able to look forward to March 27 cause that will be my granddaughter's birthday!"

On 7:30 a.m. June 1 the Jonathan Sellers and Charlie Keever Foundation will host the "Ride for Safety San Diego" 10K bike ride from the San Diego County Swiss Club to the Sellers & Keever Outdoor Educational Activity Center in Imperial Beach and back.

Click here to register.

Earlier this month Sellers-Phillip opened a for-profit thrift store in Fallbrook she hopes can also raise money for the foundation, U-T San Diego reported.

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