Kevin Riordan: Book aims to help murder victims' families

Patricia Goebel holds a picture of her son, Stephen, who was stabbed to death, and her book, "We Are Their Voices," which offers her testimony and that of other parents of murdered children.
Patricia Goebel holds a picture of her son, Stephen, who was stabbed to death, and her book, "We Are Their Voices," which offers her testimony and that of other parents of murdered children. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 15, 2013

To write We Are Their Voices, Patricia Goebel says, she had to imagine that her son wasn't stabbed 76 times. She couldn't have put words on paper otherwise.

No wonder. Her oldest boy, Stephen, was found dead on the floor of his Gloucester Township apartment, his throat cut, his head nearly severed from his body. He was 30.

The killer, a neighbor named Jaire Highsmith, pleaded guilty in 2002 and is doing time. Which sounds like some sort of justice, except that anger, and anguish, permeate the book Goebel published about families of murder victims in America.

We Are Their Voices, a compilation of essays by Goebel and other families, is available through the tatepublishing.com website.

"Writing the book was a way of healing," says the author, 64, a retired Pine Hill science teacher who lives in Atco.

We're chatting in the spacious home that Goebel, a mother of four, grandmother of 10, and great-grandmother of three, shares with her husband, George, and several members of their extended family. A picture of Stephen is on the wall of the dining room.

"The murder rate might decrease at least a little bit if people really understood what it does to the loved ones," she says. "This isn't murder mystery dinner theater, all wrapped up in an hour and it's over. For the families, it's a life sentence."

A soft-spoken, matter-of-fact woman, Goebel notes that while her son's killer got a 30-year state prison term for aggravated manslaughter as part of a plea bargain, the appeals process continues. He will be eligible for parole in 2027.

"The feelings of loved ones need to be treated in a sensitive way," she says, adding that she believes victim impact statements, while powerful, are not enough of an opportunity for loved ones to participate in the judicial process.

Stephen had battled depression and family members had warned him to stay away from Highsmith, who lived in the same apartment complex and who, Goebel writes, was a reputed drug dealer.

"When the charge was downgraded from first-degree murder to aggravated manslaughter, our understanding was that this was a way to make sure that some sort of justice was done," Goebel says. "Such a light sentence for such a brutal murder was not enough. But nothing could be enough. Nothing can bring your child back."

Goebel's book powerfully describes not only her own tragedy, but 10 other cases of homicide - some still unsolved - across the country. She collected the stories from parents and grandparents in grief counseling groups and other organizations nationwide.

All I have left of my daughter is an urn, the mother of a 23-year-old victim writes.

We had lost . . . the light of our lives, and now we were living through a three-year nightmare is how another woman describes what happened after her grandson, 3, was slain.

Contributors hoped to memorialize loved ones who became "inanimate object[s] of the state's prosecutorial duty," as Goebel writes.

"I would like my son to be remembered as a very intelligent, inquisitive person."

Also contributing to the book was Cherry Hill resident Madeline Ucciferri, whose son, Robert, was found dead in his truck outside American Legion Post 372 in the township on March 30, 2002.

The 40-year-old had been shot twice in the head. No arrests have been made.

Ucciferri, 72, says she wrote the story partly in the hope that "someone [would] come forward" with new information.

"It's not just the victim who's lost. It's the whole family," she adds. "I want to get the story out of how this has affected us, and I'm very grateful to Pat for having the courage to do this book."

"What Pat has done is . . . channel her pain and grief into something that has meaning for her, and for others who are walking a similar path," says Linda Burkett, chief of the victim/witness unit of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.

Several families in the book describe a judicial process that's often lengthy, opaque, and focused on defendants - and can keep loved ones on an emotional roller coaster for years.

But Goebel has not published a broadside; she respects the work of police, prosecutors, and judges.

Instead, We Are Their Voices offers a reminder that for families like hers, true justice can seem impossible.

Because there's no statute of limitations on grief.


Kevin Riordan:

To view video of an interview with author Patricia Goebel, go to

www.philly.com/voices


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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