Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Tragedy and Memory

It's hard to find anything to say about the horrific events at Virginia Tech. As information comes out, it's looking like one of the hardest things for the families to cope with is that it seems nobody - except the killer - really did anything wrong. And when something this horrible happens, it's natural to not only want to find out who's to blame, but to punish someone for what happened. And the killer has placed himself beyond our reach.

It's been asked why they didn't shut down the campus after the initial shootings. Well, anyone who watches Court TV can tell you that in the case the cops first saw - two dead, a young woman who could have been the target and a young man who just got in the way - the first thing you ask is, Did she have a boyfriend? Her roommate told cops she did, a student at a neighboring college. Not only that, he was a gun owner. They'd all gone to a shooting range recently.

Of course they had to follow that up at once, as the most likely situation was that a fight with her boyfriend had gone horribly wrong. 99 times out of a hundred, they'd be right; the boyfriend / girlfriend / spouse / lover is always the most likely suspect. Within two hours they had actually found the boyfriend and were interviewing him, with every possible reason to believe the situation had been stabilized. Then the reports of carnage started coming in from Norris Hall. It's just a horrible coincidence that one of the few times correct police procedure led in the wrong direction it was the day a guy filled with deranged fury decided to take as many people with him as possible.

This is enough to make anyone shocked and upset, but for me it's done more; it's dredged up terribly painful memories from ten years ago. On December 1 of last year the Times-Picayune ran this article:

On a Sunday morning in December 1996, 10 years ago today, a former employee still bitter about getting fired and two accomplices -- one who had gotten a job as a dishwasher only 10 days earlier -- conned their way into the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen Restaurant near the French Market before opening time. Armed with a .357-caliber Magnum and makeshift potato silencer, they took money from a safe before fatally shooting a manager and two employees as they kneeled in a walk-in cooler.

Dying in the cooler that morning were manager Cara LoPiccolo, 28, and waiters Santana Meaux, 25, and Michael Witcoskie, 24.

I knew all three of them. I was working at the Old U.S. Mint, and my office opened directly onto a courtyard facing the Pizza Kitchen across the street. I was a lunchtime regular and knew all their faces, though not their names until the horrible morning I saw their pictures in the paper. They knew me too. Regulars mean a little bit more to restaurants in a high traffic tourist area. With all the hordes that pass through, familiar faces are nice to see.

It was incredibly difficult to get through that December. The entire French Quarter community was shocked, as a hit on a business like this was unheard of. The restaurant was closed, of course, and people immediately began coming to lay flowers and messages of sorrow against its walls. This became a sort of shrine to the fallen, which just grew and grew until it took up most of the block, not just flowers but mementos, pictures, statues of saints, candles tended around the clock. This made it harder for me, because I just couldn't get away from it. I couldn't put it out of my mind as I had to walk past it every day. Others who worked at the Mint, and who had also known the victims, could at least get to their offices by entering at the other side of the building. I couldn't.

I obsessed about it. I couldn't stop myself from going out several times a day to stare at the shrine, see what had changed. I think I actually became a bit unbalanced for a bit, to the extent that some of my co-workers were starting to worry about me. One Security officer, a good guy named Shelby, came by several times to talk to me, make sure I wasn't coming too unglued. I eventually did see a psychologist for a while, and he helped me find a way to memorialize them in my own way, put them to rest.

After a month or so the shrine was quietly taken down, and some months later the Pizza Kitchen reopened under new ownership. I eventually went back to being a regular, but it was never the same.

I haven't thought much about this for years, but Virginia Tech brought it all roaring back with a vengeance. For a while I was obsessing about it almost as much as I was about that shrine, watching TV for hours and scouring the web. I am getting over it. But I feel so keenly for all those kids, not just the ones who died, but the ones who will carry the scars of this forever. I think I know the feeling, at least a little bit.

Oh, and about the Pizza Kitchen killers:

A fourth victim was shot in the neck but survived. Damien Vincent, 34, played dead, then later crawled to a phone and called police. He was able to identify one of the suspects. Within 12 hours, all three of the attackers were captured.

The triggerman is on death row, and the other two will likely never get out of prison. That's something.

26 comments:

Don said...

wow. That is something.

Sometimes life's events are just random, as it has been since humans emerged. It always will be.

~Free said...

Hello. You don't know me, but I was a close friend of Michael Witcoskie who was killed in the Pizza Kitchen that morning. Every once in a while I google his name - maybe as a way to feel close to him. I was touched to find this. It means the world to me to connect with somebody who saw him regularly during that time in his life. I lived in Pennsylvania and had not seen him in almost a year; our last conversation was very short. My sadness is still heavy. Thank you for remembering him (all of them) here. It feels good to connect with you. Best, Jean Free

Anonymous said...

I still hurt over this as well and I think if the right action would have been taken those people would still be alive today. I was a vender at the Flee Market and was there that day. A week earley ,as I pushed my cart of goods to the market, I saw a man sitting on the curb outside the The Pizza Kitchen just across the street with a apron on. I could see he had a gun in the back of his pants. I was really scred and thought he may be waiting to rob someone. I called French Market security.., security went to talk to the man. Later I asked the F.M. guard "what happened" He told don't worry that man works at the pizza kitchen. Next week that same man was the killer of those poor people. I also went there to eat often. When it happened I went and told the police what happend the week earlier. No action was taken agenst the F.M. guard that did not call NOPD when I told him the man had a gun. I started being treated very coldey by market staff after that! I no longer sell there.

richardsan said...

i, too, google my wife's name and find this new re telling of the story.
on the eleventh anniversary i didn't do a thing, it was completely blotted out from my mind. dec. 1 2007. i knew it was coming up, but things happening related to the storm, overshadowed this tragic event in my life. i moved the children and i, [really babies at the time.] cecilia was not quite 9 mos. old and ricky had just turned 3 in oct. we lived on the gulf coast from 1997 till the storm, then stayed in the upstate of s.c.; sanctuary of sorts. but the stoney conservatism there drove us back home to ms. thanks for this new remembrance...none of her friends have kept in touch with us...sad to say.

Jean Lafitte said...

Please accept my condolences. I know it is never too late to offer them, as the loss never goes away. Though the memories are painful, I hope you can see how much Cara and Santana and Michael touched those who knew them, even casually as customers. Each one was a bright spark in an often dark world.

But I am thunderstruck by the timing of your comment. Literally three days ago I was e-mailed by a writer in Wales who was looking for a photo of Cara. She lived in Chalmette for ten years and was in the Pizza Kitchen a week before the crime. She had chatted with one of the waitresses, wanted to know if it had been Cara, and found this post through a websearch just as you did.

I referred her to the Times-Picayune. If you would like to communicate with her, you can e-mail me through "View my complete profile" above, and I'll see if I can arrange it.

Norma said...

I have been trying for years to find my dear oldest friend Cara only to stumble upon finding out this happened to her! None of our old friends bothered to find me or others I'm sure and let us grieve along with the rest of the world! My heart goes out to all families of the victims along with their friends. I'm sorry I was not able to meet her husband and lovely children while she was living! I so loved my dear friend! My deepest sympathy, Norma P.

richardsan said...

hi norma!

i just rec'd a note from this blog about your post. if you would like to contact me, gumbo pie has my permission for the contact exchange. i'm sure the kids would like to hear from one of their mom's old friends.
be safe, take care.
richard

Jean Lafitte said...

Norma: I would indeed be happy to send you that info privately, if you like. You can email me by clicking "View my complete profile" at the top of the page.

Phoebe B. said...

I worked at LPK with Michael, Cara and Santana (I was the girl with the curly red hair). They were my family here in New Orleans. They were killed the day after my birthday. I thought I would never come back to NOLA. The pain of their loss sent me packing back to New England where I was born. I have the date of their deaths and 3 angels tattooed on my back. I'm here for a photo show at the New Orleans Photo Alliance...my first time back in 12years. I walked to the corner by LPK this morning but I couldn't get any closer. I'm a photographer and filmmaker and intend to make some sort of memorial piece while I'm here. Those of us who loved Michael, Cara and Santana will hold them in our hearts as long as ours beat. I'm sorry we've all drifted away. I too have lost touch with all but one of my friends from those days. Please feel free to get in touch...Anyone who reads this. And thanks to you for keeping the memory of this horrible tragedy from fading. No one should forget it.

~Free said...

Phoebe, I was very moved by your post here. I especially felt very strongly about your tattoos. What an awesome tribute to them. I feel what you feel: afraid of the memory fading. if you ever do accomplish a memorial piece I hope you will contact me because I would like to see it. I went to high school with Michael and he had a huge impact on my life. I found this blog randomly and I am heartened each time I get a notification that someone else has found their way to this post. Be well, Jean. jeanmfree@gmail.com

P. Rocerin said...

I m suffering from Hair fall from Past 6 years, its increasing day by day. i m using pest of mixture of Mehndi, Ambala – Aritha powder and apply them regularly mostly twice in a month. but from last 6 months it becomes irregular, and the hair fall quantity get increase a lot, now normally i do combing my hair I ll loss my lots of hairs.

P. Rocerin said...

 I m suffering from Hair fall from Past 6 years, its increasing day by day. i m using pest of mixture of Mehndi, Ambala – Aritha powder and apply them regularly mostly twice in a month. but from last 6 months it becomes irregular, and the hair fall quantity get increase a lot, now normally i do combing my hair I ll loss my lots of hairs.

monica said...

I can't begin to tell you how moved I am by finding this. Michael was and is still one of my best friends. I truly believe the world lost him. Just an amazing individual. Jean, I can't thank you enough for writing my thoughts. I have never gotten over losing him. And though it may it sound strange, it so good to know that his life is still remembered and cherished.

Steve, thank you. For sharing. For taking the time to put this out there to everyone. When Michael would visit me, he'd write little notes and tuck them away in books or in clothes pockets or other random places. Notes of love and friendship. Every once in a while I find one in a book, still to this day. And it still stops my heart. Finding your blog is like having one of his notes fall into my lap, seeing his words like he'd just written them. Thank you for that.

Thank you all. Monica : monica@mock5.com

Anonymous said...

Phoebe B, I would love to view the memorial piece, if you were ever able to get one together on your visit to NOLA back in Feb 09.

Thanks,
Marlene
Mike's sister

Chris said...

I am sooo glad I found this today, Santana was simply the greatest human being I have ever met. This day still haunts me.

It is encouraging to know that these people are not forgotten.

Chris

Gina Teel said...

Mike was my best friend & most beautiful human being I have ever had the miracle of knowing. I love him beyond expression. Jean - saw your posts & I miss you terribly. Made me cry to see you still google his name like I do.Marlene - You & your family are always in my thoughts. I'm sorry I haven't kept in touch all these years. I'd love to get back in touch w/you. I cherish all of the Christmas eve dinners, your Mom's pierogies & sharing in your family's traditions. It was an honor to have been included as a part of your family.Monica - not sure if you remember me, but Mike & I came to Ohio to attend a concert/visit you in the early 90s & we spent some time together. I think I got my first tattoo at your artist in Cincinnati & Mike got the band around his ankle. Your words about him leaving little notes in all kinds of places moved me deeply. I still come across notes in old books, when I least expect them & always at the right time. I named my oldest child Michael & I know Mike W. looks down & laughs to see what a handful my son has turned out to be. He has a hand on his shoulder & just might be the little devil whispering into one of his ears! This weekend, while cleaning out boxes in my garage with my kids, I turned around to see my 10-yr. old Michael wearing the black afro wig that Mike mailed to me a week before his death. It was my Michael's Birthday (& your's, too,Jean. Funny how we're all connected in small ways.) Mike picked me up @ the NOLA airport wearing that wig the last week of Oct. 1996 w/ glitter paint on his face,carrying a neon sign with my name & phone# & "call for a good time". I got random calls for months after that. Typical of his warped but genius sense of humor. Jean - this is indeed the same wig he wore on "hippie day". Seeing my Michael in that wig made me laugh hysterically, then weep unexpectedly. My son said "Mommy, why are you crying? It's not my real hair, it's just a wig." I'll never get over the loss of Mike & void it has left in my life. Not a day goes by I do not speak w/ him. I returned to NOLA w/ Mike's family in the days after his death & had the privilege of seeing the makeshift memorial outside of LPK. The candles could be seen from blocks away. It was overwhelming & I'm grateful I got to experience that & attend the memorial for the victims in Jackson Square. A red haired girl sang "Somewhere" (was that you, Phoebe?) and I thought it was perfect b/c Mike & I spent hundreds of hours in cars together & that was one of the songs we sang. On the way back to PA the night of the viewing we got stuck in an airport. I remember Joanne(Mike's Mom)sitting in a chair at the airport, already late for the viewing & her looking up to heaven saying "Michael, I know you think this is funny, but I don't. If you weren't already dead, I would kill you right now." I looked at her & she had a huge smile on her face because, despite the horrible sadness of the situation, we knew it was Mike having a laugh at our expense. I hugged Joanne at that moment with so much love in my heart. She read a poem she wrote for him at his funeral so stoicly. It remains the most amazing poem I had ever heard. I treasure many letters of his & recall reading something he had written about wanting to throw a party & invite all of the friends in his life. If you knew Mike, he had friends of every type &, variety. A group of Mike's friends would be something to behold together. If anyone ever wants to share memories, please contact me @ teelg@slhn.org or GinaTeel@aol.com. I'm always overjoyed to keep Mike's memory alive & I know it would mean so much to him to have his friends stay interconnected as well. I have never met an individual who knew Mike and did not adore him. Love to you all. Gina

Anonymous said...

I was good friends with Santana "Bubba" Meaux in Middle School and High School. He was a great person. Very, very funny and handsome! He was smart and clever. He also had a very sensitive side to him. I know he has found peace in heaven.

Amanda said...

Hello,
Like you Steve, I was reminded of Santana Meaux today as I read about another tragedy here in Oregon. More senseless killing. I can say that from the darkness I found light, because I was reminded of Santana and his beautiful spirit. Santana went to college in the town where I grew up. My father was a professor there and knew him well. Actually, my family came to know and love him also because Santana worked at the Santa Fe Grill, a restaurant owned by my mother. I worked there as did a few of my friends, we were seniors in High School at the time. Santana was full of love and life, he was one of those rare people that have a magnetism and charisma that touched every person around him and was contagious. He was a fantastic volleyball player and played for the college. He also coached at my school. He was beautiful on the inside and outside. One of my best friends began dating him after high school, and he treated her like gold. May he rest in peace and know that he is loved. Let us all be thankful and appreciative of each day we see another sunrise.

GiGi said...

So thankful to read this today. I also google Santana Meaux, Bubba from time to time ... He was a wonderful best
friend and I miss him. He had the best laugh and the most unique accent! So miss hearing his voice.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with Cara LoPiccolo. She was my cousin. We spent every summer at my Aunt Jeans (her mom) home where we played in the corn field, laughed til we cried, played with our Belle Dolls and ran wild.
Cara was up for anything and had such a fun and vibrant personality.
I think of Cara and Aunt Jean and that family often.
My mother attended the Cara's trial and I know for my mom to see her sister suffer the loss of her child really changed my mother. When Cara was murdered a part of my childhood.
I will ALWAYS think of her!
Nellie in Atlanta

Jeff Walters said...

Bubba ( Santana) and I went to college together and became very close friends. We played volleyball together, rushed and joined a fraternity together, I vacationed in New Orleans with his family, he stayed with me in Ohio and was at my wedding. There were very few days in the 2 years that we were at college ( I am older then Bubba ), that we were not doing something together. Unfortunately after I got married and had kids i had lost contact with Bubba. When I was planning to go to NO to watch the OSU / LSU national championship game in January 2008 I was going to make sure that I located Bubba no matter what. It was at this time that I found out about his terrible death. Even though he was murdered over 10 years earlier, to me he died that day. I also read the post above, about him buying a present and what an infectious personality the vendor remembered about Bubba. That could not sum up Bubba more. When I was in NO for the championship, I spent a couple of hours walking down Bourbon Street talking to different people about that day, ending up at the large planter with the victoms names outside the restaurant. It gave me some closure, but I often think about Bubba around Christmas and it is nice to see people still remembering him. He was an amazing person and will be greatly missed. I am glad that I at least got to spend 2 amazing years of my life with him - “If something comes to life in others because of you, then you have made an approach to immortality.”

Anonymous said...

Was beautiful to read. As a friend of Bubba's, it does my heart good to see him remembered.

Dennis Thornton said...

I was thinking about Michael tonight and Googled his name and found this site. I was with Michael for the last eight or ten hours of his life, right up to the moment that he left for work at LPK the morning of December 1st. Michael and I dated a little that summer but I hadn't seen him in a while. I ran into him late that Saturday night at the MRB bar in the French Quarter. He was playing pool with a girl, but I don't remember who she was. Michael and I ended up hanging out by ourselves the rest of the night, up until about 15 minutes before he was murdered. I've never talked to any of Michael's family, but I'm happy to email or talk with any of his family members or close friends if I can somehow be helpful, as I would have been the last person, other than those involved in the incident, to see Michael. You can contact me directly at dennisthornton3@gmail.com. I didn't know the other victims.

Anonymous said...

It's so odd when the memory of this terrible day pops into my brain. I was eating at a wood pizza place in Alexandria, La today for lunch and the owner asked me if I had ever eaten this kind of pizza before. BAM-- memory went straight back to the news reports of that day. I only ate there once; the horror and senselessness of it all impacted probably all of us who lived in the greater New Orleans area at the time. MY sister and her friend used to go there all the time, and if I remember right, knew them. Anyway, just wanted to let their families and friends who come across this know that, yes, nearly 20 years later, we still remember what happened to your lived ones. I'm still heartbroken that they had to go that way and I still feel so deeply for the pain and anguish you have gone through. Peace be with you.

Kim said...

Bubba was like a brother to me. We met in middle school and lived in the same neighborhood. He was at our house daily just hanging out like he was part of our family. When his mom moved back to New Orleans Bubba wanted to stay living here in Indiana. So my parents and his mom agreed that he could live at our house. He had his own place in the basement. We were as close as if we really were brother and sister but I know he could make everyone he met feel like they were family. That's just how he was. Bubba gave me a small gift bag before he went to college he said that he wanted me to have the items that were in there just in case anything ever happened to him. I thought it was a strange thing for him to say but I kept that little bag and its contents and I still have it to this day! There was a small bottle of his cologne,his school I'd pictures,a California raisin,all sorts of things that at the time didn't mean too much but now mean the world! I love him with all my heart and miss him so much! I came to New Orleans for the funeral but when we got to the funeral home the casket was already closed. In a way I think it was a blessing. I will always have that memory of his beautiful smile and that awesome laugh.

Anonymous said...

I lived in New Orleans when this happened. I didn't know any of those involved but as a fellow restaurant employee this affected me deeply as it did many others in the service industry. I still think about this from time to time and wonder how the surviving victim is doing. I appreciated reading all of these wonderful comments describing your loved ones and sharing stories. Peace and love to you all.

Jen