Posted by Cassie Foss | The Grand Rapids Press June 25, 2009 15:49PM
GRAND RAPIDS -- In 1996, Sherry Stewart Brown's parents, Columbus and Vera Stewart, went to her apartment on College Avenue NE carrying her favorite dessert, a peach cobbler, to celebrate her 33rd birthday.
When her father returned to the apartment three days later, the pie was half-eaten. And Brown had vanished.
It would be two years before her body was discovered in a ditch near Butterworth Avenue SW, and another four before it was identified and released to her family for burial.
"In my heart, I would think I heard her walking across the back porch," said Vera Stewart, who hopes for a break in the unsolved death that has them determined to find justice.
"We stand here today, opening our hearts back up," she said. "Somebody took my daughter's body and lay it in that ditch, and as long as I got breath in my body to speak for my daughter, we will do that."
Now, Silent Observer is hoping to reach out through a new series of public service announcements that feature members of the community who have lost loved ones to homicide, including the Stewarts. The group offers up to $1,000 for tips that lead to arrests and trials for unsolved crimes.
The service announcements, which began to air Thursday, were a joint effort between Silent Observer, Conqueror's support group and Delayed Justice, a Web site that tells the stories of open and unsolved homicides in Michigan.
Carolyn Priester started the group, "Conquerors," for survivors of violence and loved ones of murder victims or other violent crimes. Her 34-year-old son, Lee Randolph Priester, was shot and killed July 28, 2007 outside his house on Lafayette Avenue SE. No one has been arrested in the slaying.
Priester helped contact the families represented in the announcements.
"We strengthen one another," said Priester of the group. "These unsolved murders have left a void. Closure is partial when you find the person responsible, but we want justice."
David Schock, with Delayed Justice, produced the videos for Silent Observer at no charge.
"The Conquerors support group spoke to my heart," Schock said.
Mother-of-three Renee Pagel, 41, was found dead Aug. 5, 2006, of multiple stab wounds in her Courtland Township home.
"Revisiting it is not like going back because you're always there," said Pagel's sister, Michelle DeMaagd of Grand Rapids, who is featured in one of the announcements.
Police named Michael Pagel, her estranged husband who now is living in Prudenville with the couple's three children, as the only suspect. Michael Pagel has not been charged with any crime, and through his attorney he has maintained his innocence.
DeMaagd said there are always leads, but that there is not enough evidence to bring the case to trial.
"She deserves justice," said DeMaagd. Of the service announcement, she said: "It was difficult to do, but we definitely appreciate the opportunity to get a murderer off the streets."
The victims and their families
Mother Carolyn Priester started the group "Conquerors" for survivors of violence and loved ones of murder victims or other violent crimes. Her 34-year-old son, Lee Randolph Priester, was shot and killed July 28, 2007 outside his house on Lafayette Avenue SE. No one has been arrested in the slaying.
Renee Pagel, 41, was found dead Aug. 5, 2006, after suffering multiple stab wounds while in her Courtland Township home. Pagel's sister, Michelle DeMaagd, of Grand Rapids, is featured in the service announcement.
"She deserves justice," DeMaagd said. "It was difficult to do, but we definitely appreciate the opportunity to get a murderer off the streets.
Sherry Stewart Brown disappeared from her Grand Rapids apartment three days after her 33rd birthday in August 1996. A body thought to be Brown's was found in 1998 near Butterworth Avenue SW, but it was too decomposed to conclude how she died, authorities said. A long identification process began and in 2002, Brown's parents, Columbus and Vera Stewart, finally received the confirmation to bury their daughter. But Brown's cause of death still is undetermined and there are no suspects in her death.
Fran Molson still is looking for help to find her son's killer. Richard Dannah, 19, was at a party May 31, 2008 at 449 Adams St. SE when he was shot. "There were other kids in the backyard at the party -- they know what happened," Molson said.
Two masked gunmen in a minivan gunned down Willie E. Benson, 19, in the early hours of July 30, 2005 at Godwin Avenue SE and Dickinson Street. Relatives like Benson's sister, Pamela Webster, who is featured in the service announcement, still have no answers.
Chad McElwee, 34, was killed May 21, 2008 while sitting in his truck near Pleasant Street SE and Cass Avenue. Police said McElwee was slain by bullets meant for his unidentified passenger but no one has been arrested. The victim's mother, Patricia McElwee, took part in the service announcements.
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