Tree of Angels remembers victims of violent crimes

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Maria Thomas, whose daughter was murdered 20 years ago in what is known as Austin's "yogurt shop murder," hugs Sumer Wassef during People Against Violence's 21st annual Tree of Angels event at the Central Christian Church. Now held in 51 Texas counties, Tree of Angels invites family members, riends and surviving victims affected by violent crimes to place an angel on a tree in hopes of begining support and comfort to those grieving during the holiday season.

Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana | Daily Texan Staff

Glistening with silver lights and hundreds of palm-sized angels of different shapes, sizes and colors, two pine trees stand tall before rows of people gathered together Tuesday evening to remember friends and family members who were victims of violent crimes.

Founded in 1991 in Austin by Verna Lee, People Against Violent Crime’s annual Tree of Angels is a tradition that has allowed people to come together during the holiday season in solidarity and to remember those they have lost. Over the past 21 years, more than 1,000 angels have been placed on the trees and the service is now held in 51 Texas counties, Oklahoma City, Okla., and Newcastle, Australia.

“One of the biggest non-spoken messages in this room full of hundreds of people is that everybody gets it, they know what it’s like to be without their loved ones,” said Travis County Sheriff’s deputy Kimberly Orts, who has attended the event for 16 years and has taken the torch as event organizer.

After placing their angel on the tree, people gather together to enjoy refreshments while volunteers place an additional two to three hundred angels on the trees for those who cannot be present.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of Austin’s “yogurt shop murder,” referring to the death of four teenage girls in a yogurt shop on Dec. 6, 1991, and two of the mothers were present to light candles in their memory.

“I miss being the luckiest mom in the world. I’ll always be Eliza’s mom, but I want Eliza alive,” said Maria Thomas, who lost her 17-year-old daughter in the murder.

Printed on Wednesday, December 7, 2011 as: Gone but not forgotten