The Days After
Betty Ward Isaac sometimes wakes up with tears in her eyes. In the year since her daughter, Alicia, was murdered by an estranged boyfriend, she has seen some dark days. But the darkest - April 8, 2004 - is never far from her mind.
The call to police came in at 3:45 p.m.
When police arrived at Alicia's apartment on West Willow Street, they found her lying on the sidewalk outside, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. When they walked into her apartment, they found her cousin, Ronald Fils, 22, also had been shot. He died shortly afterward at a hospital.
By 4 p.m., neighbors and spectators had gathered near the scene. One of them called Betty and told her she needed to hurry to Alicia's apartment. She didn't tell her why.
In Louisiana, ranked fifth in the nation for the number of women killed by men each year, Alicia's death was just another sad statistic.
But to Betty, it was an event that would forever alter her life. In one day, she lost a daughter and became a full-time mom again.
The sound of sirens
In her late 40s, Betty was moving on to the next stage of her life in early 2004. Her oldest son, Darrick Ward, now 27, and Alicia, 20, were living on their own.
Betty's house was paid for, her car was paid for and she made good money working as an assistant in the cardiology unit at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center.
Then came the call that changed everything.
Betty said she thought Alicia, an epileptic, was having another seizure. Without thinking, Betty grabbed Kiiurstin - Alicia's then 2-year-old daughter - and hurried to the scene. When Betty pulled up and saw the flashing lights and large crowds, she immediately regretted bringing her along.
One year later, the sound of sirens still haunts the little girl.
Now Kiiurstin lives with Betty at her home off Louisiana Avenue. Her granddaughter has been one of the things that has kept her going.
"I'm strong for my grandbaby," she said. "When she's not here, that's when it falls to pieces."
In March, nearly a year after Alicia's death, Betty's life had been completely transformed. She sat on her sofa one morning wearing a "Families are Forever" T-shirt, jogging pants and a pair of furry black slippers.
The muffled sounds of children's cartoons emanated from Kiiurstin's bedroom. Kiiurstin was at preschool, but Betty left the TV on anyway.
"I'm starting all over again," she said. "I'm starting off with a 3-year-old. It's like you're raising your kid all over again."
Memories stored in photographs
Betty said she likes the early mornings, when the house is free from noise and distractions. It gives her a chance to think, to rest and, every so often, to grieve.
The man who killed Alicia - Joseph Davis Jr., 21 - was Kiiurstin's father. Betty said she has a lot of reasons to hate him, but she keeps those reasons to herself for Kiiurstin's sake.
After the shootings, Davis barricaded himself inside East Bayou Baptist Church on Kaliste Saloom Road.
When police entered the building, they found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Before he pulled the trigger, Davis called Betty and left a message on her cell phone. He apologized for what he had done and asked her to take care of Kiiurstin. He told her that he was going to kill himself.
"I feel that I've been betrayed. I loved everybody, but for him to rob me of my child ...," Betty said. She stopped and cried deeply.
"That baby was my whole world," she said.
The pictures of Alicia on the walls of Betty's home serve as a testament. They showcase her daughter's bright smile, her long, dark hair and her petite frame.
The pictures that have yet to be framed are stored in various drawers throughout Betty's bedroom. Each picture has a story, and almost all of them make her cry.
"She sure did like to take pictures. She liked to pose," she said.
Flipping through the photos, Betty stopped at a closeup of Kiiurstin, wearing a pair of large, yellow heart-shaped sunglasses, which cover nearly all of her face. Beneath the glasses, there's a large smile.
"That's another one that likes to pose," she said, smiling and shaking her head.
Betty didn't throw out the pictures of her daughter's killer, but she did take them down from the wall.
"As much as that boy betrayed me, I try to keep the good memories of him," she said.
'This is not God's doing'
Betty's a strong woman - everyone who knows her agrees - but the past year has tested her more than anything she's ever faced.
Betty said that since the murders, people have continually advised her to hold on to her faith.
"I can't question God, because this is not God's doing," she said.
After Alicia's death, Betty took four months off from work.
Last August, she thought she finally had enough strength to return. It took just a short time before she realized she'd made a mistake.
Betty said she was tending to a patient when she broke down. She doesn't remember exactly what happened but said she decided being around sick people was not the best thing for her any longer. But after four years at the hospital and more than a dozen more as an assistant in a nursing home, it was hard to quit.
"I've been doing this all my life - taking care of people," she said.
Betty has a hard time recalling specific days over the last year, but she remembers Oct. 25, 2004, vividly. She said she was in severe shock on that day and had to be admitted into Tyler Mental Health Hospital.
She was diagnosed with a severe case of depression.
"I didn't have no hope. No understanding. I had actually gave up," she said, her voice choking up as tears collected in her eyes.
While in the hospital, Betty had a breakthrough that she can't fully understand or explain.
She said it was at some point during her stay that she felt Alicia's presence in the room. She said it was as if Alicia was talking to her. She said her daughter told her she needed to be strong for Kiiurstin and that she had to carry on.
Shortly after, she was able to return home.
She takes medication to go to sleep and more to stay awake. She rarely leaves her house. She cries frequently and often calls upon God for help.
"Without the prayer in my Bible, I wouldn't have made it. God's got me going strong in the home, so I don't need them outside people because them outside people have betrayed me," Betty said.
Two sisters share same pain
No one knows what Betty's going through better than her youngest sister, Renella Guillory. It was her son, Ronald, who was killed on that same tragic day.
"It has brought us real, real close," Guillory said.
Guillory lives in Houston and owns a children's nursery there. When she's not calling Betty, Betty's calling her.
"I know we're feeling the same thing, the loss," she said. That's good, because "a lot of people don't know what to say to us."
Ronald was a quiet young man who stayed out of trouble and loved to write music. He told his mother he was thinking of becoming a fireman or a police officer. Like Alicia, he had a very young child. His daughter, Bryannia, lives in Houston with her mother.
"I look at his daughter and she's so much like him," Guillory said, which comes out in the way she walks, talks and sleeps. "Even then she's the spitting image of him."
Alicia was also quiet. She lived for her daughter and planned to enroll in nursing school in fall 2004. She loved to read and "would give you her last," Betty said.
Searching for answers
The cousins were close, and Guillory said she thinks Ronald might have known something was wrong between Alicia and her ex-boyfriend in the days leading up to the killings. Ronald had told his mother days before that he was staying in Lafayette. She said she believes it was to watch out for Alicia.
But Betty said she never saw any signs of violence in the relationship between Davis and Alicia.
"God knows, if I knew anything was wrong I would have made sure I would have got her somewhere else," Betty said.
Alicia's brother, Darrick, was protective of his little sister and can't accept that he couldn't do anything to save her life.
"I blame myself for not being off that day," he said, looking off into the distance.
Betty said she had spoken to Davis shortly before the murders and he seemed fine. Only the day before, they had talked about plans for Easter, which was coming up in a few days. On the day of the killings, Alicia had visited her mother's house and everything seemed fine.
"She left here laughing. I was happy," Betty said. "Two hours later, it was all gone. It was all shattered."
A sad Happy Birthday
March 16 of this year was a cold, windy and dreary day.
Inside Betty's kitchen, a large pot of gumbo sat steaming on her stove. Today was a special occasion. It would have been Alicia's 21st birthday.
As Betty waited for her company to arrive, she stood close to the stove and watched as a very rambunctious Kiiurstin bounced and babbled in the doorway of her bedroom.
Near her doorway, a picture of Kiiurstin and her mom hangs on the wall with the words "Just the two of us" written across it.
The first guests to arrive were Marja Hooper, the executive director of Promise Inc. - an anti-violence and children's rights group - and her assistant, Linda Williamson.
"I'm starting all over again. I'm starting off with a 3-year-old."
Hooper, a survivor of domestic violence, has become a regular in Betty's life.
During the last year, through Hooper's encouragement, Betty has tried to remain visible as an advocate against domestic violence. Betty went to Baton Rouge to stand on the steps of the Capitol as a red, wooden silhouette depicting her daughter was unveiled in October 2004 to launch Louisiana's Silent Witness Initiative, a memorial to women killed by domestic violence. She has attended rallies and other events to fight domestic violence.
Betty pulled Marja into the kitchen, where a table against the wall held one of Alicia's old stereos.
"You've gotta hear this," Betty said to Marja as she pushed play on a tape given to her by another mother who lost a child to domestic violence.
Gospel music filled the room. Marja looked on as Betty slowly danced, swaying from side to side. She raised her arms above her head and clapped her hands along with the music.
"It has to stop. It's gotta stop. It's gotta stop!" Betty kept yelling. Tears formed in her eyes as her voice rose above the music.
Marja shook her head in agreement and embraced Betty tightly.
Later, everyone made their way to their cars outside. It was time to wish Alicia a happy birthday.
It would be Kiiurstin's first trip to her mother's grave.
At the Calvary Cemetery, off the Breaux Bridge Highway, Ronald and Alicia are buried side by side. When the group arrived, Betty opened the car door where two large, clear bags full of balloons were stuffed into the back seat.
The bags held 21 balloons - 20 for each year Alicia lived and an extra one for the year she never saw.
Both Betty and Darrick struggled to free the balloons from the bags as the wind whipped around and knocked the balloons against one another.
Kiiurstin stood by and watched. She appeared sad, until the first balloon popped out of the bag. Then a huge smile leapt to her face.
"Ohhh!" she said, as one balloon escaped and quickly disappeared into the sky.
Kiiurstin hopped up and down, grabbing at the balloons.
After the group said a whispered prayer at the gravesite of her daughter, Betty turned to Kiiurstin.
"Say happy birthday to her."
"Happy birthday, Mommy," Kiiurstin said softly.
Then each member of the group began letting go of the balloons, which the wind quickly ripped away and sent hundreds of feet upward in seconds.
"Let 'em go for Mama," Betty said to Kiiursten. "Let 'em go in the air. Yeah, let 'em fly."