The disappearance and murder of seven year old Jorelys Rivera was undeniably awful. Most news folk are able to detach themselves emotionally from stories they cover, in part because they’ve frequently seen similar stories before. But thankfully, children are rarely murdered in metro Atlanta nowadays. That made this story rough.
My career in Atlanta started after Wayne Williams was convicted in the Atlanta child murders cases. In my first two years here, I covered the murders of two children and never forgot their names.
10-year old Amy Holman was abducted, sexually assaulted and strangled in Hall County in 1987. A sheriff’s deputy who lived nearby was convicted of the crime.
Bricola Coleman was 12. Her mother found her body in their SW Atlanta apartment in 1988. An intense police search for the killer produced a suspect, but the charges were finally dropped in 2000. The child’s killer remains at large. (Both cases deserve more than the scant six sentences I’ve given them. Sadly, I can’t find either victim’s photo on the internet.)
Both cases gnawed at me, just as I knew the Rivera case gnawed at the reporters (and the police investigators) covering this case. I only produced sidebar pieces on the Rivera case and wasn’t part of the media siege at the Canton apartment complex where Jorelys and her alleged killer lived.
WXIA’s Jaye Watson was what she calls “a supporting player” covering the Rivera case. Duffie Dixon, Kevin Rowson, Blayne Alexander, Jon Shirek and Jennifer Leslie did most of the heavy lifting — as well as photogs Mike Zakel, Charles Olmstead, Tyson Paul and others. I asked Watson to write the following.
In the 12 years I’d been in Atlanta, I couldn’t recall something like this, a story that epitomizes my worst nightmare as a mother. I pictured it: A sunny day, a playground, the laughter of children. And there in the shadows lurked a real-life monster, about to pick a child to torture and kill.
We camped out at the apartment complex, talking to neighbors, most of whom were already pointing to Ryan Brunn, People said he put off a ‘bad vibe,’ that he was weird and didn’t look people in the eye, that nobody knew him well and he hadn’t been there very long. I challenged them. I pointed out that it’s easy to call someone weird or ‘off’ once you’ve seen GBI agents in their apartment, towing away their car. They said no, everyone thought he was weird before that.
Later in the week, I had a rather heated exchange with someone in my neighborhood who said it was the mother’s fault for not supervising Jorelys – that she was an awful mother. I don’t know anything about Jorelys’s mother, except that she works the overnight shift at a factory, and that she is raising three kids. We were told a teenager in the complex was babysitting when this happened.
I saw some of my Facebook friends slamming the mother early on, and all I could think was: This is what we do as humans. We try to blame the mother to reassure ourselves that something this heinous will never happen to our children.
I’m a mother. The night Jorelys’ body was found, I went home to my children. I held my almost seven year old son on the couch as he watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I felt the lightness of his little body as he sank back against my chest, I looked at his slender arms, his tiny boy torso with its bony ribcage, and I imagined it. I let myself imagine the terror and confusion Jorelys felt, how she wished for her mother, for someone to save her, and how help never came.
I imagined my son or my daughter enduring the same fate as Jorelys, and I felt sickened. I felt terrified. Because I’m not always there. I work. I have a wonderful babysitter. But no one can watch every second of every day, forever. And it was in one of those tiny cracks of time that an innocent girl was abducted and murdered.
I stood outside the Cherokee County Detention Center Friday morning, reporting the latest on the case. As reporters, we see, not through the TV screen but with our own eyes, the last place Jorelys played, the home she used to live in. We meet the friends she used to know. And while I know how to use sound and images to structure a TV story, I have no idea how to make sense of what happened to a 7 year old girl who deserved what my children have — love, safety, a home.
Instead, Jorelys suffered and was alone with a monster at the end of her short life. Regardless of the judicial system, it’s hard for me to feel that there can ever be any true justice for the destruction of innocence.