Her name means “winner” or “conqueror.” It was the name her mother picked before she knew she was having a girl. As I looked down at little Victoria Jo Stinnett sleeping peacefully in my arms, I knew there couldn’t be a more fitting name.
After all, just 13 days earlier this little “miracle,” as her father Zeb calls her, had taken her first traumatic breath – at the same time her young mother, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, was breathing her last. Little Victoria was welcomed to the world not by doctors, nurses and family, but rather by the person who had just sliced her from her mother’s womb. Victoria’s first car ride wasn’t the short trip home from a hospital maternity ward with her parents. Instead, it was a 150-mile race in the car of her mother’s killer.
Thanks to the work of Nodaway County Sheriff Ben Espey and many other law enforcement officials, Victoria was found, unharmed, 23 hours later, and reunited with her father. The next day, her mother was buried, the mother Victoria Jo will know only through family memories, photographs and – sadly – yellowing newspaper clippings.
Yet, here she slept, oblivious to the strange man with a lump in his throat holding her like rare porcelain. Five days earlier it was Christmas, the celebration of that silent night when an infant brought hope to humankind. Now, I sat at a kitchen table with the family whose Christmas had been silenced by the numbness of grief. But I held in my arms the embodiment of victory – good over evil, peace over violence, love over fear!
She was dressed for battle in a slightly-too-big Tigger jumper and armed with a sleepy yawn that could melt cold steel. She was blissfully unaware that she had entered a world in which cruelty and violence could erupt without warning, and mercifully forgetful that it had done so in her first moment.
I’d never met Victoria’s family before that night. A co-worker whose husband works with Zeb told me that the family was overwhelmed by the media at his front door. Apprehensively, she asked if I could help.
I learned a couple of things in the aftermath of a June morning in 2002 when an old man with a rifle opened fire in the hallways of Conception Abbey. The first was that dawn always extinguishes night; that even the most senseless of tragedies and deepest of grief reveals unexpected blessings. The other thing was how to speak to the national media in the aftermath of a bizarre, headline-grabbing tragedy. I’m no PR guru, just a man with an experience that thankfully most people will never endure. I’m not wise, but sometimes life forces wisdom upon us.
I could not say I understood this family’s grief. Each tragedy is a deeply personal experience. No one can possibly know exactly what Zeb and his family are going through, just as no one could truly know what the monks went through. But this tragedy and the shooting at Conception Abbey had one thing in common – the wave of media. Perhaps if I could simply answer a few questions, pass on some lessons learned the last time the national media descended on Nodaway County because it would help in some small way to ease this family’s burden.
I ran the idea by Abbot Gregory Polan, who gave his blessing. He said he had been trying to think of a way that Conception Abbey could reach out to the Stinnett family, maybe this was it.
Not wanting to intrude on this family’s privacy, I placed a call to Sheriff Espey. He immediately called the family to suggest the idea, and a couple of weeks later I was nervously knocking at their door.
The meeting went well. I’m not sure if I helped them, or if they ever really needed my help. I was humbled by their hospitality, and I’m a better person for meeting them. They are good people who are facing the unfathomable with quiet dignity. They told me they desired two things: first, the opportunity to thank the countless people who have reached out to them with cards, letters, gifts, donations, and above all, prayers; and second, the privacy to grieve, heal and get to know their newest member like any other family, free from news cameras.
The desires of the little girl in the Tigger outfit were even simpler. Soon she would want, no, she would demand – and quite vocally – to be fed.
Conquering evil is hungry work.