Imagine this: It is a Friday and Christmas is just a week away. The owner of "Ecstasy," a small boutique filled with leather clothes, and accessories for women is opening the door at 10am. The store is completely re-stocked for the last days of the season. The streets are quite empty since shoppers usually take a half an hour or so to get to the stores, reach for their credit cards, and shoot their signature left and right. Three men walk from across the street directly towards the boutique. The owner of the store sees them and something tells her they're up to no good. She rushes to the double French door to close it, but it's too late. As she is closing it, one of the men, in a fast move, puts his foot between the door and the frame, making it impossible for her to close it while with one of his hands he pushes the door open for him and his accomplices to step in. He is concealing a gun in his jacket. The man is literally two inches away from the store owner when he takes his weapon out and points it to her stomach area. "Do what you're told, and you won't be hurt", she heard the man say. Time stops and from that point on she feels as though everything is happening in slow motion. Although the men seem to know what they're doing, she notices that the one touching her abdomen with the gun is very nervous, shaking violently. She is afraid that he will shoot her inadvertently. She dares to speak to the man. "Calm down. Take everything, just don't hurt us", she said, referring to herself and her employee, who was in the back room while this was happening.
From there, havoc! She is ordered to go to the back room, as two more men join the others. Those men have large weapons with them, the military type. One of them, handing his rifle to one of his peers inside, stays casually outside while the rest of them are busy ripping the walls of the store naked, and putting everything in trash bags. They demand from the women to take off their jewelry and lay it on the ground without looking at them. The store owner is ordered to hand them the keys to her car, and her purse. Inside the purse was her I.D. with her address, and the keys to her home. She complies. The men are moving as fast as they can; they are yelling at each other and at her for more money. There's no more, and they threaten to kill her. She's sure she's going to die. She sees that one of them leaves a gun on a couch, within her reach. In a matter of seconds, a thousand considerations come to her mind. She feels that she could get the guy that's "watching" them, but decides against it because the three men on the other side of the wall would easily turn around and shoot her. She continues cooperating. Before they leave, they threaten her again and tell her not to move from the back room for five minutes. They take the merchandise, her car and her purse with them, however the most precious thing they took from her was her emotional stability.
I was that store owner in my hometown, and after these events life became hell for me and my family for a couple of years. I started having problems with my husband who was unable to make me feel safe, although he did everything in his power and then more. I was unable to sleep a full night, and I was growing more and more impatient with my then, two year old daughter. Don't even ask how I felt about walking on a lonely street or when someone approached or spoke to me from behind. During that time, there was no one to help me navigate the complicated legal system, or who could give me any information on the investigation or the prosecution of the case. I needed someone who could help me get restitution, or at the very least, some financial assistance to pay for the therapy that I desperately needed to reduce my fears of these men getting to my home and to my family.
Traditionally, criminal justice systems have overlooked the needs of the victims, solely focusing in the criminals, and in taking them out of the streets. Fortunately, this is not the case in Santa Barbara County. Since 1980, the District Attorney's Office has served victims of crime, being one of the first in the State and the Nation to have a Victim Witness Unit devoted to assist, inform, explain, and provide support and referrals to them, and to offer State Victim Compensation that can pay for some of the victims' needs, when they are eligible.
It is good to know that thanks to this program, victims of crime and their families in our county can have the guide, support and information they need to start their healing process and recovery as soon as they're ready to do it.
In observance of National Victims' Rights Week, the SB County District Attorney's Office is hosting the "Justice for Victims, Justice for All" conference on April 17th, at the Marriott Hotel in Buellton 8:30 - 3:00, which includes two panels and a Award luncheon. For information call 682-0702.
Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latino perspective.
Cross-posted at Edhat.com