SANTA ANA, Calif. — Lynette Duncan had the killers running scared. And it felt good.
The tears in the eyes of the grizzled, veteran parole officer confirmed she’d gotten her victim impact statement right. But she knew she’d done something important even as she was standing up for the first time in a criminal proceeding, explaining what happened to her and her family after one night in 1977, when Brett Thomas and Mark Titch topped off a crime spree of murder and robbery by opening fire on Lynette’s family home in Anaheim, Calif.
A shotgun blast to the head killed her father, Aubrey, as he stood at their front door after arriving home from work. A single shot to the heart killed her sister, Denise, as she stood in the foyer.
For 36 years, Lynette Duncan lived terrified of walking in the dark, of having her doors unlocked. And there is no easy way to say this: For a long time, she simply felt like a loser.
She was like that “candle in the wind” of the Elton John song, blowing this way and that. Studied communications at Cal State Fullerton but never could land a PR job. Tried working retail management but wasn’t very good at it. Men came into her life and went. She was on welfare for a while raising two kids by herself. Mostly skipped around. South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia — didn’t matter. Nothing worked out.
“I was such a doormat,” she says.
Duncan was well into her 30s when she started studying for certification to be a prosthetics technician. It required her to take some college units in psychology, through which she stumbled across a condition she’d never heard about, which had been identified only in the 1980s: post-traumatic stress disorder, a chronic mental health condition triggered by traumatic, life-threatening events.
In that moment, the Fates or God or sheer coincidence presented a different possibility to her. Maybe she wasn’t fundamentally flawed at some deep level. Maybe her constant anxiety and her aimlessness had taken root that horrific night in 1977.
Duncan was 17 at the time, asleep in a back bedroom. She awakened to a nightmare: her mother, legs shot and bleeding, calling police. Her baby sister reeling from shock. Her other sister, away on a sleepover, missing. Jumping across the pool of her father’s blood to reach the street. Her own screams piercing her ears.
It’s hard to imagine now, but 36 years ago when these murders happened, there was no protocol for helping crime victims. No grief counselors. No Office of Victim Services. Duncan, with her mother in the hospital and her remaining sisters too young to help, made the funeral arrangements. Bauman cleaned the blood off the stoop with a garden hose. Then, they all just returned to daily routine as if nothing had changed — but of course, everything had.
“I remember sitting in school a few months later. I don’t know if we were talking about capital punishment or what, but the teacher showed this film, ‘In Cold Blood,’” Duncan recalls, her fair skin still reddening at the memory of the Truman Capote story about a family murdered in Kansas. “I just put my head down, and I am reliving every single thing. I don’t think the teacher even realized. No one even noticed. Or, they were afraid to say anything, because the thinking was, ‘If we don’t talk about it you won’t remember, and it won’t make you feel bad,’ not knowing that it never goes away.”
With the help of therapists and victim support groups, Duncan learned about different ways of grieving and why she couldn’t just “put it behind her” like her sisters told her to do.
At those support groups, she also learned that the status of inmates and their parole schedule are public information.
All these years, she and her family had been afraid the murderers got paroled. Yet with a few quick clicks on the Internet and a phone call, she discovered that not only were the two still in prison, but that the next parole hearing for one, Thomas, was just a few months away.
Although she was living in Maryland at the time, she moved heaven and earth to make the hearing, getting assistance from the victims’ rights foundation Marsy’s Law for All, proponents of the Victims’ Bill of Rights Act that California passed into law in 2008.
Foundation president Andy Hong, who has become a friend of Duncan’s, explains that once the inmates got wind that she would be making a statement, they “started gaming the system,” asking for delays to the parole hearings.
“They’re afraid of me”
“Instead of being devastated, Lynette realized, ‘They’re afraid of me,’” he recalls. “The day she decided she was going to carry on, no matter what, she became more powerful. You can hear it in her voice. She stands up taller.”
Bauman agrees. “Prior to Lynette, I don’t think those guys had any fear. They thought they’d lay low, and be out,” she says. “Lynette’s victim impact statement blew my mind. It was incredible.”
For Duncan’s part, she says giving the statement erased the fear that had been directing her life. She feels the experience has also been a vindication of her own healing process.
“For years my mom would say, ‘You’re the only one who has any problems because you’re the only one who went to therapy. And I would say, ‘OK.’” But that changed after she came out to give her statement. “I told her, ‘Mom, the only reason I can come here and drive to that prison and stand up for this family is because I went to therapy.’”
One of Duncan’s most cherished moments came about a month later, when her mom quietly told her, “I’m proud of you for getting well.”
“I’m glad she did it. I couldn’t, I would just cry,” says her mom, Nadine Ballard. She hasn’t read the victim impact statement. “I just don’t need to do that.”
Now, Duncan has come back to live in California for the first time in decades, moving in to help her mother in Yorba Linda. At the invitation of church groups, she’s speaking about the difference between forgiveness and justice: “Forgiveness you do for yourself. Justice you do for other people, so they don’t get out and hurt another family,” she says.
She’s hoping to help more of her fellow victims of violent crimes through volunteer work with Marsy’s Law, and wherever else she might be of service. “I really feel that’s something I’m supposed to be doing with my life,” she says. Helping others is a way she can make meaning out of the senseless deaths.
And she’s waiting for 2014, when the next parole hearing for the killers comes around. She’ll be there.
Go to marsyslawforall.org to donate, volunteer. Reach Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org.