- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

Sandra Johnson of Fort Washington marks her life with a clear-cut line. “There’s a line that’s your life before murder and after murder,” says Mrs. Johnson, 56.

Slicing her arms through the empty space in front of her, she points to one side that represents “the day before murder,” the other “the day after murder.” That day was May 25, 1990, when her 26-year-old daughter, Sherry Larman, was killed.

“When somebody you love is murdered, the devastation endured doesn’t end in a few weeks or months or a year … normal is not normal anymore,” Mrs. Johnson says.

Only those unfortunate folks who have lost a loved one to violence, as Mrs. Johnson has, can offer true empathy.

That’s where vital survivors groups such as Parents of Murdered Children (POMC) step in.

This grief-support system is peopled by “nonjudgmental listeners,” says Mrs. Johnson, who contacted a member in Winchester, Va., during her daughter’s murder investigation. They are still friends.

“As a survivor, one of the most important things you can do is to connect with a person or group you can talk with freely and comfortably,” Mrs. Johnson says.

Tomorrow night, Mrs. Johnson will honor Sherry’s memory at the D.C. Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children (POMCDC) “Day of Remembrance” during a candlelight vigil from 5 to 7 p.m. at Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Avenue SE.

It will be the first time the local group has sponsored the event, which coincides with the national group’s commemorative activities.

POMC was founded in 1978 by Robert and Charlotte Hullinger in Cincinnati after their 19-year-old daughter, Lisa, was killed by her boyfriend. The couple’s basement meetings have grown to include 235 chapters. They contact people that assist surviving family members in 41 states, Canada and Costa Rica.

In addition to helping grieving survivors “reconstruct a new life,” POMC assists them in dealing with the criminal justice system through programs such as Second Opinion Services (SOS), which focuses on unsolved cases, and accompanying survivors at trials.

POMC also sponsors several crime-prevention programs such as “The Big Turn-Off” and “Murder Is Not Entertainment” (MINE) designed to protest violent television programming.

The Parole Block Program works to keep convicted murderers behind bars. The annual convention features the “Murder Wall,” 22 walnut plaques, each engraved with the names of 120 victims.

Mrs. Johnson is a local contact for the national group. She recently teamed with victims’ rights activist Kenny Barnes Sr., who started a local POMC chapter this year after the death of his son.

She gets angry when more sympathy is expressed for so-called “good kids” than for other victims with checkered pasts.

“But that’s somebody’s child, too,” says Mrs. Johnson, who also volunteers for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive.

Her daughter, Sherry, was a pretty, perky woman who was raised in Southern Maryland, where she started using drugs. “I didn’t like her lifestyle but I never turned my back on her,” Mrs. Johnson says.

Sherry was murdered by Chander “Bobby” Matta of Arlington, who strangled and suffocated three D.C. prostitutes and dumped their bodies in a 36-hour period during Memorial Day weekend 1990. Jodie Phillips, 16, and Sandra Johnson, 20, (no relation) were his other victims. Matta was found guilty in March 1991.

Among Sherry’s possessions was a to-do list that included “buy Mother’s Day card for Mom.”

Mrs. Johnson says her involvement in POMC may have saved her. When her 30-year-old son, Phillip, died of pneumonia this year, the grief over the loss of two children became unbearable. (Another daughter and a grandson remain.)

But stepping up her involvement with POMC was “my therapy,” she says.

The local POMC chapter is working with the Metropolitan Police Department to establish Murder Response Teams similar to those that POMC dispatched in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mrs. Johnson says.

As a POMC contact before the D.C. chapter was established, Mrs. Johnson accompanied the parents of Eric Plunkett, the Gallaudet University student who was killed in the fall of 2000, to the trial of Eric’s killer, Joseph M. Mesa Jr., who was found guilty in May 2002.

Mrs. Johnson says POMCDC encourages “everyone in America who knows somebody who has been murdered to step forward an offer a hand of support and respect and recognition to the survivors.”

“Our city has been desensitized too long by the steady increase of violence and murder of the past years and now is the time for change,” she says. “I don’t want to see another mother with a broken heart have to bury her child.”

For more information about the POMCDC candlelight vigil, call 202/332-1642. The Web site for the national group is www.pomc.org.

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