UNION — They can no longer speak for themselves, but with the help of family, friends and others, the stories of people who lost their lives to domestic violence were told during a ceremony at the Union County Courthouse on Tuesday.
The SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition is a private, non-profit organization that provides services to the victims of domestic violence in Spartanburg, Cherokee and Union counties and assists victims of sexual assault in Spartanburg and Cherokee counties. On Tuesday, as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the organization, together with local and area law enforcement, victims advocacy groups and other organizations held a “Silent Witness Vigil” to commemorate the six women and one man who have died as a result of domestic violence in Union County since 2002.
The event took its name from the eight red silhouettes that served as silent witnesses for local victims of domestic violence. Each silhouette bore a gold chest plate, seven of them with the names, ages and dates of the victims’ deaths, the circumstances of their deaths, who they left behind, and the names and fates of those accused of killing them.
While the silhouettes bore silent witness, family members, friends and others spoke out on behalf of the victims, telling their stories to the crowd gathered on the courthouse lawn. Among those speaking on behalf of the victims was Susie Fernandez, the mother of Aretha Maria Fernandez, who not only told her daughter’s story, but also spoke about the day of her daughter’s death, the discovery of her remains four months later, her legal battles with her daughter’s murderer, and the impact her daughter’s death has had on her family.
“My daughter is Aretha Maria Fernandez. She is 31 years old. On September 3, 2008, her boyfriend, Jamel Good, murdered her and discarded her body in Sumter National Forest. Jamel was found Guilty of Murder and was sentenced to Life in Prison without Parole. My daughter leaves behind her young son, her parents, family and friends.
“My daughter is Aretha Maria Fernandez.”
Fernandez said that Sept. 3, 2008 began as a typical day, but when it was over her life had changed forever.
“It was a typical work day for me,” Fernandez said. “I went to work expecting everything to be the same when I got off work.
“My daughter Maria had recently moved back in with me,” she said. “When I left home that Wednesday morning I expected to see Maria, Kyshah and my grandson, J.J., when I arrived home after 3 p.m. Things did not turn out that way for me.”
Fernandez said she called Maria, but her daughter did not return her calls. She finally got an answer around 6:30 p.m., but it was not Maria who answered the phone, it was Good.
“He told me that my daughter was at his home and that he would tell her to return my call later,” Fernandez said. “This did not seem right to me. Why did Jamel have Maria’s phone? Something just did not feel right.”
Fernandez said she then tried to take a nap and “sleep off that feeling that a mother gets when something is wrong with her child.”
Sept. 4, 2008 arrived and Fernandez said she still had not heard from her daughter. After work that day Fernandez said she went to Good’s house but no one was home. She said she then drove to Good’s mother’s house.
“Jamel was there and he told me that J.J. was there, but no one had seen Maria,” Fernandez said. “It was at this point that I decided to contact the police. At the sheriff’s office I spoke with Roxie Belue who instructed me on how and when to file a missing person’s report.
“Maria was scheduled to return to work at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center on Saturday, September 6, 2008,” she said. “When Maria did not show up for work that day, I would not learn the whereabouts of my child again until January 7, 2009.”
By that time, Fernandez said “all I had left of my child were skeletal remains.”
The remains of Maria Fernandez were found by a utility worker beneath some power lines off Highpoint Road in the Carlisle area.
During Good’s murder trial in 2009, the state introduced as evidence a phone log that showed that a signal from a cell phone owned by Good had bounced off a tower in the Carlisle area the night Maria’s disappeared.
The news of her daughter’s fate was not only the start of a quest for justice, but also the beginning of struggle between Fernandez and Good over the future of her grandson.
“When Sheriff Taylor told me that the remains were identified as Maria, I did not know what to do or say,” Fernandez said. “All I could think was ‘how do I deal with this … what now?’ Maria was dead and the person who killed her had not been arrested. Even worse, he had my grandson and would not allow me to see him.
“I buried my daughter on January 31, 2009 and her son was not even allowed to attend his mother’s funeral,” Fernandez said. “My son even asked for permission for J.J. to attend his mother’s funeral, but the day went by without J.J.”
Fernandez said it took a months-long legal battle for her finally to be able to see her grandson.
“This time for my family was a long-fought battle with Jamel Good and his family,” Fernandez said. “I had to get a lawyer just to have visitation with my grandson. My lawyer, William ‘Billy’ Whitney took my case and fought long and hard for me to see my grandson. Finally, on June 3, 2009, I was granted custody of my grandson in family court.
“It has been great having my grandson,” she said. “He is the closest I will ever be to my daughter again.”
Fernandez said her grandson has “been through a lot of counseling because he witnessed his mother’s murder. He is moving along with his life, but he misses his mother and father. J.J. lost both of his parents because on December 11, 2009, his father was in prison without possibility of parole.”
Good was sentenced following a five-day trial in which his son, who was six years old at the time, took the stand and testified that his father had killed his mother. The child said that the day of his mother’s disappearance they’d played together and then he’d went to his room and his parents to theirs. Then there was what he said was a camera flash that left his father smiling and his mother dead. He said his father then buried his mother in their backyard.
Taylor, who also spoke during the ceremon, recalled how it took the jury only 30 minutes to find Good guilty of Maria’s murder. He also recalled what the judge said in sentencing Good.
“During the sentencing, Judge James Williams said that although the facts of no two cases are the same, a small child witnessing the murder of his parent pushed this case into a special category,” Taylor said. “Judge Williams went onto say, ‘I cannot find it in my heart to show you mercy. I sentence you to life in prison without parole.’
Fernandez recalled the pain she and her family has experienced in the years following Maria’s death and those who she said God had sent to help them through those difficult times.
“In the past three years I have experienced a lot of grief and pain, but I know the Lord has seen me through all my struggles and I know he will continue to guide me,” Fernandez said. “When I did not know what to do the Lord put some special people in my life to support me and hold my hand as I cried and asked for justice for my child.
“One of those people was Sheriff David Taylor,” she said. “Until he took office there was not much progress in my daughter’s case. He was a caring man and he worked hard to find my missing child and to bring closure to her case. He participated in candlelight vigils and always informed me of new information in the case.”
Fernandez also praised Lt. Terry Humphries and Capt. Robbie Hines who she said “were so caring and kind during this time. They continued to give me hope during the long months.”
She also praised Michelle Shugart, Union County Victims Advocate for being a “great source of comfort for both me and J.J. during our time of grief.”
For more information about domestic violence and the services it provides the victims of domestic violence, contact the the SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition at (864) 583-9803.
Editor Charles Warner can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com.