Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Dawn Bowen, left, Heather Tierney, center, and Rajel Barber comfort one another while looking at their loved ones photographs hanging on one of three remembrance trees at the Gwinnett County District Attorneys Office Victim Witness Program annual Candlelight Vigil at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville on Tuesday. Bowen mourns the death of her daughter Ashley Bowen who died April 29, 2006. Tierney and Barber mourn the death of their sister Jennifer Corbin who died on Dec. 4, 2004.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Stephanie Ponteau was initially reluctant to attend a candlelight vigil on Tuesday night, but after the program ended, she was glad she did.
Ponteau and nearly 200 others attended an annual event at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center to remember those that have been lost as a result of homicide in Gwinnett County. The vigil, which has taken place each year since 2001, saw its largest crowd ever, said Candice Pitman, director of the Victim Witness Program. The program began with Pitman, Stan Hall, who created the program, and Danny Porter, the Gwinnett County District Attorney offering thoughts and memories to friends and families remembering their loved ones.
After they spoke, the names of victims who were killed this year were read aloud while a bell rang for each one.
"It was comforting," said Ponteau, who remembered her son, Cory Johnson, who was killed Dec. 28, 2011. "I was kind of reluctant to come. But I'm glad I did. It's just the spirit, a very sweet spirit of the program. It really made me feel like the people who work prosecuting the cases, that they care. They're trying to be in touch with our pain."
A music group, "By Design," from Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula, which has become a regular contributor to the event, sang about a "hope that endures."
Hall said that the annual event is a part of his holiday as anything he does.
Porter said this time of year is when all religions comes together for two things: family and giving. Porter said there is a comfort in togetherness, and that the lost loved ones gave a gift.
"We have their gift," Porter said. "It was the gift of their life, and a gift of their presence."
Porter remembered one victim who, "made some hellacious cheesecakes."
Along with family and friends, the crowd also included police and fire personnel and elected officials that surrounded the 140 chairs that were assembled near Christmas trees.
At least two families noticed that there were several more trees than in years past.
The sons of Jennifer Corbin, Dalton and Dillon, lit a remembrance candle in what has become a tradition for their family.
Eight years ago on Tuesday Jennifer Corbin was killed, and her sons, Dalton and Dillon, and their family has attended the vigil every year except one.
Heather Tierney, Jennifer Corbin's sister, said the program means a lot because at first it meant comfort, and now they come to bring comfort to others.
"To let them know that they're not alone," Tierney said. "Just letting you know that there are people out there that have gone through exactly what you've gone through."
The Tierney family donated and dedicated the center Christmas tree the first year they attended, and appreciated that organizers had expanded the decorations to eight trees.
Dawn Bowen attended the program to honor her daughter Ashley, along with three of her other children and other family members. Dawn said she's noticed that the crowd of supporters and families at the event seems to grow each year.
Ashley's younger sisters attended the event because their older relatives said they felt it's important to remember her, and know what happened.
Added Ashley's grandmother Diane Bagley, "It's just a celebration and the beginning of the Christmas season for us, so we can keep her alive. She's gone, but not forgotten."