Counselor for crime victims ready with words from heart

January 03, 1996|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Donna Dillon knows what it's like to be a victim.

In the early 1970s, Ms. Dillon said, she endured marital abuse -- then she was rocked by a devastating blow in 1990 when convicted rapist John Thanos shot and killed her 14-year-old daughter and two others in a Labor Day weekend crime spree.

After the burst of media and public attention following the murders, and the trial and eventual execution of Thanos in 1994 -- Maryland's first in more than three decades -- Ms. Dillon found herself abandoned to deal with feelings of loneliness, grief and depression.

Now she is helping other victims grapple with those demons.

"Nothing will bring my daughter back," said Ms. Dillon, 39, a victims assistance counselor at Baltimore County's White Marsh police precinct. "But it helps knowing that I am helping other people. I am a stronger person for it and it makes me no longer feel like a victim. I'm a survivor now.

"I hope that maybe, by sharing my story, others will reach out to me so that I can show them where to go for help," Ms. Dillon said. "I could have used that when I lost my daughter."

Through a $26,000 state grant, the county police started a pilot program geared to helping crime victims. Ms. Dillon, who lives in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood, was selected from a list of 40 candidates for the job.

She spends most of her workday contacting people who have gone through traumatic experiences such as robbery, rape and other forms of violence, as well as families left behind to mourn for homicide victims.

Sometimes she offers them useful -- and necessary -- information on, for example, how to obtain a restraining order or file a police report. They are things people never think they have a use for until too late, she said.

But mostly, she reaches out by telephone or in person at crime scenes and after events to offer a friendly ear or a shoulder to cry on. She listens to the fears of victims and their loved ones, and steers them toward help and support when the pain and nights without sleep are too much to bear.

"You are victimized first by the crime and then you are victimized again because of what you've been through," Ms. Dillon tells the people she tries to help.

"At the funeral, you'll get dozens of flowers and cards, but two weeks later, nothing. As a victim of a crime, I am reality. People isolated me and avoided me after the murder, because I was a reminder of what can happen to them.

"I talk to people who have been victimized about what it feels like to be a victim," she explains. "I emphasize humor and the importance of laughter. I tell them not to isolate themselves from others. I give them advice that I myself have used to go on with my life."

It wasn't just her first-hand experience with crime that landed her the job, said Lt. George C. Rogers, who heads the White Marsh Precinct's community outreach unit -- it was also her record of voluntarism in the five years since her daughter was slain.

After joining a support group for murder victims' families, Ms. Dillon became a volunteer with various victims' advocates groups. She also visited senior centers with the group Pets On Wheels. Now, Ms. Dillon said, she's being paid to do something she loves.

In her responsibilities, she travels around the White Marsh and Parkville areas, speaking to groups about crime and how to avoid being a victim. At a recent meeting at the Parkville Senior Center, she seemed to form an instant rapport with the audience as she shared her painful stories and explained her qualifications to handle the job.

In a quiet voice, she recalled Thanos' 1990 rampage. The victims included her 14-year-old daughter, Melody Pistorio, who was shot to death with boyfriend Billy Winebrenner, 16, during a robbery at a Middle River gas station owned by the boy's father.

"I had to lose my daughter to murder and then had to keep relosing her on TV broadcasts and the media," Ms. Dillon said to a chorus of seniors saying, "I remember that," and "Goodness, poor dear."

"I hope you'll never have to call me," she said. "But if you need me, I am there for you."

The audience was spellbound through Ms. Dillon's half-hour presentation.

"That just brought tears to my eyes," said Rosemary Greiner, 68. "She's very courageous. I admire her because she must relive it every time she talks about it."

Bob Light, 70, agreed, saying, "She fills up with emotions and she makes me fill up. It's great to know this program exists -- especially with her doing it because she's been through it all."

County police hope that if this pilot program is successful, the department will find the money to expand it to other precincts.

"We recognize that one of the critical points in time for a victim of a crime is the first contact they have with the criminal justice system," Lieutenant Rogers said. "With this program, we're able to show them that they haven't been abandoned in their time of need."

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