`Something positive coming out of a bad thing'

Grieving mutual friend introduces families of two of sniper's victims

October 10, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The sniper's first and fourth victims never met, but they both had a friend in Larry Gaffigan.

Now, the 53-year-old Silver Spring resident is mourning the losses of a dear friend, James D. Martin, and a trusted nanny, Sarah Ramos, and trying to unite their families in the aftermath of last week's deadly attacks.

"It's all too much," Gaffigan said during an interview tucked between afternoon business appointments and a visit with Martin's widow, Billie Martin. "This has been a nightmare."

Visibly worn, Gaffigan, a tall, sturdy man with pale skin and a wistful smile, set aside his daily routine and sidestepped interview requests from Katie Couric, People magazine and a dozen other media outlets to introduce two grieving families.

Ramos' husband, brother and father accompanied Gaffigan just before noon Tuesday to the Martin family's home on Centergate Drive in Silver Spring.

"There was no crying," Gaffigan, a real estate property manager, said. "There was talking. There was hand-holding. There was hugging. But no crying."

At Gaffigan's suggestion, James Martin's widow agreed to give his 12-year-old Chevy Blazer - the vehicle he drove to the grocery store where he was shot last Wednesday - to Ramos' husband, Carlos Cruz.

"He has jumped right into helping the families," said Gaffigan's 27-year-old son, Joe. "He's taking on their deaths, and he's putting it on his shoulders."

Still reeling from the loss of his 27-year-old daughter to cancer last year, Gaffigan has spent this week comforting Cruz and Billie Martin and helping both families take the first steps toward moving beyond the grief.

Days after Ramos' death, Gaffigan was putting out feelers for teaching jobs for Cruz, who speaks limited English but was an economics professor in El Salvador.

Sarah Ramos, 34, who also spoke little English, had been the primary wage-earner in her small family, supporting her husband and their 7-year-old son, Carlos Jr., Gaffigan said. She worked full time as a housekeeper and nanny for Gaffigan's family and several of his friends and relatives.

"She just radiated love," he said. "She had such a sweet way with children."

When Larry Gaffigan and his wife, Barbara, sat down to explain to their children that they would never see Sarah Ramos or James Martin again, the children - Kelsey, 7, and Jacob, 10 - wept and grew angry, Gaffigan said.

Gaffigan and Martin, 55, became friends about four years ago through their young sons' Stonegate Boy Scout troop, Gaffigan said.

Their scouting activities evolved into a more personal relationship, and the families eventually formed a dinner club with four other couples.

Gaffigan's wife remains "tremendously shaken" by the shootings, he said.

As news of the shootings spread last Thursday, Gaffigan rushed to the Glenmount police station at 9 a.m. to learn what he could about his friend's death in the parking lot of a Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton.

Police had nothing to tell him and hurried him out the door, saying they were investigating several new shootings that had occurred that morning.

En route to his office on New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring, Gaffigan answered a frantic phone call from a friend. The message:

Sarah Ramos had been shot as she waited for a ride on a bench near Leisure World, and police needed a family member at the crime scene.

Gaffigan picked up Ramos' niece, who works for his real estate services company, and the two sped to the strip mall on Rossmoor Boulevard.

The first few days after the shootings were a blur of funeral arrangements and tearful moments, but amid the anguish, Gaffigan came up with a plan: What better use of Martin's beloved Chevy than to give it to Cruz to help with his job search?

Martin's widow quickly agreed, to it, Gaffigan said.

Richard Mellish, a friend of the Martins, said James Martin's widow wants to grieve privately, but he said the bond between the two families is "something positive coming out of a very bad thing."

Joe Gaffigan said he's not surprised that his father has become so involved with the two grieving families.

"He's a big softy, my dad," he said, smiling. "He has a huge heart and always reaches out and lends a hand."

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