Karen Poiani was a friend and peer of both Rebecca Wight and Claudia Brenner. She is someone for whom the shooting has left a lasting effect, and wished to express her thoughts on the event and its impact. All words, unless indicated otherwise in italics, are hers.
TW: violence, murder, loss, death.
I suppose the best place to start is why the Stories Project is something you wanted to be a part of. What made you want to take part when you received my message?
That’s a good question, and I suppose there are two things. One is that the event affected me really deeply in my life, so to have somebody want to hear that story, just personally – for those of us who have been affected by this, that feels really good. Part of the continuing healing around the event. I think the second was just the fact that you’re a high school student who wants to tell these stories to the world so we don’t forget. That’s awesome to me. I thought, “I want to help you with that.”
Do you have anything in particular you would want people to take from your story and your experiences?
Gosh, that’s hard. I guess what I would want people to get out of it is…perhaps two things. One is that there are people who are really screwed up, and that there are hate crimes against people because of their sexual orientation, or race, or whatever it may be. In our case it was sexual orientation. That’s really real, and that’s sad, and tragic. When Rebecca died, it was a tragedy. The second thing is that we had a really strong community, for Claudia especially, that pulled together and supported her and supported each other. It was an amazing community that came together for Claudia and helped everyone to heal from this.
How did you know Rebecca, and what do you remember the most about her?
I was a friend of Rebecca’s. We were both going to graduate school at Virginia Tech; I was getting my PhD in ecology. I can’t remember if Rebecca was actually in school or if she had graduated from Virginia Tech and was just living there. I would say I was closer friends with Claudia, who was her girlfriend and the other woman involved in the shooting. I was closer to her than I was with Rebecca.
Rebecca was one of those people that just had a kind of inner light inside of her. She was really a beautiful person. She was very kind and lovely, really community-oriented. I would say she had a light, a lightness about her, and a goodness. She was just a really good person. And she was funny and nice…you know, fun to be around.
How did you find out what happened to them, and what went through your mind when you did?
It was early in the morning when they called me; someone from Ithaca called me. I was sleeping; it was probably seven o’clock in the morning on a Saturday morning. My phone rang and my answering machine picked up, and I heard my friend Ellen telling me the terrible event that had happened. Of course I ran out of bed and picked up the phone. By that time they knew that Rebecca was dead and Claudia was in the hospital. I felt faint; I remember I felt faint. I was just in disbelief. I felt sick to my stomach; I just put my head down and…talked to Ellen. I realized, too, that I was going to have to go tell Rebecca’s sister, because I was living in Blacksburg and Rebecca’s sister was living in Blacksburg. That came pretty soon into the conversation with Ellen. Ellen was telling me that I had to go over and tell Evelyn. That was really hard and awful. Oh, god, that was one of the most awful things I’ve ever had to do in my life.
I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to have to do that.
Well, I had my friend Pam, and I asked her to go over there with me, so at least I would have a friend. We met and I was shaking the whole entire time. I felt like I was going to throw up; it was so scary and awful. I knew I had to tell Evelyn her sister was dead. We went into the house and woke Evelyn up, and of course she was like, “Hey guys! What’s going on?” And I had to tell her, “There’s been a terrible tragedy, and your sister’s been shot. And she’s dead.” I don’t know exactly what I said, but it was along those lines. It was horrible. It was really bad.
Then I remember – this is the striking thing I remember – we went with Evelyn, Pam and I. We were going to go with Evelyn; we were going to drive with her and her boyfriend at the time from Blacksburg up to northern Virginia. That’s where her dad and sister lived. Because she didn’t want to tell them on the phone, so she was going to drive up there and be with them. I remember the whole time being scared that someone was going to shoot me. I was afraid. I remember we stopped at a couple of rest stops and I was terrified to get out of the car. I just thought…I had this terribly irrational thought about getting out of the car and that someone was going to randomly shoot me. Just shoot me. That was the effect on me that day. I’ll never forget that. It was so odd and weird. I don’t feel that now, but I felt that for days.
When I learned it was a hate crime…I don’t know. I think I just felt so scared. It makes you feel really scared. Because I’m at risk too; I’m a lesbian. I’m someone that could be targeted like them. It could be me. For a long time, I felt scared. And then you feel angry. You feel so mad that the world is like this, and you don’t even get why. Those are some of the feelings I had. It doesn’t make any sense. There’s just no sense to it.
I think I read that you were one of the people who spent a lot of time with Claudia following the shooting and her getting out of the hospital. Was it hard for you to do that, to spend so much time with her and see her go through that?
Yeah, I would say it was. I wanted to; it was certainly something I wanted to do, but it was hard. It was May 13, so the semester was almost over; I think I took incompletes in the classes that I had and finished them later. It was the summer, so I went up and back to Ithaca a lot. I would go maybe once a month or something for a week, whenever I could. I remember when I was there, kind of being on shifts. We didn’t want to leave Claudia alone. Somebody had to sleep with her, in the same room. You were there to comfort her, and she just couldn’t sleep – she had very bad problems around sleep for a long time. That was one of the hardest parts.
I bet. On a slightly different note, how did you all deal with the trial and all the frustrating insinuations that were brought up in it?
I would say that we had really great policemen and lawyers. There was never – never, ever once – any kind of blame or damning on behalf of the prosecutors. They treated all of us respectfully, and it was a big extended group of people that they dealt with. I didn’t interact with them as much as Claudia or some of the others did, but that was really the defending lawyers’ tactics. To try and have something to use against us as the guy’s defense, because he had no defense. They said his mother was a lesbian and beat him up and all this other crap, and that that’s what drove him to do this. Maybe that’s true, but the judge pretty much said that’s not a defense and you’re not allowed to use it. So it never really went anywhere. And it was only a pre-trial, thank god. He pleaded guilty so that they wouldn’t try and get the death penalty against him. That was the plea bargain – if you plead guilty, there’ll be life without parole, but not the death penalty. That’s how they got out of a trial.
That’s great that you were all treated respectfully. It seems like too often the opposite happens when it comes to stories like this.
We were lucky that way. I can’t even imagine if that was going on as well. There you are having gone through this horrible tragedy and then the police and prosecutors are making you feel bad, too. That would be horrific.
Are there any particular memories about your experience that stand out to you?
Yeah, there are a couple. There were a lot of amazing things that happened, too. It was a terrible tragedy, but there were some pretty amazing things. Like Claudia telling us the story of walking out, all those miles out of the woods. She told us the things that Rebecca told her, like to stop the bleeding on her own and Claudia’s neck. That basically saved Claudia’s life, that Rebecca said that. And then she walked out of the woods. Little things like if another half inch of the bullet grazed Claudia’s neck, or went into her jaw – if any of those had been half an inch different, she would have been dead. You have to wonder…how the hell did she survive? How? Why?
I was in the hospital with her, too, when the sketch artist from the police came to talk to her. It was the sketch that caught the guy. He would have probably gotten away without it. I remember Claudia closing her eyes and trying to figure out what the guy looked like, and getting an image. It was such an incredible thing that happened. It was moments like that. There were so many people writing and calling and supporting Claudia. Ithaca was a really supportive place for her to go home to and get a lot of help and support.
One of the things that stands out for me is that I was really afraid to go into the woods, for years. Years! I’m still scared – I always was scared of the woods. I don’t know if it’s being a woman, or being a lesbian, or both. You’re always a little scared in the woods. I’ve done a lot of backpacking since I’ve been in high school and I’ve been out in the woods a lot in my life, but after the shooting, I don’t think I went in the woods for years. Maybe just little hikes in the park or something, but nothing like I used to. Nothing too far from civilization. No camping. No backpacking. Nothing like that. I don’t think I’ve gone backpacking or camping in deep woods since the shooting. I don’t think I ever will. Now, I’ll walk in the woods. I’ll hike and stuff. I’ll camp at the beach. But…I’m scared of the woods now. Actually, I’m not scared of the woods; I’m scared of the lunatics that run around in the woods shooting people. And killing them. You can’t help it. It just influences you like that.
It is wild, all those little things you mentioned, how she survived and was able to walk all those miles out of the woods to get help.
And why. You can’t help but ask why. Why did it turn out that way, why did it work out that way, why was Rebecca killed…it just makes you think, “Why?” You’ll never know.
Seriously. That was heroic. What’s impressive too is that Claudia is really healed. She’s had a great life. I’m sure there’s been lasting impacts, but it didn’t knock her down. She healed in a lot of ways and she’s had a great life. In spite of being shot. I’m not sure I would recover as well as she did. That’s the best ending to a bad story.
Is there anything else you would like to say or be sure to include about your experience?
I would say that these kinds of things, when they happen to you and the people you’re close to, there’s a real ripple effect. A lot of people are touched and affected by a hate crime besides the people who are the actual victims of it. The focus is a lot on Claudia, and maybe even Evelyn, because she’s Rebecca’s sister, and the family, but there’s circles of people who are impacted in various ways. It was a turning point in my life, that’s for sure. It’s one of those things that you’ll never be the same after you’ve gone through it, and there’s quite a lot of people who are impacted by that. Even if you just knew Claudia or Rebecca peripherally, coincidentally, there’s just this giant effect that goes on forever. You’re reading about it years later. It’s still impacting. Hate crimes are really intense, and they leave long-lasting ripples.
Pretty much anyone could be the victim of a hate crime for something they are. If they’re a certain race, or sexual orientation, or gender – anything. I think it scares you to your core because you feel your own vulnerability. You have no control over what happens to you in some circumstances. It doesn’t just happen to other people. It could happen to you.