Trish Bennett, Editor
CIRCLEVILLE – Alone. Empty. Numb. Grief-stricken.
These are the words Sharon Clary uses to describe March 30, 2014. It was the day her father was murdered. The day she suddenly became a victim of crime.
Clary, the daughter of the late Thomas Whitson, was recognized Tuesday by the Pickaway County Victims of Crime Program in honor of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
According to Emily Otterbacher, director of the local program through the Pickaway County Prosecutor’s Office, Clary worked relentlessly to support the prosecutor’s office as they worked to seek justice for her father.
“She was so dedicated to the process,” Otterbacher said. “She sat through every hearing, every trial, she never missed one. She was really interested in the whole criminal justice system and in honoring her father by being there.”
Clary’s journey over the past year was far from easy, Otterbacher said. The case included five suspects, one of whom was her own nephew.
Thomas Whitson, then 84, was at his home in Orient that fateful day when his grandson, Shaun Lawson, and four of his friends came calling. Their intent, as was established in numerous hearings and trials, was to kill Whitson and steal his guns.
Whitson, a father of three and a widower for more than a decade, was a horticulturist by trade and worked for years in the greenhouse at the old Orient State Institute, retiring when the facility was converted into a prison.
He was a U.S. Army veteran of the Korean conflict who lived in Pickaway County his entire life. He loved to farm, though he never actually owned one, and spent his days raising gardens, vegetables and chickens.
“He was my dad,” Clary said. “He never got angry, never talked bad about anybody, always had something good to say. He worked two jobs sometimes to support us, to give us what we needed.”
Whitson was found shot to death in his chair in the living room of his Orient home on March 30, 2014.
Shaun M. Lawson, then 30, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole for his role in his grandfather’s death.
Kyle M. Robinson, then 20, of Columbus, and Jordan J. Legg, then 17, of Pataskala, both were sentenced to 20 years to life behind bars on one count of aggravated murder.
Jesse J. Akers, then 17, of Columbus, was sentenced to 15 years for attempted murder and aggravated burglary.
Joshua P. Johnson, then 20, of Grove City, was the only suspect not involved in the actual shooting and will serve seven years in state prison for aggravated burglary and grand theft.
Clary said she had never been inside a courtroom before her father’s death. She thought you heard the case, the verdict was reached, the judge reads the sentencing and the case was done.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Clary said. “There are so many court procedures before you ever get to go to trial. There is an arraignment, indictment, preliminary hearing, Grand Jury, pretrial, trial, and so on and so on.”
It was a process, though, she was determined not to miss.
“I just needed to be there,” Clary said. “I didn’t think anything else. I would never have dreamed of not being there. I had to hear everything that was being said about my father.”
As much as the victims’ advocates appreciated Clary’s support and dedication throughout the case, Clary said she appreciates them even more.
“I feel like they were all walking in our shoes,” she said. “They felt the pain we felt, and they were just there for us. Step by step, they walked us through what was going to happen so we knew what to expect.”
Part of that process was intensely painful, Clary said, such as the day she viewed the crime scene photos that would be used as evidence at trial.
“Had they not informed us and showed us the pictures they were going to show ahead of time, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said.
In a letter, Clary praised Judy Wolford, Pickaway County Prosecutor, whom she said worked endless hours, days, weeks, even months preparing the case.
“She researches material, makes phone contacts, hears comments, visits the crime scene and reviews evidence, sometimes over and over again,” Clary said.
She also praised Otterbacher and victims’ advocate Mandy Wright for their help getting her through the past year.
“(They) both work together to keep you informed of dates and times of court procedures and most important, the criminal’s status,” Clary said. “They walk inside the courtroom with you each time. They even speak to reporters and let them know if you wish to make a statement to the press or not.”
Every recess, she said, they would discuss with her how the case was going and other information like who would be testifying next.
“Once the trial is over and the jury deliberates, and you wait and wait, sometimes hours, days, and on through the night if necessary, they are still there with you,” Clary said. “No, indeed, their job is not 9 to 5.”
Clary said she also has been enrolled in a program called VINE (Victim Information & Notification Everyday), which will alert her immediately of a prisoner’s whereabouts, transports or changes.
Clary said the women in the Victims of Crime Program are her “angels of mercy,” and she thanks them for their support.
“I could never have endured all I had to see, hear and re-live all those months had it not been for the grace of God and these ladies who represent this program,” Clary said. “They gave me strength, showed me love and support and kindness just when I thought I could not enter that courtroom one more day. I never got an answering machine, someone always picked up the phone when I called. They were Johnny-on-the-spot. They were there.”
If there is any message Clary could give to other victims of crime, she said it would be not to give in to the pain.
“You’re stronger than you think,” she said. “You just need to reach out, because you can’t do it alone. You need help, and that’s what these people are there for, to help you.”
The local Victims of Crime Program is located at 203 S. Scioto St., Circleville, Ohio 43113. They can be reached by phone at 740-474-1781.
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week runs April 19 through 25.
This article originally appeared on The Pickaway News Journal