North America

U.S. Mother’s book is outlet for murder victims’ families

Cherry Hill, N.J., residents Bob and Lynn Ucciferri lost their son Robert in 2002 after he was shot to death in Cherry Hill. The case hasn't been solved.(Photo: John Ziomek, (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post)CHERRY HILL, N.J. — A neighbor murdered Steve Goebel in a horrific attack 12 years ago.
His mother, Pat, wants people to remember her son: the good, the bad, the promise he could never fulfill.
She wants people to remember his murder and the continuing pain and trauma endured by survivors of homicide victims: family, loved ones, friends.
Pat Goebel knows in almost every murder, there is more than one victim. There are often many. Despite that, the Atco, N.J., resident came to realize no one in the criminal justice system truly speaks for victims.
Which is why Goebel wrote the book We Are Their Voices: Remembering Our Murdered Loved Ones, the story of her son and 10 other homicide victims' families enmeshed in a court system they felt ignored or marginalized them.
Robert Ucciferri's story is among them. His March 2002 slaying in his hometown of Cherry Hill, N.J., remains unsolved and nearly forgotten despite a reward.
His mother, Lynn, wrote the passages about her son's slaying in Goebel's book. She said that although remembering was painful, it was more important to keep Robert's memory alive, to speak for him and her still-wounded family.
"People don't know what to say. They try and avoid you. They isolate you.
"People don't understand. It was not just my son who was murdered. There are a lot of other victims in this family," added Lynn, who hopes Goebel's book will result in information about the murder.
"We Are Their Voices" begins with Steve Goebel.
Angry about money owed for drugs, Jaire Highsmith, 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, forced his way into Steve Goebel's Clementon, N.J., apartment on Oct. 29, 2001.
First Highsmith stabbed Goebel — who was 5-foot-8 and about 130 pounds — in the lung. He stabbed Goebel again with the kitchen knife an accomplice gave him shortly before the attack.
Then Highsmith stabbed Goebel again.
And again — 76 times by the medical examiner's count. The knife pierced every major organ in Goebel's body.
For Pat Goebel and her family, the pain lingers even on the 12th anniversary of her son's death last week.
"You have to decide how you are going to handle this. Make it a positive or negative," she mused.
The former science and English teacher speaks softly during an interview in her home. It is decorated with family portraits, including Steve's.
"I decided to write a book as a vehicle for healing."
Above the fireplace, a sign reads: "Love deeply. Listen patiently. Forgive freely."
Pat Goebel is working on that last one.
Linda Burkett, victim witness coordinator for the Camden County (N.J.) Prosecutor's Office, called Goebel "an amazing woman, very strong, very resilient."
"Not everyone is able to make sense of such a horrific thing and also make it a positive," said Burkett, who worked with Pat Goebel and her family as they negotiated the criminal justice system.
"I'm in awe of her. She's amazing. She stood for her son. She was her son's voice."
Writing her chapter of the book and collecting the stories of other victims' families helped Goebel move ahead, but at first she felt numb, not empowered.
She knew Steve was struggling with cocaine and alcohol before he was killed. A bright young man who liked music and electronics and had worked at Fort Dix, Steve Goebel had just done a stint in rehab a few weeks before his death.
Their relationship strained, mother and son had not spoken in a few weeks, but Steve Goebel's sister, brother-in-law and niece visited him at his apartment the evening of Oct. 29, a Monday.
They left around 9:30 p.m.
Steve kissed his niece good night.
That was the last his family saw him alive.
Pat Goebel tried calling her son Tuesday and again Wednesday. Nothing.
On Thursday, Nov. 1, she asked her daughter to "see if Stevey is all right. I had a bad feeling."
Her son-in-law went to the apartment while her daughter remained in the car.
The apartment's front door was closed, but the patio door was open a few inches.
His brother-in-law found Steve Goebel dead on the floor, soaked in blood.
He called the cops on his cellphone. Then he called Pat Goebel.
"Mom, he's dead, he's dead. Steve's dead."
She remembers the words as if the call came yesterday.
Police put Steve Goebel's sister and brother-in-law in separate cars. They also put Kenny Walker, Highsmith's accomplice who accompanied Steve Goebel's brother-in-law to Steve's house, in a car for questioning.
Highsmith was arrested about a week later. He failed a lie-detector test and confessed.
"I think he was under investigation right away," Pat recalled. "I think Walker told them what happened."
She was shocked when the Camden County Prosecutor's Office quickly negotiated a plea deal for Highsmith, downgrading the murder charge to aggravated manslaughter and a maximum sentence of 30 years.
Effectively, that meant Highsmith could be out after serving 85% of his time. But more startling was the flat refusal by the prosecutor's office to bring charges against Walker.
Pat Goebel said officials there wanted only to treat Walker as a potential witness to bolster their charges against Highsmith.
That's all too common, according to Richard Pompelio, executive director of the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center. "There are so many cases where the prosecutors and the judges do assembly-line justice," said Pompelio, a lawyer whose own son was murdered.
"I pretty much don't count on government to help the victims. The criminal justice system is based on rights for the accused. Victim rights are nothing magical, but they are complex. You can't imagine unless you've walked through the fire yourself.''
Pat Goebel walked though the fire and eventually forced the system to work, though imperfectly. The murder and a slow-moving justice system soon left Goebel with post-traumatic stress disorder, her waking moments filled with "overwhelming" thoughts of the murder and its lack of resolution.
With counseling, she manages to keep the PTSD in check most of the time, but not always. Faith, not the system, gave Goebel hope. She "prays all the time. I don't know how I'd have made it otherwise."
"I was dismayed by the criminal justice system," she noted. "It was very frustrating. My only role was to read a victim impact statement."
Five years later, Pat Goebel convinced the county prosecutor's office to re-examine the case.
The review led to Walker's arrest and indictment on a murder charge that was pleaded down to hindering apprehension and possession of a weapon. The downgraded charges could have led to six years in jail.
Instead, Walker spent just six months in jail before being released for 18 months of intensive, probationary supervision. Imperfect justice, but in Pat Goebel's mind, at least it was something.
As she writes in her book near the end of the section about her son:
"Survivors of murdered loved ones must be vigilant in pursuing justice for those whose voices have been silenced."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.