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Women's extended 'family', bound by tragedy, grieving privately

SEBRING — While an entire county grieves publicly for the loss of five people to gun violence, the families of those five have chosen, at least for now, to remain silent in their grief.

Some have spoken out, such as the Williams family, who held a press conference of their own shortly after the events that changed so many of their lives and the lives of others.

Ana Piñon-Williams, 38, was one of four employees in the bank at noon on Jan. 23, 2019, working alongside 54-year-old Debra Cook, 55-year-old Marisol Lopez, and 31-year-old Jessica Montague.

Their one customer at that time was 65-year-old Cynthia Lee Watson, until the shooter walked in.

He called 911 at 12:36 p.m. to report what he had done, prompting law enforcement and emergency personnel to converge on the bank, and prompting victims’ advocates from several local and state agencies to gather the families at a nearby hotel for the inevitable bad news.

With the first anniversary of the SunTrust shooting, as the community comes together to dedicate the former bank site, which has been redeveloped as a memorial, families of those women have made few public statements or appearances.

They also have not said much, at least to date, about their grief and coping over the last year.

A representative of the Williams family has made some public statements regarding learning to accept the change throughout this past year.

It’s been a year of missed gatherings, holidays and birthdays, including Montague’s husband’s birthday. It is the same as the shooting.

In the case of the Montague and Watson homes, wedding anniversaries occurred shortly before this remembrance.

In addition to husbands without wives, children have been without their mothers.

Cook, with two sons and grandchildren, would have celebrated 35 years with her husband, Michael Cook, in February 2019.

Lopez, and her husband Victor, married since 1992, lived in Lake Placid with their two children, Kiara and Victor Lopez.

Jessica Montague, married to Jermaine Montague, had one of her three children with him. Through him, she was step-mom to seven more.

Piñon-Williams, married for six years to Chad Williams, was mother to three children and step-mom to four children.

She had just begun working at SunTrust on Jan. 4, 2019, an answer to a prayer for a new job.

Watson and her husband, Tony Watson, had recently married in January 2019. They lived in Venus with their two Shih Tzu dogs and some chickens and goats.

In the month immediately after the shooting, schools offered support to the many children returning to daily routine, but not to a “normal life.”

As with the victim’s advocates from various agencies, school counselors stood ready to help when children did return, especially if they didn’t return immediately.

Woodlawn Elementary School had one child affected by the shooting. Memorial Elementary School had four.

GoFundMe.com accounts started up to raise funds for the families, as needed, as well as a scholarship fund for the children.

Throughout the community, the rallying statement “Sebring Strong,” adapted the “Boston Strong” rallying cry that arose after the Boston Marathon Bombing on April 15, 2013.

One of the GoFundMe accounts is the “Sebring Strong Survivors Fund,” formed by the SunTrust Foundation and the National Compassion Fund at www.gofundme.com/f/sebring-strong-survivors-fund. To date, it has raised $632,261 specifically to help the families of Cook, Lopez, Montague, Piñon-Williams and Watson.

Today’s memorial dedication begins at 10:30 a.m. at 1901 U.S. 27 South, across Tubbs Road from the Residence Inn by Marriott in Sebring.

Parking is available on site and at the Marriott and the adjacent Tru by Hilton, but those lots are private parking and limited.

Attendees would be wise to carpool as much as possible or park further away and walk.

Reflection Park to be dedicated to families

SEBRING — It is the site where one of Sebring’s most horrific events took place, but today the former location of the Midtown SunTrust Branch has been turned into a sanctuary of peace and reflection. Reflection Park is being dedicated today to mark the anniversary of the shooting deaths of the five women who died at 1901 U.S. 27. Those women, who have affectionately become known as the “Sebring Five,” were Debra Cook, Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Ana Pinon-Williams and Cynthia Watson.

Family, friends and the entire community will be able to sit on benches in the park-like setting and remember in their own way the women who lost their lives one year ago today. Since Jan. 24, the bank became a makeshift memorial and never reopened. The SunTrust Foundation stepped in and worked with the community, businesses and non-profits to determine what the memorial project would look like.

Today’s dedication is scheduled for 10:30 a.m.

“We worked closely with local officials and community leaders to evaluate options for the site that would honor the lives of the five women lost and benefit the Sebring community,” said Lynette Bell, president of the SunTrust Foundation, now Truist Foundation. “We felt it was important to create a safe, quiet space for the community for remembrance and reflection, and a space that will hopefully bring comfort, peace and healing to everyone who visits.”

After razing the bank building, Edgewood Landscape of Avon Park was contracted to create the vision. The hard-scaped park has created a memorial that has a lot of symbolism built into it. The numbers 1, 2, 3, and 5 are represented as the tragedy took place on 01-23-19 at about 12:30 p.m. and there were five women.

A pentagon is featured in the middle of the monument because of its five sides that create a whole. Muted lighting will be no brighter than a glow, creating a warm environment and a plaque will commemorate what happened at the site in perpetuity.

“In terms of the site’s future use, we plan to convene a committee of community citizens and Truist teammates to determine how to best repurpose the site for the long term,” Bell said. “We want to hear from the community and support their decision.”

Becker's disappearance a mystery

SEBRING — Margaret Becker, 81, of Sebring, seemingly disappeared into thin air. She nor her 2018 blue Chevrolet Colorado have been seen since Friday. Highlands County Sheriff’s Office officials have said they have a mystery on their hands.

HCSO officials say they have not had a ping from her cell phone since Friday and the OnStar system in her truck cannot be located either. The truck has an Ohio tag, HOB8214, and had a handicap placard attached to the rear view mirror.

HCSO released the following time line, which shows where she was and time immediately leading up to her disappearance:

“4:19 p.m. – Mrs. Becker arrives at the CVS at 2728 US 27 South (Southgate Plaza) in a blue 2018 Chevrolet Colorado (Ohio tag HOB8214). She goes into the store and picks up prescriptions and exits at 4:48 p.m. A person who saw her at the store said she appeared confused. She has not been diagnosed with dementia, however.

“6:05 p.m. – Mrs. Becker enters the Publix at the Southgate Plaza (2848 US 27 South). The video shows she was wearing knee-length light blue pants (maybe jeans) and a blue checkered shirt. She appeared a little unsteady on her feet. She purchased bananas and left the store at 6:17 p.m.

“We would like information about where Mrs. Becker spent the 77 minutes between the stops at CVS and Publix, and it goes without saying that we would ask that anybody who thinks they may have seen her after she left Publix” contact the Sheriff’s Office.

Fred Becker, her husband of more than 42 years, told the Highlands News-Sun that he believed she was kidnapped or the victim of a car jacking. He said she had no reason to leave and pointed out they had plans to go to a Bluegrass festival in Palatka and were looking forward to attending the Strawberry Festival together.

The day Margaret went missing, the couple had lunch with friends at the Olympic Restaurant about 11 a.m. in Avon Park. The couple and their friends went over to Maxwell Groves where the friends bought Honeybells and had ice cream and sampled orange juice. The Beckers visited the home of a friend in Avon Park after that and went home at about 2 p.m.

“She told me she was going to pay her insurance on her truck,” Fred Becker said. “She was going down to CVS to pick up her prescription.”

Fred said his wife did like to go to the Dollar Tree and wondered if she could have been shopping there during the missing time between CVS and Publix shopping.

He also told the Highlands News-Sun that he never saw anything in her behavior that would raise red flags.

“She would never go without this dog,” Fred said. “This is Rodney Becker. How do you know that? He’s got a tag on around his neck.”

Fred said she would not take Rodney on quick trips to Publix but they would take the dog wherever they went, such as to the Bluegrass festival. Fred says he does not like being alone and his daughter is coming to stay with him. He said he takes multiple walks a day to deal with his frustration.

Fred used to be a pianist/organist at his church. He liked to play his organ for Margaret, who is a big music fan. Fred said he is still playing her favorite hymn for her but now has a hard time getting through “How Great Thou Art.”

If anyone has any information on the whereabouts of Margaret Becker, please call HCSO at 863-402-7200.

Sebring Memorial Education Fund to further education

SEBRING — The SunTrust Foundation, which is now Truist Foundation, has again come through for the families of the shooting victims at the MidTown branch on Jan. 23. The Foundation has made the future a lot easier for the children and step-children of the women who died.

According to a SunTrust official, funds have been set aside for the children’s educational goals. Most of the women who died had young children they left behind. The scholarship money will be most welcome when the time comes to pick a college or other educational endeavors.

“The SunTrust Foundation provided an endowed gift of $500,000 to establish this fund, which is administered and managed by the nation’s largest nonprofit scholarship organization, Scholarship America, Inc.,” a SunTrust official said. “We stand strong with our teammates’ and clients’ families and hope this investment will significantly reduce the financial burden of planning and paying for the ongoing educational needs of their children.”

Soon after the shooting, a panel was formed to determine which of the survivors would be eligible for financial help after the shooting. The public was able to attend a meeting and have their say in who was compensated.

“The Sebring Memorial Education Fund is distinct and separate from the Sebring Strong Survivors Fund, which closed on April 26, 2019, and was designed to provide near-term general financial support for the survivors and immediate family members of the victims of the Jan. 23 tragedy,” a SunTrust official said.

The SunTrust Foundation has also created a memorial for the families and public to reflect and remember the “Sebring Five.”

Honoring the "Sebring Five"

Events are planned to honor the five women who were killed Jan. 23, 2019 in a mass shooting at SunTrust MidTown Branch.

Thursday (today)

10:30 a.m. — Dedication of Reflection Park, 1901 US 27 South in Sebring. Mayor John Shoop will speak in honor of the five women killed one year ago today. Overflow parking in the parking lots of Residence Inn by Marriott and Tru by Hilton.

5:45 p.m. — Memorial Cruise for Jessica Montague, starts at Reflection Park in Sebring. The cruise will leave at 6 p.m., driving to Lakeview Drive, down Ridgewood Drive to the Sebring Parkway. From Sebring Parkway, taking Panther Parkway to Manatee Drive, then Valerie Boulevard and south on US 27 to end at LoveBuggs.

Sunday, Jan. 26

At 5:30 a.m., line up at 1571 US 27 North in Avon Park for a Jess’s Memorial Cruise to Cars and Coffee Palm Beach, 10798 Madison Drive in Boynton Beach.