The photograph of a perfect moment from what started as the happiest of childhoods was taken three decades and a quarter million American gun murders ago.
The grown Jessica Russell Bany knows that she is the delighted toddler perched on her parents’ bed and that the manifestly content man gazing at her is her father.
But soon after this photo was taken, NYPD Officer Michael Russell was shot to death.
And no matter how hard she might try, the 37-year-old Bany is unable to summon even the faintest memory of him.
“I do not remember my father,” Bany wrote in a letter to the parole board that will decide next week whether to free his killer. “Not his voice, not his face, not his embrace. I do not remember the day my mother had to tell me that he would never again be in their bed that I crawled into every morning.”
She continued, “As I watch my daughter crawl into our bed in the mornings and lie with her dad, I am once again reminded of what I missed out on as a child. As I watch her get ready for the Girl Scout Father-Daughter dance, I feel the void, the emptiness, the sadness, that I have felt my entire life, rush over me again. As I take my son to the baseball field, I think of my father on his last day alive.”
On August 2, 1979, her 30-year-old father had been off duty at a Brooklyn softball game and preparing to take his turn at bat when a trio of teenagers cut across the outfield. The events of the next few minutes would get only fleeting public notice, like countless gun murders that have been almost immediately forgotten by everyone save those who are directly affected and suffer a perpetual lesson: a bullet is forever.
“In the wake of the recent gun violence our country has been faced with, I am forced to relive the violence that I was exposed to at the early age of three,” Bany wrote to the parole board.
The left fielder in that long ago summer softball game, a 32-year-old local merchant named Edward Brugman, had asked the intruding teens not to interrupt the game. One of them, 18-year-old Sergio Voii, responded by pulling a gun from a plastic bag and shooting Brugman to death while his wife and two young children watched from the bleachers.
Russell was unarmed, but he was still a cop in the bravest sense, and he ran after the fleeing Voii. The chase went for block after block, until Russell finally caught up with Voii in what turned out to be the gunman’s own backyard. Voii fired again.
Russell’s wife, Grace, was at the kitchen sink, peeling potatoes in preparation for a barbecue the family had planned that evening, when she got the phone call informing that her husband had been hurt. She had just put her 1-year-old son, Donald, to bed. Little Jessica was on her way back from spending the day with a relative.
Jessica likely sensed after she arrived home that something big had happened. She had still not begun to grasp its enormity when she woke up the next morning and dashed into her parents’ bedroom to climb into bed. She asked the question that would follow her through all the years to come.
“Where’s my daddy?”
A childhood in which Jessica might have snuggled up safely next to her father while he read Little Red Riding Hood became one where she awoke in the night and told her mother that she had dreamed daddy was in a grocery store, buying tea, when wolves began chasing him.
Over the days ahead, Grace sought to reassure her daughter that she would not also lose her mother by showing her a calendar marked with days ahead when they would be doing things together, though not with daddy.
In the meantime, Voii was convicted of the two killings and sentenced to 32 years to life. He became eligible for parole in 2011, and the Russell family faced the prospect that the killer might be freed.
Grace composed a victim-impact statement for the board. Her wedding anniversary was the day before Valentine’s Day, which had always come as an affirmation of how right they were to have married. She arrived at this anniversary and Valentine’s Day writing of love joined by loss as perpetual as time itself.
“I walk around with an emptiness that no one or anything has been able to fill,” she wrote.
The son, Donald, was now 32 and a teacher with a son of his own named after his father and a second child on the way. He wrote that all he knew of his father came from stories people told him. He had no images of his father other than pictures and silent home movies of pre-video vintage.
“I do not even know what his voice sounded like,” Donald wrote.
He told of watching people break down upon seeing him because he reminded them of his father.
“It is a horrifying thought that my face, my actions, or my personality can evoke feelings of sorrow in others.”
Jessica, herself now a teacher and a mother of two, also wrote of being robbed of even a memory of her father.
“I am left with years of memories without him,” she wrote “My sweet 16, my wedding day, the birth of my children ... My children will never meet their grandfather.”
The victim statements and letters from dozens of citizens opposed to the release were in the file when Voii appeared before the parole board on March 15, 2011. He at least voiced remorse.
“Guys think I’m a morning person because I snap awake,” he said. “It’s because I feel like either Mr. Brugman or Officer Russell kicks my bed because, as soon as I snap awake, they’re the first thing I think about, and I know that if I never had that gun, if I never stooped so low as to think I needed a handgun, they would still be alive today. I don’t know how many people I inadvertently hurt because Officer Russell was a hero and, if I hadn’t killed him, there’s no telling who else he might have saved.”
Voii said that 13 years into his 32 years behind bars he had married a woman he had known since he was 5.
“She told me, ‘Tell the truth,’” he reported. “That’s the first time I faced up to the fact that it wasn’t self-defense.”
He failed to grasp how preposterous it was for him ever to have even suggested he had been protecting himself when he shot two unarmed men who had just been playing softball. He even now continued to insist that he had fired because he was in fear of a teenage gang. He belied his stated remorse as it became clear his primary regret was that he had landed himself behind bars.
“The fact that I had a gun brought all of this on me,” he said. “It made it possible for two lives to be taken.”
Voii was speaking of the murders as something that just happened. He continued to insist that he had been unaware his pursuer was a cop, though it is hard to believe that during the whole long chase Russell had not once called out, “Police!”
Voii did say he understood that he had “sentenced the Brugman family and the Russell family to a lifetime of grief and loss.”
“It doesn’t go away,” he said, “If somebody did something like that to me, to my family, I couldn’t forgive them.”
He ended by declaring, “I apologize ... to Edward Brugman and his family ... to Officer Russell’s family, for taking their lives from them.”
Yet his very words were clearly part of an effort to go free, which he had to know would cause the families only more hurt. The families were at least spared that when the board denied his petition.
“Although claiming to protect yourself, you are the one whom the community needed to be protected from,” the board informed him in its decision. “You showed little insight into the factors leading to your violent and disturbing actions ... Release at this time would so deprecate the seriousness of the instant offense as to undermine respect for the law.”
But any comfort the families took was undercut by a notation:
“Hold for 24 months. Next appearance 3-2013.”
Which now means that Voii is again up for parole and that the Russells have again had to write victim-impact statements.
“Sergio Voii committed these terrible acts sixteen days after my first birthday,” Donald wrote. “That single day has shaped the entire course of my life.”
He noted that it was Voii’s “abhorrent disregard for human life” that had resulted in the killer’s incarceration over the past three decades.
“At the same time I have spent the last three decades hearing stories about my father, instead of experiencing them. I have seen my mother struggle to raise two children. My mother gave my sister away at her wedding. I danced the traditional father-daughter dance with her that day as well. These are moments a daughter is supposed to share with her father. My neighbor taught me how to ride a bike and tie a necktie. My uncle taught me how to shoot a basket and throw a football. These are the moments when we feel the loss the most, although the pain is always there ... There is a giant void in my life where the idea of a father should be.”
He went on, “I am now thirty-four years old. I have a four-year old son, Michael, and a one and a half year old daughter, Cameron. They are the greatest joys in my life. I rush home every day from work to spend time with my children and my wife. I am now older than my father was when he was killed and both of my children are older than my sister and I were at the time of our father’s murder.”
He said that one hurt in particular never leaves him.
“My father will never get to know my children,” he wrote. “My son has experienced four birthday parties, Christmases, Thanksgiving days, and Halloweens. All of these experiences should have been experienced by my father and mother, instead of only my mother. My children often ask about their ‘Grandpa Mike’ and why he is not around. They see the pictures of him throughout the different homes of my family members. The sadness that consumes me when discussing this with my children is horrifying. I dread the day when I will have to tell them the actual events that transpired that day.”
The son of a murdered father voiced a wish now that he had become a father himself.
“It is my hope that I will never have to tell them how their ‘Grandpa Mike’s’ killer was released from prison after murdering two unarmed and innocent men,” he said.
He allowed that he understood “a goal of the penal system is rehabilitation” and that many incarcerated inmates make dramatic turnarounds in their beliefs and actions, but he did not believe that should apply to someone such as Voii.
“I have always felt the loss, the void I mentioned previously,” Donald said. “Only now these feelings are coupled with disbelief and anger. The idea that a man who ended two lives and shattered countless others could walk free again is appalling. I have attempted to remain calm and strong for my family. This is something I am sure my father would have wanted. The desire to live up to what I believe my father would want me to be has always driven me to be a better person.”
He ended with some cogent and compelling logic born of a desire not for revenge, but simple justice.
“My family’s suffering will not end. Therefore, I request that Sergio Voii’s sentence be carried out in full for the remainder of his life.”
His mother also had to write a second letter. So did his sister, knowing that even if parole is denied again, Voii will be eligible in another two years and then another two years after that and on and on.
“It is unjust that I have to write every two years, reminding myself of all that I have lost because of a senseless act of gun violence,” Jessica wrote. “Two years have passed since my first letter. My father has missed another two years of birthdays, Christmases and celebrations. He has missed the birth of his fourth grandchild.”
Jessica’s children, William and Mikaela, were now 6 and 7 and asking about the grandfather they will never meet. She shares a fear with her brother.
”I dread the day that they ask me what happened to him,” she wrote. “It is my hope that when I do tell them, the story will end with the man responsible for taking their grandfather’s life behind bars.”
She went on to ask on behalf of her kids: “Please help them to know he can’t physically harm us. Please help them to have trust in our Justice System.”
For herself, she asked only: “Please, do not take away the only solace I know. Keep Inmate Voii in prison, where he belongs. His complete disregard for life was proven on the softball field on August 2, 1979 when I was just 3 years old. His choices and actions that day continue to take from my life today.”
After she had mailed the letter, Jessica made popcorn for her kids. It was just the kind of memory she would love to have of the father she cannot remember even when staring at a photo through the tears of lifelong yearning.
“The little things,” she said.