A Mother's Mission
Sometimes she is the only one who knows what to say.
On the night Cleveland's two most sought-after missing persons were rescued, Yvonne Pointer drove to MetroHealth Medical Center, where doctors were examining Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus following their years in captivity. Outside the hospital's front door, it was a pandemonium of ecstatic relatives and friends, a tangle of TV cameras and reporters.
So Pointer slipped through a side door, showed her city crisis intervention team badge and found her friend and colleague, Cleveland deputy police chief Ed Tomba.
"What can I do?" Pointer asked. "I'll do anything you need me to do."
For 29 years, Pointer has consoled people wounded by the worst of crimes. After the policeman's knock on the door, after the news that a daughter or son won't be coming home, devastated parents have turned to Pointer, a 60-year-old woman with an attentive gaze and a warm twang in her voice, one of the few people who understands their grief, because she too is a parent who has lost a child.
So on May 6, Tomba trusted Pointer with that night's most difficult conversation, an encounter that would leave most people without words. He asked her to comfort Michelle Knight, the third woman rescued from Ariel Castro's Seymour Avenue house, the one held captive 11 years, the woman Cleveland didn't know, the one whom almost no one had looked for.
"She never left her side," Tomba says. "She formed a bond with Michelle."
Pointer went to MetroHealth that night for two reasons: one official, one personal. She works for Cleveland's community relations board, a sort of city hall department of peace that soothes relationships in response to crime and crisis. She has also known Gina DeJesus' parents, Felix DeJesus and Nancy Ruiz, for nine years, since soon after Gina was abducted at age 14 in April 2004.
That year, in a gesture of solidarity, Felix DeJesus stood right behind Pointer at a vigil she held for her 14-year-old daughter, Gloria. An unknown attacker raped and murdered her exactly 20 years earlier. On the night of Dec. 6, 2004, Pointer and her supporters, from DeJesus to then-mayor Jane Campbell, gathered at Harry E. Davis Junior High School in Glenville, Gloria's last school. They carried candles and photographs of Gloria, Gina and other lost children to the nearby street corner where Gloria was abducted.
When Pointer left MetroHealth May 6, after meeting Gina DeJesus, Knight and Berry, her emotions churned. She felt joy for them and their families, but it also reminded her of the difference between them and her.
She imagined what it must feel like, as a parent, to hold your child again.
She grieved for her daughter, for herself and for the reunion they cannot have.
Amid her sadness, Pointer recalled a lesson she has learned and passed on in the decades since Gloria's death: Even those who suffer have choices.
Seven days later, the day after Mother's Day, Yvonne Pointer was sitting in a meeting at a University Circle coffeehouse when her phone rang. Ed Tomba, the deputy police chief, asked her to come downtown.
"We're waiting for you at city hall," he said.
She thought Gina DeJesus, Knight or Berry might have come to see her. She'd asked how they were doing, if they needed anything.
But only Tomba and two other policemen greeted her in a city hall conference room. She happened to recognize one of them from his work on her daughter's cold case.
"Sit down," Tomba said. He put his arm around her shoulder.
His words reminded Pointer of the day Gloria died. It's what the police said when they came to her house, before they told her they'd found Gloria's body.
"Sit down for what?" she asked.
"Just sit down," Tomba said, and guided her into a chair.
One of the officers showed her an old photo of a man in his 20s, clean-shaven and handsome. Did she recognize him? No, she said.
It was a picture of Hernandez Warren. His DNA matched evidence from Gloria's 1984 rape and murder. The police were arresting him that morning.
Shock kept her from feeling everything at once. She had waited 29 years for this moment, yet she hadn't expected it.
Pointer had never given up on the case. Every time Cleveland got a new police chief, she'd make an appointment and ask if detectives had any breaks in the case, any DNA results, any leads. She often called Tomba for updates too.
Earlier this year, Pointer connected her sister, Sylvia, with a Plain Dealer reporter who was writing about DNA testing of old rape-case kits. Couldn't they check again for a DNA match in Gloria's case? her sister asked. The reporter passed the question on to authorities.
That was the break. Three weeks later, she had an answer.
"I thought you were calling me here for something else," Pointer said. "I never thought you'd be calling me here to tell me this."
She started to cry. Tomba touched her shoulder, rubbed her hand, asked her if she was OK.
"I'm fine! I'm fine!" she said.
But she also wanted more information. After all this time, she wanted them to be absolutely sure they'd found the right person.
They were sure.
Tomba asked if she wanted to call someone, if she wanted to be with family.
She sat for few long minutes, then asked for some time to herself.
Yvonne Pointer hadn't eaten anything all day. It was evening, just a few days later, and she'd lost her appetite.
Prosecutors had told her more about the case, shared still-confidential details that made them even more confident Hernandez Warren was the killer. They haunted her.
"It was like I was reliving the homicide," she says. "It's like a wound that never heals, and that information has knocked the scab off."
Since 1984, Pointer's hunt for the man who killed her daughter has driven her to visit prisons, found Cleveland's 1990s midnight basketball league, make speeches throughout the city, appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show and find her calling as an antiviolence activist. She's won awards from Essence magazine and Queen Latifah. Former President George H.W. Bush named her his 908th "Point of Light." She's awarded scholarships in her daughter's memory. She's become a mentor to young men in West Africa.
Now, finally, she has a suspect's name. And amid the satisfaction and the dread, Pointer noticed another feeling: a crisis of meaning.
The arrest "almost took away my purpose," she says. "My purpose was to find the person, for 29 years. Now you have this person. So what are you going to do now?
"My sister said to me the other day, 'Maybe you need to change your prayer. You don't have to pray for finding the killer now. Maybe you should pray to find yourself.' That's a good prayer. But where do you even start?"
Yvonne Pointer is eating a late lunch at Yours Truly in Shaker Square, in the booth farthest from the door. Even so, someone notices her.
"Hi! I just realized that I think I recognize you from somewhere," says the waitress, Teressa Holcomb. She's 21, and her frizzy hair curls down past the collar of her bright green uniform. Pointer is dressed in feminine business casual: tan blouse, black pants. Her thin bangs reach straight down to her fashionably thick green-and-brown glasses. At 60, she's old enough to be Holcomb's grandmother.
Holcomb recalls hearing Pointer's keynote address at a banquet.
"Even though your story was a really sad one," she says, "you had such a positive message about how to move on and how to still live."
"Thank you, sweetie!" Pointer says. They hug.
"It's really good to see you," the waitress says.
"See, that happens everywhere," says Pointer.
At her bank, a teller will remember Pointer's visit to her fifth-grade class. At the grocery store, the butcher, cashier and customers stop her to talk.
Since 1984, Pointer has become a folk heroine in the most violence-scarred neighborhoods of Cleveland and far beyond. People who've lost someone or who've lost their own peace of mind to tragedy are drawn to tell her their stories — not because she exudes some saintly perfection, but the opposite.
She talks with disarming honesty about her life. She reports nearly everything she feels. Her very human flaws and hurts run hot. She reveals pain and fears that other people keep quiet — even at the risk of sounding a little crazy.
Her daughter's murder destroyed her trust in people. "If you're trying to date, you can't, because the person is a suspect," she says. "If someone says, 'Oh, you're so cute! Can I take you out to lunch?' your first [thought] is, This is the murderer."
Last Christmas, Pointer went to a movie alone — a survival tactic, because holidays still remind her that her daughter is gone. At the concession stand, a nice-looking guy about her age complained about the cost of the popcorn. She offered to split a large tub with him. He invited her to join him in the theater. They found two seats and struck up a great conversation — until the movie started.
Pointer had chosen Django Unchained because it starred Jamie Foxx, not realizing it was an ultraviolent Quentin Tarantino film. When bullets flew and blood spilled, she grew antsy. She couldn't watch people get murdered.
"Are you OK?" the man asked.
Clearly, she wasn't. But Pointer didn't want to say why she was having this moment. He could be the killer! she thought.
She excused herself for the bathroom. Really, she plannned to leave — except she left her coat on the seat.
So she waited nearly 1 1/2 hours in the lobby, until Django Unchained ended. The guy came out of the theater, holding her coat. "What happened?" he said.
He asked for her number. She turned him down, thanked him for sharing the popcorn and left.
"People who know me say, 'You gotta snap out of this. What if that was a nice person?' I said, 'Then he'd wonder why this crazy lady can't watch the movie.' "
It's not only Gloria's murder. Pointer works with other families traumatized by violence. And she's never really off duty.
Since the arrest, it's only gotten more intense. People recognize her from the news. A grocery run can take two hours. People talk to her about a murdered son, a lost daughter. She can tell an encounter is about to happen by the tears in their eyes.
"What can you say? You don't say anything," she says. "You just listen. Because what they really want is their child back."
Gloria Pointer was born February 28, 1970, when Yvonne was 17. Her son, Raymon, followed three years later.
"It was your regular inner-city, single-mother lifestyle, where you struggle and cry a lot," she says. "There's a lot of lack. But I was so determined. I kept going to church. I was determined that [Gloria] was not going to get caught up in street life."
When Gloria was about 10, Yvonne married. She and her husband had a daughter, Denyelle, before breaking up in 1984. Pointer still has a cassette of Gloria practicing her cheerleading routines with baby Denyelle twaddling behind her.
Like her mother, Gloria loved to cook, especially fried chicken. She looked after her little brother. Once, when Raymon stole a piece of candy from a store, Gloria scolded him and told their mother. The family didn't have a lot, but that didn't cloud Gloria's sunny personality.
"[Gloria was] silly, always smiling, excited about her life possibilities," recalls Yvonne's sister, Sylvia.
At Harry E. Davis Junior High School, a few blocks from home, Gloria got good grades and never missed class. One morning in December, she left for school early, before sunrise. She was eager to get there to accept a perfect attendance award.
But when Gloria's name was called at the ceremony, she wasn't there. The school called Yvonne; she called the police. A few hours later came a knock on the door. The police told Yvonne to sit down.
Pointer's life of activism began that day. Gloria's murder made the front page of The Plain Dealer. She was the fourth teenage girl murdered in Greater Cleveland in late 1984. Inside the paper was a picture of Yvonne, a headscarf covering her hair, her eyes cast down. She asked why the schools started class before dawn. "How many of these girls have to die before they listen?" she asked.
Pointer organized support groups: Parents Against Child Killing for others like her and Positive Plus to help women overcome setbacks and chase new goals. In July 1985, she spoke on a radio show about missing children with Lee Fisher, a then-state senator.
"She's made it part of her life's work and mission to continue to help other people," says Fisher, a former lieutenant governor. "Some do that for a while and taper off, as they have every right to do. She's kept at it ever since."
In 1991, when Fisher was Ohio attorney general, he hired Pointer as a regional liaison. She worked with Margaret Mihaljevic, whose 10-year-old daughter, Amy, had been abducted in Bay Village in 1989 and found murdered in 1990. Fisher says Pointer and Mihaljevic often reached out to survivors and victims of violence, "not just to console them, but to give them a sense of hope."
Pointer also convinced Cleveland's then-mayor, Mike White, to create a midnight basketball league to deter crime. White named her the league's first commissioner. Young men in the toughest parts of Cleveland were invited to play basketball four nights a week if they sat through workshops on continuing education or alternatives to violence. The program lasted 12 years and was credited with lowering crime rates on nights the league ran.
"She had to go out and approach all these young men, try to convince them to sign up," recalls Mayor Frank Jackson, who met Pointer when he was a councilman. "She did it all times of night and day." Her commitment and courage impressed Jackson. "Would you have gone down to public housing in the early '90s, when gangs were selling drugs and shooting people?"
Pointer soon ventured into the last place one might expect a murder victim's mother to go. Midnight basketball didn't reach every player. Some went to prison. A few invited her to visit and speak.
She went with the hope that if inmates met a grieving mother, it might compel some of them not to hurt anyone else. Her other motive was more audacious. "I thought that while I was talking, the person who had murdered Gloria would stand up and say he was sorry," she says.
At Grafton Correctional Institution, Pointer sat in on victim awareness classes where violent criminals unburdened themselves. Some revealed they'd been molested as children. Hearing their pain moved her. "What I began to realize was, they were victims too," she says. Now she corresponds with numerous Ohio inmates; she receives about 10 to 20 letters a month.
"[She's gone] way beyond any imaginable boundaries that you and I might have for a cause," says Pointer's sister, Sylvia. "She has a charge to try to change what we might think is the unchangeable."
Pointer says Gloria's death gave her a calling she didn't ask for. Helping others has helped her recover from her loss. "It's service that saves my life," she says. "It's the only reason that I exist."
Survivors often turn to Pointer for advice about how to go on. She warns them not to stifle their trauma, but to embrace new life goals. Many heal by helping others — rape victims who work at a rape crisis center, for instance. "You have to attach to a purpose higher than yourself," Pointer says.
Still, few people traumatized by crime can do as much as Pointer. When Margaret Mihaljevic died of chronic alcoholism in 2001, at age 54, Pointer told The Plain Dealer that working with other crime victims can make it harder to leave one's own tragedy behind.
"In one sense, it's therapeutic," she said. "But it's also a daily reminder. It's the only comfort we can find. It's ironic because the only thing that helps you also hurts you."
That's still true. "When a parent comes up and they're crying," she says, "[some] days you don't feel like talking about it, 'cause maybe you're dealing with your own pain that day. But then you find consolation in seeing life come back to their face."
Gloria's death transformed Pointer from a mother of three into a mother of many.
The day Gloria died, kids from the junior high school came to the house to support her. One of them was DeShawn Haley, Gloria's boyfriend. Pointer had never met him, but she'd heard Gloria talk about him a lot. Haley was a basketball player, a wild kid, cocky around girls, but he hid a deeper loneliness. His mother, without explanation, had sent him to live with an aunt in Columbus. He'd returned to Cleveland to live with another aunt.
In the wintry days after Gloria's death, Haley kept coming by. Pointer asked why he wasn't wearing a coat. He didn't have one. He didn't have dress clothes either. Pointer bought him a shirt, tie and pants for the funeral.
"She never, ever looked as if she was down," Haley recalls. "She kept high spirits. Even at that time, she was helping us instead of us helping her."
Ever since, says Haley, "she's been my mother." Pointer convinced Haley to come to church on Sundays. When he needed a job, Pointer took him from business to business until a grocery store hired him. She bought him his first car, a '78 Buick LeSabre. Later, when he was smoking pot or stealing cars, she had a knack for calling him when he was at his wildest.
"Without her," he says, "I swear I'd be out there dead somewhere."
Haley joined the Army, spent years as a juvenile corrections officer and now works as a cook downtown. Pointer has written him into her will. They talk every day. He calls her Mom.
"She's gotta be the best mother that I know," says her son, Raymon, 39. "She'll care about anybody — people in prison, street people."
Denyelle, 32, doesn't always tell people Pointer is her mother. She doesn't want them to think she uses it to get ahead.
"People will stop and [say], 'Oh, my God. That's your mother? She spoke at my church, my mom's funeral, my kids' school.' "
Denyelle spent much of her childhood at her mother's support groups and charity balls. At a group for parents of murdered children, she'd play with a woman's seeing-eye dog. "I grew up around older people," she says. Her mother wouldn't let her go to friends' houses — "I don't know what's going on there," she'd say — so she'd greet Denyelle's friends at their house with popsicles and toys.
"She puts other people before herself," says Denyelle, who lives with her mother. "She still takes time out of her day to make sure my daughter and myself are safe and have what we need."
Pointer's maternal circle even stretches across the ocean to West Africa. Ten years ago, Anthony Tay, then 17, was walking down a street in Ghana, hungry, too broke to afford school. Angry, he asked God why he wouldn't help. Tay noticed a piece of paper on the ground: a years-old article from an American magazine about Pointer and her daughter. He took it as a sign.
Tay wrote to Pointer. He offered his condolences for Gloria's death. He asked her to help him pay for his education. Wary of being scammed, Pointer asked Tay to send her the article. He did. She prayed over it and decided to send him $300 for school fees.
Tay graduated from high school with Pointer's help. In gratitude, he founded the Gloria Pointer Teen Movement. He and eight other mentors in their 20s through 40s work with 1,200 girls, ages 4 to 19, in several villages in Ghana. They give them books, pens and pencils and help them pay school fees. They've built a mobile school for kids in remote villages. They teach the girls about rape, offering self-defense advice and warning them not to accept drinks or gifts from men they don't know. The movement has broken ground on the Gloria Pointer Learning Center, a preschool for kids age 3 to 5.
Pointer has visited Tay in Ghana twice. He says she helped him find his purpose. "She is my mom," he writes in an email, "and nothing is as sweet as a mom."
Pointer reaches across the table at Yours Truly and hands over a letter. It's from an inmate serving time at Grafton for murder.
"Hello Momma Pointer," it begins.
Years ago, during one of Pointer's prison visits, the inmate heard Pointer's story and collapsed, sobbing, on the floor. "He said what confused him about me is, how could I still love a child that was no longer here, and his mother, who is [alive], does not love him?" she recalls.
"I went around the table and picked him up off the floor. I said, You don't have to worry. From this day forward, you have a mother.' " They've corresponded ever since.
At last, it's his turn to console her. The arrest in Gloria's case reminds him of a moment in Beloved, the Oprah Winfrey film adapted from Toni Morrison's novel. Winfrey's character, Sethe, battled to protect her children until her mother-in-law told her to "lay down your sword and shield."
"Your time for fighting for justice for Gloria is coming to an end," his letter reads. "Now you have to live your life for you."
"It's such an amazing letter," Pointer says. "I got it this morning."
It's not yet time to take his advice — not quite. Hernandez Warren still awaits trial for Gloria's murder. When he stands before the judge, Pointer is determined to be there.
She used to think she wanted to meet the killer, to hear him confess. Now she's not so sure. She used to tell her audiences in Grafton, "The person could be sitting in the room right now."
She may have been right. Nine months after Gloria's murder, during a burglary in the same neighborhood, Warren knifed a 53-year-old woman, attacked a 71-year-old woman and raped a 20-year-old woman. Arrested two months later, Warren was convicted of rape, burglary and felonious assault. He served 17 years in prison, four of them in Grafton, from April 1991 to April 1995 — the years Pointer first visited.
He knew the Pointers' neighborhood. His father owned the nearby candy store. His nieces and nephews live around the block from the Pointers. Some were friends with Gloria, Raymon and Denyelle.
As Pointer hopes for a conviction, she feels like a runner near the end of a long race. "I'm close to the finish line," she says. "I've made it this far, and now I feel like I'm giving out."
Sometimes, she can look forward to after the case is resolved. "Who knows what's going to happen? I may get married. I might take tap dancing. 'Cause guess what? You got this life. You can really do whatever you want to do."
This month, she's speaking at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood and to Catholic parishioners in Chagrin Falls about her prison ministry.
Faith has always motivated Pointer and kept her going. This January, Glenn C. Frazier Sr., her prayer partner from church in the '70s, ordained her as a minister. And this June, 43 years after Pointer dropped out of John Hay High School to raise Gloria, she received a theology diploma from the McCreary Center for African American Religious Studies in Cleveland.
"You know what? It only solidifies what I do," Pointer says. She's about to say more, but the waitress returns with the credit card slip.
"Me seeing you again today," Holcomb says, "and remembering your story and everything — because I'm going through something right now, it's good to have your strength."
"That's how God is," Pointer says. "He's so good, isn't he?"
"I feel like it was the purpose for you to come in here today. You guys probably could've went somewhere else."
"But he wanted you to know it's going to be OK. As a matter of fact, it's OK right now. And don't forget that."
"All right. Don't forget it."
12:00 AM EST
July 26, 2013
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