THERE IS nothing to distinguish the empty lot on the corner of 16th and Indiana from any of the other empty lots in North Philly - except that nearly two decades after the body of a young woman was discovered there, the death continues to bind a family to a neighborhood.
The tables at the nearby HERO community center on 17th Street were decorated Saturday with sunflowers, Aimee Willard’s favorites.
Willard was a 22-year-old college lacrosse star from suburban Philadelphia who was kidnapped, raped and killed by a paroled murderer in 1996. Her body was found in a trash-strewn lot a few blocks from the community center by a group of boys from the neighborhood.
Standing behind overflowing trays of turkey and chicken and every fixing imaginable, members of the Willard family cheerfully served neighborhood residents.
"You want white meat or dark meat?" asked Aimee’s sister Nancy.
"What looks good?" asked Gail, Aimee’s mom. "Everything, right?"
For some, the holiday dinner hosted by the Willards was the only one they’d get this season.
"It’s wonderful to see what has happened in her memory," Gail Willard said near a banner with photos of her deceased daughter. "But you miss her more and more every time you talk about her."
Shortly after her daughter’s body was found, the Willards went to the lot. Word spread quickly around the neighborhood that day that the family was there, and soon they were surrounded by residents paying their respects.
Willard was touched, and a bond was formed. “The people in that area didn’t do anything to Aimee,” she said. It wasn’t the people of North Philadelphia. It was one nasty, deranged man who had a history of violence.”
Doris Phillips, HERO’s executive director, was there that day. She wrapped her arms around Willard and later helped build a park in her daughter’s memory on the empty lot.
For a time, the lot was transformed into a park with flowers and benches and a gazebo where a wedding was once held. But as time passed and the vandalized park disappeared into the weeds, everyone moved on. The Willards continued Aimee’s legacy with scholarship funds, 5K runs and clothing drives. Sponsor links:
But then in September I stumbled onto the trashed lot, and called Willard, figuring she’d be disgusted or disappointed at its condition. The no-nonsense grandmother instead told me to find the boys who’d discovered Aimee’s body, and find out how such a gruesome discovery had affected them. I found Jason Culler, who was 14 when he found the body that he first thought was a mannequin. He’s 31 now, and has admitted that the discovery had forever changed him.
After that column, Aimee’s sister Nancy met with Phillips and Culler at the community center to discuss the fate of the empty lot. Doris, heartbroken at what became of it, doesn’t want to see it rebuilt. Culler dreams of building another community center in the empty space. “Something good can come of it again,” Culler said. “I really believe that.”
In the meantime, the Willards wanted to do something more immediate. So last week, the family collected hundreds of coats and toys for the center. And then Saturday, they hosted the holiday meal, partly cooked by Culler, who has a catering company called Jay’s Southern Cooking.
When I commented on the reconnection between the family and the neighborhood, Willard corrected me. “I don’t think we ever lost our connection,” she said. “We’re forever connected, how could we not be? Aimee’s gone, but her spirit is still here. It’s still there, on that lot, and here in this neighborhood.”
On Twitter: @NotesFromHel
On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas
Two children and an adult were injured Tuesday morning in a four-vehicle crash that involved a school van carrying students on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, police said.
Police said speed and unsafe following distances might have contributed to the http://98901 710 State Route 821 #167, Yakima WA.thedatarecoverygeeks.org/washington/data-recovery-in-yakima-wa/, which occurred about 8:15 a.m. near the Virginia Drive exit in Montgomery County.
Police 888-560-4290 that the children and the driver of a passenger car were taken to Abington Memorial Hospital but that their injuries were not considered life-threatening.
The drivers of two trucks involved in the crash were not injured.
Police said no other information was available immediately.