SALT LAKE CITY — Vickie Walker is a survivor.
But she conceded Monday that for the first time in the more than six years since her husband was killed in the Trolley Square shooting: "It's really nice not to have to be in survivor mode.
"We've been through a lot. But I can honestly say, this is the most peaceful that my life has been. But it's been six freaking years," she told the Deseret News at her Salt Lake City home.
What gives Walker that peace is knowing that her children are finally in a good place.
"You know that saying, 'You're only as happy as your saddest child?'" she asked. "Knowing that everybody is kind of finding their path, it brings me great peace."
But getting to that place was anything but easy.
The time of turmoil began with the tragedy at Trolley Square where Walker's husband was shot and killed and her son severely injured. Then Walker lost her house when her neighbor bilked her out of $250,000 in life insurance funds from the shooting. And most recently, about a year ago, Walker was on her way to deliver the keynote address after being selected as the Wasatch Woman of the Year when she was hit by an impaired driver. Both her knees had to be replaced because of her injuries.
Despite being faced with such great adversity, today Walker is up and walking, both physically and figuratively. She is extremely busy with her nonprofit organization Circle The Wagons. The centerpiece of the campaign is the Cans of Comfort.
Later this week, Walker will travel to Philadelphia to pitch her Cans of Comfort program before the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association.
Walker sat down with the Deseret News Monday to talk about her upcoming trip, how the Cans of Comfort program has grown, and what's she has been doing for the past two years — a time she admits she purposely tried to keep out of the public eye.
Cans of Comfort
On Feb. 12, 2007, a lone, heavily armed gunman went on a random shooting spree in and around Trolley Square. Jeffrey Walker was one of five people killed. His son AJ Walker, then 16, was also shot and suffered a severe head injury.
In an instant, Vickie Walker's world had been turned upside down. It wasn't just the mourning that weighed heavily on her mind, but thoughts of how she would pay for everything from funeral costs to her son's long-term treatment.
And even though at some point she believes someone provided her with papers filled with important information and phone numbers that could help her, she found herself struggling to discover on her own what resources were available.
"How do you know what to ask for if you don't know what you need? It wasn't on my day planner to be a victim, and I certainly didn't know how to plan for that," she said. "I was in a haze. Something was handed to me at some point. I don't remember where any of it was or what it was."
After her husband's funeral, Vickie decided to take action rather than curl up in a ball. She started the Circle the Wagons group (www.circle-the-wagons.org/) in an effort to help others who find themselves in the position of having to deal with the aftermath of a violent crime but with no idea where to turn to for help.
The centerpiece of the program is Cans of Comfort. An actual metal can — similar to an oversized soup can — is handed out to victims. On the can are phone numbers and other important resources and tidbits of information that victims need to get started. Inside the can is a bag of lemon drops and a note from Walker talking about her own situation. The can also includes a small key with the word "hope" on it.
Walker describes the cans as "Cliff Notes of information" that provide a 96-hour survival guide. The advantage of a nicely decorated can over sheets of paper and business cards, is that the can isn't easily misplaced or lost, like the numerous phone numbers that were given to her following the incident at Trolley Square.
"Our Can of Comfort is a nicer delivery system, a more warm and caring way of delivering information," she said.
The information provided on the cans would seem obvious to most people.
"But when you're in the middle of this kind of a crisis, you're not thinking clearly," Walker said.
Both Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank and Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder have been big supporters of the Cans of Comfort program. In the past year-and-a-half, Walker said about 1,000 of her cans have been handed out by local police agencies to victims of crime. Police departments in Tooele and Vernal also now use the cans, she said. Her hope is that the program will expand statewide.
"It has been going extraordinarily well. I really feel like we are making a difference," she said.
Despite the amount of work she puts into keeping her nonprofit running, Walker said she gets strength from reading the emails and hearing stories from victim advocates about those who have received a can.
"It really is really amazing," she said.
Just a month ago, Walker said she received an email from a relative who found herself in a situation where she was handed a Can of Comfort.
"She opened it up and she started to cry. (A), she opened up and realized it was us, and (B), she said it was absolutely what she needed at that moment," Walker said.
Walker will travel with Burbank to the Major Cities Chiefs Association to pitch for all major police departments to have the program. Burbank is a vice president of the group.
Walker said it's a chance to put the police chiefs' "feet to the fire" to get them to provide her group with information that will help others.
"You couldn't ask for a better opportunity," she said. "Frankly, I would like it to be a call to action, that all these chiefs of police will put us in contact with individuals within their department that can give us the information to put on our website. It's either hire a researcher to find all those organizations or go straight to the chiefs of police."
Earlier this year, Jason Kim Brown, 43, pleaded guilty to securities fraud, a third-degree felony, in 3rd District Court. Brown was Walker's former neighbor.
Shortly after the Trolley Square incident, Brown told Walker he had a “safe” and “guaranteed” investment in building storage units in Billings, Mont., according to court documents. He said several other widows were investing and they would get their money back in one year with high interest. He also said it was a way for Walker to save her home.
Instead of investing the money into storage units, Brown used it to pay for his mortgage and other personal bills. He also failed to inform Walker at the time that he was being sued for $282,500.
Eventually, Walker came home one Friday night to find a notice on her 6,000-square-foot home that it was being repossessed by the bank and she had 48 hours to vacate. All of her possessions were moved into horse trailers and garages of friends, and she was forced to live for eight months with a kind person from her LDS Church congregation whom she barely knew.
At the time she agreed to the deal, she said she was "scared out of her wits" about how she was going to financially keep everything together. She also had many other things weighing heavily on her mind, and agreed to Brown's proposal when she said she normally wouldn't have.
"It was horrible. It was horrible. That's all I have to say. I didn't want to be associated with it. I was embarrassed. It was very embarrassing for me," she said of the aftermath of the situation. "I'm not an idiot. This wasn't supposed to happen."
It took time, but Walker said she feels like she has finally found peace since the shooting spree.
"I don't think that people really think about it. When somebody goes through something like this, I think they think, 'It's been a year. I'll bet they're doing quite a bit better.' But there are residual effects from something of this level for years," she said.
After losing her house, Walker found a new home in Salt Lake City. She immediately fell in love with it and today is in the process of adding on to it.
Walker, an interior designer, works part time in the design field. But she spends the majority of her time with Circle the Wagons.
All of her family went to therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder in the years immediately following the shootings. She called the therapy sessions "phenomenal."
"It handed our lives back to us, basically," she said.
AJ Walker, now 23, is currently in San Diego serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He still has residual effects of being shot, such as short-term memory loss and a loss of peripheral vision out of his left eye. But his mother said he's not letting the shooting define him.
He attended Westminster College for awhile and needed a tutor to help him. But Walker said she is extremely proud of her son for working as hard as he did.
Part of the therapy Vickie Walker and her family went through included returning to Trolley Square. Today, Walker and her group hold board meetings at that mall — she visits it regularly.
"There was so much community support for our family, and we definitely wanted to give back to the community. And Trolley Square is part of the community. That's been part of our community forever. So I think by going back and supporting them, it's just kind of our way to say, 'We're going back,'" she said.
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