One Doomed Summer
Shots rang out, just as the sun was rising. It was July, 2004. As 21-year-old Erica Mechling, her 18-year-old brother Mike, 14-year-old sister Amy, and 23-month-old daughter Abby slept, an evilness with the face of a man and the heart of a killer stalked their home. As they lay in bed, the back door burst open with a thunderous bang. Erica’s ex-boyfriend James, 43-years-old, was now in their home. His heavy feet trudged through the kitchen as he looked for his beloved ex-girlfriend, Erica. Amy, frightened for her life and the baby’s, grabbed Abby and went to hide. Just as Amy and the baby were hidden, James had approached the stairs to get Erica. She ran past him and right out the metal front door. It was at this moment that my family, my neighbors, and I heard screaming; it was like Erica was howling for her life. It was those screams that would change our lives forever.
“Mechling, of Wood Street, had called police around 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday, saying her ex-boyfriend -- James -- had called, upset that they had broken up and that she had another boyfriend. He said he would kill her if she would not go back with him." This was what the report had said. It was a methodically planned murder, and her life was the only one he was after. “Police logs showed that officers had arrived minutes later, at the Wood Street address -- where Mechling lived with her parents, 14-year-old sister, 18-year-old brother and 23-month-old daughter. Police took a report and advised Mechling to contact the city prosecutor to file charges and left just before 8:30 a.m.” (Shaulis and Hughes 2004). It would be 30 minutes later that this bloody tragedy would take place. “Capt. Guy Simeone said officers spotted a black male with a gun fleeing the area and gave chase” (Shaulis and Hughes 2004). This was all going down in the same yard where we met for the first time, and played sports in as children.
I can still remember the day Erica and her family moved in next door to me. My friends and I were playing baseball in my backyard, and they came and asked if they could play. As most kids are, we were a bit mean to them at first. Erica was always rather persistent in coming over and wanting to play with us. So, we finally let her. I was probably in 6th grade. I also might have had a bit of a crush on her, because we spent a great deal of time together riding four wheelers as kids, and we were in the same classes. She was also my first kiss. We were just kids messing around; nonetheless, it was something I would always remember.
Her family was a bit different than most of ours were. They raced dirt bikes, hunted, and did many other outdoor activities. I would say they were a little wild. They did teach me how to ride a four-wheeler, but I ended up wrecking their shed. The shed is still there, with a big dent on its side. At school, Erica was in my grade, so we saw a lot of one another. She had a crush on me, and always chased me around the playground. As we got older, she started to hang out with different kids, like the ones who smoked and skipped school. I really didn’t have much of a rebellious life until I was a bit older. I would see her here and there at high school, but not as much as I did when we were younger. She became just an old friend, someone I used to live next door to, who I say a simple ‘hello’ to in passing.
The Shootout Begins
“I’m going to be late!” I said to myself as I rushed around; I couldn’t be late for work again. My mother kept reminding me of the time. I suddenly heard a loud scream: “I love you!” My mom ran into the bathroom where I was, and asked if I heard that same scream. I thought it was the television at first, but as I walked to the front door to check it out, I would soon find out that it wasn’t the TV. James hovered over Erica while she crouched down next to my cement porch steps, hiding and pleading for her life. She faded below my front porch, but she was obviously kneeling in front of him. He now had her life in his hands. We could not make out what was being said, but I could see her hands pleading as he held the gun to her face. I was looking through the front windows in my living room, which gave me a better view. I was mainly concerned about Erica’s whereabouts. “He is going to shoot her!” I said to my mother.
My mother screamed. “Someone please help her!”
That was when everything got out of hand.
It was madness, and my mother and I didn’t know what to do. We tore ourselves away from the windows and went to wake my younger brother and sister, who were 19 and 16 at the time. As we began to climb the stairs, I heard both their doors slam open. They then came running down the stairs. My mother was crying. I thought about how bad I felt, because Erica was outside all by herself. We were all so confused. My mom called the police. They had already been called, I assumed by another neighbor, and were on their way. That was when Erica screamed again. My mother ran to our front door, to try and help her. I yelled for her to get back in the house. I grabbed her, and slammed the front door shut. I was frightened and didn’t know what would happen. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, and the next thing I thought was he’s going to come in here next and kill us all.
That was when shots were fired from the front yard of our home. It sounded like a mix of a very loud cap gun and fireworks. My mother, brother, sister, and I jumped on the living room floor. I didn’t know if he was going to rush into our home, or if he was out there shooting Erica. The gun fire then stopped, and we all got up from the ground, very slowly, and ran to our front window. It was kind of like riding an airplane for the first time. I felt mixed emotions, and started shaking. I remember my stomach felt sick, like butterflies were floating in it. An eerie feeling crept over me, and the rest of my family felt the same. It was the adrenaline and emotions that kept me going.
The Cops Arrive at the Scene
White mini blinds covered the windows, the bright sun blinding our view from the outside. It was very hard to tell what was happening. We did finally spot the police as they pulled up in front of my house. “Drop it!” the police officer screamed, as he stood against his black and white car. That was when I saw James with the Tech-9 gun in his hand. I couldn’t see Erica, so I thought she might have escaped. Then, all I could hear was sirens screaming through the morning air. It was louder than a tornado siren; I remember covering my ears. That was when another shootout began, this time between James and the police officers.
Most of the people on the street were just waking up; some were just sitting on their front porch, watching the action. The humidity and the guns shooting in the air made me feel like I was in the Wild West. My neighbor, Karen, stood in front of her home with her dog, a German Shepherd, on a leash. James could have tried to kill Karen too, and that’s probably why she didn’t get involved. She later told me that she was frozen stiff, and couldn’t move. My driveway was all that really separated her from the gun-wielding James. The neighbors thought James would enter my home too, but thank God, he didn’t. He could have easily taken all our lives; but he was only after Erica.
My house has two sides: the driveway side, which the police were now on, and the side yard, where James then took off on foot. He hid from the police officers in the same bush area behind our home where he waited that morning to take Erica’s life. The police made their way up to my mom’s car, a 2-door white Cavalier, almost brand new. The chief of police, Guy Simeone, then lay flat on the car and shot at James. Simeone confirmed that at least two Niles officers fired their weapons, but he was unsure who fired first (Shaulis and Hughes 2004). One of those two officers, Simeone mentions, was the one who came up behind James when he was hiding and shooting from the bushes. That was the shot that brought him down. My backyard was all there was between Simeone and James, and the yard is about 50 meters long, give or take. We were sure James was dead, from all the gun fire we heard. But not Erica.
The End of an Engagement
When it was all over, I didn’t know how my family and I were able to walk outside, but we did. The front door slowly opened as we approached the front porch. I was very sweaty, probably because of the humidity. As I wiped my face with my hand, I peeked over the railing. Suddenly, my eyes grew wide with shock. The mystery of what happened to Erica was now solved. “By 9 a.m., a female from the residence called 911 and reported Mechling had been shot. Police arrived within two minutes, and found Mechling lying in the front yard of a neighbor's home, bleeding from the head and neck. She was pronounced dead at the scene” (Shaulis and Hughes 2004). There she lay, bleeding out, her eyes looking somewhat peaceful as she stared up at the blue sky. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to faint.
As my mom and my sister came to the realization of Erica’s death, they started to lose it. My brother and I tried our best to calm them down, but I didn’t know how to help them in their grief. Finding a loved one dead from suicide or murder makes victims out of survivors (Russell 2005). Exposure to the dead body of a loved one is traumatic and leads to higher levels of emotional distress (Russell 2005). All around us, people were mourning. We then went back inside our home, still stunned. I felt like I was floating. “I can’t believe this is happening,” we kept saying to one another. That was when the police entered our home, carrying clip boards. We began to question the police, asking them what happened. They gave us no answers; they only told us that Erica was now gone.
The police officers also said they needed statements. I didn’t have to give a statement, but my mom did, as she was the homeowner. She walked to the police officer’s car with Karen, and my other neighbor Rose, while the rest of us went to the backyard to see what happened to James. My mom later told me that everyone was staring at them while they were each being escorted into a police officer’s vehicle, where they had to give their statements. They should have done that at the station, and not in front of a crowd. My mother was terrified; this was all new to her.
The Murder Scene
As soon as we got to my back porch, passed the crowd of people watching behind the caution tape, I could see them wheeling James on a stretcher passed the murder scene. Erica’s brother was standing there, a look of pure anger on his face. My neighbor’s swimming pool was leaking from the bullet holes, and it stayed like that for a few days. I remember thinking that it looked like a murder scene straight out of a movie. There were news cameras and hundreds of people just watching the show. There were hardly any cell phones back then, so no one was videotaping, thank God. They had my whole yard blocked off with tape. We weren’t allowed to leave the house, not even for work.
In this picture, if you look closely enough, the bushes behind the rusty pole were where the police shot James. This backyard was full of people, police, and caution tape. He was hiding back there, stalking the house, until he knew he could get into Erica’s home. In the summer, those bushes get very high, so they were good cover for him to watch in the dark. Most of the event took place in the front yard, but the backyard is where it ended.
I thought about how Erica’s brother wanted revenge for his sister. I didn’t blame him at all, because if it had been my sister, who knows how mad I would’ve been. I thought he took it well though. Mike was also sleeping when James kicked their door in and chased Erica outside. If Mike was awake, who knows what else would’ve happened; he could’ve been killed along with Erica. As the ambulance left, my mom returned and told us that James most likely wouldn’t make it. We would find out, about an hour or so later, that James died in the hospital, due to the gunshot wounds sustained from the police shootout.
Now that James was dead, there was no need to have anybody testify in court, so my mother felt a little less stressed. We had never been through any event like this before; neither had Erica’s family. I felt so bad for them. When this all happened, Erica’s parents weren’t even home. They just pulled up in their car, watching the events unfold. When her mother walked up to the scene of the crime, she lost it, and I just couldn’t watch her go up to Erica’s body. My mom tried to go up to her to console her, but the police got to Erica’s mother first, and started speaking with her. That was the last I really saw of her for a week or so. I didn’t see Erica’s father, but it was so chaotic in my yard, that I just couldn’t bear to be outside. I went up to my bedroom a few times just to stop and think, “what the hell just happened to my friend?”
I remember James’s family ran up to the scene, in front of my home, and were in the crowd of people. I don’t blame them for being angry; they had, after all, also lost a loved one. I am sure that Erica wasn’t a saint towards James either, because they seemed to have many arguments in the past. On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines receive approximately 21,000 calls, approximately 15 calls every minute (ncadv.org 2015). Erica’s brother had told me a few times how Erica and James would argue, but Erica was afraid to involve the law. Maybe if Erica had gotten a protection order against James for coming to her workplace, things would have been different, but we’ll never know. That is the problem with domestic violence; many victims involved are so frightened of their abuser that they don’t have the strength to really get help to end the relationship.
Why Someone Kills
I started to ask myself then, what makes a person commit murder? The human brain is coded for compassion, for guilt, for a kind of empathic pain that causes the person inflicting harm to feel a degree of suffering that is in many ways as intense as what the victim is experiencing (Kluger 2015). It was as if James had no conscience. Maybe he lived by a different moral code. James was known to be violent at times, and this tells me that he most likely also had a rough upbringing. This event shows his obsessive mind and behavior.
Violence because of thoughts such as “if I can’t have her, nobody can.”, or “if she won’t have me, she won’t have anything”, is common in paranoid and jealous types. They usually believe their lover is cheating on them. When deprived of love, they continue crying: repeated phone calls, following the object of their obsession, etc. (Everyday Psychology 2008). James did call Erica many times, and would threaten her over the telephone. Erica was his obsession, and her being with another guy just set James off the deep end. In his eyes, maybe he thought they would always be together, or that they would get back together in the future.
The Murder Affected Us in Many Ways
I will probably never get the image of all the sirens flashing in front of my home, or the yellow caution tape that divided up our street, out of my head. The surprise and shock of seeing a loved one's face, or what is left of them, may offer up the most horrendous of nightmares (Russell 2005). The smell of her body decaying on the sidewalk filled my living room. No one understood why they did not cover the body, because it was so humid that day, which made it smell even worse. I still remember the fact that they removed the body at three in the afternoon. That vision is something that would haunt me for years. According to National institute of Justice, Once the death investigator has evaluated the scene, he or she should document and evaluate the body (Everyday Psychology 2008). He or she should follow these steps: photograph the body; conduct an external body examination; preserve evidence (on body); establish decedent identification; document post-mortem changes; participate in scene debriefing; determine notification procedures (next of kin); and ensure security of remains (Everyday Psychology 2008). It is a long process, and I saw them do most of this from my porch. We did not appreciate them leaving her body uncovered for that period. Erica’s parents had to watch their daughter lying there, dead.
According to Reachout.com, “a common reaction to grieving is through behavior changes, e.g. sleeping patterns, dreams and nightmares, or your appetite. You might or might not want to go out or be around too many people, experience unusual emotional reactions, or cry” (Reachout.com 2016). I remember that my mother and I didn’t sleep at all afterwards, and we didn’t eat much. My girlfriend at the time, Jen, didn’t know what to think. All I would do was sleep, which kind of caused us to drift apart. I guess nobody can understand what you’re going through after losing someone you love, unless they too went through a similar horrid event. I had never experienced a loss like this before, and my emotions were very confused.
My mother had to have her sisters stay the night on several occasions, because she didn’t feel safe. For a while, we sat around talking about memories we had of Erica growing up, and that helped. There was a shadow over our memories for the first few weeks after the murder. If I didn’t talk to someone about how I felt, I could’ve ended up in the hospital after some sort of mental breakdown. Were my family also victims? I would say we were more like survivors of a homicide. A survivor is somebody with close ties to the person murdered, like a friend, neighbor, classmate, etc.
I just wasn’t prepared to cope with a death of this magnitude all by myself. Therefore, I decided to see a psychiatrist because my emotions were running wild. I broke up with my girlfriend right before this, because it just wasn’t working out. I had too much on my mind to be with anyone back then. I was so distant and I wasn’t myself. The doctor told me I could have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to witnessing such a horrible event. I felt a lot of anxiety and depression, but the worst was the nightmares; I would wake up and be covered in sweat from the terrible dreams. The rest of my family refused to get any help. I was mainly worried about my mom, and I tried to get her to see a doctor, but she just wouldn’t go. For me, the hardest part was getting that picture of her lying there, bloody and dead, out of my mind. I think it hurt so much because I knew Erica personally, and seeing her die violently made me feel like those good memories we had together would always be replaced with the bloody memory of her death.
William Faulkner says, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” I take this as the past never dies; it just lies dormant until old memories bring it up again. In the present day, as I sit on the same porch where I saw my friend murdered, memories start to resurface. I can still remember the day Erica and her family moved in next door to me. My friends and I were playing baseball in my backyard, and they came and asked if they could play. As most kids are, we were a bit mean to them at first. Erica was always rather persistent in coming over and wanting to play with us. So, we finally let her. I was probably in 6th grade. I also might have had a bit of a crush on her, as we spent a great deal of time together riding four wheelers as kids, and we were in the same classes. She was also my first kiss. We were just kids messing around; nonetheless, it was something I would always remember.
Then the emotional memories start to come to life. I look at her porch and think of how fast she was running, when James was chasing her towards my yard. I then look over at the bullet holes that were left behind from that day, and wonder if things could have gone differently. The stickers they put on the bullet holes cover them well, but they do not block the image of the bullets striking Erica from our memories. I thank the Lord, as often as I can, that my family and my other neighbors weren’t hurt during this shootout.
I sometimes see Erica’s mother working at the grocery store, or her daughter, Abby, riding her bike. Erica’s parents raised Abby like she was their own daughter. I am glad to see she is safe, and enjoying life. When I do yardwork, I sometimes see Erica’s siblings drive past, and we’ll wave and say hello. They too seem to be doing just fine. They also spend a lot of their time racing go-karts. Mike said it helps keep their minds off it. Abby spends a lot of time with my neighbor Karen. Even though her father killed her mother, and both of her parents are gone, Abby has stayed very strong. Most of the time when I meet new people, and I get to know them a bit more, I will usually tell them this story. I just feel that having friends and loved ones know this part of my life helps to strengthen our connection. This is just one of many tools I learned in therapy: not to be afraid of my past, or be afraid to let people into my life.
As you can see in picture 2, the stickers on the bullet holes are starting to come off. Erica was crouching right beneath those holes; the holes shown on the siding are the bullets that took her life. The picture on the left shows where she lay when she was shot and hid from James. The white in the first photo is where the blood was. The stains will always be there. I remember it was very difficult for them to get the stains out of the cement. She must have been wanting to either run into my house to hide, or thought she could get cover from him right below my porch siding. I also think that maybe she was trying to run behind my house, but I guess we’ll never know. It feels strange looking at these pictures. It brings so many horrible memories to mind. It was also weird taking these pictures, because Erica’s family still lives next door.
Edited by Fabbiha Choudhury
- Sherri Shaulis and Nicole Hughes 2004
- Sherry Russell 2005 Grief and First on the Scene
- “A Grief Like No Other,” in The Atlantic Online. Eric Schlosser, September 1997.
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence 2015
- Jeffrey Kluger 2015 Here’s What Happens in the Brain When People Kill
- Reachout.com 2016
- Everyday Psychology 2008
- Much Loved.com, 2016, Dealing with the death of a loved one
- Mental Health America 2016
- Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence 2016
- American Cancer Society 2016
- Domestic Violence Intervention program 2016
- Adelita Medina 2001
- Shanie Matthews Life Lessons Learned through the Death of a Loved One
- Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.