Karen Beaudin was 15 when her 13-year-old sister was beaten, raped, strangled and left naked in the woods three miles from their home.
Jennifer Case was 14 when her mother was stabbed and killed.
Margie Brooks will never forget the moment she learned her 19-year-old son had been shot to death in Jacksonville, changing life as she’d known it forever.
Beaudin, Case, and Brooks have much in common as they’ve all lost a loved one to murder. Adding to their horror, the Killers have never been found.
They also are contributors to a recently released book co-authored by Ryan Backmann of Atlantic Beach, titled “Grief Diaries: Project Cold Case.”
Backmann, whose father Clifford Backmann was shot to death in 2009, co-authored the book with Seattle-based author Lynda Cheldelin Fell, creator of the “Grief Diaries” book series featuring stories about ordinary people surviving extraordinary journeys.
The book, released Nov. 21, features accounts written by 22 people whose lives have been impacted by the unsolved homicide of a family member.
Backmann’s family is one of them.
“The goal was to heal both the writer and the reader and to market it to people who are going through something similar — so they understand they are not alone,” he said. “The book becomes a portable support group.”
Writing his story and compiling the stories of 21 others was healing, he said.
“You can see you are not alone in the fear and grief,” he said.
Backmann was 31 when he learned his father had been shot while working by himself in an office at a construction site in Jacksonville.
His father had not been around much for him as a child, but that changed when Backmann was 18. The two became extremely close.
He assumed the killer would be caught. He never was.
Clifford Backmann lived long enough to call a 911 dispatcher and give a description of the shooter, a man he didn’t know. But no physical evidence was left behind and there were no witnesses.
After 18 months of investigation, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detectives told Backmann they had run out of leads and the case went cold.
The murder changed Backmann’s life, because not only did he have to deal with the loss of a man he loved, he had to deal with the fact the person who took him away was never caught and punished.
He quickly learned his father’s death was one of hundreds of unsolved homicides in Jacksonville and he was one of thousands who might never learn the truth or see justice served.
He left his job in the architectural field to become a victims advocate with Compassionate Families, a nonprofit that works with people who have lost loved ones to violence.
He left to work, in a voluntary role, with state Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, to try to push through legislation to create a Cold Case Task Force.
The bill went nowhere in three legislative sessions, but people took notice.
The Florida Sheriffs Association created the Florida Cold Case Advisory Commission and appointed Backmann as the only citizen/survivor member along with about 20 law enforcement officers.
They review cold cases quarterly, with their next meeting in January in Tampa.
Backmann also created his own cold case database through a nonprofit he founded called Project Cold Case, whose website is projectcoldcase.org.
He started it as a part-time endeavor two years ago as a way to profile unsolved murders around the country. So many cases came in that he now serves full-time as executive director.
The organization received a grant from the Florida Attorney General’s Office to help victims with services such as crisis counseling, in-person and online support meetings, and meetings and phone calls with cold case detectives.
Backmann learned about Fell and her “Grief Diaries” series from a man who contributed to another of her books about losing someone to an impaired driver.
When he reached out to her about doing one featuring victims of unsolved murders, she “loved the idea,” he said.
Backmann and Fell recruited contributors from around the U.S. through his Project Cold Case Facebook page and her Grief Diaries website.
The book features four cases from Jacksonville and one from St. Augustine, as well as the stories of two people from Northeast Florida whose family members were murdered elsewhere.
Once they had interested contributors, they sent them a weekly email containing three questions about their grief process. Over a period of six weeks, they compiled the answers to 18 questions, which the Grief Series team edited into chapters.
They were free to answer anyway they wished, as long as they didn’t name suspects, Backmann said. They could answer with a sentence, paragraph or 14 pages, if they liked.
The book turned out to be a little more than 400 pages, which is longer than Backmann expected.
“Our contributors needed to talk and they did,” he said. “It was very emotional, very raw.”
It was published by AlyBlue Media and is available on amazon.com.
Brooks, describing her grief at losing her 19-year old son, BJ, wrote: “my baby boy would be gone. No more phone calls; no more ‘what are you doing Mommy? I need the car. No more raiding the refrigerator, and what I miss most: I LOVE U.”
For Backmann writing about his experience “was very difficult at times to relive it in such detail,” he said.
Other contributors agreed with him. Some called or emailed him with questions or just to talk. Some found some of the questions too painful to answer, so they didn’t have to.
Talking to others about their stories was not difficult, Backmann said, as he could identify with them.
“But sometimes it was difficult to sleep after,” he admitted. “I felt their pain.”
None of the contributors were paid, although Backmann, who contributed to the book’s publishing costs, will earn royalties, a portion of which he will donate to Project Cold Case.
The book was not written as “a who done it,” with the hopes of solving any of the murders, but to show there is “always the ultimate hope,” Backmann said.
As for his father’s case, “it’s probably much more likely not to be solved,” he said.
But that hope is not really what keeps him going now. His grief has evolved into helping others and himself heal.
He doesn’t expect to make a lot of money on his book, but that wasn’t why he took it on.
“I’m very proud of being part of the book, so that it could offer comfort to others,” he said. “And along the way, help me in my grief journey.”