A local tragedy hits home with reporter, community

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 21, 2001

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2001

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.

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-Martin Luther King

Have you ever had one of those days? One of those weeks?

One of those weeks started last Thursday for me. I was sleeping on my couch and heard sirens – LOTS of sirens. Having no way of knowing what emergency crews were rushing to, I got ready and headed to work unaware.

After arriving at work, I soon learned that two people were killed in a fire outside of Austin. Or at least that’s what the initial report was.

This was horrible news, terrible. When I came to Austin I expected to cover stories that were upsetting, but being hit with the first death I would have to cover as a news story was sobering.

After gaining some information from local authorities, I drove to the scene to see if any information was available. A part of me was very aware that seeking any information about the fire could be invasive to the victims’ families. But unfortunately, at times, asking questions is my job.

I wrote the first story about the fire and felt incredibly sad. Two people had died. Each had their own dreams and lived their lives completely unaware of how or when the end would come.

The next morning, I had the privilege of speaking to Mike Cotter about his brother, Richard, who local authorities had tentatively identified as one of the victims of the fire.

Talking to Mike was heartbreaking. Here was a man who loved his brother, looked up to him, and was suddenly confronted with the stark reality that he would never see him again.

Amazingly, as I spoke to him, he reached out to me. By the time he left we were laughing after a story he shared with me. Our laughter was a reminder that life is made of tragedy and joy intermingling, and that either can hit at an unexpected moment.

Then, Friday afternoon came along and hit me in the gut. I was suddenly confronted with the fact that Richard and Mary had not died as the result of the fire. In my short time as a reporter I have never been faced with such a horrific truth before – it was a double homicide.

Who could do such a thing? And why? Though I had a lot of questions I also was aware that sometimes the evil that men do is so incomprehensible no one can make sense of it. I certainly couldn’t.

My mind returned to Mike Cotter. I knew I was thrown by the reality of the situation, but what about him?

How can Mike deal with the knowledge that someone could decide – make a conscious decision – to take his brother’s life? How could anyone think a life was worth so little that it could be taken? Why didn’t the knowledge that this was a life, a LIFE, stop the person who committed the murder before he carried it out? It is possible we may never know.

On Saturday I heard the worst news I’d heard all week – Richard’s son was arrested for the crime.

There is a part of me that is grateful the authorities made an arrest in a short period of time, but another part of me knows that the arrest is only the beginning of a tragic drama yet to be played out. There will be an arraignment and possibly a trial, and all of us – family, friends and residents of Austin alike – will have to face it. Just like we will have to face the upcoming trial from last summer’s double murder.

I truly have an overwhelming amount of sympathy within me for the families and friends of Richard and Mary. My thoughts are with all of you.

I will still have to report this case and I will need to stay objective – one of the harder parts of this job – but what I don’t have to do is shut off my emotions. I can’t.

Heaven help me if I ever become so callous as to think of a person’s death as just another news story. That will be the day I stop reporting.

I hope I never forget that each thing I report involves a person, people. People who made an impact and leave a shadow of their spirit here when they pass.