HELENA — Three tables have been set up in the Montana State Capitol rotunda, with 12 place settings – each one representing a loved one lost to violent crime or someone living through the aftermath of a crime.
The Montana Department of Corrections’ Victim Services Program organized the “Empty Place at the Table” exhibit. Victims or their family members placed personal items at each place, as a way to show the loss of a person or a part of oneself as a result of a crime.
“That the impact of crime continues on, that the ripple effect goes on and on, from loved ones to friends to the community,” said Jamie Rogers, the victim program manager. “It’s an ongoing thing forever.”
Melissa Dyekman’s husband Jeffrey was a state highway worker in Billings. In 2018, his crew was working along Interstate 90 when he hit and killed by a driver under the influence. Dyekman set up a place for him, with his coffee mug, some of his golf clubs and his Harley-Davidson hat.
“You just don’t want people to forget, because we don’t forget,” she said. “We sit at our dinner table every single night, and there’s a spot that’s empty. It’s just important for people to remember, and an exhibit like this just shows that people do care, you’re still in people’s hearts.”
Stacie DeWolf was killed in 2007 in Missoula, when a drunk driver hit her while she was riding her bike home. Her brother, Toby DeWolf of Helena, honored her by placing items like her fishing vest and a photo of her cat.
“I think it’s important that this kind of thing be done,” he said. “We take these people that have been lost and we try to let them impact other lives – and I know in my sister’s case, that would be the gift that she would want, is to make a statement, to help other people.”
This event comes ahead of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, which is April 18 through 24. April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
“This was the perfect month to raise awareness about these difficult crimes that happen to our neighbors,” said Rogers.
The Victim Services Program provided support and assistance to about 1,000 crime victims and family members in the last three months of 2020. Rogers said they usually serve about 850, but the need for these services has gone up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands more people are signed up to receive victim notifications when an offender’s status changes.
Brian Gootkin, the director of the Department of Corrections and former Gallatin County sheriff, said it’s important that victims’ voices continue to be heard.
“Not only are you our focus – along with the public – but also making sure that we hold offenders accountable and never forget the families and the victims,” he said.
Rogers thanked everyone who took part in the Empty Place at the Table exhibit.
“it is an honor for me that they trusted us enough with their stories to put it out publicly,” she said. “It’s traumatic to put together a table setting of somebody that you loved that is now deceased. It’s traumatic to have to bring up your sexual assault, your rape, your robbery, and put it out there for everybody to see. And so we feel very honored that the participants were willing to do this.”
Rogers said, as COVID restrictions continue to be lifted, they hope to hold events like this around Montana.
This exhibit will stay in the Capitol rotunda through Wednesday afternoon. Those taking part in the event encouraged people to view the place settings and learn about these people’s stories.
“It’s just important, because it shows me that he’s not forgotten,” said Melissa Dyekman. “He’s gone, but he’s not forgotten, nor will he ever be forgotten, because he was an amazing man – as well as everybody else at these tables, they’re amazing people.”
“This is a moving moment,” said Toby DeWolf. “It’s more moving for everybody in this room than it will be anybody else, because we have the feeling, we have the emotion, we certainly have the loss. I commend everybody that’s doing this, I commend the Department of Corrections for what they’re trying to do here and what statements they’re trying to make, and I hope that going forward, we can make some changes and some differences.”