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Closer to Closure

Victims of violence in Louisiana can open dialogue with their offender behind bars. (FOX 8 Photo) Victims of violence in Louisiana can open dialogue with their offender behind bars. (FOX 8 Photo)
(WVUE) -

If you were the victim of a crime and you were able to talk to the person convicted of committing that crime against you or a loved one, would you do it?

Louisiana is one of dozens of states that offers that chance through a program called Victim Offender Dialogue. One thing most victims and survivors of violent crimes want is answers.

"Some of us may get the answers we want. Some of us may not get the answers that we want," said Danette Aydell. 

She said answers were something she desperately needed after her daughter was murdered. In February of 2007, 13-year-old Kaitlin Aydell disappeared right after she got home from school. The search in the community of French Settlement was intense.  

Two days later, Danette Aydell's worst nightmare came true. Kaitlin was found strangled to death in a wooded area 11 miles from her home. Within days, police arrested Mark Lewis in connection with her murder, and the nightmare continued.

According to Aydell, Lewis was married to Kaitlin's cousin and practically lived next door. When asked by a WAFB-TV news reporter after his arrest if he murdered Kaitlin, Lewis said, "I did not."

He was tried and convicted in 2008 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Then, in 2010, he shocked everyone. He confessed to another woman's murder - a 17-year-old cold case. Police in Livingston Parish said he admitted to killing Janet Parker Benoit and leaving her body in a church parking lot in Denham Springs.

Danette Aydell wondered back then how long it would take before Lewis confessed to her daughter's murder. She decided she needed to know, and started the process of setting up a meeting with Lewis at Angola. She said hers was a long process. Because of family medical issues, it dragged on for four years.

She was working with counselors at the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Through the Victim Offender Dialogue program, those counselors help facilitate some of the most painful conversations imaginable. 

"One question a lady wanted to know was, why my daughter? In that case, he told her, 'because I liked her,'" said Gayle Cothell, the executive director of Crime Victims Services Bureau.

The program has helped countless victims get closer to closure. Victims must initiate the process.

Last year, eight years after losing the most precious thing in her life, Aydell came face to face with Kaitlin's killer behind bars to try to get answers.
Aydell says she didn't hold back.

"And I did ask him, 'were you looking at her? Did you see her eyes when you strangled her?' He told me no, that he strangled her from behind," Aydell said. "The one thing mainly is that he did confess. Because after eight years of him saying he didn't do it, he didn't do it, he finally confessed that he did do it."  

She said she also told him she couldn't forgive him for his crime.

"My daughter was 13 years old when she was taken. This February made nine years that she's been gone," said a teary-eyed Aydell.

Aydell recently spoke to a group of employees at the Department of Corrections, some of them instrumental in getting the dialogue going between survivors and offenders. She was joined by another survivor whose story FOX 8 has been following for years.

"I don't think that the people behind the scenes really know the impact of their jobs, how important that is to people like me," Mervin Guillory said.  

Last year, Guillory also went to Angola Penitentiary to meet the man who shot him six times during a robbery outside a bank in Harvey in 1994. The gunfire killed an elderly woman inside the bank. At the time, his attacker, Robert Bates, was only 17.

Bates was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Guillory said he wasn't expecting the man who tried to kill him to be so easy to talk to.

"He looked at me like he was reading my soul, looked in my eyes and said, 'Mr Guillory, I want to tell you something.' He said 'it takes a hell of a man to come here and talk to me after what I did.' He said 'I don't know if I could have done this,'" Guillory said.

Guillory called the four-hour meeting another chapter in his journey back from the brink of death. He said Bates, now a model prisoner at Angola, was very remorseful and even hugged him. Guillory said he wasn't necessarily looking for answers, but wanted to see how Bates' life turned out. Turns out, the convicted killer may one day get a chance to argue for his release from prison because of a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding teenagers sentenced to mandatory life for murder.

Guillory said Bates is hopeful.

"I really don't think he's going to be pardoned, but it's going to be interesting to see where it goes," Guillory said. "I'd like to meet him before that time comes." 

While Guillory hopes for another face-to-face meeting with the man who stole from him and left him to die, he wants those who helped make the first meeting happen to understand their impact.

"Without them, it wouldn't have gone anywhere. It would have died, would have been dead in the water," Guillory said. "So I feel like talking to the state workers is more to explain to them, 'hey, look at where your jobs lead people like us, to be able to move on and take the next step.'"

Aydell wants survivors to know that patience is key when it comes to getting closure.

"Some people may want to go right off the bat and meet with them, but take your time," Aydell said. "Look at what's ahead, go through the grief first, because it's not an easy process when you lose a loved one - especially a child." 

After meeting with her daughter's killer, Aydell's life is moving forward. She's getting married on Kaitlin's birthday in May.

Fifteen years ago, only six states offered the Victim Offender Dialogue Program. Now, more than 30 states have the program. For more information on the process, call the Crime Victims Services Bureau at 225-342-1056 or 888-342-6110.

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