How the Impact of Violence Changed a Teen’s Life

”In our country, the impact of violence has devastated victims, families and communities. We have had horrific, heart-wrenching stories in our own city, Philadelphia. Because we often focus our efforts on immediate participants, we forget how others–even a whole community–can be impacted. Neither do we realize the long-term traumatic impact the tragedy has on the witnesses. Sometimes the impact haunts them for the rest of their lives. Today, I share one such story pulled from . .one violent act, and how it changed Jason Culler, the teen who found the body of Aimee Willard.

 The impact of violence: Jason Culler, the teen who found the body of Aimee Willard

Willard and Culler
ASSOCIATED PRESS Gail Willard (center) is embraced by Jason Culler and a friend during a 1998 ceremony at the trash-strewn lot where the body of Willard’s daughter Aimee was found. Culler is now 31. (source:

In 1996, Aimee Willard, a 22-year-old college lacrosse star from suburban Philadelphia, was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a paroled murderer.

Her body was discovered by some neighborhood boys who often played in the trash-strewn lot at 16th and Indiana. After the discovery, it was transformed into a community oasis, a garden where neighbors gathered, and at least one couple was married. But over the years it was lost to the weeds.

I remember everything like it was yesterday,” he (Culler) said, solemnly. We were just going there to have fun, to act like boys.”

At first, Culler thought the naked body whose face was turned toward the ground was a mannequin. But as he got closer, he saw the blood and bruises and flies.

“It’s still in my head. I’ll never forget it. For a long time, I was afraid to go to sleep,” he said. I was a kid. I never saw anything like that before. I knew I lived in a troubled neighborhood, a violent neighborhood, but I’d never seen anything that violent.”

For months, Culler slept in his older sister’s room, afraid the person who killed Aimee would come for him.

He remembers his father being angry and punishing him for being out when he wasn’t supposed to, and then his father being afraid for his son for talking to police in a neighborhood where that was often discouraged.

But other than the officer who told the boys that they did a good job when they brought him to the lot, and another cop handing him a Coke, no one ever asked the eighth-grader how he felt about making such a gruesome discovery.

“No one ever asked me how I was feeling. No one ever asked me whether I was sad. They just said, ‘Good job.’ That was it. That just shows you how times have changed.”

Culler withdrew from friends and family. Later, the isolation turned into anxiety and depression. But it would be years before he realized that finding Aimee’s body was partly the cause.

“It changed me,” he said. After a few minutes of silence, he said, “It wasn’t a bad change.”

After dropping out of school, he went back and became a pastor at his aunt’s church. He now works for a health-care center and has his own catering company.

“I look back at the guys I grew up with in that neighborhood, and some are dead and some are in jail,” he said. “Not one person I can think of is the same person. I’m not the same person.

“I don’t understand why there’re sick people out there like that. I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.”

Culler has since moved out of the neighborhood, but he often goes back to the lot, if only to sit in his car and think about what it has become. About 10 years ago, he said, he approached some people about cleaning it up, but no one was interested.

When I told him what Gail Willard said about letting go of it, the man who had been reluctant to talk suddenly become very animated.

“I want you to put this in there,” he said, pointing at my notebook. “What happened to the park is a failure on everybody’s part. Everybody, including me. If anyone is to blame, you’ve got to blame us all, because we all played a part in it. When the news cameras went away and the reporters went home, we let that go down the drain.

“I love Gail, I mean no disrespect. Aimee Willard, God rest her soul. But it’s no longer about her. It’s not. It’s about the next generation of kids who have to live with that messed-up lot, who need somewhere to go and something to participate in and to be proud of.  After Aimee Willard’s body was found, something good came out of it. The community came together. We made that a beautiful place. I believe today it could help bring hope and light back to that community. It really can. It’s not just about Aimee Willard anymore. It’s about the survival of the community.

It is about the survival of a community.

What an insightful perspective from this young man as he tries to instill hope into a very violent broken community. It is also another call to a deeper understanding about how violent trauma can impact each person.

It is my sincere hope that one day we can provide better care for victims, families and the witnesses of violence as they process these events that have left them with significant personal deficits. They need and deserve help.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network


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