Former Silicon Valley Bank CEO Roger Smith had been retired for a few years when he and his wife became tired of the negative aspect of today’s 24/7 news cycle. They especially lamented the number of murders reported in the local newspapers every morning.
“We were sitting there, reading and bitching, and finally we said, ‘We have to quit bitching or do something,’” he said.
Smith and his wife Judy, who live in Palo Alto, chose to do something. In 2003, they founded two nonprofit organizations at the same time: Mothers Against Murder (MAM), inspired by the name Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and Friends of the Palo Alto Parks.
“To be totally honest, we were truly limping along because we didn’t have any idea what we were doing,” Smith said. “But the purpose was to help families (of murder victims).”
Through learning about the cause, Smith realized that one of the biggest obstacles for people who have lost someone through an act of senseless violence is navigating the court system. He said a “lack of customer service” leaves many families confused and waiting around, as hearings get delayed for a variety of reasons – reasons that trump even locking someone up for life for taking the life of another.
Joe Yomtov, former director of the Victim Witness Assistance Center in San Jose, introduced Smith to longtime victims’ rights advocate Margaret Petros soon after Yomtov and Smith struck up a conversation about the future of MAM at the Victim Support Network’s Unsung Heroes event in 2009.
“When Margaret came into our lives, we became a professional organization,” Smith said of Petros, a Los Altos resident who has been a professional advocate for 34 years, specializing in state victim compensation.
“I wanted to join MAM because of the mission of paying close attention, making systemic change and not being bureaucratic,” said Petros, MAM executive director. “(You’re) not really having to answer to a state agency while doing something that is absolutely right for crime victims.”
Petros has fought on local and state levels for legislation to support victim compensation, and has been appointed to multiple commissions that aim to study and stop other forms of assault, including child abuse and domestic violence. She’s the “main engine” when it comes to compensation, often used by families to pay for the burial of their loved ones, Smith said.
“No one is prepared for murder,” Smith said. “Many times it’s poor people who have to make rent on Monday. … It’s a little bit frustrating to us because murder is so personal, but we like to make contact with the family immediately to help them start the process.”
The work undoubtedly takes a toll on advocates too, Petros admitted, but her advocacy matters enough to make it manageable. When the state was in a fiscal crisis a few years ago, the first things that were chopped were benefits for funerals and burials for victims, she noted.
“They reduced it to $5,000 even though the law says $7,500, so I was one of two advocates in the state of California to go up to Sacramento,” Petros said, adding that she flagged the attention of East Bay Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who helped increase the funding.
If there is a reward, it’s keeping in contact with families that she has sat through every kind of hearing with until the killer is sentenced. Despite the pain, the families know the services MAM provides make a traumatic experience a little bit less traumatic. Petros receives text messages at Thanksgiving and thank-you cards every now and again.
For Smith, the emotional toll affects the business side of his brain: How can a system be so ineffective? Is there a better way to immediately serve the victims’ families? Petros is accustomed to the delays, but she understands that many share Smith’s perspective.
“Your heart just breaks, and you think to yourself, ‘The system can’t be this bad,’” Smith said.
A new strategy
MAM has recently offered rewards for information on local murders in an effort to assist law enforcement agencies and bring light to a dark situation. Smith donated up to $20,000 of his own money for details on who killed San Jose resident Armando Montelongo Espinoza, 52, in a Palo Alto parking lot Jan. 21.
Most of the money put toward the charity is Smith’s own cash, Petros said, because they want to use their time as resourcefully as possible. MAM has no office, only a post office box, so Petros travels to each family to have tough conversations from the comfort of their own homes.
Smith isn’t sure what the future holds for MAM. His original vision, a charity that could connect mothers of murder victims with one another to act as a support system, failed upon the realization of how “hurtful and individualized” the experience is. He dreams of a society that needs no MAM, despite knowing how impossible that seems.
“Eventually, we want to be out of this work,” Petros said. “But that’s not real.”
For more information on MAM, visit the charity’s website at mothersagainstmurder.org.