Freida MacDonald’s life changed forever on Jan. 26, 2012.
She was at work when she picked up the phone to hear these words from her husband: There is a Raleigh police detective at the door. He wants to speak to you in person. You need to come home.
MacDonald’s oldest son, Stephen Hoyle, 24, had been murdered.
MacDonald would later learn that her son, a construction worker staying in a hotel near his job site, was found dead in his room by a hotel employee. The $2,100 he had saved to purchase a truck on the day of his death was missing. Arrests were made the next day.
Within 13 months, MacDonald says, the case wound its way through the criminal justice system and was resolved. Two men were sent to prison. Case closed.
Except, for the family members of homicide victims, the case is never closed. “All you have left is the end result, and the end result is a lifetime without your loved one,” says MacDonald, 58, of Cary.
In her grief, as MacDonald sought help for herself, she became an advocate for others in Wake County who have lost loved ones to violent crime.
“Freida has literally turned darkness into light,” says Elizabeth Watson, executive director of the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network. “She has suffered indescribable loss and turned that around to help our organization.”
MacDonald facilitates the network’s Wake County Homicide Support Group, which meets monthly at Campbell University’s law school in downtown Raleigh. Family members and friends gather on the first Tuesday of each month – as many as 15 to 20 people attend.
The first part of the meeting is typically reserved for homicide detectives and prosecutors to answer questions about upcoming cases and share their expertise about the criminal justice system. The second half of the meeting is set aside for seeking solace in each other’s company.
“Meeting other people like Freida who have gone through this really helps,” says Stephen Puryear of Willow Spring whose daughter, Britny, was murdered by her boyfriend in 2014.
“Without the support group I don’t know how far along we’d be.”
Another son lost
The meetings are open to anyone who has lost a loved one to homicide. Some among the group are still navigating the court system while others are grieving losses that are decades old.
MacDonald helped start the group in January 2015 after regularly attending the Durham chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. She vividly recalls her first meeting, which began with a chance conversation with another mother in the parking lot. “All of a sudden, I found out I was not alone at all. There’s something very powerful about that,” she says.
Support group topics of conversation are wide ranging. Birthdays and anniversaries. What to do when you receive a letter from your loved one’s murderer. What is your role when the offender comes up for parole. Grief. And something they call “the ripple effect.”
In other words, when someone is murdered, families may find themselves in crisis as they try, and sometimes fail, to cope in the aftermath. Depression, substance abuse, and relationship problems may be among the fallout.
“You don’t go back to the way life was. You are changed,” MacDonald says. “It tests people’s faith. People get angry with God. All of a sudden that perception of the white picket fence is gone.”
In MacDonald’s case, she watched her younger son, Michael Hoyle, struggle mightily to cope after Stephen died. On Feb. 14, a little more than four years afterward, Michael died of a drug overdose, she says. He was 24. “We really started losing Michael the day we lost Stephen,” she says. Stephen’s death “took away Michael’s joy. It was the end of his innocence. He didn’t look at the world the same way.”
MacDonald knew first-hand what her younger son was going through. She, too, is a surviving sibling of a brother who died unexpectedly and violently. In 1980, her brother fell and hit his head after being punched outside a tavern on Hillsborough Street. “It changed my whole world,” she says. “My choices weren’t good. I lived for today. It’s very hard to be a sibling watching your parents grieve,” she says.
Shies from politics
Beyond the monthly support group, MacDonald makes herself available for speaking engagements and interviews. This year, she is finishing her term as president of the network’s board of directors. She has also helped the network raise money to replace cuts in state financing.
Through her long-time employer, BB&T, MacDonald was able to secure a steady source of volunteers for the network’s upscale women’s clothing resale shop in Apex called the Butterfly Boutique. Through its Lighthouse Project to support nonprofit organizations, BB&T gives employees paid time off to volunteer at the shop. In addition, BB&T has given financial support to further the network’s fundraising efforts.
“It was very healing to have that happen,” MacDonald says. “My bank, my job has been there for me.”
MacDonald first learned about the Victim Assistance Network while walking on her lunch hour in downtown Raleigh. A former runner, she had turned to walking as a coping mechanism and happened upon the network’s memorial garden on the corner of East Lane and Wilmington streets near the Legislative Building.
When she spotted the bricks, inscribed with names, lying in the garden, “I knew it was all murder victims. I looked at every one.” That same day, she called to request a brick for Stephen.
She says the only thing that has helped her is helping others.
Elizabeth Watson, executive director of the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network
She was struck by the group’s compassion and nonjudgmental acceptance and soon found herself volunteering on its behalf. Also known by the acronym NCVAN, the statewide nonprofit provides support for victims of crime and specializes in providing support to homicide victims’ families. That support comes in many forms, from financially assisting the families with travel arrangements to get to court and sitting with them through trials to sponsoring training seminars and public awareness events, such as the two-mile Crime Victims’ Memorial Community Walk/Run in Apex last month.
MacDonald has purposely shied away from the politics that sometimes goes along with issues involving violent crime, although she understands why other families choose to honor their lost loved ones lobbying for legislation or other political channels. Everyone, she says, must find their own way to cope.
“All I ever wanted to do was help people grieve. Everyone should have a safe place to go with their grief,” she says.
NCVAN’s Watson is in awe of MacDonald’s dedication. “She has never said ‘no’ to any request,” Watson says. “She says the only thing that has helped her is helping others.”
MacDonald says she does it to honor Stephen – and now Michael, too.
She recalls a conversation she had with Stephen, who was trying to get his life back on track. In childhood, he had struggled with attention-deficit disorder and in adulthood, he was arrested several times. “He wasn’t perfect,” MacDonald says.
Unhappy with his decision to get a tattoo, which included the words, “Know Hope,” she questioned him about it.
“Because you got to know hope, Mom,” she remembers him saying.
“Now I feel it’s a message to carry on.”
If you know someone who should be considered as a Tarheel of the Week, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy Galloway Dunn is a freelance writer in Apex. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Born: August 1957, Morehead City
Career: BB&T employee benefits operations assistant
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, Campbell University; secretarial sciences diploma, Chowan College (now Chowan University); Broughton High School
Family: Husband Doug MacDonald; two stepdaughters
For more information on NCVAN or the Homicide Support Group: www.nc-van.org
The Butterfly Boutique, 5404 Apex Peakway, Apex (Olive Chapel Shopping Center)
The boutique is closing at the end of the month while it searches for a new location with lower overhead costs, MacDonald says.