Orange County Family Justice Center holds inaugural ‘Celebration of Strength’ event
The survivor of a childhood shattered by horrific domestic violence told the audience her mother would be alive today if the Orange County agency they support had existed in the late 1970s in the small town in Texas where she was living.
“She would still be alive to have met her two grand-children,” keynote speaker Suzanne DeWitt said of her mother, Shirley, at the Orange County Family Justice Center Foundation’s inaugural “Celebration of Strength” breakfast.
“She could be here to tell her own story of success,” said DeWitt, whose mother was shot to death by DeWitt’s step-father on Oct. 26, 1978, in Tomball, Texas, part of the Houston metropolitan area.
The killer, Michael Geddis, had served prison time for killing his first wife before he met Shirley. He was convicted of her murder, too. Geddis later died in prison.
Suzanne DeWitt was just shy of 11 years old when her mother, 24, was slain.
DeWitt, of Los Angeles, was invited to speak at the OCFJC’s May 22 fund-raiser and awards ceremony at the Anaheim Hilton to illustrate the life-changing work being conducted daily at the non-profit, which was founded by the Anaheim PD in 2006 to provide resources to victims of domestic violence.
Today, the OCFJC is a collaboration of 17 agencies and nonprofits that seeks, in a single setting, to break the cycle of domestic violence for families throughout Orange County.
Previously, victims would have to hopscotch all over the county for help. Many would give up and go back to live with their abusers.
These days, the OCFJC is making a big difference, said Tracy Theodore, executive director of the Orange County Family Justice Center Foundation. Among the educational programs offered at the center are classes on positive parenting, self-esteem, conflict resolution, life skills and healthy relationships.
“We know that family violence is a cycle, and without some kind of intervention, very often that violence will repeat itself generation after generation,” Theodore said.
The money raised at the breakfast will allow the OCFJC to enhance and grow the OCFJC Foundation’s Violence Prevention and Empowerment Academy, 12 different programs to help survivors break the cycle of abuse for them and their families.
In addition, three individuals were honored at the inaugural event:
Retired APD Lt. James Kazakos, who received the Lt. Todd Kridle Excellence Award.
Kazakos retired in December 2016 after 25 years with the APD. He ran the OCFJC from 2012 until his retirement, and served as president of the OCFJC Foundation.
Kridle died of cancer in August 2015. He was promoted to lieutenant posthumously.
Acting Anaheim Police Chief Julian Harvey presented the award to Kazakos.
“When you’re assigned to the Family Justice Center, it changes you,” Harvey told the audience. “You are exposed to unspeakable crimes that are committed against the most vulnerable in our communities.
“As hardened and calloused as you can become as a police officer, when you are there interacting with the victims on a daily basis, these cases become far more than cases. They are people’s lives.”
Harvey praised Kazakos for his passion, as well as his creative and innovative approach to providing programs to victims and survivors at the OCFJC.
“James, you took it to another level,” Harvey said.
Leticia “Letty” Sanchez received the OCFJC Foundation Hero for Justice Award. The mother of three grew up in a household poisoned by domestic violence.
Sanchez now is a facilitator for the OCFJC’s Kids Creating Change, Real Teens Real Talk and Parents Creating Change programs. Sanchez helped develop the Kids Creating Change program. She has been involved with the OCFJC since 2010.
“Letty is an outstanding community servant,” said Susan Bruegman, president of the Orange County Family Justice Center Foundation. Bruegman presented the award to Sanchez.
Jennifer Pinon received the Lt. James Kazakos Scholarship Fund, established in 2016, to continue her education in college. Pinon was recognized for overcoming adversities to continue her education and prove herself as a strong young leader.
Pinon graduated from Anaheim High School in 2017. She attends Fullerton College and is majoring in criminal justice. She wants to become a police officer or FBI agent.
Kazakos presented the award to Pinon.
“She’s well deserving and a wonderful young lady,” said Kazakos, who urged Pinon to “pay it forward” after she becomes successful.
DeWitt, the keynote speaker, now is an employee relations consultant at a bank who helps both leaders and employees manage through the effects of domestic violence in the workplace and workplace traumatic events.
In her keynote speech, DeWitt noted that sufficient resources were not available to her mother, who before she met the man who murdered her was a widower. Her first husband and DeWitt’s father, Jim, died at 24 of kidney disease, which turned Shirley into a working single mother.
Then she met Geddis — “a man,” DeWitt said, “who was going to save her and give her back her proper role of the homemaker and caregiver…she thought…(Instead,) he set out to seduce her with promises of a good life and she bought it all. He saw opportunity in her unmarried, single mother predicament and was able to work that to his advantage.”
During their seven-year marriage, Geddis was an obsessively controlling husband, DeWitt said.
“(He) became irrationally suspicious, stalked her every move, and ridiculed her parenting skills and choice of friends, trying to gain more and more control over her,” DeWitt said.
Her mother tried to escape the marriage but came back to Geddis.
“She came back because he threatened to kill off her family one by one and stack them like firewood,” DeWitt said.
Eventually, Geddis killed DeWitt’s mother — and also shot a neighbor who tried to intervene. That neighbor was in a coma for a while before succumbing to his injuries.
DeWitt praised the OCFJC for making a difference in the lives of victims and survivors of domestic violence.
“The services that OCFCJ offers today’s victims of violence or abuse are services that can help them cope with horrific and far-reaching effects of their experience,” DeWitt said. “It is literally lifesaving to have an advocate trained in assessing needs and bringing in just the right support for someone’s needs.
“It could be immigration assistance, legal help, relationship courses, helping someone know the critical difference between ego and healthy self-esteem —whatever the need, the (OCFJC) has it…for free.”
After the “Celebration of Strength” breakfast, guests left with a small potted herb with the inscription:
Thank you for your thyme and compassion.