SOUTH BEND – Some of the cases stand out more sharply in Michael Elliott’s memory.
There were the four homeless men murdered and stuffed in manholes in 2006. There were the vigils for slain police officers.
And perhaps most haunting for Elliott was the vigil for 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis, beaten to death by his father last year.
“That still bothers me,” Elliott told the South Bend Tribune. “I just don’t understand how anyone could do that to a child.”
Other cases have faded in his mind over the years.
Elliott recalled a murder-suicide case that involved a young couple years back in Mishawaka, but he couldn’t quite grasp the names.
He did remember the couple was new to town, so he couldn’t reach out-of-town family, or locate friends for what turned out to be a small prayer vigil.
Elliott, 56, has prayed with hundreds of family and friends of St. Joseph County homicide victims for nearly a decade.
He is the organizer of the On Site prayer vigils, a small, informal group that prays together in the wake of local homicides.
Like clockwork after a slaying in the county, Elliott sends out an e-mail to the media and core group of vigil-goers to meet Thursday evening at the site of the violence to pray.
He invites the family of the victim by leaving a message at the funeral home handling the death.
It is a sometimes emotionally draining role that he inherited from his mother, who began leading such vigils about 20 years ago.
“It’s so sad to meet week after week over the same issue,” Elliott said. “I may get down about it, but what I’m feeling is nowhere near the magnitude of emotion the family and friends of someone who was murdered is feeling,” he added.
The job is harder when the city sees a spate of violent crime – when it seems like there is a vigil every Thursday, he said.
In one strange and sad example this year, Elliott said he held a vigil in the same spot, the corner of Adams Street and Vassar Avenue on the west side of South Bend.
Jazmin Conlee and Alejandro Tinoco, both 19, were shot to death in the same house that Charles Roberts, 18, was killed in several months later in an unrelated shooting.
“That ... was deja vu to be in the same place within months for a second homicide,” Elliott said. “I talked to the mom of that young man. She said they just moved into that house a week or two earlier.
"She said they’d already moved out. They can’t live there.”
The idea to hold a prayer vigil for each homicide victim came out of a church networking group called United Religious Community about 20 years ago, Elliott said.
Local religious leaders were concerned about violence in South Bend and wanted to respond, Elliott said.
His mother was pegged to organize the vigils, a job she did until she died eight years ago.
Elliott said his mother would be on the phone for hours the week before a vigil, searching for family members and alerting community members to its time and location. He now has quickened the process with e-mail.
“On the evening of her viewing at the funeral home, a lot of people were coming up to me, asking what would happen with the On Site prayer ministry,” Elliott said. “I decided to step up and fill the gap as a way to help make sure this ministry kept going and honor my mom’s memory.”
The United Religious Community is no longer involved in the On Site prayer vigils. It is an informal undertaking by Elliott and a core group of community members who show up to most vigils.
As much as the vigils are for the murder victim, they are for the community, Elliott said.
“It helps families when they see complete strangers show up and pray for the deceased,” he said. “And it sheds a light on the violence so people in the community see what this really does.”
Elliott said he has run into family members of a victim years after the vigil who said praying with friends and stangers was a powerful recourse for closure.
“I really believe in the power of prayer,” Elliott said.