BOOKMARK DAMAS SECTION
NAPLES — On Sept. 19, two Collier County sheriff’s deputies walked into possibly the most gruesome crime scene in county history.
Inside a North Naples townhouse, the bloody body of 32-year-old Guerline Dieu Damas, was bound with white extension cord, a black bag covering her head. In the upstairs bedrooms, the deputies found the bodies of her five children.
All six had their throats slit.
“I received the call not too long after the guys went on scene from a representative from the Sheriff’s Office that the sheriff wanted me to respond,” said Sgt. Leslie Weidenhammer, a member of Collier County’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team. “I conducted a defusing that night with the patrol folks that were released from the scene.
“Basically, it’s designed to take the edge off the event.”
Collier’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team, or CISM, was formed in the late 1980s and is designed to help law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency workers cope with the grisly scenes and tragic circumstances -- including homicides, fatal wrecks, child abuse cases and burning buildings -- that they encounter in their jobs.
The team is comprised of mental health professionals, clergy, and trained peers from the different emergency response agencies who volunteer their time. Lee, Hendry and Charlotte counties have a combined CISM team.
Rarely has the team been as necessary as over the past few weeks.
“It was a bad scene,” Weidenhammer said of the sextuple homicide. “If anybody understands traumatology at all, a lot of those things never leave folks. It could trigger reactions, memories, at any time in their career or lifetime.”
Even in relatively peaceful Southwest Florida, emergency responders are not immune to on-duty stress.
In 2006, Scott Anderson, a former Collier deputy, was fired after being arrested for multiple DUIs. His attorney said at the time that Anderson’s problems stemmed from a mid-1990s triple homicide he saw in a Cracker Barrel walk-in cooler.
“Why are these people expected to not have any kind of reaction to some of the horrific things they have to see?” asked Dena Macomber, the CISM team coordinator in Lee County.
Don Howell, the executive director of the Maryland-based International Critical Incident Stress Management Foundation, said that in “the olden days,” many emergency response agencies didn’t adequately address the emotional hazards of the job.
It was once common, Howell said, for firefighters and law enforcement officers who encountered an unusually gruesome scene to find solace in a bottle of alcohol. Some were told by their bosses to just “tough it out” of “forget about it,” he said, and at best were told to take a couple of days off.
“The last thing you need to do in this moment in time is to be by yourself,” Howell said.
Things have changed in recent years, as more agencies make an effort to address their members’ mental health.
The first step in the process is known as a defusing, which usually occurs the day of the event, and consists of education and letting people know that their reactions are normal.
“We want them to eat well. We want them to try to get some rest. We want them to stay on as normal a schedule as possible,” said Dianne Flanagan, the coordinator for Collier’s CISM team.
The next step, if needed, is to hold a structured debriefing within three to seven days of an event with everyone who was involved, Flanagan said.
The debriefings have seven phases: introduction, fact phase, reaction phase, symptom phase, teaching phase and re-entry phase.
Collier Cpl. Dean Ramos has been through four debriefings during his career, the first of which occurred after a co-worker committed suicide. He said it’s nice to hear that others are dealing with the same emotions.
Though a sextuple homicide is rare, all emergency responders expect to work at traumatic scenes.
“Nowadays, it’s a matter of when that’s going to happen, not if it’s going to happen,” Ramos said. “You have to talk about it, or else it’s going to stay there and fester.”
Ramos admits he’s worked several scenes that have affected him.
“I have left scenes and actually on one occasion, on more than one occasion, had the strong desire to just go home and hug my child,” he said.
Because of the intensity of the scene and the long duration of the investigation, Weidenhammer said they’re doing a second debriefing in a couple of weeks with people who worked on the sextuple homicide.
“Those scenes would impact any normal human being. They impact us,” Howell said. “You never get used to it. You learn appropriate ways to deal with it.”
DAMAS FAMILY KILLINGS COVERAGE
ONE YEAR LATER:
- Year after slayings of Guerline Damas, five kids, relatives ask ‘did it really, really happen?’
- Confessed killer Mesac Damas wants to die, so should court system let him?
- Damas family slayings: Year later, still haunting lives of friends, family, deputies
- Jail phone call: Accused killer Mesac Damas talks to father about his slain family, Satan and adultery
MESAC DAMAS CONFESSION VIDEO:
DAILY NEWS STAFF JOURNALISTS TALK ABOUT THE CASE:
- THE FIELD: Naples Daily News staff writer describes how he obtained an interview with Mesac Damas
- THE FIELD: Visual Journalist Greg Kahn discusses being the first journalist at the Damas crime scene, and other observations from the field.
- THE FIELD: Staff Writer Steven Beardsley answers questions about his interview with Mesac Damas