By IVY HERRON
Tanette "Toni" Dickison's family members have experienced overwhelming grief, anger, frustration and doubts since her November 2004 murder.
According to Toni's aunts, Nan, Bobbi and Virgie Dickison, the normally close-knit family has splintered apart.
"When we needed each other the most, our family avoided each other," Nan said. "We walked on eggshells, not knowing what we could say to each other, not knowing what to expect the other to feel about what we needed to say."
There are plenty of good memories of the beautiful, bubbly 18-year old, but they become unexpected burdens in the past year and a half.
"It was just too painful to talk to each other," Bobbi said. "We're painfully honest in our family, but we couldn't talk to each other about this.
"Just don't expect the same level of honesty and respect from your teenager you give to them. You are going to have to ask the same questions more than once if you want a straight answer," she said. "Our family is brutally honest at times, a good Christian background, but Toni slipped away from us anyway."
You can't always wait for someone to come home with their problems to become active in their lives, according to Bobbi.
"Parents have got to be parents, not friends with their children. There is too much harmful stuff to get into nowadays," she said. "Look where we ended up."
They say the problem is universal.
"It's not just our family, but every family, that's falling into the drug problems facing our community," Virgie said. "People have got to take this seriously for the safety of our children. This isn't just about Toni anymore."
Convincing other families to become more involved with each other is now the main goal for the Dickison family.
"Don't let your children, your family, slip away," Virgie said. "Hold on to them with all you've got, don't let go."
Splintered relationships have taken their toll.
The sisters say Toni's father, Kenny Ray Dickison, grieved himself into an early grave in September 2005. Kenny had repaired a rift in his relationship with Toni shortly before her murder.
"The stress of Toni's murder caused his heart to just give out," Bobbi said. "He mourned himself to death. The 'what if's' were repaired, but he just couldn't get over the time lost."
Toni's brother, Larry Dickison II, now 21, also found it too difficult to live with the memories of his murdered sister and the additional pain of living in the family home without his father.
"He and Toni ran with some of the same people, and I think the guilt he felt about that was too much to bear," Bobbi said. "He moved away because he just couldn't let go of the pain."
Gigi Dickison, Toni's younger sister, now 18, was close with her family at first, but was consumed by grief as well. She lost interest in school, gave up singing, drifted away from family members and then moved away before her father's death.
"There was just too much pain in Indiana for her to stay here. She couldn't watch her father die," Nan said. "There was no reaching out to her, she felt that we didn't love her enough. It wasn't true, but there wasn't anything we could say to change her mind. She's living in Louisiana now, close to her mother."
Toni's grandfather, Larry Dickison, lost the ability to communicate how he feels.
"He's speechless, but full of emotions about her death," Bobbi said. "No family should have to endure this."
The three sisters struggle with grief in their own ways. While Nan went to grief counseling to learn how to cope, both Bobbi and Virgie locked their agony away.
Toni is never far from Bobbi's mind and heart, making her daily life a frustrating roller coaster ride of emotions.
"We had a stupid fight over a pizza and Toni wasn't really talking to me when she died," Bobbi said. "I can't help but feel that if we'd been talking maybe things would have been different."
Toni was a spirited girl with a great sense of humor and hope for the future, but bad decisions changed the path her life took.
"She may have died at 18, but we lost her when she was 16. Toni made some bad choices that led to drugs and her problems blossomed from there," Virgie said. "It was easy for Toni to convince our family that her life was one way, when it was actually another, she lied to us. For any person on drugs, not just Toni, lying is the nature of the beast."
Lies about a great life covered the fact that Toni was involved with drugs and living on the street as a prostitute before her death.
"She kept that life away, hiding it from us. She didn't want us to know," Nan said. "In some way she convinced herself she was protecting us."
The public announcement of Toni's activities after her murder was difficult for family members to hear. The family had suspicions, but they wanted to believe Toni when she said she was going take back her life and do better.
"I was mad - not that they told the whole world what her activities were - but because they simplified Toni's life," Nan said. "It was true that she was a prostitute, but does that mean I love her any less, that her family loves her any less?"
Cassie Harris lived on the streets and was a trusted friend to Toni. She was murdered in December 2004.
The sinister connotations made by some people that their involvement in prostitution and drugs somehow meant they were supposed to die the way they did outraged the Dickison family.
"When did Toni and Cassie stop being less than human and just become prostitutes? I wish that Cassie hadn't been on the street like Toni, but because they were together they survived a dangerous lifestyle for as long as they could," Bobbi said. "They may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time because of a bad decision, but the person that killed them is responsible for their deaths."
Nan agreed, adding "I thank God Cassie was there for Toni. They trusted and helped each other. Cassie tried to take care of Toni."
Toni's aunts pray for justice and peace of mind, but most of all they pray no other family has to suffer the loss of a child to the seedy world of drugs. They urge families to be proactive in the lives of children, no matter how old they are. They believe that the Indians had the right idea about family life.
"It does take a village to raise a child." Virgie said, then offered some advice to other families. "Parents, watch your children. Family members, if you love a child, get involved if you think something is wrong. You may want to trust a child's judgment and then, all of a sudden, its gone too far. As parents, you have got to interfere in your child's life. Remember, your child will lie to you when you ask questions they don't want to answer. You might make an enemy for a while and that's OK. I'd much rather have a child hate me for a little while and be alive, then do nothing and have them end up dead somewhere."