Cherry Walker, a mentally challenged woman killed two years ago in Smith County, used to tell her parents that she did not need to be independent from them because she knew they would outlive her.
“She used to say to us 'I will die before you — you will never leave me,'” Rueon Walker, Cherry Walker's stepmother, said during a visit at her and her husband Gethry's Smith County home last week.
The irony of her stepdaughter's words has weighed heavily on her.
“That has played a part in my mind,” Mrs. Walker said about the murder of her husband's daughter, who was one of 11 children the two have between them.
Kimberly Cargill killed Ms. Walker, who was 39 at the time, almost two years ago. Ms. Cargill was convicted and sentenced May 31 to die for killing Ms. Walker and setting her body on fire.
Ms. Walker, whose favorite color was pink, loved to eat Blizzards from Dairy Queen and wanted more than anything else to live in her own apartment in the city, had been subpoenaed to testify against Ms. Cargill in a child custody hearing. Her body was found on June 18, 2010. She babysat Ms. Cargill's youngest son, who was 4 at the time.
Ms. Walker's parents said they did not want to see Ms. Cargill receive the death penalty and that they had hoped for her to receive life in prison.
“Vengeance belongs to God,” said Walker, who is the founding pastor of the Greater Love Temple Church of God in Christ in Tyler. Walker said he founded the church in 1951.
Mrs. Walker said, “We aren't mad at her (Ms. Cargill). We hate what she did.” Her husband added that for them to carry that hatred in their hearts would only hurt them.
But they love and miss their daughter and wish she could be with them, they say. They had tried very hard to teach her to be as independent as possible — which was not always an easy task. Walker, who is 83, and his wife, who is 68, said they wanted their daughter to be able to take care of herself, do her own shopping and learn to count money, remember her phone number and cook.
The Walkers married in 2004, after Walker's first wife, Betty, died in 2002. She was Ms. Walker's biological mother, and the two had a very close relationship, her stepmother said.
Mrs. Walker talked about what happened the first time she took her stepdaughter shopping at Wal-Mart and told the younger woman she was going to leave her alone to buy her groceries. It was 2005 and she and her husband had been married for about a year, then.
Her stepdaughter began to cry, and Mrs. Walker said she couldn't stay with her because of another appointment.
“I didn't really have to go anywhere and I left her in the front of the store,” Mrs. Walker said of the attempt to teach her stepdaughter some independence. “She was crying inside and I sat in the parking lot crying.”
After a while, Mrs. Walker went inside to see that her stepdaughter had filled her basket with groceries. “I said 'look at you, you've gone and bought your own food,'” Mrs. Walker said.
After that, Mrs. Walker would go shopping with her stepdaughter, but the young woman always loved buying food in large amounts. “She would buy four gallons of Hawaiian Punch at once, and a lot of cleaning supplies,” Mrs. Walker said.
Once, while the two shopped at Sam's Club, Ms. Walker picked out $300 worth of groceries, but didn't have enough money to pay. “I walked away, and she had to put some of it back,” Mrs. Walker said.
But what Cherry Walker wanted most of all was to live by herself in an apartment in Tyler. Someone from the Andrews Center told her family about an available studio apartment on West Houston Street.
She happily moved in and began walking to many of the nearby fast food restaurants to eat before she could cook. But she grew lonely, and because she had worked at a daycare center while in high school, she began to take care of children in her apartment, her stepmother said. Ms. Walker had few friends.
Often, the people who left their children with Ms. Walker would not pay her very much, her stepmother said. She said some would leave their children overnight for several nights, and would only pay her about $25. They would tell Ms. Walker that they would pay her when they got paid, but they never did.
One of Ms. Walker's close friends was Joseph Mayo, whom she met when the two worked for Goodwill Industries in Tyler in 1997. They enjoyed watching scary movies together and Mayo, who sang at various places, including Caretta's in Tyler, would invite Ms. Walker to watch him.
He said it has been difficult for him to move on since her death. “It hurts me, but I know I have to move on,” he said on Friday. Music, he said, is his life and keeps him motivated and helps him to not think about what happened to his good friend.
“I have my angels on Facebook, and my family and friends; they are my support. But it's hard and I'm not going to lie,” he said.
Paula Wheeler, 47, who worked for Community Access in Tyler, became a caregiver for Cherry Walker in 2009, to help her learn to become more independent, and to take some of the responsibility for getting her client to doctor's appointments and to run errands.
“This took some of the burden off of us,” Mrs. Walker said.
But Ms. Wheeler was more than Ms. Walker's caregiver. She was also a friend. The two would take care of the practical things like shopping and cooking, but sometimes they would go to the hair salon together or work out at the East Texas Medical Center.
“She was just like one of my children,” Ms. Wheeler, who has five of her own children said Friday. Ms. Wheeler said she would often bring her children to her client's apartment to visit.
The death of Ms. Walker hurt her very much and still does, she said. Ms. Wheeler can no longer take care of clients with special needs because of the closeness she shared with Ms. Walker.
“I just can't get attached to anyone else; we were like mother and daughter. She (Ms. Walker) would say to me 'You love me like my mom did,'” Ms. Wheeler said.
But life goes on for the Walkers. Cherry Walker gave birth to a son, now 12, who lives with another family member in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The boy has a good relationship with the Walkers and sees them often, they say.
And they say their daughter touched the lives of many people, including the son of Ms. Cargill and the other children she kept.
Anything the children do in life, “Cherry will have a part in that,” Mrs. Walker said. “She touched a lot of people.”