When Latanya Lavallais was shot to death, her parents lost not only their daughter but also the church that had been the center of their lives.
Lavallais, 23, was shot in the head at close range six times on Sept. 27, 1996, while baby-sitting overnight for Jennifer Tombs, a troubled 16-year-old with a delinquency record. Charged as an adult, Tombs was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The shocking killing was even more unusual because the two families were the closest of friends. Tombs’ mother was pastor and Lavallais’ stepfather was associate pastor at the same church in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood. They saw Jennifer and Latanya as members of both their families.
News accounts of the slaying focused on the two families’ forgiveness and the closeness that appeared to survive the tragedy.
But appearances were deceiving.
The two families were far from unified, and in the weeks after the shooting it became clear that it also had shattered the congregation at Montbello’s First Christian Assembly Church. Lavallais’ parents, the Rev. Errol and Valeria Vermont, say the Rev. Madlyn Tombs misused her power at the church by using the pulpit to preach her daughter’s innocence.
In a recent interview with the Rocky Mountain News, the Vermonts spoke publicly for the first time about their struggle in dealing with their daughter’s murder. Madlyn Tombs refused several requests for an interview.
“A pastor is a very strong, influential person,” said Errol Vermont. “When he goes in the pulpit, whatever that pastor says, the congregation believes. Only a few will question it.”
After nearly a year’s absence, the Vermonts recently returned to the fundamentalist church for a wedding and heard members of the congregation muttering, “What are these demons doing here?”
Valeria Vermont shook her head sadly and stared at her living room wall, which is dominated by a large ink portrait of Jesus drawn by her daughter.
“We won’t be going back.”
The Rev. Bob Cook, who supervises Assembly of God churches in north Denver, said the estrangement the Vermonts feel is unfortunate but natural, given Tombs’ church leadership and her outspoken defense of her child.
“I do not believe in my heart that Pastor Tombs in any way is desiring to make them estranged from that church. But given the fact that she still does not believe her daughter is the murderer, it is going to bring about a schism.”
At the time of the killing, Jennifer Tombs had two juvenile convictions for aggravated car theft, had a third case pending, had been arrested for setting her bed on fire and was on an electronic monitor for violating probation.
Tombs contended at her trial last year that an intruder killed Lavallais and that she discovered her body in the morning. Prosecutors said she pumped six bullets into Lavallais’ head because Lavallais refused to let her go out.
The Vermonts believe Tombs shot their daughter because Lavallais refused to let Tombs run wild while her mother was out of town. “Nothing was going to stop her from having that party,” Errol Vermont said.
Valeria Vermont recalled a phone conversation she had with Madlyn Tombs as the pastor raced home from her church meeting after hearing about the shooting.
“She asked me what happened. I said, `Jennifer killed Tanya.’ She said, `Do you really believe it?’ I said, `Yes, I do.’ She said, `If you believe it, then it’s true. You know Jenny as well as I do.’
“But then she turned.”
The Vermonts said they wanted to bring unity in the church and community despite the vicious killing. “We forgave, and we were trying to go on,” Valeria Vermont said.
But they were disturbed to hear Madlyn Tombs preaching at the church that the charges were false and her daughter would be acquitted.
The Rev. Claretha Green, who ran the church day care and now lives in Chicago, said Tombs continually preached her daughter’s innocence. “It got to the point you either think the way she does or you were not accepted. Anyone who thought her daughter could be guilty was ostracized,” Green said.
“It was hard for us to sit and listen,” said the Rev. George Quansah, who attended the church during that time. “Nobody could speak their mind. We all had to agree that Jennifer did not do it.”
He said church members and other ministers began to treat the Vermonts differently. “Instead of being viewed as the victims, the Vermonts were looked at as those who have caused Pastor Tombs to suffer. She became the victim.”
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The Vermonts had devoted their lives to the church and their estrangement from the church left them with another gaping loss.
“We were always taught to give and to help people in need,” Errol Vermont said. “But the same principle did not apply to us. The church addressed the needs of pastor and we were cast aside.”
Their lives had revolved around Sunday services, prayer groups and weekday meetings. But that routine, another tool in dealing with their grief, was gone.
“We were literally lost. We lost our daughter and our principal source of support.”
On the first day of the April 1997 trial, church members came out in force to support Jennifer Tombs. The Vermont family arrived to find all the front-row seats behind the prosecution table taken by the church’s “prayer warriors,” who had arrived early to pray for Jennifer Tombs and refused to move, even at the request of the victim advocate.
Madlyn Tombs was there and didn’t intervene, the Vermonts said. The next day, the court ordered that room be made for the Vermont family.
“I never prayed for Jenny to go to prison,” Valeria said. “I prayed for God’s justice. But when God performed his justice, she could not agree.
Valeria Vermont said she still can’t bring herself to visit her daughter’s grave. “I know she’s dead. I have to move on. But to go there is to say it’s done, and I just can’t do it yet.”
But she said she doesn’t hate the girl who took her daughter’s life. “I loved her. As far as I was concerned, two lives were lost for nothing.”