The morning after kill

Just hours after this snap, my joy turned to horror!

Published by: Amy Thompson and Sharon Ward
Published on: 20th July 2010

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If only we had a crystal ball so we could see what the future holds, maybe we wouldn’t make so many mistakes, and would never put a foot wrong.
Being a parent, you can’t help making a few mistakes along the way though – each kid brings a new learning curve.
Like when my first daughter Demi came along two years after her brother Jake.
Beautiful and spirited, she was always on the go, while Jake was more laid-back. Then her sister Saige was born, another totally different personality.
Although they had their similarities – they were all loving and considerate – their differences meant the  routine of bringing them up went out the window, especially when me and their mum Jodi divorced.
Still, we came together for the sake of the kids, making sure they had what they needed.
And when I had another little girl, Alexa, with my new wife Johanna, the kids doted on her.
Demi was always eager to babysit for us. ‘Daddy, look what Demi did,’ Alexa would beam when we came home from a night out to find her hair and make-up done as if she was getting ready for a high school prom.
She was only eight, but adored her big sis dressing her up. The pair of them would often launch into a special gymnastics routine they’d made up, too.
It was great to see them together.
By the time Demi was 15, though, there was one person I wasn’t so keen to see her with – Jake’s best friend John.
‘He’s gorgeous,’ Demi would sigh over dinner. ‘I wish he’d ask me out.’
‘Aren’t you a little young to be dating boys?’ I frowned.
‘All my friends are dating,’ she smiled.
Okay, maybe I was being an over-protective dad, but I couldn’t help it. She’d always be my baby and, besides, this guy was two years older than her. I knew what boys his age wanted – I used to be one, after all!
‘Hmm,’ I muttered, gulping another fork full of pasta. ‘I still think you have plenty of time for all that.’
Demi giggled, rolling her eyes at me. I knew she wasn’t about to give up on her crush just yet, but at least it was obvious John was more interested in hanging around with his mates than my little girl.
As the weeks passed though, Demi and John started spending more time together.
‘I think he likes her,’ Jake said one weekend, while we watched football on TV together. ‘They’re always texting each other.’
They’d even arranged to go to the cinema and out for dinner a couple of times.
I had to admit John was a nice enough kid. He’d known Jake for years, I’d even taken them dirt biking and out for pizza a few times. But I still couldn’t get to grips with my little girl growing up.
‘There’ll be plenty of nice guys dying to take you out in a couple of years,’ I reassured her. ‘Why don’t you wait?’
It was true, too. Maybe being her dad made me a little biased, but she really was beautiful with her long dark hair, olive skin and warm brown eyes.
She loved gymnastics and cheerleading, and had tons of friends. And I know it sounds strange, but every time she walked into a room, I swear you could feel her presence – as though she was radiating happiness or something.
No matter what I said though, Demi wouldn’t give up on John.
‘It’s just a crush,’ Johanna reassured me, smiling, when Demi was out of earshot. ‘She’s a teenager, she’ll soon get over him.’
‘Yeah,’ I shrugged. ‘You’re probably right.’
After all, Demi was still doing all the things she loved – cheerleading, going out with her friends…
John would soon be a distant memory when she came across another boy she liked.
I was right. Just before her 16th, she met someone called Casey at school. Better yet, he was her age.
‘Is he nice?’ I asked when she first told me about him that weekend.
‘He’s lovely,’ she nodded, smiling.
But something was off with Demi. I’d been a dad long enough to know when one of my girls wasn’t feeling too good.
Over the last few weeks, she hadn’t been able to digest her food properly, and kept getting sick.
‘You okay, sweetheart?’ I asked her, concerned.
‘I’m fine,’ she insisted, forcing a smile as her phone beeped with a text message.
Her brow creased with worry as she read it.
‘Who’s texting you?’ I smiled, trying to keep it light-hearted.
‘Just John,’ she sighed, shoving her phone back in her pocket. ‘He’s only asking how I am and stuff.’
My daughter was lying through her teeth, but I didn’t push her on it. She’d tell me when she was ready. That was Demi – always wanting to help others, taking on everyone’s problems.
On her 16th birthday though, I was determined to make the day all about her. She came over and we had a nice meal together, laughing and joking.
The only downside was Demi’s phone going off every five minutes with text message after message.
‘Is that John again?’ I asked, beginning to lose my patience.
She nodded, tapping out a reply.
I could guess what was happening – now Demi had found herself a decent guy who wouldn’t stand her up, John was obviously realising what he’d missed out on.
Well, served him right.
Next morning, while Jodi took Jake to look at his new college, and Saige went to mine to see Johanna and Alexa, I got a call from Demi at my office.
‘Dad, guess what?’ she squealed down the phone. ‘I passed my driving test!’
‘That’s great!’ I beamed. ‘I’m really proud of you, honey.’
I couldn’t help smiling at how happy she sounded.
‘Gotta go. Got loads more people to ring,’ she giggled. ‘See you soon.’
‘Love you,’ I replied, hanging up.
Just 20 minutes later, though, I got another call. This time it was from Johanna.
‘Gary! I’m coming to pick you up,’ she said, before I could even say hello. ‘Demi’s been involved in an accident with John.’
My mind reeled.
She’d only passed her driving test an hour ago! Surely she hadn’t taken the car out when she was still all excited?
‘Are they hurt? What happened?’ I panicked.
‘I’m not sure,’ she replied. ‘Let’s just get to the hospital as soon as we can. Jodi and the kids are on their way.’
Pulling up outside, I raced in, blood pounding in my ears.
But when we arrived, the doctors didn’t tell me a tale of how my little girl had lost control of her car – it was far worse…
‘Demi was stabbed by John,’ a police officer explained. ‘He severed a main artery in her shoulder… I’m sorry. There was nothing anyone could do.’
‘No!’ I gasped, shaking my
head in disbelief. This couldn’t
be happening.
I’d thought Demi might’ve a few cuts and bruises, or a broken leg but, never in a million years, could I have imagined this.
‘John tried to take his own life, too,’ the officer continued, gently. ‘He slit his own throat, but the doctors tell me he’s going to
pull through.’
It was a bitter blow. As if he hadn’t done enough, the coward had tried to take the easy way out.
Nothing could bring my daughter back, but I’d make damn sure that boy got what he deserved.
In court, we heard how he’d plagued Demi with text messages.
You know you love me, he’d written in one. You can’t live without me.
Her friends even came forward, saying how controlling and possessive he’d been – telling Demi to give up cheerleading, leaving her stranded at a burger bar one day after a row.
He’d even gone to her house a few days prior to her birthday and started a fight with Casey before dragging Demi outside for another shouting match.
I felt sick as I listened to the mental torture he’d been putting my little girl through. No wonder she’d been having eating problems.
The stress was probably enough to drive anyone crazy.
But rather than telling him where to go, Demi had felt guilty. John had tugged on her heartstrings, and begged her to let him come over when no one else was home so they could talk.
Then he’d brutally murdered my baby the day after her birthday – stabbing her 16 times in the neck and shoulder. Once for every year she’d been alive.
His defence team tried to claim that medication he’d been taking for acne had a dangerous side effect causing psychosis.
The jury didn’t buy it, though, convicting John Mullarkey, 21, of first degree murder and sentencing him to life in prison without parole in June last year.
I broke down with anger and relief as he was led away.
But nothing eased the guilt we all felt.
If only we’d seen it coming, picked up on the signs, been able to do something… Maybe then, Demi would still be here.
I was her dad, it was my job to protect her.
‘He was my best friend and I never thought he’d ever do something like that,’ Jake said after Demi’s funeral. ‘How could you have seen it, Dad?’
He was right. John had managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. On the surface, he had seemed like an okay guy.
Looking back though, hearing all the things her friends had said about him in court, I couldn’t help wondering
if we could’ve done something to save Demi.
I’d had an uneasy feeling about John right from the start, but I’d ignored my gut instinct and pushed it away because I didn’t want to seem overbearing.
Then there were his incessant text messages. ‘I should have spoken to him, warned him off,’ I muttered, my mind racing. ‘I should never have let her be on her own until we were sure he’d moved on.’
The what-ifs haunted me. What if I could’ve saved my daughter from that monster?
Problem was, I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, no crystal ball to tell me exactly what to look out for or what to do. Sadly, it all came too late to save Demi.
But maybe, just maybe, I could be the crystal ball for others. If I shared what I knew about teenage domestic violence, educated other parents, they might be able to save their own kids from the same fate. Demi wouldn’t have died in vain.
So, with my family, we set up the Demi Brae Cuccia Awareness Organisation, and campaigned to get a Bill passed in Pennsylvania that would force schools to educate teenagers about domestic violence and the warning signs. And I give talks at schools about what happened to Demi.
I want these kids to know they shouldn’t be afraid to talk to their parents if someone is hassling them, boy or girl.
Not a day goes by when I don’t miss my little girl. I still remember how I’d feel the second she walked into a room, her bright smile lighting up the place.
I pray that memory doesn’t fade.
Demi always had time to help others when she was alive. Even now, she’s helping them still.
We only had 16 years with her. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but it was more than enough for me to know how special she was, and how proud of her I will always be.
Gary Cuccia, 47, Greensburg, Pennsylvania