Medford killings, 1 year later: families remember

From left, Dyanna Aracena (wife of Brian), Sheila From left, Dyanna Aracena (wife of Brian), Sheila Sheffield, Brian Sheffield (son of Sheila), Laura Bustamante (daughter of Sheila) and Mary Sheffield (sister-in-law of Sheila) are shown in Medford. Sheila's husband, Bryon Sheffield, 71, was killed during the Medford drugstore robbery almost a year ago on Father's Day. (June 7, 2012) Photo Credit: Chris Ware

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The moment Sheila Sheffield saw David Laffer's face flash across the TV screen at her physical therapist's office one day last summer, all the anger that had been festering inside the new widow erupted.

"I stood up and I said, 'You son of a bitch! You murdered my husband!' " said the usually demure 70-year-old grandmother.

Laffer, an addict looking for pain pills, gunned down four people -- including Sheffield's husband, Bryon -- inside Haven Drugs in Medford on Father's Day 2011.

Pharmacist Raymond Ferguson, 45, drugstore employee Jennifer Mejia, 17, and customers Jaime Taccetta, 33, and Sheffield, 71, were shot at close range with a .45 caliber handgun.

In the year that's passed, their families have turned to God and to counselors as a means to cope. They stay in touch through sporadic phone calls, visit each other's loved ones in the cemetery, and have spoken in support of legislation to fight the prescription drug abuse epidemic.

Pat Taccetta, Jaime's mother, is in therapy and has joined a bereavement group for those who understand the unique pain of losing a child. Her daughter died a month away from her wedding.

"It's like, that baby grew inside you for nine months and now you don't have her," said Taccetta, 52, of Shirley.

Now that her daughter is gone, she and her family mark special occasions in a new way. Taccetta celebrated what would have been Jaime's 34th birthday by letting go of balloons at her grave site.

The slain woman's daughters, 7-year-old Kaitlyn and 17-year-old Miranda, observed Mother's Day at the cemetery.

"I'm not angry," Taccetta said. "You really can't keep being angry because you'll never grieve and you'll never get through the day or whatever you have to do."

Depression pulls at her but she muddles through.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time," she said.

Jaime was Laffer's last victim. She was shot in the back of the head almost as soon as she walked in the store.

Ferguson's relatives could not be reached for this story. A family member answering the phone at his mother's Florida home declined to comment.

Ferguson was the first target. Laffer was asking him about drug interactions when, midconversation, without any demand for pills or cash, he shot the pharmacist in the abdomen.

Next was Mejia, trapped in an alcove. She was shot two times before Laffer returned to the still-alive Ferguson and shot him twice more, this time in the face.

 

A memorial at home

Mejia's pink bedroom inside her family's East Patchogue home is almost exactly as she left it, adorned with stickers of Disney characters like Cinderella. A 4-by-8-foot board affixed to the wall is covered with words of affection from mourners.

At its center is a framed studio portrait of a smiling girl, arms folded, with "Jennifer Mejia Class of 2011" written in its borders. She was less than a week from graduating from Bellport High School.

Her family erected an altar atop her wooden dresser adorned with flowers, candles, rosary beads and a picture of her maternal grandparents, who are both deceased.

Jennifer's mother, Antonia, 39 and a devout Catholic, sees her daughter only in her dreams, mostly as a little girl.

But the last dream was different. She had woken up at 5 a.m. sobbing and begging God for mercy because she missed her daughter so much. She drifted back to sleep, and then felt as though Jennifer hugged her and spoke to her.

"She said, 'Mom, I love you so much. Don't cry. Don't worry. I'm fine,' " Antonia said. "And she looked so happy, so beautiful with her curly brown hair. That was the last time I dreamt of her."

Jennifer's mother struggled after the murders with her anger at God but has since asked his forgiveness, saying, "I am not one to demand answers from you." For her, Mother's Day was the worst.

"I was so upset I got sick and ended up in bed for a whole week," said Antonia, who was interviewed in Spanish. "I felt I had no strength. The sadness overwhelmed me."

Lesly Mejia, 17 and Jennifer's sister, says she's become more sensitive, more thoughtful about life since the tragedy. And while she misses Jennifer, whom she calls her best friend, she doesn't hate Laffer and his wife, Melinda Brady, who drove the getaway car and helped Laffer with a flimsy disguise.

"Hate is a really strong word," Lesly said. "Hate is like poison. Hate can drive you to do a lot of bad things."

 

'Like he didn't care'

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Laffer pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Brady got 25 years.

The Mejias stayed away from Laffer's court appearances. It was too upsetting to see him with no obvious remorse.

"He was so calm," Lesly said. "Like he didn't care."

Sheila Sheffield, of Medford, scoffs at Laffer's claim that he didn't intend to kill that day. Her husband was shot in the back of the head almost as soon as he walked through the door.

"If you go into a store . . . and you have a loaded pistol, what do you think you're going to do with it?" Sheffield said.

The Taccettas and Mejias have suits pending in State Supreme Court against parties they allege failed to take steps that could have prevented the murders. Defendants include drugmakers, the pharmacy, Suffolk police and three doctors who prescribed pills to Laffer and Brady.

 

Didn't get to say goodbye

Bryon Sheffield's death came just weeks before the couple's 50th anniversary. They were Babylon High School sweethearts. She wears his wedding ring on a necklace along with a charm bearing her name.

"And I just hold that ring," she said. "It's the only thing I have."

What's most upsetting, she said, is that they never had a chance to say goodbye. Bryon left Father's Day morning to pick up his wife's medicine, eager to care for her as she recovered from triple-bypass surgery. And then he was gone.

"I kept waiting for him to come home and my grandson was sitting out on the front porch and he said, 'Nanny, there's a whole bunch of people in our driveway,' " she said.

The family called an ambulance in case she had a heart attack upon hearing the news.

She didn't. She just went numb. "I just sat there and stared at them in utter disbelief," she said. "This couldn't be happening."

Bryon would wear comical T-shirts to make his family laugh -- one read, "I'm in shape because round is a shape." He was an avid Mets fan.

After his death, his wife had a hard time crying. It wasn't until she was handed a memento left at a victims' memorial to honor Bryon -- a Mets cap with the words, "Maybe you can do something to make our Mets win" -- that she first shed a tear. Since then, they've come freely.

The couple's 50th anniversary party was replaced by a small and solemn dinner at one of her husband's favorite restaurants, The Mill House in Yaphank.

"I don't think we talked very much at all," said Laura Bustamante, the Sheffields' 50-year-old daughter.

While all of the families struggle with their sorrow, some have turned their private grief into public action.

Bustamante and Sheffield visited Albany June 4-5 to lobby lawmakers to pass a bill that would change how painkillers are tracked. The State Senate and Assembly unanimously passed it the following week.

Antonia Mejia, who also supports the bill, doesn't want her daughter to have died in vain.

She said Jennifer's murder should serve as a wake-up call because it's too easy to obtain prescription pills. "Someone has to say, 'Stop this already. Too many innocent people are dying,' " she said. "Enough people have suffered already."

With Andrew Smith

You also may be interested in: