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Courtroom Blooms With Feeling As Lerner Is Mourned

Nov. 1, 2008 — The staid courtroom of V.I. Superior Court Judge Brenda J. Hollar was transformed into a cathedral Saturday by the outpouring of love and compassion for her law clerk Gabriel "Gabe" Lerner, a young man who in a few short months in the Virgin Islands affected the lives of so many, before his shooting death last week.
A photo of a blooming lavender lotus filled a screen in the front of the courtroom, under a banner reading "You are forever in our hearts. Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart."
The stiff benches became pews filled with folks — members of the young man's Baha'i faith, his family, by the Superior Court family which adopted him, by new friends — who spoke of Lerner's open and giving nature, and his immediate love of his adopted Virgin Islands home.
None appeared more affected than Hollar herself, wiping away tears as she sat flanked by a battery of colleagues: retired Judge Verne A. Hedge, Superior Court judges James Carroll III and Leon Kendall and St. Croix Judge George W. Cannon.
In a letter to Lerner's parents, Dr. Jerome Lerner and Jennifer Wanasek, Hollar said in part, "Gabriel was such a special and extraordinary person. Indeed to know Gabriel was to love him. Within minutes of interviewing him….I experienced an immediate but unmistakable bond with Gabriel which grew exponentially with each passing day. The enthusiasm, exuberance and energy Gabriel displayed with every assignment given to him was a joy to behold."
Lerner was murdered Oct. 26. Two suspects, a minor whose name cannot be released and 22-year-old Devon A. Frett, have been charged with robbing, kidnapping and killing Lerner after he stopped near Cassi Hill in Smith Bay to give them a ride early Sunday morning. (See: "Devon Frett Charged with Murder in Death of Gabriel Lerner.")
According to Joan Bennett, another Baha'i, Lerner was on his way to Lindqvist Beach for Baha'i devotions and to teach the Junior Youth Group. The Baha'i faith emphasizes the underlying unity of the major world religions.
Attorney Alan Smith stood solemnly in the well, now a nave, asking only that everyone meditate for a moment on the words of Baha'u'llah, who founded the religion that bears his name, which prefaced the Baha'i memorial booklet. "Be as one spirit, one soul, leaves of one tree, flowers of one garden, waves of one ocean."
Smith said, "Gabriel must be the most loving law clerk in all the world," a sentiment echoed throughout the day.
Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty, sitting alone in the back of the courtroom, said, "It's the internal love, not the external.. It's a sense of the value of life that is so important when people lose someone. This so sadly impacts our community. My heart goes out to the family. I, too, have a young son. I can relate to the tragedy."
Nicholson-Doty said she did not personally know Lerner, but her assistants Monique Sibilly Hodge and Allegra Kean have been working with the family. "It's six degrees of separation," she said. "Everyone knows someone who was touched by this young man."
Smith said Lerner "Created an explosion of love in this community. He loved this island and this courtroom and Judge Hollar." Lerner had been admitted to the V.I. Bar just a few days before his death.
The courtroom was filled with a mixture of voices as family members, friends, and youngsters from the Baha'i Junior Youth group paid tribute to Lerner. Richie Hunt, a Charlotte Amalie High School ninth grader, said, "When I first met him at the beach, I didn't want to go home. I wanted to stay with Gabe and become a member of his church. He changed my life. If I didn't know something, he would sit with me and help. I'll miss him so much."
The Superior Court Memorial book was filled with tributes from District and Superior Court judges, along with those from Gov. John deJongh Jr., Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis and Senate President Usie Richards.
Occasional moments of humor lightened the day. Lerner's parents had the courtroom laughing when they told of their son's "eclectic" taste in books and music: "Snoop Dog, alongside Beethoven, and Nietzsche alongside a guide to ballroom dancing."
On a more serious note, Lerner's father said, "When he met Judge Hollar, his life took off. It was the only time in his life he was totally happy. He was home at last."
Carroll, who lost his 19-year old son Jason to gun violence in 2000, was visibly touched by Lerner's death. He said, "Though it was eight years ago, I feel it every day, myself." Speaking of Lerner's parents, Carroll said, "It took me years to get to the stage of grieving where they are now."
Carroll said his wife, Celia, was off-island, or "she would be here helping." Celia Carroll, with her husband's support, started the local chapter of Mothers Against Guns shortly after Jason's death.
The cruel irony of Lerner's death — losing his life as the result of kindness — was not lost on the family or those in the courtroom. However, his uncle, Jeffrey Lerner concluded the family's remarks: "Don't carry around bitterness and anger about how he died. Gabe would never want that."
His mother thanked the community for "the love and the warmth they have shown us."
"I have one request," she said. "I ask you to talk to someone in the Baha'i faith, to learn a bit about Gabriel."
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