VanderGiesen: ‘We’re not a whole family anymore’

By Josh Verges

Both born in summer 1963, Daphne Wright and Darlene VanderGiesen were sent away from home at an early age because their hearing parents couldn’t communicate with their first deaf child.

Wright ended VanderGiesen’s life 43 years later. A jury probably will decide today whether the state should end hers.

Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Dave Nelson called only two witnesses Tuesday in making his case for lethal injection.

VanderGiesen’s parents described her as the “sparkplug” of the family, a practical joker who loved life. She was close to her sister and brother-in-law, Sandra and Jeff Sidford, who also are deaf and live in Sioux Falls.

Gene VanderGiesen said the last time he saw his first daughter was a birthday celebration in Sioux Falls.

“She came across the parking lot, put her big arms around me and gave me a great big hug and said ‘I love you,’ ” he said, extending three fingers in sign. “That was the last time I saw her alive and I ever saw her.”

Wright at times dabbed her eyes with a tissue during the testimony.

Dee VanderGiesen, who lives with her husband in Rock Valley, Iowa, said the family doesn’t get together as often as when her daughter was alive. When they do, one seat is empty.

“We’re not a whole family anymore. There’s a piece of us that is missing,” she said. “There is no salve, there’s no pill, there’s no words that can fill that gap.”

Nelson must prove the February 2006 kidnapping, murder and dismemberment of VanderGiesen demonstrates Wright had a “depraved mind” at the time of the killing. If jurors agree, they must decide whether the death penalty is appropriate.

Wright will get life in prison unless all 12 jurors agree on death.

Minnehaha County Chief Deputy Public Defender Jeff Larson spoke softly in making the case for his client’s life. “This is the one moment in my professional life I have always feared,” he said.

Witnesses suggested Wright’s anger might stem from her father’s early death and from challenges growing up deaf and homosexual.

Her mother, Carolyn Tucker, said the children in their rural North Carolina neighborhood made fun of Wright and her four younger siblings, all of whom were deaf or hard of hearing.

Tucker did not learn American Sign Language until her daughter was a teenager, and it was not until Wright was hospitalized with hepatitis at age 6 that she bonded with her father. Wright’s parents used crude signs with her, but extended family members made little effort.

“I don’t know how people up here treat their families, but we are a little bit different, I think,” Tucker said. “We say we love each other and we are usually there for each other, but none of her aunts and uncles tried to communicate with any of my deaf children.”

Wright questioned her sexual identity in her early teens, but homosexuality was not an option in the Pentecostal church. Tucker said that even today, she doesn’t want to believe her daughter is a lesbian.

“She’s my child and I love her and we all love her, so we never treated her any different,” she said. “Within my heart, I don’t ever think she would be gay.”

Wright starred in track and basketball at a North Carolina deaf school but acted out and received poor grades.

Her father died of cancer while she was in high school, which psychiatrists said Tuesday probably contributed to her cutting herself and being expelled her senior year.

Larson said the same sense of abandonment Wright felt when her father died returned in late 2005 when her lover, Sallie Collins, moved out of her house. Months later, after telling VanderGiesen to stay away from Collins, Wright killed her and dismembered the body with a chain saw.

Mike McGrath, a clinical psychologist who evaluated Wright, said her ability to learn, deal with new situations and solve problems is “fairly impaired” and her reasoning ability “borderline functioning.”

(( Source: KELOLAND TV ))

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