Payment would not end grief
Margie Weiss honors her daughter with a workplace filled with her photos, butterflies and red-headed angel tchotchkes; she believes her daughter’s spirit is omnipresent, sending messages to her that are, for the most part, uplifting.
We send our grown children off to college or into adulthood with high hopes and hidden fears, praying that all that time we’ve spent raising them and loving them will somehow inoculate them against whatever is to come. Margie and Irv did that, too, with Rachel, their copper-haired only child who brought them such joy.
But Rachel Morningstar Hoffman, an excellent student, talented cook and inveterate people-pleaser, liked marijuana. It calmed her down, her friends say, made her happy and brought her a group of true-blue buddies at Florida State University.
I didn’t know Margie or Irv before their daughter was shot to death while acting as an informant for the Tallahassee police in 2008. But after spending many hours with both of them, discussing their grief, their guilt, their unending pain and anger — as well as their happy memories of their little girl — it is clear they did their best as parents.
This week, the state Legislature is to decide whether to award the divorced couple the $2.4 million the city of Tallahassee agreed to pay as compensation for mishandling the undercover drug operation. It’s already available in city coffers, but under state law, any settlement over $200,000 has to be approved by the Legislature.
Committees in both the House and the Senate have recommended approval.
Rachel wasn’t blameless. Back before everything went so horribly awry, police caught her on a couple of occasions with enough marijuana to show she was selling to her friends, and she missed a court-ordered urine test because she was sitting shiva with a friend who had lost his father.
Officers threatened her with prison if she didn’t participate in a sting operation to catch two dangerous men she didn’t know. The scared 23-year-old was told to negotiate with them for a large amount of cocaine and a gun.
A Tallahassee grand jury, the attorney general’s office and even a city investigation revealed that the operation was mishandled. She didn’t use cocaine, had never even held a gun, and police knew she was inexperienced, naïve, prone to blabbing about the sting to friends and strangers, and trying to bluff a street cred she didn’t possess.
Police officers who were supposed to keep track of Rachel lost sight of her during the sting when the drug dealers instructed her by cell phone to go to a second location. She had a wire, but it malfunctioned.
The men shot Rachel five times — with the gun police had told her to buy with marked bills — and dumped her body in a ditch. Both men were caught and are serving life sentences.
At trial, when it came time to show the jury the photos of Rachel’s body, her father left the courtroom. Margie, a former nurse, thought she needed to see the images. She now says it was at that moment she realized her daughter truly was dead and not in a witness protection program, something she’d almost convinced herself was true.
Irv and Margie both have started charities in their daughter’s name, and together successfully lobbied the Legislature in 2009 to pass “Rachel’s Law,” which set guidelines for the use of undercover informants. Irv, who started a memorial scholarship, says there’s interest in taking Rachel’s Law nationwide.
Margie’s Rachel Morningstar Foundation will help informants get legal counsel before embarking on dangerous stings, among other services.
People writing in response to the many newspaper articles about this case have criticized Irv and Margie for cashing in on their daughter’s death, labeling them bad parents. Or, they call Rachel a drug dealer who deserved what she got.
No matter what you think of marijuana, death is a ludicrous punishment for a somewhat guileless young woman who was trying to get herself out of trouble and make her parents proud.
Irv, who lives in Palm Harbor, describes his life as “endless pain.” I’ve never met a man who seems so deeply sad. It’s almost as if he can’t allow himself to give in to happiness, ever again.
For Margie, those grisly images of her beloved daughter, after she’d been left to the elements, are seared into her mind. One night, on one of her many drives from Safety Harbor to Tallahassee, she suddenly thought she saw her daughter in the passenger seat, looking as she did in the nightmarish photos.
Both mourn not only Rachel, but the grandchildren they’d once hoped to have someday.
I hesitate to call Irv and Margie broken people, because anything is possible, and maybe the years ahead will dull their pain. They still get out of bed every each morning, go to work, talk with friends. But for now, they live with a misery most of us simply cannot fathom.
If the Legislature approves the award, and Irv and Margie use the money to help keep other people’s children safe and thriving, wonderful. If they kept every penny and spent it for more angel statues for Rachel’s grave, I don’t think any of us could blame them at all.