Sometimes, if you're lucky, there are certain people you interview who stick with you. They leave such an impression that long after the lights are out and the camera and tripod put away, your thoughts still go back to that conversation. That happened to me this week.
I flew to Canada to interview Paul Gailiunas. His wife, Helen Hill, was murdered in New Orleans back in January in their home. Paul has relocated to Canada with the couple's only son, two-and-a-half year old Francis. I met Paul just a week after Helen died, but he wasn't ready to be interviewed about her death until this week. She's been gone just over two months.
We met at a hotel for the interview, and when he walked in, he hugged me. I think he needed a hug more than I did. He is still visibly shaken by his wife's death. His speech is halting. He's a tad forgetful. And his heart is clearly broken.
Helen and Paul had been married 11 years. They met at Harvard and moved to New Orleans in 1992. They both found it enchanting. Helen wanted to unite the community, so she held regular tea parties at their house and invited the neighbors. She worked as an animated filmmaker. Paul was a doctor who catered to the poor. They fed the homeless together and raised a pot-bellied pig. I've looked at many pictures of Helen and there isn't one where she doesn't have a smile on her face. Life was good.
Then 5:30 a.m., January 4, an intruder slipped into their home, it appears, through a back door. Paul had fallen asleep in his son's room, so Helen was alone in their bedroom.
"I woke to the sound of her voice struggling and screaming, "Don't! Get out! Don't hurt my child! Get away from my child! Get away from my baby!'" Paul told me.
Paul says Helen was struggling with a man by the front door. She yelled to him to call 911. He ran to the back of the house, carrying their young son in his arms, and tried to hide in the bathroom.
"Within a few seconds, a man walked toward me through the house. I saw him walk through the kitchen holding a gun toward me. He stopped about four feet or so away from me and there were about three gunshots," Paul said.
We saw the bullet holes at the house. They are still in the bathroom cabinets. The bullets grazed Paul's cheek and sliced right through his arm and his hand. Helen wasn't so lucky. A single shot to the neck killed her. By the time Paul was ready to try CPR it was too late. He says the attacker, who was never caught, disappeared in minutes without a word. The police investigation appears to be at a standstill.
Helen's death was the 12th murder in New Orleans that week and the sixth in a 24-hour period. That is the kind of violence they are dealing with here. So far this year, there have been at least 58 murders. In all of last year, there were 160. The police force is still down about 300 officers since the storm. Now the mayor is asking Congress for $34 million to help fight crime.
But survivors like Paul wonder what the answer is. He says you can't just pour money into a city and fix it. He says the issues of poverty and injustice and drugs need to be addressed to prevent people from kiling each other. He knows fixing New Orleans won't bring Helen back.
Paul and Helen evacuated from the city a couple days before Katrina hit. They were gone about a year, but returned to New Orleans to save it, to help rebuild it, but now someone else will have to do it. This family isn't going back.