Debbie Whitesell knows what parents of teens killed in Wednesday’s mass shooting at a Florida high school went through as the news broke on the Internet and television – the terrified calls on cell phones.
Whitesell went through it herself three weeks ago, making countless frantic calls in York County.
“I know what it is like to call your teenager and the phone just rings and rings and rings,” said the Rock Hill mom. “And then find out your child is gone. Killed. Murdered.”
Her daughter, Karson Whitesell, 19, was killed Jan. 23 at the Peach Stand in Fort Mill, where Karson worked as a cashier. A man, police said, walked into the store about 4:40 p.m. that day and started shooting.
Debbie Whitesell tried to reach her daughter by cell phone Jan. 23.
“My heart breaks, it is broken, for every one of those parents, all those families,” Debbie Whitesell said. “I know how they feel. I went through it myself. These parents have joined a club I am in that nobody wants to be in.”
Christopher Benjamin Mendez, 28, of Lancaster, is charged with murder in the killing of Karson Whitesell. Fort Mill police and the 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office prosecutors have declined to say how he obtained the weapon.
Nikolas Cruz, 19, is the Florida teen charged with the 17 school killings. He legally purchased the gun used in the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“My thoughts are how horrible it is, how terrible,” Debbie Whitesell said. “It is overwhelming.”
After Debbie Whitesell was notified by authorities that her daughter had been killed in Fort Mill, she stopped taking phone calls. The emotions were too much to bear.
“For hours, I didn’t touch my phone,” she said.
Two days later, she had to do what survivors do. She met with coroner officials to make funeral arrangements and get personal items.
“Going through all that, the coroner and the funeral home, is the hardest,” Whitesell said. “It is just awful, brutal, to have to do that for your child who is a teenager.”
Debbie Whitesell is part of Facebook support groups for mothers of murdered children. She said community support for the family has been “incredible” since Karson was killed.
“People have reached out to me for three weeks, and continue to reach out to me,” she said. “I have been very fortunate to have that community support.”
Fort Mill police say Mendez did not know Karson Whitesell, and she was shot in a random attack.
Debbie Whitesell said she has been told some information about the case, but has been asked by authorities not to discuss it publicly. Whitesell said she wants her thoughts and concerns to be about maintaining the legacy of her daughter.
Karson Whitesell volunteered in several ways in the community and did mission work as far away as Africa. She was a 2016 graduate of South Pointe High School in Rock Hill.
“My energy and focus is to bring honor to my daughter’s life, and the way she lived her life,” Debbie Whitesell said. “I don’t spend time thinking about the judicial part of things.”
Whitesell said she wants to remember Karson and her positive, productive and “beautiful” life, not the actions of the gunman.
“I want all of what I do to be about her, not him,” Whitesell said.
Since her daughter’s death, Debbie Whitsell has created a nonprofit called Karsons Kompassion Project to continue giving to others and reaching out to the less fortunate as Karson did in her young life before she died.
The first program for the project will be in Swaziland, Africa, where Karson spent two months as a volunteer missionary, her mother said.
Debbie Whitesell is “heartbroken,” yet she said she will be strong for her daughter. Especially, Sunday.
Sunday is Karson’s birthday. She would have turned 20 years old.