I WAS DIGGING MY WAY through an overgrown vacant lot full of scurrying somethings that I chose to think were bunnies when Joetta Johnson's voice pierced through the thick brush.

"Say something so I know you didn't get lost in there," she called out.

Moments earlier, Johnson was giving me a walking tour of some of the empty lots in her North Philly neighborhood when she offhandedly mentioned that the one in the roughest shape, at 16th and Indiana, was once a park dedicated to murder victim Aimee Willard.

Willard was a 22-year-old college lacrosse star from suburban Philadelphia who in 1996 was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a convicted murderer from Nevada who was on parole.

Her body, buried beneath trash and weeds, was discovered by some neighborhood boys walking to their tree house. The savage death stunned the state and shook up the neighborhood, which suddenly found itself in the spotlight.

Two years later, the trash-strewn lot was made into a park by neighborhood teens. They wanted to honor the space, but also let people know that the community was equally horrified by the brutality. Willard's mother, Gail, was there for the dedication and again, two years later, when people from the city and state got together to clean up the park after it had been vandalized.

But over the years, the vandalism continued. The lot was set on fire, and the mural that was painted on an empty building on the property was destroyed. The custom-made gazebo was trashed. So were the custom picnic tables that often had to be tracked down to someone's back yard until they disappeared for good. The barbecue pit that neighbors once used to cook hot dogs and burgers was used by junkies to cook up drugs.

Johnson hoped the vandals might have left the memorial plaque somewhere in the weeds. But all I could find before giving up were some rocks from a shrine that used to house a statue of the Virgin Mary, before she was stolen, too.

"It's sad," Johnson said, shaking her head.

It really is. But as I brushed myself off and sidestepped the glass and the tires and the decomposing mouse covered in a thick layer of flies, I wasn't entirely sure what should be done next. Should the city clean it up? Should the neighborhood residents - again? How long are memorials like this necessary?

I've always been uncomfortable with memorials, especially the sidewalk ones that give neighborhoods an unhealthy daily dose of loss and death. But if a community chooses to memorialize a death with a park, then at the very least it should be maintained and respected.

A few days later, I went to visit Doris Phillips, who runs the nearby HERO community-service program that for years maintained the park with local teens, including one who designed it. Photos hanging on the wall showed the park in better days. A sign that long disappeared read: "Hope Park Community Garden . . . Keep it clean and nice."

"I go by there every day," Phillips said. "And it just makes me sick. It was a beautiful place." For a long time, it was the gem of the neighborhood. Another photo showed beaming newlyweds who were married there.

But I had to ask. Phillips seemed to wince when she considered the fate of the park. After a pause, she said, "You know, the lot is for sale. Maybe someone will buy it and build houses on the property."

That was a hopeful thought - especially since what went unsaid is that the city can barely maintain most of its city parks the way it should. And in such an isolated spot, it would probably only be a matter of time before Aimee's park was vandalized again. But I wondered what Willard's mom would say.

I tried to ease into the conversation when I called her, but I didn't need to.

"It's time to move on," Gail Willard said. "Aimee has been gone for 17 years."

A lot has happened since her daughter's death, she said: 9/11, the Boston bombings. So many other tragedies that didn't get that much attention.

Circumstances change. People have to move on. And even if it's in shambles, she said she is forever thankful to the people in the North Philadelphia neighborhood who she said were too harshly judged for the actions of one person who didn't even live there.

"Aimee's death made a huge impact on them, and there doesn't have to be a park for any of us to remember," Willard said. "I remember, they remember, and that is enough."

Forget about the park, she suggested. Go find out what happened to the little boys who found her body. How are they? How did that one act of violence affect their lives?

That, she said, is the next story to tell.

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