FALLEN LEAVES danced like lost souls in the shadow of the cavernous remains of the old Nabisco plant in Northeast Philadelphia on a recent afternoon.
It was probably the most activity the gargantuan 28-acre property had witnessed since Mondelez International shuttered the plant in June, putting hundreds of area residents out of work.
No one was inside the former offices, or in the iconic nine-story brick tower, to reflect on the fact that Sept. 9 was the fifth anniversary of the night when a lone employee brought terror and confusion to a place that had long been synonymous with comfort and predictability.
Yvonne Hiller fatally shot two co-workers, Tanya Wilson and LaTonya Brown, and seriously injured a third in a fit of rage over imagined taunts and provocations.
She is serving a life sentence now, and her victims' children are still struggling to recover from the gaping holes she tore in their lives with a few cold-blooded squeezes of the trigger on a .357 Magnum.
Lawyer Shanin Specter represented Brown's and Wilson's families in a civil lawsuit against U.S. Security Associates Inc., the Georgia-based firm that provided security to the plant.
Video footage from the night of the shootings showed a guard running and hiding when Hiller entered the plant, instead of sounding an alarm to warn employees.
A jury awarded the families $38.5 million earlier this year, but the security company has appealed the decision. Specter said the victims' survivors are still too heartbroken to discuss the tragedy publicly, but he gave the Daily News copies of their testimony from the trial.
Trachelle Brown, the oldest of Brown's four children, took to the witness stand in February and summed up how she'd been affected by the loss of her mother - who had raised her children alone - with a haunting question.
"Me being the oldest, it's like I have to be the strong one when I feel like I'm not ever strong enough for myself because I don't have my mom," Brown said, according to the court transcripts.
"It's hard enough to grow up in a house with one person raising you, but what do you do when that person is no longer here?"
Honest portraits of Tanya Wilson and LaTonya Brown emerged in the words of their loved ones.
They offered rich glimpses of two remarkable women that went well-beyond the generic platitudes you usually hear when innocent lives are lost senselessly.
Wilson, who was 47 when she was slain, wasn't just hardworking and bubbly, according to her cousin Omar Wilson. She poured every ounce of her being into trying to build a better future for her sons, Khaalid, Gabriel and Mark.
She bought properties in North Philly that she planned to one day hand over to them. When she wasn't working at the Nabisco plant - which carried the name of then-owner Kraft Foods in 2010 - she was working on those houses, doing the electrical and carpentry work with her sons, Omar Wilson testified.
"They supported each other. She supported them; they supported her," Wilson said, according to the transcripts.
"They were a unit. There was no dad there. There was no one else there."
Khaalid and Gabriel were grown men when their mother was murdered, but Mark was just a teenager, and didn't graduate from high school in the aftermath.
"Their mother directed them," Wilson said.
"Yes, it was real emotional when they lost their mother that way. It's emotional for them now.
"So, yes, I'm not a psychologist, but I know just being around my cousins that this has affected them a great deal, and still does."
Brown was 36 when she was murdered. Her youngest child, Diyon, was only 6 when his older siblings had to pull him aside on the night that his mother's workplace suddenly appeared on the evening news, to explain that he would never see her again.
"I was watching a cartoon, and the news popped up, and it said that my mom had got shot, so I went upstairs to tell my sister," Diyon Brown testified.
Diyon had warm memories of his mother, playing peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek when he was a toddler, and later taking him out to Applebee's or Dave & Buster's to celebrate good grades he achieved in kindergarten.
Her older children remembered carefree summer vacations and weekend trips to the movies and arcades - all of the little things parents try to do to bring happiness to their children's world.
"I wish the lady didn't do what she did to my mom," Diyon said, according to the transcripts.
Hiller - the lady - was described by colleagues in the wake of the shooting as difficult and strange. She accused Brown and Wilson of spraying her with deer urine and chemicals, and even setting her hair on fire.
On the night of the shooting, Hiller beckoned Wilson and another co-worker, Bryant Dalton, then 39, to come over to her.
"And she says, 'I want you to be a witness.' She said, 'I'm so sick of these f---ing games you all playing,' " Dalton testified.
Hiller continued: "You all don't know what these are doing to my f---ing body, but I'm going to show you. I'm going to f--- you up."
Hiller, who was 43 and divorced with a grown son, was escorted from the plant. She returned with the handgun and threatened her way past security.
Dalton, Wilson and Brown were in an employee break room with another co-worker when Hiller reappeared.
"I heard 'pop, pop,' " Dalton said. "I felt a pinch, like [in my neck]. I put my hand up like this, and it was covered in blood. I fell. I just fell."
He saw Hiller execute Wilson and Brown. He tried to play dead, hoping not to catch her attention. "I did my best to lay there in my own blood," Dalton said.
Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Joseph Sullivan, who oversees the SWAT unit, said he bolted from a barbecue he was holding that night for his daughter when reports began to pour in about the shooting.
Cops raced to the plant, on Roosevelt Boulevard near Byberry Road. The responding officers were aided by a mechanic, Dave Ciarlante, who followed Hiller through the 620,000-square-foot plant, using his radio to tell co-workers how to escape safely.
It was the first time local cops had used training they'd received for active-shooter situations. "You have to move quickly," Sullivan said, "because every second that goes by could be another person dying."
After barricading herself in a room inside the plant, Hiller surrendered.
The murders ultimately gave way to a different type of loss, one that's all too familiar to blue-collar workers in Philadelphia.
Mondelez, a corporate spin-off of Kraft, announced last year that it planned to close the plant and move production work to newer facilities in New Jersey and Virginia, leaving 350 people jobless.
"I was really sad when that happened," said Mark Millevoi, 50, who runs Millevoi Brothers, an automotive shop across the street from the now-shuttered plant.
"I miss the people. They were good local people. In its heyday, we had 200 to 300 customers from there."
City Councilman Brian O'Neill, who has represented the Northeast since 1980, recalled the warm, instantly recognizable scent of baking cookies that wafted from the plant.
"It smelled so good. People would drive with their windows open," he said. "Everybody talked about Nabisco. It was part of the community, like a rec center."
O'Neill said he's been asked about rumors that wholesale giant Costco might consider buying the old plant, bringing new life to the area. A deal doesn't appear imminent.
At the 5 Star Diner, just down Roosevelt Boulevard near Bennett Road in Somerton, the Nabisco plant is still a topic of discussion. Waiter Henry Thompson, 31, said his father worked as a forklift driver at Nabisco for 35 years, retiring just before Mondelez closed it.
"It was a great place, especially for people with families," he said. "It's a shame that it's gone."
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