“Love you Mama.”
Those were the words Kerry Crane heard from her daughter Erin as the 25-year-old left her parents’ Washougal home and headed to a job interview on Nov. 12, 2007.
Later that evening, police found Erin Dawn Wilson dead at a house northeast of Vancouver. The young woman with the captivating smile had been strangled with her favorite scarf, her body was wrapped in a blanket stained with blood.
The next day arrested and charged with first-degree murder was Wilson’s husband, Larry F. Van Schaick. He eventually pleaded guilty and is now serving a 14 year sentence.
“She was just getting her life back together,” Crane said.
The mother and daughter moved to Washougal from Nevada in 1990 when Erin was in the fourth grade. With laughter, Crane describes her only child as loving and giving, but also pigheaded and stubborn.
“She was beautiful,” Crane said. “She wasn’t perfect. She was just starting to grow up.”
They were a typical mother and daughter who went through their ups and downs together. Among the many happy memories is a love of music the two shared. When Erin was 9, Kerry took her to see Santana — the youngster’s first live rock concert. Many more concerts followed including trips to see Alanis Morissette, Green Day, the Dave Matthews Band, and even punk rock group Hagfish.
“More than once in life it was just us,” Kerry said. “And we developed a very strong bond.”
In 2002 Wilson moved to California, where she ended up meeting Van Schaick. Without telling her mom and stepfather Steve, Van Schaick and Wilson were married in Reno in June 2006. Kerry said her new son-in-law was dominating and controlling. She knew from the beginning that her daughter’s relationship would head down a destructive path.
“Something was wrong from the very first moment,” said Kerry, who earlier in her life had also been in an abusive relationship.
“I knew all of these signs, I knew them instinctively,” she said. “I told my Steve — this isn’t going to be good. But never in my life did I think that it would end in murder.”
In December 2006, Erin called her parents saying she wanted to leave her husband. Steve drove to California and picked Erin up, but twice she went back to Van Schaick and came back home again. Eventually, the situation became so difficult that her mother told Erin that she couldn’t return to her parent’s home until she was willing to make the commitment to leave the abusive marriage for good.
On Labor Day weekend 2007, Erin finally did.
“She said she was done,” Kerry said. “She was definitely planning on leaving him. She had just started seeing someone new — a friend she had known for 10 years. She was ready to start a new life.”
On Nov. 12 Wilson went to a job interview at a Vancouver Wal-Mart. She called her mom at 2:41 p.m. and said she was waiting for a follow-up interview, and would then head to her job at The Dollar Store in Camas for her 5 p.m. shift.
She never made it.
“The manager called me and said Erin hadn’t shown up for work,” Kerry said. “That’s when we knew something was wrong.”
Kerry believes Van Schaick said something to convince Erin to visit him at a home he was staying in Vancouver.
Police were called by the homeowner who said he found Van Schaick bleeding from cuts on his wrists. Before police arrived, however, Van Schaick disappeared. The next day, he was captured near a drainage pond at Northwest 58th Avenue and 52nd Street. He told detectives that he “snapped.”
As Kerry and Steve were still reeling from Erin’s violent and tragic death, they received another blow as they made memorial arrangements.
Brown’s Funeral Home General Manager Nick Brown regrettably informed the couple that state law required him to ask Van Schaick to sign away his rights to control the handling of Erin’s body.
“We were just shocked,” Kerry said. “I thought, this is wrong, how could this be?”
Ultimately, Van Schaick did sign the release giving the Crane’s custody of Erin’s remains, but the couple was disturbed that such a law was even in place.
Brown said it was at Erin’s funeral that Steve approached him about what options were available so that other families wouldn’t have to go through the same situation.
“I said ‘well, you could change the law.'” Brown explained. “I kind of said it half joking, because I didn’t think he would follow through with it.”
Brown was wrong. Steve not only followed through, he made changing the state law in memory of his stepdaughter his passion and obsession.
He contacted state legislators, as well as officials at organizations including the Washington State Funeral Directors Association and the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Any and all of his spare time was spent researching the topic on the Internet.
“He had a drive and an enthusiasm and said ‘let’s go,'” Brown said. “With that kind of enthusiasm you just want to latch on and take the ride with them.”
18th District State Sen. Joe Zarelli (R-Ridgefield) soon got involved and sponsored Senate Bill 6277, nicknamed “Erin’s Law.” The bill would prevent a person charged with first- or second-degree murder or manslaughter from having control over what happens to a victim’s remains — even if they are married to the victim.
“A lot of constituents come to us with ideas. A lot of times it is following tragic events,” Zarelli explained. “In this case while there was a lot of emotion, it was a situation that on its face just wasn’t right. Doing something about it just made sense.”
Zarelli said he was also struck by Steve’s commitment to the issue.
“He was a quiet man, but he was very concerned about his situation and about what other people would have to go through,” Zarelli said. “He was very pragmatic about what he wanted to do.”
After making its way through the House and Senate, in the end a Zarelli amendment would insert key provisions of Erin’s Law into House Bill 2777 — a domestic violence measure. It was passed by both the House and Senate in early March 2010 and signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire soon after.
“It was rewarding to see that the right answer prevailed in the end,” Zarelli said. “It felt great to see the family get some comfort for themselves, and for others.”
In a tragic twist, however, at age 58 Steve died of heart failure on Feb. 22, 2010, before the bill was officially passed.
“It was just a blow because we were so close,” Brown said. “It was so bitter sweet. We did it, but he didn’t get to enjoy it. In a way though, I think he did because he got to tell his daughter.”
So, what does Kerry think Erin would say about the effort made in her memory?
“She’d say ‘Yeah, go mom!'” she explained. “Erin would have been so proud of Steve.”
“And proud of you, too,” Brown quickly added.
Grasping the silver necklace around her neck that holds charms imprinted with the fingerprints of Erin and Steve, Kerry agreed. “Yeah, she would.”