Dawn Marie Garvin vigil

From left, Taylor, Mikenzie and Amanda Romano, neices of the late Dawn Garvin, hold their candles and remember their aunt during a vigil Tuesday evening at Joppatowne High School on the 10th anniversary of the execution of Mrs. Garvin's killer, Steven Oken. (Aegis staff photo by Matt Button, Baltimore Sun Media Group / June 17, 2014)

For members of the Romano family, Tuesday night was the start of trying to let go of the anger that has burdened many of them since the brutal rape and murder of Dawn Marie Garvin nearly 27 years ago.

Mrs. Garvin's younger brother Fred A. Romano of Middle River, his three daughters, her father Fred J. Romano of Joppatowne and about 70 friends, relatives and supporters gathered in front of her alma mater, Joppatowne High School, for a candlelight vigil on the 10th anniversary of her killer's execution.

"This is a memorial, a tribute to Dawn, to her life," Fred J. Romano said before the service.

Steven Howard Oken, 42, was declared dead at 9:18 p.m. on June 17, 2004, after he was executed by lethal injection for the deaths of Mrs. Garvin, who was 20 years old; his sister-in-law, 43-year-old Patricia Hirt of White Marsh.

Oken also killed Lori Ward, 25, a motel clerk in Kittery, Maine, where Oken fled following the first two murders. Maine convicted him of first degree murder in Ms. Ward's death and sentenced him to life in prison. He was returned to Maryland to face trial and punishment for the first two killings.

Mrs. Garvin was living in White Marsh in November 1987. She had recently married Keith Garvin, who was in the Navy and was away from home the night she died. Mr. Oken got into their residence by posing as a police officer. He raped and then shot and killed Mrs. Garvin. He attacked and killed Mrs. Hirt two weeks later in his White Marsh townhouse. Ms. Ward was killed at the motel where Oken was staying when he went north.

Mrs. Garvin's mother, Betty Romano, who was with the rest of her family when they witnessed Mr. Oken's 2004 execution in the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore, was not present at Tuesday's vigil. Her former husband said she has moved to Pennsylvania.

Fred A. Romano, his father, Mrs. Garvin's best friend Beverly Campbell of Pylesville and longtime legislative dealth penalty supporters Del. Rick Impallaria and Del. Pat McDonough, who both represent Harford County in Annapolis, spoke to the audience before sunset.

"Even though it was Dawn's justice today, it was kind of like I still had Oken on my mind," the younger Romano said

"I kind of wanted to take that power away from him in my heart, in my mind," he added.

Mrs. Garvin's brother talked about how his sister defended him from bullies as a child and how she "always, always, always came to the defense of her little brother."

Fred A. Romano also thanked the two state delegates for their support through the years, as death penalty opponents lobbied state officials to spare Oken's life. Impallaria and Mrs. Garvin were schoolmates at Joppatowne High.

The elder Romano spoke briefly about his late daughter.

"This is a tribute to Dawn and her life," he said. "She's just an ordinary young woman who tried to make a little difference in the world."

He said that "my daughter lives in my heart." Romano described her as "a very kind person, and she just was special, unique."

Pastor Keith Vazquez, pastor of Divine Faith Fellowship of Bel Air, led the candlelight vigil.

He encouraged those present to dedicate themselves to putting down the "burden of hate."

"I challenge everyone in this gathering tonight to be more compassionate, to love more," Vazquez said.

The pastor encouraged them to develop a relationship with God, and to strengthen their relationship with their families.

"I want you to make a pact tonight that you are going to love the people that God has placed around you while you still have them," he said.

Fred A. Romano's three daughters, Mikenzie, 15, Taylor Dawn Marie, 18, and Amanda, 21,attended the ceremony. Romano also has a 23-year-old stepson, Nick Phass, who is deployed with the Marine Corps.

The daughters, none of whom had been born when Mrs. Garvin died, said their father regularly talks about their "Aunt Dawn," and they keep her in their prayers.

"We say prayers every night before we go to bed, and it's kind of a recognition for her," Mikenzie Romano said.

Taylor Dawn Marie is named for her late aunt.

"He [her father] tells us all the time that I and my sisters, we remind him of her, how we act like her," Taylor said.

Amanda said they still feel like they know their aunt, even though they never met her.

"Even though she's not here physically, she's always been a part of our family," she explained.

Oken was the fourth of five men Maryland executed in the period between the late 1970s when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled state capital punishment statutes needed to be rewritten to be made less arbitrary, and last year when the General Assembly repealed the death penalty.

The last man executed in the state, Wesley Eugene Baker, was convicted of murdering a woman in a Catonsville shopping center but was tried and convicted in Harford County on a change of venue. He was executed by lethal injection on Dec. 5, 2005.