Willie Hodge Jr.
Harrison Butler Sr.
Richard Gary Jr.
How can you help?
Anyone with information about these disappearances should call the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office at (803) 436-2000, Sumter Police Department at (803) 436-2700 or Crime Stoppers at (803) 436-2718 or 1-888-274-6372.
It’s been almost two years since a Sumter mother began her mission to shine light on a social issue that hit her own home.
Her determination, persistence and passion finally came to a crux late Sunday afternoon. As Angel Brown stood before a crowd of nearly 75, she sighed a breath of relief she has held in for way too long. Sumter’s missing people and their families finally had a “Light of Hope.”
“This all started for me Dec. 26, 2020, when my son went missing,” she told the crowd.
Brown’s son, Jackson “Brent” Garcia, was 18 when he was last seen. That day changed the lives of many who were determined to never let his name, or 19 others, be forgotten.
“After Brent went missing, we put on a candlelight vigil, and at that candlelight vigil is when I had the idea that I wanted to do a vigil for all of the missing people in Sumter,” Brown said. “We then formed a little group called Sumter’s Missing and Brent’s Army.”
The memorial site ended up taking nearly two years to complete. The group went from council to council, asking for a piece of property. It wasn’t until April 2021 that Sumter County Council approved a site at 115 N. Harvin St., the location of a former Holocaust memorial that has since moved to a new home.
Fundraisers were held to purchase the light, benches and construction, and it wasn’t until Feb. 17 of this year that the concrete was poured. By the end of the summer, the benches and light were installed.
“What started out as taking up donations for banners, and it was going to be a small event to just remember everyone, invite family and friends to come out, has turned into this,” she said. “The banners turned into a light post to light the way home of all of our missing loved ones.”
Yellow ribbons blew in the brisk breeze around a single post hosting three lights on top that represented faith, love and hope. Surrounding the light were three black benches with golden floral arrangements. Adjacent to the memorial were banners of Sumter’s 20 missing that dated back as far as 1978.
Brown said they did the best they could with modesty, but those in attendance agreed it was a bright sight, something to pull families and friends out of the darkness that has shadowed them for years – some, for decades.
Several families of missing people from Sumter attended and spoke at the unveiling. Those included family members and friends of Garcia, Willie Hodge Jr., Barbara Nave, Tommy Brailey, Barbara Jenkins, Julia Bean, Naomi Collins, Stacy Lester and Shelton Sanders.
Staci Mitchum, a close friend of Brown and head organizer of Sumter’s Missing, welcomed those in attendance to speak during the unveiling.
Sadie Hodge, the sister of Hodge Jr., who went missing in January 2019, approached the podium first.
“Unfortunately, we still don’t have any answers, so we just continue to pray not only for his return but his safe return or just some answers and peace for the families of all of those who have someone missing,” she said.
She shared with the crowd how her brother had a “rough upbringing," suffered from substance abuse and lived a “bad lifestyle.” She said her brother was still human, regardless of what they’ve been through.
“We still have the right to know what happened to them and where they are,” Hodge said. “There are still people that love them and deserve to know where they are.”
Kathleen Kreklau spoke of her friend who has been missing since February 2017, Barbara Nave.
“I think it’s good that we get together and support each other,” Kreklau said. “We never want to give up hope for our loved ones… we have to hang on to that hope, and this is a place where we can come reflect and sit and think about our loved ones and all those others that are missing.”
“It’s so hurtful because we don’t know. Not having an answer to where your loved one is is hurtful, and I know you all know. We all a bond in that manner,” said Robin Colston, classmate and representative for the family of Tommy Brailey. “We’re keeping the faith alive.”
Others also spoke fondly about their missing loved ones, and it was everything for which Brown and Mitchum could have hoped. It was an emotional and unfortunate circumstance they wish no one had to be in, but Brown was happy her son has been an inspiration to turn something grim into something wholesome and good.
Mitchum thanked members of the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office for attending, as well as Detective Sgt. Heath Gardner of the Sumter Police Department’s Special Investigation Unit. Their presence was something neither Mitchum nor Brown expected.
“While we recognize the hurt these families suffer with unanswered questions about their missing loved one, we are truly moved by the results of their efforts,” said Maj. Randall Stewart, of the sheriff’s office. “I don’t look at this as a memorial as much as I see it as an icon, a symbol that they will not give up hope for their family member. And as a law enforcement agency, neither shall we. The family and friends of Jackson ‘Brent’ Garcia started a new passion about the mysteries surrounding missing persons and grew their cause into a community movement. It is a beautiful thing in the middle of all the pain.”
When “There was Jesus,” by Zach Williams and Dolly Parton, played during the ceremony, Brown and Mitchum held each other close. Despair overtook the crowd, and Brown’s sister, Nikki, ran to her side for support. More began to cup their faces, wiping a tear when they could catch a breath.
“I’m just very overwhelmed and very pleased with everything.” Brown said.
“It was far more than I anticipated,” Mitchum said. “It was breathtaking to me Sunday, emotionally as far as happiness and sadness. It was a happy and a sad moment that was just, for me, bittersweet because of Angel.”
Thinking about what her son’s reaction would have been, seeing the crowd stand around the light post, Brown fought tears but changed her disposition, knowing her son as always being the life of the party.
“I think he would have thought, ‘Wow, all of this is for me or because of me.’ He liked to be the center of attention, so he would have enjoyed it,” she laughed.
Now a light shines in downtown Sumter, and Brown said knowing that has brought her the peace she’s yearned for since her son’s disappearance.
“It gives us a place,” she said. “We don’t have a spot that we can go to, so that kind of gives us a spot, for all of us, where we can go and remember our missing loved one.”
“It’s something final to where now we have somewhere to go,” Mitchum added. “It’s just a place to go reminisce, and I think that’s good for all the missing.”
The pair has not decided whether this will be an annual happening, but they have already planned to host another event at the memorial this winter. Brown said they plan to give away hot chocolate while again honoring Sumter’s missing.
To stay updated on when that event will happen, Brown encouraged the community to follow the Sumter's Missing People Facebook page.
Although the memorial site is up, the group is still waiting on one more item: a trashcan is still needed, per the City of Sumter’s request. Brown asks the community to send monetary donations for the memorial site completion to the group's Cash App: $SumtersMissing.
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