By MARK TODD - email@example.com
The Lights of Love tree in downtown Conneaut, usually the city's symbol of Christmas, took on a new and poignant meaning early Wednesday night.
The tree, in downtown Conneaut, was the scene of a candlelight vigil in memory of 4-year-old Melanie "Lanie" Powell, who died late last week under circumstances police have labeled "suspicious." More than 200 people — including city officials and police officers from Conneaut and North Kingsville -- ignored subfreezing temperatures to attend the ceremony.
The turnout was not lost on the child's family.
"It's overwhelming," said Kevin Jury, a great-grandfather of the child. "There's a lot of good people in this town. The next time I hear someone knock Conneaut, I'm going to tell them about this."
The big Christmas tree, dormant since the holidays, was revived for the vigil. People ringed the tree, and the light from its hundreds of white bulbs was mirrored by the candles the participants held. Candles also glowed from dozens of small, white bags on the ground that lined the Main Street sidewalk and tree, each bag bearing a different message, among them: "loving," "your kisses," "perfect" and the playful "painted piggy toes."
An oversized stuffed animal sat at the base of the tree.
Tim Kraus, of Conneaut Church of God, told the group they had gathered to remember "our precious little girl."
"This is a tragedy that can be described in just one word: unspeakable," he said. "There are few words that can be said, except that she changed us. And now we come together to support one another.
"Something has happened we can't comprehend, and we are heartsick over the loss of little Lanie Powell," Kraus said.
In a prayer, Kraus asked for justice and "the healing that will come."
Bells at First Congregational United Church of Christ across the streets rang out a song, the public address system played a mournful tune and Kraus led the crowd in "Amazing Grace."
Conneaut funeral director Joe Raisian thanked everyone for braving the numbing cold. "It shows Conneaut's love for its people," he said.
The girl died Friday morning at a Cleveland hospital from a severe head injury apparently suffered the day before.
Joshua Million of Conneaut, boyfriend of the child's mother, has been charged with felony child endangering and has been bound over to the Ashtabula County grand jury. Additional charges are possible.
Million, put in charge of the girl's care, told police he placed her in a bathtub, fell asleep at a kitchen table and when he awoke discovered the child unconscious. Police were notified by staff at UH Conneaut Medical Center, where the child was taken by her mother when she returned home from work.
Police suspect the girl may have been sexually assaulted. The death remains under investigation, officers have said.
Jury said Wednesday's vigil will help give the family strength.
"We're doing OK," he said. "We're holding our own."