If your worst nightmare came true as a parent, there’s no telling how you would react. Diena Thompson lost her daughter, 7-year-old Somer, when she was kidnapped, raped and murdered six years ago while walking home from school. Years later, this grieving mother confronted her daughter’s killer in the most unexpected way.
Young Somer was killed after being lured into the former home of then 24-year-old Jarred Harrell on Oct. 19, 2009, as she walked home from Grove Park Elementary School. Harrell raped and smothered Somer before throwing her body into the trash. Two days later, Somer was found dead in a Georgia landfill. After pleading guilty, Harrell is now serving six life sentences in prison.
Harrell’s home, owned by his mother, was located at 1152 Gano Avenue in Orange Park, Florida. Within a few years, the home was vacant and in foreclosure. The bank transferred ownership to the Somer Thompson Foundation, created by her mother in 2010. Thompson chose to donate the home to the Orange Park Fire Department for training purposes.
On the day of the training fire, Thompson, her family and hundreds of bystanders were there to watch a monster’s home go down in flames. Forty-year-old Thompson, dressed in firefighting gear, was given the honor of throwing the first flare through a window in the back of the house. The flare was used to spark hay bales and pallets set up by firefighters to ignite the house.
Thompson’s first reaction to seeing her daughter’s murderer’s house burn down was to smile. In an experience Thompson called “cathartic,” she said, “I’m the big bad wolf this time knocking down your door, not the other way around. It’s really nice to know that I’m not ever going to have to drive in this neighborhood again and see this piece of trash.”
Neighbors too were glad to see the killer’s home burn. Eighty-two-year-old Bob Hatanpa had lived across the street for 42 years. “I think it’s a symbolic day where the mother of that poor little girl will get some closure. It’s an ugly eyesore and a reminder of what went on. I’m so glad this day has come,” Hatanpa sympathized.
It’s easy to want to wrap a perfect bow on this terrible tragedy and call the fire “closure.” But according to Thompson, “There will never be closure.” Thompson agrees that burning Harrell’s house down was part of the healing process, both for herself and the community, but grieving the loss of one of her four beloved children “will never be over.”