By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — In a gathering dusk on Duck Island Tuesday night Gina Streck lit a candle.
It was the same candle she had clutched in her hand one year ago, to the day, in the exact same place, after family and friends had come to mourn the murder of little Isabella Tennant.
"This candle represents our vigil from one year ago today," Streck told a small group of on-lookers. "Bella touched our lives in more ways than one. She is with us always."
The disappearance of the 5-year-old in the early morning hours of Aug. 27, 2012, left folks in the Falls shocked and heart-broken. Then the grisly discovery of her body in a trash bag buried in a garbage can in the 500 block alley of Third Street, left even veteran Falls cops shaken.
"It’s a terrible crime. It tears at your heart,” Detective Capt. William Thomson said at the time. “I have grandchildren that are the age of the victim.”
A year later, members of the Tennant family say the slaying has taken a terrible toll on them.
"The past year has been very stressful on all (the family)," Linda Schram said. "Isabella touched everyone in the family."
The little girl's mother left the Falls, not long after the murder, and has not returned from Florida. Schram said she has not spoke to her "much in the last year."
"The situation has ripped the family apart," Schram said. "But we love Crystal (Isabella's mom) and we loved Bella and the support from the community has been overwhelming."
It didn't take police long to identify and charge a suspect. Less than 24 hours after Tennant was reported missing from her great-grandmother's home, detectives arrested a then 16-year-old family friend in connection with the murder.
John Freeman Jr., now 17, was ultimately indicted by a grand jury on charges of second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence. His close friend, Tyler Best, 18, was charged, as a co-defendant, with tampering with physical evidence and hindering prosecution for helping Freeman dispose of Tennant's body.
Both have since pleaded guilty to those crimes.
Freeman faces 25 years to life in prison. Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III has told Best he will sentence him to no more than 16 months to four years behind bars.
On Tuesday night, those who knew her best, chose to focus of the highlights of Isabella's life. Schram remembered the last time the extended family was together on July 4, 2012.
"We were watching the fireworks and Isabella was so excited," Schram recalled. "Every time a firework would go off, Isabella would yell, 'Thank you America. I love you America.'"
Schram said the one year memorial was "one of the ways that helps us remember Isabella and celebrate her memory and her excitement for life."
Streck, who went to school with Isabella's mother, told those holding the flickering candles that Isabella's memory will "always live on."
"Instead of sadness and tears, we should focus on what a spitfire (Isabella) was," Streck said. "She is with us always, so please don't cry. Smile for the wonderful five years we had with her. Angels are hard to find."