Mercyhurst mourns murdered dance major

Time and space transformed.

A time to gather again and return to classes—a sense of routine re-established after a short break.

A place to celebrate evening Mass among peers in Mercyhurst College’s Catholic tradition.

Instead, Christ the King Chapel offered neither on Sunday night for the Mercyhurst community.

But to an overflowing crowd of hundreds, the college’s wooden chapel and its foyer at the east end of Old Main provided much more during a memorial service for deceased student Jenni-Lyn Watson.

Watson was murdered Nov. 19 at her home in Liverpool, N.Y., where she had returned the day before from Mercyhurst and its fall trimester.

As the refrain from “On Eagle’s Wings” came to a close midway through Sunday’s prayer vigil, dozens of students—many of whom barely knew or had never even met Watson—could be heard openly sobbing.

Ethan Magoc photo: The Mercyhurst College community mourned the death of student Jenni-Lyn Watson at the prayer vigil on SundayEthan Magoc photo: The Mercyhurst College community mourned the death of student Jenni-Lyn Watson at the prayer vigil on Sunday

Like he had done four days prior during a prayer service for Watson’s safe return, the Rev. James Piszker, the college chaplain, strode across the altar and spoke helpful but painful words.

“The question comes to mind, ‘Was our (Wednesday) prayer in vain? Was our hope misplaced?’” he asked of the assembled.

“I’m here to tell you that neither of those things are true,” Piszker said.

Piszker and other campus personnel have already put forth a full effort to assist students grieving over the gruesome tragedy.

Her murder

Watson, a 20-year-old junior dance major, was at her home on the morning of Nov. 19.

New York authorities allege that Steven Pieper, a man she dated on and off for approximately 18 months, arrived at her house that morning and an argument ensued.

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said Pieper likely killed Watson, carried her body into his Volkswagen that he had backed into the family garage, then drove two miles north to Clay Central Park.

There, after a five-day police search, Watson’s remains were discovered Saturday morning near an amphitheater by New York police.

“Within a very short period of time (after her death, she was) dumped like garbage in Clay Central Park,” Fitzpatrick said at a Nov. 27 news conference.

Pieper, 21, was charged with second-degree murder a few hours after Watson’s body was discovered. Police suspect he acted out of jealousy and anger after Watson broke off the relationship and a year-long engagement in October.

He immediately pleaded not guilty at Saturday’s arraignment and will next appear in a Clay court on Friday.

An autopsy was performed on Watson’s body Sunday which confirmed it a homicide, but police are waiting for tissue samples to determine an exact cause of death.

Community efforts

Mere hours after her disappearance became clear to Watson’s family and local police last weekend, word spread rapidly via Facebook to keep watch for a 20-year-old female of approximately 5 feet, 3 inches and 100 pounds.

“She was little, but she was spunky,” said friend and fellow junior dancer Amy Deer. “Her energy was amazing.”

Friends and family attempted to reciprocate that energy during the weeklong search and subsequent mourning period.

Devin Ruic, Watson’s friend and a columnist for The Merciad, began a Facebook group early on titled “MISSING: Jenni-Lyn Watson” that eventually garnered more than 27,000 members.

“It was amazing to see how much one person could be loved,” said Rachel Torgesen, another junior dance classmate and close friend to Watson.

Many friends have already created remembrance slideshows with the wealth of photos Watson had posted to her Facebook and Myspace accounts.

Mercyhurst’s Counseling Center and Campus Ministry are each offering their services to anyone struggling with Watson’s passing.

More than 60 students who desired to be at her 11:30 a.m. funeral today in the Syracuse area left on a pair of buses from the Performing Arts Center parking lot at 5 a.m.

“I do not know how many might drive themselves,” said Dr. Gerard Tobin, Vice President for Student Life.

In addition to the temporary memorial to Watson in Zurn Hall’s lobby, the dance department is selling green ribbons with Watson’s initials on them for a dollar each.

All proceeds will be donated to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

And Mercyhurst President Dr. Thomas Gamble has already established the Jenni-Lyn Watson Memorial Dance Scholarship for future Mercyhurst dancers. Donations can be made here.

Tauna Hunter, dance department chair, believes Watson’s friends and classmates will find the most solace with one another.

“The most important support they have is for each other,” she said.

Memories of Watson

Jenni-Lyn Watson’s death comes at the end of a tough year of tragedies for Mercyhurst.

In February, adult student Matthew Weber died in his Lewis Avenue apartment the day that winter term final exams ended. Weber was a 27-year-old graphic design major.

Tyler Stauffer photo: Mercyhurst students, left to right, Nicole Lyons, Jenni-Lyn Watson and Heather Mills roomed together during the fall trimester.Tyler Stauffer photo: Mercyhurst students, left to right, Nicole Lyons, Jenni-Lyn Watson and Heather Mills roomed together during the fall trimester.Less than two weeks after school began in September, women’s hockey assistant coach Kristen Cameron was struck by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle in Erie.

She continues to rehabilitate a severe spinal chord injury but remains paralyzed from the chest down in a Toronto hospital.

And Matthew Lieberman, a 2010 alumnus, succumbed to Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on Oct. 6. He was 23.

Watson’s passing now carries a similarly terrible and somber process for Mercyhurst’s 70 dance majors and others who knew her.

Her roommate Heather Mills said she was the “kind of person who would always be exploding with life.

“She was always about creating a home for us, and we really became a family—calling each other ‘mom’ as a nickname for each of us,” said Mills, who met Watson freshman year and began rooming with her this fall.

“It will not be easy,” Piszker said Sunday night. “It will take time. But it will ultimately provide us with the consolation that we so desperately desire.”

Hunter, who last watched Watson perform at SoMar Dance Works’ MOVERS & SHAKERS show on Nov. 13, believes peace and hope will slowly return to her department and its students.

But how?

“Our department is very close, so we have a large family to take care of,” she says, “but dance is a healing art.

“We’ll keep dancing.”