Man fights for victims on his time

Barbara Carmen, The Columbus Dispatch, December 27, 2007

“He’s on his second law. He may be the only one out there who’s done that. He is passionate and smart and a great advocate for victims of crime.”
-U.S. Congressman Steve Stivers

Bret Vinocur spends hours at the gym, has a solid job, a self-deprecating sense of humor and a nice suit.

But he once quipped that he has trouble getting a second date. “Twenty minutes into dinner with me, all the women are in tears. They say, ‘I can’t handle what you do.’ ”

Roberta Francis
Roberta Francis

By day, the 40-year-old Vinocur collects money from insurance companies for Safelite AutoGlass. At night, he works full time as a volunteer advocate for crime victims.

He pores over autopsy photographs, prowls through court records, interviews police officers and compiles notebooks detailing horrific crimes.

Then he takes a vacation day from work, puts on his suit and goes off to fight the Ohio Parole Board or lobby the General Assembly.

Since 2002, he has blocked the release of over 100 rapists and murderers, working free on behalf of grieving families who are at a loss to fight the system.**

By spring, the General Assembly is expected to pass Vinocur ‘s second victims’ rights bill, sponsored by Sen. Steve Stivers.

“Of all the laws we pass, less than 1 percent have come from an ordinary citizen who just wanted to make things better,” said Stivers, a Republican from Columbus.

“He’s on his second law. He may be the only one out there who’s done that. He is passionate and smart and a great advocate for victims of crime.”

The new law also would require the board to grant hearings to all families fighting a parole. Depending on the crime, such hearings are currently at the board’s discretion.

Speaking up

Laura Skinner
Laura Skinner

Vinocur prepares for a parole hearing as if it were a matter of life or death, which, he said, it is for the next unsuspecting victim.

“All day, I’m like Clark Kent sitting in a cubicle,” he said. “At night, I memorize these cases.

The only way to do it right — the only way to be able to effectively argue that this person should never be let out — is to get yourself into the head of the victim until you can feel their fear and you are at that crime scene with them.”

He has lost only one appeal on behalf of a victim’s family. It haunts him. “It’s pretty sad when the families tell you to let it go,” he said.

The idea for his Web site, blockparole.com, came to Vinocur five years ago, after several girls across the country were kidnapped and murdered. He started looking on the Internet and was surprised that he couldn’t find much information on missing children.

He learned as he went along and became interested in parole cases as he saw that some sexual predators were being released from prison.

“I had a business degree from OSU in finance. There’s no such thing as a degree in victim advocacy,” he said. Today, his Web site gets 1,000 hits a day — more when he is collecting signatures on petitions to fight paroles.

His first big case was Laura Skinner, a 3-year-old who was raped and murdered by her mother’s boyfriend.

No one spoke up to keep Laura’s murderer in prison. So Vinocur got the General Assembly to pass Laura’s Law, which required the state to post upcoming parole hearings on the Internet.

Reaching out

Police Officer William Brown
Police Officer William Brown

Often, Vinocur phones families to offer help.

Debbie Brown Hurst said her family was close to giving up fighting the parole of her father’s murderer when Vinocur called. Lima Police Officer William Brown had a wife and seven children when a gas-station robber shot him at age 33.

“We had two weeks to fight the release. I didn’t know what to do,” Hurst said. “Then Bret phoned me. I thought he was a nut. I said, ‘How much is this going to cost?’ He said, ‘Not a penny.’

“When Bret came into our hearing with four folders full of e-mails from people who were against the release, that really meant the world to us.”

Ross Caudill drew another five years in prison. Vinocur will help Hurst again with future parole hearings.

Brenda Pennewitt, whose 19-year-old brother was stabbed 72 times, said Vinocur has become a brother to her. It was her appeal that marked Vinocur ‘s single loss. The murderer was set free after 25 years in prison.

“When I got to the point when I said, ‘I just can’t fight anymore,’ he said, ‘That’s OK, I’ll do it for you,’ ” said Pennewitt, of Hilliard. “He’s my angel.”

Andrea Carson, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the parole board does consider the information Vinocur presents about crimes.

Brian Dennis
Brian Dennis

“There are citizens who often come and meet with our Office of Victim Services on behalf of victims, but he is definitely one of the most passionate advocates we’ve seen in recent years,” Carson said.

Vinocur traces his empathy to a former girlfriend whose mother was murdered in a robbery shortly after the woman successfully fought cancer.

“The pain in that family has stuck with me forever,” he said. “I really wish I could do more for this.”

This year, his employer heard of his work and gave him $4,500 to continue his mission. “It was a great fit for us,” said Randy Randolph, chairman of the Safelite Charitable Foundation, which supports children’s issues.

Still, Vinocur takes hundreds of dollars a year out of his pocket to run his Web site, photocopy documents and buy gasoline. He drives to each child’s grave before a parole-board hearing.

He tells them, “I’m sorry” and “I won’t let this happen again.”