Lita Byrnes made friends fast.
This is just one of the things I heard about her, over and over again, when I spoke to Lita’s friends this week. These conversations were hard—there were tears from just about everyone, including myself—but in between tears there was laughter, as the people who loved Lita told me about her life and the joy that she brought into theirs.
That life—a life of service and compassion for others—came to an end on March 12, when Lita was stabbed to death. A 25-year-old named Ian Flaherty, Lita’s roommate at the time, has been charged with her murder. Lita didn’t complain much about Flaherty (or about anything else) but, after he repeatedly failed to pay rent, she eventually asked him to move out. The next day, Lita’s body was found in her home. She had been stabbed more than 60 times. Earlier this week, Flaherty was arraigned in King County Court. He pleaded not guilty as dozens of Lita’s family and friends sat in court.
One friend of hers, Brittany DeRosier, met Lita 12 years ago when they both worked at Trader Joe’s. “She came right up to me and opened up like a butterfly,” Brittany told me. “You don’t see that in Seattle.” When I asked Brittany what she missed most about her friend, she sighed, and said, “everything.” Lita was her Google—she would call her early in the morning or late at night if she had a question that needed answering. Lita always got it right.
Another friend, Liz Jurcik, met Lita last year, at a party hosted by a mutual friend. Liz used the word “stupid” during conversation and Lita immediately called her out. “She said, that’s ablest and we don’t use words like that,” Liz said, laughing. "She was right.” Soon Lita was introducing Liz to friends of her own, saying, “We just met, but now we’re friends for life.”
“Lita left a legacy of kindness and inclusion and caring,” one friend told me. “She connected people who otherwise would not be connected. I don’t think the Wallingford/Fremont area would feel as much like a neighborhood without her, especially with all the change."
Another said, "Lita had a positive impact on people that she’d never even met."
In the most recent print edition of The Stranger, we made a serious mistake by including a brief item about this murder along with a careless joke about the housing crisis. The item appeared in the Fortnight page, where we recap recent headlines. Even though we intended the joke to be at the alleged murderer's expense, it did not land that way. If there was ever an example of “too soon,” this was it. A lot of people who knew Lita have contacted us, angry that we would turn a tragedy into a joke, and they are right. We should not have done that. The Stranger apologizes to Lita's friends and family for adding to the pain and confusion they're already experiencing.
As letters to the editor about Lita poured in, we saw clearly a portrait of a woman that none of us here had the good luck to know. “I loved Lita and had the privilege of her lifelong friendship," one person wrote. "Lita had a rocking chair on her arm, a tattoo that symbolized the steadfastness of friends that grew old with you, took time to know you, slowed down, and spent their hours, days, lives in community with you.”
Lita was that person for many. She was the first person to offer to help you move or tear down a fence. She was an activist for the homeless. She was the kind of person who would offer to drive you to a doctor’s appointment even if she didn’t have a car. She was a phenomenal baker who also loved cooking, sewing, making homemade jam, gardening, and taking care of other people. She was funny and sweet and gave great advice. Kids loved her. She had hundreds of succulents that she tended with absolute care. Now, those succulents are spread out among her the people who loved her the most.
Lita was many things, but above all, she was loved. And if the conversations I’ve had with her friends are any indication, she will continue to be loved for a very, very long time.