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Vigil celebrates life of teen killed in murder-suicide

Students, friends and family gather on Thursday at Perham High School to remember Tabitha Belmonte, who was killed Monday in central Otter Tail County, Minn. Chris Happel / Special to Forum Communications Co.

PERHAM, Minn. - Bright stars shined in the sky over the more than 100 students, friends and family members who came to Perham High School on Thursday night for a candlelight vigil to celebrate the life of Tabitha Belmonte.

The 16-year-old Perham sophomore was killed Monday evening in a murder-suicide near Amor.

Before her death, Belmonte was given a project: write an essay about what she would do with just one dollar. The essay was read out loud during the vigil by her best friend, Kathryn Kawlewski. In it, Belmonte said she wished she could break it into $1 trillion and give it to the homeless, the hungry and children in need. Belmonte wrote that she wished she could use the money to make the world a less selfish, hurtful place.

But if it had to be just a dollar, she would give it to her daughter - 7-month-old Emma - in the hopes her daughter would use it to help others.

On Thursday, those attending gathered around a memorial on the school's front lawn. Red and pink candle wax began to bleed into the snow around the many stuffed animals, angels, and photos hung in Belmonte's honor.

As parents hugged their children and their children's friends during the chilly March evening, the students spoke of a warm and loving young woman.

Friends and family told stories of Belmonte's quickness to make friends. They said she was a girl who was very proud of her new daughter, who loved to laugh and was not afraid to be silly.

Perham High School social worker Courtney Rooney led the vigil. Rooney said she knew Belmonte well and looked forward to Monday morning meetings with her. Rooney said she hoped Belmonte's spirit could help her make sense of the tragedy.

"You (Belmonte) wanted me to find meaning in what you were going through," Rooney said. "Now help me find the strength to find the sense in all this."

Good friends and sophomores Leah Wubben and Tiffany Washek helped organize Thursday's vigil.

"I think it's really nice everyone came together," Wubben said. "It's really hard when something like this happens to someone."

Trees outside the school have been decorated with rainbow colors because Belmonte could never pick a favorite color, Washek said Thursday.

"She loved every single color," Washek said. "She was just a really open, wonderful person."

Law enforcement officials have been invited to address the student body at 8:30 a.m. today to clear up any rumors that may be circulating, said Superintendent Tamara Uselman. The assembly will also include a time to celebrate Belmonte's life with a slideshow put together by her friends.

"It's a chance to say we're not forgetting about Tabitha," Uselman said. "This is healthy for them (students) to do this."

Mary Weaver, who knew both Belmonte and the father of her daughter, 17-year-old Dylan Cox, said she is happy with what Perham school officials have done but said she hopes surrounding communities will also take steps to help educate about teen depression and suicide.

Weaver said it was not surprising to see the small community of Perham coming together in the wake of such a tragedy.

There will be a visitation for Belmonte from 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Schoeneberger Funeral Home in Perham. The funeral is planned for 2 p.m. Monday at Calvary Lutheran Church.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530