In the summer of 2017, Karen Karlak's son, Joseph Titterton, planned the layout for Cedar Creek Memorial Garden. He helped landscape, plant and haul bags of mulch up from the roadway.
Karlak had no idea that she would soon be planting a tree in that same garden to honor her son's life, which was brutally cut short just a few months later.
"I never imagined that would be his last birthday," Karlak said.
Titterton, then 24, had graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design cum laude and decided to take a job in Lexington. On January 25, 2018, Titterton was strangled to death in Irmo, just three weeks after buying his first house.
Titterton suffered a stroke when he was just four years old. The incident left him without the use of his left arm and with a limited sense of balance. His death was especially devastating to his family because he couldn't fight back against his attacker.
"He was the kid that was bullied, the kid that was never chosen for the team," Karlak said. "The kid that whose backpack was kicked off the bus, and the bus went and the backpack was still at the stop when he got home."
Despite a rough start in school, Karlak said her son was an empathetic, intelligent person who loved being outdoors. He was an Eagle Scout and helped others whenever he got the chance.
"Our message and hope for the future is that our most vulnerable – children, the disabled and seniors – can live in their homes and can go to school, and they can be part of society and not live in fear of bullying and terrorism and hatred," Karlak said.
Titterton's friends and family still have questions about the investigation into his death. According to Karlak, no suspect was ever taken into custody, and the state considers the case closed.
James Carsten, President of Eagle Investigative Services, was hired by the family to look into Titterton's case. He said he has questions about the investigation and encourages everyone to read the case file.
During the ceremony, members of Titterton's family spoke through tears about the joy he brought to their lives. There was a performance from Men of Hope, an a cappella group, and Pastor Sonya from Stepping Stones presided.
A quote from Titterton is inscribed on the plaque beside his white dogwood tree in the gardens. It reads "No one deserves to be hated against for just being born the way they are."