APPOMATTOX, Va. (AP) – Every Sunday for the last decade, Father Jim Gallagher has lit a candle at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Appomattox County.
Resting on the surface of the piano, in front of the honey-hued pews, the flame burns in honor of the eight people who were killed in a shooting in January 2010 in Appomattox County.
None of the victims were members of his congregation. But in a tight-knit community like Appomattox such tragedies pulled at every piece of fabric that makes up the community, still standing as one a decade later.
On Jan. 10, Our Lady of Peace was packed. Folding chairs set up along the far wall provided spillover seating for the almost 100 people crowded into the sanctuary. Residents were gathered for a prayer service to remember the victims and families of one of the largest mass shootings in Virginia, just days away from the 10-year anniversary.
Fairy lights were strung along the outside the church, and small plastic tealights were handed out at the door. Family members of the eight killed filed into the front rows of benches, including Kim Scruggs, who lost her son, Bo, on Jan. 19, 2010.
This year, Bo Scruggs would have been 26.
But Kim Scruggs never saw him turn 17.
In January of 2010, Spout Spring resident Christoper Speight shot his relatives and their friends outside the house at 3030 Snapps Mill Rd., where he lived with his sister, her husband, and their young child.
After two years of investigations into the incident, officials said they believe Speight shot his sister Lauralee Sipe, 38; her husband, Shannon Sipe, 38; and their 4-year-old son, Joshua, on Jan. 17. Speight then is believed to have shot Morgan Dobyns, 15, Lauralee’s daughter from another marriage; Karen Quarles, 43; Jonathan Quarles, 43, Emily Quarles, 15 and her boyfriend, Bo Scruggs, 16, on Jan. 19 before engaging law enforcement in an overnight standoff that ended with Speight surrendering the morning of Jan. 20.
Last Friday, for the first time in 10 years, Kim Scruggs publicly shared her memories of her son Bo, remembering his life rather than the tragedy that ended it.
Standing at a pulpit in front of the parish, she remembered him trudging through deep snow to his girlfriend’s front door to deliver a hard-earned Christmas gift – an open heart necklace from Kay Jewelers. Remembered him helping others to their feet after a fall at the skate rink in town. Remembered him as fun-loving, intelligent and compassionate.
“The legacy stands stronger than any words I could ever convey to you tonight,” Kim Scruggs said. “On January 19, 2010, life changed forever for our family. The evil that was committed that day took Bo’s life with one bullet. The fragments of that bullet damaged the lives of his family and friends. Life will never be the same again.”
Almost every year, on the anniversary of Bo’s death, Kim Scruggs said family and friends come to their home and spend the day with them. Talking with Bo’s childhood friends, now in their mid-twenties, is bittersweet. Kim Scruggs said she hears about the milestones, the engagements, the marriages, the children, and it’s hard not to feel cheated.
“Because your son is gone,” Kim Scruggs said. “And he’s not experiencing the life milestones like others.”
A group of Bo’s friends, all of the pallbearers at his funeral, got tattoos to honor Bo. Like Alex Goin, who said his stretches across the whole of his back.
Though the expressions of grief were unanimous, so was the conviction that the community came together in the wake of the shooting, a testament to the strength of the small town.
“This community has always been incredible when it comes to families in need,” said Mary Anne Freshwater, victim/witness coordinator for Appomattox County. “In people’s darkest times, the community helps to shine a light.”
Freshwater worked with the families of the victims in the days and years that followed, and said from across the region other victim/witness organizations rallied around them – supporting and aiding crime victims as they interacted with the criminal justice system, focusing on assistance and referrals to victims, their families and witnesses throughout the court process.
Appomattox County Sheriff Donald Simpson, who was lead investigator of the case in 2010, also spoke at the prayer service. Simpson said the case changed his perspective on his career and life forever.
After the call came in on Jan. 19, Simpson worked 16-hour days. It was an active investigation and he treated it as such: head down, in work mode, with dozens of people to be interviewed, multiple searches in multiple locations and a mission to put together a “rock solid case” that could not be torn apart in court.
“This case was the leading story on national news,” said Simpson. “All eyes were on our tiny community.”
Simpson hardly had time to breathe until Jan. 24, when he said he sat down early in the morning with a week’s worth of newspapers in front of him.
“And there it was, on the front page of the The Lynchburg News & Advance, I saw their faces. The eight people that I had learned everything about the previous week, but I realized I had never met them,” Simpson said. “I knew their names, I knew their date of birth, I knew their addresses, I knew their families, I’d met their families. I knew their height, I knew their weight, I knew their Social Security numbers. But I did not know them.”
He saw pictures of their smiling faces. Saw life in their eyes. Saw the photograph of Bo, buried deep in the snow, trudging to his girlfriend’s door.
“That Sunday morning as I sat in silence, I cried for the first time,” Simpson said. “I cried for all the broken families, all the lives. Looking at the pictures, looking at the faces, I saw what was taken.”
For Don Childs, it was a day like no other in his career. While piloting a helicopter to assist in the search for Speight on Jan. 19, 2010, then State Police Sgt. Childs was shot down by Speight, the seven bullets that struck the helicopter forcing an emergency landing.
“I had no caution lights, no warning lights, nothing seemed to be abnormal,” Childs said in a phone interview with The News & Advance on Friday morning. But stuffing from the seat cushion floated in the air of the cockpit, and he could smell burnt metal, like an empty pan left too long on a stovetop burner.
He would learn later that the shots from Speight’s high power rifle severed a fuel line in the fuel cell, while other bullets penetrated a skid tube and went through the rotor blade. If Childs had a passenger, which he nearly did, they would have been shot several times in the torso. He said no one knew why the helicopter didn’t burst into flames.
“This was a very unusual event, it has not happened before: anyone in a police helicopter getting literally shot down,” Childs said. “For me to get seven bullets in a helicopter and survive, was really a miracle.”
Ultimately, his flight helped draw Speight out, and he later found out that when the helicopter flew overhead, Speight had tactical team members in his rifle scope, preparing to shoot.
Linda Smith, mother of Dwayne Sipe, grandmother of Joshua and step-grandmother of Morgan, spoke with The News & Advance after the prayer service in January. With her mother, Virginia Emory, beside her, she told stories about them, remembering family vacations, walks in the woods and her almost daily phone calls with her son.
“I can say that I’m glad that I’m 10 years out. Because if it was 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be able to sit here and talk without the tears rolling,” Smith said. “I’ve told people it would have been easier to die then it was to walk through that, to live through that … I thought, God, why couldn’t I have been at the house. I would have sat right there on the steps with my Joshy, and we could have gone together.”
Though she thinks about them everyday – and sometimes still sits in Sipe’s car, just to run her hands around the steering wheel, the last place she saw him alive – she said by the power of God, she has made it through.
Carol Canard, mother of Karen Quarles, said it doesn’t feel like 10 years. She said she found an inner strength she didn’t know she had. Living with her son Stephen Canard, and helping to raise his two teenage boys, working at a quilt shop on Old Forest Road, it helps to be around people, she said.
“They’re still here with us,” Carol Canard said. “Not constantly like they used to be, but they’re still here.”
She said she still misses her daughter’s phone calls at 8:30 every morning, her son-in-law, Jonathan and 15-year-old Emily, who she said was the apple of everyone’s eye.
Stephen Canard said the last ten years have had a lot of ups and downs. He thinks about what it would be like if they were still around, to see them grow and change.
Stephen Canard remembers talking to Simpson those 10 years ago, helping to identify the bodies of his sister and family, and receiving the last phone call, confirming what he already knew.
When he hung up, Canard said he stood at the front door facing everyone in the living room and he felt a presence, his sister, walking into him.
“I could feel Karen walking into me and just stay there. It was the warmest sensation, it felt like forever,” Canard said. “And then she just walked out, walked out the back door, and she was gone.”
At the end of the service, after scripture was read and the congregation prayed for healing, comfort and peace, the family members went up to the piano and lit candles one by one. A candle for every victim, something to remember their loved ones, and the 10 years now behind them.
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