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Dublin: 0 °C Wednesday 21 March, 2018

'Every time you see these shootings, it’s a physical pain in your heart and your stomach'

Amy O’Connor talks to the sister of Kathy Kendrick, one of 16 victims of a Christmas massacre in Arkansas 30 years ago.

ON THE MORNING of 28 December 1987, a young woman named Kathy Kendrick went to work in Peel, Eddy, and Gibbons Law Firm in Russellville, Arkansas.

The 24-year-old mother-of-one worked as a receptionist/secretary. That morning, she was in another office when a man named Ronald Gene Simmons entered the building. When she returned to her post at reception, she said, “Can I help you?” and he shot her four times in the head.

She was the penultimate victim in a killing spree that saw Simmons, 47, murder 14 members of his own family and two others over the Christmas period. After he shot Kendrick, he traveled to a nearby oil company where he wounded one man and fatally shot another.

From there he went to a convenience store where he wounded two employees before moving on to Woodline Motor Freight, his old place of work. While there, he shot and injured his former supervisor.

He then advised one of the workers to call the police and waited to be reprimanded. Before he was taken into custody, he allegedly said, “I’ve gotten everybody who wanted to hurt me.”

Police then discovered that Simmons had murdered his wife, their four children (ages 8, 11, 14 and 17), his three other children by other women and two of their spouses, (ages 26, 24, 23, 23 and 21) and four grandchildren (ages 6, 3, 21 months, 20 months) over a four-day period. Six had been shot, seven had been strangled with a cord and one had drowned

PastedImage-93140 Source: Clark Prosecutor

Some were found dead in the family home. Others were buried in a shallow grave behind the house. The bodies of two of his baby grandsons were found in rubbish sacks in abandoned cars three hundred feet away.

It remains the most deadly case of familicide in United States history.

8655679_1509760805 Source: Find A Grave

Caught up in it was Kathy Kendrick, who had worked alongside Ronald Gene Simmons in Woodline Motor Freight. While the pair worked together, Kendrick was harassed and stalked by Simmons. He made a number of romantic advances and she complained to management before he eventually quit his job in late 1986.

Despite his unsettling behaviour, however, Kendrick didn’t have any reason to think she had to fear for her life.

“I’m sure when he was sitting at the desk next to Kathy, she had no idea,” says her sister Paula McCraney.

He may have been annoying and a little frightening, but she had no idea what a true monster is.
‘If I picture a perfect person in my mind, it’d have to be her’

Paula McCraney is a restaurant manager who lives and works in Casper, Wyoming. She is happily married to her third (‘and best’) husband, and is kept busy with her four children and nine grandchildren. She’s a self-described liberal and animal lover, who regularly donates money to PETA. She’s warm, gregarious and self-effacing.

She is also part of an exclusive club that nobody wants to join. That is to say that she is one of thousands of Americans to have lost a loved one in a mass shooting.

“You know there are those monsters out there. You just don’t know that they’re ever going to affect you or that you’re going to be dealing with one.”

The eldest of three daughters, Paula McCraney was born and raised in Russellville, Arkansas. By her own admission, her upbringing was marred by dysfunction and she was the self-professed “black sheep” of the family.

“In high school instead of going to school, I liked to go to the cemetery or the beach or the lake and smoke pot and drink beer,” she laughs.

Her younger sister Kathy was the polar opposite.

“Kathy was very popular. She was a cheerleader. Very tall and just beautiful. Inside and out. She had the wackiest sense of humour. She had a little wild child side, too. On occasion, she’d show up out at the cemetery with us. She won a lot of local beauty pageants.

If I picture a perfect person in my mind, it’d have to be her. And I’m not saying that because she’s deceased. I’m saying that because being a cheerleader, a lot of times they’re snotty.

“Before she became a cheerleader, I was kind of the type that sat with my buddies and threw pennies at them. And then she became a cheerleader, I stopped that. I couldn’t do it to her.”

“She kind of fit in anywhere she went. She could adjust. I couldn’t do that.”

While relations between Paula and her parents were often strained, her and Kathy were close and got on well. When Paula was old enough, she left Arkansas to join the airforce and was stationed in Oklahoma.

However, she was determined to leave her hometown behind and Oklahoma was a little too close for comfort, so she later moved to Denver, Colorado, where she married her first husband and settled down.

All the while, Kathy stayed in Russellville. She married a man named Ronald Kendrick and had a son named JR. As McCraney tells it, she had a big group of friends and a wide support network. She later left her husband and her best friend’s parents helped her move into a furnished apartment with her young son. The same friend worked in Woodline Motoring Freight and helped get Kathy a job there.

“She had a job now, an apartment now, she was on her own now.”

Some time later, the same friend was preparing to get married and move to Louisiana. She left her job in Woodline Motoring Freight and her replacement wound up being Ronald Gene Simmons. “That’s how they all connect,” explains McCraney.

Ronald Gene Simmons had moved to Arkansas in 1981. The family had fled from Cloudcroft, New Mexico, after Simmons’ teenage daughter Sheila fell pregnant. Her teachers suspected that she was being sexually abused by her father and alerted the authorities.

Authorities attempted to prosecute the case but had difficulty in getting Sheila to testify against her father in front of a grand jury. After being threatened with contempt of court, she eventually complied and Simmons was indicted on charges of incest in August 1981.

When authorities arrived at his home to serve him with an arrest warrant, however, Simmons had packed up his family and moved to Arkansas. His name remained on an FBI computer, but he never landed himself in trouble or garnered the attention of law enforcement.

When they moved to Arkansas, Simmons did what he could to deliberately isolate his family and exerted extreme control over them. After the murders, his siblings-in-law told of how he censored his wife’s mail and would not permit her to use a telephone.

In 1987, Simmons’ wife Rebecca wrote a letter to their son in which she likened life at home to a prison.

“I don’t want to live the rest of my life with Dad. I am a prisoner here, and the kids, too,” she wrote. “Every time I think of freedom, I want out as soon as possible.”

Shooting and aftermath
Source: 4KARK/YouTube

When Simmons started working alongside Kendrick in Woodline, he made a number of romantic advances towards her. McCraney believes this later escalated and that Kendrick would see him lurking outside her apartment and sitting on her doorstep. Unfortunately, Kendrick never confided in her sister.

“While I think it annoyed her, she probably didn’t take it very seriously either.”

She made complaints to management and he later quit his job. In early 1987, she went to work in the law firm.

McCraney says she had her last conversation with her sister on 7 December 1987. As was often the case, McCraney spent the call trying to get her sister to move to Colorado.

I tried to get her to move to Denver and I had tried several times. I remember the 7 December conversation. I really tried hard because I thought, ‘You know what? She wants to go to college. She wants to be a broadcaster. She wants to be on the national news. This would be the place to do this. Not Russellville, Arkansas.’ But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t leave Arkansas.

On the morning of 28 December, Kathy was shot at her desk. Paula saw news of the shooting in Russellville on television, but did not immediately make the connection until she received a phone call from her mother.

“Kathy was still on life support and all she said was, ‘Your sister Kathy has been shot,’ and she hangs up.”

McCraney spent the next few hours making phone calls and trying to ascertain what was going on and whether her sister was dead or alive.

“I remember sitting there just in a state of shock trying to go, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

She soon learned that her sister had been taken off life support and that Ronald Gene Simmons had been taken into custody, and made plans to travel home to Russellville.

She was eight months pregnant at the time and flew home despite being advised not to.

That’s like walking through the Twilight Zone. You’re on a plane and you hear people talking about this shooting because even though you had mass shootings then, they weren’t like they are today. You don’t hear it every other day. I’m hearing people talking about it and hearing people make jokes when we land in Little Rock. You know, I heard people going, ‘Do we even want to get off here? Is it safe?’

The next few days were surreal. Her mother appeared to be angry. Her father was upset. Her younger sister was throwing up and fainting. Television cameras were never far away and scores of people were pouring in and out of the family home.

McCraney likens the ordeal to an out-of-body experience.

“I remember walking with my grandfather,” she says. “I’m a pregnant adult and he was still holding my hand crossing the street. And he was just saying, ‘I don’t know how this could have happened.’ And the tears. My grandmother, too.

“I felt like I was in somebody else’s life until I saw them. That kind of snaps you back to reality and you’re like, ‘This is really us.’”

Kathy was buried on New Year’s Eve. Hundreds of mourners turned out to bid her farewell and it snowed, a rare occurrence in Russellville. She was eulogised as “a very special person who loved other people”.

Ronald Gene Simmons was later charged with 16 counts of murder and sentenced to death. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton signed his execution warrant on 31 May 1990 and he died by lethal injection on 25 June 1990.

Nobody claimed his body and he was buried in a paupers’ plot.

‘What have we become?’

las-vegas-cover-final Source: Time

According to Mass Shooting Tracker, there have been 413 mass shootings in which four or more people were shot (but not necessarily killed) in the United States this year. In October, Stephen Paddock fatally shot 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas and wounded 546 others. Just over a month later, Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 people in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and injured 20 others.

In the 30 years that have elapsed since the killings in Russellville, mass shootings have become an everyday part of American life. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook.

These are no longer merely place names, but words that signify unimaginable horror and dozens of innocent lives lost.

For McCraney, there’s a frustration that America has allowed itself to get to this point.

What have we become? How did we get to this point? How did we not care before now? I don’t get it. I just don’t. I don’t get how these things continue.

“I thought Sandy Hook would make a difference because they were babies. I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about them. I was thinking, there’s no way… This one is going to be the one that will make that change. And it didn’t. I don’t know what it takes.”

She is critical of politicians who tweet their thoughts and prayers in the wake of such tragedies, but continue to accept donations from the National Rifle Association. She is also highly critical of Trump, who she describes as an “embarrassment” and the head of an “evil administration”.

A proponent of gun control, she is critical of Congress’ decision earlier this year to sign a law making it easier for people with severe mental illness to gain access to guns.

Unfortunately, she says that firearms are so ingrained in American culture that constructive debates about guns are practically non-existent.

“I had a gun debate about the assault rifles and AR15s with a kid who was brought up here and worked for me before. And I said, ‘Why the hell would you even need one of those kinds of weapons?’ And he goes, ‘What if I run into a bunch of coyotes?’ I am 57 years old. I have not run into coyotes where I needed an assault rifle. I’ve lived in some rural areas. I’m like, ‘Just say you want them.’”

‘A physical pain in your heart and stomach’

One of the great tragedies of mass shootings is the legacy they leave behind. For every victim, there are family members and friends left grappling with a senseless loss.

Following her sister’s death, McCraney says her already dysfunctional family drifted further apart. Resentments formed and relations worsened. Some turned to alcohol. Others never quite processed the emotions.

For McCraney, it’s that particular pain that bubbles to the surface every time there’s a mass shooting.

Every time you see these shootings, it’s a physical pain in your heart and your stomach. Not necessarily for your loss, but that you now know what these other people are experiencing in their lives, and you know the pain they’re going to go through. And you know the way that different families deal with different things. Not all of them are going to come out close and huggy-feely and group hugs. Not all those families are going to make it like that.

“There will be families who will be torn apart by it and there will be families who find that love and that place where they can get through it together. You don’t know who’s who.

“I’m going to tell you that so much goes on when these things happen. You’ve got the shock of it. It’s not like they had a long-term illness and you knew it was coming. You’ve got funeral arrangements to make. Then everybody leaves and you’ve got the calm and the quiet where you’ve got to process it all in your own mind. And you’re kind of missing everybody bringing over a casserole and hanging out. It’s a tough road. I’m telling you.”

For McCraney’s part, she says she has largely made peace with her sister’s tragic death. She is back in touch with her younger sister, and she has a “very tight” relationship with her sister’s son, JR. He is now in his 30s and she describes him as an “amazing young man”.

When she wants to remember her sister, she’ll play her iPod in the car and listen to some of their favourite songs growing up. Songs like Downtown, Puff The Magic Dragon and I Got You, Babe.

“We were just little kids. We’d be riding to Grandma’s house and you didn’t wear seatbelts back then and your parents smoked in the car and you couldn’t breathe. And she’d be singing those songs. And I just, I love the memory I have of that and I’m so grateful that I have it. There’s so much more. But those are my favourite ones. She couldn’t sing but it never stopped her.”

“It makes me smile and it makes me happy. I just think that as sad as it all was and how unnecessary it was and how evil just came into our lives, I’m blessed.”

Column: ‘When it comes to guns and the country of my birth, I despair’

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