By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
By Sean Pendergast
Early Sunday morning, June 24, Gregory Wade Beard finished a 12-hour shift repairing Compaq computers. He walked quietly into his double-wide trailer, trying not to wake his wife and daughter. Stepping into the bathroom, he noticed a knee-high hole in the dark wood door; he thought his three-year-old, Hallie, might have stabbed something sharp into the wall, but glancing across the room, he saw that the dresser mirror was shattered. There was another hole in the bedroom wall, which he followed through the kitchen and into the gun cabinet. Broken glass glimmered on the mud-colored carpet.
In the bedroom, his wife and daughter were lying together underneath the soft blue quilt Gregory and Deborah Beard bought on their honeymoon. Gregory lightly touched them both to make sure they were still breathing. Their trailer was permanently parked 200 yards off Field Store Road in Waller, but he pictured someone driving by and firing toward the house. According to Gregory, his wife then awoke, said that his 17-year-old stepdaughter, Carolee Riedell, had had a fight with her boyfriend the night before and had gotten out the guns -- then Deborah went back to sleep. Gregory looked under the bed and saw that the lock had been broken off the case where he keeps his hunting rifle and pistols. The nine- millimeter had been loaded; he emptied the chamber, put the pistol back in the case and pushed it under the bed.
Calmly, he carried his daughter to the living room, sat her in his chair and turned on the Cartoon Network. He walked down the hall to Carolee's bedroom and told her and her sleeping boyfriend to get up. He threw a stack of trash bags at her and told her to pack. Hallie followed Gregory into the master bedroom and climbed onto the bed, while Gregory told Deborah she needed to find herself an apartment.
Gregory tried to stay calm for Hallie; he watched cartoons with her while the women gathered their things. About 30 minutes later Deborah walked into the living room and reached for Hallie.
"No," Gregory told her. "Hallie stays with me."
She told him he couldn't keep her from her child. He said he knew that, but "For now," he said, "Hallie stays with me."
Gregory followed his wife and stepdaughter outside and watched Deborah back the van out of the dirt driveway so fast the tires spun. Then Gregory went inside and made Hallie breakfast: eggs, bacon, and toast with peanut butter and jelly.
Gregory filed for divorce the next day. In his attorney's waiting room, Hallie sat with her grandmother, Ethylene Beard, and played with a puzzle; Ethylene said Hallie put her hands together like a pistol and said, "Nana, Sissy go bang. Bang!" Gregory's wife had assured him that the baby hadn't been in the house, but now Gregory didn't believe her. He threw up throughout the week that followed, crying as he told his mother over and over again that the bullets were Hallie's height. "Mom," he told her, "they could've killed my baby."
In his application for a protective order, Gregory's attorney, Patricia Batton, alleged that Deborah uses illegal drugs and allows her underage daughter to drink and do drugs. In addition, Batton said Deborah takes prescription pain medication that "inhibits her ability to function properly," and said Hallie was probably present during the shooting. But Associate Judge Michael Hay denied the protective order and gave temporary custody to Deborah.
"What do you think is more horrible," asked Deborah's attorney, Ralph Shepherd, "leaving weapons out where kids can get to them? Or somebody smoking marijuana? He's just as guilty as anybody else."
Gregory appealed the order and spent the next month waiting for another hearing, which was repeatedly postponed. He had nightmares where he heard Hallie crying, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!" but he couldn't reach her. When he picked Hallie up for alternate weekend visits, someone had taught her to say "Daddy's an asshole."
Meanwhile, Deborah was saying the whole custody battle was unnecessary. She wanted to share custody, and her lawyer said the fight was a waste of time and money. Her attorney said Hallie needed both her parents and both parents were equally equipped to care for her. Shepherd said Gregory's gun wouldn't have been fired if Gregory hadn't had the gun. He said the Beards should stop fighting, buy an annuity and start saving for Hallie's education.
Gregory borrowed money on his credit card, and if he got laid off, he hoped to use his retirement money to pay his lawyer's fees. His lawyer submitted into evidence everything from used condoms to a teenage girl's diaries to show that Hallie belonged with her daddy.
"My baby wants to come home," Gregory said. "And I want to go get her."
On a warm August afternoon, about 20 Rhode Island Red and Giant Black chickens followed Gregory around his property. "They're better than Weed Eaters," he said. The yard is two acres fence to fence with a trampoline, tire swing and plastic kiddie pools. When he calls, a billy goat runs toward him as loyally as a cocker spaniel. Newborn kittens sleep underneath the porch, and older, tailless cats roam the yard. "They're all half bobcat," Gregory said, picking one up. "Sweet as can be." Gregory has always been a loner, a man who spent his spare time wandering the woods, exploring new trails on his deer lease in Normangee. He can't relax indoors; he avoids driving in downtown Houston because traffic makes him nervous. Magnolia was too urban for him, so in 1995 he bought a brown double-wide trailer in Waller near the Harris County line. He wanted to live in a quiet area where he wouldn't hear sirens and he could sit on his porch and not be bothered. Once a nursery, the land was flanked by a cornfield, a horse pasture and a lake -- it was perfect, Gregory thought. Gregory is five foot nine and 140 pounds; he's a thin man who wears ripped T-shirts, tight jeans and worn sneakers. He earned his muscles laboring throughout school to help his mother pay bills. His blue eyes hide behind square glasses, and up until a few months ago his mousy brown hair curled past his shoulders, making him look straight off Wayne's World. Shy, quiet and not very confident, Gregory had only a handful of girlfriends.