By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
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.
Occasionally co-workers dragged him to bars, but since he hates bars, he didn't want to meet a woman who likes them. Four years ago he placed an ad in the Greensheet. Then 30, he wrote that a "kinda boring" single white male in Waller, who liked eating dinner and going for walks, was looking for a woman. "Must like animals," the ad read.
The first girl "sounded too wild," Gregory said. The second was Deborah. He liked that she seemed just as skeptical as he was about meeting someone through a want ad. She told him she didn't like drinking or doing drugs or going out either. They sounded like two lonely people who might be a little less lonely together. "I was just depressed, and I wanted a date," Deborah said. She had been with a guy for 12 years before he met another woman, told Deborah he didn't love her anymore and left. "I was just sitting at home with my world falling apart," she said. "I would kill myself, but I would go to hell."
They talked on the phone for two weeks before their first date, at the Tomball Wal-Mart. Gregory said he was nervous and wanted to meet someplace where there would be a lot of people. Deborah said he was cheap. Afterward they went to his place, where he fixed her an omelet and they watched TV. Deborah said Gregory seemed nice, quiet and harmless. "He wouldn't hurt my babies or nothing," she said. There was never an official second date; he said the next day she brought over some clothes and then some pictures and then she started moving his stuff out to the barn. Before he knew it, she and her daughter were living with him and he was in love.
When they met, Deborah outweighed him by about 40 pounds. He liked her long pretty red hair, but what he liked the most about her was that she liked him. He couldn't believe she thought he was cute and wanted to be with him. Deborah, then 34, told him she couldn't have more children. "Carolee was my first miracle," she said. Gregory wanted babies and figured someday they could see a fertility doctor. Six months later Gregory was ecstatic when she told him she was pregnant. They married at the Conroe Courthouse, then rented a renovated barn for a weeklong Fredericksburg honeymoon.
Deborah convinced him that fresh eggs taste better than store-bought, so he turned the carport into a chicken coop. She told him she'd always dreamed of a house with hearts on the shutters, so Gregory made white wood shutters and cut out the hearts himself. He broke five jigsaw blades and messed up the first 24 before he got them exactly right. He didn't want to give her a broken, imperfect heart.
Jerry Springer was on while Deborah gave birth to Hallie Rose on March 10, 1998. The day Hallie was born, Gregory sat up all night holding the baby's finger. He changed her first diaper and gave Hallie her first bath. When she got her shots, she cried and Gregory threw up.
Gregory worked 12- to 16-hour shifts Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights and one Saturday a month. His wife had a nine-to-five job as a deputy title clerk at the Harris County tax assessor's office, so on the afternoons Gregory worked, his mother-in-law cared for Hallie. The rest of the time Gregory stayed home with the baby; he put her high chair in front of the screen door so she could watch the birds while she ate.
He played Indian flute music to relax her, and she wouldn't fall asleep unless Gregory was carrying her, humming and patting her back. "I spoiled her," he said. "I didn't care." She slept in the bed between her parents, clutching a fistful of Gregory's hair to make sure he was still there.
Hallie's toys are scattered throughout the house and yard; there's a pile in the toolshed so she can be with him while he works. Together they rode his old three-wheeled motorcycle around the yard in first gear and took spur-of-the-moment fishing trips -- usually catching more turtles than catfish. Gregory supplemented his income by buying a $300 knife collection off the Home Shopping Network and reselling them individually for a profit. The money he made he put in Hallie's piggy banks.
Last year Gregory bought four baby ducks and a ten-day-old goat he and Hallie bottle-fed. They took carrots to Desie, the neighbor's horse, and played with the green-eyed kittens. All the chickens were gentle enough that Hallie could scoop them up and carry them around the yard without getting scratched or pecked. At night Gregory and Hallie stood by the chicken coop listening to the hen that snores.
During the last year Deborah and Gregory talked less and less, he said. He thought Deborah needed more time to herself, or maybe she was tired of being with him and Hallie. He said he told her to go out with her girlfriends and he'd take care of Hallie. Deborah said she didn't notice any changes in their marriage or their life. She went to work, she came home, and often Gregory wasn't there. They lived in the same house but saw each other only two nights a week, she said. They never went out to dinner because she was dieting; when they were together they argued, mostly about the daughter from her first marriage.
Carolee got in trouble at school for smoking, skipping class and writing notes. She was placed in an alternative school because she ditched after-school detention, Deborah said. She was later suspended for pulling a knife on someone. "A knife that Greg gave her," Deborah added. Gregory said Carolee dropped out, but Deborah insists that after meeting with principals, counselors and teachers, she decided to homeschool Carolee (even though Deborah worked full-time). "She didn't do real good at it, but we did it," Deborah said. Carolee repeated ninth grade and had a problem passing tests. Now she works at Jack in the Box and is trying to get a GED, Deborah said. "There's nothing bad about my little girl," Deborah said. "She's just a normal kid."
Gregory said the worst incident between him and Carolee happened a year ago when she called the police to accuse him of hurting her. According to the deputy's report, Carolee told Officer Mitche Bettin of the Harris County sheriff's department that Gregory picked her up at a friend's house in Katy, said nothing driving home and then began arguing about her several days' absence. Carolee said Gregory grabbed her around the neck, choked her and repeatedly punched her in the face. Her right cheek was slightly red, the officer noted, but it didn't look like she had been hit or choked. When he told her this, Carolee got "extremely sarcastic," the officer wrote, and told him that maybe Gregory hadn't hit her, but she wasn't given enough freedom and she shouldn't have to tell her parents where she is all the time.
Gregory told the officer that she'd been gone several days and when he picked her up, her breath smelled like alcohol. The officer asked Carolee if she had been drinking; she said no. The officer told Carolee that he could smell alcohol on her breath. "She said she only had a taste," the officer wrote.
In Gregory's version, he brought her home, confronted her and confiscated the beeper he had given her (since she hadn't returned her parents' pages). He said she started screaming, "Fuck you, motherfucker. I hate you." Then she ran into the master bedroom, grabbed Hallie's bicycle helmet, returned and hit Gregory in the face with it, knocking off his glasses. To calm her down, he held her arms; struggling, they fell to the floor, where Carolee elbowed him, then ran to a neighbor's house and called the cops.
Deborah told the officer that Gregory's account was what she witnessed and said Carolee had been suspended from Waller Junior High School "for being disruptive and verbally abusive."
Gregory didn't file charges.
After he kicked his wife out, Gregory got a temporary restraining order against her, which Deborah violated by calling and leaving unstamped notes in the mailbox addressed to Hallie. On July 7 Hallie received a card that said, "I can't always be with you but I'm always thinking about you." Deborah wrote her phone number and "Hallie, Mommy loves you soooo much. I miss you and wish I could see you and kiss you or even speak to you." She told her to play nice.
Deborah enclosed an old picture of herself, a heavyset woman with waist-length hair. Her brown eyes were rimmed with Cleopatra coal, and her mascara-thickened lashes were neatly separated spikes. Another picture showed Deborah and Carolee cheek to cheek. Wearing a black tank top and zebra-striped sunglasses, Carolee had a sultry Seventeenmagazine model look. The next card admitted into evidence said, "I am looking for you. Mommy loves you baby. I promise, I will see you soon. Don't forget us." She told her three-year-old to please call if she got a chance. The last note chilled Gregory's mother. "I am looking for you" sounds an awful lot like "I am going to kidnap you," Ethylene said. The restraining order ended the night before the hearing, so Gregory took Hallie to sleep in a Houston Residence Inn.
"They hid her from me," Deborah said.
Gregory's lawyer's "evidence" included a Tampa sweet cigar label, a used condom and two ripped X-tasy condom wrappers Gregory found under Carolee's bed. Marked exhibit no. 38, in a "How the Grinch stored Christmas" Ziploc baggie were three bullets.
What Gregory and his mother see as the most damning evidence were color-copied excerpts from Carolee's diary. Dated March 9, 2000, she wrote in purple ink on the pink page, "Tim licked my asshole. It tickled but it felt good." She wrote about stealing $35 and a checkbook from school and getting suspended for skipping. Six days later she wrote about having sex with her boyfriend, getting drunk, fighting and throwing beer cans at him and his friend. "I got pissed, ran inside and got the double barrel shot gun. I couldn't cock it back, though. But I scared them off."
The next entry was May 7, 2000: "to summarize my life since March, I got suspended from school and I am working at Macfrugals." Her cat had kittens and she and Tim got back together. "He's still a cheap ass but he's made me cum 5 times! He's so bad ass."
On July 20, Associate Judge Michael Hay decided that it didn't matter if Deborah's elder daughter was more spice than sugar and awarded Deborah primary custody of Hallie, giving Greg visits on alternate weekends and two hours every Wednesday.
On Monday, August 27, Gregory testified in Judge Eva Guzman's courtroom that he smelled marijuana in his house every day and that he "begged and threatened" his wife to stop smoking, but she told him that getting stoned wasn't a big deal and everybody did it.
Gregory's attorney, Pat Batton, submitted the used condoms Gregory found in Carolee's bedroom, pictures of his shot-up house and spent bullets she had submitted during the first hearing. She had Gregory relive the morning he came home and found bullet holes in his house. Batton asked Gregory if he and Deborah had a conversation after he filed for divorce where Deborah called him a "pussy" and told him to "act white." She submitted into evidence a microcassette of that discussion.
Gregory said he'd had problems with Deborah's daughter Carolee since day one. She constantly ran away, cursed and threw violent temper tantrums. He said Carolee turned the lock on his gun cabinet with a screwdriver, stole his nine-millimeter pistol and placed it under her pillow. After he discovered it, he purchased the hard-cover case he stored beneath his bed.
Deborah's attorney, Ralph Shepherd, asked Gregory if Carolee's stealing his pistol wasn't an indication that he shouldn't have guns in the house. Shepherd asked Gregory if he promised Deborah he would remove the weapons from their home.
"No," Gregory said. "I didn't."
Shepherd asked Gregory about the night he gave Carolee alcohol. Gregory explained that Carolee ran out of Prozac and was ranting and raving. Before anything got broken, he gave her a splash of Scotch in a glass of Coke to calm her until her mother got home.
Hallie's attorney ad litem, Christine Jonte, asked Gregory, "What would possess you to give a child alcohol?" Gregory had already testified that he knew Carolee was taking prescription medication and suspected she had a drinking problem.
Gregory said it was a mistake he regretted and that he would have to live with. Hallie's attorney asked if Gregory cared about Carolee at all and what kind of a role model he was. She asked if he thought it was a "good idea" to have guns in his house. Gregory said that if they were secure, yes. "I was raised up around them and taught to respect," he said. He testified that his guns were locked in a safe steel case. Jonte pointed out that Gregory had thought the weapons were secure in both the gun cabinet and the gun case yet Carolee was able to get them.
Hallie's attorney asked Gregory if he thought Deborah was a bad mother. And if he didn't condone her doing drugs around Hallie, then why did he allow Deborah to be in the same room with Hallie when she was stoned? Why didn't he think of divorcing Deborah earlier and taking Hallie to a healthier environment? Why did he let Deborah care for Hallie when he went to work?
"You left your child with someone you didn't think was appropriate," Jonte said.
"I didn't have no other choice at the time," Gregory said. But his mother moved in with him and she can baby-sit. Jonte asked Gregory what effect it would have on Hallie to take her mother away. Gregory said he was afraid of that, too.
"I don't want to take her mother away from her all the time," Gregory said (even though he was applying for sole custody). "I just want Deborah and Carolee to get help. I want the drugs to stop."
Deborah walked out of the courtroom and stood by the elevator watching her attorney's briefcase while he used the restroom. She said she really wanted to speak to the Houston Press, but her attorney forbade her.
"It's all unnecessary," she said, echoing her lawyer.
Greg briskly walked out of the bathroom purposely not looking at Deborah. As he turned the corner, Deborah lifted her hands and shrugged like she couldn't understand why he didn't stop and say hello.
Friday morning Deborah testified that she didn't know anything about the shooting until after Gregory kicked her out of the house. She said the night before it happened, she drove her brother home, and when she and Hallie returned, she found Carolee in her bedroom picking up broken glass. Carolee told her she had had a fight with her boyfriend and threw a shoe at him but missed and hit the mirror.
Deborah said she accepted that answer and went to bed without noticing any bullet holes or checking to make sure the boyfriend either went home or slept on the couch. "I was real tired," Deborah said. "I'd had a long day."
The next thing she knew, Gregory woke her up screaming and yelling to get out and she didn't know why. She said he promised her that there were no guns in the house and she believed that the gun case beneath the bed was empty.
She said she smoked pot, but so did Gregory -- she claims they smoked together on Valentine's Day, birthdays and special occasions. Deborah said she believes Carolee's diary is fiction her daughter concocted knowing Gregory searched her room. "I know she loaded the diary up so he'd have something to read," Deborah said.
Batton's office mate, attorney Steve Leatherman, asked Deborah if she and her husband had ever had a conversation in which Gregory asked whether a friend of hers did crack and she responded, "We don't even use it, much." Deborah testified that she never said that and she has never done crack in her life. In a motion to impeach her testimony, Gregory's attorney played a tape of the conversation where Deborah said, "I don't even know anybody who does that. We don't even do that -- too much."
After everyone left the courtroom for a brief recess, Shepherd asked Deborah, "Do you see now why I told you not to talk to him? It's all coming back."
After the break, Hallie's attorney asked Deborah, did she want Hallie to become "the same type of young lady that Carolee is?"
"Yes," Deborah said. "Carolee is a good girl."
Jonte asked if Deborah wanted Hallie to be smoking marijuana and having sex by the time she's 17. And if not, how did Deborah plan to stop it?
"Do you think you set an appropriate example for both your daughters?" Jonte asked.
"I try," Deborah said softly.
She said Gregory is a good father and that Hallie loves her daddy very much. She said she thought standard weekend-with-dad visitation rights were unfair because Gregory works weekends. She said Gregory should be with Hallie whenever he's not working. "He just has to talk to me," she said. "He won't talk to me."
The hearing was postponed once again because Deborah didn't obey two court orders to get tested for drugs. When she finally went to the clinic, her hair was tested only for marijuana in the last three months, rather than for the full spectrum of drugs in the entire length of hair.
The judge handwrote another order and stepped down. When her lawyer's back was turned, Deborah walked over to Gregory and started whispering. Her attorney noticed and angrily beckoned her.
"Why are you talking to him?" Shepherd asked. "Don't talk to him. For God's sake -- he uses everything against you."
An hour into the final hearing, on Tuesday, September 11, America was attacked. Terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center and then the Pentagon. As Houston began evacuating out of fear that oil and energy companies were next, the judge was given notice that the family law center might close. "All I wanted was my baby," Gregory said. "I didn't care what blew up." Instead of postponing the hearing again, the lawyers cut witnesses and expedited the proceedings.
Jonte told the court she had concerns about Hallie living with Gregory, but she had more concerns about Deborah. Gregory was awarded primary custody, with Deborah having alternate weekend visits and two hours every Wednesday evening. Deborah was ordered to pay child support, take parenting classes, get counseling and have random drug tests. An injunction also was issued to keep Carolee from being alone with Hallie. "These are just temporary orders," Batton said. "There's a lot more work to be done before any other final resolution is reached."
Deborah said she lost custody of Hallie because she decided to back off. "I didn't want them to put the baby in foster care," she said.
She described the shooting as "a little teenage problem" and said she still doesn't understand why Gregory kicked her out. She kept trying to go home, but he wouldn't let her in. She said he told her she could come back, but she had to choose between him and Carolee. When she chose her daughter, she said, he decided to tell the world that she's a horrible person. She insists that she's a good mother. "My husband has lost his mind or something," she said. "He's an idiot. He's never been married before and he doesn't know anything about life, and his mother is equally retarded as he is. I don't know what to say about them people."
She insists that Gregory was acting entirely under Ethylene's orders. "His mom decided to move in and be his new wife," Deborah said. She can't remember why she married Gregory in the first place or why she stayed with him. All she can say is that he's a cheap psycho dork who blows things out of proportion. "When something small happens, like, 'Hey, it's time to get a divorce,' he makes a big deal like O.J. Simpson has done something," she said. "Nothing has happened other than two people can't get along and we're getting a divorce."
To make it easier, she stopped fighting. She still wants her baby, but she loves her too much to hand her over to strangers.
"It's hard not being with Hallie," she said. "But I had to back off Though he's kinda retarded, he's a good daddy. He's a terrible stepdad, he's an idiot husband, but he does love that baby. And I know when the baby's with him, I know the baby's okay."
The hearing ended at 10:45 a.m., and the judge ordered that Hallie be given to Gregory by noon. "I think that was an indication of the concern the court had for her welfare," Batton said.
Gregory and his mother picked up Hallie, went straight home and played outside all afternoon. They chased chickens around the yard, rode the three-wheeler and, with their clothes on, sat in the creek bed looking for fishies. Then Hallie rode her toy truck up and down the driveway until the battery died. Together she and Gregory fed the animals and doctored a chicken with a snake bite.
He took her to the zoo where they stared at the elephants until it got too hot and they ducked into the air-conditioned ape cave. Then they went home and filled the wading pool. The next day they went to the Woodlands Mall and rode the carousel five times. "I just let her go at it," Gregory said. Then they played with the puppies at the pet store. "Now I kinda want a puppy," he said. But right now he's glad just to have Hallie.
At night he sits beside her bed and watches her sleep.
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