Death of a Family
The commode didn't work, so Lee Brewer moved in with her twin sister while her husband finished remodeling the bathroom. After he installed a new sink, medicine cabinet and lights, Pete called Lee and told her to come home. She said she wanted to stay with her sister a little longer since she was having a good time. So Pete kept working on the house.
He gutted the kitchen and put in new cabinets, countertops and a parquet floor, but when he finished those projects she said she still wasn't ready to come home. Next, he sanded down the hardwood floors and revarnished them to a thick, glossy shine. The lawn was manicured, and fire-red flowers lined the front porch, but Lee still didn't want to come home.
Instead, she wanted to share a two-room shack with no Sheetrock, no insulation and a padlock on the front door. It was her brother's old fishing cabin, a place where he stored rods and reels and let family members crash; the sisters hung frilly heart-dotted curtains in the kitchen and threw brown rugs on the bare floors. Lee liked living in the small fishing community on a street where everyone knows everyone else. It's the type of place where neighbors know what's for dinner next door just by opening the window. Lee was sitting on the front steps when Danny Lynn Gunter started talking to her; he's a friendly guy who liked to visit with his neighbors and tell jokes. He did ductwork repair on commercial air-conditioning units and drained a cooler of Busch every day. He had lived with his wife almost 20 years before they finally married and soon divorced.
Lee had known Danny for years. She hadn't really paid attention to him -- until he started paying attention to her. "Every woman wants to feel desirable and be desired," says Lee's niece Pam Farmer. "Maybe that's what Danny did for her." Their houses are so close that the tips of pine trees planted on either side touch each other. In the evenings Lee cooked Danny dinner, and then the two of them went dancing and drinking at Hickory Ridge, a hole-in-the-wall icehouse on FM 2100. Other nights he took her to a small place at the marina where people sold bait and launched boats. Sitting in the bay breeze, Danny downed can after can of Busch while Lee mixed Miller Lite with tomato juice.
"It wasn't no secret about it," says a neighbor, Lewis Thrasher.
At 2 a.m. Lee would walk across the street to her baby brother's house and wake up his wife to talk. "I think she was going through her second childhood or a teenage thing," Donna Farmer says. She spent hours at the kitchen table listening to Lee talk about how she didn't want to get married again and how she never wanted to live with another man again but how she felt her heart really, truly break the time she told Danny they couldn't see each other anymore. So Lee walked over to Danny's and told him they were back on again. Lee's feelings were torn and twisted; Danny was what she wanted, but Pete kept calling.
Pete loved her, missed her and wanted her to come home. Lee told Pete she had met someone else who was taking her out. "All he told her was "Don't do anything. Don't sleep with anybody right now. We still have things we gotta work out,' " Donna remembers. He didn't want Lee to throw away their 30 years together; he loved Lee so passionately that his sister-in-law was afraid he'd do something drastic -- maybe kill himself or hurt Lee. He did both.
Pete dropped out of high school when he was 15. His father had died after an oil well accident, his older sister was married and out of the house, so he felt like he was in charge of providing for his mother and five younger brothers. He got a job laboring in his uncle's lumberyard in Corpus Christi and then joined the army. Used to being in charge, Pete didn't like taking orders, so he dropped out during basic training. "He stayed in long enough to have his picture taken," says his older sister, Paulette Brewer Moser. Leaving isn't an option in the army, so like most deserters who get caught, Pete spent a year in the pen.
His mother and siblings migrated to Houston, and Pete followed. "We're not a close people as in touchy-feely-be-there-all-the-time people," Paulette says. "We're not a normal family according to what I've seen other families are like." But they fight for each other and they stick together, she says. "Wherever the family moved, eventually everybody came with us."
Pete worked as a truck driver and landed a job at Houston Shell and Concrete. His mother and Mavie Lee Farmer hung out at the same South Houston bar, so she introduced Lee to her 24-year-old son. Lee was six years older than Pete with soft brown hair, clear blue eyes and six daughters. She and Pete dated about six months before moving in together and getting married on Pete's birthday.
Before Pete came into their lives, Lee's youngest daughter, Tammie Gentry, remembers empty cupboards and meals consisting of ketchup on crackers and mustard sandwiches. When Pete moved into the house, he brought food with him. He loved to barbecue brisket and cook country ribs. Pete raised Lee's girls as his own, and he even took in her twin sister's son, Wilbur. He took the kids fishing at Lake Livingston every weekend and for at least a week in the summer. On sultry summer days they tied the Mercury motorboat to the trees and sat in the sun. At night, after the marshmallows were roasted and the campfire died down, they waded into the water to fish for crappie around a floating Christmas tree. "He was always so worried about us," Tammie remembers. "He made us wear ugly old orange life jackets all the time."
Pete worked long, hard hours at Shell, progressing from helper to dispatcher to manager. Most days he left the house before dawn and returned at dinnertime to a plate of Lee's country cooking. He was a big man, about six feet three and 275 pounds, with thinning brown hair and a collection of baseball caps to cover his bald spot. In the evenings he ate dinner with his family, watched the news and went to sleep. He loved to work, he loved to fish, and he loved his wife. "Aunt Lee was his life," says his nephew, Howard Farmer.
Lee was the type of lady who never left the house without her makeup on. Her hair was forever fixed, and her smile always looked like everything was perfect -- even when it wasn't. "She was the china doll type," Howard says, and she looked at least ten years younger than her age. When her nephew hurt his back, she took him in and cared for him for six months and spent hours talking him through problems. "She never told you what to do," Howard says, but she always helped him find the answer. She fixed chicken with dumplings as thick as biscuits and made her special banana-split cake with graham cracker crust for every family member's birthday.
Lee was the matriarch, the center of her sprawling family; first cousins from Houston to Collins, Mississippi, felt like brothers and sisters because they saw each other so often. Lee's twin sister and her children lived a block away, and all the other kids shared a tent on weekend fishing trips. Lee never missed a family reunion, and when family members were far away she spent hours on the phone keeping everyone updated. "She was the web," her nephew remembers. Her walls were covered in family photos, and her purse was full of pictures.
Lee played the lottery every week, read the National Enquirer and won at Rook so often her nephew swears she cheated. She ran errands for the sickly lady who lived next door, taking her to the grocery store, the doctor and the beauty shop. Growing up, Lee's daughters rotated sleeping at the old lady's house so she would feel safe; when the woman died she willed the house and everything in it to Lee.
"She would do anything for you -- unless she was in bed," says Lee's sister-in-law Donna. Sleeping was one of Lee's favorite activities; she especially liked to sleep her way through thunderstorms. She stayed awake all night and went to bed about the time her husband left for work. She liked the quiet of the night, although she was known to get lonely and call friends well after midnight to chitchat.
With the kids grown and out of the house, Lee spent her days watching reruns of The Golden Girls, game shows and old movies. She had a collection of roughly 4,000 videos she had bought or taped off TV. She was a fan of Hitchcock and horror movies, but her favorites were Steel Magnolias and Gone with the Wind. She liked movies about strong Southern women whose courage never died.
They were Uncle Pete and Aunt Lee to every kid in the neighborhood. "They had many, many happy years together," says Donna.
Memorial Day weekend two years ago, Pete went wade fishing in Galveston and caught a slew of black-spotted redfish. Pete was diabetic, and his right leg was covered in open sores that hadn't healed. His family says that bacteria in the water crept into his open wounds, crawled into his blood and up his leg. As the infection worsened, his leg swelled and turned black. "It blistered all up like it was rotting," Tammie says. Still, Pete didn't go to the doctor because he was a tough man who didn't like going to the doctor.
Friday night Pete landed in the emergency room; his leg was gangrenous and had to be amputated below the knee. The doctors later had to amputate the knee. Pete had seven surgeries during his six-week hospital stay; he was a high risk for surgery because he'd already had a heart bypass and a pacemaker. After the doctors took care of his leg, his kidneys started to fail; he almost died in the hospital.
His daughter Tammie cooked for him almost every day because he couldn't stand sterile hospital food. Lee didn't cook for Pete like she usually did, and she didn't visit him as much as other family members. Pete signed over his power of attorney and said he had a feeling Lee didn't want him to come home.
After his leg was cut off, Pete was forced to retire. He still visited work regularly to answer questions and make sure things were running okay. He thought the plant couldn't run without him, and he didn't like having to live without the plant. For the last 30 years, he had done nothing but work, fish and watch football. The family rigged the boat so that Pete could still fish with his brother and his friends almost every day. "When the water was up and the fish was biting, we'd go pretty regular," says his friend Lewis. "In the middle of the day when it was hot we'd just kinda sit around and shoot the bull. He was real quiet."
When he wasn't on the water, Pete started a series of projects to stave off sedentary sadness; he had worked as a supervisor, so he liked to watch over many different things. A few feet from the kitchen door he planted a neat square garden of sweet banana peppers, tomatoes, onions and collard greens. He and his brothers-in-law had a running contest to see who could cultivate the hottest jalapeño.
In the garage, Pete started making models of trucks and boats out of copper wire. He sculpted a three-foot-tall wire windmill that he planted beside his peppers; when his granddaughter was in the hospital, he made a wire heart with her name in the center. He made fishing weights for everyone in the family, remodeled the house next door that Lee had inherited, and then he started on his own. He did all the work he could himself; the rest he supervised.
"Retirement was really, really hard for him," Tammie says. "He was such a worker." He talked about finding a part-time job to keep him busy.
Pete spent much of his retirement visiting with his family. In the old days he had worked long hours so his family members could have whatever they wanted; now, they had more of him. He played for hours with his six grandchildren, letting them put curlers in the remains of his hair.
He talked to Tammie every day and ate dinner at her house once a week. They shared dessert in the garage while he smoked Winstons and told stories. He kept a baggie of change in his truck for spur-of-the-moment poker games; he usually walked away with the bag full of coins and bills packing his pockets. At monthly poker games he was usually the biggest winner and the last to leave.
"He was just a wonderful man," Tammie says. "He was always there for everybody."
Despite all the outside joy and calm, there was something about Pete that was off, his sister remembers. Pete told her he didn't think he'd live to see his next birthday. "I took it for that he had some kind of horrible disease or something that was gonna finish him off and he knew it," Paulette says. "He had things on his mind -- I don't know what, because he didn't tell me. It seems like he was figuring out something and trying to decide on things."
Pete lost about 100 pounds after he lost his leg. His heart was three times its normal size, his stomach was filled with fluid, his kidneys were worn, and he had gallstones -- he might not have had much longer to live. But also the fact that his wife seemed disappointed that he hadn't died weighed on his mind. It's not a new story for people to grow apart or for husbands to get on wives' nerves when they retire and are suddenly around the house all the time. Lee was used to peacefully sleeping away her days, watching old movies and waiting for him to come home. But now he was there all day long. "She wasn't used to him being around all the time," Paulette says. "My husband just retired, and I know what she was going through -- you have to make adjustments and they were in the adjustment period. Everybody just getting on everybody's nerves. He didn't want to be there, he wanted to be at work. It just created friction."
Pete kept himself busy by cooking, doing laundry, supervising his many projects and working in the garden. He wanted Lee to be more active and do more with her days, and she wanted him to leave her alone. Lee had been in a couple of car accidents and was taking pain medication as a result. The pills made it so she wasn't quite herself -- she wasn't as smiley and kind and caring; instead she was drifting in a faraway fog. Pete wanted her to stop taking the medication because he wanted his wife, the woman he loved, to come back.
But she liked the way the pills eased the pain. Instead of sitting in the house fighting, she left.
Situated on Lucy's Bayou, Huffman is a small fishing community that feels far away from Houston. It's only an hour and a half outside of town, but instead of the hot, flat, suffocating city, Huffman has hills and curving roads that make August feel like autumn in Appalachia. On Cherry Laurel Street, tall trees block out all but a circle of sky. The soft dirt is covered in leaves, rocks and crumpled beer cans. Lee lived with her twin sister in the old fishing cabin with mattresses, coolers and their brother's old boat littering the yard.
The whole neighborhood knew about her and Danny because Lee told just about everyone. She told neighbors that her marriage had been over for three years. "She didn't want to do any reconciling," Lewis says. Pete didn't want her touching another man, but she told people that Pete wasn't touching her that much.
"The person that has diabetes real bad don't have a real good sex life either," Lewis says. "They just don't perform anymore hardly. So I guess she went other places."
That would be next door, to Danny's house. "He was a different sort of guy, came out of Arkansas," Lewis says. And unlike every other man in the neighborhood, he didn't fish. But he did like drinking and dancing and having a good time with Lee.
Lee traveled to San Angelo with Danny to meet his kids. Then she introduced Danny to her daughter and granddaughter. Loyal to her father, Tammie couldn't look Danny in the eye. On Wednesday, August 2, about a month after she had moved out, Lee finally went to look at Pete's polished floors and newly redone house. She told Donna that she was going to move back in with Pete because that was her home, but she wasn't going to quit seeing Danny.
Before the sun got too strong, Glen Farmer stood in his front yard trying to put a fuel tank back on a Ford Bronco. As he worked, his breath got shorter. Glen wasn't a very healthy man -- he had spent the week before in the hospital. At about 8 a.m. he clasped his chest and fell to the ground; his daughter held him while a neighbor called 911. Seven minutes before the ambulance arrived, Glen's heart stopped beating. The EMTs got it started again, but en route to the hospital he stopped breathing again; he went 20 minutes without a heartbeat or a breath.
Across the street his twin sisters stood in the front yard. Too upset to drive, Lee handed Danny the keys to her gold Dodge Stratus, and the threesome followed Glen to the hospital. All three of Lee's older brothers had died in the last few years. Glen was the baby and the last man standing. At Kingwood Hospital the doctors jump-started Glen's heart, but in the ICU Glen slipped into a coma. His eyes opened and closed as his whole body shook with seizure after seizure. The doctors told his wife that his chance of survival was zero to none.
The only person his wife called was their son, Scott, in Enterprise, Alabama; she told him that his daddy was in a coma and she wanted him to come home. She said to go straight to the airport and charge a plane ticket on Lee's credit card. Thinking his mother was exaggerating, Scott called Lee's house to get the real story. Pete answered the phone and said he had no idea what was going on but he'd find out.
Pete telephoned the hospital and told Lee that he was on his way. She said he could come if he felt like it, but she wanted him to know that Danny was already there. Around noon Pete wheeled through the doors to the ER and wrapped his sister-in-law in a hug. In the sterile white waiting room he kissed Donna on the cheek and told her that everything was going to be okay. While he comforted her, Lee slipped outside and joined Danny in the green-roofed gazebo.
About 20 feet from the ER's sliding glass doors, the gazebo is a place where nurses take smoke breaks and worried families sit, wait and pray. Danny sat on one slotted park bench smoking a cigarette, and Lee shared another bench with her sister. Pete rolled his chair outside and parked beside Lee; he said he wanted to talk to her about their relationship. Lee told him it wasn't the right time; her baby brother was dying.
Pete said that without her, he was dying too.
Trying to be calm and rational, Pete turned to Danny and asked him what his plans were. Pete loved Lee, and if she didn't want to be with him, he wanted to make sure someone else would take care of her. Could Danny give her everything she wanted?
Danny said that it was none of Pete's business what he planned to do with his life. Pete said that was true, it wasn't his business what Danny did -- but Danny's life became his business when he started messing with Pete's wife.
Danny stood up and tried to get Lee to leave, but Pete stopped them. He turned to his wife and asked if she wanted him to leave. She said yes.Pete had been trying to have a calm, collected conversation; he wasn't yelling, he wasn't losing his temper, he wasn't threatening to beat the hell out of Danny. He was just trying to make sure his wife was taken care of. But when Danny mouthed off to Pete, he snapped. Pete liked to be in control and he liked to be in charge; he didn't like taking orders in the army, and he wasn't going to take marching orders from either of them.
Pete climbed into the cab of his white '98 Dodge Ram and gunned the engine. Instead of heading toward the highway home, he drove back to the gazebo. Pete kept a .357-caliber Smith & Wesson in his car for protection; he had been mugged driving to work, and after he lost his leg, he felt like a rolling target. The gun was a safety precaution he had never intended to use.
Pete parked in the red ambulance-only fire lane and climbed out of the car. Slowly, in the 100-degree heat, he rolled toward the shade. Lee's twin sister, Beverly Langley, was the first to see the silver gun sitting in his lap. She leaped off the bench and told Pete to leave Lee alone. She begged him not to hurt Lee, but he told her to get out of the way. When Beverly refused to move, he shot around her, hitting Lee once in the chest and twice in the arm. One bullet broke her arm, went through both her lungs, and punctured her heart, stomach and spleen. Another bullet fractured her rib and bruised her left lung. Danny stood up to run, and Pete shot him in the knee and twice in the back.
Pete went back to his truck and dumped six empty shells on the front floorboard. He had a box of 43 bullets, but he needed only a few more. Clasping her right hand over her heart, Lee slumped over her handbag; Pete shot her in the back. He shot Danny three more times in the chest; one bullet knocked out three ribs. The fatal shot was to Danny's back: It broke two ribs, caused a lung to collapse, punctured the pericardium, and went through his heart and out his neck.
After shooting Lee a total of four times and Danny a total of six, Pete saved the last bullet for himself. Slightly below and just behind his right ear he fired into his brain; the bullet lodged in his bald spot. Pete died instantly at about 1:20 p.m.
Lee and Danny were rushed into the ER. Doctors worked on them for another hour before declaring them both dead. In Lee's purse was her .38 special and a note from Pete begging her to come home. He said he would do anything she asked him to do.
The family pulled the plug on Lee's baby brother Tuesday morning. He was buried Wednesday, and Pete and Lee were laid to rest Thursday evening. Pete had a solid mahogany casket, while Lee's was baby blue to match her eyes. At the funeral the preacher read the usual "walking through the valley in the shadow of death" psalms, but he also urged family members to pray for Pete's and Lee's souls. The couple had never been very religious; they went to church in a fishing boat instead of a chapel.
Danny's family declined to comment to the Houston Press. Neighbors say they holed up in his small house and drank and drank and drank. Lee's family is distraught: Lee and her twin were so close they could feel each other's thoughts. Having watched her sister die, Beverly is still in shock. The family has someone stay with her at all times, and they said she couldn't meet with the Press. "She's really lost. I fully don't expect her to make it very long," her niece Pam says. Lee's eldest daughter also went into shock and had to be hospitalized. Her youngest daughter, Tammie, has been trying to hold the family together. Still, she doesn't like going to her parents' house alone to organize and clean out the paperwork. She tries to put it off until her brother and sister can go with her.
Doing a load of laundry, she found a pair of Pete's pants safety-pinned at the knee. "I didn't have the heart to unpin them," she says. She just washed them and hung them back up. She and one of her sisters are going to weekly therapy sessions. She has questions she can't answer -- from little things like wondering if her mom would like her new haircut to why the date on the marriage license is a few years off from what they'd always told her. She tries to tell her 15-year-old daughter everything she can remember about her parents and about her own life. She doesn't want her little girl to be left with so many questions.
Saturday, September 8, was Pete's 55th birthday and the anniversary of both their wedding and their deaths. It also marks the day Tammie's first husband was killed, leaving her five months pregnant and alone. Tammie signed up months ago to fish in the All-Girl Invitational Red Fish Rodeo Roundup. Her father talked about driving down with her daughter to watch her win. "This is where my dad would want me to be," she says. "Fishing." She paints her toenails with her mother's mauve nail polish and takes her dad's rod for luck.
She's out in Rockport where the twisting roads are lined with black-eyed Susans and the wind has blown the mesquite trees back over the houses. The Kontiki Beach water is rough; after 30 minutes on the boat the sky opens up and rain pours down. Her mother would have loved it, she thinks; Lee could have slept away the day. Tammie and her cousin pull on rain ponchos and crawl under the boat's bridge and take a nap. In an hour, the water flattens out and they find a clear patch with schools of redfish swimming in the grass. Tammie catches an 18-inch trout with her dad's pole; it bites her.
The next day they catch 28 pounds of fish and her team comes in second place out of 30. Her dad would be proud.
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