Family and friends remember 21-year-old shooting victim Rebecca Foley, a student at Savannah State University in Georgia, and grapple with her loss.
Theirs are the faces behind the numbers. A hard-working college student shot in her prized car. A fun-loving 2-year-old accidentally shot by his brother. An aging rocker killed for a thousand bucks.
As part of a special NBC News report, “Flashpoint: Guns in America,” NBCNews.com catalogued 91 shooting deaths across the country between Jan. 19 and 21, the weekend the nation marked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and ushered a president into his second term. While not a statistically valid sample, the snapshot of gun violence in America is intended to illuminate both the magnitude of the problem and the personal toll such violence inflicts at a time of national debate about gun rights and gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.
The victims we found died during robberies, after arguments, in moments of despair. They were killed by loved ones, by strangers, by their own hand. Each story, in its own way, is heartbreaking. As the country awaits President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night, we share a handful of them here:
Rebecca Foley worked as a babysitter, office clerk and cater-waiter to put herself through college, and she scraped and saved to make her first big purchase: a 2006 cherry-red Volkswagen Beetle. The 21-year-old business student adored tooling around Savannah, Ga., with the windows down.
Courtesy Sarah Shoup
Rebecca Foley, left, leans against her VW Beetle with friend Sarah Shoup in this undated photo.
On the evening of Jan. 21, she was driving home with her boyfriend of a year following behind in his own car after getting his nails painted because he lost a bet with her, police said. He got caught up in traffic and so she was alone as she piloted the car into her apartment complex’s parking lot, past the live oak trees and hanging moss, toward her tidy garden-level unit.
What happened next is a mystery, but the boyfriend told police that when he finally caught up, he found the little red car stopped at a bizarre angle and Foley slumped over the steering wheel. She had been shot, apparently while the car was still moving, and would be dead within minutes. The rear, driver-side window was shattered by a single bullet that left a hole the size of a 50-cent piece. No arrests have been made, despite a $6,000 reward, and the motive is unknown.
To family and friends, Foley’s violent end still seems unreal.
“She never was around anybody who would put her in a bad situation. She never had any enemies,” said Alixandra Scalia, 20, a former roommate.
Interactive map: A long weekend of gun deaths. Click to enlarge.
Friends and family members use almost identical language to describe Foley, calling her a beautiful, hard-working young woman who was determined to put old family troubles behind her and realize her goal of a degree, grad school and a good job in the risk-management industry.
Born in Charlotte, N.C., and raised in rural Virginia and Georgia by her divorced mom, Foley played the violin at 4 but didn’t read until second grade, after she was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. She had a rocky relationship with her mother, Jennifer, and moved out when she was 17.
“She said, ‘I can’t live under your roof and I won’t.’ But she graduated high school, which doesn’t always happen in these cases, and she went on to college,” her mother told NBC News.
She bounced between several colleges and overcame academic setbacks before enrolling full-time at Savannah State University, where she hit her stride. Her mother said she “worked her butt off” to stay on track, and one of her professors wrote that she was a “joy to work with.”
She would rise at 4:30 some mornings to fit in work in a local insurance office before school. She kept her credit score on a Post-it note and cooked dinner with a friend every night to save money.
At Christmas, she splurged a little on her “very first cruise” to the Bahamas, said one of her bosses, insurance agent Mitchell Bush. She dreamed of buying a fixer-upper on Tybee Island, an island town near Savannah.
“We had just talked about that on Sunday -- and Monday she was dead,” said her grandmother, Lois Fowler.
The night of the shooting, Foley’s two roommates were in the apartment when they heard her boyfriend banging on the door.
“He was just saying, ‘Rebecca’s been shot and just kept repeating that,’” said Abbey Bernal, 22. “Medics tried to resuscitate her, and it was too late. I just saw them pull the sheet over her head.”
Friends and family said they can’t believe they won’t see Foley’s flashing blue eyes and big smile again. They remember how she loved cream of potato soup, wore SpongeBob slippers and doted on her Shih-Tzu named Zoe.
Jim Seida / NBC News
Jennifer Foley holds a portrait of her daughter, Rebecca, inside her Calhoun, Ga. home.
Foley’s mother said she and her daughter had grown closer in recent months and that Rebecca had called the day she was killed to ask what dishes would go well with a pork roast.
And there was another conversation she remembered.
“She called me not six months ago and said she had a dream that she was going to die young,” her mother said. “I told her, ‘I don’t think that’s true. I hope that’s not true.’”
Family members say they’ll remember 2-year-old Travin Varise for how his chubby face would break into the sweetest smile, how excited he got every time “Finding Nemo” came on, how he went after a drumstick with gusto.
And how he loved his big brother, Terrance.
Travin Varise, 2, was fatally shot at his Baton Rouge, La., home on Jan. 21.
“Terrance growed his little brother up,” his aunt, Juanita, said. “Before my sister knew who the baby’s father was, he raised him up like it was his son.”
That’s why, the family says, it’s tragic that Terrance, 18, is now locked up, charged with accidentally killing the toddler while playing with a friend’s .357 Magnum at their Baton Rouge, La., home. He has not yet entered a plea.
“It’s so hard,” said the boys’ mother, Yarnell.
She was crying, but her voice took on an edge as she complained she had not been able to visit her eldest child because the jail is too far away. “I want him to know it’s going to be all right. I know he didn’t do it on purpose,” she said.
Terrance was on probation after pleading guilty to burglary in May, but his mother said he was a “good dude” who had matured since then. His aunt said he didn’t carry a weapon – “We don’t allow guns in the house” – but had been hanging out with “the wrong crowd.”
Terrance’s Facebook page, however, suggests an interest in guns. There’s a photo of a small arsenal laid out on a plaid bedspread, another where he is holding a silver revolver at his side, a third where he appears to be dangling a shotgun from one finger.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore says he sees pictures like that all the time after a young person is arrested for a violent crime.
“Do you know where your guns are? Because young kids play with guns and bad things happen sometimes,” he said. “I think it’s video games and stuff – no one really dies and everyone wakes up the next morning. There’s a whole culture of kids not knowing it’s real.”
Read Part 1: Death takes no holiday: Tracking gun violence over one long January weekend
Terrance Varise is getting his fill of reality now. He’s being held on charges of negligent homicide, cruelty to a minor and weapons possession along with a probation violation. He was not allowed to attend Travin’s funeral.
“He feels the pain and he’s going to live with this for the rest of his life,” his aunt said.
His mother said she feels like she’s lost two children.
“My father Jesus does things for a reason, but I don’t know what the reason is,” she said. “It’s a hurting feeling. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
“There are two dead people.”
Those chilling words on a 911 call just after midnight on Jan. 21 were the last that anyone heard retired fire inspector William Liebrich utter. He hung up and then, police believe, shot his wife of 30 years, Colleen, before turning the 12-gauge shotgun on himself.
When cops arrived at the Warwick, R.I., home they found a note on the front door saying it was safe to enter and that the couple’s two sons, Bill, 24, and Jeff, 21, should not be allowed in. There were also letters for the boys, unsigned but typed by William, police say.
Before that, the sons said, it had been just like any other day. When Bill left for soccer practice, his dad told him, “Have fun. Be safe, bud.” Jeff watched TV with his dad before meeting friends.
Colleen and William Liebrich, in an undated family photo.
“The thing that was so shocking about the whole thing is that life was moving along as normal. There wasn’t a single red flag, there wasn’t anything to show that anything like this could possibly happen. … It still feels like a nightmare,” said Jeff, an information technology student.
But life hadn’t been easy for Colleen. The once-active soccer and karate mom was mostly bedridden in recent months by a range of ailments: pancreatitis, osteoporosis, schizophrenia. She had suffered a seizure, memory loss, confusion and falls.
Warwick Police Capt. Robert Nelson said her condition was not terminal, but Bill recalled his mother hitting “an all-time low, physically and mentally,” on Christmas.
The brothers believe their parents decided together to end their lives. They said their father had never owned a gun and they assume he bought one to carry out a pact.
“It wasn’t just the fact that, you know, she wasn’t getting better,” Bill said. “It was the fact that she was progressively getting worse.”
The police are continuing their investigation into what they have tentatively ruled a murder-suicide and waiting for a trace on where the shotgun came from.
Bill and Jeff are treasuring the good memories of their parents -- their dad playing secret Santa and giving money to families in need, the couple's love of animals, the launch of their mother's salon business, which she eventually gave up because of her health – while coping with sadness and anger.
“I can see where my dad was coming from and I hate to say it like that because I don’t agree with what he did or how he did it,” said Jeff. “But I know what he was doing and the whole point was to put her out of pain, and he did that and she’s not in pain. So there’s a bittersweetness to it. “
Asked if they felt the need to forgive their father, Jeff said, “Obviously our primary focus is that we don’t have our parents anymore. … And so as far as forgiveness, there’s no one there to forgive.”
Her “baby” was turning 7 and Lydia Bradford wanted it to be a day she would remember. She had ordered the cake and was getting the house ready. Soon, the cousins would start arriving for the party.
Her three daughters, including the birthday girl, were playing in the front of her Cocoa, Fla., house with another kid when a man with a ski mask burst in, police said. The terrified children fled as the intruder stalked to the rear of the small house and opened fire on Bradford, 24, and her mother Equaller, 58.
The young mom was killed and Equaller Bradford, shot in the chest and head, is still clinging to life. The motive is unknown and there have been no arrests, though family members suggest the women may have been victims of mistaken identity.
At Lydia Bradford’s funeral, relatives remembered her as a bubbly, carefree single mother devoted to her kids.
Cocoa Police Dept.
Lydia Bradford, 24, was shot dead by a masked gunman who burst into the Cocoa, Fla., home she shared with her mother on Jan. 21.
“Lydia didn’t sweat the small stuff,” said her aunt, Yvonne Smith. “You could hate her, but she loved you back. She was as pretty on the inside as she was on the outside.”
She supported her kids by working as a private-duty nurse. She had recently moved in with her mother and they were looking for a bigger place. Her weekends were full of cookouts and card games with family.
When her uncle Melvin was feeling low after chemotherapy, Bradford’s smile would cheer him up, Smith said. She chuckled as she remembered her niece’s sweet tooth, how she tucked into the homemade sweet-potato pie, lemon meringue pie, banana pudding and cake at Thanksgiving – then complained she had eaten too much.
Because she was a working mother, Bradford tried to make sure that holidays and birthdays were special for her girls. She was planning a Feb. 7 party at Chuck E. Cheese for all the cousins with January birthdays.
“Instead, we were all at her funeral that day,” Smith said, her voice cracking. “I know things like this happen every day, but it’s just sad that someone don’t care no more for life and took my baby away from her girls.”
She worries in particular for the 7-year-old.
“That was her birthday and now she’ll associate that for the rest of her life with the day her mama was killed,” she said.
The chain of events that led to Christopher Best’s death began when a big maple tree fell on the corner of his house in the Detroit suburb of Redford, Mich., in early January.
Best, 61, a computer whiz who had done sound and lights for countless rock-and-roll shows in Motor City, hired an old buddy from the music scene, carpenter Chris O’Brien, to repair the roof.
A few weeks later, on the evening of Jan. 21, Best drove to O’Brien’s Detroit home, with his dog Maxi in tow, to pay him $1,000. It was considered a relatively safe neighborhood, a historic district of Victorian homes, and Best had visited many times.
Photo provided by friend
Chris Best, a Detroit music engineer, was slain on Jan. 21 while delivering money to the home of a friend who had done some construction work for him. Police believe the motive was robbery.
But this time, as Best got out of his car, he was “apparently ambushed” by robbers, police say. The sound of gunfire – O’Brien says police told him it was an AK-47 assault rifle-- shattered the dinnertime quiet on the tree-lined street.
“A dozen shots came into my house,” O’Brien recalled. “They were going by both sides of my head. If I would have taken one more step, my head would have been blown clear off.”
When the shooting stopped, he stepped outside and saw his friend of 30 years lying on his lawn. “It was cold that night,” O’Brien said. “I got down and put my arm under his head. He was gasping for air.”
Best, he said, died in the ambulance. No arrests have been made, but police say the motive was robbery.
An IT worker by day, Best’s passion was music. He played the guitar and keyboard and had a reputation as a reliable sound man in Detroit’s music joints. His obituary photo showed him mugging with Alice Cooper.
“He was a good guy, a pretty wholesome guy,” O’Brien. “He wasn’t into drugs, which is amazing for the rock and roll business. He didn’t even drink anymore.”
Best came from a large family; he was one of nine kids. And for years, the bachelor had been a foster parent, opening his home to young people in crisis and mentoring others, friend Sergio Sanchez said.
“He had a big heart,” Sanchez said. “That’s why it’s so hard to believe they shot him down because if they had given him the chance, I’m sure he would have just given them the money.”
It was just a fistfight.
Steven Rosalez, 16, got into a scuffle with an ex-con, Julius Short, 23, as he left a store with his friends in Pittsburg, Calif., his family says. It’s not known what prompted the fisticuffs, but when the fight was over, the teen and the older man, who was on probation, went their separate ways.
The Rosalez Family
Steven Rosalez, 16, was killed by gunfire on Jan. 21 after an altercation outside a store in Pittsburg, Calif., allegedly by an ex-con he'd fought with earlier in the day.
That could have been the end of it. But according to police, Short wasn’t one to let it go. He got a gun, found Rosalez and shot him in the back and another 16-year-old in the leg, they said. The other boy survived, but Rosalez died.
“It’s devastated the whole family,” his mother, Wynette, said last Wednesday as Short was arraigned on charges of murder, attempted murder and weapons possession. He has not entered a plea.
She said her son was a happy boy growing up, always surrounded by friends and active in sports until he decided to give up football and baseball in the 10th grade. He was “kind of going through a little rough patch” and had run away from home once but had never been in trouble with the police, she said.
He spent most of his free time with his girlfriend of four years and playing Xbox. He had two brothers and a cousin he treated like a third. He was finishing high school in an independent study program and taking classes at a local college.
“He was loved,” she said, crying.
Short has a 2009 conviction for assault with a deadly weapon and he was on probation at the time of the slaying, which made Rosalez’s mother angry.
Complete coverage of "Flashpoint: Guns in America," an NBC News special report
“I grew up around guns and nobody did this when I was a kid and now here are these people who are felons and on probation and they get guns,” she said. “It’s not right.”
Also contributing to this story and map for NBC News: Daniel Arkin, Meredith Birkett, John Brecher, Bill Dedman, David Friedman, Kriss Chaumont, Polly DeFrank, Shezad Morani, Lisa Riordan Seville, Jonathan Sweeney and Lisa Wilkins.
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