By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008
IJAMSVILLE -- Nick Gaines walked into the party at about 10:30 p.m. after his first night of work at a movie theater, spotted his best friend Tyler Murray and hugged him. Murray had been warned by his father against hanging out with Gaines, but their bond was too strong. Friends viewed them like brothers; some said they even looked alike. Later that night, when Gaines, 18, left his girlfriend June Gibbons a voicemail at about 2:30 a.m., he giggled as Murray, 16, joked in the background. The two boys jumped in Gaines's white Toyota Tacoma at about 4 a.m. and headed to 7-Eleven. They drove down Green Valley Road, past rolling hills and lush pastures. Gaines gave little thought to the alcohol swirling inside him. He often had disregarded consequences in the nearly four years since his brother died.
No one admired his older brother more than Gaines, even in a small town about 40 miles northwest of Washington where children plastered newspaper articles and photos of Billy Gaines on their bedroom walls. Billy once was credited with running the 40-yard dash faster than any high school football player in America, caught the game-winning touchdown pass for Urbana High School in the 2001 Maryland 3A championship game and, before he went off to play wide receiver on scholarship at Pittsburgh, made an entire town believe he was invincible. "He was basically Superman," Nick Gaines said.
Billy died the day after Nick finished eighth grade. He had consumed alcohol provided by a Catholic priest at a cookout, then climbed to the roof of the church just outside Pittsburgh that had temporarily become his home. While returning down from the roof, he lost his balance in a crawl space, falling through the ceiling of the church sanctuary. The back of his head struck a pew about 25 feet below. He died later that night.
Nick Gaines's anger over Billy's death festered during high school, though he masked it beneath a goofy veneer. He fought often and drank and drove, he said, but his senior classmates at Urbana voted him class clown, biggest flirt, most huggable and most unforgettable. By March 2007, when he walked into the party, he had become one of the most popular seniors at Urbana.
That night, Bill and Kim Gaines thought their son was sleeping at Murray's house. Then their phone rang. "What moron is calling here at 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday?" Kim blurted as Bill answered. Gibbons trembled on the line as she explained in a frantic, high-pitched voice that Nick had slammed his truck into a tree.
Murray was dead. Nick might be.
Bill phoned the police. Nick had been airlifted to a shock trauma center in Baltimore, and he was breathing on his own. The Gaineses woke up Michael, their middle son, and picked up Gibbons.
"I won't survive another one," Kim thought to herself.
For the second time, they sped to a hospital and prayed for a son to survive.
* * *A Life Ended Far Too Soon
The knock on her front door abruptly woke Kim early on June 18, 2003. She walked downstairs followed by her sick husband, swung open the door and was greeted by a woman wearing a police uniform.
"Do you have a son who goes to Pittsburgh?" the officer asked.
"Yes, I do," Kim replied, a smile spreading on her face. It was 4:20 a.m. and a police officer was at her door, but Kim's first response was pride, not panic. For 19 years, being the mother of Billy Gaines had portended only good things.
Billy was only 5 feet 7, but his closest friends -- five teammates who with Billy called themselves the Super Six -- pointed to him as their leader. An All-Met, he won the last 50 football games he played at Urbana, attended country music concerts with his friends and never told anyone about the love poems he wrote to Natalie Augustine, the high school sweetheart he knew he someday would marry.
His reputation grew so much that a boy Billy never had met invited him to his eighth birthday party. Billy came, signed autographs and tossed a football for three hours.
"It was the weirdest thing for me, having a best friend that was more of like somebody you looked up to," said Travis Sheets, one of the Super Six. "He looked at you as an equal, but I looked at him as being more than I was. It made me feel like I was worthy, because I was his friend."
Billy's teammates at Urbana and at Pittsburgh regarded him as the strongest player on the team for his size, 165 pounds of muscle. They marveled at how quickly he jumped to his feet after being tackled. So when the police officer told Kim that Billy had been in an accident and gave her the phone number for a hospital in Pittsburgh, she assumed Billy would be all right. Maybe he had crashed his truck. Maybe, she figured, he had a concussion.
She dialed the number and spoke with a doctor whose tone alarmed her.
"Does he have life-threatening injuries?" Kim asked.
"Yes," the doctor said.
Kim called Augustine; Billy's mother wasn't leaving for Pittsburgh without her son's girlfriend. Augustine had followed Billy to school at Pittsburgh but had come home for the summer. Billy had worn jersey No. 29 because it was Augustine's birth date. They often discussed marriage. "We didn't assume, we knew," Augustine said. "We were each other's lives."
Kim roused Nick, Michael and Bill, but told only her husband of the severity of Billy's condition. Nick Gaines had planned on filming a home movie with friends mimicking the television show "Jackass" that day, but the change in plans made him look forward to seeing his brother. He figured Billy had wrecked his truck and pictured him yelling at nurses for not letting him out of his bed. He bounded out to the car and called shotgun.
When they arrived at the hospital by 8 a.m., doctors told the family that Billy had massive head and spinal cord injuries and could not breathe on his own. Only family members, at first, could visit him. Augustine borrowed one of Kim's rings to convince doctors she was Billy's fiancee, curled up on the bed next to him and didn't move the rest of the day. He looked, they all said later, like he was napping.
Kim had spoken with her son barely 12 hours earlier. "I love you," Kim said when the conversation ended. "I'll talk to you in the morning."
Billy had called because he had lost his wallet, his latest misfortune. Three weeks earlier, an electrical fire started in the room Billy shared with freshman place kicker David Abdul and burned down the apartment where they lived with five teammates. A priest named Henry Krawczyk, whom Billy had met the previous summer, offered him and his six teammates rooms in the convent at St. Anne Church.
Immediately, Augustine said, "Billy felt uncomfortable in the church." It was cold and scary. Dirty Venetian blinds covered the windows. The behavior of the 50-year-old priest bothered Billy most.
Court records say Krawczyk watched pornography in his quarters. He bragged about the hot tub he was going to install. He kept a bar fully stocked, owned a mixed drink manual and insisted the players imbibe the drinks he poured. Billy felt strange and wrong about it, Augustine and Abdul said, but also obliged. Krawczyk, after all, was letting him stay there for $50 a month.
Krawczyk offered Billy and Abdul a bottle of liquor on June 17 when they arrived home from a workout, Abdul said. They called their five former roommates and had a cookout and a night of free drinks.
Around 2 a.m., after they had both gotten drunk, Billy and Abdul climbed through a window to the roof of St. Anne, which offered a view of Pittsburgh's waterfront. They stood on the roof for a few moments, then wormed back inside and entered a crawl space. Abdul turned left to explore the attic over the church, crawling on planks of 2-by-4s, and Billy followed.
Abdul shouted to Billy that he was going to turn around. When he did, Billy was gone, replaced by light beaming up from below. Abdul looked down into the sanctuary below. Blood poured from the back of Billy's head. Abdul yelled, "Call an ambulance!"
Abdul bolted downstairs as fast as he could. He held Billy's head, blood drenching his hands. He peeled open Billy's eyelids and screamed his name. Billy wasn't breathing.
Bill later found comfort in his belief that Billy felt no pain when his head snapped against the pew. Doctors declared Billy dead at 11 p.m. A priest Bill and Kim never had met walked into Billy's hospital room and asked them if he could administer last rites, and Bill waved him in. It was Krawczyk.
Kim walked from Billy's room, Bill following. "He didn't make it," she announced to those in the waiting room. More than 100 people, from Pittsburgh and Maryland, had held hands and prayed together for hours. Now they sobbed in stillness and silence.
Only Nick Gaines stood. He marched down the hall, kicked open a pair of swinging doors, punched them and screamed. Part of him believed Billy still would be all right, that he would drive back to Maryland with them the next day, good as new.
"A lot" raced through his head, he said later. "Too much."
* * *Grief Takes Many Forms
Bill Gaines sometimes wonders if God wants him to be more angry. He said he wept the day after his son died, when Kim told him a new set of golf clubs -- Billy's Father's Day gift to him -- awaited back home. Then he decided he needed to find meaning in Billy's death. He asked himself: "What's the point of all this? What's the purpose?"
Anger, he reasoned, would only hinder him. He created a Web site in tribute. He steeled himself for planning Billy's funeral and for the legal fight with Krawczyk and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh ahead. He stopped asking why his son had died; he believes he'll learn the answer when he dies.
He read spiritual books and the Bible and found peace immediately, confident that Billy was in heaven, safe and happy. He felt such a connection with one verse -- 1 Corinthians 2:9 -- that he had it carved on Billy's headstone: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him."
Kim grieved with none of the peace Bill discovered. Augustine would come over to the house and she and Kim would escape to the garage and write in their journals. For months, Kim stopped attending church. She never looked at the Web site Bill created, and she still looks away from the pictures of Billy she knows will make her cry. Many couples who lose a child divorce, but Kim relied on Bill's strength.
In 2006, the family won a financial settlement in its lawsuit against the diocese and Krawczyk; the family declined to disclose the amount it received. In 2005, Krawczyk pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and furnishing alcohol to minors and was sentenced to seven years' probation.
Nick rarely spoke of Billy's death. He refused when his parents asked him to do chores or clean his room. He went from being carefree to indifferent. "He was not an angry little boy," Kim said. "He was not angry until Billy died."
Nick began drinking, his parents said, to further suppress Billy's death. His first fight came during his first week of high school, after he overheard a remark about Billy.
"I had more hate in my heart," Nick said. "I just wanted to hit people."
At other times, friends describe Nick as being "goofy," someone who performed an impromptu version of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" a cappella in front of the whole school during a "Mr. Urbana" talent show.
Nick once had felt intimidated by comparisons to his brother. Now, without realizing it, he imitated Billy. He got the same tattoo Billy wore, barbed wire wrapped over a cross on his biceps. He wore Billy's tennis shoes. He started dressing like Billy -- button-down shirts, white tank tops, cargo pants. He asked for jersey No. 2, Billy's high school number, on the Urbana football team. He would drive by himself to Billy's gravesite and talk to him before big games.
He met Gibbons on her first day at Urbana, when he walked into their Algebra II class and blurted: "Oh, new girl, huh? She's got a nice butt." Gibbons went home that day and told her mother how much she hated one obnoxious boy. She started dating him within a year.
Gibbons had vowed not to let herself like Nick, but he was just so charming: confident and silly at the same time. Nick's popularity ensured he would be invited to every party, so March 9 of his senior year felt mostly routine. That night he couldn't persuade Gibbons to come with him, so he showed up alone.
Six days earlier, Bill had bought Nick his truck, then issued a warning: If he caught Nick drinking, he would take away the keys. Before Nick left for work, Bill reminded him. "You just can't drink, because you won't get away with it," Bill told him. "Billy didn't get away with it. Some kids will. I don't know why, but you won't. You're messing with God."
* * *An Unfortunately Familiar Scene
Early the next morning, for the second time, Bill walked into a hospital room occupied by one of his sons, fearing he could die.
Nick had a broken back and a mangled shoulder. His head had swelled to nearly double its normal size and he was covered in cuts. But he was breathing and talking.
Still, Bill felt an eerie familiarity. Billy's friends and Augustine, still close to the Gaineses, huddled outside in the hallway. A breathing tube snaked inside Nick's mouth. With his eyes shut and head resting on a pillow, Nick's face resembled Billy's.
"He wanted to be so much like his brother," Bill thought, "that he's in here like him."
Head trauma erased every detail of the party for Nick. He didn't know why he was in the hospital. He didn't know how much alcohol he'd consumed. He didn't know his truck jackknifed into a tree. He didn't know that Murray had been sitting next to him when it did.
He didn't know Murray was dead.
Doctors said Nick was semi-comatose. A doctor asked him if he knew what year it was. Nick answered instantly, "2003." The year Billy died.
The next day, he pulled on Gibbons's arm, demanding she help him escape. She explained he needed to stay in the hospital.
"June," Nick said, "you need to go die."
"Why?" Gibbons asked.
"Because we need to die together."
"Nick, we don't need to die together."
"Why not? Everyone else is dead."
* * *'I Lost the Will to Fight'
Nick returned home from the hospital 15 days after the crash. Doctors had inserted rods into his right shoulder and stapled his back together. When Kim and Gibbons looked at him, they said they peered into vacant eyes.
His therapy called for daily walks, and he ambled past Murray's home each day for nearly a week. One day, he resolved he would go inside.
Nick planned exactly what he would say on the walk there. He paced up the driveway and knocked on the door. Renee Murray, Tyler's mother, answered. She hugged him. They cried. Nick forgot what he was going to say. They spoke for 20 minutes. Renee told Nick she forgave him. "It meant a lot," he said.
Nick signed up for classes at Frederick Community College in spring 2007. Never an attentive student, Nick focused like he never had before. After Nick had the staples removed from his back, Gibbons rushed him to FCC so he wouldn't be late for class. When they arrived, it had been canceled. Gibbons turned her car around.
"Go north on 15," Nick told her.
"We're going the wrong way," Gibbons replied.
Nick gave more directions until Gibbons realized where they were going: She was driving to the cemetery where Billy was buried. They stood at Billy's grave. Nick held Gibbons's hand and told her for the first time the complete story about Billy's death. His eyes grew watery.
Gibbons walked back to the car and left Nick alone.
Nick originally had been charged with manslaughter by automobile, homicide while under the influence, homicide while impaired and driving under the influence. Police had estimated Nick's blood-alcohol content at .09 percent at the time of his crash. If found guilty, he faced 10 years in prison. A month before his hearing, he accepted a plea bargain.
His parents and girlfriend gathered around Nick the night before his hearing. Bill, Kim and Gibbons told him he could lean on faith. His response frightened them.
"Why should I believe in God?" he asked. "What's God done for me?"
Nick's hearing, on Feb. 7, lasted one hour. The judge accepted Nick's guilty plea to negligent homicide and sentenced him to 18 months in a work-release program. Bailiffs took Nick's tie and shoes and escorted him to the Frederick County Adult Detention Center. His parents watched him cry as he walked out of the courtroom. It was the first time Gibbons had seen Nick cry.
Nick made one final request before he entered his jail cell. He asked for a Bible. He said he has read it every day, underlining passages with a pen.
He is allowed to leave jail to take classes at FCC and work at the movie theater, where he recently was promoted to supervisor.
At the jail, he attends anger management and Project 103, an alcohol and drug abuse class.
He cherishes the freedom his work-release program allows. He tells Kim he loves her; he never said it before.
In a few weeks, Nick will receive his first parole hearing. He has read Gibbons a list of plans for the period after his release: He wants to take her grocery shopping, walk his dog Zeus, eat at the Melting Pot for their anniversary dinner, visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and go bowling.
"I'm going to be 19, but I feel like I'm 50," said Nick, who was interviewed for this story at the jail's work-release center. "I feel like I'm way too old to fight. I lost the will to fight. It's a relief. I don't have to be tough all the time. I don't feel like I have to prove myself."
Nick no longer allows his mind to wander into the hypothetical -- What if Billy had gone to the University of Virginia? What if he and Murray never left the party? -- or the anger to return.
"I deal with all of those thoughts just by staying in reality," Nick said. "I can't live my life thinking 'What if? What if?' all the time. I just can't. Look where I'm at. It happened. I've been here five months. Tyler Murray's been dead over a year, Billy five years. I can't be fantasizing about what could be. It's me and the world.
"I do feel like God has a plan for everybody. And even though mine has sucked so far, He has a plan. Something good is going to come out of it."