Tied Together By a Tragic Bond

Nick Gaines Idolized His Older Brother, Billy, A Star Football Player at Urbana High. But Billy's Death Sent Nick on a Destructive Course.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008; Page D01

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.


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