When Georgia State Patrol trooper Nathan Bradley rapped on the front door, four children in costume opened it.
He stood there staring at Freddy Krueger, Dracula’s daughter, a wizard and a firefighting ninja turtle.
“I immediately fell ill,” he later wrote on a Gofundme page he created for the family. “Not only would these children discover they lost both parents, but would spend their Halloween in a county jail until somebody could tend to them; it just wasn’t right.”
Earlier that Oct. 31 night, their parents, Donald and Crystal Howard, had gone to get more Halloween candy and face paint to finish their children’s costumes. Less than a mile from home in Newborn, Ga., their vehicle slid from the roadway and crashed into a tree.
Bradley, 24, responded to the call: “single vehicle wreck with possible fatalities.”
Both parents were killed. And Bradley needed to notify their next of kin.
But when the couple’s four children — ages 13 to 6 — opened the door, he said, he was at a loss for words.
“When we were greeted by four children dressed and ready for trick-or-treating, we knew we were going to have some problems,” Bradley told The Washington Post.
Bradley, along with a county deputy and coroner, asked to speak with an adult.
“My parents went to the store to get more face paint,” 13-year-old Justin Howard said, according to Bradley. “They told us not to open the door for anybody, but they should be back soon.”
Bradley called their grandmother and told her that her son and daughter-in-law had been killed, he said, but she was nearly 500 miles away in Sarasota, Fla. It would be morning before she could get there, and he wanted to keep the children occupied until she arrived. He also wanted to preserve their future Halloweens, so he decided to wait until the next day to tell them what had happened.
Bradley took them to grab dinner — nuggets from McDonald’s, burgers from Burger King. He bought them milkshakes. He chatted with them about TV shows and their father’s time in the U.S. military. Then he took them back to his post.
Bradley’s corporal arrived with candy, popcorn and Disney films, he said. Then the sheriff showed up with more goodies and a miniature deputy’s badge for Justin.
The children’s grandmother, Stephanie Oliver, was only two hours into a seven-hour drive. She told Bradley that she had been too emotional at first to get behind the wheel. So Bradley invited the children to spend the night in the barracks.
“They were excited about it,” he told The Post.
Bradley said the younger children didn’t seem to understand what was happening. When he was tucking them in, he wrote, one girl told him: “You turned an F-minus day into an A-plus night!”
Justin, however, knew something was up.
“I had thought, something bad must have happened,” he later told NBC News’ WSB-TV. “If nothing bad happened then all these troopers wouldn’t be here.”
The children’s grandmother arrived just before dawn the next day and went into the barracks to wake them up.
“She whispered to them as grandmothers do, and they jumped up,” he told The Post. “She was crying the whole time … but the children were looking at it as tears of joy. She was so happy to see that last bit of innocence in them before tragedy struck.”
Bradley and Oliver decided it would be best for her to tell the children what had happened, but, later that day, he dropped by the house to check on them.
When he got there, he said, Justin fell into him.
“He hugged me so tight I could feel him squeezing me through my vest,” Bradley told The Post. “I asked him how he was holding up, and he said, ‘I’m doing the best I can, but why does it have to be both parents?’ I said, ‘That’s a question I can’t answer.'”
Bradley grabbed his old Georgia State Patrol training ball cap and wrote his phone number under the bill, along with a note to the boy: “You’re a great person. Never Change.” The next day, Justin gave him a call.
The boy told him that it was going to cost $7,000 to transport his parents’ bodies back to Florida and hold their funerals, so Bradley set up a Gofundme page to help. By Thursday, he had raised more than $250,000.
Though Bradley said he hopes he was able to save their Halloween, it was a night that will continue to haunt him.
“I have not been able to sleep straight since,” Bradley said. “My mind is constantly running. It has scarred me. It has. Very rarely do you have to do this to four kids.”
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