Valerie Wells’s great and unexpected fortunes were rivaled only by the sudden tragedies she suffered.
When the Louisiana-born woman was just entering her 40s, her parents, Gerald and Kitty Downden, made a life-changing discovery.
They were deeply poor — at the time, the divorced Wells worked in the public defender’s office but was living in a double-wide mobile home with her three children on her parents’ land. But that was soon to change: The family found that their house in Shreveport was sitting on the fourth-largest natural gas deposit in Louisiana.
Almost immediately, the Dowden family was swimming in wealth.
As the New York Times wrote, they had a “name for the blessing that’s changed their lives and that of their family: ‘mailbox money.'” The six-figure checks they earned “for the hard work of staying put” simply arrived via the Postal Service, as they enjoyed the royalties.
They had more money than they knew what to do with.
They had so much, in fact, that in 2012 Country Music Television began filming the family for a reality show titled “Bayou Billionaires,” in which Gerald, Kitty and the kids repeatedly proved this observation.
In one episode, they tried out a country club, only to realize they hated it. In another, they headed to a local auction and bought, well, almost everything. Now in possession of too much useless junk, the two decided to host a yard sale to sell the things they had just purchased. Gerald filmed a television commercial that ran in two local parishes advertising the sale. On the show, he said the family “spent more money on the commercial than we made on the yard sale.”
If those moments sound a bit like leftover plotlines from “Beverly Hillbillies,” well, let’s just say you’re not far off. (In one episode, Wells confuses the phrase “Japanese tapas bar” with “Japanese topless bar.”)
They became known around Dixie, particularly for Gerald Dowden’s goofy, original Southernisms. While visiting Rome with his newfound wealth, for example, he was awed by the Coliseum. He said in an interview with CMT, “They used it for 1,000 years. We tore down Cowboys stadium after 40 years!”
The show, though, was derided by critics. The Washington Post pointed out that the show — and others like it, such as “My Big Redneck Vacation” and “Duck Dynasty” — plays purely on “Southern tee-vee stereotypes,” even though, as Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, said, “People of the South get frustrated at the narrow range of representations.”
Some of those shows lasted; others faded. “Bayou Billionaires” lasted a scant two seasons, but that mailbox money kept arriving on schedule.
Those funds proved more than useful, too. They were necessary, as Wells was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a generally sudden-onset disease that attacks the central nervous system and “disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and the body,” according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“I was so impressed,” Brian Flanagan, the executive producer for “Bayou Billionaires,” told People. “She had a job that meant a lot to her, a TV show, was a great mother. And on top of that she was dealing with MS.”
Her bad luck grew exponentially worse on Monday, though.
She had driven to McDonald’s — a vestige of a normal life, one before money was no longer a concern — and was preparing to leave after munching on the comforting fast food.
As she began to drive out of the lot, a man later identified as 46-year-old Roddy Gaddy allegedly drove up and shot her several times.
“Her car rolled out of the parking lot after she was shot multiple times by this man,” Cpl. Marcus Hinessaid told the Shreveport Times. “Following that shooting, the man did turn the gun on himself.”
Wells was rushed to University Health, the hospital for the LSU Health Shreveport School of Medicine, where she was pronounced dead. Gaddy’s body, bleeding from gunshot wounds, was found in a nearby parking lot. He was transported to the same hospital, where he died.
Though her biography on CMT stated, when the show ran, that Wells was “not interested in getting back into the dating game,” police told the Times they believe the two were previously involved in a relationship.
“We know they had a relationship of some type, but I can’t tell you if they were friends having a dispute or formerly intimate. We simply don’t know at this moment,” Shreveport Police Sgt. Rod Johnson said. “We have some guesses, but we’d like to back that up with hard facts.”
Wells’s 15-year-old daughter, Nikki, told People that the two indeed had recently struck up a romantic relationship.
Though police have not yet offered a motive for the shooting (and told the magazine that, since both parties are dead, “that could be one of those facts we’ll never know”), Nikki told People that Gaddy was jealous that Wells still spoke to her ex, Nikki’s father.
Flanagan corroborated this, telling the publication the Downdens “believe that’s the reason it all went down.”
At the moment, though, the family that once held a spotlight is in mourning.
On their private Facebook page, Kitten and Gerald wrote, “This is really hard on us and her children. It is out of order. No parents should have to go through this,” according to KTBS.
Nikki, who called her mother “the strongest person I know,” said she missed her mother.
“She taught me everything I needed to know to be a successful, thriving, beautiful woman,” Nikki told People. “We knew we loved each other very much. She was my beautiful mother and I was her sparkle child. We will always miss my wonderful mama.”
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