Shot as he cradled our baby
Cruellest killing ever
The house was small. Two little bedrooms, a tiny yard. The area was a little iffy, too.
But we didn’t have a lot of money to spend. And, more than anything else, we knew it was meant to be.
You see, it had been my hubby Justin’s childhood home.
We’d been together since I was 14. He was two years older, a longhaired heart-throb, the best guitarist I’d ever met. We sang together, played together, took our love nice and slow. We had 10 years of making music together, even releasing an album. Then, when I was 30 and full of longing to start a family, we’d wed.
And that’s when, by weird coincidence, Justin’s boyhood home had come on to the market. Now, it seemed like fate was telling us to put down a few roots. So, in we moved. The scruffy guy who lived in the house behind us took a bit of getting used to – he was always acting strangely, shouting and hollering. ‘Dog! Dog!’ he’d bellow when we let our Jack Russell, Axl, out to do his business.
But we settled in quickly, and, two months later, I was staring at a positive pregnancy test!
That night, as I heard Justin’s key in the door, I set out two glasses of non-alcoholic grape fizz, propped the test up next to them, and hid.
I heard his gasp of joy and rushed out into his arms.
During the next few months, we painted the nursery and put the cot together. When we found out the baby was a boy, we bickered over names, agreeing finally on Jaxon Ryder.
Six days after my due date, my waters broke when I was out shopping with my mum. We rushed to the hospital, phoning Justin as we went.
‘What do you need? What should I do?’ he gabbled, frantic, as I told him to grab the bags and meet me there.
I wondered how Justin would cope – he wasn’t great with blood. But, when contractions ripped through me, he stopped
flapping. His hand held mine firmly and he stroked my forehead, murmuring, ‘You’re doing amazing, keep going.’
Then, when the time came to push, he watched as Jaxon’s head emerged. Rivers of tears flowed down his face.
‘Wow,’ Justin said, as they placed little Jax in my arms.
‘I love you… I love you both.’
We stayed in hospital overnight, the three of us holed up in a little room together – me feeding, and Justin logging the time and duration of each feed.
At one point, we all curled up on the bed together, and I thought, ‘This is what it feels like to be a family.’
Next morning, we set off for home. I was barely able to walk because of my stitches. As
I eased myself into the car, exhausted, I was wondering what on earth we’d let ourselves in for. First-time mum nerves, I guess.
But Justin clicked on the radio and We Are The
Champions by Queen came on. It seemed like the perfect theme tune for us. We looked at each other, and that look said, ‘We can do this.’
And so we brought our baby home to the house where Justin once grew up. I pictured father and son playing in the garden, Jax’s first guitar lesson.
We were dazed, exhausted, but full of hope.
I couldn’t wait to show our baby off to the family, so, when he was three days old, we invited everyone over, including Justin’s cousins, Shelby, Lori and his mum Tammy.
Oohs, aahs, cuddles and chuckles sounded as our beautiful boy was handed round… Justin beamed every time Jax lay in his arms.
Me and Justin were chatting when Lori announced she was driving into town to pick up a takeaway.
‘I’ll go with you,’ Justin said, getting up.
And that’s when it happened. A strange sound… A pop and a shattering noise, like a light bulb blowing. Instinctively, I looked over at Jax. Shelby had scooped him up. He was sleeping peacefully.
It was a last moment, a last heartbeat of happiness.
And then, chaos.
‘We’re being shot at!’ someone cried, terrified.
He was lying on the ground. I started to move towards him. One of our guests tackled me and dragged me across the hall to our bathroom. Shelby crawled after us with Jax, still asleep.
Curled up against the wall in the bathroom, I heard Lori’s voice, crying, ‘Wake up, Justin!’ Someone else was calling 911. I thought, ‘I have to get to him!’
Ignoring the pull of my stitches, I crawled out on my belly.
I saw Justin’s legs splayed out at odd angles, his wrist bent strangely back under his arm. He didn’t look unconscious, he looked… No!
Staying low to the ground, I felt for a pulse – desperate, panicking.
Moments later, the ambulance arrived, and Lori dragged me into the bedroom while the paramedics set to work.
I prayed and prayed. But, all the time, I knew…
A police officer walked into the room. I shook my head, backing away from him as he said four bleak words.
‘Your husband is deceased.’ Everything went blank and I couldn’t think, couldn’t feel. They put a sheet over Justin and took him away – the love of my life who, half an hour earlier, had been cooing over our newborn baby.
He’d had three days of being a father. Now he was gone, aged 33. Later, a police officer told me what had happened.
Our odd neighbour, Charles Shisler – the shouty one – had been arrested after firing a gun in his house round the back from ours. One single shot that streaked 200ft through his window, down our gardens, past trees, through our window and into the side of Justin’s head. A one-in-a-million chance. As the days passed, I slipped into darkness. I stumbled through the funeral – listened to our friends play Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door with a hollow numbness. Music had died for me – there was no pleasure left.
Standing in the shower afterwards, I realised this was the first time anyone had left me alone since it happened. I sank to the floor and rested my cheek against the cool tiles for hours as the family panicked outside, begging me to come out. I wanted to die.
‘Jax needs feeding – we’re sending someone to the store to buy formula.’ Jax.
I had to choose. Life or death. Live on in grief, or leave my baby son alone in the world.
Lifting my body off the floor and unlocking the door was so hard. But, as Jax latched on hungrily, I knew I had to survive.
Over those next months,
I was nothing but Jax’s life support. I sold the house and stayed with my parents – I couldn’t face going back.
Every piece of news about Charles Shisler pulled me further into the darkness. Shisler, 62, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, possession of a firearm by a felon and drug charges.
At the time of the shooting, he was high on methamphetamine, and initially told police that the gun had gone off when he picked it up by the trigger.
‘The damn gun doesn’t usually shoot,’ he’d told them. ‘You have to squeeze the hell out of it.’
But ballistics reports said his story didn’t make sense.
I had to accept that I’d never really know exactly what Shisler had done – and that filled me with even more anger and grief.
At sentencing, I looked him in the eye as I gave a statement.
‘I lost my husband, my best friend, my music partner, my soulmate, father of my son and the love of my life in an instant,’ I said, struggling to keep my voice strong. ‘And I never even had a chance to say goodbye.’ Shisler was sentenced to 14 years. It seemed so little, after he’d shattered our family. But, looking at Jax crawling, laughing and smiling, I realised it wasn’t enough just to exist as ‘Jax’s mum’. I had to let go of the anger and find myself again. And that meant letting music back into my life.
An old friend of ours said his band was looking for a singer. ‘I’ll do it,’ I said.
I cried all the way to that first gig, especially when I saw the set list. What’s Up?, by 4 Non-blondes, was a song me and Justin used to sing together.
But, as I belted out the song and the audience responded, I felt a sense of belonging I thought I’d lost. This is where I was meant to be. Four years after losing Justin, music is still my life. I stopped touring with the band when Jax got too big to tag along, but I’m still playing locally. I also started writing and blogging.
And I’ve met a wonderful new man – Don Hogg, 42.
But I will always love Justin. I see him every day in Jax’s sense of humour, in the way he walks, and I feel it pull in my chest every time ‘our song’, When You Say Nothing At All,
comes on the radio.
The day Justin died, we’d truly had everything we wanted.
Then I lost it all, with one stray bullet. And I’ll never understand how that could be.
The last heartbeat of happiness…
Always together, music was a shared passion
Me and Justin had met in our early teens Inseparable, we got married in 2003
Justin was bowled over by our little Jax Our family was finally complete – we were so happy Drug-addled agent of death, Charles Shisler
Our son, Jax, brings his dad back to life for me