In the late hours of Labor Day Evening, 2012, Jeanie Huppert’s husband shook her awake to face all all-too real nightmare: her only son, Gary Hembree, had been shot and killed following a Labor Day cookout in his yard. In a matter of minutes, the gunman– a neighbor from across the street who dressed in full camouflage and crawled on his belly into Gary’s yard– allegedly fired 31 shots into Gary and two guests before retreating to his own home to surrender to police.
A mother’s worst nightmare had come true. The story went that Gary and his girlfriend, Kim, had gone inside around 11:30pm after most guests had left. A few friends, neighbors and their children lingered to clean the grill or smoke a last cigarette. After the alleged gunman snuck onto Gary’s property, he started shooting at the outdoor guests. Promptly after hearing those first gunshots, the confused and worried couple rushed outside.
“What the hell is going on out here?’ Gary yelled from his carport. When he saw the shooting suspect with the gun, he pushed Kim to the ground and told her to hide under the car.
The alleged gunman ran to Gary’s carport and shot him in the head. Gary fell instantly to the ground. As he heard the suspect continue to shoot at his slain friends lying in the side yard , Gary yelled “Run!” to the children standing by. The gunman heard Gary, knowing he was still alive and came back to the carport and fired more shots at Gary, even pausing at one point to re-clip his gun.
In all, the gunman fired 17 shots into Gary’s body, shot neighbor Bruce Blake 11 times, and put two bullets into the head of Roger Picior, a friend who was temporarily living with Gary. Gary died that night, leaving behind his three children. After being airlifted to a hospital, Roger was kept alive on a respirator until his organs were removed for donation. Bruce, who miraculously survived, was airlifted to another hospital and over a period of time had nearly a dozen surgeries.
Just after the murders, thieves looted Gary’s home “At one point, locks were even changed on the doors,” Jeanie said. “Gary’s children couldn’t even go in the home.” In under a week, Gary’s children lost both their father and their home.
Because Gary did not have a will, Jeanie did not know what legal rights she had to Gary’s home and personal belongings. Jeanie insists that legal counsel may have helped her to know her rights during this situation.
All Jeanie knew to do was to focus on making funeral arrangements to lay her only son to rest. When Jeanie and her husband went to the funeral home and cemetery to make preparations, she asked the funeral home director if she could see Gary one more time. The director strongly advised against it, but Jeanie said she just wanted to give him a last kiss goodbye.
In addition to the insurmountable shock and grief from losing Gary, Jeanie faced pressure from both the cemetery and funeral home to pay off the ever-growing expenses of financing a death. Unable to immediately withdraw funds from her husband’s 401K in time for services, she and her husband paid the funeral expenses by credit card. She felt a tremendous amount of stress, and believes that funeral homes should give families more time to come up with the necessary funds for their services.
In the first five days after the murder, Jeanie’s immediate need was to come up with money for the funeral services. Although the victim’s advocate paid $5,000, it barely covered half of the expenses.
Throughout the ordeal, Jeanie’s main priority was to lay her son to rest. Bombarded with not only exorbitant funeral expenses, but also paired with the stress and trauma of losing her only son, Jeanie was unable to easily access the crucial legal assistance she needed to aid her.
“If I can do anything to prevent another family from going through what our family is going through, I will feel a sense of accomplishment, but not as long as the laws remain the same and I see case after case on the news of another murdered person,” Jeanie says. “I feel the pain of each and every one of the family members who are going through this.”
Having a resource to go to would have helped Jeanie in the bewildering process of the aftermath of death. The Gun Violence Survivors Foundation aims to assist the families of gun violence victims by alleviating the enormous responsibility of coping with and organizing the after-death procedures. The Foundation is a source of support and comfort for those facing the unthinkable.