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A year of grieving

Two widows and a fiancee attempt to cope with life in the wake of Hank Earl Carr's deadly rampage, which took the lives of two veteran police detectives and a rookie highway patrol trooper a year ago.

By GRAHAM BRINK, KATHRYN WEXLER and SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 1999


Nadine LaMonte clings to even the tiniest details.

She remembers the rough-hewed cowboy boots her fiance wore six years ago when they first met. The exact minute he first asked her out. The deep crimson his ears turned when he refused to wear ear muffs on a trip to Chicago. The way the burly man would pull the cotton sheets just above his chin when he was in bed sick and waiting for her to feed him medicine.

When she reaches for her wallet there's a picture of him staring back. It has the same friendly expression he had the day he ate his bite-sized Honey Nut Shredded Wheat and said "I love you" just hours before his death -- six months before they were to wed.

She can't help it, she says, because there will be no new memories.

Hank Earl Carr took care of that May 19 when he murdered Trooper James "Brad" Crooks and two Tampa police detectives before killing himself during a standoff at a Shell station in Hernando County.

"That b------ didn't shoot at Brad. He shot at the police uniforms," LaMonte said. "He didn't think of the families. He didn't think of the hurt."

Behind the uniforms were two other women like LaMonte: the Tampa detectives' widows, Vickie Childers and Donna Bell.

The three women share the same pain, know the agony of lonely nights, the silence of empty homes. They cope in different ways, but the hurt does not easily go away.

"You feel like there's a big weight on your chest, a big stone just laying there," Childers said.

Constant reminders

LaMonte measures the days since the shooting in degrees of terrible. Little reminders, like seeing a trooper's car, can send her into sobs, literally buckling her knees. Other times, the second-grade teacher's mind drifts to the canceled wedding plans: the flowers ordered, the wedding dress fitted

LaMonte, 26, carries a replica of Crooks' badge in her purse. She has bulging binders of photos and Valentine's Day cards -- memorabilia of their life together. She talks about Crooks with a welcoming smile, tears forming in the corners of her large brown eyes.

He was caring, loyal and in love, she said.

"The days sometimes feel very long. Sometimes I get very angry," she said. "Why the hell did (Carr) have to do this to us?"

She's growing tired of people telling her, in not so subtle ways, to get over it. She knows she has to let go. Maybe in a year. Maybe longer. One day she'll take off the engagement ring and retire the cards and photos to a box. In the meantime, she works at making sure people remember Crooks as more than just the trooper Carr killed.

"He shot the trooper, but we are mourning the person," she said.

The endless ache

Someday, maybe the ache will soften, or even lift for good. But she doesn't really believe it

Nearly a year after he was buried, she feels his absence in subtle ways. She no longer trusts simple things, like the assumption her husband would come home from work every night.

During the many memorial services, she sometimes senses that the collective composure of officers still grieving for her husband hinges on whether she can keep her eyes dry. When she talks about what the life of a soul mate is worth, she averts her eyes for a few moments and swallows hard.

"What greater honor that you meant so much to a community, that everyone marked your passing," she said.

No more late-night calls

There are no more late calls, no more anxious moments spent waiting for his return. Just a haunting loneliness that fills the wee hours

"I don't have the fear anymore," said Bell, 46. "But the emptiness is there."

For Bell, the pain initially was stifled with a flurry of distractions: the funeral, supportive friends and relatives, a full-time nursing job she returned to a few weeks after the killing.

The reminders of what once was abound. The Beanie Babies her husband collected still line glass shelves in her living room. The house echoes in silence, a sad contrast to the bustle of years past. Her two stepdaughters now live with their mother in Fort Myers. Only Bell's 16-year-old daughter remains.

But her son, who recently left home, might be the most vivid reminder. The 19-year-old Florida State University student plans to enter law enforcement. The news initially shocked Bell; she could not bear to lose another loved one in the line of duty. She has since come to accept and embrace his decision.

"I've learned that you have to have faith that when your time has come, it comes," she said.

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