Police gather near the site where three people were killed in the Nashville suburb of Bellevue, Tenn. (image credit Shelley Mays/The Tennessean)
Bellevue, TN (written by Brian Haas, Adam Tamburin, & Nancy DeVille for The Tennessean)
A 9-year-old girl awoke, startled at a horrific sight. She tore out the back door of her home into the darkness Saturday night.
The nightmare she fled: her grandmother being slaughtered in front of her.
Inside her home on Beech Bend Drive in Bellevue, Tenn., lay the bodies of the 9-year-old girl's mother, Michelle Pinkowski, 48, her older brother, Jonathan Culpepper, 14, and her grandmother, Marylea Jordan, 71, all stabbed to death. Left standing in their blood-spattered home, was their neighbor, Craig Garber, 41, who police say stabbed himself multiple times and greeted arriving police with three words: "Just kill me."
Police say he survived. Garber was in critical but stable condition at Vanderbilt University hospital Monday. "I haven't been notified of any change," said Metro Police Capt. Karl Roller.
But detectives are still trying to answer what could have motivated a series of attacks so gruesome that police consider their own officers victimized for having witnessed the aftermath -- one that surpasses all homicides in at least the last five years in terms of carnage.
Though police say Garber had "emotional issues" that he took medication for, he appeared in multiple news stories after the Sept. 11 attacks as a tireless hero who may have saved lives by sorting through the rubble in New York City. He was a man who just a few months ago put out a Facebook plea to help raise money for the Bellevue Family YMCA to help fight breast cancer and took in feral cats.
"He was very nice," said Jacki Allison, who has lived on the street for eight years. "He was always nice to me, but I did see a side. There was definitely something he was battling."
The mother he's accused of killing, Michelle Pinkowski, had struggled for years with drugs, fighting hard to keep her family together -- not always successfully. Her son was well-liked in the neighborhood and excelled as a Boy Scout. And his grandmother, who owned their house, may have saved him from a life of perpetual foster care.
Pinkowski worked hard to provide for her children in spite of challenges throughout the years, including having her children taken from her and put into foster care twice, neighbors and co-workers said.
"She really loved her kids and adored her little girl," said Adel Elostta, owner and executive chef at Athens Family Restaurant where Pinkowski had worked since March. "She would take her to dancing classes and always tried to be free to take care of them."
Police expect to charge Garber with three counts of homicide, but they were at a loss as to what the motive was for the attack.
"The scene is very bloody," said Don Aaron, spokesman for Metro Police. "It's not something that you see in Nashville."
It's unclear how long the family lived with Pinkowski's mother. Neighbors said it had been at least eight years. In 2003, Pinkowski went through Renewal House, a treatment center for drug-addicted mothers, where she described a life of hard drugs since age 12.
Saturday night, Pinkowski worked until 9:30 p.m. when she got a ride home from Elostta's daughter. By 11 p.m., neighbors saw her on Garber's porch, two houses away from her home. That wasn't unusual -- police say the two were acquaintances, though they didn't know how close the two may have been.
Earlier that night, Metro Police were called to check on Garber's welfare after YMCA staff became concerned about the way he canceled his membership there.
"He seemed abrupt on the phone, and our staff person, who has a background in counseling, thought Mr. Garber's matter-of-fact manner on the call might be an indication that he could be contemplating harming himself," said Jessica Fain, spokeswoman for the YMCA of Middle Tennessee.
Police checked on him but found nothing amiss.
Public records and his own Internet accounts indicated Garber lived a good portion of his life in Dedham, Mass., a suburb of Boston. Police said Garber moved to Tennessee within the last year and lives with his mother and brother.
A few hours after police visited him, Garber was at a pub watching a football game. Josh Kirby, another neighbor in the pub, said Garber was "unnerving," accusing Jonathan Culpepper without evidence of stealing Kirby's GPS system from his car and claiming the GPS was in Pinkowski's oven. Police found no stolen goods in the victims' home.
Kirby said Garber's barroom rants about Culpepper were "very abnormal."
Culpepper was nearing the rank of Eagle Scout in his Boy Scout Troop and developed a reputation of being a natural leader for the younger boys.
Chain of events
Police said that sometime Saturday night Pinkowski and Garber left Garber's porch and went to her home where they and went down to her finished basement. Aaron said that it was there that Garber stabbed her to death, probably with a long knife that had teeth on one side and a straight edge on the other.
He said Garber went upstairs to Culpepper's room where he stabbed him to death. Jordan, who probably heard the commotion, was cut down just outside her grandson's room.
Meanwhile, Pinkowski's daughter, who had been sleeping on the couch, escaped through the back door down the street to a neighbors' home. While one person in that household called 911, another retrieved a gun and went back to the girl's home where he knocked on the door and saw someone moving around inside. No one came to the door, and the neighbor backed off when he heard sirens.
Aaron said that when officers knocked, Garber opened the door and was covered in blood.