With too many keys to know which one, Reagan, 15, trying to get her bearings, dashed to her twin brother Brian’s room.
“Reagan was standing over me, asking where the keys were for the garage,” Brian said. “I thought it was a dream. It was all just a blur.”
They accompanied law enforcement to the garage, separate from their Eagle Tree home in Bushland. By now, Potter-Randall Special Crimes Unit officers were there. Brian was told to stay away from the garage.
They momentarily forgot about Reagan being where she shouldn’t as she unlocked the garage and turned on the lights. The first thing she saw was her father, Paul Gillette, on the floor by the dirt bikes and four-wheelers.
“He was like in the fetal position. The cops asked him if everything was OK, and he said, ‘Not good, not good,’” Reagan said. “That was the only thing he said.”
Meanwhile, Brian had circled around the other way and peered through a garage window. There, he and his sister from different points saw their mother, Sherri Michele Gillette, about the same time.
She was motionless on the floorboard of the GMC Yukon, her legs visible to the children. They watched as officers tried to revive her.
“I knew she was dead,” Brian said.
Brian ran back to the house, and, not knowing what to do, called Kim Sims, Bushland Middle School nurse and mother of his good friend, Grayson Sims.
Sims saw the name and time and figured Brian called by accident. Then it rang again. She answered this time.
“He said, ‘My mom’s been murdered, and my dad killed her,’” Sims said. “And the way he said it, it sounded like someone punched him in the stomach.”
Sims rushed to the home about 1:40 a.m. Others were arriving as well. They were kept outside as Brian and Reagan, along with younger sisters Chrissie and Emma, both of whom had been asleep in the guest house, were interviewed by police.
Finally, about 4:30 a.m., the four walked out to a world that would be forever altered.
“They were crying and they looked awful,” Sims said. “It was the worst thing I’d ever seen to see four children walking out, knowing their mother was dead and their dad arrested for murder.”
And for Brian and Reagan, their first day at Bushland High School began in just more than 24 hours.
Few things are better than the last days of May for high school seniors. It’s a blend of accomplishment, excitement, nostalgia and anticipation. It’s a marker in a young life.
So it is with Brian and Reagan, whose last days are dwindling at Bushland High School. They talk of what lies ahead at their colleges, the University of Oklahoma and Texas A&M University. They talk of high school, and they good-naturedly needle one another about the competition for No. 1 academically in their class.
“Technically, I could still be first by the final transcript,” she said. “Keep that in mind.”
Brian and Reagan, born one minute apart on June 8, 1995, are that close on their final grade-point averages. Brian carries a 4.62, and his sister a 4.6175.
Three years, nine months and one week after a pitiful 4:30 a.m. walk away from their home where their mother was strangled and beaten at the hands of their father, Brian and Reagan will walk the stage Thursday night at the Amarillo Civic Center Complex as the valedictorian and salutatorian of the Bushland Class of 2014.
They had every reasonable excuse, every understanding cause, to rebel, to become bitter and jaded, wounded and forever lost as they hit high school after an act few children ever know. The cracks were wide to fall through, the margins of society calling their name.
But they did not by their own drive, would not by the determination of a community.
“Brian and Reagan, they didn’t live as victims,” said Dawn Pearson, senior class project teacher and student service counselor. “It was tragic, and, of course, they’re very much affected by it and always will be. But they did not sit around and feel sorry for themselves.”
Half of this story is an innate drive to succeed, a foundation poured on them when they were young despite frequent dysfunction in the family. The two were rewarded for good grades at home, grounded for any poor marks. They’ve never made lower than an A in a course. Never.
“They’re very driven,” Pearson said, “and always have been.”
After the murder, they were a cauldron of emotions, mostly anger and sadness. For Reagan, anger at their father trumped sadness for their mother in the beginning. For Brian, it was the opposite.
They recalled Paul Gillette, the volatile Falcon Club developer with mounting financial problems, constantly fighting with their mother. They also recall him reading to them from the Bible in the mornings, mostly from Proverbs. They would discuss what was read on the way to school.
“When that happened,” Brian said, “we felt betrayed. Really, just betrayed.”
Enter Bushland High School. The two missed just one day of high school after the murder. They grabbed motivation however they could. School and athletics became a refuge. Sherri’s memory became fuel.
“We just wanted to be the best we could be for my mother,” Brian said. “Our mom would not want us to sit back and mope about the situation. The quicker we got into school, the quicker we could move on and be successful.”
“We didn’t want what happened to put limits on us,” Reagan said. “We could still do what we wanted and excel in academics and sports. Like Brian said, Mom would want it that way. She still could be proud of us.”
They immersed themselves in the classroom and athletics — Advanced Placement classes and all As for both. They were in student council and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
For Reagan, she was a two-year starter as outside hitter on the volleyball team, which won the 2A state title in 2013. She was a three-year starter in basketball, often turning any leftover anger loose on the court. She threw the shot put and discus in track.
Brian was a two-way starter on the Falcon football team as outside linebacker and receiver, making up in heart what he lacked in size.
“A lot of people have told us they don’t know how we’ve stayed so strong,” Reagan said. “I guess they just expected us to give up. I never saw it that way — ever. We didn’t let that factor in changing what we want to do, and goals in our lives.”
But there’s another part of this story, an equally important part, a tale of what happens when a large group makes an investment.
“The biggest factor was the Bushland community,” Brian said. “They wrapped their arms around us.”
Not on our watch
If indeed it does take a village to raise a child, look no further than seven miles west of Amarillo. It was as if in late August 2010, a community figuratively drew a line in the sand, saying “Not on my watch, not with them.”
All four Gillette children, but especially the older two, were gems. They just needed polishing.
“These parents of their friends, these amazing parents came in and took over,” Pearson said. “They helped Brian and Reagan with their emotional needs, physical needs, social needs. I mean, everything they needed.”
Start though with grandparents, with Dwayne and Margaret Herring, grieving from the murder of a daughter. With plans in a fifth year of retirement, they not only put their lives on hold, they reversed their lives.
Once the parents of four children at home, including oldest daughter Sherri, they took custody of their four grandchildren.
“There was no doubt,” Margaret said. “We were the logical ones. We didn’t want the kids split up. You do what you have to do.”
They provided an anchor, a place that was home. Their grandchildren were appreciative of their grandparents’ sacrifice. The “I love yous” flowed freely.
“They could have gone the other way,” Dwayne said. “They could have rebelled against society, turned to drugs and drinking, and they didn’t do any of those things. All we gave them was an atmosphere and a home, and they took it and ran.”
Support was all around. Bushland school officials were keenly aware of the Gillettes’ plight, building safety nets for them through teachers, coaches and students. Beyond school, a network of parents, relatives and friends tried to fill voids where needed.
“We’re a small community, but we’re like a huge family,” Reagan said. “All of them welcomed us with open arms.”
Brian calls Sims “his mother on Earth.” He begins to tick off others as well.
A group of eight to 10 parents of friends dug close to them, and it rippled from there. In essence, all provided a runway, and it was from there Brian and Reagan took off.
Each Wednesday at the Sims home, it’s “Brian Night” where he’s over to eat, cook and clean, and discuss everything from acne to girlfriends. He and Grayson will room together at A&M.
“This community loves them like I love them,” Kim Sims said. “This community should let it soak in, the fact that these two kids in the face of overwhelming sorrow that many of us will never know and loss so unspeakable will be valedictorian and salutatorian. They have become the best version of themselves.”
Not about loss
This is the time of year graduating seniors share the milestone with parents. For the Gillettes, their father, with whom they’ve had no communication, is in prison in Huntsville, serving 45 years for first-degree murder. Their mother is buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Rhineland.
To say the Gillette children don’t have difficult days is false. Sims said Brian has told her he misses the way his mother smelled, her voice; he wishes she could be in the auditorium to hear his speech.
Oh, yes, his speech. Brian and Reagan will give valedictorian and salutatorian speeches at graduation. Brian was asked to speak on the present and the future. But he said he couldn’t do that without addressing the past.
He speaks for both about what occurred. They are products of the past, defined by it to some degree, but not bound, certainly not wallowing.
“I put this in my speech,” he said, “that I’d rather be defined by what I’ve gained rather than what I lost.”
Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com or 806-345-3318. His blog and video blog appear on amarillo.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue.