On the day she gunned down her daughters in the middle of the street, Christy Sheats – described by friends and family online as a loving, proud mom – was wearing a purple dress.
She’d gathered her family – her husband and daughters, Madison, age 17, and Taylor, 22 – for a meeting in the living room of their suburban Houston home, authorities told the Associated Press. Then, she started shooting.
The gunfire spilled into the street outside. Sheats’ husband, Jason, escaped to a nearby cul-de-sac without injury, authorities said. Their daughters weren’t as lucky.
One died in the street as terrified neighbors called for help and took cover. The other died at a local hospital.
When police arrived on scene, Sheats refused to drop her weapon, authorities said. An officer shot her dead.
The Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office has not yet determined what led to the bloodshed Friday night, only that it began after a family argument. Deputies had responded to the home more than a dozen times in the past, reported the AP. A sheriff’s office spokesperson told People magazine the calls involved a “mental crisis” related to the 42-year-old mother.
On Tuesday, in 911 calls released by the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office, the true horror of the tragedy that unfolded there last week, one that has the nation once again tangled in a contentious debate about guns and mental health, became a bit more clear.
In the calls, the daughters can be heard crying and screaming, begging for their lives.
“Please! Forgive me! Please, don’t shoot!” one of the daughters screams, according to the AP.
“Please, I’m sorry,” a female voice cries. “Please! Don’t point that gun at her!”
Much of the call is muffled, hardly audible. At one point, a deeper voice says: “I promise you, whatever you want.”
Then the line goes dead.
When the family ran outside, fleeing Sheats’ bullets, the daughters, both already shot, collapsed in the street, reported the AP.
A neighbor heard the shots and saw the bodies. While taking cover in the back of his home and shepherding his own family to safety, he called 911, exasperated.
“There’s a lady with gun,” he can be heard telling the operator, in a recording posted online by the Huffington Post. “She’s coming out of her house right now. Two people shot outside! Two people shot outside!”
The unidentified neighbor describes the people outside as his neighbors, but he didn’t know their names. There were two women in the street, he told the operator, and though they’d been shot, he said they still looked alive. He told the operator he saw a man trying to help the injured women.
He said the woman with the gun was wearing a purple dress.
“The lady is on top of one of them with a gun in her hand,” he said.
The shooter tried to fire the gun again, the neighbor said, but it appeared she had run out of bullets.
“She’s going inside, she’s going inside the house now,” he says. “Hopefully she’s not getting more bullets, because it looks like she’s going in for more bullets.”
A man appeared to be yelling at the shooter, the caller said. Nearly a minute passed. Then the woman reappeared.
“She’s coming back again. . . apparently she has bullets now,” the neighbor said.
“Oh, she shot her again,” he said. “She shot her again.”
Then the caller said he heard more gunshots, then the woman with the gun laying down on the floor. She stopped moving.
“Okay sir,” the operator says. “I’m so sorry you’re seeing this.”
Soon after, the phone call stops.
The Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office seemed reluctant to release audio of the 911 calls, and in a post on the department’s Facebook page said it had received many requests from news organizations across the country and, according to the county attorney, it had “no legal means to withhold them.”
“Two of the calls are from Taylor and Madison and are difficult to listen to,” the post said. “Sheriff (Troy) Nehls is meeting with Mr. Sheats to ensure he is aware we had no choice. We will not be posting the calls on our social media.”
As news of the tragedy spread over the weekend, the department used its Twitter and Facebook pages to update the public with information.
But in an interview with the Houston Chronicle, the sheriff said he can understand why the tragic case has garnered national attention. People across the country have followed the unfolding story since last week, lighting fresh fire under an a seemingly never-ending debate in the United States about the pros and cons of gun control, and where the topic of mental health fits into the picture.
Nehls said his office, with cooperation from Jason Sheats, is committed to figuring out what led to the tragedy Friday.
“That will be our job here, that will be the investigators’ focus now for the next coming days, to try and pinpoint the motive,” Nehls told the Chronicle. “And if she was suffering from some type of mental illness, what type of outreach, what type of help she was getting.
“I think you want to know, did the system fail her? Did we fail her? Did her family fail her? I would want to know. I would want to get to the bottom of it,” he said.
Online in social media posts and photos, the Sheats family seemed tight-knit and loving. The girls had their mothers’ beach blonde hair, and Christy Sheats often wrote gushingly of her pride in Madison and Taylor.
Last year, she wrote in a post: “Happy Daughter’s Day to my two amazing, sweet, kind, beautiful, intelligent girls. I love and treasure you both more than you could ever possibly know.” In a different post from 2014, she shared a bible verse, James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” Then, alongside a photo of the girls smiling and hugging, she added: “Today I am thankful for my two perfect gifts! They are very best friends – they make me so very proud to be their mother.”
The mother also used social media to talk about her faith, her support for the Second Amendment and her fear that the government was trying to restrict her rights as a gun owner.
Both sisters worked in child care, according to their Facebook profiles. Taylor attended Lone Star College and was an avid, talented artist. Many of her drawings are posted online. Her younger sister, Madison, was to be a senior at Seven Lakes High School this fall, reported ABC affiliate KTRK-TV.
The Houston Chronicle reported that the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet completed the autopsies, but that Taylor was shot in the head and torso, and Madison suffered wounds to her neck and chest. Christy Sheats, the office told the newspaper, died from a gunshot wound to the chest.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Katie Mettler