DENTON, Texas ― Amanda Painter sat at the kitchen table in an unfamiliar apartment with an absurd dilemma: She had nothing to wear to a vigil for her three dead children.
Her clothes were at home, but her home was now a crime scene.
Less than 100 hours after her children were murdered, Amanda, 29, found herself in a Walmart, hobbling down the aisles, the gunshot wound to her neck concealed by a gauze bandage. She found a suitable purple shirt and kept her head down. She hadn’t expected to see so many children at the store, laughing and playing. For eight years, Amanda answered to “Mommy.” Now, her babies ― Odin, 8, Caydence, 6, and Drake, 4 ― were gone. Each time she closed her eyes, even to blink, they returned.
Last week, Amanda’s ex-husband, Justin Painter, 39, entered her home in Ponder, Texas, and fatally shot her boyfriend, Seth Richardson, 29, her three children and then himself. He intentionally kept Amanda alive, he told her, to live with the pain.
It was an unthinkable tragedy.
Two days later another unthinkable tragedy occurred, more than 300 miles away. A student opened fire in a high school in Santa Fe, killing 10. Both events were mass shootings ― that is, they each involved at least four fatalities ― and both were in Texas.
There’s no place worse than Texas when it comes to mass shootings. Since 2009, the state has experienced 20 incidents, the most of any state. In 65 percent of cases, the victims included a romantic partner or family member of the shooter, just like what happened to Amanda.
Yet most people only hear about the school shootings ― and not Amanda’s story.
When HuffPost interviewed Amanda, she had just been released from the hospital and was settling into an apartment 20 minutes away from her home, provided by the local domestic violence organization, Denton County Friends of the Family. Advocates stocked the apartment with comfort food, flowers, bath bombs and toiletries, and scribbled inspirational messages on the mirrors. “We are here for you!” someone had written in dry-erase marker. “This is a place to heal and feel safe.”
Amanda was visibly in pain, and moved slowly around the apartment, wincing.
She’d been asleep in bed with her boyfriend when her ex-husband showed up that morning. Seth was lying next to her, his arm wrapped around her body, his stomach pressed into her back, when Justin came in and shot Seth in the head. The bullet went through Seth’s body and into Amanda’s, fracturing her neck and breaking her ribs. Her physical injuries were nothing, she said, compared to her emotional pain. In conversation, Amanda would appear composed for a minute, sometimes two, but then her face crumpled, contorted by grief.
“Your life can always get worse,” she said, breaking down. “I don’t think mine can get any lower. Somehow, I’m still fucking standing, and I’m going to keep going, and I don’t know how, but I’m going to keep going.”
Everyone kept asking her what she needed, she said. The only thing she needed she couldn’t have.
“My kids were my coping mechanism, and now they are gone,” Amanda said. “He knew when he took them from me, he took everything. He’s won.”
Amanda met Justin online when she was 17. They both played “World of Warcraft.” Her username was Amarella; he was Torak. She lived in Richmond, Virginia, and he lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They chatted on the internet for a year, getting to know each other’s stories.
Amanda’s was complicated: Her mother struggled with drug addiction, and Amanda and her identical twin sister, Ashley, were frequently uprooted as kids, bouncing from school to school.
Justin offered stability, and a chance at a fresh start. He was 10 years older and had a job at a Walmart distribution center in Oklahoma. When she was 19, he drove to Virginia to pick her up and bring her home with him. It was the first time they’d met in person.
Once they were in Oklahoma, Amanda recalled, it seemed like Justin wanted her to stay indoors and only play video games. Within a few months, she was stir-crazy. She planned a trip back to Virginia to see her family. While there, she discovered she was pregnant. She didn’t really want to go back to Oklahoma, she said, because she already harbored concerns about the relationship. But she also worried about being a single mother. She had grown up in poverty, and she didn’t want that for her baby.
Without much choice, she went back to Oklahoma to be with Justin. Her son Odin was born in 2009. Caydence came next, in 2012. They moved to Texas to be closer to Justin’s family. Then came Drake, in 2013.
During their nine-year relationship, Justin was not physically abusive toward her, Amanda said, but sometimes she felt afraid of him. When he was angry, he would slam things ― the television remote, his computer chair. She said he was controlling, especially when it came to family finances. She was not given a debit card until after Caydence was born. Before that, every time she needed anything ― diapers, milk, gas for the car ― she had to ask for cash.
Amanda said she often felt depressed. Every so often, she said, she would tell Justin she wasn’t happy and he’d beg her to stay, saying he couldn’t live without her.
She said he also threatened that if she did leave, she’d lose the kids.
“It’s not a huge surprise to me that there wasn’t a lot of physical violence, because it wasn’t necessary,” said Donna Bloom, director of legal services at Denton County Friends of the Family and one of the advocates who stayed with Amanda in the days after the shooting. Physical violence, she said, is just one of many tools people use to control their partners.
“Amanda is a pretty compliant person, so it didn’t have to escalate to physical violence,” Bloom said. “He could use these other tools to achieve the same objective, which is to be in control.”
The separation and the gun
Last year, Amanda finally decided to leave Justin. She was about to turn 28 and felt a growing sense of independence, thanks to a new job. “I thought, if I’m going to take care of the children and work full-time and take care of the house, I just need to get out,” she said.
On April 21, 2017, she told Justin she wanted to try separating, and that she was going to move in with a friend. That night, she said, she and Justin went to sleep together, but in the morning, he wasn’t in bed. She found him in another room, crying. She said he told her that while she was asleep, he had gotten out his gun, loaded it and planned to kill himself.
Scared for the safety of her children, Amanda decided to leave right away. Justin grew angry, she said, and starting throwing things, breaking their flat-screen television over his knees. She buckled the kids in the car and went back in the house to get the gun. It was still loaded, she said. She put it in the trunk.
“I took it because I was afraid he was going to shoot himself,” Amanda said.
She wasn’t the only one who was worried. According to a police report obtained by HuffPost, Justin’s stepfather called 911 that morning to request a welfare check on his son, and an ambulance was called. Police confirmed to HuffPost that Justin was voluntarily admitted into a mental health facility.
While he was seeking medical help, Amanda moved out with the kids. When he returned home, she said, they both took turns caring for the children. Her shifts at a nursing home were unpredictable, and she needed his parenting support. Still, she was surprised when he filed for divorce that summer. He fought for primary custody, and got it.
“I didn’t have any money,” Amanda said. She went to court without a lawyer.
Amanda was granted visitation with her children every other weekend. This worked out for a while, she said. Their relationship grew amicable. Sometimes Justin came over for dinner. Other times, they did stuff with the kids together.
But there was one point of contention: the gun.
Earlier this year, Amanda recalls, Justin’s family asked her to return his gun. Amanda didn’t want to give it back, she said, but she felt like she had no choice. Justin told her she could get in trouble for allegedly stealing it. So she reluctantly gave it back to Justin’s family, she said. At some point, Amanda believes, they returned it to him.
It was the same gun he brought to her house and used to kill her children, police confirmed to HuffPost.
Justin’s family did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
On the evening of May 15, Amanda and Justin took the kids out for pizza. During the car ride, Amanda told Justin about her new boyfriend, that it was serious and he was planning to move in with her.
For the past few months, Amanda had been in a long-distance relationship with Seth Richardson, whom she knew from her teen years. They, too, had met through “World of Warcraft,” and had kept in touch for a decade.
“We just had this bond, it never left,” Amanda said. “There was so much positivity when we were together.”
Seth lived in South Carolina, and had recently decided to move to Texas for Amanda. They hoped to start a family together. At the time she broke the news to Justin, Seth was already on the road, making the 19-hour drive to Texas.
Justin’s face fell, Amanda said. Even though they’d been separated a year, he was still holding out hope for reconciliation.
“I saw him fall apart,” she said. “He kept saying, ‘I’m trying to love you, I’m trying to change.’”
He started driving erratically, she said, and screamed at her and the kids. When they got back to her house, she had to plead with him to allow the kids to stay for dinner. She promised to bring them back to his house afterward.
Amanda and her kids ate pizza on her bed (pepperoni for Odin and Caydence; black olive, sausage and mushroom for Drake; onion for her) and watched the movie “Atlantis.” They cuddled. After dinner, Amanda drove them back to Justin’s house, and gave each of them a goodnight kiss. She watched them file inside.
Once she got home, she fell asleep. Around 6:30 the next morning, she got a call from Seth. He had finally arrived at her house.
“I didn’t even hang up the phone. I threw it on the bed and ran outside,” she recalled. “I hugged him and kissed his neck and hugged him and hugged him. I was just so excited he was there. It meant our life was about to start.”
Seth was exhausted from driving, and they soon fell asleep together, spooning on her bed. They didn’t rest long. Some time around 8 a.m., Amanda woke to a loud bang next to her head.
It was unlike anything she’d ever heard, and her back was alight with searing pain. Her ears rang and she was paralyzed with confusion. Then she heard more bangs.
“Seth!” she screamed. “Seth!”
Moments passed ― minutes? Seconds? Time collapsed for Amanda. Then she heard a voice in the doorway. It was Justin.
“Seth’s dead. The kids are dead. And you’re going to have to live with it,” she recalls him saying.
He shot himself in front of her.
She managed to turn herself over, and saw Seth lying beside her. He was shot.
Amanda grabbed her phone and dialed 911, stumbling into the living room. She prayed that Justin was bluffing about the children, trying to scare her. Then she saw a shoe lying on the ground. A little leg. Closer, and she could see all three children, shot to death.
Neighbors said they saw Justin arrive at the house Wednesday morning with the children and bring them into the home.
Amanda collapsed on the ground. For some reason, her arms weren’t working. She wanted to pick up her children, but she couldn’t. “I thought my body was breaking down because of my mental state,” she said.
In reality, she had been shot. When Justin shot Seth, who was asleep cuddling her, the bullet went through him and into her body.
The ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital, but she didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to leave her children behind. Later, a female detective told her that the first responders all made a pact ― they would not let the children ride in the same vehicle as their deceased father, the man who stole their lives.
While in the hospital, Amanda posted a series of emotional videos on her Facebook page, explaining what had happened. She felt a desperate urge to share, to unload her grief for others to see and reckon with. But it backfired. In the comments, she said, people were blaming her for what happened.
Why? Because she left.
It was a bright, clear evening at Parkview Elementary School in Fort Worth, where Odin had been in second grade and Caydence was in kindergarten. At 4, Drake was still in day care, but he’d been looking forward to attending the school when he was old enough, like his big sister and brother.
Around 100 people gathered to mourn. Parents held on to their children tightly. The crowd was quiet, save for the sounds of sniffles and subdued crying. In front of the school, people left offerings of teddy bears and bouquets of flowers.
Amanda sat near the back, on a stone bench, flanked by her twin sister. Her face was pained. She cried, on and off, and listened as student after student took the microphone to offer a memory of her children.
“Odin always used to hit my head with his locker accidentally because he had the locker above me.”
“Caydence used to play with me at recess.”
“Whenever I was on the lonely bench, Odin would ask if I wanted to play with him.”
“He was always happy. I never saw him not be happy. He always had a big smile on his face.”
Afterward, each child was handed a helium balloon to write a message on and send up to heaven ― up to their friends. One balloon popped loudly next to Amanda and she startled, jumping up and retreating tearfully to the parking lot.
It sounded too much like a gunshot.
Once the balloons were up in the air, fading into the night sky, she came back.
She sang “Amazing Grace” along with the crowd, and held a flickering white candle. The program was over, and people started to disperse, gathering up their families and walking to their cars.
Amanda stood alone. And then, one by one, children began to approach, lining up to see her. They hugged her legs, squeezed her chest, kissed her cheek. They knew what she needed.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.