Joe Regelski Made Me Cry
by Jim Gibbons, April 23, 2015
No, he didn’t hurt me or make me cry on purpose, or even know who I was or that I cried. He was just giving his usual morning news report from the KOZT studio in Fort Bragg, as he had been doing for years. And I had been listening every weekday morning for years. My routine was getting up a little after six, making coffee, and catching that first report at 6:30 AM. I liked his headline news, local and national, the stock market, sports and weather, all in less than ten minutes, and then back to Classic Rock.
The date was June 12, 2008. Regelski was reporting on a murder that took place sometime after midnight the day before in Willits. A man had entered an unlocked front door of a Coast Street home and approached the victim from behind, stabbing him in the back several times with a butcher knife.
The victim’s girlfriend was sleeping in a back bedroom with their 4-year-old daughter, but didn’t hear anything and slept through it. At about 3 AM she noticed her boyfriend wasn’t in bed yet and went into the kitchen to discover his body lying in a pool of blood. She called the cops and then she called me.
3 AM phone calls are never good news. I had put a second phone on my headboard so I wouldn’t have to jump up when I heard the phone ringing at the other end of the house. After that call I removed the phone from my bedroom, deciding that one land line at the other end of the house was enough.
As soon as I said hello she started screaming in my ear, “HE’S DEAD!! RILEY’S DEAD!! COME GET YOUR SON!! HE’S DEAD…” I was numbly calm, first asking her if she had called the police, and then Sgt. Jon Anderson took the phone from her and asked me if I was Jim Gibbons, Riley’s father, and when I said yes, he apologized for her outburst and asked me if I would come to the crime scene and identify the body.
I got out of bed and dressed mechanically, drove the ten miles to town, and when I got to the Coast Street house I noticed the yellow tape around the yard and a few police cars blocking off the street. Then I saw Brandy and Kyra being whisked away by Brandy’s step-mom, Debbie, who had just lost her husband, Brandy’s father, the previous year.
The first person I talked to was Sgt. Anderson, who told me I did not need to go in the house, in fact, since it was now officially a crime scene they preferred I stay out. We talked briefly, and he was real sympathetic, offering to have coffee sometime if I wanted to talk about it. But there was nothing for me to do there so I left and went to my wife’s house only a few blocks away. She had put her house on the market and left for Hawaii just days before. She was a bit impatient with my indecisiveness and said she’d go first and buy a house, then I could come when I was ready.
I don’t really remember what I did the rest of the day. I do remember that I'd stopped by the previous afternoon to take my granddaughter Kyra for a walk. When we returned, Riley asked me to hang out and watch the NBA playoffs with a few of his friends, but I declined because I wanted to get home. Besides, I had DirecTV at my place and don’t like to drive the ten miles home at night after a few beers. I’ve regretted that decision, but what can I say, maybe it saved me from a DUI or a deer in the windshield? That’s the last time I saw him alive.
Then the next morning I woke up early, went through my usual routine, anticipating Joe Regelski’s news report at 6:30. I knew this would be the top story. As the time approached I couldn’t sit still and was on my hands and knees spot cleaning my bamboo floor when he began… ”A Willits man was stabbed to death in the early hours of Wednesday, June 11…”
And that’s when I started crying, or maybe more like sobbing. I was on all fours looking at tears running down my nose and dripping on the floor. I was making gasping sounds as if I couldn’t quite catch my breath. At the same time I was observing how silly I looked. It would have been embarrassing if someone else was there, but then I would have held it in, as I’ve done for decades. I was taught not to be a cry baby and I did pretty good until that June morning in 2008.
I didn’t cry when my mother died in 2006, or my father in 1990. It was different when my little sister Susie died in 1991. I’m not saying I cried, but if I had I wouldn’t be embarrassed. She was 37-years-old and driving the icy road from Leadville to Vail, Colorado at night when she slid off the road and plunged down the mountain. She crawled up to the highway with a broken ankle in freezing temperatures and collapsed along side of the road. She was found by a passing motorist early that morning and taken to the hospital where she died that afternoon.
I was coaching the distance runners at Willits High School that spring when I got the call one evening from a Colorado county coroner describing briefly what happened; he seemed to expect that I would fly out immediately. Most people would drop everything and take personal care of a family tragedy like this, but I was coaching my oldest son Eli, who had broken the school record in the 3200-meters and had just won the Coastal Conference 1600 and 3200 meter championships. The next meet was the Regionals in Santa Rosa to see who would go to the State Meet. I didn’t want to fly to Colorado. I rationalized that Susie was dead, there was nothing I could do.
And why did they call me and not our mother or older sisters? Perhaps because I was the only sibling from Wisconsin to ever visit her. The first time was in ’79 to run the Leadville 10K, advertised as the highest road race in the country at close to ten thousand feet. It was part one of a free trip that she arranged in anticipation of my qualifying for the 1980 Boston Marathon. She was part owner of Ozzie’s Shoes in Vail, and when I jokingly asked her if Ozzie’s wanted to sponsor me to run Boston she took me seriously, talked to her partners, and sure enough they bought me shoes, tickets, the works. Maybe her friends thought big brother would jump at the chance to return to Colorado when she died to get some closure?
I called my Mom, and when I told her Susie was dead she made a sound like the wind was knocked out of her. My sister Kathy scolded me later for not calling her first; she lived nearby and would have told our mother in person. Kathy’s husband Al flew out and took care of everything. Eli didn’t make it to state.
After a few desolate minutes on my floor, I got up, wiped my face and actually felt better. It was sort of like self-imposed therapy. So the next question was who did it?
Police arrested 38-year-old Lovell Keller of Willits about a half an hour later. Seems there had been an altercation earlier that evening at the Circle K market, across from the post office on Main Street. Riley had gone to the market to buy beer or cigarettes, and there he ran into Keller, who was waiting in line. Keller made a comment about Brandy, causing Riley to get riled and knock him into a display case before running back home.
The police were called and they talked to Keller. Although Keller was intoxicated, since he was on foot, they let him walk it off. Apparently he went home, took a shower, and got in bed with his girlfriend until she fell asleep. Then he got up, took a butcher knife and walked the half-mile to Riley’s house.
After he'd stabbed Riley, he walked back home, dropping the weapon into a sewer a few blocks down Coast Street. The police found the knife the next morning with Keller's fingerprints on it. Shortly after he'd killed Riley, Keller had texted Brandy bragging that he did it as if that would really impress her. “Y boy is dead.” I haven’t really studied criminal dating habits, but if that’s how some killers try to court the ladies, it’s no surprise when they’re so easily nabbed.
Turns out Keller and Brandy had worked together at Perko’s on the south end of Willits, now called Lumberjacks Restaurant. He was a cook and she was a hostess. Apparently he had a thing for her, perhaps misinterpreting her friendly personality as a mutual attraction. She was nice to him because that was her job, being nice to people. She’s a fun person with a pleasant demeanor, but don’t piss her off.
She and Riley had been going together on and off for about five years, but toward the end they seemed to irritate each other more easily over little stuff. I didn’t really like being around them all that much anymore. I used to pick up Kyra once a week — Tuesdays with Kyra, I called it, and made a little book about our time together. I’d bring her up to my place to hang out for the day. We would look at books, draw pictures, collect lizards and take hikes. She was fearless, wanting to climb ladders, walk off into the woods right through the poison oak, and seemed to have more endurance than me — and I was a national class runner!
One day Kyra seemed a bit melancholy. She was sitting on her little rocking chair looking out the window while I was fixing lunch. This was in late spring of ’08, maybe a month before her that fateful day her father was murdered, and she'd said, “Why can’t they just get along?” I knew she was talking about her mom and dad, but I had no answer. She continued, “She yells at him, and he yells at her. Why can’t they just be nice?” At that moment she seemed so much older than four. I told her all we could do is be nice to them, and maybe they would be nicer to each other.
A few weeks earlier, I'd noticed Riley’s right hand was swollen and I asked him about it. He said some guy was hassling Brandy at work and he punched him. That upset me, and I didn’t even know at the time the guy was Keller, or that he was an ex-convict. That would have scared the shit of me! I do remember Brandy saying one time that sending her younger brother Bryce Jr., who had a few run-ins with the law, to jail would be a good lesson for Bryce, as if going to jail makes a person shape up and fly right.
I’ve never been to jail or even been arrested, but always felt that that’s one of the worst places to go because you meet bad people there. When Riley was nineteen and living with a few friends in Brooktrails he showed me a handgun that he'd recently acquired, as if I’d be impressed. He knew I didn’t own any guns, but my first thought was I want that gun, or maybe a better way to put it is, I don’t want him to have that gun.
I acted impressed by the gun and told Riley that my wife Susan has been wanting a handgun because she didn’t feel safe living out in the woods alone with just her and her daughter Joanie. We each had our own place, which by the way is the secret to a lasting marriage. I offered Riley $100 for it and pulled out five $20 bills. He sold it to me on the spot, I thanked him, and a week later I read an article in the Willits News about three young dudes from Willits who were arrested at a marijuana grow north of town.
It seems Riley drove his two friends to that grow in the ’74 Toyota coup I traded him for doing some jobs for me, but two Sheriff's deputies happened to be waiting for them. His two friends both had handguns and were taken into custody, but Riley was unarmed and was released. When I read that I surely patted myself on the back, knowing there was a real good chance Riley would have had that handgun I bought from him on him.
A handgun would not have helped defend himself the night Keller rushed in, if he had it in his hand, ready to fire, or if he had just locked his front door. One would think after another altercation with the same guy who lived in the same town one would want to be safer by locking the doors. Riley, what were you thinking?! How many times do you get to punch someone before they retaliate?
The last time I saw his body was in the local mortuary. They offered me some alone time with him. He was laid out on a table with his torso exposed, showing the Kyra tattoo over his left pec. I suppose most people pray or cry or both at this last visit, but being a lifelong atheist, and already having cried, I remember thinking what a waste of a good life, and after a few minutes I exited, paid the cremation fee, and went home.
The next hurdle was the memorial, which was to take place at the Methodist Church the following week. I knew I was expected to say something to the crowd, but just couldn’t prepare a speech. And there was a crowd. I was surprised how many people showed up, so many they all couldn't get in and were just hanging outside when I arrived. It seemed everyone in Willits knew Riley and liked him. Even out-of-towners showed up. The ones who couldn’t get into the packed church seemed satisfied to just be there outside throughout the memorial.
When my turn came I thanked everyone who had called with their condolences, and I thanked those who didn’t call. Then I read a piece I wrote ten years before about me and Riley running the Boonville 5K, called “My Favorite Second Place.” It was how he'd recovered from a serious foot injury to run and race again, finally beating me for the first time with a devastating kick. Then after the race, always the jokester, Riley asked me with a straight face why I hadn't kicked. Haha.