After the gunshots, amid the terror and the searing pain, the 16-year-old girl could think of only one thing: She had to protect the baby.
The teenager had just been shot in the face by her uncle, Kelley James McDonald Jr., and while lying on the floor she watched her mother die from bullet wounds, the teen’s father told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday.
When she came to, the teen dashed to the den, scooped up her 2-year-old cousin, carried her into a bathroom and locked the door — protecting the toddler from her crazed father.
The bloodshed wasn’t over Thursday morning inside the Dawsonville home on Bryn Drive. After killing the teen’s mother, Tracy Lynne Runnels, McDonald found whom he was looking for in a downstairs bedroom: Runnels’ sister, his ex-wife, Kelly Jean Garrison.
He shot her to death then turned a gun on himself, according to the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office.
The 16-year-old is expected to recover, and her family has set up a GoFundMe page to help with hospital bills and to pay for therapy for both her and her 13-year-old sister, who was also in the house that day. By Sunday night, the page had raised $14,000 toward a $100,000 goal, with more than 100 people donating.
The girls’ father, Douglas Bauer, said he will likely be out of work for months taking care of them. Though he and their mother had divorced, they remained close friends, he said, sharing parenting duties and talking daily.
“When stuff like this happens, she’s the one that I turned to,” Bauer said. “She’s the person that handled these type of things, because I typically don’t, and I typically don’t handle it so well. It just sucks that she’s the one that’s missing, and she’s the one that should be helping me out, to deal with something like this.”
Bauer spoke by phone from outside his daughter’s room at an Atlanta hospital. He said McDonald shot her at point-blank range with a 9 mm round. The bullet went through the right side of her mouth, through teeth and jawbone and out the back of her head. But there was no arterial or spinal damage, he said.
“It was like a one-in-a-million shot,” Bauer said. “My daughter is doing exceptional in her recovery. Like, far exceeding all doctors’ expectations and therapists’ expectations.”
Bauer said he has assembled an account of the day from talking to both girls, as well as to investigators and his ex-wife’s husband. Sheriff’s office spokesman Alan Roach would not confirm or deny his version of events. The GBI is assisting in the continued investigation.
The 16-year-old’s mouth is wired shut with stitches in her face, but she can still speak, her father said. When she has a tracheotomy tube connected to help her breathe, she communicates through a dry-erase board.
While his daughters’ photos are posted on the GoFundMe page, their names are not. Citing safety concerns, Bauer asked the AJC not to use their names so they won’t be searchable on the web.
On the run
All he can figure, Bauer said, is that McDonald had become so enraged, he was willing to kill anyone who stood between him and his ex.
“From what I gathered, my ex-wife and my daughter were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bauer said.
Kelly Garrison, 35, an elementary school teacher, had fled Tampa to get away from her ex, who was on the run himself from an arrest warrant for charges of assaulting Garrison in December, The Tampa Bay Times reported Friday. McDonald, 39, had been harassing and threatening her for more than two years, the newspaper reported, based on a petition for protection she filed with a Florida court.
A few months after their divorce was finalized in October, McDonald got into her apartment and attacked her when she arrived home, the petition said. A neighbor heard her screams and managed to fight him off. Garrison also wrote in the petition that McDonald had told her that if she went through with the divorce, their daughter “will not have ANY parents,” and, “I’ll get you back for this when you least expect it,” The Times reported.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office took out a warrant for McDonald’s arrest, and a court injunction ordered him to stay at least 300 feet away from his ex and surrender any firearms to authorities.
Bauer said that, even as a wanted man, McDonald persisted. Earlier this year, he tried to get into the school where Garrison worked, repeatedly leaving and changing clothes every time a staffer spotted him approaching the building. After that, he said, the school put Garrison on paid leave, and she left the state to stay with her older sister — Runnels, 38.
Looking back, Bauer said McDonald and Garrison never had a healthy relationship. They met more than a decade ago, when she was working as a server at a Carrabba’s restaurant in the Port Richey, Fla., area. He was a patron who wouldn’t leave her alone, showing up there repeatedly and trying to talk to her. She became so alarmed, she told her managers about him and even alerted police, Bauer said.
But eventually, she started talking to him. During their relationship, he monitored her phone calls, what she watched on TV, and what she ate.
“Somehow, they get engaged, and somehow they get married,” Bauer said. “And I told Tracy, ‘This is insane. This guy’s her stalker. How is it possible that now the person she’s most scared of is now her husband?’ ”
The danger of hiding
On the day she died, Garrison was about to leave town again. She and her sister were loading up a van for a trip to Savannah to visit Runnels’ husband, while he was on an out-of-town job.
McDonald, who apparently came in through the open garage door, encountered Runnels coming out of the house into the garage.
“(McDonald) opened fire on my ex-wife, just because she was the first one out the door,” Bauer said. “My daughter was behind her, and he shot her in the face. I assume he thought she was dead, because her shot her once, and she dropped.”
The 16-year-old told her father it felt like she’d been hit in the face with a blunt object. She briefly lost consciousness on the floor as she listened to her mother gasping for air.
Her younger sister, after seeing her mother fall, bolted down the stairs and out a back door. She ran through a pasture, over several barbed wire fences, and banged on a neighbor’s door. She called police from there, and deputies were at the scene by the time the final gunshots went off.
The 16-year-old also dialed 911 from the bathroom with her cellphone before losing consciousness again.
Bauer said when Garrison realized her ex-husband had found her, she ran to a downstairs bedroom and used a dresser to barricade herself inside. But McDonald managed to pull the door off its hinges and push past the dresser.
Lt. Roach, of the sheriff’s office, said police found two pistols on McDonald. Authorities have not determined how he located his ex-wife and daughter.
“A lot of people in family violence situations, they feel they need to hide out,” he said. “And one of the dangers in that is the fact that if you’re hiding with family, people know to look for you with family. That’s why a lot of domestic violence advocacy groups will try to get people to go into shelters.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.