In the Aftermath, One Mother Picks Up the Pieces

A morning shooting put one family in the headlines. Here’s the story of what happened after the ambulances left and the detectives passed the file on to the Missoula County Attorney’s office.

8-05-08

On a warm summer afternoon at home, Gayle Hafner and her three daughters, Brittney, 11; Zarah, 7; and Torissa, 5, gather for a photograph. Brittney wants to be a fashion designer, Zarah does not want to wear a helmet when she rides the neighbor’s 4-wheeler and everyone agrees that Torissa is the princess of the household. Photo by Alexia Beckerling

Behind the veneer of Montana’s amenity economy—where home-building and carpet installation have largely replaced blue-collar careers like logging and millwork—lie the same human conditions, landscapes of tough times.

Here’s the story of one family—living a short drive down the Bitterroot Valley from Charles Schwab’s moneyed Stock Farm—the mess they got into and a life that isn’t always simple or easy.

The family was catapulted into the evening news a little over two weeks ago with a breakfast-time 9-1-1 call about a man who had been shot. Bruce Hafner, a 49-year-old carpet-installer and owner of Hafner Installation, had allegedly pulled the trigger of a handgun, putting a bullet through the chest of his 51-year-old brother Dennis. Worse, one of Bruce’s young daughters, who police say was almost in the path of the bullet, witnessed the whole thing.

Bruce is in Missoula County Jail on charges of attempted murder and criminal endangerment. The attempted murder charge likely won’t hold a lot of water. For one thing, self-defense may be a factor, and, anyway, Dennis said he doesn’t intend to press charges. He’s also gone. He checked himself out of St. Patrick Hospital about a week after the shooting and—despite a punctured lung—bought a ticket and boarded a bus back to his home in Oregon. There, says his probation officer, he faces a year in jail for violating probation on an unrelated misdemeanor.

Bruce, the alleged shooter, is a likeable and hardworking man. From a poor background, he has struggled all his life for respectability. Several times over the past few years, he has invited his older brother to his well-kept Lolo home with its immaculate lawns and flourishing tomato plants when his carpet business got too hectic. Family members said the two had a close, although sometimes screwed-up, relationship. Basically, they got drunk and fought each other. (Aside from the charges relating to the shooting, Bruce has an ongoing felony DUI case.)

But sorting through all that will be a job for attorneys and, maybe, a jury. More pertinent to this column were the goings-on the week after detectives and paramedics swarmed the family’s home just up U.S. Highway 12 from Lolo.

That Wednesday, a handful of balloons marked the entrance to the Hafner driveway. A long-scheduled estate sale was in progress. Easy chairs sat in a row on the lawn in front of a modest house and a significant lilac hedge. There were tools and kitchenware and lots of books—mostly Western fiction and history and Readers Digest condensed classics.

Gayle Hafner—Bruce’s wife—managed the sale with the help of family members from her side. The life’s goods on the lawn had been Gayle’s mother’s, LaGean Walker, who died in June after a long struggle with COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. All afternoon, Gayle’s three daughters ran in and out of the house and to a neighbor’s.

It’s a comfortable home, removed from Highway 12 by a long driveway. Gayle and Bruce bought the place from Gayle’s parents about 10 years ago, but while her parents lived, she and Bruce stayed in a comfortable mobile home on the other side of the lilac hedge.

Gayle slept in the house with her mother in the final months of her life to better care for her and to make sure she didn’t have problems with her oxygen tank.

Gayle still seems dazed by her mother’s death. She says she’s lucky to have been able to be by her mother’s side at the end. “I knew how she was being cared for,” she said.

As for her husband’s legal troubles, she has to be pragmatic. After all, hers has suddenly become a one-parent family of four. She answers questions from clients of her husband’s installation business and does the billing and other clerical work. During the school year she also works part-time at Lolo School, which allows her to be close to her daughters.

Still, she worries about the girls and the rumors. The little humiliations hurt, too, like the other day when she sat at her kitchen table and over the telephone explained, painfully, her situation to a social services caseworker who knew full well what’s what but wanted to force her to come out and say it.

“Bruce isn’t working. No. Obviously, Bruce isn’t working, and he doesn’t live with us. His address is the Missoula County Jail now,” Gayle told her. A few minutes later, Gayle, dismayed at the exchange, said to me, “She knows me personally.”

Now, Gayle finds herself with insight into other situations, ones she never expected she would identify with. She watches the news differently. Recently she saw a report about a fatal shooting. She noticed the reporter talked about how the victim had been putting his life back together.

“You have to be dead before they say something nice about you,” Gayle said. “People can do bad things, but there can still be something good there, too.”

Particularly painful was the shorthand terminology used to sum up her family’s life: A shooting in a trailer, her husband’s DUI. While those hard facts may be true, they don’t come close to describing him in full, she said.

It can be tempting to view the world in black-and-white, to assign moral value to superficial details, such as whether a home counts its square feet by the thousand or whether it’s mobile. It seems this has become truer as Montana’s income gap has widened.

But it’s a mistake to allow the crappy incident at the Hafner house—and the two minute snippets on the news—to define the family and eclipse the all-too-human struggles of Gayle and her girls as they pull together the pieces of a decent life.

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