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Few crimes have captivated the Twin County community more than the unsolved killing of Kyle Brandon Billings in 2002.
The teen’s death sparked 11 years of rumors and conspiracy theories among those speculating about the case and more than a decade of false leads and dead ends as police strove to solve it.
The case remains unsolved, but on Jan. 10, authorities in Grayson County announced they had the first solid, actionable evidence yet.
Chad Allen Reeves and George Albert Harper III, two local men both already in prison for other crimes, were named as suspects and charged with murder.
Though far from a resolution, the charges came after years of uncertainty for the Billings family and friends.
On Sunday, former Grayson Sheriff Jerry Wilson said he “hopes that the Billings family will finally have some closure.”
He told The Gazette that he was thankful that the sheriff’s department never gave up. “I always had faith that it would be solved if investigators could get the right information.”
Brandon was found shot to death around 2:35 p.m. on Oct. 6, 2002 — just a day after his 18th birthday.
A hunter who was sighting his rifle discovered the body that Sunday afternoon. Brandon was in the driver’s seat of a gray Ford Ranger pickup truck registered to his parents, Kyle and Sherry Billings.
The Galax High School student and football player died from multiple gunshots, including on to the head, though the truck had no bullet damage.
Police did not recover the gun.
His wallet was missing, but police did not assume robbery was a motive.
The truck was in a small creek near the New River on Rock House Road, off Patton Mill Road. It was a well-known river access and favorite party location of local teens.
Police didn’t know whether the vehicle wrecked before or after Brandon was shot.
The body was bruised, but police said that could have resulted from the truck wreck or from Brandon playing football the previous Friday.
He was last seen by his family the afternoon of Oct. 5, 2002. He was reportedly with friends later that evening, and was last seen at the On the Way convenience store in Galax — now Kangaroo Express — around 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 6. He was alone.
Police said there was no evidence that Brandon was abducted or forced to drive to Rock House Road.
Family and friends described Brandon as a good kid, who didn’t give his parents any trouble, wasn’t interested in drugs and only partied to be with friends.
Brandon lived with his parents on Carsonville Road in the Providence area.
He would call if he planned to be out late or spend the night with friends, and carefully observed the state’s curfew for teen drivers. His parents were concerned when they discovered that he hadn’t come home the night he was killed.
Sherry Billings started to call around to Brandon’s friends that evening to find out where he was, when a vehicle drove up behind the mobile home, just where Brandon always parked.
She called to Kyle, “Your son’s home,” and they both walked to the back door, where they found not Brandon, but Sheriff Wilson and former investigator Glenn Hyatt.
Her mind leaped immediately to a car accident.
Sherry said she was totally unprepared for what they told her.
The Days After
In the wake of Brandon’s death, police pursued leads and interviewed more than 100 people looking for clues.
They awaited an autopsy report for clues.
They used metal detectors to search parts of New River for a gun or other evidence, but did not find a weapon.
Investigators met daily to discuss their findings.
“We answer tips all the time,” Wilson said in 2002. “Any time anyone calls, we check it out.”
Meanwhile, friends and family began raising money for the funeral.
Turkey Knob Church in Fries, where Sherry Billings was a member, held a bake sale to raise money.
Family friend Sherry Bare began another fund drive, setting up donation jars in businesses, collecting money at sandlot football and soccer games and papering Galax with fliers. Her daughter, Holly, was a classmate of Brandon’s at GHS.
Delp’s Studio donated a 16-by-20 portrait of Billings to the family and owner Sandy Worrell pledged to provide wallet-sized photos of Brandon to all members of the Galax football team and the senior class.
By December 2002, with no breaks in the case, Brandon’s parents spent $25 to open a savings account to pay a reward for information in their son’s slaying.
Sheriff Wilson suggested the reward to the victim’s family, in the hope that it might shake some information loose.
Twin County Crimestoppers did not have enough funds on hand to pay a $1,000 reward, so it appealed to the Grayson County Board of Supervisors for the money. The board decided against using public funds for a reward, but appealed to the public to make donations.
Friends planned a benefit for the reward fund in January 2003, and many local businesses and individuals donated.
The Billings family kept looking for new ways to solve their son’s case. A website was set up to receive information and they contacted the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” about featuring Brandon’s story.
While the county’s decision not to contribute to the reward was upsetting, Sherry said her biggest fear was that, without an arrest, another teen could die. “[The killer] may think, ‘Hey I’ve got by with that.’”
Brandon’s mother said she wanted closure; to know why her son died and who is responsible.
One Month Later
A month after his death, Kyle and Sherry Billings still found themselves listening for the sound of Brandon’s pickup truck pulling in the driveway.
Sherry said she sometimes got Brandon’s letter jacket and curled up with it in her recliner, hugging it and smelling his cologne, staring at the living room wall of pictures and mementos memorializing her son.
“The only reason I even get out of bed in the morning is because I know he’s in God’s arms.”
She sobbed. “It was just so cruel.”
Kyle, more controlled, shook his head. “If crying would bring him back, I’d cry a river.”
It would have been easier, they said, if their only son and youngest child had died in a wreck, or from cancer. That, at least, would be understandable.
What they could not understand, nor could the scores of people who knew him, is why somebody would kill Brandon.
“I think it was pure meanness,” said Sherry. “They were a coward to shoot him from behind — and a coward now, not brave enough to admit what they’ve done.”
She and Kyle always believed that the killer was someone Brandon knew, although not well enough.
“He trusted everybody,” his mother said.
They worried that the killer might be somebody they’d seen since the slaying. In the store. On the street. Seen 20 times, perhaps.
“Brandon would walk away from any type of trouble,” his mother said.
“He wasn’t nothing but a big old gentle giant,” Kyle said of Brandon. “But he wouldn’t see anybody else get hurt. Brandon’s heart was bigger than he was.”
They both took great strength from GHS students and the football team that Brandon loved. He was a 320-pound offensive lineman.
“I go to the games,” said Kyle. “You think they’re playing just for Brandon. They go into the end zone, hold the ball up. I know what they’re doing. They’re looking up to him.”
Team parents presented Sherry with a pendant and gold chain bearing Brandon’s picture and inscribed “always with you” on the back. Kyle got a “touchdown” keyring with the same inscription, and Brandon’s jersey number, 79.
“Those boys have kept Brandon a part of the team,” Sherry said.
Brandon wanted to be a game warden. He loved hunting and planned to go to college. Possibly to Wytheville Community College, maybe somewhere in Tennessee.
He struggled with algebra but went to summer school for three years to lick it. He wasn’t a quitter.
The Gazette reported that Brandon’s funeral was the largest ever accommodated at Reins-Sturdivant Funeral Home in Independence, with an estimated 1,200 people attending.
The funeral cost $6,500. Donations paid for nearly all of it and included money raised by athletic teams at other high schools, including Carroll County, Mount Rogers and Eastern Montgomery.
For Christmas that year, the family received a headstone at their son’s grave — gray granite, in the shape of a football.
Six Months Later
The Billings family had sat in the stands at Galax High School countless nights, watching Brandon take to the football field with the mighty Maroon Tide.
But on a beautiful spring morning in April 2003, it was different. They weren’t surrounded by cheering fans or the sound of players colliding in a hard tackle on a crisp autumn night.
They sat quietly, huddled together, while far across the field in the visitors’ bleachers the 2003 graduating class lined up for a group photo.
They couldn’t help thinking that their son — who would have graduated then under better circumstances — should’ve been in that picture.
Six months after Brandon’ death, police still had no motive and no suspect.
In just four months, the reward fund had grown to nearly $14,000.
The week before the senior class photo, Brandon’s parents and sister Angie held a brief meeting with the senior class to thank them for being friends in both life and death.
“Brandon grew up with all these kids and went all through school with them,” his mother said. “We wanted to give them a little piece of him they can keep.”
The family gave “Thank You” cards and senior photos of Brandon to each member of the graduating class and his football teammates.
Each card contained a short message from the family:
“A kind word for everyone, a stranger never met, always a friendly handshake, on that you could bet.
“From ‘The Gentle Giant’ Brandon Billings, #79.
“Thank you for being a friend to Brandon. Love, the Billings Family.”
Brandon’s classmates helped the family cope with their loss. Sherry said they called and visited, and even raised money to help with a reward for information about the shooting.
Dressed in maroon and white robes, the seniors marched up the steps from the football field and filed solemnly past Kyle and Sherry. Football players paused to shake Kyle’s hand or offer a hug.
The setting was appropriate for the informal ceremony. The football field represented something Brandon loved in life.
“He’s run up and down this field many a time,” Sherry mused.
Once the students were assembled in the bleachers, she spoke to them.
“I know if he was still here, Brandon would say ‘Go on with your life and reach for all that is out there.’ I know in my heart that’s what Brandon would have done.”
She broke down a couple of times, but was determined to get the words out.
“Our Brandon should be here among all of you, but due to someone who didn’t think his life was worth living, he won’t be here with us.
“Please be careful and know who your dearest friends are. [Brandon’s killer] could have been someone he knew very well.”
As seniors left, Sherry and Kyle handed out the cards. Everyone stopped for a hug or handshake.
Some embraces lasted longer than others, with even the toughest linebacker fighting a losing battle against their tears.
A special tribute was planned for the high school’s graduation ceremony in June 2003.
One Year Later
Sometimes, in the early morning hours, Sherry would wake suddenly and listen for her son’s voice, and look for him in the darkness.
“But Brandon won’t be coming home,” she said.
The one-year anniversary of Brandon’s death came and went with no new clues or evidence.
“I know whoever did this will be caught,” Sherry said. “It’s what keeps me going. God answers prayers… and lots of people are praying for Brandon’s killer to be revealed.”
When talking to The Gazette in 2003, Wilson wouldn’t go so far as to call them suspects, but said police had three or four individuals they were “looking at.”
(In retrospect, according to information from current Sheriff Richard Vaughan, it appears that recently charged suspects Harper and Reeves could have been among those persons of interest. Vaughan said both men were suspects early on in the investigation.)
In 2003, Wilson said he was convinced that all it would take to solve the crime is for one person to come forward, one person to say the right thing. That, more than hard evidence, would crack the case, he believed.
And that’s what bothered Brandon’s mother so much — someone knew something. “I pray that God will convict their hearts. I pray they’ll tell what they know.”
The waiting was hard, Sherry said.
“I know we’re going to find Brandon’s killer. It may not be as quick as I want… but I know.”
Family and friends of the victim stayed active in an attempt to keep people aware of Brandon and his story.
A memorial service was planned at Brandon’s graveside, followed by a 19th birthday celebration.
Sherry said sometimes people were afraid to mention Brandon’s name to her because it makes her cry, but it would hurt more if they didn’t talk about him.
“I really think God used him for a while,” she said, her voice strong and steady. “He made such an impression on everyone. You know, altogether 24 people have been saved because of Brandon.”
Five Years Later
In October 2007, a memorial for the five-year anniversary of Brandon’s still-unsolved murder brought more than 100 people to Galax’s Felts Park.
Balloons were released into the sky as the crowd sang “Happy Birthday.”
“Its not a dead issue, we work on it all the time,” Wilson said then. “In fact, one investigator is running down a tip right now. Every call that comes through and every tip has been run to the very end.”
The event — which Sherry called her son’s “Birthday in Heaven” celebration — also brought out support for Richard Vaughan, who was running for sheriff that year against the incumbent Wilson.
In the years since Brandon’s death, his parents’ hope that the case would be solved had turned to frustration with the sheriff’s department and its handling of the investigation.
Talking to The Gazette then, Sherry was quick to point out that her endorsement of Vaughan was her idea — not a campaign tactic on the candidate’s part.
The bitterness at the sheriff’s department was evident in her address at the event. “Something’s not right, folks. We have to suffer it everyday, maybe because of mistakes [the sheriff’s department] made.”
Responding to this, Wilson told The Gazette in 2007 that his department had investigated the killing to the best of its ability. “I’ve had two investigators, all my officers, three special agents from the state police and all agencies in the surrounding cities and counties to assist in this case. I don’t know of any avenue that we have not covered.”
Sherry said she felt the FBI should have been called in to help with the case.
Wilson said the FBI was never called to investigate the crime itself. “The FBI does not investigate murders. I talked to them and they offered any assistance in lab work and things like that... [The FBI] had an agent in the area, a profiler, and said he would come by and talk to me about it — just to talk.”
However, the agent was called for another case and as unable to make the meeting, Wilson said.
In November 2007, Vaughan won the election and inherited the murder investigation from Wilson.
In 2011, authorities say a special grand jury convened to examine new evidence in the case.
Two years after that, Reeves and Harper were charged.
Sherry said fall is still difficult for the family, with Brandon’s birthday and the anniversary of his death falling back to back. “It’s hard on us around this time, when you have to go to your baby’s grave for his birthday.”
Six birthdays later, even with suspects finally named and a possible resolution on the way, Sherry said at a press conference on Jan. 13 that she is still searching for answers and hoping for peace.
“I won’t have full closure until they are sentenced to the fullest extent.”