For more than three years, the Pittman family has been the talk of Chester, S.C. No one can quite understand what happened to Joe and Joy Pittman, and their 12-year-old grandson, Christopher.reports.
Like so many other people in this remote community in South Carolina, the Pittmans shared a love of family, music and The New Hope Methodist Church.
"They were well accepted," says Pastor Chris Snelgrove. "Joe was a character. He just loved to laugh. He had a personality that was legendary, I guess."
But there was no question that Joe was tough. "You always knew where he stood, what he felt on every issue. There was no question about what he thought," says Snelgrove.
Joe's soft spot was his grandson, Christopher, who lived in central Florida with his father and sister, Danielle. He spent as much time as he could in South Carolina with his grandparents.
"He was extremely well-mannered and extremely shy. Those would be the two dominant characteristics that I saw, meeting Chris for the first time," says Snelgrove, who first met Chris when his grandparents brought him to church. "Christopher was funny. He was gregarious. When he was comfortable, you really saw the fun-loving side of him."
But when Chris left Chester and returned home to Florida, everything changed. His mother, who had abandoned him as an infant, came back into his life, only to suddenly leave again without warning. His father was getting his third divorce. It was too much for Chris, and he fell apart.
Chris' father, also named Joe, says his son ran away: "He just wanted the security of [his grandparents] Nanna and Pop Pop." But Chris didn't get far. Police found him 15 miles from home, and brought him back to his father.
Faced with having to stay with his father, Chris became desperate. In front of his older sister, Danielle, Chris grabbed a knife and threatened to kill himself. "He says, 'You know, I'd rather die than live in this house with you and dad," says Danielle. "I was scared that he was going to hurt himself."
Chris wanted to live with his grandparents, and after his suicide threat, his father finally gave in. But the Christopher Pittman who returned to Chester was a changed boy.
Chris became "this withdrawn person who wouldn't look me in the eyes," says Snelgrove. "I would characterize his behavior in church as just sort of fidgety."
Early on the evening of Nov. 28, things were particularly tense when the family arrived for church. Snelgrove says Chris was kicking at the back of the piano bench, and Joe got a little agitated. The Pittmans left church early to take Chris home.
Four hours later, the Pittman house was in flames.
"I got a call saying that my mom and dad's house was on fire," says Chris' father, Joe. "We left for South Carolina. On our way up there, we found out via cell phone that they had found a body. And when we got there, they told us that it was two bodies."
Joe Pittman, 66, and his 62-year-old wife, Joy, had both been shot in the head before their house was set on fire.
Snelgrove says Chris could not be found, and that there was no evidence that he was in the house. The next morning, Chris was found, miles from home. He told police he'd been kidnapped. But after hours of questioning, police say Pittman made a stunning confession. He admitted he had shot his grandparents.
"How could a child who loved his grandparents do something like that?" asks Snelgrove. "It's beyond comprehension. We still don't have a way of talking about it."