East Ridge couple who died in apparent murder-suicide remembered as very close

photo A medical examiner ruled two deaths at this home on Shelby Circle were the result of a murder-suicide. A mail carrier discovered a note in the home's mailbox informing them to call the police.

Something was a little different when Joseph "Charley" Yates and Ellen McKenzie showed up at the American Legion's open mic session last Wednesday.

They were vibrant.

McKenzie, who was often forced to stay home sick, came out, and she was happy, energetic, talking to everyone. Yates, a regular performer, sang a song he'd written just for McKenzie, a song he didn't typically perform on Wednesday nights.

"It was really passionate," said friend Danielle Bucher. "You could just tell it was very, I don't know, full of life. They seemed happy. Everybody just thought it was a good day. You don't think about it until afterward, when you look back "

Now, she wonders if her friends were saying goodbye.

On Tuesday, a mail carrier found a note in the couple's mailbox in East Ridge that warned of a murder-suicide inside. Police officers arrived at the home on Shelby Circle to find Yates, 54, and McKenzie, 48, already dead, lying on a bed with gunshot wounds to both their heads.

A shotgun lay atop Yates' body.

In the den, police found the body of a small dog, also shot in the head. A suicide letter was on the kitchen table, signed by just one person - although police wouldn't say who on Thursday.

The motive for their deaths is still under investigation, Capt. Tim Mullinax said. The letter did not spell out a "direct motive," he said.

As the police investigate, the couple's friends are trying to understand how a couple who had been together for years and seemed very much in love could die so violently and so abruptly.

"We just want to know what happened," said friend Angela Terry.

McKenzie was sick, her friends said, and had been for a long time. She was hospitalized several times last year. She didn't work, and Yates made a living as a musician, so money was often tight.

Yates' aunt died recently, and that hit him hard, Bucher said.

"His whole life was about music and about taking care of his aunt and Ellen," she said. "Ellen was his first and only love. Ellen was it."

He was laid-back, a talented musician with a corny sense of humor who was upbeat, always looking for a solution.

"We're hearing that financial worries and health worries really drove them into a place of dark sadness," said friend Shani Hedden Palmer. But she added that they both were happy in the relationship. "If he did this, he did it out of a place of caring, oddly enough. I guarantee you there was no malice. It was just a horrific tragedy."

Bucher thinks McKenzie also recently ran into trouble with her health insurance. But McKenzie didn't broadcast her struggles, her friends said.

"Ellen was a very private person," Terry said. "She kept to herself. But now, if you were her friend, you were her friend for life. She would do anything for you."

Ellen often helped others, praying with them or offering advice. Friends said she struggled with depression.

On Wednesday, starting at 6 p.m., the American Legion is hosting a memorial concert for the pair; anyone is invited to share stories or donate to help pay for their funerals.

Sometimes when Yates played at the Legion, a small group would stay well past the normal 9 p.m. closing time, sitting around with their guitars, listening to Yates, strumming along.

Although sickness often kept McKenzie at home, when she did make it out to a Wednesday open mic session, she'd sit in the audience while Yates sang, scribbling lyrics.

Last January, she posted a photo of a handwritten note on Facebook with lyrics from a Rod Stewart song.

"You're in my heart. You're in my soul. You'll be my breath, should I grow old."