LaFAYETTE, Ga. — Kirk Roberts knelt in his brother's driveway, at the edge of life and death.
Hours earlier, in September 2014, Roberts had been waiting for a call back from his daughter, Natalia. She was supposed to pick him up from a pressure-washing job, but she didn't answer the phone, no matter how many times he called.
Then, his brother showed up at the house. Natalia was dead, he said. She had been in a car crash. He didn't know any details, though, and both wondered about the fate of Natalia's three children.
Numb, they drove to Roberts' brother's house, waiting for more news. He heard his sister-in-law on the phone with the police.
"No," she said to somebody on the other end, quietly. "No. No."
The driveway caught Roberts' knees. He believed the worst, his only daughter and three grandchildren, all gone.
He watched his brother take the phone. He watched him turn his back toward Roberts as he talked. He watched his brother turn again, stare at Roberts, give him a funny look — a look that said something. Roberts wasn't sure.
Then his brother told him: There was no car crash.
"For a split second," Roberts recalled this week, 20 months later, "I thought she didn't get killed; it was a mistake. I felt a certain amount of relief, you know? And then he started crying."
The truth dripped out, in pieces. First, detectives with the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office could only tell Roberts the basics. His daughter was dead. A woman shot her in a stranger's home, claiming self-defense.
The next week, though, investigators gave a slightly fuller picture. Catherine Goins, 39, had shot Roberts, then 30, after offering her free clothes for Roberts' newborn daughter. Goins had told her to come to a house on Smoketree Circle in Ringgold. And while there, as Roberts' baby and 3-year-old waited in the car, Goins shot Roberts with a .380-caliber pistol.
She drove away with the children, but a friend convinced Goins to return to the scene and call the police. Though she said she was defending herself, investigators soon doubted her. Roberts was found at the bottom of the stairs, shot in the back of the head.
Days later, Sheriff Gary Sisk told reporters that Goins killed Roberts to steal her baby. She wanted to trick an ex-boyfriend, investigators believed, convincing him to return to her.
Detectives said Roberts' death was one of the most bizarre cases they had worked, and the investigation captured the community's attention. But until May 13, when Goins pleaded guilty to murder and received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, many of the details of the case were concealed from the public.
The investigative file of the case — now a public record — paints Goins as a woman obsessed with the idea of motherhood, a woman with her own definitions of justice. It also shows that Roberts was one of many young mothers whom Goins reached out to in August and September 2014.
However, the investigators' interviews with Goins also show it is hard to definitively conclude the killer had hatched a thought-out baby-theft plot. Goins contradicts herself several times, implying at some points that she was desperate for a child and, at other points, that she pulled the trigger in the midst of a meltdown.
But that doesn't matter for Roberts, his ex-wife or Natalia's other family members. They say they are left with the memories of their loved one, and the burden of raising her three children, none of whom are older than 10.
Roberts and the girls' grandmother, Leah Sharp, emphasized this week that they see their role in the days ahead as a blessing. They added that nephews and cousins and uncles are all ready to help out. Still, they know time will weigh heavier on them than on the typical grandparents.
"I'm going to have to learn to live longer," said Roberts, 55, who will be in his 70s when Natalia's youngest daughter graduates from high school.
A tangle of contradictions
Catoosa County Capt. Chris Lyons and Detective Daniel Thacker don't know for sure if Goins was pregnant in the months before she killed Roberts, though some evidence suggests she might have been.
When members of the sheriff's office and Georgia Bureau of Investigation searched her property, they found a collection of ultrasound pictures. Above the grainy black-and-white images, someone had printed Goins' name, as well as "January 2014." During interviews, she told detectives she lost the baby seven months later.
She said she suffered a placental abruption, meaning the placenta peeled away from her uterus, depriving the baby of oxygen. She told the investigators this had also happened when she became pregnant a couple years earlier.
Nevertheless, Goins continued to pretend she was pregnant after the time in which she apparently lost her baby. An on-again, off-again boyfriend told a detective that Goins informed him she was going to have his child. But she wouldn't let him go to her doctors' appointments. She refused to take a pregnancy test. When he tried to touch her stomach, she pushed his hands away.
In September 2014, she told him she was scheduled to have a C-section. The date in question came and went, the boyfriend said, and she never went to the doctor. Then, on Sept. 17, he watched her get out of the bathtub. Her stomach was flat, and he accused her of lying, and he didn't hear from her again.
Still, others in the family thought she was pregnant.
"She was running out of time to have a child," Lyons said this week, "to keep her ruse going."
After Roberts' death, at least three young mothers told detectives they had odd interactions with Goins. Responding to an ad for free baby clothes on Craigslist, one woman met Goins in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Fort Oglethorpe. Later, they met again at a Bi-Lo in Rossville, with Goins giving her more clothes.
Goins told the woman she needed someone to watch her 14-year-old stepdaughter while she had a C section. The woman said no.
Another woman told police that Goins approached her at the flea market in East Ridge, also offering free baby clothes. And a third woman said she exchanged calls and emails with Goins after responding to her Craigslist ad.
Finally, Goins told police, she arranged to meet Roberts outside the Catoosa County Health Department on Sept. 19, 2014. Roberts, too, had responded to her ad for free baby clothes. Goins gave several different versions of events to investigators, but in all of them she and Roberts drive to the empty home of one of Goins' friends in Ringgold.
Using a key that her friend left under a garbage can for her, Goins let Roberts inside.
Goins gave several accounts of the events that led to the shooting. First, Goins told police she was in the bathroom when she heard noises and thought it was her dangerous ex-husband. She fired a shot, only to find out it was Natalia.
Then, she told police she saw a shadowy figure at the bottom of the steps, so she fired shots. Then, she said she shot Natalia because she was trying to steal her friend's tote.
Goins gave many reasons for killing Roberts. She said, "It's not for her kids." But then she was asked if she wanted to take the children, and she said, "Probably." And then she said, "I'm just so tired of not being able to make anybody happy because I couldn't have their kids." And then she said, "I guess I just snapped."
Life after a killing
Natalia Roberts had three daughters. Anabell Ellisse Roberts is 10. Allorah Adeline Roberts is 5. Addisyn Annsley Roberts is almost 2. All three names for all three children contain seven letters — God's perfect number, said her mother Leah Sharp.
Sharp said she wasn't supposed to be able to have Natalia. Due to a medical condition, doctors had been forced to remove one of Sharp's ovaries. Then, they had to move half of her other ovary. Then, of the half left, she said, doctors had to remove a piece with a blood sac attached to it.
But Sharp prayed for a child, promising to bring the boy or girl to church if she could become pregnant.
"I wanted someone to love me as much as I could love them," Sharp said.
Natalia was born in 1984 and spent her childhood in Tunnel Hill. In 1998, she moved with Sharp and her stepfather to Germany and stayed until she was 22. She traveled to Italy, France and Denmark. She became swept up in Germany's goth scene.
She returned to LaFayette in 2006, divorced and pregnant with her first child. She stayed with Roberts for a while before moving to Houston with her mother. There, she had her second child and got pregnant with a third. She also graduated from an online school to become a medical assistant, Roberts said.
Caring for people felt natural to her.
When she was about 8, she waited on her grandmother after she had a stroke. And when she was about 13, Sharp suffered second- and third-degree burns on about one-third of her body. Natalia cared for her, re-bandaging wounds, removing staples and trimming skin grafts.
Natalia struggled to find work, though. She moved with Sharp to North Carolina, but couldn't find a job in her desired field. She then moved back to North Georgia in 2014, hoping for some luck. She worked at a Sonic in Fort Oglethorpe, but Roberts said he found a job for her as a medical assistant through a friend in Dalton — he was about to tell her about it when she died.
As a mother, Roberts and Sharp said, Natalia was patient. She made videos of first steps, first days of school and birthdays. Once a month, she took the girls to get their nails painted. She shopped with them at thrift stores. She raised the three girls with the fathers rarely in the picture.
"I hate to admit it," Sharp said, "but I think she got her dumb luck from me."
Natalia liked to fish in country ponds until it got dark, and she liked to work on cars. She graduated from a school to be an auto mechanic, building an inline-six engine on her own.
She was smart, her parents said, but she was gullible. She trusted too many people. They believe that's what killed her.
"Everybody's not a good person," Roberts said. "I couldn't get that out of her, though. Even when she was little, she would just walk up to a perfect stranger and say, 'Hey!'"
Earlier this month, when he found out that Goins was going to plead guilty, Roberts prepared for the sentencing hearing. Someone told him he could say something to his daughter's killer, so he wrote a letter.
He wrote about how Anabell has lost her childhood in some ways, about how as the oldest daughter she sees herself as a mother to her siblings. About how she blames herself for being in school that day, unable to stop Goins from shooting her mother.
He also wrote about how Goins allowed Allorah back into the house after Natalia was shot that day, about how Goins told Allorah that her mother was just taking a nap in sauce. About how Allorah can't trust people anymore and cries when she hears neighbors hunting and one night woke up wondering why her mother wasn't in the house.
He also wrote about how Addisyn won't ever know her mother.
But days before the hearing, Roberts picked up Anabell from school. He asked her what she would say. She talked about God, and about how people are expected to forgive those who wrong them. That's what she would do, she decided.
"I just wadded up my paper," Roberts said. "I couldn't do nothing with it."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.