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A wrongful death lawsuit filed Monday blames a 2015 murder-suicide in Varnell, Ga., on the after-school employee who released an 8-year-old child into the custody of his abusive father.
The employee knew Grayden Whitmore tried to commit suicide because of his father's abuse, knew that Grayden and his mother had endured this domestic violence for months, and knew that Melissa Ball had moved out of the house because of it, the lawsuit states.
But hours before Eric Whitmore shot and killed his son, his wife, and then himself at a Shell gas station on April 23, 2015, the employee at Beaverdale Elementary School made a crucial decision, the lawsuit says: She released Grayden into the custody of his father, with whom she had recently been having a relationship, and didn't tell anybody.
"Despite their prior knowledge of Eric Whitmore's violent behavior toward Melissa and the child, despite their prior knowledge to not allow Eric to pick up the child, and despite their knowledge that Eric was armed on school grounds, defendants released the child to Eric," attorney Robin Flores wrote in the lawsuit.
Flores is now suing the employee and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Gordon, Murray and Whitfield counties, which oversee the after-school program, saying their failures "were the direct and proximate cause of the deaths." On behalf of Ball's mother and sister, Flores wants compensatory damages for the value of lives lost and the costs of burial. He is also suing the Boys & Girls national organization, alleging it had a duty to protect the child.
The Times Free Press was unsuccessful Tuesday in reaching the employee and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America national headquarters. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Gordon, Murray and Whitfield counties declined to comment.
Eric Beavers, a communications specialist for Whitfield County Schools, said the district partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America in January 2009 and continues to do so today.
"[The woman] was employed by the club, not Whitfield County Schools, and I have no record indicating she is or is not still its employee," Beaver wrote in an email. "Our agreement with the club is clear that 'it is solely responsible for the operation of the program and that Beaverdale and the school district is limited to providing space for such a program to operate.'"
Flores said Whitmore had an overnight visit with his son on April 18, 2015. The next day, Grayden tried to kill himself and was hospitalized for three days in a mental health center, the lawsuit says.
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Ball told the after-school employee what happened to Grayden when he returned to school April 23, the lawsuit says. She asked the woman not to let Whitmore pick Grayden up because of the abuse and because she was afraid of him.
The employee noticed Whitmore was carrying a firearm when he showed up that day, dressed in non-work clothes and "completely silent," the lawsuit says. Whitmore had been "reaching out" to the employee during the estrangement and the two were having an intimate relationship, the lawsuit says. She let him leave with Grayden and sent him a message saying she was glad he seemed happy, the lawsuit says.
"The defendants had a duty to contact law enforcement when [the employee] saw Eric was armed with a firearm on school property," Flores wrote. "The defendants were instructed by Melissa to not allow Eric to pick up the child because of [his] suicide attempt."
Instead, Whitmore called his estranged wife and asked her to meet him at a Shell gas station on Cleveland Highway. She pulled up to a gas pump in her Ford Focus around 7 p.m. and he drove up and parked directly behind her, according to a previous statement from the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office.
They got out of their cars and walked to the rear passenger door of the 2010 Dodge that Whitmore was driving.
Then Whitmore drew his firearm and shot his son in the back seat of his Dodge, shot Ball, and turned the gun around and shot himself.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.
CORRECTION: This story was updated April 19 at 9 p.m. to correct the spelling of Melissa Ball's last name in the last paragraph and to change the name of the school to Beaverdale Elementary School. A previous version of the story mistakenly named the school as Beaverfield Elementary School.