After involuntary homicide plea, families remember best friends, torn apart

After involuntary homicide plea, families remember best friends, torn apart

November 20th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Staff photo by Tyler Jett / Frances Estes, left, looks at pictures of her nephew, Christopher Colby Estes, on her tablet as Sheila Estes sits in her kitchen on Lee Avenue in Rossville. Christopher Estes died in June 2017 after his best friend, Matthew Joel Durham, accidentally shot him with a gun he thought was empty.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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ROSSVILLE, Ga. — Amanda Durham became worried as she overheard the boys talking last year.

Her son, Matthew Joel Durham, and his best friend, Christopher Colby Estes, got into trouble too often. They acted out in school, either because they couldn't pay attention or didn't fit in or weren't interested in the lessons. Their clique had started breaking into cars. Now, Amanda Durham heard one of them mention that a friend had a gun.

She interrupted them, did the mom thing. She told them to stay away from guns. She told them to stick with their normal activities — to fish at the duck pond, bike through the neighborhood, play "Skyrim." The boys, both 16, did the teenager thing. They said OK and brushed her off.

A couple of months later, soon after she got home from working in a nursing home kitchen, Amanda Durham saw her son run inside. He looked white.

"I just remember him squalling," she recalled Tuesday. "Squalling. He was telling me, 'Playing with a gun. Colby got shot.' And I lost it."

According to the Walker County Sheriff's Office, Matthew Durham, Estes and some of their friends sat around the porch at 710 Shelly Lane in Rossville on June 8, 2017. They drank and listened to music. Some of them played games on their phones. Around 10:30 p.m., Matthew Durham pulled a 9 millimeter handgun from his backpack, pointed it at Estes' head and fired.

Matthew Durham ran 1 1/2 miles northeast, to Flegal Avenue. His mother said the other boys told him to do that in a panic as Estes lay dead. When officers arrived, some originally said Estes was killed in a random drive-by shooting. Forensics would have debunked that lie, though, and the witnesses soon came clean.

Matthew Durham and the other boys then gave a more believable account. They played with the gun that night, for no reason other than to satisfy their curiosity. They said they snapped the trigger a couple of times — pointed either toward the woods or each other, depending on who you asked. The boys thought the gun was empty when Matthew Durham pointed it at Estes.

A grand jury originally indicted him on charges of malice murder and felony murder, potentially sending him to prison for life. On Nov. 14, he pleaded guilty to reduced charges, including involuntary manslaughter. Matthew Durham, now 17, will serve 10 years in prison and another 10 years on probation.

Sheila Estes, the victim's grandmother, who raised him, said a prosecutor asked her a couple of months ago what kind of sentence she would like to see for Matthew Durham. She wanted him to be punished. But when she heard he could face 20 years in prison, she believed the sentence was too severe. A decade behind bars seemed more appropriate.

Sheila Estes lives a block south of Amanda Durham and said she has been remorseful from the night of the shooting. Amanda Durham wrote her a check to cover the expenses of cremating Christopher Estes. At the same time, they aren't on speaking terms.

"I don't blame her for what happened," Sheila Estes said Tuesday. "But she's a reminder of what happened. I don't want to associate with her. I don't want to see her. I don't want anything to do with her."

Both women have the same feelings about the circumstances surrounding the shooting. Matthew Durham and Christopher Estes had been best friends for about 3 years. They met through school and were both troublemakers, getting suspended here and there. They considered themselves outcasts, but they had each other.

Amanda Durham said Christopher Estes brought out the best in her son, who she described as shy. Sheila Estes said Matthew Durham brought out the best in her grandson, who she also described as shy. Or rather — shy until he was comfortable with somebody. Then he was loud and goofy. He liked to do "bird calls" running through the house, hopping on furniture and screeching.

In the last year of his life, as his family moved between extended stay motels, Christopher Estes moved in with the Durhams for weeks at a time.

Amanda Durham and Sheila Estes agree that the boys' troublemaking sides got the best of them. Almost overnight, they graduated from stupid pranks — pouring orange juice over Ridgeland High School railings, on other students — to lethal games.

"They're starting to use guns as toys now," Sheila Estes said. "Really. What are we supposed to think?"

"Two families have been crushed," Amanda Durham said. "And it's what we were trying to explain to them: If you don't have the knowledge and maturity and just the safety, responsibility, you're not supposed to mess with them. It's for protection only. They were just kids. Kids. They weren't listening."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.