Crawdads and baseball. Things like those make the family smile when they think of Riley Gerber.
He was a boy of the Ozarks. He loved hunting, fishing, playing ball and the St. Louis Cardinals. And like a lot of big brothers, Riley tormented younger siblings, who loved him.
“He was a good boy,” grandpa Mark Gerber said with a smile and a nod.
But the family has to work to get to those happy memories. It is a path blocked by images of how Riley died at age 15.
Awakened by a racket in the middle of the night, Riley, always the big brother, told his sisters to stay put while he checked on things.
The first bullet hit him beneath the left eye, the second in his ear. He made it back to his room and got his cellphone.
“He was crouched there like that, looking up at the shooter when the last bullet came,” said his mother, Jessica Frank.
Riley died four days later at a Springfield hospital. His dad, Chad Gerber, died from the earlier gunshots that woke Riley.
A man has been charged with the two murders, but that’s not the end of it for this family. Last month, a Laclede County circuit judge cleared the way for Chad Gerber’s wife — Riley’s stepmother — to be included as a defendant in a wrongful-death lawsuit.
Jennifer Gerber, 34, was there that night a year ago. Court documents say she left with Matthew Rumbaugh, the man charged with the killings, after the shooting and was gone nearly an hour before seeking help while Riley lay wounded on the floor of his bedroom.
She has not been charged. She could not be reached for comment and her attorneys did not return phone calls.
During questioning, Rumbaugh, 65, of Mountain Grove, Mo., admitted going to the Gerber house that night and shooting Chad Gerber. He told investigators he was “tired of waiting for Jennifer Gerber to leave her husband.”
At Rumbaugh’s preliminary hearing, those present say, Jennifer Gerber repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment, the constitutional protection against self-incrimination.
“She did so even when I asked her if she killed her husband and stepson,” said Adam Dowling, Rumbaugh’s attorney.
The repeated responses dumbfounded the Gerber family. Now all their questions about that night come back to Jennifer Gerber.
“If somebody had shot my husband and child, they would’ve had to shoot me too,” said Norma Wrinkle, Riley’s grandmother. “I know I sure wouldn’t have left with him.
“There were other kids in the house, Riley’s hurt and she just leaves?”
Mark Gerber said: “I would’ve died fighting.”
The family is careful not to accuse Jennifer Gerber. But that doesn’t mean they believe the story she reportedly told authorities, that she left with Rumbaugh to get him away from the house and other children.
If true, they ask, why take the Fifth? And where did she and Rumbaugh go that night? What did they do? What happened to the gun? It’s never been found. Those are questions the family wants answered.
Same for others in this rural community between Lebanon and Springfield. Wrinkle and others in the family say someone is always coming up to them at the grocery store or a ball game and asking: “Why isn’t she in jail?”
The closest town to the Gerber house is an unincorporated place called Grovespring.
A gravel road leading to the house was blocked by floodwater this week. It stormed the night of the killings too. Mark Gerber and his wife, Crystal, said there was lots of thunder and lightning. Maybe that’s why they noticed headlights pulling into their driveway about 3 a.m. on July 8, 2014.
This is what Crystal and Mark — Chad’s father — say happened that night:
Crystal answered the knock at the door. It was Jennifer Gerber, wet from rain. She and Chad, who had married about 10 years earlier, and the kids lived just up the road. Mark had carved out a piece of land for his son’s family. The houses are connected by a path through the woods.
Jennifer told her to call 911, that Chad and Riley had been shot.
“No emotion, no crying, just that Chad and Riley had been shot,” Crystal remembered.
Crystal called 911. Mark Gerber put on flip-flops and hurried to his son’s house. He found Chad dead on the floor just inside the front door. Riley was in his bedroom, badly wounded.
Crystal, who works as a house painter, and Jennifer left for the house too.
“When we got there, I tried to do what I could for Riley,” Crystal said. “She (Jennifer) just stood back and watched me. Didn’t say a thing.”
Laclede County sheriff’s deputies arrived. According to court documents, Jennifer Gerber told them that Matthew Rumbaugh broke into the house and shot her husband and stepson.
Rumbaugh told investigators that day that the front door was unlocked when he arrived, although authorities say the door showed signs of forced entry. Rumbaugh said that he was confronted immediately by Chad Gerber and that he fired a Colt .38-caliber handgun at Gerber three times.
“Matthew stated that there were plans made to shoot Gerber and that he waited for a rainy, stormy night to go there,” the document said.
Rumbaugh said that he recalled being in the hallway leading to the children’s room and that Jennifer Gerber persuaded him to leave.
Rumbaugh said he didn’t recall shooting Riley.
The family never understood why Rumbaugh would admit to shooting Chad Gerber but not Riley. Jennifer Gerber was taken in and questioned, but released.
A few nights after the shootings, hundreds of mourners lit candles for Chad and Riley at Conway High School, where Riley was a student. A funeral home website listed page after page of messages, including one that said: “Riley, you were so loved by your family and friends. You are such a hero to so many people. Love ya kiddo. Give your dad a hug for me.”
Word had spread that Riley told his sisters that night to stay put, perhaps saving their lives. People who didn’t even know the teen walked to the street and removed caps when the funeral procession passed.
About a month before he died, Riley had told his mother that if anything should ever happen to him, he wanted to be an organ donor. So Jessica Frank made that happen, and in turn Riley got special service. On the flight from Springfield to a St. Louis hospital where his organs were harvested, the pilot took a side trip to pass over Busch Stadium, home of Riley’s Cardinals.
When doctors thanked her for the donation, Frank said she wasn’t the one to thank and motioned toward Riley’s body.
“He’s right there.”
A year later, Rumbaugh, who ran a auto repair shop in Lebanon, sits in the Camden County jail, facing two counts of first-degree murder and two of armed criminal action.
A trial is scheduled for Aug. 17, but it is expected to be postponed.
Jennifer Gerber is living in a nearby town with her two daughters.
Dowling, Rumbaugh’s attorney, said the defense is doing its best to investigate the case and that includes any role played by Jennifer Gerber.
“And I would hope the state was doing the same,” said Dowling, of Columbia.
Assistant Laclede County prosecutor Amy Folsom said Friday that there is not enough evidence to charge Gerber but that the investigation was continuing.
“We’ve had long discussions with the Gerber family, and I know they are dissatisfied,” Folsom said. “I knew the one-year anniversary would be hard on them. They are good people and this case is a terrible tragedy.”
Sheriff Wayne Merritt agreed with Folsom that there is not enough evidence to convince a jury that Jennifer Gerber played any role in the crime. He declined to comment on specifics of the investigation other than to say that Rumbaugh and Gerber had changed their stories multiple times.
Last September, Frank, Chad Gerber’s ex-wife, sued Rumbaugh for wrongful death. She recently went back to court to add Jennifer Gerber as a defendant in an amended petition.
“Instead of notifying law enforcement or emergency personnel,” the new suit, filed June 2, claims, Gerber “left the scene with Rumbaugh only to return and notify authorities at least 50 minutes after the shooting occurred. During this time, (Riley) was suffering from gunshot injuries and was without medical assistance.”
The suit alleges that Jennifer should have known Rumbaugh’s potential for violence and failed to take any action to stop his conduct or protect her family, including her minor stepson.
Family members confirmed they were concerned that the relationship between Jennifer Gerber and Rumbaugh had become too friendly.
Frank said she was a friend and former employee of Rumbaugh, who shot guns with Riley and taught him to change the oil in his truck. She said that she had seen evidence that the two had become romantic and that she told her ex-husband about it more than two years ago.
“He just got mad and said I was jealous because he was happy,” Frank said.
But Mark Gerber said his son told him two weeks before the shooting that he was worried about his wife and Rumbaugh.
In an interview this past week, family members say they’ve walked around for a year now with open wounds. A couple of times, Mark Gerber teared up and left the room. He can’t come up with a good reason why he no longer has his son and grandson.
So he just nods his head and with tears on his cheeks says:
“Chad would lay down his life for his family, and Riley was just like him.”