Crime

In final chapter of her friend’s domestic violence tale, ‘I became a victim, too’

Wounded friend recalls Brookside murder-suicide

Alice Snodgrass was visiting retired teacher Nicki Alexopoulos when the woman's son came to the house with a 9 mm handgun to demand money. After he shot his mother in the leg, Snodgrass fled the house but was shot outside. The son returned inside
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Alice Snodgrass was visiting retired teacher Nicki Alexopoulos when the woman's son came to the house with a 9 mm handgun to demand money. After he shot his mother in the leg, Snodgrass fled the house but was shot outside. The son returned inside

Alice Snodgrass was chatting with her longtime friend Nicki Alexopoulos in the living room when she saw a shadow outside her friend’s Brookside home.

“That’s Patrick,” Alexopoulos said quietly as her 38-year-old son approached the door.

When Patrick Alexopoulos entered the foyer that afternoon last October, Snodgrass saw her vivacious friend’s demeanor shift. Nicki became subdued and alarmed.

Patrick wanted $25,000, and he wanted it now. Nicki, sitting quietly with her hands in her lap, her eyes cast down and her leg on a footstool — she was still recovering from knee surgery — refused his demands.

He drew a gun and began to describe it — the number of bullets, the magazines. He came off as inexperienced and accidentally fired it at the floor. The noise was loud, but it didn’t appeared that a bullet had dented the floor. Snodgrass wondered if the weapon was fake.

Sirens blared somewhere, and that seemed to unnerve Patrick. He told his mother to make up her mind.

Snodgrass smelled the lasagna she had brought burning in the oven and asked permission to take it out. In the kitchen, she wondered what to do. Her phone was in the foyer. And what kind of weapon was a pan of lasagna compared to a gun?

Snodgrass was standing in the formal dining room behind Patrick when he fired the first shot into his mother, in the leg. She doesn’t remember thinking, just pushing toward and out the front door.

“I just knew at that point that I had to contact other people,” Snodgrass recalls. “Yell. Scream. Get away. Because he had finally used the gun.”

And then, just as fast, she was down, the impact of bullets shoving her face-first into the frontyard grass.

As she waited to die, she heard more gunshots. Then, silence.

A reason to visit

Nicki Alexopoulos’ daughter, Kristen Oehlert, had asked Snodgrass to pay her mother a visit. Snodgrass had known Alexopoulos and her family for more than 30 years, since the women met teaching in mid-Missouri.

Alexopoulos had recently discovered that her son had embezzled money from her 96-year-old father and herself. Banks were preparing to prosecute, leaving Alexopoulos with a mountain of paperwork and stress. She planned to ask for a restraining order against her son, confiding to family he had been physically abusive earlier that year.

She could use some cheer, Oehlert, 34, said. And when Snodgrass called Alexopoulos, her friend was eager for a visit.

So on Oct. 25, Snodgrass headed north from her home in McDonald County to have dinner with an old friend.

Domestic violence is an insidious crime, and that day it disrupted a quiet Brookside neighborhood. Shortly after 6:30 p.m., Patrick Alexopoulos used a 9 mm gun to shoot his mother to death. He shot Snodgrass five times. He killed himself.

Snodgrass wonders now if she was a wrinkle in his plan to intimidate his mother for money. A retired teacher and school librarian, Snodgrass had spent 42 years married to Ted, the love of her life, raised two children into adults, kept close relationships with family and friends — she felt as if she was an unlikely person to experience domestic violence firsthand.

But in October it became a permanent part of her story, as it had long been for Nicki Alexopoulos. Snodgrass likens her experience to literature, a passion both women shared.

“The theme is that domestic violence can happen to anyone. And more people probably need to know the warning signs. And that more of these organizations need help making families aware of what can be done for them,” Snodgrass said this week from her home in McDonald County, where she returned after nearly a month at St. Luke’s Hospital.

“The plot would be the 30 years Nicki went through. With the final chapter, I became a victim, too.”

A friendship is born

Snodgrass and Alexopoulos’ friendship started in a preparation period they shared with Snodgrass’ sister, also a teacher, early in their teaching careers at Boonville (Mo.) High School.

Snodgrass, a home economics teacher, and Alexopoulos, an English and literature teacher, shared the same witty and biting humor and quickly became “close and loud” friends. The principal swore he would never give them the same prep period again.

“They’d laugh at each other, and they’d put each other in their place,” said Oehlert, Alexopoulos’ daughter. “They were both outspoken, independent women. They clung to each other in that regard.”

The friendship remained strong even when Snodgrass changed school districts, and when Alexopoulos got divorced from her first husband years later. Oehlert’s close relationship with Snodgrass helped, too. Alexopoulos was an academic, and a talented writer, Snodgrass said, but she was by all accounts lacking in certain homemaking skills. Oehlert turned to Snodgrass to learn cooking, sewing and crafting things.

Eventually, Oehlert tagged along on Snodgrass family trips, giving her mother a respite from parenthood when Patrick was in high school and spending more time with his friends.

“It was an opportunity,” Oehlert said, “for her daughter to spend time with a close family friend that she’d had the utmost respect and trust in.”

Snodgrass said she never developed a relationship with Patrick, who was “not easy to get close to.” She said she knew that throughout Patrick’s adulthood Alexopoulos experienced times where her son seemed angry and troubled, but it wasn’t something Alexopoulos talked about with her often.

In the mid-1990s, Snodgrass moved to McDonald County with her family. She’d spend the next 14 years teaching library science before retiring in May 2009. Her husband, a U.S. Army veteran and member of the Missouri National Guard whom she met at the University of Missouri, served as a principal at elementary and junior high schools before retiring in 2006.

Alexopoulos moved to the Kansas City area in 1996 and taught at Fort Osage High School. Following retirement in 2001, she became an adjunct professor at Avila University.

They continued to see each other when they could: at Oehlert’s track meets, her wedding in 2007, a trip to Branson, Mo. And they supported each other through harder moments, such as Ted Snodgrass’ death in June 2015 from colon cancer.

It seemed to Snodgrass that later in her life, Alexopoulos was “beginning to connect with things she had lost.” She found old photographs of her family and shared them online. She would travel to New York City and apartment-sit for a producer. She loved the Humans of New York photography series. She married again, and though the relationship ended, she remained friends with her second husband.

And she also became more open about sharing a part of her life Snodgrass was familiar with — her experiences much earlier in her life with domestic violence. For Domestic Violence Month in October 2013, Alexopoulos began writing detailed Facebook posts about her experiences, the abuse that she told others was directed at her and Patrick.

She was also beginning to write down her memories in journals with the hopes of someday publishing her work, Oehlert has said. Alexopoulos wanted to speak about her experiences to help other people who found themselves the victims of “undeserved torture.”

“We tell our stories of violence against humanity not because we want people to feel bad or pat ourselves on the back,” Alexopoulos wrote. “We tell our stories because, if we do not, the world might forget that this type of violence ever occurred.”

Snodgrass remembers reading one of Alexopoulos’ posts while on a cruise in Hawaii with her husband.

“I’d sit on that cruise ship and read them, and I felt so blessed,” Snodgrass said. “Like, ‘Hey, I’ve had a pretty good life.’

“You are on a cruise with your husband, and your friend is talking about the absolute terror she went through isolated in a rural area.”

Waiting to die

In the front yard of Alexopoulos’ home, Snodgrass never lost consciousness after she was shot. Instead she tried to move, and, in pain and bleeding profusely, stayed put. The scream she tried to summon when she left the house never came.

A neighbor returned to his house to secure his family, then ran out to her. Snodgrass wasn’t sure how much time passed.

She thought of Ted, who had left the military without a scratch.

She would die, Snodgrass thought. She would die, reunite with her husband, and have to explain why she had joined him so soon.

In an ambulance, a paramedic whispered in her ear.

“You are five minutes away from St. Luke’s Trauma Center, and you are in the first ambulance out of here,” she remembers him saying to her.

She heard him speak to other emergency responders.

“There are two more inside, but there is no hurry,” he said.

And it was then, Snodgrass says, that she knew for sure that her dear friend was gone.

Out of the woods

On the night of the shooting, word traveled quickly.

Amanda Judy, Snodgrass’ daughter, was getting gas on her way to work as a retail manager at a Wal-Mart in Butler when she picked up a phone call from an unknown 816 number.

“Your mom’s been shot,” a person at the hospital said. “Your mom’s been shot, but she doesn’t want you to speed.”

Judy, 43, didn’t think immediately of domestic violence. She thought of carjackings, a drive through a bad neighborhood. She began calling family and friends.

Snodgrass’ son, Robert, 32, got a similar call but let it go to voice mail because he was out to dinner with a friend. His number was the only one Snodgrass could remember to tell hospital workers — it’s one digit different from her own. The hospital found her daughter’s number through Judy’s work. Robert had just purchased a new house in Joplin, and his mother had spent a lot of time painting it with him, sharing her concerns about Alexopoulos and her son.

When he heard there was a shooting, he said he felt he knew immediately who had done it.

At the hospital, an entourage of people in the waiting room learned the extent of Snodgrass’ injuries. She had been shot at least five times. Her left arm was shattered. She had extreme abdominal injuries and had an ostomy bag inserted. Doctors said they were optimistic but deeply worried about the possibility of infection.

For the next day and a half, it was unclear what would happen. But doctors were encouraged when Snodgrass woke up. That morning, Snodgrass still couldn’t talk because her ventilator was still in.

“Do you know where you are?” her family asked. She nodded.

“Do you know what happened to you?’ She nodded.

She spelled out Nicki’s name on a letterboard, inquired about her glasses and later, when she could speak, asked how she was going to vote.

In the weeks that followed, doctors marveled at her body’s resilience. She spent just five days in the intensive care unit. She needed additional surgery to put a metal plate, screws and a rod in the arm that a bullet had shattered. She had seven open wounds, one that has yet to close. A bullet remains in the left part of her chest.

Snodgrass said she was pleasantly surprised by her visitors: high school classmates she hasn’t seen in three decades, former students, her physician from McDonald County, Alexopoulos’ neighbors, some of whom gave her a guardian angel necklace she still wears.

At night, when there was less fuss about her, Snodgrass said she dwelled on everything that happened.

“You lay in the hospital, and they pester you all day,” she said. “You wake up in the middle of the night, and you realize how lucky you are and also what you lost.”

Five days after the shooting, Snodgrass’ 10-year-old granddaughter, Lexi, pulled her mother into a bedroom and demanded to know how “Grandma was really doing.” And Judy touched her daughter’s arms and belly to show her where Grandma was injured, and told her Grandma was going to be OK.

Later, the Judys had to write to a teacher to let her known that if their son, Matthew, who is enjoying a “tall-tale” phase, speaks about his grandmother getting shot, he actually isn’t fibbing.

Both Judy and Robert Snodgrass uprooted their lives to take care of their mother. The week before Thanksgiving, Alice Snodgrass returned home. By Christmas, she was functioning by herself with the help of her children and home health aides. And by New Year’s Eve, Snodgrass sent her son back to his new house in Joplin.

But recovery remains tough, even as Snodgrass heals. Robert Snodgrass said he and his mother counted on the kindness of the community, the friends who raised money for her by selling “Tougher than Tupac” T-shirts (the hip-hop artist was shot four times and died, and Alice Snodgrass was shot five times and lived), a former nurse from church who came in the middle of the night to help the Snodgrasses through a tough night, the dozens of people who brought food during the first several weeks, the former student who still comes to pack an abdominal wound when home health aides can’t visit.

“I shouldn’t have been surprised at the level of the support she got from the entire community,” Robert Snodgrass said. “The level of support she got was amazing.”

Finding a new normal

Despite it all, Alice Snodgrass will tell you that getting shot five times is not the worst thing to ever happen to her.

That is the loss of her husband, whom she met when one of her sorority sisters at Mizzou set a few girls up on dates with her military friends. Alice and Ted Snodgrass weren’t paired together on that first date in early 1973. They were married by August.

He wouldn’t have been “much of a nurse,” she admits. He was humorous and sarcastic, and sometimes that led to friction.

“But you miss that kind of thing,” Snodgrass said, and she believes his death is a “harder thing for me to get over than this.”

And so as her body heals, she continues life without Ted. Her left arm has grown stronger — she can hold a 4-pound weight. Her right hand still has some numbness. The scars on her arm from two bullets have yet to soften. She has one last surgery planned in April.

And then there’s the massive wound — the one on her stomach that has taken months to heal.

She is eager to return to her life, to stop missing school foundation meetings for nurses appointments, to end the home health visits, to get her beagle-Pekingese, Ridley, back from her son.

And then there’s the question: What next?

The Snodgrass family and others are quietly dismayed by the gun laws that allowed Patrick Alexopoulos to buy a gun the same morning he shot his mother and Snodgrass. But Snodgrass knows that advocating for stricter gun laws in Missouri might “be swimming upstream.”

She wants to do more advocacy in the domestic violence realm, as Oehlert also plans to do in the coming years. She’ll start by speaking at a Ceremony of Life for Alexopoulos planned for 2 p.m. Feb. 25 at the Uptown Theater.

Snodgrass sees their story as a reminder that domestic violence can happen to anyone, that if “you don’t help in any kind of situation that can erupt into violence, the violence can reach out and touch you.”

“You can become a victim, also,” she said sitting in her kitchen last week. “Even an unlikely victim. But if you do survive, then you got a life to give back to. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen

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