Mystery of farmer’s death haunts his family — (The Tennessean)

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The Tennessean

Ann Tracy, Ph.D., Executive Director of the International Coalition for Drug Awareness, confirmed that this man was taking Effexor at the time of the tragic incident

By LEON ALLIGOOD, Staff Writer

Widow wonders if depression led to breakdown

COLUMBIA ­ Jackie McFall, 45, has a cautionary tale to tell.

She runs a sod business, so she is unaccustomed to telling stories, particularly one this personal, this tragic, in a Shakespearean vein.

McFall’s message is simple: Watch those you love closely, and if they show signs of depression or mental breakdown, get them help, said the blue-eyed woman who has wiped away a river of tears in the past two months.

On March 28, Robin Charles McFall, her soul mate of 26 years, died of what authorities called an “unintentional single gunshot wound to the head.” The shooting followed a 34-hour period of highly uncharacteristic, irrational behavior for McFall, who according to local investigators, drove around Maury County armed with a 9mm pistol, holding his best friend of two decades against his will.

Robin McFall’s behavior and his death continue to baffle his family, friends and law enforcement.

“I’ve never seen a case like this in all my years as a prosecutor,” said District Attorney General Mike Bottoms.

The sharp report of the pistol reverberated far from the pasture where the single bullet ended the 46-year-old man’s life. Standing in the funeral home receiving line, Jackie heard dozens of stories about her husband, stories of kindnesses shown and sage advice given, acts she knew nothing about.

At that difficult time the widow wasn’t able to offer her husband’s legion of admirers a reason for what happened. Since then the subject has preoccupied her mind much of the time, a painful exercise, but one deemed important, for the widow does not want others to experience her anguish or regrets.

A brother-in-law introduced Robin to the sod business after Robin graduated from Collinwood High School, and he struck out on his own, first locating in Nashville but later moving to Maury County.

Jackie, his high school sweetheart whom he married in 1979, joined the firm in 1986 and together they grew a successful company that specializes in sodding and seeding highway construction projects.

At home, the McFalls were blessed with three beautiful daughters: Ragan, now 12, and fraternal twins, Madison and Makenzie, now 6. In the family’s living room are dozens of photos of the girls and their daddy: at family outings, on trips to Florida, at school functions.

He loved his daughters, Jackie said.

There was no doubt he also loved his career. Mastering the peculiarities of the sod business, with its specialized equipment, was a challenge he relished. Sometimes he would stay up all night making repairs, “then go about the day doing what he had scheduled to do,” Jackie remembered.

But in January 2005, her husband was hospitalized with a viral infection that attacked his heart. A specialist at a Nashville hospital told him he would likely need a transplant because his heart muscle had been compromised.

For a man who defined himself by physical labor, the reduction in his work capacity came as a blow. He went from taking an occasional pain reliever for sore muscles after a day’s work to taking as many as 14 different pills to manage his condition.

Looking back, Jackie said, the first crack in her husband’s personae began to form.

“His name was hard work. When he felt like that was being taken away from him, it really did affect him emotionally,” she said.

Not that Robin gave up hope for a return to normalcy. He slowly built up his strength. All those years of sunshine and hard work had dividends because he was physically fit and had no other health problems to compound his heart ailment.

At his last doctor’s appointment in February, Jackie said the physician gave her husband a hug and told him there was no medical reason for his recovery. Robin felt good enough to plan a spring-break trip for the family to a Colorado ski resort.

“He told the girls they would have fun riding snowmobiles,” the mother said.

But the McFalls never went on that trip.

The man of the house was gone by that time.

On March 25, a friend of the McFalls died at Maury Regional Medical Center after a prolonged bout with cancer. Knowing his friend’s life was fading, Robin had an emotional last meeting with the dying man on the day before the friend died, Jackie recalled.

The friend’s funeral was Monday, March 27, but Robin decided his emotions were not up to attending.

“Instead he got up to go to work as he would normally do. That was his way of dealing with it, I thought,” the wife said.

Jackie attended the funeral and returned to the family’s home. Her phone rang several times and she could see from Caller ID that it was Robin’s cell phone number. But it was not her husband calling; it was Michael Moore, a 20-year employee of McFall Sod and Robin’s best friend for longer than that. It was not unusual for employer and employee to be together during the day checking on sod fields and the family’s 400 head of cattle.

But the calls made no sense. Michael would say a few words, then abruptly hang up.

“He would say, ‘If I need you to come over to somewhere and get me, will you?’ It made no sense to me, to be honest with you. I didn’t have a clue what was happening,” Jackie said.

The strange calls continued sporadically into the evening. She would ask to speak with Robin and the phone would go dead. “Something clearly was going on that was not right, but I didn’t know what,” she said.

Robin did not come home that night. About 7 a.m. March 28, the calls from her husband’s cell phone began again. At some point, Jackie learned Robin was armed, so she called one of Robin’s brothers. During the day several of his other siblings were also alerted.

“They all said, ‘You’re not trained for this kind of situation,’ ” Jackie said.

“In the whole 30 years I’ve known this man, I’ve never experienced anything like this. I knew something was bad wrong.”

About midafternoon, the Maury County Sheriff’s Department was apprised and two officers went to the McFall home. Deputies were told to be on the lookout for Robin McFall and his employee Moore

“It was a welfare check mainly,” said detective Terry Dial.

But the status changed. During a phone conversation, Dial heard Robin tell Moore: “Either I’m going to kill you, or you’re going to kill me.”

“I heard him on the speakerphone,” Dial said.

By that time, just after 5 p.m., Jackie knew her husband was in a field off Zion Road, only a few miles away. She wanted to go see him, but the lawmen were wary of letting her go by herself. There was talk of hiding two officers in her SUV, but that discussion was interrupted by a final call from Michael.

“He said he had shot Robin,” Jackie said.

Michael, of course, was
taken in for questioning.

The story he revealed in two lengthy interviews was none like investigators had heard before.

Moore said Robin picked him up March 27 and drove from farm to farm in different vehicles. According to Lt. Jim Brady of Maury County, Moore knew something was wrong with his boss and friend “very shortly after he got into the truck.”

Robin, who was never known to drink alcoholic beverages, bought beer -­ a 12-pack and, later, a six-pack­ and made Moore imbibe, an apparent move to keep his employee “under control” during the ordeal, said Dial.

Brady said one of their fears that afternoon was that Robin planned to kill himself, perhaps “suicide by cop.”

“We thought maybe it was going to get down to where he was going to force us to do something. I can’t say what he was really thinking,” Brady said.

Robin and Michael had a “very brief struggle and (Moore) gained control of the gun and he said it went off,” the lieutenant added.

The case was taken to the Maury County Grand Jury, which returned a no bill against Michael Moore about two weeks ago. Moore, who wasn’t available for comment on this story, has since returned to work for McFall Sod.

“He’s been traumatized,” said Jackie, who holds no ill will against her employee.

For the record, Brady noted, Robin McFall succumbed to “an unintentional shooting.”

More than two months after her husband’s death, Jackie continues to second-guess her actions in the weeks leading up to the tragedy.

“I don’t know what was in his mind,” she said resignedly.

Did the death of the family friend, or the slowness of his recovery, or his despair at not being able to work as hard as he once did send him into a spiraling depression?

“If he was planning this, why did he plan the trip to Colorado?” she wondered.

“Robin had struggled mentally ever since his illness. I look back and think, were there signs that I missed? Was there more I could have done for him?”

She has no pat answers. She fears her husband, whose nickname was “Superman,” hid his desperation.

“Society has made us very busy. We don’t take the time that we should with the people that we love. I guess the message should be watch your loved ones closely. You know, just take the time,” Jackie said.

Her husband loved his family and his work, of that she is certain.

But the scales of rational thought tipped that day and the saddest aspect is “that we’ll never know why,” detective Dial said..

“He was always the first to help anybody and it’s just a shame that nobody could help him. I guess that’s just the bottom line,” said the sod-farmer’s widow. •