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May 6, 2011

A Family Affair

It was horrifying enough when Melissa Tamplin's mother was savagely stabbed to death. But in her wildest dreams, she never guessed her own brother was behind the murder.

melissa, her mother, and max

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Melissa Tamplin

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As I drive into the Texas Correctional Facility on a cold December day, I see barbed wire, armed guards, and watchtowers. I still can't believe these biannual visits are my life, although nearly 12 years have passed since my mom was murdered. I'm patted down and stripped of my belongings, but not before I grab a few coins for the vending machines.

My first sight of my brother, Max, is behind a pane of glass. He's a good-looking kid — his clean-cut features call to mind a young Matt Damon. He's 28, but he looks about 18. "Prison preserves you," he says. "The absence of alcohol, cigarettes, and sun helps." The only changes I notice in his appearance are tattoos on his arms, knuckles, and forearms — blurred black letters and shapes, none in the form of recognizable words, that the inmates give one another in jail. I wonder what Mom would think of them. But then I remind myself Max is in prison for life — what would she say about that?

Just after 3 a.m. on October 3, 1999, our mother was stabbed 42 times in the face, neck, and chest, in the foyer of our home in a middle-class suburb outside Dallas, Texas. Police call an especially violent death like hers "overkill" — a crime of passion or rage, usually committed by someone the victim knows. That night, Max, then a rebellious 17-year-old high school junior, and his degenerate friends were strung out on cocaine and marijuana. They hadn't eaten for three days and were out of cash. So Max and his buddy Chris Brockman hatched a plan to steal money from our mom's purse. When they got to the house, the dead bolt was locked, and Max didn't have his key.

Although the boys' court testimony differed over what happened next, we know that Chris rang the doorbell, and our mom, a creative, self-sufficient woman who loved to make cookies from scratch and leave us handwritten notes, answered in her nightgown. She'd been searching frantically for Max that night — he'd begun leaving home and hanging with a tough new crowd for days at a time. At 10:30 p.m., she'd called a church friend of his--the last person she spoke to before the attack — asking him to tell Max he could come home anytime, day or night. Max probably never got that message, but when the doorbell rang a few hours later, she must have rushed to answer, relieved he was back. Even if she intuited something was wrong, she wanted him home, and probably assumed he'd just been drinking — certainly not doing drugs. But whatever she saw once she opened the door must have scared her. Police believe she turned to run as Chris flew into a rage, stabbing her in the skull with a pocketknife and yelling at Max to get more knives. After the murder, the boys threw the house into disarray to make it look like a robbery, stole her wallet, and used her ATM card to get cash at a local bank.

Reconstructing the events of the evening, detectives later concluded that my brother's role in the slaying was limited to handing Chris four kitchen knives. Max denied even that, claiming he was in the garage when Chris attacked her. But if so, how would Chris know where to get the knives? And how could he retrieve them in the middle of a brutal assault? At the trial, Chris corroborated that Max didn't physically hurt our mother. Chris was the only one covered in blood after the crime; I've never doubted that Max didn't stab her himself. (DNA evidence later proved he didn't.) But he didn't stop the murder or get help. Worse, the very idea to kill her might have been his in the first place: Chris testified that on the way to her house, Max had said, "If my mom sees you, you have to kill her."

That year, I was 25. At the exact time of the murder, 3 a.m., I awoke in my apartment in Birmingham, Alabama, 650 miles away. The entire right side of my body was numb. But I didn't learn about the murder until the next evening; while I prepared to host a dinner party, the news desk paged me. As a television reporter for the Fox affiliate in Birmingham, I was often interrupted for stories, but this time my office was relaying a phone message from a detective in my small hometown, Grand Prairie. When I reached him, the detective said they'd been called to my mom's house that afternoon. (Her fiancé, returning from a hunting trip, had found her body.) After years of interviewing people at crime scenes, I was now on the other side. But instead of becoming hysterical, I shifted into reporter mode and asked questions: Do you have a suspect? A weapon? Any leads?

I had no way of reaching Max — he didn't have a cell phone or credit cards, so when he'd vanished earlier that week, my mother hadn't been able to trace him — but I thought I'd see him at home. Not until I made the 11-hour drive later that night did I learn about his involvement. I dialed my mom's house, knowing detectives would answer. "We're issuing capital murder warrants for Max and Chris," one of them told me. "If you hear from Max, call the police. Do not help him, or we'll be issuing a warrant for you, too." The conversation was surreal; I felt stunned and numb. After learning my mother had been murdered, I felt like anything was within the realm of possibility, but I couldn't imagine Max having done something so horrible.

Max is eight years younger than I am. Our parents couldn't have kids and adopted me when I was 16 months; Max was 5 months when they brought him home. I remember everything about that day. We'd gone shopping, picking out Oshkosh overalls for him. When I came home from school, I had a baby brother! We were raised as siblings in a traditional suburban family, active in school and church. One night when Max was 8, my mother asked him to set the dinner table. I said it would be easier for me to do it, but she insisted, "Melissa, we're raising someone a husband." By high school, Max was a well-liked athlete who'd never gotten into any trouble worse than a few low math grades. Then, in 1998, our parents divorced and moved Max, a 16-year-old sophomore, to Shady Grove Academy, a private Christian school. My mother was concerned he was more of a follower than a leader with his friends, and thought, ironically, he'd be less likely to fall in with a bad crowd there, with smaller classes and more attention.

Shady Grove marked the turning point in Max's life. He joined the basketball team and befriended Chris, an unstable teammate who'd been kicked out of several schools and whom teachers saw as a ticking time bomb, thanks to a dangerous cocktail of illegal substances he combined with prescription medication for his bipolar disorder. By the next fall, Max had fallen in with a fringe group of misfits, Chris' friends from previous schools, and was missing classes and doing drugs.

When I was growing up, I had curfews and phone restrictions: My parents were very hands-on. Even after their divorce, my mom, who co-owned an upscale Dallas furniture store, and dad, a factory worker at Lockheed Martin, cooperated to rein Max in. My mom was independent, capable, and visionary when it came to interior design — she was decorating my Birmingham apartment in "shabby chic" before the term existed — but she was also extremely determined. She worked full time, and felt equipped to handle anything. That's what scared her about Max's sudden downward spiral. As he got caught up with this new group--a mix of high school graduates and dropouts with their own cars and apartments, who plied younger kids like Chris and Max with drugs and booze and then demanded money in return — she was at a loss. In the weeks before the murder, a counselor had advised my parents to use "tough love." I remember my mom saying Max couldn't be gone long: "He has absolutely no money. He has to come home."

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