Friends, family seek clues into Appomattox tragedy

Investigators look over the crime scene at a home where 8 people were shot in Appomattox.

CONCORD -- Only 5 miles of rolling Piedmont Virginia highways separate one of Christopher Bryan Speight's first run-ins with authority and the discovery of a murderous rampage that took the lives of eight people last week on Snapps Mill Road.

Over the course of the intervening 22 years, something changed.

"What happened has to point to some dramatic mental difficulty that metamorphosed into something terrible, just built and built and then exploded," said Rob Pearson, who hired Speight some 15 years ago to keep the bar stocked at Charley's, his Lynchburg restaurant.

Speight is charged in one of the slayings and is under investigation in the seven others.

In 1988, Speight, then a teenager, lived with his sister and thrice-divorced mother in a two-bedroom, $300-a-month apartment in Concord, a tiny village on the edge of U.S. 460 on the line between Campbell and Appomattox counties.

"I have a memory of him even back then that I had to get on him about shooting a BB gun from inside the building," recalled landlord James Carson.

Reached last week, Carson said he'd all but forgotten Speight and the incident. He hadn't realized that the young man was the same person whose picture had appeared on front pages across the country. "I can't believe it," Carson blurted during a telephone conversation when he made the connection.

Speight's mother, then known as Susan Gramelt, was a beloved teacher at Appomattox Middle School for 17 years. She was originally from Allentown, Pa.

Speight was born seven months after his mother married a man named Peter Bryan Speight in August 1969 in Norfolk. He was 32; she was 23.

Peter Speight, an Alaska native, left the family after his daughter, Lauralee, was born, and was never heard from again.

"He just disappeared off the face of the earth," said Susan Gramelt's brother, Thomas Giglio, 61, a building contractor in South Boston.

Pearson, the restaurant owner, remembers how Speight, a quiet young man preoccupied with weapons and government conspiracies, would bring a BB rifle to work to gun down helium balloons bobbing around the eatery's 30-foot-high ceiling after parties.

"Chris was different," Pearson said, stressing there was nothing imminently dangerous about his personality years ago. But he said Speight seemed to harbor some inner, menacing voice.

"When I picked up the paper and saw his picture, I have to say I wasn't surprised."

. . .

Speight, 39, nurtured a fondness for weapons early on. When he lived in Centerburg, Ohio, with his mother, sister and stepfather, he passed a hunter-education course at age 12.

Seven years later, he passed National Rifle Association courses in firearms safety and marksmanship.

In February 1995, he sought a concealed-weapons permit, writing: "I am a dependable, hardworking person, not quick to anger, and find ways to get out of problems without using force or violence.

"For many years my hobby has been fire arms and I take seriously the responsibility of handling them."

Speight, at the time, sought the permit because he expected to be doing security work for Pearson and would be handling large amounts of cash at night, according to Pearson.

In retrospect, Speight's declaration from 15 years ago seems almost a masquerade specifically designed to disguise the likelihood of the unfathomable rampage that would befall the eight victims Tuesday.

Among the victims was his younger sister, Lauralee Sipe, a woman who adored him.

"They were inseparable," said Giglio, the uncle. "You saw Lauralee, you might as well be looking at Chris." They were tow-headed, spindly kids roaring with energy and toothy grins, he said.

"Every summer when school stopped, Chris would take the bus down from Ohio and come stay with us and work on the [construction] jobs with me."

Giglio had no children, and the two youngsters, who were without a father most of their lives, bonded with him and his wife.

. . .

If there were signs of ruin to come, they were muttered and mute.

In December 2006, Susan G. Gramelt died at just 61 years of age.

"When his mother died, it was a terrible loss to Chris," his uncle said. "He went into a very depressed state. He took it very hard."

Lauralee Sipe was living in Marietta, Ga., and Speight moved in with her and her family.

At one point, Speight ran off and the Sipes feared he'd had a mental breakdown, Henry Devening, a Lynchburg lawyer who handled some of the family's legal work, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last week.

Whether Speight was committed or detained because of his mental condition is not clear. "The only people who can answer that question are dead," Giglio said. "What really happened was known only to Lauralee and her husband," he said, referring to Dwayne Sipe, who was among the dead at the house on Snapps Mill Road.

On concealed-weapons applications from 1996 through 2009, Speight said he had never been hospitalized for a mental condition.

The applications included letters supporting him and even a certificate from the Liberty University Police Department noting that Speight had completed a handgun-training course. It was signed by current Police Chief Richard Hinkley.

A circuit judge and Appomattox County Commonwealth's Attorney Darrel W. Puckett, now prosecuting Speight, also signed off on the permits.

In interviews with Times-Dispatch reporters last week, however, employers said Speight had become increasingly troubled by legal dealings involving the Snapps Mill Road home and surrounding 34 acres where he lived.

A co-worker at a Lynchburg market described him as sometimes zombie-like; others said he kept up his work duties as a security guard but was extremely quiet and increasingly withdrawn.

His fascination with weapons had continued over the years, and people who knew Speight said he collected multiple types of firearms, from automatic rifles to black powder antiques and handguns.

Investigators last week turned up body armor, food caches and even homemade explosive devices on the property where Speight created a shooting range that seemed to be in steady use, sometimes bothersome to neighbors.

The property, valued at $293,000, had been purchased by John and Violet Giglio, Speight's grandparents, who had made money in real estate in Tidewater and central Virginia. A rustic, two-story wood house built in 1986 is the property's centerpiece.

Speight, his uncle said, kept up the grounds with meticulous precision, planting and trimming bushes and trees.

John Giglio died in 2008, and Violet, now 102, shared ownership of the property with Speight and his sister, Devening and court documents say.

Speight was removed as a trustee of the property after his mother's death, Devening said last week, because of concerns about his mental condition. But he subsequently was given power of attorney over the estate and just last week, Devening said Lauralee Sipe visited his office to settle paperwork that would have made Speight sole owner of the property upon Violet Giglio's death.

Devening speculates that Speight, who had trouble comprehending the complex language of the trust agreements, possibly because of a learning disability, may have been confused.

While Lauralee Sipe intended to create a life-sustaining gift for her brother, according to Devening, Speight apparently believed he was being hoodwinked out of the property, David Anderson, Speight's employer at a Lynchburg market, told The Times-Dispatch.

In fact, a spokesman for the Sipe family said, the intent was for Lauralee Sipe, her husband and their two children to move permanently to the home and to renovate a portion of the house to accommodate Violet, now in a retirement home.

Speight would have lived in a new home on the property.

It would have been easy for Speight to have sensed a loss of solitude and control.

He had lived on the Snapps Mill Road property alone for about a year, a spokesman for Speight's family said, when the Sipes left Georgia to move in with him seven months ago.

Dwayne Sipe was forming a new business in Virginia with his two brothers, and the family was concerned about Speight's ability to handle the large property by himself, said Robert New, the spokesman. He stressed that the intent of everyone was to turn ownership of the property over to Speight.

But Speight went from having the place to himself, free to wander and shoot his many weapons in the countryside, to sharing the home, albeit temporarily, with his sister, her husband, their 4-year-old son and Lauralee Sipe's 15-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Eventually, he also would have expected to accommodate grandmother Violet Giglio.

Tuesday morning, the hopes of the extended family living at 3030 Snapps Mill Road collapsed. Eight died.

. . .

The tragedy of the massacre reaches far and deep in a section of Virginia famous for its family ties, long memories and commonness of purpose.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of people affected directly," said Pearson, ticking off names of relatives of the dead or their friends, many of whom he's known for years and who frequent his restaurant.

Devening, the family lawyer, is one of them. "Comes by all the time," Pearson said.

For Thomas Giglio, the uncle, life has changed inalterably.

"They were all such good people," he said. "I loved Chris." He called Speight "a good, good boy" but fears Speight may have done a very bad thing. "And I am so afraid of what is going to happen to him.

"I feel like I have fallen overboard in the middle of the ocean and there is no place to go, no safe place to be.

"You know, it makes a person realize that in the end there is really just you and your belief in God. I am so grateful there is that. But our lives and all we have lived for is lost."

Contact Bill McKelway at (804) 649-6601 or bmckelway@timesdispatch.com .

Contact Reed Williams at (804) 649-6332 or bmckelway@timesdispatch.com .

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