WESLEY CHAPEL — Steven Wood maneuvers his electric wheelchair in the tight kitchen and then pulls himself up to open a cupboard. He can walk, but not far, and his face is flushed and he's breathing heavy.
Steven was at the hospital, yet again, just the day before. "What do you need?" asks his wife, Susan, and she gets up to help him. Steven sits back down in the wheelchair. "I was looking for those cookies," he says. "You go and rest," says Susan, who also is in poor health and can't move well. Both are only in their 40s, but have been forced by disease to quit their jobs and scrape by on disability.
Her main illness is fibromyalgia. His are several — many stemming from a horrific car accident decades ago that severed internal organs and broke his spine. Susan had been a nurse for 16 years. Steven was in the Army for six years and then also a nurse.
"I'll get them," Susan says, and sets two boxes of store-bought cookies on the counter. The pain in their joints is too much for them to knead homemade dough anymore.
"They're good though," Steven says, getting out of his chair and settling back into his recliner in the living room with a relieved sigh. "Have one," he says.
'Not this time'
This is what they do for all visitors, especially Derek's friends. Steven and Susan are the eternal parents — feeding, supporting, listening; the kids welcome at any hour, sinking deep into the living room sofas and feeling safe. Derek was their youngest; 17, athletic, smart and gorgeous. His last name is Pieper, from Susan's first marriage. Derek was about 4 years old when Steven came into his life. He was his dad. "They say blood is thicker than water," Derek wrote on Steven's last Father's Day card, "but not this time. I love you, Daddy." Derek's car is in the garage and, down the hall, his bed is made but his sheets unwashed.
Steven and Susan know so much about their son. They can recite lines from his school papers and the notes he wrote them; they know what is posted on his MySpace page and his friend's pages. They know his favorite cologne, the awards he won and when he won them.
At the mention of his name one of their dogs — a 3-year-old hound and Great Dane mix named Buddy — lifts his large, chiseled head and perks his ears, looking for him, then lets out a soft, mournful cry and puts his head back down on a sofa by the window and curls against his blankie, a shredded and worn rug he's carried around with him since he was a puppy.
"He's still waiting for him to come home," says Steven, who, along with his wife, is more involved with Derek's life than most parents. Except Derek is dead and has been for two years.
'He was no thug'
The moon was a sliver in the early hours of July 28, 2006, and it must have been dark in those last moments. Derek and another Wesley Chapel teenager, Raymond Veluz, 18, had left a party. According to Det. Lisa Schoneman of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, Raymond asked Derek if he could help him buy some marijuana and Derek agreed.
In the weeks leading up to that night, Derek had been scared by some of the young men he knew from Wesley Chapel High School. They paid Derek money to drive them around. He was alarmed that they carried guns.
"Derek made mistakes," Steven said, "But he was no thug."
Schoneman said she believes both Derek and Raymond were good kids who made some bad decisions — and who, in the end, were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Steven and Susan knew something was not right with Derek — he wasn't sleeping and he seemed frightened, but he wouldn't tell them what was wrong. They worried. That night before he died, Derek called after he got off work at Bosco's, a pizza place. He told his mom that he loved her and that he would be home soon. Then he went to that party and left in Raymond's car.
Their bodies were found at dawn the next day on a dirt road in Trilby, some 25 miles from Wesley Chapel. During the day, that area is gorgeous country, all sloping green pastures dotted with bales of hay and sewn together with old, weathered wood fences. The roads are so narrow that branches from the dense forest on each side touch overhead. There are no street lights.
Derek and Raymond had been shot multiple times from behind, their bodies found facedown.
Because of a well-founded fear of reprisal, witnesses refused to come forward. One who did, a young man named Jeremy Henry who began his criminal record at age 11, talked with detectives days after the murders and told them who he believed committed them. Three days later, he was found executed.
So for nearly two years, no arrests were made in the case. Then on July 24, witnesses decided to speak and Schoneman had enough information to get first-degree murder warrants for Tyree Jenkins, 22, and Luc Pierre-Charles, 20.
In what has been described as a miracle, Jenkins was picked up on a traffic violation in Hillsborough County less than an hour after the warrant was filed into the system. Pierre-Charles — whose yearbook photo was next to Derek's — is still at large and described as armed and dangerous. Detectives told Steven and Susan that the parents of Pierre-Charles are both Baptist ministers. A search on him shows that he was student of the month and a member of the junior honor society when he was younger.
Steven and Susan, who are both religious and say their faith is what allows them to survive, believe those who murdered their son are demon-possessed.
"When you look into their eyes, you see nothing," Susan said. They both pray for those men and their families, who, surely, are hurting.
Derek on their minds
Little is known of Raymond, who moved to Wesley Chapel from New York a few months before he was murdered. Steven and Susan have spoken to his parents, who have never talked with the media, and say they are private people.
When Steven and Susan got the call that one of the suspects had been arrested, they sobbed. As much as Derek still seems to be alive, they know he's gone. They have "Derek days," as they call them, where they just cry and can't stop. They feel cheated and angry. Their health has deteriorated these past two years. Steven was rushed to the hospital after hearing of Derek's death and was released only for the funeral service, then returned.
There is a memorial to Derek and Raymond at the place where their bodies were found. Steven and Susan go there often and keep it mowed; there are flowers and crosses and photos. The solar-powered lanterns are the same ones that line their path at home, kept there so the boys are never in the dark.
There also is a shrine to Derek above their fireplace at home, with the same things that were at his funeral service: his lacrosse gear, his jersey and photos.
On Thursday, at their home, Susan wore a gray T-shirt from the Derek Pieper Memorial Cup, an annual lacrosse tournament. They are proud of their son and amazed by how many people loved him. Susan put on a CD made by one of Derek's friends with a song written about him, saying he was gone too soon, which was followed by a cover of another song, I Can Only Imagine, which was sung at his funeral.
As the CD played and rain drizzled outside the house, both Steven and Susan closed their eyes and leaned their heads back in their chairs. Tears pooled and then trickled down their cheeks and Susan whispered the words to the song.
Still there for her
Susan sits in Derek's room often. She can still smell him there. His ashes are in a cherrywood box by the bed. Derek didn't want to be buried, after a beloved cat died and he was traumatized by trying to bury her; with Florida's water table, the hole just kept filling and filling. Susan saw Derek's body at the funeral home before he was cremated and asked her family members to take photos of him. He looked just like he was sleeping. She cut off some of his curls, those big, soft curls she loved that flipped over his ears and at the nape of his neck.
She keeps them in a worn white envelope, which she takes out and holds. They've dulled with time, the blond streaks from the sun gone. The funeral director told her to be careful with him because he was fragile from being shot so many times. As she kissed his forehead, he felt warm, not cold.
Susan recently asked her pastor when it's time to let go and he said that there is no set time, just when you feel ready.
In his room, Susan put her right hand inside one of Derek's shoes. When she does that, it's as though she can still see his feet and feel them, all of them, his baby feet she kissed, his growing feet, teenager feet, loving all of them and missing them and she knows she's not ready to let him go, not even his old tennis shoe. Not yet. Not ever.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.