ST. PETERSBURG — Police cars whizzed by John Stevenson's car and he just knew.
Dread filled him as he followed the cars into his mother's subdivision and then down her street, his young sons in the backseat.
He parked outside her house Tuesday afternoon as officers rushed in, guns drawn. Stevenson grabbed the first police officer he saw and asked:
"He finally did it, didn't he?"
His mother, Vicki Bolling, lay bleeding in the grass.
Face down, hands cuffed behind him, was her husband of 32 years, William Bolling. St. Petersburg police said the 72-year-old got drunk, argued with his wife, then shot her three times as she ran outside to escape.
The 64-year-old grandmother died of her wounds late Tuesday.
Grief and exhaustion filled Vicki Bolling's sons on Wednesday. But not surprise. After three decades of physical and emotional abuse, threats, intimidation, manipulation and, in the final years, alcoholism, John and Michael Stevenson said they knew their mother would die at the hands of their stepfather.
"She was the only person in this world who could love a monster," John Stevenson said. "I tried to tell her for years, to tell her that this man is going to shoot you, he's going to kill you, he's going murder you. She didn't believe it.
"She always said: 'I took my wedding vows to God. I swore for better or worse. It was the luck of the draw that I got worse.' "
• • •
Vicki Connell was newly divorced with two young boys in 1980. She worked as a secretary at an air conditioning company in Shreveport, La. That year William Bolling joined the company as the new general manager.
Her sons remember the first time they met him. It was the end of October, at the Louisiana State Fair. Michael was 13. John was 10.
"He was nice, buying us Cokes, giving us money to play games," said Michael Stevenson, now 45. "Afterward mom was like 'Did you like him? Did you think he was a nice guy?' "
They married on Dec. 31, 1980.
The first explosion came a month later, the sons said.
It was dinnertime. John wouldn't eat his mashed potatoes.
The new stepfather jumped up and slammed his 10-year-old stepson's head against the table, then against the wall. Then he scooped up a handful of mush.
"He squeezed my jaws like a dog," John Stevenson said, "and shoved it into my mouth." Then he forced the boy to swallow.
Michael Stevenson ran away to live with his father. But John Stevenson, now 41, stayed with his mother. The abuse never stopped, they said.
The sons said the stepfather yelled and screamed and roughed everyone up. He threatened his wife with a sizzling skillet of grease. He beat them in public. He bragged to them that he would be the last man to have sex with their mother. As the years went by, the sons said they learned all kinds of things about their stepfather:
William Bolling's ex-wife in Little Rock, Ark., went into hiding after he threatened to kill her. His grown daughter disowned him. His late mother and father abused him as a child, then came to despise him as an adult. During a hunting trip in Texas, his old buddies pushed Bolling's RV down a ravine.
They also learned that Bolling actually wanted to fire their mother when they met in 1980. Her old boss begged him to spare the newly divorced mother.
So why did she stay? It was partly the stepfather's manipulation, they believe, partly their mother's own desperation three decades ago.
"She told me she had two children to look after," John Stevenson said, "and she had no money. She had nothing."
• • •
Vicki Bolling eventually made a life for herself apart from her husband.
She was the executive assistant to the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It's a politically appointed position, but their mother stayed on through three administrations and was awarded the medal of merit.
She also enjoyed sewing and needlepoint and being a grandmother. That's why the Bollings retired and moved to Florida in 2009. Michael Stevenson had a talk with his stepfather when he moved down.
"I'm not 10 years old anymore," the stepson told him, "and you're not going to treat my children the way you treated me."
Yet William Bolling still found a way to make their lives difficult. The grandchildren had to have two Thanksgivings, two Christmases, two birthdays. One to spend with their grandparents. The other to spend with the rest of the family members — none who liked William Bolling. Vicki Bolling always looked out for her grandkids around her husband.
According to a search warrant, William Bolling told police on Tuesday that he "shot his wife accidentally because she p----- him off."
Vicki Bolling told a detective in the ambulance that her husband shot her after an argument.
But only William Bolling knows what their final argument was about. He was so belligerent during questioning Tuesday, police said, that detectives couldn't even advise him of his Miranda rights. He was originally charged with attempted murder. That became first-degree murder after his wife died at 11:33 p.m. Tuesday at Bayfront Medical Center.
The sons watched in court Wednesday as their stepfather made his first court appearance before a judge. He appeared on a video screen dressed in blue coveralls, sitting in a wheelchair. A judge ordered him held without bail.
Michael Stevenson is now the finance coordinator for a Washington, D.C., law firm. John Stevenson is a husband and a graduate student at the University of South Florida. Both spoke out about their stepfather, they said, to deliver this message about abuse and abusers:
"We want everyone to know, don't stay silent," said John Stevenson, "That's what got my momma killed."