The boys call it “It.”
It was Halloween 2017, hours after they finished trick-or-treating. It was men in masks coming through the door, screaming for money, and the metallic smell of blood. It set in motion everything that happened afterward: the deputies, social workers and therapists; the improbable recovery; the grandparents becoming parents again; the ghosts.
The brothers, now 8 and 5, don’t like to talk about It. Most of the time, It lurks in the background, but as Halloween approaches, It jumps out. A few weeks ago, the younger boy’s nightmares returned.
“The pumpkins are out,” their grandmother, Carin, explained.
Carin has a hard time summing up what life has been like since the masked men invaded her daughter Catie’s house on Halloween night three years ago and shot Catie in the head. The crime fractured her family. Catie had to learn to walk and speak again. And it left them living in fear that the attackers, who have never been caught, will come back.
Now the family is speaking publicly for the first time. The Tampa Bay Times is withholding the last names of the family at their request because no arrests have been made in the case.
The grandmother attempts to describe what the past three years have been like: a hot mess; Limbo; a curse.
“It really would make a good horror movie,” she said.
Movies, though, have endings.
• • •
The family spent Oct. 31, 2017, dressed up as other people, trick-or-treating in Catie’s winding Wesley Chapel neighborhood. The older boy, then 5, went as Slappy, the haunted ventriloquist’s dummy from the Goosebumps books, and his 2-year-old brother was Catboy from the children’s cartoon “PJ Masks.”
Catie’s parents, Carin and Joe, tagged along, helping their grandchildren fill a wagon with candy. They were almost back to the house where Catie, her boyfriend Luis Bermudez and the couple’s two boys lived when a run-down black car rumbled by, the people inside hollering menacingly.
Carin started to pull out her phone, to take a picture of the license plate, but stopped herself — it was probably kids goofing off.
The house was decked out for Halloween. Guests brought their kids over. In the living room, animatronics blinked their eyes at passersby and fake blood dripped down the walls. Catie had set up a small “haunted house” for the kids to explore.
Carin and Joe didn’t know it then, but in the master bathroom was a mini-fridge filled with glass jars of the THC concentrate known as wax. The Pasco County sheriff’s deputies who later searched the house said they found more than 40 pounds of the stuff, plus vacuum-sealed bags of marijuana and Oxycodone pills.
Years later, Catie’s parents blame themselves for not realizing what was going on. Catie had started using drugs as a teenager and struggled for years with addiction. But she seemed to have recovered. She and Bermudez met in rehab, her parents said. The family had lived lavishly — a nice car, vacations — but Carin and Joe weren’t suspicious: Bermudez had a steady job and court settlement while Catie did event planning on the side.
Before they left, Carin and Joe scrunched on a couch with their grandchildren and smiled for a photo. Later, Carin said it would seem ominous that Catie wasn’t in the photo with them.
The grandparents were home and in bed, about to drift off to sleep, when Joe’s phone rang.
• • •
Sometime just after 10 p.m., according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, two men entered the young couple’s house through the garage.
The 2-year-old boy was asleep in the bedroom, but the 5-year-old saw it all happen. His story, Carin said, has never changed.
The 5-year-old said the men wore masks. He couldn’t see their faces. One of them kicked Bermudez to the ground and pinned him there, a foot on his head.
“Give me my f--king money,” another man yelled.
Catie held the older boy on her hip.
“What are you doing?” she asked. She called one of the men by a first name. “I have a 2-year-old baby here.”
Catie armed herself. The other man was faster, and shot her in the head.
The men left. Bermudez went outside and yelled for a neighbor to call the police. The 5-year-old curled up beside his mother, begging her not to die.
Detectives interviewed witnesses, combed through neighbors' security camera footage, searched for prints. They said the suspects may have gotten away in a black 4-door sedan, possibly a Nissan Maxima, with a third person driving.
The detectives didn’t think it was a random attack. There were the drugs, and the fact that Catie seemed to know one of the men. But the Sheriff’s Office never made an arrest. The investigation remains open, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said, but has stalled.
• • •
The bullet entered and exited the right side of Catie’s head, moving through parts of the brain that control movement, organization and memory. Fragments of bone and projectiles lodged there, and surgeons removed what they could.
For the first two weeks, Carin said, they didn’t know if she would make it. Doctors told her and Joe that her chances of recovery were small — that if she did survive, she’d likely have little brain function or be severely disabled. They put her in an induced coma.
Every couple of days, Carin and Joe would drive to the hospital. They needed a password to visit Catie, who was guarded by deputies.
After a month, she emerged from the coma. Catie had an urgent question but couldn’t make the words in her brain leave her mouth. When she could communicate, by holding a pen in her mouth and pointing it at letters on a whiteboard, she asked: “Where are the boys?”
Her boys were with their grandparents. Catie soon learned the shooting destroyed not just her health, but also her life. Deputies searched her home and found drugs and thousands in cash. Bermudez was arrested days later on charges of producing, possessing and trafficking in drugs.
When she recovered, she was given the option of signing away her parental rights. Carin said it wasn’t much of a choice — the Department of Children and Families would have taken the kids anyway if Catie didn’t give up her rights. In July 2018, Catie signed the papers. So did Bermudez.
In July 2019, Bermudez pleaded guilty in exchange for a two-year prison sentence. He is set to be released in February.
Therapists still recommend against letting the children see their mother, fearing it will undo the stability they’ve built with their grandparents. But Carin and Joe always have the boys, so Catie rarely sees her parents, too.
The family found an assisted living facility that would take a young person with a traumatic brain injury. She took a video of herself in the protective helmet she wore whenever she went somewhere, because of the holes still in her skull. The boys' therapists showed it to them, as part of their therapy, so that they could see she was still intact. Her hair, once long and blonde, was now short and dark.
“I love and miss you boys so much,” she said in the video. She took off the helmet. “It’s just hair. It’ll grow.”
She wants to tell them the lifestyle she and their dad lived wasn’t worth it. She has short-term memory problems and is legally blind. She could have a seizure and fall.
Or the people who shot her could come back.
Catie drew the shortest straw in all this, Carin thinks. Now her daughter lives alone in an apartment with her Boston Terrier, collecting disability, fading out of her sons' lives.
“I’m just scared that they won’t remember me,” Catie said, “and I won’t remember them.
She feels like a ghost.
• • •
Three years ago, Carin and Joe were getting ready for the next phase of their lives.
Joe, now 70, was already retired; Carin, now 61, was on her way. They planned to renovate their home. Eventually, they hoped, they could sell it, buy a nice RV and spend their golden years seeing America.
Their youngest son finished college just after Catie’s shooting. Then, suddenly, they were parents again, tasked this time with navigating the child welfare system and the courts and raising their severely traumatized grandsons.
The boys came into their care near-catatonic and barely clothed, Carin said — someone had taken them out of their bloodied Halloween costumes.
The first weeks were a blur of therapists, social workers and investigators. They lived in a haze of the boys' crying and their own relief that they were alive. Joe couldn’t make himself go back inside Catie’s house; Carin went in as fast as she could to get their clothes. She somehow wound up with only left shoes.
The boys talked about It a lot, at first. They told everyone — including their classmates and teachers, which resulted in Carin fielding some strange phone calls. Over time, they talked about It less, and then not much at all, except for when the pumpkins came out.
A bubble enveloped their lives. The state was strict about who could visit the house or take care of the boys, Carin said: In three years, they’ve approved one babysitter. The boys can’t be named in school yearbooks.
Carin said the sheriff’s detective who worked the case told them to trust no one. The boys are especially hypervigilant. They think they see strangers, on the playground at school or at the edge of the woods, coming to steal them. The younger boy talks to ghosts.
And yet they are in many ways typical boys. They’re affectionate. The older one is serious and protective; the younger one is giddy and playful. They are loved.
Carin and Joe want them to have normal lives, but they don’t believe that’s possible while the case is unsolved. The past is always creeping up behind them.
“You’re always looking over your shoulder,” Joe explained.
“I guess I’ve never felt so alone,” Carin said.
$5,000 reward for information
Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to arrests in this case. Anyone who wishes to remain anonymous can call 800-873–8477, send anonymous tips, video or photos to crimestopperstb.com or send a mobile tip using the P3 Tips app.