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One year later, a mother still seeks justice in her daughter's death

Donna and Gary Bryan lost their daughter Katherine Hoover, and an unborn grandchild, when Katherine was shot in the head in July 2014. Her death was later ruled accidental.
Donna and Gary Bryan lost their daughter Katherine Hoover, and an unborn grandchild, when Katherine was shot in the head in July 2014. Her death was later ruled accidental.
Published Jul. 26, 2015

Donna Bryan still expects to hear the phone ring.

Her daughter, Katherine Hoover, used to call her several times a day, whether she felt sick or simply had saved some extra money with coupons at the grocery store.

For the past year, however, Bryan's phone has rarely rung.

Hoover died on July 27, 2014, a day after she was shot in the head when her husband's friend was twirling a loaded gun in his kitchen in Brooksville. The 25-year-old mother was five months pregnant with her second son, Rehlin. He lived about 30 minutes and died in the hospital, weighing less than 2 pounds.

Their deaths initially were reported as a homicide. But in December, the State Attorney's Office in Hernando County called the shooting an accident and declined to press charges.

In the months since, Bryan has been appealing to prosecutors and lawmakers across the state and nation in hopes of reopening the case and seeking justice for her daughter's death.

So far, she has not found anyone willing to take up her cause.

"I'm still trying to figure out, 'Why?'" Bryan said.

• • •

Katherine and Carson Hoover decided on a whim to drive from their home in Inverness that Saturday night to Suncrest Drive in Brooksville to visit Carson Hoover's good friend, William DeHayes. The two men used to work together, but hadn't seen each other in years. Knowing Carson Hoover was a gun enthusiast, DeHayes had invited the couple over to show them his gun collection.

According to Hernando County Sheriff's Office records, Katherine Hoover was sitting at DeHayes' kitchen table, eating food from McDonald's, when DeHayes took out a 65-year-old .22-caliber revolver that had belonged to his grandfather. He decided to show the couple a "Western-style" quick-draw twirl he had been practicing.

The 35-year-old took the gun out of the holster and spun it around his forefinger before catching the butt of the gun in his hand and cocking it. He was lowering the hammer, which puts pressure on the trigger, when the gun fired.

Katherine collapsed onto the floor. The bullet had gone through her head. She was rushed to the hospital, where she and her son died.

DeHayes would later tell detectives he was certain the gun was not loaded, although he didn't check it. He had a clean criminal record and said he preached gun safety to his children.

"I haven't slept in three days trying to figure out how the hell it went off," DeHayes said in an interview with a Hernando County sheriff's detective days later.

Several of DeHayes' statements to authorities raise questions in Bryan's mind.

DeHayes told detectives he had taken prescribed doses of medications — including methadone and Loratab for his back problems — that evening. Why didn't the detectives take a blood test to see if he was inebriated? Bryan asks.

DeHayes told detectives the gun had gone off unexpectedly before.

Bryan wonders why his handling of a gun he knew was faulty wasn't prosecuted. The weapon was later found to be working properly by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

At the end of DeHayes' interview with a detective, he began to shake and cry. He didn't mean for this to happen, he said. He can't even look in his own kitchen.

"All I see is that poor girl laying on the ground," DeHayes said. "I'd be glad to take her place right now. I wanna take her place so bad."

• • •

In December, Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino wrote a memo explaining his decision to not press criminal charges in Hoover's death.

Culpable negligence is required to prosecute for manslaughter, and that is more than a failure to use ordinary care toward others, he wrote. It must be intentional, gross and flagrant.

There was no evidence to show that DeHayes intentionally and recklessly discharged the firearm, Magrino wrote.

"The bottom line is it was a terrible tragedy that should not have taken place," Magrino said in a phone interview with the Times. "That doesn't automatically turn it into a viable case for prosecution."

Bryan has written two letters to Brad King, state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, asking him to reconsider the decision.

Although DeHayes put pressure on the trigger to release the hammer, King wrote, in a virtually identical case from South Florida, the court has held this does not constitute culpable negligence.

"Where the trigger is not intentionally pulled, then the law considers it not to be a crime," King wrote.

• • •

Bryan said DeHayes has never apologized or reached out to her or her husband, Gary, who live in New Port Richey.

DeHayes could not be reached for comment for this story. Relatives said they haven't seen or heard from him in months.

Prosecutors have closed the case.

But for Bryan, 51, it is not over. The night still replays in her head, and she can't bring herself to drive through Brooksville.

She has created an online petition at change.org — which now has more than 6,700 signatures — asking Gov. Rick Scott and King to consider pressing charges for voluntary manslaughter, negligent homicide or other criminal charges. She has reached out to Attorney General Pam Bondi, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby; state Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, and U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis. She is now looking for a new attorney.

She even has met with a law firm in Washington, D.C., in failed efforts to pursue a civil lawsuit.

"What good is suing him?" Bryan said. "He has no money."

Bryan doesn't want DeHayes' money, anyway, she said. She wants him held responsible.

Meanwhile, she is taking care of her 7-year-old grandson, Nick, Katherine Hoover's son from a previous relationship. The boy doesn't know exactly how his mother died, except that there was an accident.

Bryan and her husband are also planning to hold a memorial for Hoover on Aug. 1 at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park in Pasco County.

Living without her daughter never gets any easier for Bryan.

"I just want her back," Bryan said through tears, her hands clenched in fists. "I just want her back."

Contact Samantha Schmidt at (813) 435-7308 or sschmidt@tampabay.com. Follow @schmidtsam7.