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Deputies on ranch shooting: Woman shot ex-husband in self-defense after he killed his brother

A Hillsborough County Sheriff patrol car rides down Varn Road Saturday, April 15, 2017 in Plant City. Brothers Milton and Perry Varn were shot and killed during a family dispute in the middle of one of their pastures. The Varn family owns hundreds of acres of farm land in Plant City.
Published Apr. 19, 2017

PLANT CITY — Milton and Perry Varn grew up on Rocking V Ranch, working cattle together as kids and later as men. When their father died, they took the reins of the operation.

At times, records indicate, the sprawling ranch on the road that bears the family name wasn't big enough for the two of them. Milton was arrested twice, both times accused of punching his older brother. Two years ago, Perry asked the court for a protective injunction, claiming his brother threatened to mete out some "cowboy justice."

Finally, on Easter weekend, the tension between the two men ended in an exchange of gunfire in a ranch pasture that left both dead and a third man injured. On Wednesday, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office released dramatic new details about the sequence of events.

First, Milton Varn shot his brother Perry dead and fired on George "Terry" Long, hitting him in the shoulder. Then Milton Varn threatened to shoot his ex-wife, Joanne Varn, now married to Long. Fearing for her life, Joanne Varn shot and killed him, the Sheriff's Office said.

Deputies arrived at the ranch to find the bodies of Milton, 62, and Perry, 66. Long, 71, was treated and released from Tampa General Hospital this week.

Joanne Varn, 61, has not been charged with a crime. After evidence testing is completed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Sheriff's Office investigators will meet with the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office to decide whether charges will be filed.

The Sheriff's Office declined to release more details, citing the pending investigation.

Deputies had previously reported that the two brothers and Long were hit in an exchange of gunfire, but did not say who shot whom.

A woman who answered a phone number listed for Long declined to comment Wednesday. Other family members of the brothers contacted by the Tampa Bay Times this week also declined to comment.

The shooting wiped out a generation of a well-known ranching family.

Milton and Perry, 66, are the sons of the late Lamar "Ed" Varn, who inherited the ranch at 5501 Varn Road from his father and died in 2012 at age 90. His widow Martha — Milton and Perry's mother — still lives on the sprawling ranch north of downtown Plant City. The brothers also live nearby in separate homes.

Official records of the bad blood date back at least to 2009, when Milton Varn was arrested and charged with battering his brother, court records show.

According to a Sheriff's Office report at the time, Perry Varn told deputies he arrived at the family's machine shop and saw the his brother was cutting up a metal rod that belonged to Perry. When Perry told his brother the rod belonged to him, "he dropped his tools, got in my face and slugged me," Perry said in a written statement.

Perry told deputies he fell back, dazed, then grabbed a two-by-four board.

"He told me to go ahead. He would break every bone in my body," Perry wrote. "I walked off."

Perry told deputies then that he had been disabled since he broke his back on a horse, and could not defend himself against Milton.

"He stated that he and Milton has (sic) a long standing dispute between them," a deputy wrote in the report.

A witness, John Ruffin Ayscue, told deputies he'd been friends with the brothers since high school and they "have not gotten along through the years," according to the report.

Milton Varn refused to give a statement about the incident. Prosecutors later dropped the misdemeanor charge.

In May 2012, Milton Varn was again charged with battering his brother.

In that case, Perry Varn told deputies he got into an argument with his brother after he found Milton's cows in their mother's hay field, according to an arrest report. Perry said a gate had been left open, so he drove out the cows. At that point, Perry said, the men argued and Milton punched him in the jaw. Perry said he fell on a fence, then got up and fled, the report states.

Court records say Milton Varn was found guilty and sentenced to probation. He was ordered not to have violent contact with his brother and to pay $629 in fines and court costs, records show.

In 2015, Perry petitioned the court for a protective order against his brother. In the filing in Hillsborough circuit court, Perry wrote that Milton came to his mother's house on Nov. 12 and declared that Perry "had until sundown to pay 1,900 dollars or he would take care on (sic) my a-- cowboy justice style."

Perry Varn wrote that his brother had a hand on his knife as he made the threat, and that $1,900 dollars "was what the judge fined him when he was found guilty in court in Plant City of assault."

It's unclear to which case Perry Varn was referring. Court records do not show an assault charge against Milton Varn or a case resulting in a $1,900 fine. A judge denied Perry Varn's petition, finding that the facts of the allegations weren't sufficient to warrant a protective order.

Ed Varn's estate is listed in county property records as the owner of the ranch. Two people are named in corporate records as managers of the limited liability company that runs the ranch — Perry Varn and his mother, Martha. A Facebook page for the ranch said it offers "outdoor weddings, company picnics, horse boarding, trail riding and much more." The page is no longer active this week.

Perry Varn had five children and five grandchildren, according to an online obituary posted by Haught Funeral Home, which is handling arrangements for both brothers. He was a member of Faith Temple Assembly of God, served in the U.S. Army National Guard and enjoyed hunting and motorcycles, especially dirt bikes, according to his obituary.

Milton's survivors include a son, James. Photos posted by friends and family on family show Milton smiling as he wrestled a calf

On Saturday, family and friends of the brothers will gather for back-to-back services in Plant City.

Visitation for Perry Varn begins at 10 a.m. at Faith Assembly of God, 4240 North Frontage Road. Funeral service will follow at 11.

Milton's memorial service begins at 1 p.m. at the Rocking V Ranch. Afterward, friends and family will sit down for lunch in honor of both brothers. A public invitation on Facebook says the gathering is meant to "celebrate their lives."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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