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Promise and tragedy.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

COQUILLE - Jesse McCoy got a collect phone call last Wednesday, from Prince William County jail in Manassas, Va. It was his half-brother, Gabriel Morris, who is accused of murdering their mother and her boyfriend last month at their home outside Coquille.

McCoy thought his brother might be calling to confess. But that's not how the conversation went.

"Instead of me blatantly asking, 'Did you kill our mother?' I said, 'Gabe, do you need my help?' I was still hoping the little kid I once knew was hurting, was scared. I got nothing," McCoy said. "He said 'I don't know why the f*** I'm here.' "

McCoy said he tried to get through to his 33-year-old brother, who had grown up with him in a rough part of San Diego, bonding over "Star Wars" and G.I. Joe.

They had different fathers, but a solid connection. Gabe was a child who had seemed to love his mom boundlessly, writing her beautifully worded Mother's Day cards that made McCoy feel like his own were lame runners-up. This was the kid who craved attention, hugs, affection.

But the man on the other end of the line Wednesday was not the Gabe Morris that McCoy once knew. Gabe complained about his jail cell, saying his sheets hadn't been changed. He railed about their mother, Robin Anstey, and her boyfriend, Bob Kennelly, saying she'd abandoned him, that she didn't care about him.

"I said, 'You're there because they think you murdered our mother,' " McCoy said. " 'Do you know that mom is dead?' He just went right on to something else. I don't know this guy he is now, at all. He has become a master liar."

A phone call

Robin Anstey and Bob Kennelly spent one of their last nights alive watching the Super Bowl with friends in Coos Bay. They'd been planning the get-together for days.

Then came a phone call from Gabe. He wanted Anstey to cancel her plans and have dinner with him. She said no.

"We've made plans," she told him, according to Ebon Morse, who hosted the football gathering and overheard the call. "We can have this conversation later."

Anstey's relationship with her son had become increasingly difficult, she confided to Morse. After years of job-hopping and a mounting pile of debt, Gabe had been offered a post as a mechanic at a luxury automobile dealership in Eastern Oregon, $17 an hour to start.

But he decided not to take the job, he told his mother, and was coming home to talk about it, with his wife, Jessica, and their 4-year-old daughter, Kalea, in tow. He wanted to have dinner that night.

Anstey said she was afraid to go home.

"I said 'Stay downstairs, stay here. We just changed the sheets,' " Morse said. "Bob said 'No, we have to go home and take care of this.' The look on Robin's face, I'll never forget it. You don't see a mother afraid of her child. It's not normal."

Eight days later, Coos County sheriff's deputies discovered Anstey's and Kennelly's bodies at the entrance of their rural home, Bob in the doorway, Robin on the porch. They were ambushed, alleges District Attorney Paul Frasier, shot as soon as they walked into their house.

Their killer, according to the prosecutor: Gabe Morris, Anstey's youngest child, the son she knew as "Gabi."

Kennelly was shot five times, according to the county medical examiner: in the leg, the back of his neck, across the abdomen, in the shoulder, and the fatal shot, which pierced his lung. Anstey was shot four times; once in the leg, once in her lower back, once in the left arm and the wound that killed her, a shot to the side of the head.

Gabe's wife and child were in the house at the time, Frasier said. Kalea later told a family friend that "something happened to grandma."

Many descriptions

Beyond those facts, the prosecutor said, he's still puzzling over what led the former Idaho sheriff's deputy to murder his own mother, and who Gabriel Christian Morris really is.

So are Gabe's friends and relatives, stunned by word of the Feb. 8 killings and the Morris family's flight across the country, as a nationwide audience followed the saga on "America's Most Wanted."

People who know Gabe describe him with wildly varying terms: He's a con artist; a genius; a gifted salesman; a video game junkie; a pothead; a religious fanatic; a devoted husband, father and son; affectionate; manipulative; an attention-seeker; a braggart; a man of volatile emotions, as capable of weeping as he is of screaming.

He could convince anyone of anything. He could talk to you for hours without really saying much. He was successful at everything he started, be it selling insurance, repairing luxury cars or working as a personal trainer.

But he was a perennial failure at sticking with it. He is lost, searching, never satisfied, never at peace. To call Gabe complicated is to call Everest a big hill.

Or, as Frasier puts it: "I don't know if anybody really knows who the real Gabe Morris is."

"Genius-level" smart

Gabe grew up in San Diego with McCoy, Robin's son from a previous marriage. Both children were raised by Gabe's father, Danny Morris.

Six years Gabe's senior, McCoy describes that childhood as mostly a happy one. Danny Morris and Gabe were both "genius-level" smart, McCoy said.

Mother and son loved books, especially fantasy: "Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit." Gabe's dad was into that genre, too, an avid Dungeons and Dragons player. As Gabe was drawn into similar games on the computer, they enveloped him, McCoy said. These contests allowed players to live in an online world, a complete disconnect from reality.

"He was so consumed in those games," said McCoy, who now works as a medical sales representative in Florida. "I used to tell him, 'Get away from the computer. Go outside.' I thought they crowded his mind."

Gabe worshipped his mother, McCoy said.

"He was the most loving boy you could imagine," McCoy said. "He always needed the attention of his mother. He needed to have affection, to be hugged."

But there was another side to the boy, too. McCoy said his brother was quick to take a roughhousing match to the next level. He'd bite, or go for the groin.

"I was always worried he would go one step further," McCoy said. "Mom called Gabe 'the devil child.' "

Difficult divorce

Danny Morris and Robin divorced when Gabe was 10, and the split "wasn't pretty," McCoy said. "No divorce is."

Danny convinced a judge that Gabe's mom was using drugs, according to McCoy and Robin's third husband, James Anstey, an allegation both say was false.

And, once he got full custody of Gabe, Danny Morris convinced his son that his mother didn't fight for him, that she simply up and left for Oregon, McCoy said.

Danny Morris, who is now dead, was abusive to his wife and son, said Anstey, who was married to Robin for 10 years and who said Gabe called him "the father I never had."

Robin was terrified of her ex-husband, Anstey said.

Despite his family's rocky breakup, Gabe earned stellar grades in school and had a bright future, his relatives said. The boy was good at everything he tried.

Still, McCoy said, "It seemed like Gabe was always searching for something."

In high school, Gabe fell in love with a classmate, Esther Eschler. As the couple's relationship blossomed, he began attending her church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He eventually converted.

After graduating from Coquille High School, Gabe earned an associate of arts degree in auto repair at Mt. Hood Community College. A Portland BMW dealership immediately offered him a job.

After two years working for the dealership, though, Gabe's deepening faith in his church led him to Sydney, Australia, to serve as a missionary. When he returned, he moved in with Robin and James, who had just begun dating.

The family got along fine, James Anstey said, and he was impressed with Gabe - save for one bizarre spat over a can of peaches.

Anstey had bought the fruit on a grocery trip, and he ate it - to Gabe's extreme dismay.

"He got violently mad, because I guess he liked peaches and I ate the last can," Anstey remembers. "He yelled 'How dare you?' "

It was a red flag, but not a pattern - at least, not at that point.

School and marriage

Gabe's faith took him next to Brigham Young University on an ROTC scholarship. His new career goal was to become a fighter pilot.

That didn't pan out. Gabe wound up dropping out of BYU, but not before he met Jessica Pope, who shared his love of the Latter-day Saints faith. They met at a church function.

When Jessica first took her new beau home to meet her parents, Bill and Rita Pope, the couple had some early concerns about Gabe's credibility, according to Frasier, the district attorney. Gabe assured Jessica's parents that the two weren't romantically involved.

"The next thing Mr. Pope knows, they're engaged," Frasier said.

The Popes' issues with Gabe didn't end there. Their daughter had a $100,000 insurance settlement from a sleighing accident in junior high school, in which she'd broken her neck. Not long after the two were married, Bill Pope wrote in an affidavit filed with the Coos County court, Gabe frittered away the entire amount. He also continued to have trouble sticking with a job.

"As soon as something happened that didn't sit right with him," Pope said, "he'd quit."

"Red flags" as deputy

In 2005, Gabe graduated from the Idaho Police Academy and joined the Bingham County Sheriff's Department as a patrol deputy, two months before Jessica gave birth to their daughter, Kalea.

As a graduation present, Anstey sent Gabe a check for $300, to buy his service weapon, a .40-caliber pistol.

It was a .40-caliber pistol that Gabe used to kill his mother and Kennelly, prosecutors allege.

Gabe was a good deputy, said Sheriff Dave Johnson, in an interview with The Register-Guard. "He seemed to enjoy it very well."

But Gabe told Anstey he didn't like the way officers handled arrests, that they unfairly entrapped suspects.

"I got a lot more red flags when he was a deputy," Anstey said.

Gabe quit the job after two years, telling the sheriff he had found work as a bush pilot in Alaska. When that didn't materialize, he became a personal trainer at Gold's Gym in Blackfoot, Idaho.

The gym's managers declined to be interviewed, but one of its members, a Blackfoot insurance agent named Taylor Ball, met Gabe there and liked him so much he recommended him for another job, as a broker at American Family Insurance.

Gabe excelled at selling insurance, as he had at charming his clients at the gym, Ball said.

"He was very positive and outgoing," Ball said. "He made you feel really good about yourself. He was full of compliments."

"Might lose control"

Still, there were more red flags. Gabe said and did things that troubled Ball. Both men were fans of mixed martial arts, for example.

"He would say he wanted to do that, but he was worried he might lose control and really hurt somebody," Ball said.

Gabe also showed Ball pictures on his cell phone of himself covered in blood, claiming they were taken after a bar fight where "he beat this guy really bad." Ball said.

"I remember once he made the comment, 'I'm a bad man,' " Ball said. " 'I'm a good guy, but I'm a bad man.' "

Gabe made lots of bizarre claims about side business dealings, Ball added. He said he dealt art to "really wealthy people," for example, and that he could get whatever they wanted, even pictures of naked children.

"My wife thought that was pretty shady," Ball said.

When Gabe abruptly quit the insurance business, Ball inherited many of his clients, only to learn that a good number of them hadn't been signed up for the policies they were promised.

"I'm finding a lot of problems," Ball said.

Financial pressures

As he hopped from job to job, Gabe's financial problems began to mount, Anstey said. By the time of the killings, according to Frasier, Gabe had accumulated $100,000 in debt, a combination of student loans and credit cards.

"He never felt the responsibility to earn or provide for his family," Bill Pope said. "All he was really good at, it seemed like, was maxing out credit cards."

Gabe didn't stick to his own credit cards, Pope told investigators. During his time in Blackfoot, Pope said, Gabe had an affair with a woman from Pocatello.

Jessica found out, and planned to leave him, Frasier said. But Gabriel was able to convince his wife that the relationship wasn't sexual.

"This was the reason Jessica took him back," Frasier said. "He was able to sell the malarky."

After Gabe broke it off, the woman from Pocatello called the Popes, Bill Pope said, complaining he'd run up her credit cards, and threatening to sue.

When her parents tried to talk to Jessica about Gabe, she wouldn't hear of it, Bill Pope told The Register-Guard.

"She thought she could make a responsible, hard-working fella out of him. Those two characteristics never seemed to appear," Pope said. "She had all the faith in the world in God, and his ability to transform people. It never happened. The subject of Gabe was kind of off limits for family discussion."

Filed for divorce

In March 2009, Gabe filed for divorce in Bingham County Court, claiming that the couple had "irreconcilable differences." Jessica signed a settlement that required support payments of no less than $1,000 a month from Gabe, who reported his annual income at the time to be $48,000. Jessica was to retain full custody of Kalea. Earlier this month, Bingham County officials said the case was up for dismissal, because it had not been finalized.

"This," said James Anstey, "is when things started getting weird."

The Popes convinced Gabe to move his family to Oregon and live with his mother and Kennelly, who she took up with after divorcing James. The Popes loaned Gabe a truck and $7,000 and urged him to file for bankruptcy in Coos County, to get a fresh start.

Robin welcomed her son, but pushed him to get his act together, James Anstey said. And the Morris' devout Mormonism was a frequent source of friction.

"We always thought it was strange that he was Mormon," McCoy said. "Mom would pick at him: 'You can't really believe that. You're smarter than that.' "

Troubling stories

But Gabriel stuck to his faith, as the rest of his life continued a downward spiral. James Anstey said he'd grown extremely close to Gabe and, even after Anstey and Gabe's mother were divorced last spring, they stayed in touch.

Increasingly, Anstey said, he was troubled by the things Gabe told him: that he was involved in criminal business ventures with partners in Las Vegas; that he'd borrowed $25,000 from Kennelly for some kind of computer fraud deal; that he was afraid for his life, after a friend in Vegas had been shot when some portion of the deal went awry; that he wanted Anstey to front goods for him, via Ebay and the antique store Anstey once owned with Gabe's mother.

Anstey said he tried to get through to Gabe.

"I told him, 'I don't know what you've done, but the path you're taking is going to lead you into destruction,' " he said.

But the speech didn't take.

"Gabriel felt like he was untouchable," Anstey said. "He told me he wasn't afraid to hurt anybody. He'd say, 'That's why they can't catch me. I'll never get caught.' "

Way to escape

Gabe's problems only got worse after he moved his family to Oregon. He and Kennelly and his mother started a marijuana grow operation at Kennelly's house, according to police, although Anstey said neither Robin nor Bob liked to smoke pot.

Gabe was always looking for a way to escape, James Anstey said, which is part of what fascinated him about fantasy video games. (Gabe was eventually apprehended by authorities in Virginia, after his mother was killed, with a woman he met in a online role-playing game called "Perfect World.")

But Robin Anstey kept trying to bring her son back to earth. Days before his mother's death, McCoy said, the Popes called Robin and told her about Gabe's money problems. She confronted him, and he responded with anger, McCoy said.

Gabe blamed her for abandoning him after his parents got divorced, McCoy said. He started claiming he'd been molested as a child, and that his mom had failed to protect him, ultimately abandoning him. The last time McCoy spoke with his mother was four days before she was killed. She told McCoy that Gabe had gotten "mouthy, angry, that she couldn't believe he could act this way," McCoy said.

Anstey tried to defend herself against Gabe's verbal attacks, McCoy said, even showing her son paperwork she'd filed with the court to try to get custody of him after her divorce, telling him, "I didn't leave you."

But Gabe couldn't be placated. The last time he spoke to his brother as a free man, Gabe called their mother "evil."

On Super Bowl Sunday, Robin Anstey told her friend Ebon Morse that Gabe had become "more and more extreme in his views." But when it came to specifics, she was "tight-lipped. She just said he was very troubled," Morse said. Robin Anstey left Morse's house just after midnight.

Morse never saw his friend again.
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Title Annotation:Crime
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 14, 2010
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