The phone's ringing. "That's Dianne!" Randy Stepple jumps up to answer it, dashing across his living room, past framed photos of his daughter Tabitha. Here she is with her brother Nelson on a family vacation in B.C. There she is as a child, tawny locks flowing on either side of a wide, toothy grin. That smile.
Her father doesn't stop to peruse those pictures now, to look at her beaming face. It never leaves his mind. Instead, he glances at the clock as he grabs the receiver in the kitchen.
It's six o'clock. Right on time.
"Hi Dianne, how are you?"
This is how it's been. Every few weeks, they'll call back and forth, Randy in Lethbridge and Dianne MacLean in PEI. They talk about the weather, their families, their work - if they felt up to going that day - or sometimes they'll just send a quick text to say "how're ya doing?"
They each know pretty well how the other is doing. It's what they have in common - a bond born out of cold-blooded killing, a cross-country connection only parents of murdered children can really understand.
This time last year, Dianne was waiting for her middle son, 21-year-old Mitchell, to join his father Irwin and his brothers Mark, 27, and Morgan, 20, at home for Christmas.
"Counting down the days," she remembers. "Good job we didn't know what was ahead of us because we would've run for the hills, probably, and never looked back. Because who wants to face something like this?"
Mitch MacLean and Tanner Craswell spent their last hours in Lethbridge partying. The Lethbridge Bulls players, best friends at the Prairie Baseball Academy who both grew up in PEI, were out at The Stone pub on the evening of Dec. 14, 2011 celebrating Tanner's 22nd birthday. They met up with Tanner's former girlfriend and fellow Islander Shayna Conway, 21, and Tabitha Stepple, also 21, Conway's friend and co-worker at Montana's Cookhouse. The boys had to cut their revelry short to catch a 5 a.m. flight out of the Calgary airport to make it back to Charlottetown, and Tabitha offered to give them a ride in her SUV. She and Shayna would split the 2.5-hour drive each way. It was a clear night, not much snow on the ground. A straightforward route along Highway 2 -stop for some snacks at Claresholm's 7-Eleven and hit the road again. They couldn't have known that this road trip would be their last together, that they'd be left for dead before dawn.
She knows how it happened. Most everybody does, by now. The headlines and crime scene footage ricocheted across the country, hurling out hastily gathered details of a killer gunman's highway rampage and hammering them back home to Lethbridge, where the tight-knit community has been torn by a shockingly tragic triple-murder-suicide, and where one mother must mourn a son who murdered three young people, tried to kill another, and then turned his gun on himself. But Judy Jensen still doesn't understand.
She and her husband Brett lost their youngest son, Derek Archibald Jensen, 21, who rests in an unmarked grave, and they must now remember him as a murderer. One who stalked his ex-girlfriend, Tabitha Stepple, following her SUV through the night onto a dark stretch of highway, speeding furiously to catch up after she and her friends left the 7-Eleven, ramming the back of her car and driving them all off the road. We can't know exactly what was going through his mind when he slammed the brakes of his green Pontiac Sunfire and got out of the car carrying his Heckler & Koch 9-mm hand gun. He saw Shayna Conway get out of the driver's seat and walk toward him, but before she could get too close, he aimed and fired, piercing three bullets into her stomach, shoulder and thigh. We don't know what he was thinking when he pumped more bullets through the shattering windows of the SUV, killing Tabitha and Tanner where they sat, or when he continued to fire at Mitch, who'd made it out of the car, or what he was thinking when, finally, amidst his tableau of terror, he killed himself.
His mother doesn't know either.
A year after the shooting, it's clear Judy Jensen hasn't been able to move on.
"Hell. It's been hell," she said, starting to cry.
She knows not everybody blames her family for Derek's heinous crimes. For the most part, people haven't piled on to the Jensens the hatred and contempt they feel for the person who killed Tabitha, Tanner and Mitch and who severely wounded Shayna.
"We've had a few incidences, but not too many," she said.
The unanswered questions still torture her. They haven't died down in 365 days.
"We don't know why it happened. We don't know anything. That's what hurts so much."
No matter how hard the Stepples try not to think about what happened that night, a barrage of questions still swirl, sucking them into a mental tunnel of whys and what ifs and whens: Why weren't the RCMP more forthcoming with information in the early days of the investigation? What if they had gotten to know Derek better? When will they get the answers they need? And when will those answers be enough?
"As time goes by, there's more and more and more. It just doesn't get better. People say, 'oh, it gets better.' It doesn't get better," says Renae Stepple, Tabitha's mother, sitting a year later with her ex-husband Randy and Tabitha's older sister, Teresa Kleinfeld. "There becomes more to the story."
They still haven't gotten all of Tabitha's belongings back from the police, not that having a her insurance card or a few trinkets from her glove box would bring her back. And they haven't heard from the Jensens, not that their condolences would make any difference now, either.
"There's no responsibility for anyone. No responsibility for where he got the guns or the ammunition," which were legally registered in Derek's name. "No responsibility for the car, no responsibility to tell us who the car was even registered to or who the insurance company was," Randy said, his emotion bubbling to the surface. "No responsibility because the guy's dead."
Derek and Tabitha knew each other less than a year. They'd been living together for a few months when Tabitha broke up with him a few weeks before the shooting. Tabitha's parents never saw Derek's violent side, knowing him as a nice, quiet boy who was generally pleasant to be around. He even helped Randy move.
But they did notice when he and their daughter argued. He'd have "little mood swings," and he seemed to be "angry inside," as if he never felt good enough, Renae said.
Tabitha's close friends saw a different side of Derek, one that's easier to see in hindsight.
"When he was around family, he seemed really nice, but Tabitha would tell me different things," says Tabitha's first cousin, Cheyenne Turner, who said Tabitha was "like a sister" to her. "He was abusive. He would have friends follow her to the bar, she couldn't do things. She was a bartender and if she talked to guys, he would get really upset. He was just super controlling."
But Tabitha was strong-willed. She stood up for herself. She was the girl who would chastise her separated parents if one happened to let slip a less-than-kind word about the other in her presence. She was fiercely protective of her family, and none of them can imagine her as a victim. They could never have predicted that their Tabi would die at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, or that three others would be caught in the crossfire.
"I think it's a shame, because he wasn't all bad," Renae said. "He was just messed up. He was not a bad kid, but I think with everything, it just drove him to feel like 'I have nothing left to live for, and if I can't have her, then....'"
"He couldn't control her," Teresa says. "So he controlled her in the way that he could."
Back on PEI, Mitch's mother Dianne MacLean goes to church with Shayna Conway. It's hard because the music brings back memories of so many memorial services, but they get through it together.
Dianne and Irwin call her the daughter they never had.
"She's a strong girl and she'll truck through this and she'll make the best of the bad situation that it is," Dianne says. "She's got memories there that'll haunt her forever and I don't know how she even sleeps at night. I'm not sure that she sleeps very well, but she's our angel. She's our miracle."
When Shayna speaks, people listen. She's still recovering from what will likely be lifelong injuries, but she'll go on to do wonderful things, Dianne tells her. Maybe as a motivational speaker, when the story isn't so painful for her to tell.
A year of tributes, memorial baseball games, fundraisers - even a stone monument in Charlottetown's Victoria Park - have heaved the families up and down, delaying their grief.
"You get yourself up for them and when the event's over, you crash. And you get yourself up for the next event, and you crash," Dianne says, tearing up. "How many people get a whole year of tributes after they die? And it's just been constant." But if her son had to die such a public death, she believes it helps to remember Mitch and his friends as they lived.
"When I look back and think about all these wonderful tributes - no, I wouldn't trade it for anything."
The Craswell family has been grieving for Tanner in its own way, mostly privately.
But Mitch's dad, Irwin, needs to talk about it -"it just tears you apart if you don't." He went back to work as a carpenter for the province of PEI last June, the first time since he got that emergency call at noon on December 15, 2011. He lasted two months.
"I got very angry and my emotions got all out of sorts so I had to come out of work because I was scared I was going to say or do something I'd regret," he says from his home in South Winsloe. "But that's just one of the stepping stones you go through in this."
He's in counselling now, and it helps.
"My counsellor said to me one day, 'you know Irwin, he's not really yor son anymore. He's a Canadian boy, because it just touched everything across the country,'" he says. "The thing of it is, the people that are involved in this, the Stepples and them, we're just like one big family now," he explains. "It's unfortunate we met this way, but it is what it is."
But everything is different, for all of the families. The unexpected triggers - a baseball hat like Mitch's, a Gerbera daisy like the ones that adorned Tabitha's coffin. Their trips through town don't feel the same. Relationships with some old friends seem strained - people don't know how to react. "They're sort of moved on from it, but we're not. It's still in our minds and always will be."
Then there's the letters, the emails, the cards with personal messages - the Stepples and the MacLeans have gotten thousands of them from across the country. People who didn't even know Shayna, Mitch, Tanner or Tabitha have told them they feel for them so deeply, some even crying to themselves at night.
"It's really a surprise. Then you sit here and you say, 'my god, this really touched people, this whole ordeal,'" Irwin says.
"It touched so many people and I think it was the time of year and kids doing what they normally do, coming home for Christmas," Dianne adds. "They didn't do anything wrong."
He'd thought he'd lost his ability to laugh. Up until about three months ago, Randy Stepple couldn't find levity in life. But here in his living room, surrounded by his family and his squawking parrot - with the MacLeans and Shayna just a phone call away - he does laugh a little.
"We'll never lose touch with those other families," he says. "They're new family."