Skydiver Chris Jeffries fell for Tracy Richardson and, like her other lovers, landed hard.

Lover's Leap 

Skydiver Chris Jeffries fell for Tracy Richardson and, like her other lovers, landed hard.

Chris Jeffries assumed his girlfriend had gone to pick up her dog as he let himself into her brick ranch-style house on a quiet cul-de-sac in Independence. They had been dating only a month, but he had a key.

The house was stifling; the air conditioner wasn't working. Chris cracked open a beer and went outside to mow, but the September evening was too muggy, so he gave up on the grass and returned inside to sleep.

After a Tuesday at work, he was still exhausted from his Labor Day weekend camping trip. He and his girlfriend, both skydivers, had been at Fort Dodge, Iowa, for the Couch Freaks Boogie, where more than 500 jumpers gathered for three days of parachuting, camping, dancing to live bands and lounging about on cheap sofas purchased from the Salvation Army.

Chris and his girlfriend had argued once during the weekend, but they had made up before the ride home. Although the quarrel had left Chris with doubts about the relationship, he liked Tracy Richardson a lot. She was a tall, attractive and athletic divorcée in her late twenties who rode a motorcycle. Chris was drawn to her toughness and the way she pushed herself to become a better skydiver.

When the phone awoke him at 8:30 that evening, it was Tracy. She said she was at a friend's house, but Chris heard loud music and shouting that told him she had to be at a bar. His misgivings about Tracy ballooned: He didn't want a dishonest girlfriend. He packed up the camping and skydiving gear and clothes that he had brought to her house and waited for her to come home so he could break up with her in person. Then he fell asleep again.

After 12:30 a.m., Tracy finally came through the front door, drunk and accompanied by a petite, intoxicated blonde named Kay, a bartender whom Tracy had just met at Rookies, a bar on 291 Highway.

Chris told Tracy he was leaving, which infuriated her. The bartender vanished.

Tracy had told him there were two things he should never do -- one was hit her; the other was leave her. Yet now he was headed for his car. Outside, he realized he didn't have his keys, so he returned to the house and called out to Tracy, "Where are my keys?"

"They're in here -- in the laundry room," she called back. He searched the tops of the washer and dryer, then kneeled to sift through some clothes. "Where are my keys?" he asked again, turning to look up at Tracy.

She stared back icily, then brought her Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver from behind her back. He quickly stood up.

"You're not leaving me, you motherfucker," Tracy said, smiling.

She faced him in a military stance, feet squared, arms straight out, looking him straight in the eyes and ordering him repeatedly to get on his knees. He refused and kept saying he wanted to leave. She lowered the gun and shot him in the left thigh.

Chris dropped to his knees as blood poured from the wound and pain sliced through his leg. He panicked, pleading with her not to kill him.

"Tracy," he said, "if you kill me, you are going to ruin your life. You're going to go to prison."

She put the gun barrel against his forehead and pushed him back. "You don't know me. I don't give a fuck," she sneered.

Chris turned his head as Tracy squeezed the trigger again. The bullet grazed the top left side of Chris' head, taking out a chunk of skull and slamming him backward. His head's impact on the floor felt like a full-speed truck wreck. But he was still thinking, and he knew he had to get out of her house.

With his hair smoking, his ears ringing and his vision blurring, he tried to stand. Tracy karate-kicked him several times in the face, bruising his face, forehead and collarbone, splitting his lip and bloodying his nose.

He could hardly feel his injured leg, but he rose and stumbled forward. She aimed at his chest. He grabbed her arms, and she fumbled with the gun, trying to cock it. He pushed it down. She fired, and the bullet smashed through his right foot.

He hobbled out the door, running to neighbors' doors and banging on them, shattering one neighbor's window. Tracy followed him but retreated when a neighbor couple opened their front door and let Chris lie on their front steps while they called 911. The caller told a dispatcher "that crazy red-headed woman" was the shooter. When the neighbors heard Tracy slam her door, they dragged Chris inside. They could still hear her screaming, "You motherfucker!"

Several Independence police officers eventually arrived, and an ambulance took Chris to Liberty Hospital. Tracy called the hospital the next day and was immediately connected to his room, so the staff moved him to the pediatric ward under the alias Leroy Carl Jenkins and stationed a guard outside the room.

That precaution ensured that Tracy could not threaten Chris as she had the other lovers she had battered or stabbed. Those men hadn't cooperated with prosecutors because they were too scared or too embarrassed. Now Chris is scared because Tracy has only one year before she will be paroled from prison.

Chris and Tracy met at the skydiving drop zone at the Lexington Memorial Airport in Henrietta, Missouri. Chris hung out there with a tight-knit faction of Missouri River Valley Skydivers club members who would drink beer, pitch tents at the airport and barbecue meat in an old Cessna they'd converted into a smoker. The group even entered area cooking competitions as the Swine Flew Barbecue Team.

In spring 1994, Tracy came to the airport for skydiving lessons. Chris had seen her around and knew who she was, but their friendship wasn't kindled until the spring of 1995, when she began having problems with her fiancé, who was also a skydiver. She confided in Chris, who had endured a heartbreaking but amicable divorce, and the two started hanging out. Chris wouldn't learn the real reason for Tracy's break-up until after she shot him.

Chris played softball with Tracy's Sprint coworkers and made T-shirts for her teammates. He and his ex-wife, Kathy, helped Tracy move into her new house, and Chris mowed Tracy's lawn and killed her weeds.

That summer, as Tracy became a better skydiver and got into free-falling, she and Chris dived together often. They were perfect partners: Both liked to push themselves. After several heart-to-heart conversations, their relationship became intimate in August. She told him about her tough childhood in Lompoc, California, and he remembers Tracy's saying that her parents divorced when she was young and that she had grown up in a "ghetto" home Chris describes as "cigarettes and coffee before noon, then cigarettes and beer after noon."

Chris and Tracy took a romantic trip to Pigeon Forge in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, where they videotaped themselves skydiving and having a good time. Chris was optimistic about his new relationship.

Their next trip was to the Couch Freaks Boogie in Fort Dodge, Iowa, over Labor Day weekend 1995. They were both excited about the weekend party. "It's like a pilgrimage for all the divers in the area," Chris says. It would be time to let loose, drink some beer, cook out and dance.

A theme of the annual event was polyester. One organizer encouraged divers to wear kitschy retro clothing made of the shiny fabric -- some even kept the outfits on for jumps. On Saturday night, nearly everyone would wear the stuff and dance to the Blue Band from Des Moines. Men would sometimes wear dresses, and women would wear suits.

They all did a lot of jumping that weekend. On Sunday morning, Tracy mentioned to five or six other divers that she was getting close to making her 100th jump, a milestone in a skydiver's career traditionally celebrated with whipped-cream pies smashed in the jumper's face. That day, Tracy made her 100th jump.

Sunday night, Chris and Tracy danced and drank and walked around the camp, chatting with friends. When they got back to their site, Chris noticed a bunch of empty whipped-cream cans lying around. Then he heard laughing and saw shadowy figures approach out of the darkness. They ran toward Tracy and pushed pies into her face.

Tracy scowled, jumped up and wrestled one prankster to the ground, shoving his face in the dirt and smearing whipped cream on him.

"Her reaction to the whole incident just seemed way out of line," says Kevin Butler, a skydiving instructor and Chris' best friend. "I mean, pieing is something that happens to everybody. It means you're part of the group, that you've been accepted and people like you. But she didn't take it that way at all. She was real aggressive."

After she got off the man, she glared at Chris through the creamy goop on her face and in her hair. One skydiver offered to let her use a motel shower. At the motel, Chris and Tracy argued; Chris returned to the campsite, and Tracy slept in a motel room.

The next morning, on Labor Day, Tracy acted like everything was fine. She smiled, ran up and hugged Chris and said she was sorry for the way she had behaved the night before. They skydived the rest of the day, then packed up for the drive home.

"She was very amorous," Chris remembers. When they made a wrong turn and ended up near a park, they stopped and had sex in the car -- twice. Then they went to Dairy Queen for ice cream sundaes.

"I had some doubts about our relationship because of the way she reacted about the pieing and everything," Chris remembers. "But I figured I was just going to have to talk to her about it. She was happy at that point, and I thought everything was going to be OK."

But within 36 hours, nothing would be OK for Chris.

He had heard Tracy say she could take on any man, and his friends had noticed troubling behavior from Tracy, but no one guessed the strength of her fury toward men. "Looking back on it now," says Kevin Butler, "yeah, I see real clearly that she had a big problem with men. In any situation where there was any comparison between her and a man, she was going to be at the very least his equal -- or his better."

In a statement to police, Chris' ex-wife, Kathy, wrote that when she and Chris were helping Tracy move into her new house, Tracy got out the chromed Smith & Wesson she later turned on Chris. Gazing at the shiny gun and reminiscing about her ex-fiancé, Tracy said, "I should have shot the motherfucker when I had a chance."

Local skydivers who knew both Chris and Tracy told police that Tracy had a tough attitude they found abrasive -- even dangerous. Several friends described Tracy's violent reactions to seemingly harmless incidents.

One evening in the spring of 1995, just before Chris and Tracy started seeing each other regularly, a group of skydivers had a beer-and-pizza party at the Lexington airport. Some of the guys began tearing around in a go-kart belonging to the airport. Tracy jumped on, and the driver started swerving back and forth. Tracy yelled, "Don't! Stop that!"

When the driver stopped and got out, Tracy slid into his seat. As he jokingly stood in front of the go-kart, Tracy's ex-fiancé ran toward him, yelling, "Get out of the way! She will hit you!"

Tracy plowed the go-kart into both men at full throttle -- at least 20 miles an hour -- knocking them down. Then, without another glance at them, she drove off. Her ex-fiancé, Curtis Carver, got a few bumps and scrapes, and the other man suffered bruised ribs, friends remembered.

A few months later, in August, as a group of skydivers chatted, one man implied that women weren't good airplane pilots. Tracy and another female tackled him. The other woman got up quickly, but Tracy continued to struggle with him, hitting and trying to overpower him for about a minute, friends recalled.

The men on the receiving end of Tracy's rage tried to brush it off and not make a big deal of it because they were embarrassed, fellow skydivers reported.

But one man Tracy had attacked, Carver, was not only humbled but afraid for his life, so he didn't tell many people about what Tracy had done to him in private. He did confide in Chris after the shooting, though, when the men ran into each other at an Applebee's one night. He later reluctantly told his story to police and a prosecuting attorney.

Toward the end of his relationship with Tracy, Carver and she had been drinking beer at his trailer home in Belton, Missouri, one afternoon when they started arguing. When Tracy left to walk her dog, Carver fell asleep.

While Carver slept, Tracy crept into the trailer and began beating his legs with a baseball bat, he told police. The painful blows woke him up, and she hit him several more times before he could get away. A doctor told him no bones had been broken but placed a splint on his ankle. Carver brushed off friends' questions, but Tracy told at least one skydiver that she had attacked him "with a Louisville Slugger" because he was abusive toward her.

After that, Carver broke off their engagement, as his family had urged. He told Chris that he suspected she had put the sedative Halcion in his beer before the beating and that the attack had been planned. "Man, if I had known you were going to be with her, I would have told you what she was like," Carver said. But Chris remembers that Carver still didn't want to talk much about the incident and seemed ashamed of having been beaten up by a woman.

Further in Tracy's past, she had assaulted a boyfriend, who told police that she did it because he was trying to leave her. In 1987, her then-boyfriend told Lompoc, California, police she had tried repeatedly to run his car off the road as they drove home from a trip in separate vehicles. Later, they argued outside her home until she pulled a buck knife and stabbed him in the thigh. He planned to file charges and testify against her but changed his mind after he received a phone call from her. He said Tracy threatened to kill him if she went to jail.

The Californian told police that she had slashed him six months earlier, causing a 20-inch laceration, and that she also had bitten him several times, leaving scars on his chest, shoulder and cheek. Eventually, Tracy got married and moved to Kansas City with her husband before divorcing him. (The Pitch was unable to locate her former husband.)

When Jackson County tried Tracy Richardson in 1996 for shooting Chris, standard rules of evidence limited what the jury heard about her history of assaulting men.

Jurors heard Chris testify about the shooting, which he remembered vividly, and they heard Tracy testify that she shot him because she was "scared." The neighbors who dragged Chris inside their home testified that they heard a woman yelling and cursing angrily as Chris was lying on their steps bleeding. Police testified that they found Tracy in her house saying, "I shot him," and claiming that he had attacked her. The emergency room doctor testified that he treated Chris for three gunshot wounds, one each to the head, thigh and foot.

Because only two shell casings were recovered, Tracy insisted that she had shot Chris only twice -- in the thigh and in the foot -- and that she had not intended to kill him. She said that Chris' head wound was caused by his "running into a wall when he was attempting to attack her," according to court documents. But the doctor testified that Chris' head injury was a "curvilinear groove wound" that would have been caused only by a bullet.

Following three days of testimony, the jury had little doubt that Tracy had committed the crime. But after thirteen hours of deliberation, two jurors held out on recommending a sentence. Most wanted Tracy to serve at least twenty years, but the hold-outs thought that would be too harsh. Judge John Moran asked the jury whether it could decide on guilt but leave the sentencing phase to him; the members agreed, convicting Tracy of first-degree assault and armed criminal action. Moran sentenced her to twenty years.

But the Missouri appeals court later ruled that Moran's instruction had been improper and overturned the verdict. Jackson County assistant prosecutor David Baker interviewed jurors afterward and found that one male who caused the deadlock simply could not believe that a woman could commit such a shooting without having feared for her life. "And that was always interesting to me because it was a male member of the jury," Baker says. "I remember having several women on the jury who were clearly convinced that women are capable of doing things like that."

Tracy had told investigators that she shot Chris because she was "scared" and that he had "charged" her. She also said that he had pulled her hair during their argument in Fort Dodge. Yet his ex-wife described Chris to police as "lighthearted, jovial and easygoing" and told an Independence police investigator that during their twelve years of marriage, Chris had never been violent with her, nor had she seen him behave violently toward anyone else. "I think she's lying about him being violent with her," she told the investigator.

After losing once, Tracy apparently thought better of going before another jury. Instead, Tracy struck a bargain in 1998, pleading guilty to an assault charge that carried a sentence of eight years. Now 34, Tracy is an inmate at the Chillicothe Correctional Facility and is scheduled to be paroled in March 2003, after serving just five and a half years, according to a spokesman for the Missouri parole board. Because of her scheduled early release, she declined to talk to the Pitch about her crime, saying she just wanted to "concentrate on getting back out in the community."

The shooting changed Chris' life forever.

Before, friends say, he was always active. He loved weekend trips alone, biking or camping by a lake. He once took a month long vacation in Australia on a whim, forgetting to tell close friends he was leaving. He bow-hunted often. He was always ready to grab a beer with friends from work or from Lone Jack, where he grew up.

He lived to skydive, but sometimes he just loafed with Kevin Butler, listening to John Prine songs over a brew and lamenting their problems with women. Or they'd go to the Lake of the Ozarks and, against a backdrop of bluffs, sit in Chris' boat with their fishing lines out. "It was catfishing in the middle of the night, then getting up early in the morning when the mist was still on the water and fishing for bass," Butler remembers.

After the shooting, Chris was hospitalized for more than a month with bandages around his head, leg and foot. Difficulties with memory and horrible headaches began in the months after the shooting, as the pencil-sized groove in his skull began to heal and the bone calcified, putting pressure on his brain.

Two women he knew from skydiving took care of him until he went to live with his parents at the Lake of the Ozarks. He remembers being "like a child" in the two years following the accident. "I couldn't talk. I couldn't walk. I couldn't do anything. I had to relearn everything all over again." Taking a cocktail of drugs for pain and other problems, Chris felt his personality change, and he fell into a deep depression punctuated by angry outbursts. Having always eaten healthy meals and salads, he fell into an obstinate insistence on eating only Cocoa Pebbles. He started smoking.

Stabbing headaches would incapacitate Chris for several days. "When I get one, I'm gone," he says. "It's like, I'm sleeping, you can't wake me up," he says. "It's light flashing and then darkness and then high-pitched noise. It's like I'm a little planet circling."

The headaches caused him to consider suicide and to talk about it with Butler and other close friends. Seizures robbed him of hours and days and erased conversations from his memory. Never knowing the date or time, he stopped operating by clocks and calendars.

He attended Tracy's trial but doesn't remember much of what happened there. After he heard she'd been sentenced to just eight years for taking away his former life, he forgot it and didn't remember again until months later, when he was sitting alone, thinking. The reality hit him fully, and he was shocked, telling his friends and family, "She only got eight years. I can't believe it -- she only got eight years."

For a while, Chris blindly wrote checks, and the thousands of dollars he had saved dwindled away, spent on medicine and for consultations with neurologists, a psychiatrist and lawyers who, finally, could do nothing for him. Chris borrowed money from friends and $10,000 from his parents -- a memory that upsets him greatly. He wanted to take care of them in their old age.

During recovery, he struggled with his former employer and hired a lawyer to get disability payments, which he did not receive for two years after the shooting. Now his mother handles the bills for Chris and makes sure he gets his disability checks. Her son has constant problems.

Recently, a check was several weeks late, so Chris stopped taking his seizure medication cold turkey; he experienced involuntary tensing and jerking of his neck and jaw muscles during withdrawal from the drug. At his next appointment, his doctor sternly rebuked him, bringing tears to his eyes.

Talking about his need for money, he gets agitated. "I just wish that somebody would find a treasure somewhere, and that it's mine," he says.

But Chris has built a life for himself. With $15,000 from a crime victims' fund, he bought a modest house in Blue Springs. It is furnished with hand-me-downs from his grandmother. In the living room, drooping potted trees are held up by yellow plastic "caution" tape.

He has a girlfriend -- Suzanne -- who never knew the old Chris. They can rarely go out on dates because it's too tiring for Chris. She adores him. "He's a sweetheart," she says.

Suzanne is a travel agent and a scuba diver, so she sometimes takes Chris on vacations to sunny places -- knowing he might stay in the hotel most of the time, as he did on their last trip to Costa Rica. "The only thing that kept him going," she remembers, "was this single palm tree that he could see through the hotel room window."

It's hard to maintain a relationship under those circumstances, he and Suzanne say.

Suzanne serves as his short-term memory.

"Now," Suzanne says, "if he goes down to the basement to get a hammer, he might go down eight times because each time he gets down the stairs, he forgets what he went there for." His friends and family sometimes find his garage door opener in the mailbox or a jar of mayonnaise in the medicine cabinet. Suzanne gestures toward Chris' hyperactive Australian shepherd, Floyd, and says she wants to get him trained as a service dog so he can bark if Chris falls asleep while smoking or help find Chris' misplaced cell phones and garage door openers and remind Chris to take his seizure medication.

As Chris talks, the ash on his Salem Slim Light grows longer and longer. Wordlessly, Suzanne picks up an ashtray and holds it under his cigarette until the ash drops. Chris doesn't notice.

"He's going to spontaneously combust," Suzanne mutters as Chris keeps talking. "He's always falling asleep with a cigarette in his hand."

Chris' behavior is often touchingly odd: Last Christmas, he gave his mother batteries. Now when he thinks about it, he gets teary eyed. "I'm not going to go through life giving my mom batteries," he says, his voice cracking. "She's done so much. She took me home and took care of me -- like a grown baby. I mean, she changed me and forced food down me, and I don't know how I acted. I mean I know I acted awful a lot because I was hard to control."

Chris can perform many routine tasks but requires much more time than other people might, and he tends to do things at odd hours -- whenever he's awake and feels okay. Last summer, he planted flowers at 3 a.m. Neighbors came out in their bathrobes to say hello and see what he was up to.

One afternoon, Chris sits on an examination table in his doctor's office, waiting for the month's stack of prescriptions that will manage his pain, help him sleep or keep him alert when he's awake, pills that manage his anxiety and help control his seizures.

Wearing a sage green shirt and a ball cap, he anxiously swings his legs and fidgets with his hands. Tears well up as he drifts from topic to topic -- his failed marriage, his anxiety attacks, his debts to his mother, his gratitude to his doctor, Suzanne's fear that Tracy will try to kill him when she gets out of prison.

The door opens, and his doctor, a large, jovial woman, bustles in, breezily inquiring about his health. He apologizes for being more than an hour late to his appointment, but forgets why he was late. Then he remembers he and Kevin Butler got stuck behind a wreck on Interstate 435.

"What happened?" he asks. "Oh! The cars! The cars were all over the road and we had to stop."

When the doctor asks for his address, he has forgotten it. His doctor assures him it's okay, and his eyes fill with tears again. "I love you! Thank you!" he says, trying to hug her. She steps back and squeezes both of his hands.

"Even though you can't ever go back to normal," she tells him in a motherly tone, "we can at least give you a life. I always feel like the last good fairy in Snow White -- the spell has already been cast, but I can modify the curse."

Then she writes prescriptions. Xanax for anxiety, Effexor for depression, Depakote to stabilize mood and prevent seizures, Lorcet for pain, Adipex for alertness and weight control, Stadol in a nasal spray for headaches, and Zanaflex for muscle relaxation.

With seven sheets of paper, Chris is on his way.

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