Holding memories

Shawntaye Hopkins

Virginia White sits at the kitchen table in her home in Morgantown. She smokes a cigarette and flips through a scrapbook.

Inside are pictures. Pictures of Melissa “Katie” Autry.

White remembers the last days of her niece’s life.

It was May 5, and Autry was struggling to survive. She had been found the morning before in her Poland Hall room, raped, sodomized and set ablaze.

Autry was lying under a blanket in Vanderbilt University Medical Center. White watched as her niece’s hand slipped from under the cover.

Her flesh was discolored.

“I could see the black skin – the charcoal skin,” White said.

The Pellville freshman died two days later after suffering from third- and fourth-degree burns. Autry’s small, fragile body couldn’t hold on any longer, White said.

Two men have been charged with her murder, but no motive has been released as yet. A pretrial conference is scheduled for Monday.

Four months after the attack, Autry’s family is holding on to memories and dealing with the changes her death has brought them.

They are trying to understand why someone would hurt her and how it could have happened.

“She had went home to where she was safe,” White said. “She thought she was safe.”

White walks around, surrounded by photos of Autry. They’re scattered throughout the living room, on the refrigerator, on the computer screen saver.

Katie’s high school graduation. Katie posing with her sister. Katie smiling.

“I can’t explain it,” she said. “Something’s missing.”

The thoughts don’t go away.

“Most of the time it’s right there when I wake up, and it’s there when I go to sleep,” White said.

She said Autry used to visit her home frequently on holidays and weekends. Autry lived in Pellville with her foster parents, Jim and Shirley Inman.

The Inmans and Autry’s younger sister could not be reached for comment.

White said Autry was placed in foster care when she was 10 because her mother, Donnie, was ill and couldn’t care for her.

But Autry never lost contact with her mom.

Sitting quietly at the kitchen table with White, Donnie Autry softly spoke of her daughter.

“She was sweet,” Donnie said. “She was like nobody else.”

There are things to remind Donnie of Katie. Small things, like butterflies in the yard.

Katie loved butterflies, White said. She had a tattoo of one on her back.

Donnie said she was proud of her daughter’s cheerleading.

Becky Gaynor, the cheerleading coach at Hancock County High School, said she remembers Katie Autry as modest and a little self-conscious at times.

Gaynor said she can’t forget Autry’s big, strong laugh.

“She was a doll baby,” Gaynor said. “She had her moments like anybody else does, but overall she had great potential in life because she was such a hard worker.”

Barbie White, 17, is also holding on to precious reminders of her cousin.

When Barbie needed encouragement, Autry would remind her that she was beautiful.

That confidence booster is gone forever.

“If you were upset about something, she tried to make you laugh,” Barbie said.

Also gone forever is Autry’s motherly nature. Barbie said Autry loved children.

“Katie came in and grabbed the first baby in sight,” Barbie said. “If there was a baby in the house, she had it.”

Her 6-year-old cousin, Johnni White, benefited from Autry’s affection.

Once, when Johnni was bathing, Autry rolled up her pants and slipped off her shoes and socks and stepped in the tub.

Autry wanted to play with Johnni and her dolls in the water.

Other times during the summer, the two would splash around in a pool. Autry would latch onto Johnni, even though the child was wearing a life jacket.

White didn’t want Autry to forget that moment, as she lay in her hospital bed in Nashville.

White told Autry she had to get better – she had to go swimming with Johnni again.

Johnni faces the same challenges her mother, aunt and sister struggle to overcome. She is trying to understand why her friend and playmate hasn’t come to see her.

White said she knows Johnni is beginning to understand that someone hurt Autry – and that she’s not coming back.

Barbie said she realizes that the memories highlighting Katie’s sense of humor and cheerful attitude are priceless, even though the moments seemed insignificant at the time.

Barbie said she’s learned not to take life for granted.

“You wish you’d paid more attention to those little things, because they were so special,” she said.

Now, Autry’s family cherishes a scrapbook that Katie and her sister, Lisa Autry, made for their mother. They gave it to her for Christmas in 2001.

This helps them remember the little things.

Autry was not camera-shy.

White said Autry usually had a disposable camera in her possession. And she would capture moments that others might not have considered photo-worthy.

When White flips through the book, she points out not only pictures, but also the surrounding phrases that Autry wrote.

In one photo, Autry turned a camera around on herself to take a picture of a pimple on her chin. It was a small blemish, almost hidden by her wide smile.

White said she can hear Autry’s voice in the words written above the picture.

“You can’t see this pimple, can you?”

Barbie said Autry was excited about going to college.

“She was ready to go,” Barbie said. “She was ready to be on her own.”

Autry came to Western with plans to study dental hygiene, White said.

Gaynor said Autry expressed interest in a dental hygiene major.

But White said she thinks modeling was Autry’s ultimate goal.

“She had the personality to have done it,” White said. “She just didn’t know how she could get there.”

While at Western, Autry had more immediate plans.

Like many college students, White said, Autry wanted the freedom of having a car and living off campus. White said Autry had talked with her about car insurance and renting an apartment.

She needed money.

Autry reduced her schedule to eight hours during the second semester. White said she wanted more time to work.

Students grabbing an ice cream cone or milk shake at Freshens in Downing University Center may not have noticed Autry behind the counter.

But she was there.

Autry also danced in a Bowling Green strip club briefly.

Virginia said Autry talked to her about the job, but her only concerns were for her niece’s safety.

“I understand there are things she wanted and I know she had to work to get those things,” White said. “She wasn’t out selling drugs and she wasn’t out stealing.”

On April 30, something happened that White calls a blessing from God. Autry decided to attend a campus fashion show, Summer Madness.

At the last minute, Autry was asked to model some of the clothes.

White holds onto a copy of the videotape.

She said Autry could have been thinking about a career modeling fancy clothes and catwalking down a runway.

Watching the tape, Barbie points to a brown V-neck top with flared sleeves, showing a bare midriff.

“That’s Katie,” Barbie said.

Barbie and Virginia White said they believe Autry enjoyed the experience – only a week before her death.

She’ll never stroll down a runway again.

Now, Autry’s cell phone has stopped ringing. Barbie said it used to stay glued to her ear until 2 a.m.

Autry will never see another butterfly.

And she’ll never take another picture.

On May 4, Autry left a party at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house on Chestnut Street and returned to Poland.

The assault occurred sometime around 4 a.m. Police say two men doused Autry with hair spray and set her on fire.

Kentucky State Police arrested Lucas B. Goodrum, 21, on May 11.

The next day, Stephen L. Soules, 20, was arrested.

Goodrum was indicted by the Warren County Grand Jury on eight felony counts, including murder, rape, sodomy and arson.

He pleaded not guilty to all charges in the Warren Circuit Court.

Soules was indicted by Warren County grand jurors on nine felony counts, including murder, rape, sodomy, arson and robbery.

He also pleaded not guilty.

The two men are being held at Warren County Regional Jail.

No family members or lawyers of either men could be reached for comment.

White said Autry didn’t deserve what happened to her, and she wishes something could have been done about security on the Hill before Autry’s death.

And she doesn’t want it to happen again – to anybody.

“I think the college has to do whatever is necessary to make sure the college is safe,” White said.

She said preventive measures should occur, regardless of the cost.

White said university administrators have made comments that were “inconsiderate” when referring to Autry’s conduct before her murder.

President Gary Ransdell could not be reached for comment last night.

“I understand she was 18 … but she was in her dorm in her room,” White said. “What more could she have done to make sure she was safe?”

As investigation continues, other questions remain.

Reach Shawntaye Hopkins at [email protected]