The little girl plucked a bright yellow rose from the floral spray atop the casket. She smelled it gingerly and held it to her chest as she walked away, looking up to her crying mother.
Barely tall enough to see over the edge of the three caskets and arguably too young to comprehend the depth of tragedy that’s gripped her family, the girl was one of hundreds in the Abundant Life Church Saturday who stood as evidence to how many ripples a mass shooting can send through a community.
“I’m not here today to give the enemy a stage,” Abundant Life youth pastor Tres Major said to the room. A sea of hushed “amens” resounded through the spacious sanctuary.
Major was referring to Dakota Theriot, the 21-year-old accused of carrying out the Jan. 26 killings of the three in the caskets – Summer, 20, Tanner, 17, and Billy, 43, Ernest.
Authorities have said Theriot began seeing Summer Ernest recently, and had been staying at the Ernest family trailer for several days before the shootings. He’s accused of committing the triple murder with his father’s stolen handgun, stealing Billy Ernest’s truck and driving to Ascension Parish. There, he’s thought to have killed his parents Elizabeth and Keith Theriot, both 50, before fleeing to Virginia where he was apprehended in his grandmother’s driveway the next day.
Officials have called the rampage tragic and the suspect a monster, but there was no mention of Theriot’s name in the Denham Springs church Saturday.
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Instead, the pastors and performers spoke of angels, of how Billy and his two children will be together in Heaven. Their questions will be answered and all they feel now is joy, Major told the group, his voice breaking at times as he spoke of the family who have long committed nights and weekends to the Denham Springs church.
Billy’s mother and Summer and Tanner’s grandmother, Evelyn Sing, sobbed in the front row as Major spoke of how Billy loved his family, how Tanner would keep shooting hoops in the church basketball court even after the sun went down and how Summer’s smile lit up a room.
He spoke of the family's closeness, a sentiment Sing has previously echoed in an interview with The Advocate after her loved ones' deaths. The siblings especially were inseparable. They would die for each other, she'd said.
The extended Ernest family cried Sunday. They held hands through bleary eyes. They occasionally let themselves laugh as they recounted stories…
The family chose not to speak at the service, leaving the sermon and obituaries to Major and church member Mason Kent, but Billy’s wife, Kacee Ernest, spoke through the pastor when he read just a brief line she'd provided earlier this week: “I could not have asked for a better husband.”
Images of the three Ernest family members scrolled on large projector screens in the sanctuary as friends and family hugged, passed out tissues, and visited the caskets for a final goodbye before the service began.
Hunter Ernest – Summer and Tanner’s brother and Billy’s son – first stopped at his brother’s casket. Red and white flowers draped the outside and red bandannas covered the handles.
He stood for a moment, then bent down and kissed Tanner on the forehead.
He shuffled along to Billy’s casket, a display of purple-and-yellow flowers topped with an LSU baseball cap, and was immediately flanked by others trying to hold the teenager in support while he said goodbye.
Hunter brushed them off and continued alone to where his sister lie, surrounded by a baby pink floral arrangement that matched the color family had asked attendees to wear to the service in honor of the bright, selfless young woman.
The 16-year-old continued until he had gently kissed each one. Almost everyone standing nearby cried at the gesture.
The mass shooting is one that has reverberated through the wider suburban Baton Rouge community, urging the outpouring of well-wishes in the form of local restaurants sending donated food deliveries to the family home, schools using free dress days as fundraising ventures and local restaurants offering part of their sales on purchases to benefit the surviving family members.
Denham Springs High School will offer extra counselors for students Monday to help students grapple with the loss of classmate Tanner Ernest, …
Authorities still have not released a motive for Theriot’s alleged rampage, nor have they decided whether they will seek the death penalty following a grand jury’s indictment this week in the Livingston Parish deaths of Summer, Tanner and Billy.
But for at least a few hours Saturday, the discourse and attention and prosecution that comes in the wake of a mass tragedy slipped away to allow a community to mourn for those lost, to figure out how to go on without three people who have repeatedly been described by those that knew them as caring, and full of love.
"Our hearts may be broken, but the legacy that Billy, Summer and Tanner leave behind isn't," Kent said. "They all cared deeply for their family and friends and the community in which they lived. Their selfless nature can be something we all strive to achieve."
"Amen," the group responded.
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