The extended Ernest family cried Sunday. They held hands through bleary eyes. They occasionally let themselves laugh as they recounted stories but quickly shook their heads, as if in disbelief they could still do so amid such profound loss.

Three of their loved ones — Billy, 43, Summer, 20, and Tanner, 17 — were fatally shot Saturday.

Police believe Summer Ernest’s new boyfriend, Dakota Theriot, 21, gunned them down in their Livingston Parish home before driving to Ascension Parish, where he shot and killed his parents, Keith and Elizabeth Theriot, both 50. He fled to Virginia but was found and arrested at his grandmother’s house Sunday morning.

Theriot’s alleged rampage left in its wake dozens of loved ones wading through the numbness that follows a tragedy, the realization that lives are not coming back.

On the coffee table in her Denham Springs home Sunday, Evelyn Sing — the mother of Billy Ernest and grandmother of Summer and Tanner Ernest — arranged photos of her loved ones, trying to encapsulate their personalities in a way brief national media headlines never could.

A tired-looking Billy Ernest is pictured holding his swaddled new baby. Within a green photo frame, Summer Ernest beams on her high school graduation day. Tanner Ernest strikes a pose with his siblings, adorned in an LSU hoodie.

“We’ll never be the same,” Sing said Sunday, taking a deep breath as she fought through tears. She sat on a sofa with Crystal DeYoung, her daughter, and Rhonda Champagne, the mother of Summer and Tanner Ernest.


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Police don’t yet have a motive for the attack, and the victims’ family knows few details about the suspect or his relationship with Summer. Two children inside the trailer at the time of the shooting — a 7-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy — were able to escape and run to a neighbor’s home, but the older child hasn’t been able to provide any more context on what happened immediately prior to the shootings.

Billy's wife, Kacee, and a fifth sibling, 16-year-old Hunter Ernest, were not home at the time of the attack. Hunter and Tanner Ernest both lived with Champagne most of the time, but Tanner was visiting his father this past weekend. Kacee Ernest chose not to speak to media Sunday.

Hunter Ernest sat flanked by friends at his grandmother’s house Sunday. The brothers, less than a year apart in age, shared many friends.

As they grew older, Tanner Ernest widened his of friends with his quick wit and unfaltering sense of humor.

“Whenever they told me (about the slayings) I didn’t want to believe it,” friend Seth Gaudin said. “It was denial. … It felt like part of me was ripped out and just gone.”

Hunter Ernest said that when deputies came to his home in Denham Springs on Saturday morning saying three of his loved ones were killed, his “gut instinct” drew him to Theriot but he didn’t know why.

Evelyn Sing remembers telling Summer Ernest — whom Sing describes as a kind, God-fearing girl who had just recently been promoted at her job at Ferrara Fire Apparatus — that Theriot wasn’t good for her. Some of the family members recently met the suspect at a family birthday party, and everyone who did said they were worried about him being with Summer.

Summer had just broken up with a longtime boyfriend and began seeing Theriot about two weeks ago. Theriot moved in with the Ernest family almost immediately after the relationship began, when he was kicked out of his parents’ home.

“I said Summer, you want to go up baby, not down,” Sing said. “Mamaw knows, I said you’re too smart, you’re too pretty, Summer. Well she might’ve rolled her eyes at me, but I was telling her out of love. Whenever I left I didn’t want to just preach to her, I do enough of that to her but I said Summer, mamaw just wants to tell you baby, just pray, pray, let God lead you.”

Billy Ernest, a longtime Ascension Parish employee, always saw the best in people, and gave Theriot a chance despite others’ warning, said his sister Crystal DeYoung. She noted that the 21-year-old Theriot had been helping Billy Ernest around the house since he’d moved in.

It was a trait Billy Ernest’s ex-wife, Rhonda Champagne, says was passed down to Summer and Tanner.

The family described the siblings as polite, family-oriented and happy. Summer requested donations to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in lieu of gifts at her last birthday. Tanner and a friend had recently jumped from their seats at a local restaurant when they witnessed an embarrassed busboy drop an entire tray of food.

Champagne wiped tears from her eyes Sunday as she recounted how proud she was of her boy in that moment.

“I just pray my children didn’t die in vain, that they actually touched people, children and teenagers,” she said.

“They did,” DeYoung responded, squeezing her ex-sister-in-law’s hand.

Champagne believes her children sacrificed themselves in the trailer Saturday morning to get their younger half-siblings — the 7-year-old and 1-year-old — out alive.

“Tanner and Summer and Hunter (their surviving sibling), I’ve never seen children so close in my whole life, they would literally die for one another,” Sing said of her grandchildren.

“And I believe (they) did,” Champagne added, her voice breaking.

The family is planning a memorial for the victims, but the details have not yet been determined.


Follow Emma Kennedy on Twitter, @byemmakennedy.