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MailTribune.com
  • Memories of Becky

    An upbeat child took center stage just hours before tragedy struck
  • An upbeat child took center stage just hours before tragedy struck.
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  • On the night she was killed in her family's Medford home in 1984, 11-year-old Becky Gilley asked two different friends if she could spend the night with them, but her mother and father refused to allow it. Hours later, along with her parents, Becky was killed by her brother.
    Amber Shields and Becky Kakouris, both now 35, were classmates and friends of Becky Gilley in the fifth grade at Jacksonville Elementary School in April 1984. The girls, all 11 years old, went on field trips and attended birthday parties. They went to Crater Lake together.
    On the night of April 26, the girls were in a spring musical program together. It started at 7 p.m. at the school.
    "Becky had kind of a starring role," Shields remembers. "I was in the chorus."
    Becky sang "Eat It," a spoof by Weird Al Yankovic of Michael Jackson's "Beat It." She had an outgoing personality and star quality, the women remember. After the show, Amber and Becky Gilley thought a sleepover would be fun. Amber asked her father, Larry Smith, of Jacksonville, who was also a teacher at the school.
    "It was a Thursday night," says Shields, now a labor and delivery nurse at Rogue Valley Medical Center. "He said maybe another time."
    Both women also remember Becky asking another classmate, Teri Moody, if she could spend the night with her. But the Gilleys said no. Kakouris says they said it was because Becky hadn't cleaned her room.
    "We both remember that," Kakouris says, "clear as day."
    It struck both girls that Becky very much wanted to spend the night someplace other than home.
    Smith remembers looking at his watch. It was already 8:30, and it was a school night.
    "How about inviting her over on the weekend?" he said.
    For Becky Gilley, the weekend would never come.
    A little after midnight, Billy Gilley Jr., who had a long history of abuse at the hands of his father, Bill, beat Bill and Linda Gilley to death where they slept with an aluminum baseball bat. Linda was in bed, Bill on a couch.
    Billy had put Becky in the upstairs room of their sister Jody, who was 16, and told her to keep Becky there. But Jody didn't, and Becky went downstairs and surprised Billy, who hit her in the head with the bat. Becky died two days later without regaining consciousness.
    Billy Gilley was tried that November and given three life sentences, each with a 30-year minimum, to run consecutively. He appeared Thursday in Judge Ray White's courtroom in Medford after an appeals court granted him a new sentencing hearing.
    If Becky Gilley's parents were disciplining her over the condition of her room, it was one of two punishment issues in the Gilley home that day. Jody Gilley told Kathryn Harrison, the author of "While They Slept," a new book about the murders, that she had skipped school that day, and that there was heightened tension in the house over her punishment when the family sat down for dinner at 6 p.m.
    The entire family attended the show. Jody described Becky's performance to Harrison as "a fabulous comedic turn."
    "She was funny," Shields says.
    "She was happy," Kakouris says. "Bubbly."
    Shields went out of town with a church group that weekend without hearing about the murders. Becky died Sunday, and Jacksonville children were told Monday by teachers. Amber was told Sunday by her parents.
    Shields says Becky Gilley often visited in her home, but she was not allowed to enter the Gilley home. It was known that the family struggled to make ends meet, but not that there was physical abuse. Bill Gilley used to punch and demean Billy and tie him to a tractor wheel and beat him with a rubber hose. Jody sought refuge in books and dreamed of escaping the dysfunctional family.
    Jody said to Harrison that Becky had not suffered the kind of treatment she and her brother had from their parents, but then she was not yet an adolescent when she died.
    "She never wore name-brand anything," Shields says. "Her hair was kind of curly and unkept."
    She remembers that one year Becky gave her a string of brass bells for her birthday. She thought it was an odd gift. She hung them outside her window, where they stayed for a long time.
    "From what I remember her dad was an alcoholic," she says. "I knew her life wasn't easy."
    "We had no hint there was anything going on in that house," Smith says. "She sat in the classroom. She had a great personality."
    Smith remembers the empty chair in a classroom the Monday after the murders, and shock and horror that a girl had been killed in her home.
    "There were no grief counselors then," he says. "You just toughed it out."
    A lilac was planted in Becky's name at the school. It is a spindly thing and it has been the subject of some not-so-gentle pruning. There is a commemorative plaque on the ground in the name of Becky Jean Gilley.
    Shields remembers thinking, "If only she was somewhere else."
    Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.
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