DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — Paula Bryan remembers how her son put his arm around her as he spoke the words “I love you.”
Fifteen years later Bryan takes solace in remembering how those few words became some of the last spoken to her by her then 17-year-old son, David Bryan.
David suffered a fatal gunshot wound from a shotgun blast fired at him as he slept during the early morning hours of Feb. 26, 1999, by his younger brother, Anthony Paul Bryan.
Paula Bryan believes God woke her up early that morning for a reason.
“I’m alive because God got me up that morning,” she said. “If we’d stayed in bed that morning we’d be dead.”
A few minutes after shooting his brother, the then 14-year-old Anthony Bryan worked his way toward his parents’ bedroom where he found his mother already up and awake. She suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder from a shotgun blast fired by her son. He then fired again, unsuccessfully, toward his father before running out of the home. Police arrested him several days later at an abandoned house.
Both Gary and Paula Bryan chose to forgive and not dwell on what’s happened in the past.
“We’ve become stronger people now and we can relate to others who’ve come into tragedy,” Paula Bryan said. “You can walk through it. You don’t forget it, but you can distance yourself from it.”
Anthony Paul Bryan later pleaded guilty to a murder charge and two counts of attempted murder in connection to the shooting.
According to Kristi Gates, a spokesperson with the state Department of Corrections, Anthony Bryan is serving a 30-year prison sentence for the three offenses. Gates said Bryan received a 30-year sentence for the murder charge and a 20-year sentence for each of the attempted murder charges to be served concurrently with each other and the murder sentence for a total of 30 years.
Gates said Anthony Paul Bryan has served around 15 years and three months of his 30-year prison sentence. He has a projected release date of 2029.
Just after the 15-year anniversary of the shooting, Paula and Gary Bryan spoke of their forgiveness before a parole board earlier this year in March. The Alabama Pardons and Parole Board denied Anthony Paul Bryan’s request for early release and parole.
Gates said his next possible opportunity for early release won’t be until 2019.
After the shooting Paula and Gary Bryan found themselves facing many unanswered questions. Paula Bryan found herself questioning how it could happen. There was no answer.
“I thought ‘what did we do wrong to cause him to do this,'” Gary Bryan said. “Why didn’t I see this?”
But Paula Bryan said no one saw it coming. Gary Bryan said even Anthony doesn’t know why he did it.
For Gary Bryan forgiveness wasn’t an issue.
“We’re Christians and we forgive. He made a big, huge mistake, but we forgave him. We are both victims, but we’re also parents,” Gary Bryan said. “I felt like we needed to do it to save the son we still had.”
But for Paula Bryan forgiveness was more of a process.
She said they don’t dwell on the past, and often try to look toward the future for Anthony.
“You can’t dwell on why he did it,” Paula Bryan said. “But who he is today, he’s got to be important right there in that prison.”
Paula Bryan said many times the victims of violence come out against their assailant. But Anthony Bryan was and still is their son. Gary Bryan said his son was just a child at the time of the shooting.
“Anthony chose, but he chose with the brain of a teenager,” Paula Bryan said.
Feb. 26, 1999, is a date that will never be forgotten for both Gary and Paula Bryan. The events that unfolded early that morning changed their lives forever.
“You never forget it,” Gary Bryan said. “Just like a holiday or anniversary, you don’t forget the date that it happened.”
Both Gary and Paula Bryan said the events that unfolded on that morning came completely unexpected.
“We had a wonderful family. Not a perfect one,” Paula Bryan said. “No one thought this could’ve ever happened.”
Paula and Gary Bryan adopted the two biological brothers, David at age 8, and Anthony at age 5.
Paula Bryan said the two boys “got lost in the system,” the foster care system where she said they’d been for four to five years prior to their adoptions.
“Even though they were adopted they were our boys wholeheartedly,” Gary Bryan said . “We took them in as our own children, period. We still love them as our children.”
David and Anthony had been with the Bryans for 10 years when the shooting happened. The couple already had a daughter, Kelly, who was 13 when they adopted the two brothers , and in college at the time of the shooting.
Paula Bryan recalled how the shooting happened during Anthony’s freshman year of high school.
“When he got to high school things were just different,” Paula Bryan said. “Up until high school he’d never had any problems.”
That’s not to say her son, Anthony, had behavioral problems or anything similar in high school. She said things were just different for Anthony when he got to high school, not quite putting how into words.
Paula Bryan said Anthony liked to take things apart and put them back together. She also called Anthony mechanically gifted and someone who liked to fix things.
David Bryan was an active member of the high school band just before his death. Both brothers attended Northview High School.
Paula and Gary Bryan visit their son once a month at Atmore prison. But he usually calls them at least once a week. Bryan said her son has already earned his GED and a two-year college degree while serving his prison sentence.
“I think he’s paid his debt,” Gary Bryan said.
Gary said they didn’t let the tragedy break their family apart.
“We could’ve let this break us up, but we chose to stay together as a family,” Gary Bryan said. “We never even entertained it.”
Paula Bryan recalled the pain of coming back from the hospital after the shooting to an empty home.
“It was painful,” Paula Bryan said. “I’d lost both of my boys at the same time.”
Over time Paula Bryan adjusted.
“I just didn’t go upstairs for a very long time,” Bryan said.
The couple later turned the upstairs rooms of their home into guest rooms, which included an area for their two grandchildren. Their daughter, Kelly, has two children.
Paula Bryan said she also drew strength from her relationship with God, along with her church family at Dothan First Assembly of God who helped them through the tragedy.
“Our church family rallied around us and helped us with a lot of things,” Bryan said. “For the first three weeks afterward there was somebody here with food every day.”
Bryan tells her story, her testimony, to groups of people, often at church groups, sometimes as far away as Tennessee and Florida. She’s also told her story at some men’s breakfast events.
“I was a teacher at the time, and I taught third grade,” Paula Bryan said. “But speaking to an adult is different than speaking to a child.”
Paula Bryan taught four more years after the shooting, and then retired with over 30 years of teaching in elementary schools within the Dothan City Schools.
“I had to go back (to work) as part of the healing process. Children are healing,” Paula Bryan said. “You’ve got to have something to do and you work through it. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel anything and still don’t have tears.”
Gary Bryan, who works as a car salesman, said just because they eventually went back to work didn’t mean they didn’t think about their sons and what happened.
“You do things to keep productive and to help others,” Gary Bryan said.
Over the 15 years since tragedy struck the Bryan home, Paula Bryan has had several other challenges come her way, including a battle with breast cancer. She’s also had back surgery, broken a foot and just before Christmas she broke her wrist.
But Paula Bryan said getting through the events that unfolded on that tragic day have helped her help other people. Bryan recalled talking to a woman as they received treatment for breast cancer.
“I witnessed to her what we had walked through in our home,” Paula Bryan said. “We not only share with groups, but when I’m out I try to share and talk with people.”
Both Gary and Paula Bryan hope their story can help other people who’ve been hit with similar tragedies. The couple said they’re open to sharing their story if it will help someone.
Paula Bryan said she hopes by sharing her testimony and their story that they can help encourage people to reach out and talk to someone if they’re hurting.
“I’m just hoping this will encourage people and help people. If we can just stop some of the hurt,” Paula Bryan said. “We keep on moving, but we haven’t moved past it. It’s still part of our everyday life because we still live where it happened. But we are still productive persons and we’re happy.”