Janet Delana stands at her husband, Tex C Delana’s grave in Lexington. Photo / Washington Post
She called the police. Then ATF. After that, the FBI.
Janet Delana was desperate to stop her mentally ill adult daughter from buying another handgun.
Finally, Delana called the gun shop a few miles from her home, the one that had sold her daughter a black Hi-Point pistol a month earlier when her last disability check had arrived.
The next check was coming.
Her daughter had been in and out of mental hospitals, she told the store manager, and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. She had tried to kill herself. Her father had taken away the other gun, but Delana worried that her daughter would go back.
“Something like what I bought last time,” Colby Sue Weathers said to the manager, Derrick Dady.”I’m begging you,” Delana said through tears. “I’m begging you as a mother, if she comes in, please don’t sell her a gun.”
She seemed nervous, he would recall to police.
Weathers had a diagnosis of mental illness, but she had never been identified as a threat to herself or others by a judge or ordered to an extended mental hospital stay which meant she could pass the background check for her gun.
The Hi-Point pistol and one box of ammunition cost Weathers US
$257.85 ($368.94) at the Odessa Gun & Pawn shop on the main drag of the small Missouri town about 64 kilometres east of Kansas City.
Weathers headed back to the house the 38-year-old shared with her parents, stopping for a pack of unfiltered cigarettes along the way at a gas station. A firefighter, who was an old acquaintance, saw her acting skittishly and muttering.
An hour after leaving the gun store, Weathers was back home where her father sat at a computer with his back to her.
Weathers planned to kill herself next but told a 911 operator: “I can’t shoot myself. I was going to after I did it, but I couldn’t bring myself to it.”
Delana lost Tex, her husband of nearly 40 years, and her daughter, who was charged with murder. Beneath her anguish, Delana seethed.
The store had made about US$60 profit on the sale, court records would show.
“After everything I did, they still sold her a gun,” Delana said. “The more I thought about it, the madder I got. I wanted someone to pay.”
Delana sued the Odessa Gun & Pawn shop for negligence in the June 2012 sale and won a decision at the Missouri Supreme Court that said that nothing in federal law barred Delana’s type of lawsuit.
Under state law, the court ruled that dealers can be held liable if they should have known a buyer was dangerous. Last fall, with a trial set to start in January in the wrongful death case, the gun shop settled with Delana, saying it had followed the law and done nothing wrong.
“I can’t just go by what a phone call says,” Dady said during a deposition. “If the person that comes in … passes the background check, I can sell them a gun.”
The gun shop agreed to pay Delana US$2.2 million.
Gun-control advocates say the state court’s decision, combined with Delana’s settlement, are significant victories for those who want to reduce gun violence by changing the financial equation for the firearms industry.
The Delana family house. Photo / Christopher Smith / Washington Post.
The Missouri case, brought with the help of lawyers from the Washington, DC-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, provides a legal road map for similar lawsuits around the country, according to the Brady Center, which said there are at least 10 other civil cases pending, including those in Florida, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Texas.
Jonathan E Lowy, Brady’s legal director who argued Delana’s case, said it sends a “powerful message to the gun industry nationwide, and to the companies that insure them, that if you supply a dangerous person with a gun, you will pay the price.”
Gun rights supporters counter that a 2005 national law that shields gun makers, distributors and sellers from lawsuits never provided blanket immunity and already has exceptions to cover knowingly illegal sales.
Lawrence G Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the lawsuits brought by the Brady Center and others are an effort to impose gun control through litigation instead of legislation.
There is nothing remarkable about the Missouri settlement, Keane said: “What’s remarkable is that the law is functioning just as Congress intended.”
Growing up with guns
Far from Washington, where vast fields of corn and soybeans surround a community of 800 on the bluffs of the Missouri River, the gun debate is personal.
Delana grew up around guns. Her father was an avid hunter. Her husband, the high school sweetheart she married when she was 17, cleaned guns on the porch of their two-bedroom cottage. Their dates included target practice.
A Browning pistol her husband bought still rests in the gun safe next to Delana’s bed, as much for sentiment as protection.
Delana doesn’t want to take guns away from everybody; just from people like her daughter who are struggling with mental illness. After a career in state government helping other people navigate Missouri’s social-services system, she is frustrated she couldn’t do more to stop her daughter from getting a gun.
She said she is determined to bring attention to gaps in the background check system and to expand the number of mentally ill people barred from buying firearms.
Even if her daughter previously had been deemed a threat by a judge, Delana has learned, there was no guarantee a background check would have caught that exclusion.
The federal background check system that is used to prevent convicted felons from buying guns is missing scores of state health records that would also flag and disqualify those who are seriously mentally ill.
Regulations passed in the Obama era, but overturned in February with President Donald Trump’s signature, extended restrictions on gun purchases to persons who receive a federal disability payment because of mental illness and also have that check sent to someone who manages their financial matters.
But, Delana also has learned, if the Obama regulations had been in place when Weathers bought her weapon, they would not have barred her purchase because she received and managed her own Social Security disability checks.
Dismantling those regulations now, her mother said, is a mistake.
Delana retired last year and at 61 is a newly minted activist, making speeches in New York City and Washington, DC, and meeting with congressional members about gun buying and the mentally ill.
“I will do whatever I can. I’m working for justice for Tex. I’m not sitting around brooding.”
The downward spiral
As a child, Delana’s daughter often was anxious and insecure.
She had interests – basketball, volleyball and playing the clarinet – and as a young woman held work as a computer technician at the local middle school and later as an administrative assistant for the Missouri Public Service Commission.
But by 33 and in her second marriage, Weathers had started hearing voices, became depressed and lost weight at an alarming rate.
Between 2007 and 2010, she was hospitalised four times for bipolar disorder and suicidal behaviour, according to court papers. She tried to kill herself with prescription pills and spent weeks in a hospital before coming home to live with her parents after that last hospital stay.
Tex Delana knew the ravages of mental illness, his wife said: A brother had a diagnosis similar to Weathers’, and a sister had committed suicide. Tex Delana always worried he hadn’t done enough to help his sister.
When his daughter was diagnosed, the retired steelworker stayed home to take care of her.
Weathers for a time was monitored by a case manager who helped her apply for federal disability benefits through a local psychiatric program that also helped her stay “on the borderline of being a mess.”
“She was out there,” but she was taking her medication, Delana said.
In 2011, she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic whose illness was “poorly controlled with medicine” and posed a “significant risk to injure herself,” according to a court filing.
Sitting cross-legged on the sofa with her dog last month, Delana wiped away tears as she talked about Weathers cycling out of control in the months before the shooting.
A girls’ girl who always kept her hair and makeup well done, Weathers quit bathing. She ran compulsively, three and sometimes four times a day. She took up cross-stitching and sewed until her fingers bled. She began sewing and made a dozen of the same skirts.
Janet Delana sifts through photos of her family, including those of late husband Tex Delana and daughter Colby Sue Weathers, at home in Wellington. Photo / Christopher Smith / Washington Post
In May 2012, Weathers announced she was moving out and had bought a gun for protection. Her no-nonsense father told her to buy a baseball bat instead and locked up the gun until he could sell it.
By June, Weathers was on a high dose of a new drug that her mother says put her over the edge. Weathers was either disconnected and accusing her mother of “being in her head” or mean and certain her mother was trying to poison her.
Her fingers were yellow from chain-smoking and she stayed up all night listening to radio sermons.
Delana made an appointment with Weathers’ doctor, who recommended taking her off the medication until a meeting set for the upcoming Thursday.
A disability check probably would arrive before then, and Delana believed if Weathers could buy another gun, she would try again to kill herself.
From the conference room at her office, Delana began working the phone, looking for help to block her daughter’s gun buy.
It was Monday.
As Delana said in her deposition, a Lafayette County sheriff’s deputy recommended calling the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). ATF referred her to the FBI. And the FBI told her it could take six weeks or more for the agency to review medical records submitted by her daughter’s psychiatrist.
Delana said she was told there were no guarantees that the bureau could prevent Weathers from buying a gun.
Just before 9 am, Delana called Odessa Gun & Pawn directly.
She gave the store manager her daughter’s name, birth date and Social Security number. She told him that Weathers would probably try to buy another gun after getting her disability payment. She asked him to post the information on a sticky note on the cash register to alert other employees about her daughter.
Dady, the manager, thought the call was “odd’ and that he didn’t get calls like that every day, he said at a deposition.
He listened, noncommittal, Delana said, and after four minutes the call ended.
Two days later, on the Wednesday morning of June 27, 2012, Tex Delana and Justin, Weathers’ brother, planned to mow their lawn, a slope so steep it required using a rope to pull the mower up and down.
He went out to buy ice and picked up a candy bar for his pair of grown kids. When he got home, the temperature was close to 38C and the mowing was put off.
Tex Delana went inside, sat down at his computer and pulled up photos of fishing boats.
Just as normal as you and me
Sometime before 11am, Weathers walked into the gun shop wearing a red sundress with brown flowers, her blond hair in a ponytail. Dady asked her how the first gun had worked out, as he later told police.
She’d sold it, Weathers told him, but she seemed “nervous and in a hurry,” Dady would recall.
Bill Cook, a store clerk, was cleaning guns behind the glass display counter where hunting rifles and shotguns are mounted row upon row. He remembers the encounter differently.
“She was normal. Just as normal as you and me,” he said in a recent interview as he stood packing black handgun cases for a gun show in Kansas City.
Shaking his head, Cook called the situation “a shame,” but said the store did everything “by the book. We followed the law.” He blamed law enforcement for not flagging Weathers.
“She never would have gotten a gun,” Cook said. “That’s ate on me ever since the beginning.”
On Weathers’ second visit to the shop in two months, Dady called in a background check through the FBI’s national system. She passed and was on her way home with a .45-calibre semiautomatic pistol.
Odessa Gun & Pawn did not always do everything by the book, according to ATF records made public after a records request from Delana’s lawyers. During eight years starting in 2006, ATF inspectors dinged the store for a long list of violations of federal gun laws and regulations.
The company was cited for failing to run background checks, for not complying with the three-day waiting period for delayed background-check results and for selling firearms to people who indicated on federal forms that they were not the true purchasers of the gun.
In a letter to ATF’s Kansas City field office in January, Delana’s lawyers say the office knew that the store “had a record of willful violations of the gun laws that are supposed to keep America safe.”
They fault ATF for “failing to take appropriate action” that can include the revocation of a dealer’s license.
License revocations are rare. ATF pulled or denied less than 1 per cent of licenses based on inspections conducted in 2015, according to statistics from the bureau, which declined to comment on the Odessa store’s track record.
Through his attorney Kevin L Jamison, the store’s owner Charles Doleshal attributed some of the violations to clerical errors.
Dady, who sold the gun to Weathers, no longer works at the shop and declined to comment beyond what he said in court filings.
In the sale to Weathers, Jamison said Delana did not provide the store with proof of her daughter’s illness and the clerk “did not connect the buyer with the call when she came in.”
A volunteer firefighter who had graduated with Tex Delana and had taught Weathers’ brother, saw her as she stopped at a mini-mart for cigarettes. He was there picking up lunch.
David Twente said Weathers was talking loudly to herself but made no sense. As she walked out, she shielded her face with one hand to avoid making eye contact.
Not long after Twente paid his bill, his emergency pager blared. A possible shooting. In 25 years, Twente had only worked one other homicide.
He knew the address.
As he pulled up, Weathers was standing in front of her house, arms waving.
Her single round had bored through a black desk chair before striking her father’s upper back, killing him.
Weathers told the 911 dispatcher: “I know I need to go to jail, but I am trying to kill myself first.”
“I’ve been insane for a long time,” she continued.
It was an unusually quiet afternoon in the state social-services office when Janet Delana got a text from her daughter.
“You did this to me. Our blood is on your hands. Good bye,” Weathers messaged to her mother, “dad is dead.”
‘What’s wrong with me?’
As Weathers’ murder case proceeded, Delana could not hug her daughter for two years, and could only speak to her through a glass partition or on the phone.
Early on, Weathers asked her mother: “What’s wrong with me? Why are you even talking to me?”
In September 2014, a judge accepted Weathers’ plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and committed her to a state mental-health facility.
“I didn’t feel there was any other way to resolve it,” said Lafayette County prosecutor Kristen Ellis, who was called to the Delanas’ home on the day of the shooting and agreed with findings of two doctors that Weathers suffered from a severe psychotic mental illness.
“I’m not sending someone to prison who didn’t understand at the time why she was acting the way she was acting,” Ellis said recently.
In the years since the shooting, Delana has shed the 40 pounds she gained during the height of her daughter’s illness. The bloodstained hardwood floors ruined by chemical cleaners have been replaced. The chair with the bullet hole was removed, even before she came back into the house.
Weathers is held at the Northwest Missouri Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center about an hour and a half from home in a secured facility that looks like a sprawling suburban high school campus with fencing but no barbed wire.
Delana has a routine down after making the drive at least twice a month. In the cheery lobby, the receptionist prints an ID sticker and hands Delana a padlock for the locker where she stores her purse.
She clears locked double doors after the sound of a buzzer and pulls her pockets inside out, lifts her shoes and splays her arms for a security check.
Delana doesn’t want other mothers to go through what she did, what she still does.
Going forward with a jury trial over the gun sale might have made a bigger statement than reaching a settlement where no one is assigned fault.
But as the court date approached, Delana said she began to worry what a high-profile trial would mean for her daughter if Weathers were called to testify.
And Delana wanted to steel herself for what could be the next fight: To bring her daughter home.
“I still have to take care of Colby. I have to try to live a full life and be upbeat for her,” Delana said.
“If I’m weepy, she says, ‘I’m so sorry. I did this to you.’ “