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Trying To Make Sense Of Tragedy In A Community With No Running Water

Eugene Keahey died by suicide in connection with a suspicious house fire that killed his wife and two daughters. Their deaths have been ruled homicides.
Courtney Collins
KERA news
Eugene Keahey died by suicide in connection with a suspicious house fire that killed his wife and two daughters. Their deaths have been ruled homicides.

The people who live in the unincorporated Dallas County community of Sandbranch don't have running water. Pastor Eugene Keahey was working to change that, until a suspicious house fire in February. 

Last week, Keahey's death  was ruled a "suicide by gunshot" — his wife and two daughters were declared victims of homicide. Now, a fellow pastor is struggling to reconcile Keahey's legacy.

For almost four years,  KERA's One Crisis Away project has been checking in on Sandbranch, a mostly black neighborhood less than 20 miles from downtown. 

» Making plans for Sandbranch

Back in 2015, Keahey talked about the community with the knowledge that comes with spending real time somewhere. He knew the people who lived in Sandbranch. He understood their struggles.

“Each home here was hand built by the community; there was no outside, general contractors, and this land has been in their families for years, so they have a strong connection to the land and to the community," Keahey previously said.

Pastor Keahey had plans. Today, his friend and fellow pastor Vet Pendgraft says that was true even a few weeks before he died.

"He was getting ready to build houses in the community. Everybody who pitched in to bulid a house, that floorplan was going to be named after them," Pendgraft said. "My personal lodge that I serve in was going to do one. Our church was going to do one."

Pendgraft ministers at The Restored Life Church in Richardson. He spoke to Keahey less than two weeks before the fire.

"I remember looking at my wife saying 'you know, you just never know when you're having a last conversation with a person,'" Pendgraft said.

» The Dallas County Medical Examiner's findings

Keahey, his wife DeAnna and their 15-year-old daughter Camryn were found dead after the fire. Seventeen-year-old Darryn died in the hospital a month later.

The Dallas County Medical Examiner says Keahey shot himself. His wife and daughters' deaths are considered homicides. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and there's still no answer to a crucial question: why?

"One of the things that I had to personally deal with is that I didn't see it. In talking to him ... I didn't hear it," Pendgraft said. "So, I'm not mad at him. I've prayed and wished that I could have helped him, that I would have seen the signs, that I would have heard the cry."

Now Pendgraft has another fear: that people will hear about Keahey's death and discredit his work in Sandbranch. Or worse, discontinue it.

"Will the food trucks keep coming? Will people constantly be there? The people had a need in that community. He met that need. I would hope that people who had made commitments to the rebuilding of Sandbranch would now pull together and fulfill the legacy despite how he left the earth," said Pendgraft.

» Burying himself in work?

The Keaheys lived in Cedar Hill. He was senior pastor at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Sandbranch. He was also working to bring running water, sewer and trash services to the neighborhood. He'd built a small urban farm and started a nonprofit.

Pendgraft wonders if all those commitments helped hide serious personal problems.

"Oftentimes pastors bury themselves in the work, because they find comfort in the work that they were called to do," he said. "But then, home is something totally different."

And until the investigation is complete, the mystery about what happened inside that home will remain. For Pendgraft, the regret is hard to shake. 

"I wish I could have helped him, I wish I could have been there for him," Pendgraft said. "I wish he would have picked up the phone and called somebody that he trusted."

Pastor Vet Pendgraft doesn't pretend to know what went wrong the night of the fire. So he's left grappling with the loss of a close friend, a tragedy that's complicated by suicide and criminal suspicion.

Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.