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The Gutheinzes remember 1996 as a pleasant period in their relationship with Brent. He stood as best man for his brother Stephen's wedding. He was the affectionate older brother dishing advice about boys to his sister Emily.

Working part time for his dad and attending classes at UTD, Brent seemed to have recovered from the debacle at Texas Tech. Living with three other men in a student apartment, Brent had made several friends. He and Brad, a computer science major, studied together. (Brad asked that his last name not be used.) Brent was on track to graduate with a business degree in August 1997.

And he had a new workout buddy, Scott Garrett, an electrical engineering student. "He was so disciplined, we couldn't even eat a frigging pizza," Garrett says. By the end of 1996, Brent weighed 210, so muscular and chiseled he could crush an egg by flexing his pectoral muscles.

Brent's father still kicks himself for what happened next.

In February 1997, he asked Brent to take a delivery to his accountant's office in Plano. Jerry told him he had to see their new secretary Chanel Banks.

"She's really hot," Jerry said, even though he knew the young woman was planning her wedding.

In the fall of 1996, Brent had dated Rosalie Castillo. "He wanted to get serious," says Castillo, now a teacher. (She asked that her married name not be used.) "He wanted more commitment than I did." Castillo broke off the relationship, but they stayed friends.

Since then, Brent had dated only casually, but after making the delivery, Brent called his dad and said, "That's the most fantastic-looking girl I've ever seen!"

"Brent, she's engaged," Jerry told him.

"I'm having lunch with her tomorrow," Brent said.

Eight days later, Banks broke off her engagement and moved in with Brent.

From the beginning of Brent's relationship with Banks, his parents were appalled. Hadn't she been planning her wedding to another man the day she met Brent? Brent explained that she moved in with him and his roommates to get away from Craig Matilton, her former fiance. But a week later, Brent announced they were in love.

"My wife and I were concerned about it," Jerry says. "I've never met anyone who would treat it that lightly being engaged to someone. We referred to it as the lowering of Brent's brain two and a half feet in his body."

His parents' fears weren't allayed after a meeting with Brent and Banks over her money problems. Banks said she and Matilton, a tall American Indian who worked with a foundation repair company, were deeply in debt. She was earning little more than minimum wage, and her car was about to be repossessed.

At the end of April, not long after he bought a 1997 Mustang for Banks, Brent announced that they were getting married. Deciding that their son needed to take responsibility for his own finances, the Gutheinzes gave him the title to the car they'd purchased for him to use during college. Two days later, they were dismayed to learn Brent had traded in the car and taken out a loan for a 1995 SUV.

On May 15, Brent and Banks leased their own apartment. The Gutheinzes watched as the couple went on a spending spree, buying a $1,200 car stereo, a $1,000 TV system, a $2,500 computer, $500 in bedding, $600 in appliances and hundreds of dollars' worth of clothes for Banks.

In March, Brent took a full-time job making about $22,000 a year as manager of SimFighters, a start-up at Preston and Belt Line roads that gave people time in fighter-jet simulators. Owner Bill Kingsley hired Brent out of a dozen UTD students he interviewed. "I needed somebody I could trust," Kingsley says, "somebody energetic and good-looking. Brent was built like a tank. Put a flight suit on him and he fit the image of a fighter pilot."

Brent seemed level-headed and trustworthy, Kingsley says. He was also passionately in love with Banks.

"All he could talk about was Chanel, like, 'She's the perfect girl for me,'" Kingsley says. "She had him completely wrapped around her little finger."

Even Kingsley cautioned Brent about racking up so much debt. On Mother's Day, when Brent and Banks came to dinner at Macaroni Grill, Diana was so upset with her son's spending that she cried through most of the meal. They would later discover at his death Brent owed creditors about $64,000.

On the phone, Brent complained to his brother Stephen that their parents weren't being supportive. "He was saying things he'd never said before," Stephen says. "He and my dad were fighting. I got the impression Chanel was a strong influence on him and a bad influence. I was worried about him. We all were."

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Glenna Whitley