Lethal Rejection

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Of course, that didn't last long, not once she met a handsome Air Force sergeant at the Clover Drive-In in Fort Worth. At 18, she married again, was pregnant again: First came Nancy in 1968, then Eddie 14 months later, though Popp admits she still lacked the "motherly instincts" to be a good parent.

Although they were living off base in Spokane, Washington, her husband seemed to be spending large blocks of time in Japan--on duty--or so she believed until a friend told her that also stationed in Japan was her husband's girlfriend. Nancy was only 4 at the time, Eddie 3, but Popp was so angry and hurt, she packed up her car and left her husband and kids. "I just wanted to get away," she recalls. "I thought when I got settled, I would send for my children." Her husband had other ideas, divorcing her and taking the children to Japan. Despite her diligence, she says, it would be five years before she would see them again.

When Nancy was 13, she chose to live with her mom, who had moved to the small town of Graham just northwest of Possum Kingdom Lake, where Popp's grandparents lived. Eddie would soon follow, but he brought his resentment for his mother with him, remaining incorrigible and impossible to manage.

Nancy, on the other hand, was fun-loving and forgiving, in need of mothering as much as Popp now needed to be her mother. "A lot of what changed Jeanette was having a relationship with Nancy," Graham says. "Nancy grounded Jeanette, gave her something special to hold onto. She became Jeanette's whole life."

They did everything together: dressed alike, wore their hair alike, were accused of being sisters when they cruised the courthouse square in Popp's '79 El Camino. Nancy wanted to help with the bills, working as a waitress and then at the Pizza Hut. The discounts Popp received from her job at Wal-Mart helped, but Nancy was never one to complain. She could make boots and blue jeans look good, radiating a country-girl freshness that rarely went unnoticed. Popp took great pride in Nancy, enjoyed showing her off in several beauty contests.

Most Saturday nights in Graham, teen-agers would find themselves at the roller rink, which is where Nancy met Todd DePriest, who was a few years older than her and worked as a ranch hand. She fell for him hard, and it was all Popp could do to keep them apart. Perhaps some of it was jealousy; Popp was unwilling to share what she had lost for so long. But Todd and Nancy had only known each other for three weeks when they decided to marry. He didn't even want to wait until Nancy graduated from high school, which angered Popp, who didn't want her daughter making the same mistakes she had. "I wanted her to go to college and experience the world before she was tied down with a husband and kids."

On March 4, 1986, the day she turned 18, Nancy ran off with Todd. Several months later, they were married in Granbury. "It broke my heart. I cried and cried," Popp says. "But Nancy adored Todd, and I knew if I wanted a relationship with her, I would have to accept him."

Things were never more than cordial between Popp and her new son-in-law, who could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts to contact him. It didn't help matters that he joined the Air Force and moved Nancy to Austin, or that Nancy got pregnant within a few months of their marriage, or that Todd didn't phone Popp when Nancy went into labor.

After Nancy left Graham, Popp and her son moved to Cedar Creek Lake, where her father had retired. She rented a "rickety old shack" with no phone from an elderly couple who lived nearby ("Mama always said, 'You got to make do with what you got'").

On October 24, 1988, at about 4 p.m., she returned home after spending the day looking for a job at the several convenience stores dotting the lake. Grabbing a Dr Pepper, she heard her dog Pig barking at an approaching car. It was Doris, her landlord, who said Popp had an emergency call at her house. She thought it was her father, a heart attack, but when she picked up the phone, her son-in-law spoke.

"Todd, what is it?" she asked.

"It's Nancy."

"Is she OK?"

"There's been a robbery," he blurted out. "They shot her in the head!"

Nancy wasn't even supposed to be working that morning. But she wanted to play in the Pizza Hut softball game that night and traded shifts with someone who worked days. Around 7 a.m., she pulled into the parking lot of the Reinli Street Pizza Hut in North Austin. Todd had followed her on his motorcycle--that way, they could trade vehicles, and he could drop off their 15-month-old baby at the sitter's. Forty-five minutes later, he doubled back to the restaurant and picked up his motorcycle. He handed Nancy the car keys, kissed her goodbye and drove to work. That was the last time he saw her smile.
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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald