Real Life Horror

updated 10/26/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/26/2009 01:00AM

When their teenage daughter Emma went into a goth phase a while back, Debra Kelley and Mark Niederbrock thought long and hard about what to do and decided to accept her adolescent rebellion rather than fight it. So they didn't forbid her from dyeing her hair bright pink and wearing heavy black makeup. Even when Emma, 16, developed a fascination with horrorcore rap—a bizarre subgenre that celebrates murder, cannibalism and just about every other depravity under the full moon—they gamely kept their dismay in check. "Debra and Mark were greatly concerned," says Ken Perkins, a professor of sociology at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., where Debra also taught. But they concluded, says Perkins, that "you either go along with kids or watch them walk out the door."

Now friends wish the couple had pushed back. On Sept. 18 police discovered the bodies of Emma and her parents, along with that of a friend, Melanie Wells, 18, at their home in Farmville. Authorities quickly arrested Richard "Sammy" McCroskey III, 20, an aspiring horrorcore rapper who goes by the name Syko Sam, in connection with the murders. McCroskey, who lives near San Francisco and had met Emma last year, had been staying with the family for about two weeks. Autopsies revealed all four victims died of blunt-force trauma to the head, and investigators alleged that McCroskey spent days in the house with the corpses. Says one shaken police source: "It was the most gruesome crime scene I have ever attended."

The murders stunned friends of the victims, not only for their brutality but for the fact that Kelley, 53, and Niederbrock, 50, were unusually well-suited to protect their daughter. Kelley specialized in criminology, especially violence against women. Niederbrock—he and Kelley were separated but maintained a close relationship—was a beloved pastor at Walker's Presbyterian Church, whose parishioners portray him as an exceptionally dedicated dad. Friends agree. "They were in family counseling together, and it was going fine," says Jeannie Langan, a longtime pal of the couple's.

The couple hoped that Emma, who was their only child, was just going through a rough period. Thus they allowed her to invite McCroskey to fly out and spend a few days. Fearing Emma might run away with McCroskey if they forbade her from attending a horrorcore mash-up called the Strictly for the Wicked Festival in Michigan, they drove the teens 1,300 miles there and back. "Debra thought at least if we take them there, we'll make sure they're safe," says Langan.

And indeed, for all Emma's attraction to the dark side, she remained underneath a sweet-natured girl. "Her smile came from her mother: beautiful, genuine, radiant," says Perkins. Given that there weren't many other goths in Farmville, Emma, who was homeschooled, turned to the Internet for companionship. "On the weekends she and a friend would go into the Wal-Mart and revel in the attention," says James Hodgson, a professor at Virginia State University, who knew the family well. "People stared at them." But Emma's infatuation with McCroskey seemed intense. Says Hodgson: "I do believe she felt she was in love with him."

McCroskey and the victims returned from Michigan five days before the bodies were found. The couple's friends were certain that McCroskey did not display any warning signals during his visit with the family. "He did not show up carrying a chainsaw and wearing a hockey mask," says Hodgson, a former police officer.

Friends of McCroskey's in the horrorcore world (see box) echo the notion that he didn't appear all that threatening. "Nobody who knows him saw this coming," says Dan MacDowell, a horrorcore rapper who goes by the name GuttaMind. "If you met him, you wouldn't think there was anything creepy." On the other hand, McCroskey's rap lyrics were anything but bland. Sample: "I've killed many people, and I kill them real slow/ It's the best feeling, watching their last breath."

Just hours before the bodies were discovered, McCroskey ran off the road in Niederbrock's car and needed a tow. The first thing tow-truck driver Elton Napier noticed was the stench coming off McCroskey. "It was awful," he says. "Like a dead animal, only worse." Authorities have said little about a possible motive in the killings. But cab driver Curtis Gibson, who took McCroskey to the Richmond airport, hints jealousy might have played a role. He remembers him talking about how after the Michigan concert he had discovered text messages on Emma's cell phone from a guy she had met at the festival. McCroskey told Gibson that he had confronted his girlfriend about the texts. "She got mad that he invaded her privacy," says Gibson. But, he adds, "[McCroskey] said they would make up and get back together."

Authorities eventually arrested McCroskey in the baggage-claim area at the airport, where he had been sleeping. A trial may provide some answers, but perhaps not all. "Debra and Mark were thinking, 'What do we do? Lock her in the basement, put bars on the windows?'" says Hodgson. "In retrospect, locking her up would have been a good option."

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