BRISTOL, Tenn. (WKRN) — More than two years ago, 17-year-old Gabby Kennedy’s death sent shockwaves through a small town on the border of Tennessee and Virginia.
Now, her story has made its way to the state capitol where Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) has introduced a bill that might help prevent similar domestic violence incidents.
According to Lundberg, SB0303, also known as the “Gabby Act,” would establish a new statewide alert through the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for use when the TBI receives a report of a missing or endangered domestic abuse victim.
The “Purple Alert” would utilize the same system as an AMBER Alert, also making domestic violence victims aware when the person who committed a violent act against them is released from jail.
It’s a comforting concept to Gabby’s father, Jesse Kennedy, who’s life has been forever changed by the loss of his daughter and her mother, Kristina.
“Any loss is a tremendous loss to the community, to the family, as well as the immediate family,” Jesse said. “It’s impacted everything that I do in life. It’s impacted our entire community. It’s impacted people near and far.”
A senior at Tennessee High School in Bristol, Gabby was well known as a leader among her peers and in her community. Jesse said she brought a sense of camaraderie to her softball team and was “always building everybody’s confidence.”
“That was the most amazing thing I think everybody saw in her,” he said. “Her biggest attribute was that she was a person that loved, a person that led, and she was a person that would just simply go the next level to make you understand that she cared about you.”
Gabby had aspirations of teaching children and planned to pursue a teaching degree in college. Jesse said she had just been accepted to East Tennessee State University when her life was cut short.
“It would have been something she would have been very good at, especially in today’s challenging time,” he said. “She would have been very good just being in the classroom and being with folks. She was just a people person.”
Unfortunately, Jesse said domestic violence and possible child abuse had been going on inside the home for some time at the hands of Gabby’s stepfather, Michael Robinson.
“It was a situation where it had went on a long time behind closed doors, and once it was brought to her mother’s attention, it was brought to my attention shortly thereafter within a few hours,” Jesse said. “We all reacted. An investigation was launched immediately.”
Robinson became the subject of a joint investigation by the Bristol Tennessee Police Department and Department of Children’s Services into allegations of child abuse. Kristina filed for an order of protection and Jesse helped her put up video cameras around her home on Trammel Road.
However, on the morning of Oct. 17, 2020, Jesse, who was allowed a feed to the cameras, checked the feed only to see his nightmare unfolding. One of the cameras was disabled after Robinson shot out the lens, shot the glass out of the front door and entered the home.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to get over there’,” Jesse said. “I got there right as the first police vehicles were arriving. We lived probably 15 minutes from each other I would imagine. But that particular day, I think I got over there in less than 15 minutes.”
At first, Jesse said the officers on scene thought they might be dealing with a hostage situation. However, they found a gruesome scene inside the home. After shooting and killing Kristina and Gabby, Robinson took his own life.
“It was just a horrific situation,” Jesse said. “It’s a situation that escalated out of control that took too long to be dealt with. Thus, is the reason for the Gabby Act.”
One of the things Jesse said hindered the response was jurisdictional boundaries. Detectives had recently secured a Grand Jury Capias charging Robinson with several counts in relation to the investigation. However, he was living in Russell County, Virginia at the time.
“We had to get paperwork for indictments and push them across the state line,” Jesse said. “Just because you’re wanted in one state does not mean that other state can just go and arrest you. There’s a lot of red tape that has to be gone through, and in a scenario like this, every second mattered.”
Jesse and Trevor Lee, a classmate of Gabby’s who formed “The Gabby Foundation,” have been instrumental in pushing legislation like the “Gabby Act” forward. Jesse said he feels it is important to get legislation passed so that “nobody else is having this conversation.”
After being “completely blindsided” by the incident, Jesse hopes the “Gabby Act” can not only bring more awareness to domestic violence but help prevent the deaths of people like Gabby and Kristina through an alert when seconds matter.
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“I wish things were different and we were having a different conversation today,” Jesse said. “I’m one of those people who thinks ‘It can’t happen there,’ but now I’ve learned that it can happen right here under your nose. Changing the law is the first thing we need to do, and this is our year.”