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God, Guns, and the Mass Shooting in Tyrone, Missouri

Joseph Jesse Aldridge killed seven people in rural Missouri last month before turning his gun on himself — but his community likes guns, and doesn't want the tragedy to serve those trying to restrict access to them.
Photo by Alice Speri

It's been 12 days since 36-year-old Joseph Jesse Aldridge went on a shooting rampage in the tiny unincorporated community of Tyrone, Missouri, killing seven people with a .45-caliber handgun before turning it on himself — but people in this sparsely populated corner of the state would rather not talk about it.

The investigation is technically ongoing, but with Aldridge dead, there's no one to prosecute. According to the Texas County coroner, the prosecuting attorney decided to forego autopsies on the victims because it's clear that they died from multiple gunshot wounds. Aldridge drove from house to house on a Thursday night, gunning down two of his cousins, their wives, and three others in their homes. He was found in his truck miles away in a different county, near the ranch of a man who had been his friend but had cut off ties with him because of his involvement with drugs.


Only the remains of Aldridge's mother, Alice, received an autopsy. The authorities found that she had died of metastatic lung cancer in the house she shared with her son.

She had been dead at least a day by the time police found her — leading some in town to wonder whether Aldridge's homicidal outburst was set off by the discovery of his mother's death. Some have whispered that it was caregiver burnout, or that he was angry with one his cousins for refusing him a job.

Others say that he was just crazy.

"He never did act normal," a middle-aged man told VICE News when asked whether Aldridge's behavior had lately been unusual. He was parked in a truck by a house where many of the shooter and victims' relatives had assembled over the weekend — a sizeable chunk of Tyrone's total population of roughly 50 people.

"He didn't talk much," the man said, declining to elaborate. "He was weird."

Aldridge left behind five different murder scenes — more than the entire county has seen in years. Police responded to a call from a 15-year-old girl who had fled barefoot from her house to a neighbor's residence after hearing shots at her home. Police found her parents there, and then made one gruesome discovery after the next as they searched other houses in the area.

A woman was shot but survived, while her husband was killed. Wounded, she called another relative to go check on her son's family. The relative found him and his wife dead, and their eighth-grader son hiding in a bedroom.


"This is not one of our problem areas," an officer with the county's sheriff department told VICE News while on patrol in the deserted center of Tyrone, located 16 miles from the nearest town, Cabool, which counts just over 2,000 residents. "Everyone is shocked, just shocked."

That's about as much as most people were willing to say on Saturday, when four of the victims — brothers Garold "Dee" Aldridge and Harold "Wayne" Aldridge and their wives Julie and Janelle — were laid to rest in a small cemetery situated between cattle farms and mud roads. The cemetery seemed to hold more people than Tyrone itself, where only a handful of houses look inhabited and most mail boxes carry the name Aldridge or Shriver, the family of the remaining three victims.

Down the road, residents shook their head and speculated about what had happened.

"He just went bonkers," Aaron Hall, a clerk at the solitary post office in nearby Elk Creek told VICE News. "I've never seen something like this around here."

Related: The Last Thing Missouri Needs Is More Guns, but That's Exactly What It's Getting

Hall traveled the world with the Navy, and lived in California and Florida before returning to Missouri to take care of his mother.

"I've been all over the country, I like the courtesy we have here," he said.

Four people came by the post office on a recent Saturday — a busy day for him — but that's why he likes the area: not too many people, and they all wave at each other when you drive by them. A while typically passes before you see another soul, cows excluded.


Everyone around here has guns, but most locals are military veterans and "know firearm safety," he added.

"We feel safe around here most of the time," Sheriff James Sigman told reporters shortly after the shootings. "Start locking your doors. The world's changing."

But Hall insists that it's still safe here.

"Not like the city," he noted. "If I go to the city, I wanna have a gun on my hips."

God and Guns
It's not clear whose gun Aldridge used to go on his rampage, but he was not supposed to have one.

During a traffic stop in 2007, he was found in possession of marijuana and a Ruger .22 caliber pistol — earning him a felony possession and 21 months in jail, with six more under house arrest.

"Aldridge had a criminal record that should have barred him from having guns," Ted Alcorn, research director for Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention group, told VICE News. "While we don't yet know how he obtained the murder weapon, we do know that thanks to Missouri's lawmakers, dangerous people like him can buy guns through unlicensed sales online and at gun shows without background checks, no questions asked."

Missouri ditched its background check law in 2007, and gun murders have jumped 23 percent since then — though most are in black urban communities a world away from Tyrone.

That means unlicensed dealers can skip the checks — and, as a quick search through classified listings will reveal, there are at least 2000 gun ads in the area by private sellers. Last summer, the Missouri legislature voted to amend the state constitution to further ease restrictions, and a case is currently moving through the state's courts that will decide whether convicted felons like Aldridge can get their gun rights back.


But nobody in town wants to talk about that.

Related: Private Military Contractors Hired to Move Guns and Gold Out of Ferguson

Though the Tyrone murders made national headlines, they didn't hold the public's attention for long as far mass shootings go. People here like guns — they don't want their tragedy to serve those trying to restrict access to them.

"We don't care what New York thinks of Missouri," a woman walking the mud road to the Aldridges' burial site yelled at VICE News.

The only relative of Aldridge who offered comment spoke about God instead.

God, like guns, is everywhere in the area. Radio options include gospel music or Bible talk shows. Along Tyrone's quiet roads, small churches appear to outnumber barns.

"I really want a positive message," Stacy McAlister, whose husband is related to the Aldridges, told VICE News. "We want people to know that we're grateful, that we can feel their prayers."

"We appreciate all the prayers and support," she added, also thanking those who donated more than $16,000 to a fundraising page for the victims' children. "We have rested on God, and we have been strengthened."

'We enjoyed being around them'
The day he was killed, Dee Aldridge spent some time chatting with Keith Baker, a friend of more than 20 years. They talked about trucks — Aldridge had just recently worked on Baker's red pickup — and they talked hunting.

Baker, who has been caring for his wife Lisa as she recovers from brain cancer, told Aldridge he hadn't been able to go out hunting yet this season, and that he wanted to get her some game — better than the processed stuff you buy in stores.


"Would you believe 45 minutes later he showed up with deer meat and bread rolls?" he told VICE News while waiting to bury his friend. "That's the kind of person he was. He was a fine person. I'm still struggling with myself to wrap my head around it."

Baker knew Dee's wife Julie as well — she regularly visited his 82-year old father, a diehard smoker. While he wouldn't tolerate it from anyone else, she had managed to half-jokingly put a "non-smoking" sign on the father's front door.

"He was hit pretty hard by it," Baker said, referring to Julie's death

But in a place where everyone knows each other, and where the Aldridges and Shrivers are admired as pillars of the community, nobody knew much about Joseph.

Baker and Dee Aldridge were close: following the shooting, Baker told his friend's daughter that she could ask him for anything, including coming to live with his wife and daughter.

"If that happened to my family he would have more than happily taken my daughter," Baker said. "That was just the kind of guy he was."

But if Dee had any issues with his cousin Joseph, he didn't tell his friend.

"I don't know of anybody that really knew him. Nobody talked about him," Baker said, referring to the shooter. He described the Aldridges as a tight-knit family. "They have squabbles like anybody, but you don't air family stuff in public."

What drove Joseph Aldridge to kill, he can only guess.

"I don't know if it was a longstanding feud or just finding his mother, that must have been very hard on him," he said, grasping for words. "But something must have totally snapped for him to go from house to house to house."


"They were just beautiful people," he went on, preferring to talk about his friends. "We enjoyed being around them, and we will miss them."

With the victims now buried and the community eager to move on, it seems unlikely that anyone here will ever feel confortable talking about why Aldridge did what he did — and how he was able to.

Missouri's gun problems are well known, but it's in places like St. Louis that they claim lives at an appalling rate.

In Tyrone, the consensus seems to be that someone went "bonkers."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperiPhotos by Alice Speri/VICE News