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In deadly rampage, mother kills boyfriend, then her three teenagers, then herself

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

By Bill Toland and Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

ZION GROVE, Pa. -- Every killing rampage begins somewhere, and Hollie M. Gable's began early Sunday afternoon, when she shot her boyfriend in the ear as he slept in the rural Schuylkill County home that they shared.

The Morning Call via AP
From top: Kirsten Brown, 16; Jared Brown, 18; and Kelsey Brown, 13.

By the time it ended late Sunday, Gable, 39, had also shot her two teenage daughters, her teenage son and, finally, herself, before police stormed her house on Green Mountain Road following an hours-long standoff. She died the next morning in a hospital.

Stunned officials from two counties were left grasping for answers, but found few. State police did find a note that Gable wrote before the rampage began, referring to her father's death two decades ago -- possibly a suicide, police suggested -- and saying that she and the children were going to be with him.

Hands stuffed in his pockets and staring out a window, a weary state police Cpl. Michael Carney said aloud yesterday what everybody seems to wonder when hearing news of a mother slaughtering her children: "It's hard to fathom what might be going through a person's mind."

Investigators said that after killing boyfriend Kenneth M. Cragle, 39, with a bullet to the head, Gable shot and killed her son, Jared Brown, 18, and daughters, Kirsten Brown, 16, and Kelsey Brown, 13. All four victims were shot in the head.

Investigators said that after killing Cragle, Gable got into her car with Kelsey and began driving south to Hegins, where Kelsey lived with her brother and sister and their father, Alfred Brown.

Kelsey never made it back to Hegins. About 70 miles northeast of Harrisburg, state police believe, Gable shot Kelsey by the side of state Route 61 in southern Columbia County, a few hours before a heavy storm swept through the eastern part of the state.

Two boys who'd been fishing in that rural area heard a gunshot about 2:30 p.m. Half an hour later, a motorist found Kelsey's body, with a single head wound from a .357-caliber revolver. Carney, from the state police Frackville barracks, said Gable apparently forced Kelsey out of the car and shot her "execution-style."

According to Schuylkill County District Attorney Frank Cori, Gable had been involved in a 1993 custody battle with Brown, whom she had never married. In the mid-90s, Brown won custody of their three children.

Bill Hughes, Bloomsburg Press Enterprise via AP
State police investigators yesterday collect evidence and photograph the scene inside the house where Hollie M. Gable lived.
Click photo for larger image.

Gable had Kelsey over for a weekend visit, and was apparently driving her back to Brown's house when Kelsey was shot.

Then, police said, Gable proceeded to Alfred Brown's house in Hegins, where she found Jared sitting in a chair. Police figure that Gable knew Alfred Brown's work schedule as a coal miner, and knew that he would have left for work by the time she arrived.

Gable, heavyset with black hair, shot her son as he sat, her third murder of the afternoon.

She then drove to Tri-Valley High School in Valley View, where her children went to school and where daughter Kirsten was performing in a play, "Hollywood Hillbillies: The Musical."

Gable, police said, arrived at the school around 5 p.m., before the play had ended, and watched the remainder from the back of the auditorium, waiting.

After the musical, Hollie Gable and her mother, Elizabeth, who had joined her, dropped Kirsten off at a friend's house for a cast party. After dropping her mother off back at the school where she had left her car, Hollie Gable went back to the cast party and told her daughter something startling, that Jared had suffered a heart attack and they had to leave.

Hollie then drove Kirsten back to her home in Zion Grove, 25 miles away, where she shot Kirsten to death in the car sometime after 6 p.m., police said.

In the meantime, Elizabeth Gable, Hollie's mother, had gone to Alfred Brown's house, where she found Jared Brown dead of a gunshot wound. She called state police, who descended on Hollie Gable's home in Zion Grove about 8 p.m.

Outside the house, police found Kirsten dead in Hollie Gable's car. A short time later, police heard gunfire and surrounded the house, a beige, double-wide mobile home with a garage that had been built in the last month, neighbors said

The standoff lasted until about 11 p.m., with police speaking briefly to Gable by telephone.

Finally, police rushed into the house and found Hollie Gable in a living room chair, alive but bleeding from self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the wrist and knee. They also found Cragle's body, in the bed where Gable had left it.

Gable died about 1:30 a.m. yesterday at Geisinger Medical Center in Schuylkill County.

Cori, who was called by state police to the Gable house shortly after midnight, said authorities had determined no motive for what happened.

"All of the evidence we have to this point indicates that Hollie Gable did the four killings, but we don't know why,'' he said. "Everybody in Schuylkill County is shocked and horrified.''

The district attorney in neighboring Columbia County, Gary E. Norton, also was at a loss to explain. "We have no way of knowing why she did it, how, or if she planned it,'' he said.

Cori did say that Gable might have had "a history of some mental health issues,'' but officials so far have been unable to confirm that. Police, as well as friends of the three children, speculated that Gable was using some kind of medication.

As far as Cori knew, the custody battle over the children didn't play a role in the rampage.

But as of yesterday afternoon, he hadn't had a chance to talk to Alfred Brown.

"He is understandably distraught,'' Cori said.

At the school yesterday, where everybody knows everybody, classes were held, but nothing was taught. Students were encouraged to visit with counselors and pastors in the school's library.

Kirsten, friend Jasmine Morgan and her brother Kai Morgan recalled, was a talented singer and a good trumpet player. Kelsey, the youngest, was in the school's color guard and in the eighth-grade band. Jared was an avid hunter, a member of the school's chess club, and in Jasmine's Spanish class. A few weeks from graduation, he'd just been accepted at an art school.

All of them were quiet, but friendly. None of them spoke much about their mother, but the consensus around the school was that Gable was "weird."

Neighbors living about 50 yards away said they didn't know Kenneth Cragle very well, even though he'd lived on the property for seven or so years. As for Gable, "if we ever saw her, we didn't know her," the neighbor said.

The gun used in the killings evidently belonged to Gable but was not registered in Pennsylvania, police said, and federal officials were tracing the weapon's ownership history. Gable's brief police record consisted of one arrest for retail theft.

Cori didn't anticipate any charges being filed in the case. "We don't have a live actor, so we can't prosecute anyone,'' he said.

The dead boyfriend, Cragle, has a son who escaped harm -- Scott Cragle was in Philadelphia for the weekend.

(Bill Toland can be reached at or 717-787-2141. Tom Barnes can be reached at or 717-787-4254.)

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