KEELING, Va. — Minor league baseball pitcher Blake Bivens has spoken out for the first time on the triple slaying in rural Virginia that killed his wife, their 14-month-old son and his mother-in-law.
Bivens’ 18-year-old brother-in-law, Matthew Thomas Bernard, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in committing a felony. Bernard is accused of killing his mother, Joan Jefferson Bernard, 62, his sister, Emily Marie Bernard Bivens, 25, and his 14-month-old nephew, Cullen Micah Bivens, Tuesday morning at the Bernard family’s home in Keeling, a small community near the North Carolina state line.
Emily and Blake Bivens, 24, had been married since January 2016. Cullen, their only child, was born in June of last year.
A devastated Blake Bivens, who pitches for Tampa Bay Rays-affiliated Double-A team the Montgomery Biscuits, shared a photo of his wife and son with Joan Bernard on Instagram. A similar Facebook post includes photos of him and his young family in and around the Biscuits' Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, Alabama.
In both social media posts, Bivens wrote that his “heart was turned to ash” following their deaths.
"My life as I knew it is destroyed," Bivens wrote. "The pain my family and I feel is unbearable and cannot be put into words. I shake and tremble at the thought of our future without them."
He called Emily Bivens the best wife and mother the world has ever seen.
"You made me into the man I am today, and you loved me with all of my flaws," Bivens wrote. "You brought our precious baby boy into this world and made our family complete. Your love and kindness changed countless lives, including mine."
He told Cullen that “Dada” loves him.
“I can’t breathe without you here,” he wrote to the boy, who celebrated his first birthday in June. “I finally understood what love was when you were born, and I would have done anything for you. You have changed my life forever, you are my reason why. I long to hold the both of you again in heaven.”
Bivens told his mother-in-law that she was the best he could have asked for. He said Joan Bernard loved her family more than anyone he’s ever seen, and he was glad she and her daughter were still together.
"You were the best Nana this world has ever seen, and I will never forget you," Bivens wrote.
He wrote to his father-in-law, Skip Bernard, that the family would get through the trauma of the slayings together as a family.
“We will not let the devil win!” he wrote.
Bivens also thanked his family, fans and the Biscuits and Rays baseball teams for the support they have shown. He said he found comfort in the well-wishes.
"I'm not sure what is next for me, but I do know God has a plan even though I can't see it," he wrote.
On Thursday, Biscuits manager Morgan Ensberg described for reporters what took place Tuesday morning as Bivens, who was preparing for a double-header against the Chattanooga Lookouts, learned his family had been killed.
Initially, Bivens became worried because he could not reach his family, The Montgomery Advertiser reported.
"I'll never forget his face. He was scared. He was nervous. He didn't know what was going on," Ensberg said during an emotional news conference. "We put him in a car to go to the airport, and three minutes later, we found out what happened. I hopped in the car and went to the airport with him."
Ensberg described the shock Bivens went through, going from crying and shaking to just sitting and staring as they made their way to Virginia, where both Blake and Emily Bivens grew up.
"My job at that point was to sit right next to him, to rub his back, to open up a water bottle, to give him water and to make sure we got him on the plane and to get him home. There was no other thinking," the team manager said.
The Biscuits canceled their double-header that night.
Moments of silence have been held in Bivens’ honor by the Rays, and the diamond at Riverwalk Stadium was painted with his nickname, “Biv,” in preparation for the Biscuits’ game Friday evening against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, where another pregame moment of silence was expected to take place.
Bivens’ sister, Lauren Bivens, posted a photo of the field to social media Thursday night, describing the support from the baseball organization as “unbelievable” over the past several days.
“The field is beautiful, and we appreciate the tribute so much,” Lauren Bivens wrote on Facebook. “Thank you for taking great care of my little brother and everything you continue to do. #biscuitsbaseball #rays #baseballfamily.”
The Advertiser reported that baseball was one of the constants in Blake and Emily Bivens' lives throughout their dating relationship and marriage. The topper on their wedding cake reflected it: The bride wore a baseball cap and the groom had a glove and ball in his hands.
Bivens’ fellow Biscuits pitcher, Ryan Thompson, told reporters Bivens hated leaving his wife and son behind during baseball season.
"It was really hard for Blake to leave them," Thompson said. "He was overjoyed every time they could be there. She'd stand at the railing with Cullen in her arms. He was so happy."
Investigators in Virginia are struggling to explain why the shootings took place. Shocked neighbors described Matthew Bernard as a quiet, sweet young man who, like his mother and sister, was involved in his church.
Matthew Bernard is accused of going to a neighbor's house Tuesday morning and punching the woman in the arm before running away. A search warrant obtained Friday by The Chatham Star-Tribune identified the neighbor as Matthew Bernard's aunt, Rachel Jefferson.
Jefferson told investigators her nephew had banged on her door around 7:30 a.m. that morning.
"When she opened the door to speak to him, he punched her in the shoulder and ran away. Within a few minutes the neighbor (said she heard) gunshots coming from the residence to be searched," the warrant states, according to the Star-Tribune. "The neighbor reports that she drove over to the residence and (saw) a body lying in the driveway that appear(ed) to be a deceased person. She then call(ed) 911."
The first deputy on the scene heard a woman screaming from the direction of the house when he arrived, the search warrant says. He was joined by two other deputies, and the trio immediately entered the home in search of victims needing help.
Inside, they found Emily and Cullen Bivens dead in a bedroom, Pittsylvania County court documents say. The baby, whose body was on the bed, appeared to have been shot in the head, according to the search warrant.
Emily Bivens was bleeding from the chest.
The warrant states that the officers went back outside and found Joan Bernard, who had also been shot and killed.
Shell casings were found near all the bodies, including that of a dog killed in the living room, according to court records.
Court records show deputies also found a bloody sledgehammer in the garage. It was not immediately clear who, if anyone, the tool was used on.
Matthew Bernard was at large for several hours after the slayings before he was taken into custody, naked, not far from the scene of the triple homicide. He is being held in the Pittsylvania County Jail without bond.
He has been placed on suicide watch, authorities said.
Funeral services for Joan Bernard, her daughter and her grandson will be held 2 p.m. Saturday at Central Boulevard Church of God in nearby Danville, according to obituaries for Bernard and Emily Bivens. All three will be buried at Danville Memorial Gardens.
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