KEELING, Va. — The first indication that something was amiss at 1949 Keeling Drive came when Matthew Thomas Bernard went to a neighbor’s home and punched the woman in the arm before running off. A few minutes later, she heard gunshots.
New court documents filed in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, offer a glimpse into the bloodshed that took place Tuesday morning at a home in Keeling, where the wife, infant son and mother-in-law of minor league pitcher Blake Bivens were gunned down. Bivens, 24, pitches for the Montgomery Biscuits, the Alabama-based, Tampa Bay Rays-affiliated Double-A team.
Bernard, Bivens’ 18-year-old brother-in-law, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in committing a felony. He is accused of killing his mother, Joan Jefferson Bernard, his sister, Emily Marie Bernard Bivens, and his 14-month-old nephew, Cullen Micah Bivens.
The criminal complaint in the case, obtained by WSET in Lynchburg, states that the neighbor drove to Joan Bernard's home, where Matthew Bernard also lived, after hearing gunshots and found Joan Bernard, 62, lying dead in the driveway. She called 911.
A Pittsylvania County deputy who responded to the scene found the bodies of Emily Bivens, 25, and her son inside the home.
“Two victims had visible gunshot wounds to the head,” the complaint states.
Shell casings from a 30-30 rifle were found near all three of the victims, the document says. A bloody sledgehammer was found in the home’s garage, though it was not clear from the complaint if the tool was used on any of the victims.
The rifle believed to be the weapon used in the killings was found in the woods behind the Bernard home.
About 100 law enforcement officers descended on Keeling, a rural community near the North Carolina state line, and began searching for Matthew Bernard. Multiple news outlets, including The Associated Press, reported an armored vehicle and a tank were parked along Keeling Road.
According to the Chatham Star-Tribune, area schools were placed on lockdown and a reverse-911 alert went out to residents.
"Citizens in the Keeling area are asked to be on the lookout for Matthew Bernard," the alert stated before giving a description of Bernard. "He is armed with a rifle and considered very dangerous. He was last seen in the area of 1949 Keeling Drive in the Keeling community. If you see this individual do not contact him but call the Pittsylvania County 911 center immediately. Citizens in this area should exercise caution and be on the lookout for this individual until further notice."
Matthew Bernard was next seen shortly before noon, emerging naked from the woods along Keeling Drive. According to the Danville Register & Bee, he encountered a state trooper, who ordered him to stop.
Bernard refused and, even after the trooper sprayed him with pepper spray, he continued jogging in a circle. The spectacle was captured on video by stunned news reporters, who were gathered nearby in a media staging area set up by investigators.
Bernard jogged into the parking lot of Keeling Baptist Church, where he encountered Loyd Gauldin, the caretaker of the church.
Gauldin told the Register & Bee that his wife had just called him to tell him a naked man had run through their yard. Gauldin saw Bernard coming and tried to get into his truck.
Before he could, Bernard grabbed him by the neck and started choking him.
The trooper caught up to Bernard and whacked him with a tactical baton to get him off Gauldin. Bernard then ran off and back onto the shoulder of Keeling Drive, where deputies and state troopers formed a blockade, the newspaper reported. A K-9 team took Bernard down to the ground, and he was arrested.
Bernard was taken to a hospital for treatment after he banged his head several times against the metal cage of a patrol car, suffering cuts, authorities said. His mugshot shows bandages wrapped around his head.
Virginia State Police officials said officers’ use of force against Bernard is under review, as is the normal protocol when a suspect fights apprehension. They said the trooper who first encountered Bernard purposely made a “tactical retreat” and chose nonlethal force due to the young man’s apparent mental distress.
"The murder suspect was not in possession of a weapon and was in obvious mental distress," troopers said in a statement to WSET. "State police are trained to first attempt to deescalate a situation with an individual who is displaying obvious mental distress. The trooper used the equipment at his disposal, which included pepper spray and a baton. Only state police tactical teams (the equivalent of a SWAT team) are equipped with Tasers. Troopers are also trained to maintain a safe, tactical distance from a suspect in order to prevent an individual from gaining access to the troopers' weapons."
Authorities said Bernard is on suicide watch in the Pittsylvania County Jail. Pittsylvania County Sheriff Michael Taylor said at a news conference Wednesday that the motive for the slayings is not known.
“We don’t know what happened to set off this chain of events,” Taylor said.
Neighbors told the Register & Bee that Bernard recently graduated from Dan River High School. WSET reported that he is a student at Danville Community College. He also worked at his family's campground.
Joyce Earp, who has known the family for about 30 years, said she “never would have dreamed” Bernard could ever be accused of killing his family. She told the Register & Bee he was always a nice, quiet young man.
"Very good-hearted people, involved in the church," Earp told the newspaper Wednesday. "It's just a sad tragedy."
Another neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said she’d known Bernard since his childhood.
"He was just a sweetheart," she said outside her home. "He grew up in the church, always respectful. He just snapped."
The woman said she did see something unusual the evening before the slayings, however. Around 7:30 p.m., she spotted Bernard sitting in a nearby field as she drove by.
“I threw up my hand at him (in a wave),” the woman said. “He didn’t respond.”
Ann Byrn, who lives next door to the Bernards with her uncle, described Joan Bernard as a “gracious, lovely person.”
"Joan devoted her life to being the best Mama and Nana there ever was," her obituary says. "She was an active member of her church family at Central Boulevard Church of God. The light of Jesus poured from her onto everyone she met. She treasured her family and spent most of her time with them. When she wasn't with her family, she was making the family campground a fun place to be."
Our Baseball Life, an organization that provides support for families of professional baseball players, described Emily Bivens as another devout, loving woman.
"We are devastated by the loss of our friend and fellow baseball wife," the group wrote on Facebook, as well as on a GoFundMe page set up for Blake Bivens. "Emily had an incredible heart for the Lord and shared His light to many through her writings in Baseball Chapel. She deeply loved this community of baseball women and was a comforting, kind soul to all who knew her. Our hearts are with her husband Blake and her family during this unimaginable time."
Along with the GoFundMe page, which had raised more than $42,000 as of Thursday afternoon, Our Baseball Life is also raising funds for Bivens through sales of a wall print designed by his wife.
“Home is wherever I am with you,” the print reads.
Emily Bivens' obituary describes her as a "kind and gentle soul and a light to all who knew her." An Averett University graduate with a degree in music performance, she loved photography and teaching music.
Her obituary describes Cullen as the love of his parents' lives. It does not list Matthew Bernard as her sibling, but lists four other siblings besides him.
Joan Bernard's obituary lists all five of her children as survivors.
The Biscuits canceled a double-header Tuesday night with the Chattanooga Lookouts, describing the slayings as a “tragic event within the Biscuits family.” A later statement from managing owner and CEO Lou DiBella described the killings as an “unimaginable loss” for Bivens.
“First and foremost, the Biscuits’ thoughts and prayers are with Blake and all those who have been impacted by this tragedy,” DiBella wrote. “We appreciate the outpouring of support and concern, but ask that you respect the privacy of the family during this difficult time.”
The Rays also reached out on social media to offer the ball player condolences and support.
“Our hearts are broken for Blake,” the team tweeted. “We are grieving with him and will support him any way we can.”
The Rays and the Houston Astros held a moment of silence in Bivens' honor prior to their game on Wednesday. The Tampa Bay Times reported that the Rays are expected to do the same at home Friday for their next game.
The Biscuits were anticipated to resume their own schedule Thursday in Montgomery, without Bivens, who rushed home to Virginia after his wife and son were killed.
Bivens' Instagram account description is brief: "Rays pitcher. Emily Marie." Emojis of a heart and a diamond ring accompany the words. The couple married in January 2016, according to Bivens' Facebook profile.
Their son was born in June 2018. Cullen was their first child.
Bivens posted a video of his son on June 10 in honor of Cullen's first birthday.
“Happy 1st Birthday to my little man!” Bivens wrote. “Daddy loves you!”
Fans pour out their hearts on Bivens' page, offering condolences from Alabama to Spain.
“I am completely heartbroken for you and your loved ones,” wrote Kimberly Wilson, of Brownsburg, Indiana. “Lean on others and the Lord (if you are a believer) to help you face each day. Know that strangers honestly hurt for you.”
Todd Montgomery, of Tampa, expressed a similar sentiment. “I don’t know you and probably never will, but my thoughts are with you,” Montgomery wrote.
“I am a baseball mom to two boys and many others on their teams, and my heart is breaking for you and your family,” wrote Kim Cameron, of Georgetown, South Carolina. “Prayers for peace that passes all understanding to embody you now and in the days to come.”
“My God, I’m so sorry, Blake,” Victoria Vitoria wrote from Spain. “I can’t believe someone would do this to a baby. God have them in his glory. From Spain, kisses.”
A family member of the Bernards, Jenn Stallard, shared a photo of Joan Bernard, Emily Bevins and Cullen Bevins on Facebook, writing that she wanted to make that photo go viral instead of the "disheartening ones (of Matthew Bernard) the family has had shoved in (their) faces lately."
Stallard indicated that mental illness played a part in the slayings and said she loved all involved, including Matthew Bernard because she knows “the real him.”
"You guys will be missed so much. The most gentle and sweetest people known in my family," Stallard wrote. "Joan, you were always so nurturing to not only all of your children and grandchildren but all of your nieces and nephews as well. Emily, you were so tenderhearted with a beautiful voice just like an angel, and now you are one.
“I love you and I’m sorry for what happened. I know that you all have forgiven Matthew because he wasn’t aware of what he done.”
Cox Media Group