Beyond brave: Sex offender didn’t count on cool courage of 3 kids

Here’s a story I wrote as a daily on Nov. 26, 2014.

By Shelly Bradbury
Staff Writer

CLEVELAND, Tenn. – Seven-year-old Noah McMurray was about to make a second bowl of oatmeal Tuesday morning when the man knocked on the door of his family’s home on Phillips Street.

Noah answered it.

“I’m your mom’s friend Robert,” the man said. Is she home? Noah told the man his mom wasn’t there. Then the man asked to talk to his brother. Noah let him inside. The man went straight to Zach’s room.

Then Robert Edwin Eaves turned aggressive.

“Get up,” Eaves growled at 16-year-old Zach. And then, “I’m going to have to tie y’all up so y’all don’t run.”

Noah and his 9-year-old sister, Macey, started crying. Zach tried to reason with the stranger. You don’t have to tie us up, he told Eaves, even as the man grabbed a wooden chair from the kitchen and dragged it into the bedroom to tie them to it. We won’t go anywhere, Zach said. We’ll stay right here in the bedroom.

Seven-year-old Noah McMurray shows the corner where Robert Edwin Eaves was trying to tie him up. Photo by Shelly Bradbury

Seven-year-old Noah McMurray shows the corner where Robert Edwin Eaves was trying to tie him up. Photo by Shelly Bradbury

The man had a camouflaged backpack. Tucked inside were some hammers, duct tape, rope and knives.

“It took a long time for me to track y’all down,” Eaves told the kids. “I went to every house you all have been to.”

He agreed not to tie up the kids. After a while, he took Zach out of the house, leaving the younger kids inside.

Noah saw his chance. He ran from the bedroom to the living room and grabbed the phone. He called his mom. It’s the only number he knows by heart.

Conswella McMurray, 33, was at work. It was about 11:30 a.m.

“Mom, he’s here,” Noah shouted into the phone.

“Who?” she said.

“Rob, Robert,” he said, screaming.

At that moment, Conswella knew something was terribly wrong. She had been sexually assaulted by Robert Eaves once. He’d been married to her aunt, but they have since divorced.

She remembers the assault: May 22, 2006. A Monday. Eaves was convicted of attempted rape in the 2006 attack and served hard time.

She told Noah to put Zach on the line. Meanwhile, Zach and Eaves came back inside with a woman. She was handcuffed and covered in scratches. At Macey’s suggestion, Noah gave the phone to Eaves and told him that their mom had called them, not that Noah had called her. Eaves put Zach on.

“What’s wrong?” Conswella asked Zach when he finally got on the phone.

“OK, Mom, are you coming home for lunch?” her 16-year-old said.

“I’m calling the police, I’m calling the police,” Conswella replied, frantic.

“OK, about 12 then?” her son said.

She hung up and dialed 911.

•••

Inside the house, Macey asked the woman if she was Eaves’ wife.

No, she said, emphatically.

Did he steal you? Macey asked.

The 28-year-old tried to keep the kids calm.

Robert Edwin Eaves. Photo contributed.

Robert Edwin Eaves. Photo contributed.

Eaves and the woman were neighbors, but strangers. Three weeks ago, she had moved into a duplex next to the building where Eaves lived. Hours earlier, Eaves had sexually assaulted her before abducting her and taking her to the McMurrays’ home across town, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokesman Josh DeVine said. He used tight metal handcuffs that cut into her skin to tether her to the steering wheel.

Responding to Conswella’s desperate 911 call, police were racing to the scene. Within six minutes, two officers walked up to the door.

“POLICE,” Noah hollered.

The man rushed to block the front door, but Zach intervened. Don’t worry about it, he told the man. That door doesn’t work. (It did.) Eaves instead hurried to a side door and tried to jam it shut with a knife.

What do you want me to say to the police? Zach asked Eaves.

You don’t have to say anything, Eaves said. He pulled four knives out of his bag and headed for the door.

“You don’t want to do this,” Eaves screamed at the police outside. “I’ve got kids in here.”

He tried to grab Zach but the teen ducked away. Police burst through the door and Eaves charged them with the knife.

Zach covered his siblings with his body and huddled down on the couch.

One officer fired two shots at Eaves, but the man shoved him back and the officer tumbled over the porch railing. Eaves kept moving and the second officer fired.

Bullets flew through the door, through a hallway and into a back bedroom. But the only person struck was Eaves.

On the walkway in front of the house, he dropped.

He died there, slumped over.

•••

Conswella and her husband, Dustin, are so proud of their children.

“They were incredibly smart and brave,” Conswella said of her kids.

They’re so thankful to law enforcement for their quick actions and indebted to the 28-year-old woman. It is Times Free Press policy not to identify victims of sexual assault.

“I want to see her and put my arms around her and comfort her because I’ve been in her shoes,” Conswella said. “The young lady tried to protect my children even though they weren’t hers.”

A day after the ordeal, the whole McMurray family is still in shock. But Conswella, Dustin and Noah sat down for an interview. When a reporter knocked on the door Wednesday, Noah at first burst into tears, scared.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” Dustin told him. “It’s just a reporter.”

In an instant, Noah recovered. Then he told the story clearly, pointing out exactly where each part happened. Where Eaves planned to tie them up, where bullets pierced the walls. Once he boasted about saving his siblings’ lives. Other times he hesitated or spoke quietly as he described the scariest moments. A couple of times, he embellished or mixed up details and was corrected by his parents.

The home where Robert Edwin Eaves lived in Cleveland, Tenn. Photo by Shelly Bradbury.

The home where Robert Edwin Eaves lived in Cleveland, Tenn. Photo by Shelly Bradbury.

The TBI has taken over the investigation into the officers’ shooting of Eaves. The two officers, 25-year-old Jacob Varnell and 45-year-old Jody Musselwhite, have been placed on routine administrative leave in the meantime, in accordance with standard procedure.

For Conswella, Tuesday’s terror is just one more event in a long struggle that started when Eaves sexually assaulted her in 2006, when Macey was less than a year old and before Noah was even born. Eaves pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of attempted rape and was sentenced to four years in prison, Conswella said.

When he was released from prison several years ago, the authorities called her to alert her.

“He is a crazy man and it will not be the last time,” she remembers telling them. She got used to arranging grocery trips so she wouldn’t have to go alone and lived with a dull, but constant, fear of him. And while her eldest, Zach, knew about the assault, she never told Noah or Macey.

Eaves was good at fooling people, she said. On the surface, he was a soft-spoken, concerned, professional man.

In fact, the 51-year-old had just completed a year-long course at Franklin Academy to become a cosmetologist. Staff members there said he was a model student and a great guy. Eaves was good with the customers, whether he was cutting a man’s hair or painting a woman’s fingernails.

Deanna Kesley, director of education at the school, said she remembers teaching Eaves how to use a curling iron.

“He held it up and he was like, ‘OK, what do I do with this thing?'” she said, laughing. “So I went over and showed him. And he did it.”

She said she had never known Eaves to be violent. He finished the course about six weeks ago and was all set to start a new job at a local hair salon. He was the first one in and the last to leave each day, she said.

“I had no fear of him,” she said. “I could be in this room alone with him and I’d have no fear.”

But, she added, she knew him only in the context of the school.

“People could be one thing in the office and something else outside,” she said.

Eaves was a contract carrier for the Chattanooga Times Free Press for a time, until about 18 months ago. His wife, who still is a contract carrier for the paper, and his mother-in-law declined to speak about what happened when contacted Wednesday. They said he was a good man. But Dustin said Eaves’ friendly exterior was just a mask he wore.

“It was all a cover-up,” Dustin said.

“You think of someone who assaults somebody that way to be scary, as far as their appearance,” Conswella said. “He wasn’t. But for somebody to sit for four years and hunt — I, I don’t even have words.”

•••

After all that had happened on Tuesday, the family went to a friend’s home for the night. At one point, Macey spotted a camouflage bag on the counter and broke down, screaming and crying.

The bag looked just like the one Eaves had brought to the house. Her parents placed it out of sight so she could calm down. On Wednesday, Conswella, Dustin and Noah went back to their rented house for the first time.

Gravel covered the bloodstains on the sidewalk. The bullet holes in the walls were marked with little white labels. The home was a mess from where Eaves had thrown things around.

Dustin and Conswella wanted to clean it up before Zach and Macey came back. The older kids didn’t feel ready to return Wednesday afternoon.

Today, the McMurray family is celebrating Thanksgiving at Conswella’s mom’s home. They’re moving out of the house on Phillips Street — the move has been in the works for a while — and now, leaving the bullet-riddled house behind is a relief.

“We’ve got more to be thankful for right this day than ever before,” Conswella said. “If it had been any different, my son or I wouldn’t be here.”

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.

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