Haunting image: Desperate for justice

This is a story that I covered on July 9, 1984, while working for the Belle Banner and the Bland Courier, sister papers of the three-newspaper Tri-County Publications. Because of the length, I’ve split this into two parts. Look for Part 2 on Wednesday.

Here’s the photo I took after police and volunteer firefighters allowed anyone else to get close to the scene.

“There’s been an explosion.”

That was the statement that I heard after the ringing phone woke me up just before 6 a.m. My publisher’s marching orders were clear: Get moving. There’s a story to cover.

In 30 years as a journalist, I’ve written more than 30,000 pieces for newspapers: photo captions, obituaries, rewriting news releases, news briefs, full-length, multi-page features, scores of articles about city council, school board, ambulance board, fire board and library board meetings, and stories about fishing derbies, homicides, chili cook-offs, fatal car crashes, floods, tornadoes … Well, you get the picture.

I’m not sure there’s any possibility I could list the Top 20 articles I’ve written, although I’ve kept fairly thorough records of my career as a scribe. Maybe someday I’ll try to make that list. But I’m sure that three events in 1984 would be on that list; perhaps even on a Top 10 list. Feb. 26-28 saw a 30-inch snowfall; less than nine weeks later, on April 29, a tornado destroyed most of a subdivision in Owensville, Mo. Those weather events – No. 2 and 3, respectively, on my Top 10 All-Time Weather Events of My Life – were personally notable because, at the time, Kelly and I were on-site caretakers for a 350-acre cattle farm off Elk Head Road in southern Gasconade County.

Long stories short: the huge snowfall caused myriad problems and they tornado first touched down in a field less than 500 feet from the old farm house that we called home. (FYI: The Flood of ’93 is the No. 1 weather event of my life).

The third big news event of 1984 was a man-made catastrophe that seemed both completely avoidable and inevitable. And six weeks to the day after Christial Veneda Branson blew up her house, she died.

Christial was 63. She worked 37 years to save enough money to pay cash for a new house. That’s how averse she was to being in debt. She refused to owe anyone. In 1980, she paid a contractor $1,200 to install a central air conditioning unit in her new $30,000 house. A divorcee, she worked for three decades at International Shoe Factory in Bland before it closed. She found work at Brown Shoe Company in Owensville and was a leather-cutter there.

Then she started getting bills from the central air unit supplier. The contractor hadn’t paid for the unit. Christial needed to pay – again.

She refused.

Christial and the A/C supplier both filed suit against the contractor, and they both won judgments, but the contractor – a guy that not even local police knew anything about – had vanished. The supplier placed a lien on Christial’s house, but she had the canceled checks to provide she’d already paid.

She consulted at least two attorneys. They both agreed that she’d paid the contractor, but they also advised her that the law required her to pay the supplier if she wanted to keep her house. The supplier offered to settle for $600. Christial could pay it off in monthly, $50 installments. Still, she refused.

The Gasconade County Sheriff eventually was forced to end the dispute by auctioning off Christial’s home to satisfy the debt. The auction was set for 1 p.m. Monday, July 9, 1984.

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