Desperate for justice: conclusion

This is the conclusion of 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. (Part 1 appeared on Monday).

Police, neighbors and a distant relative put together the following narrative: Seven hours before the auction was scheduled to begin, Christial – who actually went by her middle name, Veneda ‑ dumped 30 gallons of gasoline and 30 quarts of motor oil throughout her wood frame house. The tinder box that was once her paid-in-full haven included piles of old newspapers, a cord of wood, some old tires and $30 worth of fireworks. She was apparently sitting in a recliner in the living room at 5:30 a.m. when she struck the match.

 

The explosion immediately flattened the house, blew out windows at Bland High School just a block away and dozens of other windows through the little town of about 600 people. The explosion blew Veneda right out of the house. A step-cousin raced to the scene and found Veneda – conscious but badly burned and incoherent – laying on the side of the road. An ambulance took her to the University of Missouri hospital in Columbia (called the MU Medical Center back then).

Local police got a call from the Bland Post Office at 8:30 a.m. Someone found a letter taped to the wall inside the lobby, along with copies of the canceled and endorsed check that Veneda had written to the contractor, the signed agreement with the contractor, and the legal notice of the sheriff’s auction. The next day a duplicate of the letter arrived at the Gasconade County Republican, the 3,500-circulation weekly newspaper in Owensville where, incidentally, I would go to work in April the following year.

There’s really no way to end this story on a positive note, although the lien laws were changed a year later to provide greater protection for homeowners.

The image of the smoldering ruins of the house is still haunting. And so are the words of her letter:

“The hassle of living just isn’t worth it anymore. Nothing is worth living for. I can’t have anything no matter how hard I work I work for it and somebody else enjoys it … Just because there is a crooked law on the books for you to hide behind to win the easy way, you don’t any of you care about justice. I am a woman alone with no knowledge of the stupid laws. So that leaves me helpless in their hands.

 “I can’t have anything no matter how hard I work … But this is the time I’m not going to hand it over. I’ll burn all and go in the fire myself. Then you bastards can sift the ashes or look elsewhere for the money you want. I signed a contract and I honored it. I paid once for what I got. I don’t intend to pay again … This house and car is all I have to show for 44 years of work. I can’t enjoy it and I don’t intend anyone else shall.”

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7 Comments

Filed under A reporter's life, Living Write, MIP: Memoir-in-progress

7 responses to “Desperate for justice: conclusion

  1. Did anything ever happen with the original contractor?

  2. To the best of my knowledge, the guy who sold and installed the central air unit left the area and never paid the supplier, Maciejewski (pronounced Majesky) Heating and Plumbing in Owensville. The owner of that company, Larry Maciejewski, told me at the time that if he’d known Mrs. Branson was in that frame of mind, he would have just dropped the lien.

    It’s interesting — and heartening — to know that a group of contractors, led by a big remodeling and construction company in St. Louis, led the push to add statutory protections for homeowners facing mechanic’s liens.

  3. Sharon Assel

    What happened to Veneda? Did I miss that in the article somewhere?

  4. Sharon Assel

    I mean, did she live? I’m assuming she died, since nothing else was said about her.

  5. I’m sorry. I should have repeated that portion of Part 1.

    “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.”

    Sadly, yes, she died.
    I talked to people who knew her, who worked beside her, but no one had much of a clue about the ordeal she was going through. One of my best sources referred to her as “reclusive.”
    Sad, sad ending.

    • Sharon Assel

      Right, now I remember reading that in Part 1. Yes, incredibly sad ending. I don’t remember when this happened, probably because we were living in Mississippi then (for the second time). I’m glad you brought this up again–certainly does make me want to listen to people more carefully when I ask them how they’re doing!

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