“Please don’t go!” Jared’s mother, Kathy Bowling, begged him. “This is why I don’t want you to go!”
“This is why I have to go,” he told her.
Two months after he graduated, in May 2012, Jared packed his bags to join the Army. In his spare time during training, he recorded videos of himself in his camouflage uniform, singing pop songs and Christian hymns, which he uploaded to his YouTube channel. He was deployed to Afghanistan less than a year later, manning a .50-caliber gun atop a Buffalo, a moving-truck-sized armored vehicle.
Jared had wanted to see combat, but the reality of it hit him harder than he’d imagined. He was terrified one night when his base came under rocket fire. Two of his buddies were blown up in a truck. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Jared told his brother about one particular firefight where he was blasting away with the .50-caliber gun. “I don’t know for sure, but I might have killed a child,” he told Jacob. He didn’t want to say much more about it.
After a patrol in Kandahar Province one day, Jared injured his back while getting off the Buffalo. He was flown to a hospital on a base in Germany. There, the doctors put him on painkillers and told him he couldn’t go back into combat. After barely six months in the field, he was done as war-fighter.
Stuck on base, his ambitions crushed, Jared started coming unglued. He hit the bars every night, drinking heavily. He got a local woman pregnant. He was caught driving drunk and confined to barracks. He made a clumsy suicide attempt with pills, which got him placed in psychiatric care for a few days. By October 2015 he was discharged and back home in Greenville.
Though his parents, sister, and two brothers gave him a hero’s welcome, Jared was lost. “All my life I wanted to be a soldier, and now I can’t do that,” he told Jacob. “I just feel worthless.” He bounced from job to job and between his divorced parents’ houses. As the months went by, his once muscular physique turned soft. Jared had nightmares and occasional panic attacks and got into bar fights. He was diagnosed with PTSD and prescribed antidepressants. Stuck for a job, he bought a Jeep and started driving for Uber. Over Kathy’s objections, he also bought a stubby black 9-mm pistol to keep in the car, for protection.
By mid-2018, though, things were looking up. He was dating a local girl. He had a dog, a lively German shepherd he called Tex. He’d landed a great job for a chatterbox like him, selling phones and internet service plans at the local AT&T store, and he and Jacob had moved into an apartment with a balcony overlooking the complex’s pool. The brothers would cook, watch football games, stream Netflix with their girlfriends. Once a week they’d have dinner with their mom and then go into town to drink tequila and sing at DT’s, their favorite karaoke bar. Just about every time, Jared would wail through his three signature songs—“Drops of Jupiter,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “No Diggity.”
The caller said he was a police detective. He’d been contacted by Caroline’s parents, who were outraged that Jared had sexually propositioned their daughter.
Though he and his girlfriend didn’t mean to get pregnant, Jared was overjoyed when his son Jaxon was born. He stopped taking the antidepressants; he wanted to keep his head clear to be a good dad to the baby.
Before long, however, Jared split with Jaxon’s mom. Suddenly he was a part-time single dad, fighting regularly with his ex. He turned to Tinder and soon started seeing a young woman whom I’ll call Lisa—she doesn’t want her real name published. But from time to time, he still cruised dating sites, and in early September he came across the pretty blonde who said her name was Caroline Harris. The two chatted on the dating app. When she said, “I’ll be 18 in a few weeks,” he replied, “Oh that’s cool when will you be 18?”