As Tommy Varner's adoptive family processed the news of his murder, the difficult reality of the days to come started to sink in.
But among the police interviews and funeral arrangements and early stages of grief, one challenge loomed above the others: to find the woman who decades ago left Tommy then 3 years old to be baby-sat by the Varners and never returned.
"That's what I've been doing today: trying to find the lady and let her know that her son is dead," said Tommy Varner's older brother, Forrest Varner. Tommy Varner, 35, was killed and another man was critically injured in a shooting late Sunday at an apartment in Salt Lake County.
In his Salt Lake City living room Monday, Forrest Varner gestured toward a painting of a blond child playing with a cat.
"That was Tommy when we first got him," Forrest Varner said. Their mother, Aileen Varner, had advertised baby-sitting services in the newspaper, and Tommy's biological mother brought him to their house a few times. Then she said she was going "on vacation."
"She just dropped him off," Aileen Varner said. "He sat on the porch every day waiting for her to come back."
Eventually Tommy became part of the family. The Varners formally adopted him when he started kindergarten, and he enjoyed church and Little League baseball, Aileen Varner said.
But a few years later, the behavior problems began, Aileen Varner said. Tommy got with a bad crowd in middle school and never really looked back. He spent much of his adulthood in and out of prison and was facing new charges for shoplifting in November and leading police on a high-speed chase in October with his 8-year-old son in the car.
Forrest Varner said his brother's criminal problems flew in the face of his "good personality."
"He was friendly," Aileen Varner said. For years he brought his seven children over to visit periodically, but that stopped after his last prison sentence, which ended in March. Tommy still checked in every other day, his mother said.
"Friday night, he came here," Aileen Varner said. "He gave me a hug and a kiss and said, 'See you tomorrow, Mom.' "
That was the last time she would see her son alive. On Sunday, police received reports of yelling and shots fired at 11:36 p.m. near the Murray Ridge Apartments, 440 E. 4100 South. Tommy Varner was found dead in the parking lot, said Unified Police Department Lt. Justin Hoyal.
While investigators were trying to determine what happened, they received a call from Intermountain Medical Center reporting a 27-year-old man had arrived to be treated for gunshot wounds. Hoyal said the man was able to speak with investigators but remained in critical condition Monday night. Hoyal said the shootings are related but would not discuss how Tommy Varner and the other man knew each other.
Hoyal said investigators have found a gold 2001 Lincoln Navigator they believe was connected to the shooting, but he would not disclose where or how they found it. Aileen Varner said she saw Tommy Varner get into an SUV matching that description two weeks ago outside her house, but she could not see who was driving.
Detectives believe other people may have been at the scene and are trying to find them, Hoyal said.
"I want to know: Why?" Forrest Varner said. "Why you are going to shoot someone ... and leave him there to die?"