After responding to the scene of a car crash on Halloween, a young Georgia state trooper and his colleagues realized the couple killed in the crash had left behind four young children — who were home alone, wearing their costumes and waiting for their parents.
Faced with a tragic situation, Trooper Nathan Bradley says he stalled for time — to find the kids' nearest relatives, and to figure out how to salvage their Halloween.
In a show of generosity that's being widely praised, Bradley, 25, took the kids out for hamburgers and invited them for a movie-night sleepover at the patrol station, after their grandmother agreed that she should be present the next morning to break the news about their parents to the children, ages 6-13.
The accident occurred in Morgan County, Ga., less than a mile from where Donald and Crystal Howard had left their home to buy more face paint and candy. The pair died after their SUV left the road and hit a tree. The trooper says he decided to act after realizing that with the kids' nearest relatives living in south Florida, their grandmother wouldn't be able to reach them until Sunday.
"I immediately fell ill," he wrote on a GoFundMe page he started for the family. "Not only would these children discover they lost both parents, but would spend their Halloween in a county jail until somebody could tend to them; it just wasn't right."
In addition to caring for the children, Bradley started the fundraising campaign, to pay for the parents' funeral costs and to establish a trust fund. The costs include the price of moving the parents to be buried in Florida, where the children will live with their grandmother.
"It's the first time in the line of duty I told someone I loved them, and I do love them," Bradley says of the children, in an interview with 11 Alive News in Atlanta. "I care about them a lot."
On Halloween night, Bradley took the four kids out for burgers and milkshakes; along the way, the children talked about their mother's good cooking, and their father's tours of duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As they ate, Bradley says, his corporal called.
"I have the best supervisors in the state," he writes, "so I wasn't surprised when he told me that he was bringing his wife and their son to meet us."
They all met at the Georgia State Patrol post, along with candy, popcorn and Disney movies. And then more help rolled in: several residents brought Halloween goodie bags for the kids, and the Morgan County sheriff came by, bearing buckets of candy.
"The little girl grabbed my attention when she said 'You turned an F-Minus day into an A-Plus night!' I can't begin to explain how hard it was to hear that, considering the night would be memorable but for reasons that were yet to be disclosed to them."
The children took showers and slept in the patrol station's bedrooms. Their grandmother arrived the next morning, to talk with them about their parents. Bradley says he gave his phone number to the oldest boy, and told him to stay in touch.
"Our intent was to preserve their future Halloweens," Bradley tells News Radio 106.7. "We wanted to break the news on November 1st, so that October 31st wasn't going to be remembered for anything other than the evening they had with us."
Since it was started Tuesday, the GoFundMe campaign for the family has raised more than $60,000. In an update to the page that was posted Wednesday morning, Bradley wrote:
"Justin called me this morning and said he wishes he could express his gratitude. He and his siblings read each of your messages. I have received over 34,000 emails over night. I'm reading through them and it's just beautiful. We live in a great nation and what better way to show that than supporting this family of a veteran."
The story has sparked a strong response, through both the fundraising campaign and on social media.
In a comment on WSB TV's Facebook posting about the story that drew more than 100 "likes," one reader wrote of Trooper Bradley, "I know him. Went to high school with him. He's always had a heart of gold."