The Bell family of Bowling Green had to wait an agonizingly long three years and four months for justice.
|Gary Bell (from left) Karen Bell and their daughter Kim Polinsky. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
From Sept. 21, 2010 until Jan. 21, 2014.
That's how long their son's murderer was able to walk the streets at will, a free woman, even though the police, his co-workers, and friends back in BG as well as his adopted hometown of Nashville all knew she was the one who had ambushed him in his own condo, pointed the gun at him and repeatedly pulled the trigger.
In his 32 years of living, Bryan Bell, a 1996 Bowling Green High School-Penta graduate, never met a stranger and had no enemies.
Visitation at Dunn Funeral Home was packed with people from every part of his past - the boys with whom he played youth hockey and wrestling teammates at BG Junior High; the girls and boys from his classes at Penta; folks from First United Methodist, where he was confirmed; fellow Masons who were decades older than even his father, Gary.
"Some of his teachers showed up at the funeral," remembered his mother, Karen Bell, including now-retired faculty from South Main Elementary and former BG Mayor John Quinn, who was Bryan's history teacher at the high school.
The media likes to focus on male stalkers. Women's shelters rightfully point out how much danger their residents are in from former partners or spouses bent on tracking them down and meting out violence.
But Bryan Bell had a stalker and - probably because the genders were reversed - he apparently never realized how deadly her obsession was becoming.
"She would show up unannounced" and uninvited at his home or at social events like a birthday party, his family recalled.
Others remember the same thing. As the (Nashville) Tennessean newspaper reported in its trial coverage, "Friends of the victim said the two were no longer dating, but that Tanya Slimick occasionally made unannounced visits to the condo from her home in Curtisville, Pa."
Since that involved an 8 1/2-hour drive from Pittsburgh to his home in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood, clearly this wasn't a casual attempt to maintain friendly ties.
"They hadn't even lived in the same state for five years," said Bryan's only sibling, Kim Polinsky of Grand Rapids.
Bryan had met Slimick while both were working at the same restaurant in Pittsburgh, where he had originally moved to attend school. He got to know her family well, and they dated for about two years.
He made the move to Nashville in 2005 to advance his career, taking a job in management with the TGI Friday's restaurant chain.
Eventually he started dating a young woman in Tennessee.
"I wish somebody had said earlier on (that) it might take three and a half years," for the case to come to trial, Polinsky said. But she and her parents agree they're glad now they demonstrated at least outward patience as the wheels of justice moved at what often seemed a glacial pace.
Only once during the entire 40 months in suspended animation did their composure crack.
"After we were three years in, Karen wrote (the court) a letter telling the impact this was having on us. She sent a copy to the Tennessee governor, as a matter of fact," said Gary, owner of Aardvark Printing in downtown Bowling Green.
But the trial itself proved to be a unique kind of strain, particularly for Bryan's parents.
They headed down to Nashville for a scheduled meeting with the prosecutor, not packed for a long stay.
"The trial was pre-scheduled for (Jan.) 13th," but the couple got word that Slimick had decided to plead guilty and accept an offer made by the prosecution: a firm 20 years in prison, with no possibility of parole.
"She accepted. Then - they said she changed her mind between the parking garage and the courthouse," said Gary Bell. The family surmised Slimick probably panicked at the thought that after remaining free every day since the murder she would now be behind bars before the sun set.
So the trial was back on.
But Bryan's parents weren't even allowed inside the courtroom. That's because both were under subpoena, called to testify for the prosecution.
It fell to Polinsky and her husband, along with Karen's sister and brother-in-law, to hold vigil.
"I was the first witness called to testify," said Gary.
He was asked to describe the family background and reveal "who Bryan was."
As Polinsky says of her younger brother, "He put his heart and soul into everything he chose to do - hockey, DeMolay" and certainly his 12- to 14-hour-a-day job at the restaurant.
For a father, asked to pick from among all the special memories of the time he had with his only son - from the memory of driving the tiny newborn home from the hospital up to the trip they took together to the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch in New Mexico - it was a hard assignment, but he did his best.
The trial lasted from Jan. 13 to Jan. 21.
Karen, a retired R.N., spent each of those days in a small windowless room, wondering what was happening.
"Nobody could talk to me" about the specifics of the case, or each day's testimony, since she might still be called to testify herself.
"I got to know all the cops, all the witnesses" including Bryan's two roommates and their lady friends, his co-worker, and a friend of his from Pittsburgh, "because they stayed in that room too."
"It was a dedicated jury," Karen and Gary Bell agree. "They worked 'til night, they worked on Saturday. They had to open up the courthouse on Saturday just for this trial."
"We went until midnight Saturday," Gary adds. "It was grueling."
The jury opted to come in on Monday even though it was a national holiday - Martin Luther King Day, "and they stayed until 11:30 p.m. At 8:15 Tuesday they were back again," and at 11:30 that morning they had a verdict.
The jury pronounced Slimick guilty. She was given an automatic life sentence, which the state of Tennessee defines as 51 years in prison.
They did that without even hearing some of the most damning facts about the woman who had murdered Bryan Bell, facts that the prosecution deliberately withheld because they didn't want to hand her an insanity defense.
Bryan Bell's cell phone records reveal one particular day in which Slimick called him an average of every 6 minutes over a 24-hour period.
Privately, detectives told the family that Slimick brought with her from Pittsburgh a duffel bag packed with a chilling assortment of items: a pink .38-caliber revolver, two brand new Tasers still in their boxes with bubble wrap and directions carefully replaced, a canister of pepper spray, and three Latex gloves. "They never found the fourth one," Karen said.
Their investigation revealed that Slimick arrived at Bryan's condo hours before he got off work and a roommate let her in, later leaving the dwelling himself.
No one witnessed the murder, but Bryan apparently came home and went to bed, never realizing his stalker was hiding elsewhere in the dwelling, behind a closed door.
The medical examiner said he was shot in both the front and back. By reconstructing evidence at the scene, police determined Slimick entered his bedroom, evidently approached the bed and used the Taser, before firing the first shot. A grievously wounded Bell fell to his knees, tried to flee but made it no farther than the hallway.
Some hours later, at 3:30 a.m., Slimick herself called 911 and told a dispatcher she had killed Bryan Bell.
Evidently she spent the extended period of time following the murder and prior to 3:30 preparing the scene according to her own lights.
"She cleaned up, changed her clothes, washed her hands" and at one point slipped her feet into a pair of Bryan's shoes "and walked around through the blood," Karen says police told them.
The officers and prosecution determined that Slimick was setting up evidence to make it appear that she was acting in self defense, a claim Slimick's attorney made to reporters following the trial.
Bryan's family and friends were initially jubilant when the verdict came in.
For 1,217 days they had been waiting steadfastly for justice for Bryan, and the reality was almost too good to be true.
Now they're back in Wood County and looking for ways to go on without him.
"That chapter of our life is over," his mother said. "Nothing is going to bring him back, of course. It's very sad."