Family dead, community mourns

A 14-year-old and her parents are dead after an apparent murder-suicide in Denver.
The Catawba County Sheriff's Office said Rick Wheeler, 36, allegedly shot his wife Angela, 41, and the couple's 14-year-old daughter Samantha "Sam" at their family home in Denver. Rick then turned the gun on himself.
Friends and relatives of the Wheeler family are having a difficult time reconciling the violent incident with their memories of the Wheelers, who they said were a loving, committed family.
"It just doesn't make sense," said Mark Hovis, of Lincolnton, who is Rick's stepfather. "They were a close-knit family that always did everything together."
Sheriff's deputies were dispatched to 4785 Grassy Creek Road in Denver just minutes before 5 p.m. Sunday. The county's emergency communications center received a 9-1-1 hang-up call, and when operators called the number, the line was busy.
Officers arrived on the scene at 4:57 p.m. No one answered the door at the Wheeler residence.
Reid said deputies looked inside the home's windows and saw a woman lying on the floor. The home's doors were locked, and investigators forced entry through the door.
Rick and Samantha were dead at the scene from apparent gunshot wounds. Angela was transported to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, where she died from her injuries at about 5 a.m. Monday, Reid said.
There were signs of a struggle inside the house, but Reid wouldn't elaborate about what evidence led police to determine Rick killed his wife and daughter then shot himself. Reid did say, however, that he didn't know of any reported domestic violence at the house prior to Sunday's murder-suicide.
Hovis, like many others, expressed disbelief about the incident, saying that friends saw the family just hours before the incident. A relative said Angela and Rick were married for 15 years.
According to Hovis, the family enjoyed activities together, including bowling and watching Samantha cheer at Mill Creek Middle School, where she was an eighth grader.
Grief counselors were at Mill Creek on Monday to help students cope with the loss of their classmate.
"It's been very difficult for (students)," said Mill Creek principal Robert Rucker. "They've lost one of their classmates."
Samantha was on the cheerleading squad and also served as an officer in the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization. Samantha's cheerleading coach, Katie Spears, remembered her as a mature, kind student.
"Sam was an extremely sweet and wonderful young lady who was very talented," Spears said. "Excelling in all her classes, Sam was always very respectful and was responsible with her school career. She was friendly to everyone she met and always had a kind word to say."
Eight-grader Sara Canora knew Samantha since they were in third grade at Sherrills Ford Elementary. Canora described Samantha as a sweet, quiet girl, whose parents always came to sporting events to watch her cheer.
"It's really hard," Canora said. "I still don't believe it."
Samantha's academic teachers, Shad Franklin, Angie Rudisill, Michael Slaughter and Liesl Armstrong Sloan, issued a joint statement about their time with Samantha.
"She was honest and possessed a strong sense of integrity and moral balance," Samantha's teachers said. "... We will miss her beautiful, pristine smile and her gentle nature. We are mourning the loss of a very special young lady who had so much to offer."
Many of Mill Creek's students are in shock about the incident, and several students were seen leaving the school Monday in tears. Rucker wrote a letter about Samantha's death to send home with students. He explained that the situation is difficult on many levels, and parents should be prepared as their children react to the incident in different ways.
The school brought in Catawba County Schools Student Services director Dr. Paul Holden and other county counselors, as well as Mill Creek guidance counselor Cameron Buchanan, to help students handle their grief.
"Death is never an easy thing, especially when you're young," Rucker said.
Canora said most students didn't talk about Samantha's death. There are posters hanging in the school in Samantha's honor, and Rucker said the school's flag is flying at half-mast.
Samantha and her cheerleading squad were supposed to practice Monday afternoon to prepare for an upcoming county basketball tournament at Jacobs Fork Middle School.
Monday's cheerleading practice was canceled, and Rucker said he will let the students decide if they want to continue participation in the tournament.
Samantha's friends wasted no time in creating a Facebook group in the teen's honor. The group had more than 1,100 "likes" Monday night, which is less than one day after the page was created.
Samantha was active in Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church's Youth Council, which met regularly for fellowship among area teens. The group of more than 100 teens and their youth leaders held a vigil Monday night in Samantha's honor in the Mount Pleasant sanctuary. Hundreds of people arrived at the event, many wiping away tears and dabbing their eyes with tissues.
"When we gather together in our sorrow, it becomes real," said the Rev. Linda Royer, an associate pastor at Mount Pleasant, to students and their families gathered at the vigil. "... Something terrible has happened."
During the vigil, some students shared stories about the girl they called one of the sweetest people they ever met. If it was too painful to speak, students wrote down their thoughts, and Royer read them aloud to the audience.
Children and adults shared their experiences with Samantha. Some stories, such as the time when Samantha's friends tried to teach her how to dance, brought chuckles from the audience. Other stories, like when one student was having a bad day and received a hug from Samantha, brought about fresh tears from the audience.
Darrell Farren, Youth Center steering committee chairman, said Samantha was one of the more faithful attendees at Mount Pleasant's Youth Center.
Farren never met Samantha's parents, but he said Samantha was kind, quiet and never caused any problems.
After the vigil, staff and volunteers from Mount Pleasant were available for students who needed to talk about Samantha's death or discuss their grief. Royer told students attending Monday's vigil that it's important to deal with their grief and sadness in healthy ways. A write-up about grief and what's normal during the grieving process was included on programs handed out during the vigil.
When news about Samantha's death reached the Catawba County Schools Board of Education meeting, members of the audience gasped when they learned about the murder-suicide.
"It's a sad day for Mill Creek," said CCS interim superintendent Glenn Barger. "Our hearts go out to those who knew her. It's a sad day for Catawba County."
The Wheeler deaths are Catawba County's first homicides of 2011.

O-N-E editor LaDonna Beeker contributed to this report.