Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Hanging in their cramped living room, Mariah, Donna, Jake, Luke, Pike, and Tim Royster watch television. All are anxious for an addition to the home to be finished this summer.
When Tonya Royster Lynn's husband was charged with killing her and tossing her body in a well, four kids were left without parents. An aunt and uncle took over, offering their small home on a Dacula cow farm. A family multiplied. They needed a bigger house. This is what friends are for …
DACULA -- One day last summer, Tim Royster was delivering a sermon at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Decatur when the feeling came back, strong as ever. The feeling had risen him from bed, back home at his Dacula farm. Tim calls it communication from the Lord, and though the message was devoid of instructions, it was clear:
Tim was not doing enough in his life to help children.
Sermon finished, Tim came down from the pulpit and found his wife, Donna, whom he had met at a church revival three decades earlier. Tim told his wife what the Lord had shown him. Donna, like her husband, was perplexed. Tim had coached other people's sons in Auburn Dixie Youth baseball for years, even loaned his cattle to kids who could not afford to show their own. They had adopted their only child, a 21-year-old daughter, as a newborn. Friends always said -- Y'all should have more kids. But now? They were in their early 50s.
Two months later, Tim's younger sister, a mother of four, would be dead. Her husband went to jail, charged with fatally beating her and hiding the body in a well, an alleged crime with enough sordid details to draw inquires from movie companies, ABC World News and the New York Times.
But in chaos, some things were starting to make sense.
Four thousand people attended the wake for 38-year-old Tonya Royster Lynn -- so many that queues spilled from the low-slung compound that is Smith Memory Chapel in Winder. The chapel has operated for 40 years. To bring a crowd that is, in the words of one business leader, "tremendously large," the dead must be relatively young, well-respected, from a large, beloved family or the victim of substantial tragedy. Tonya's plight bore all those things.
Family friend Tim Chupp, a tractor salesman from Newton County, was floored by the turnout. Driving home, Chupp and his wife, parents to three grown children, talked about the burden Tim and Donna had assumed in taking custody of Tonya's kids, then ages 7 to 14. Life for the Roysters would never be the same.
At 4:30 a.m. on Aug. 2, the day of Tonya's funeral, Chupp walked from bed to his computer and typed a letter to the 21 churches in the Pleasant Grove Baptist Association, which occupy a patchwork of counties east of Atlanta. He asked the churches for a "love offering" to be made the first Sunday of each August for the next decade. The money, he proposed, would be collected for college funds, vehicle expenses and all the costly, computerized trappings that kids deem necessary.
The letter would help set in motion a deluge of charity for the Royster family, an outpouring from a thousand strangers across the United States, from churches unknown to the family, from businesses as disparate as pancake makers and concrete dealers, and from friends who are transforming the Roysters' tiny home on a Dacula cow farm into something else entirely -- an architectural amalgam befitting a household swollen from three to seven.
Chupp's impulse in closing the letter was to extensively quote from Scripture. He settled for a couple of lines from I John 3:17 KJV, which read: "But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?"
There is the home that was, and the home that will be, and they are the same at heart.
The Roysters' former home, a 1,500-square-foot ranch with seven smallish rooms, was built circa 1950, some 40 miles away in Roswell. A highway there was being widened, and the owners had stripped the ranch down to its chipboard for easier transport. Tim bought the home and helped truck it to Dacula to supplant the trailer he and Donna had called home since being wed. The bones of the home, down to the bands around the foundation, are solid oak. It moved well.
The home took root among angus cattle, facing Crowe Road, named for Donna's father, Jim Lee Crowe, in what remains one of the last bucolic pockets of Gwinnett County. For about 30 years the ranch sat on the farm like a fist. It was -- in the eyes of Tim, Donna and their gymnastics teacher daughter, Christa -- perfect.
When Tonya died, friends urged the Roysters to sell the home and move into something larger. Donna said that would be impossible, because the home was part of them. There was peace in knowing how much had happened on those original hardwoods.
Until the home addition is complete, as with the past eight months, the Royster clan must endure a musical chairs of sleeping arrangements and an unlocked-door policy during showers in the lone bathroom, in case someone has to go.
"Clorox wipes," Tim laughs, "have become our friend."
The sardine life has left no space for a dining-room table. Stacked baskets act as the kids' closets, and the former office is consumed by a donated bunk bed. The marshmallowy recliner and a big gray sectional double as beds.
Along with Tonya's kids, Tim and Donna have taken in the family's pets -- with the exception of a ball python named "Jezebel," which went to Tim's brother because it terrified Donna. There's the dwarf rabbit named "Theo," but the star is a bronzed tail-wagger of a pit bull named Sugar.
Sugar hangs out with the cows, licks the calves' noses and playfully nibbles the farm cats, but the experience hasn't been without bruising. Since Tonya died, Sugar will not leave Christa's side, to the point that when Christa insulates high bedroom walls, the dog is camped under the ladder. Says Christa: "She thinks I'm going to leave her."
The elephant story
When the Roysters wed, Donna recalled her groom's 8-year-old sister as bubbly. Tonya had a pretty smile and golden locks, nicknamed the "little honey pot."
A farm girl and animal lover at heart, Tonya showed cattle under her older brother's direction. The running joke was that Tonya was so spoiled by her father he would buy her anything -- dog, car, cow, whatever -- which, however facetiously, remains a sore spot among her siblings.
Donna quipped one day that Tonya had better not ask for an elephant, because she would probably get it. That comment stuck, to the point that it is family lore.
After Tonya's death, elephants have come to symbolize her. For Christmas, Donna received a Pandora bracelet strung with elephants. At one charity auction, a Winder furniture store donated a leather elephant with plastic tusks. A cousin and friend of Tim's bid $200, won, and donated the elephant to the family.
For now, the elephant observes the Roysters' cramped living room, perched in stride on a gun case. In the addition, its permanent home will be atop the stairs, where the foyer will soar to 17 feet.
The kids: portraits
For all their lives, Tonya's kids spent Easter and Mother's Day at the home they now call their own, but the transition to living there was not without turbulence. All five kids attend counseling two nights a week; Tim and a counselor are getting them prepared for what they will hear, see, even feel in what's expected to be a lengthy murder trial.
By the seven-month mark, though, a transformation had occurred.
The kids had adapted to Tim and Donna's salt-of-the-earth strictness. The pronouns they used to describe the cows, the house and especially certain rooms in the addition reflect the feeling that it all belongs to them, and they to it. They have kept their last name, Lynn, and their aunt and uncle are called as such.
"We've made it plain that we would never take the place of their parents," Donna says.
On a recent spring night, the sounds of kids roughhousing and triumphing over each other in video games poured from the home. The moon hung like a halved nickel over the farm, and the breeze was tropically warm. The kids were gracious, if not hilarious.
The youngest, Luke, a rascally first-grader in blue jeans and a Spider-Man T-shirt, said he wanted two things for his eighth birthday on April 27: a 50cc dirt bike and $1 million. Luke yearns to be a cowboy when he grows up, though he's never seen a Western, because sitting still through a movie is impossible. In school he sits beside his girlfriend -- a 6-year-old brunette -- whom he met at his sister's ballgame and liked because she, too, is outdoorsy.
A favorite pastime for Luke is pancaking cars at a nearby junkyard, where a family friend calls him "the manager" and allows him to operate the machine. But Luke's perfect day would be more simple: He would be outside, helping build the house, wearing his own tool apron.
Tonya had always called her middle son "Jake the Snake," so upon fifth-grade graduation he got the now forfeited python. At 13, Jake is an Xbox fanatic, playing Modern Warfare 3 and Call of Duty Black-Ops online with pals around the world. The shaggy-haired, three-sport athlete likes football best. As a defensive lineman, he was one of the few seventh-graders unafraid to face eighth-graders last fall. He deployed his spin move but got no sacks.
During the NFL playoffs, Jake bet a friend $2 the Giants would topple the favored Packers. He took his winnings to the snack cart at school and loaded up on drinks. He is very proud of that.
The alternate household alpha male, Pike, 15, muscular in an Under Armor shirt, aims to play baseball through college, maybe study business or marketing. He never stops being part of a team, from linebacker to shooting guard to junior-varsity third baseman. He likes baseball best. At age 8, he jacked a home run straight to centerfield that landed in a lady's lap and showered other spectators in nacho cheese.
A sharp dresser with a closet full of Ralph Lauren and Nike, Pike has kept his sanity in tight living quarters by simply going with the flow. "It's not going to be normal around here, so you just put up with whatever they throw at you," he says.
And there's the girl, Mariah, the boy-despising, 11-year-old sixth-grader with so much of her mother in her that Donna sometimes hears her squeal and thinks, "My God -- it's little Tonya." The quick-witted blonde wants to be a third-grade teacher -- "the easiest grade of all" -- or a pediatrician, "'cause I like kids." She sits up with Donna at night in bed watching "Friends," "Hawaii Five-O" and "NCIS." She dreams of horseback rides in the mountains outside Denver.
Learning to receive
One hundred supporters joined Tim and Donna on Sept. 21 when they marched into the Barrow County Courthouse with 40 letters of recommendation and succeeded in gaining permanent legal custody of four more children. Their attorney took one look at the stack of letters and quipped that only a dozen were necessary, and that 40 was probably a record.
In winning custody, Tim and Donna's personal interests fell to the wayside. She had joined a gym and shed 30 pounds, and though she still pays her dues, she's worked out only twice since Tonya died; her penchant for shopping has been relegated to groceries.
Tim, a fair-haired electrical utilities salesman who travels widely for work, volunteers as a preacher. The eldest of three siblings and 13 years older than Tonya, his hobbies consisted of showing cattle nationally and fishing for bass, crappie, catfish and an annual, deep-sea-fishing sojourn to Florida. He doesn't fish like he used to.
The Roysters had reached a pre-retirement stage in which they could begin savoring life, doing things on their terms. Nowhere in their plans was driving 20 minutes from Dacula to schools in Winder each morning, or navigating a complex web of practices and ballgames that put three kids playing basketball on the same night in different places; there was no dirty laundry swelling to four loads per day, a water bill jumping from $60 to $160 per month, or nightly cooking escapades of 16 pork chops or 15 hamburgers.
Tim was prepared to liquidate his stock and retirement savings to accommodate the extra expenses. He and his wife, after all, had been engrained with a farmer's ethos -- to obtain via work -- and the concept of handouts was foreign. Finally, friends convinced them that accepting was OK because they had not asked.
A communal build
The farm remains a construction zone. Pipe gates and barbed wire fencing frame a squarish muddy field that was the front yard. A huge Dumpster and a portable loo dubbed "Blue Johnny" dot the mud.
Onto the old ranch is latched a big, sleek addition that more than doubles its size to 3,400 square feet. The volunteer architect had skewed toward contemporary, but some lines were changed for a more old-fashioned, countrified feel.
When finished this summer, the home will have 4 -1/2 bathrooms, five bedrooms and an open kitchen that bleeds into the living room. A wide hallway will be bored through the old ranch, acting as a vertebrae to new rooms. Christa's room will be the largest; from there she'll enjoy sweeping views of the pasture and act as upstairs warden.
Longtime friend Lee Sass, who runs a building company, was keeping a log book of donated labor, but as the hours climbed and the volunteer pool burgeoned, he gave up. "It's just a good testimony to the heart of people," Sass says of the project.
The only builder to volunteer more time than Sass has recently died. Twice.
Jimmy Singleton was a passenger in his daughter's Honda when it was broadsided by a Mercury in 2009. During a monthlong coma, he died a couple of times. Now, unable to squat, with four plates in him and a colostomy bag he calls "temperamental," the 65-year-old expert carpenter has defied doctors to climb atop the new roof and toss plywood on ceiling joists.
"Once I got there," says Singleton, a longtime friend, "I just kept a-going."
When Tonya's kids talk about their former family unit, they focus on the good times. How all six had been back together, following some domestic tumult, for five weeks, living under the same roof in a subdivision with airy plots and hilly streets on the outskirts of Winder. That dynamic erupted sometime after 10:30 p.m. on July 26.
"Not only did they lose their momma," Tim says, "they lost their dad, too."
Three days before Thanksgiving, in an arraignment at the Barrow County Courthouse, a shackled James Lynn Jr., 43, stood up in inmate orange and pleaded not guilty to counts of murder, felony murder and aggravated assault before Superior Court Judge Joseph Booth.
The case, which Barrow County District Attorney Brad Smith calls his office's "top priority," comes back up for trial in June. Smith will not disclose what punishment he will seek. A psychological exam in Augusta, ordered by the state after allegations surfaced that Lynn suffers from mental and emotional problems, is pending. Grand jurors were convinced that the fatal strike to Tonya was delivered with a baseball bat, according to an indictment.
Lynn's attorney, Stanton Porter, also represented him in a divorce from Tonya that was later reconciled. Porter calls his client a good father. "I know that he was really active, going to all their ballgames," he says.
The altruists have been inventive. They haven't taken no for an answer.
It's happened so fast, Tim and Donna have lost track of the names, and of the cache itself, which continues to grow in the Children of Tonya R. Lynn Memorial Fund. They have copies of checks from more than 1,000 strangers across the country. Neighbors and business associates have cut checks for tens of thousands of dollars.
The first fundraiser was held at a Chick-fil-A, then came a pancake breakfast at Fatz restaurant in Winder, then a barbecue at a Masonic Lodge in Loganville, replete with live music, 40 cakes and a fundraising tally of $8,000. More than 40 churches have sent checks, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000. Donna's gym held a 5K run and bike race. Statham Elementary School students practiced for weeks to stage a "Hee-Haw Benefit" comedy show that raised $10,000. Athens Regional Medical Center, where Tonya worked as a technician in the cardiac pulmonary vascular diagnostic unit, hosted a dance-off to raise awareness for domestic violence. Colleagues donned black ribbons in memoriam, and they tied a big purple one around a hospital Dogwood.
The mother lode fund-raiser took two months to pull off. Volunteers from Harbins Community House, a nearby gathering venue, scouted multiple counties for auction donations. The offerings would range from homemade dough pans, blackberry jelly, ladders, fancy grills, massages and diet pills to one leather elephant. They called the event "Harbins Helps Their Own," and more than 200 buyers turned out, spending $13,000.
Some giving has been less quantifiable. Church groups have shown up at Tim and Donna's door, offering to clean the house. Other strangers have hung siding. Tim estimates more than $200,000 in labor has been donated. Donna calls the giving "a rescue."
And while the outpouring has slowed, it continues, and likely will for years. Bursts of donations come unexpectedly.
In February, a credit union donated $1,600 worth of tickets for the Royster family and friends to attend the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus at Philips Arena. They had box seats. The time was grand.
Leaving the circus, Tim asked Mariah what her favorite part was. Without hesitation, Mariah said the elephants.