Joe Morrissey loved country music, but his wife, Kay, never paid much attention to it until after he died.
How could the cheery mom of an adorable 5-year-old, who thanked God morning and night for the blessings of a loving husband and a comfortable home, relate to those weepy lyrics about tragedy and heartbreak?
Before April 5, 2010, Kay and Joe couldn’t have been happier. They so adored little Patrick, whom they’d adopted as an infant from South Korea, that they’d playfully fight about who’d get to feed and change him.
Money wasn’t a problem either. Kay, who came to the United States as a child from Peru, has an MBA and is director of operations, finance and human resources for Jewish Family Services of Broward County.
Joe, a cancer researcher with a doctorate from Stanford University and an international reputation, taught pharmacology at Nova Southeastern University. Their combined incomes afforded a $393,000 house in Plantation, ice hockey and kung fu lessons for Patrick, foreign travel, and donations to the Catholic Church.
They were planning to adopt a second Korean baby: a little girl with a cleft palate.
But something unthinkable shattered that blissful life nearly three years ago, and suddenly, those weepy lyrics made perfect sense.
The night of April 5, a homicidal father/son duo broke into the Morrisseys’ home, restrained Joe and Kay with plastic zip ties, then forced them, at gunpoint, to drive to the bank and withdraw $500 from an ATM.
Kay, hysterical, pleaded to take Patrick. But he was the assailants’ trump card. Don’t try anything, the man in the car told Joe and Kay, because someone’s at the house with your son.
On their return, one of the men hacked at Joe with a Bowie knife. Kay, re-restrained, lay next to her son on her bed, listening to her husband beg for his life. Patrick pretended to be asleep, like Daddy told him to do.
“Out of the whole crime, the worst for me to deal with are Joe’s last minutes,’’ she said. “He suffered.’’
The attackers splashed gasoline around the house and set the kitchen alight. After a fire alarm scared them off, Kay sent Patrick, who had not been tied up, for scissors to cut the zip ties, then grabbed him and ran screaming toward a neighbor.
As Patrick scurried across the street, Kay — barefoot, in her pajamas — ran back and pulled Joe’s body from the burning kitchen onto the pool deck.
The ordeal had dragged on for 90 minutes.
Then began what Kay Morrissey calls “the crime after the crime,’’ the emotional, financial and legal consequences that burden victims long after the yellow police tape comes down and leave a law-abiding, middle-class mom wondering what in the world her family did to deserve this.
Now, Kay Morrissey starts every day listening to a country-Western song: Stand, by Rascal Flatts.
You feel like a candle in a hurricane
Just like a picture with a broken frame
Alone and helpless, like you’ve lost your fight
But you’ll be all right, you’ll be all right.
The song has become her anthem.
On your knees you look up
Decide you’ve had enough
You get mad, you get strong
Wipe your hands, shake it off
Then you stand. Then you stand.
“That’s how I do it,’’ she said. “That song. You get up and shake it off.’’
Creating a family
Joe Morrissey and Linda Kay Ramirez Llanos, both divorced, met at the Goodwin Institute for Cancer Research in Plantation. She was studying microbiology at Nova Southeastern; he was conducting research. He had a son; she had a daughter, and now has a grandchild.
Joe proposed to Kay in Rome. They married in October 1997 and tried, unsuccessfully, to have a child before adopting Patrick.
Michigan-born Joseph James Morrissey grew up in Palm Beach County, where he and younger brother, John, graduated from Lake Worth High School and served as altar boys.
Joe, who loved the water, took up water skiing and fishing. Years later, he would build a 12-foot wooden runabout in the garage, to take Kay and Patrick fishing in Biscayne Bay.
Joe held degrees from the University of South Florida, the University of Miami and Stanford: molecular biology, from the medical school. He worked a year at Boston’s renowned Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and specialized in childhood-leukemia research.
In the 1990s, he patented a blood-test kit which, according to his brother, will greatly reduce the cost and pain of detecting and typing certain leukemias, replacing bone-marrow tests.
“He was smarter than the average bear,’’ said John Morrissey, a Palm Beach County lawyer. “One day you’ll see a version of the kit in commercial use.’’
While at Stanford, Joe got a grant from Motorola to research suspected links between certain radio frequencies, mainly from cellphones, and cancer.
“Then they hired him to oversee all the grants they give to labs around the world,’’ his brother said.
As a visiting professor at Nova Southeastern, he got a grant to set up a lab researching “the use of heat to stimulate cells and whether it adds or detracts from the benefits of cancer treatments,’’ his brother said.
He belonged to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and served on committees of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection.
When Joe was alive, the Morrisseys’ day began about 4 a.m. He’d go running. Kay would make breakfast. They’d go over homework with Patrick while they ate.
Kay, 51, still gets up at 4, but before she does anything, she listens to Stand. The last verse is where she finds herself now.
Everytime you get up
And get back in the race
One more small piece of you
Starts to fall into place.
For more than two years, Kay Morrissey’s single-minded goal was bringing Randy W. Tundidor and his son, Randy H. Tundidor, to justice.
Randy W., 46, whom she calls “Senior,’’ is facing the death penalty. “Junior,’’ 24, who cooperated with police, got 40 years — not nearly enough for Kay, who feels that he, too, deserves to die, but she understands how deals are made.
A second son, Shawn Tundidor, who wasn’t involved in the crime, lives and works in Broward County.
On May 9, 2012, a Broward Circuit Court jury found Senior guilty of murder and kidnapping. To this day, Kay Morrissey recalls the satisfying “click’’ that the handcuffs made as a bailiff clamped them onto Senior’s fleshy wrists.
Now she has another wish: to see lawmakers criminalize using a child as a weapon against his or her parents.
The Tundidors didn’t need a gun or a knife, she said; “They had our son. It’s upsetting to me to not really see a charge for that. . . . If you use a child, you should automatically get life. If it’s your kid, they’re going to get whatever they want.’’
Kay Morrissey also thinks people should understand that being a victim in real life is nothing like it is on television. It was days before she could go back home for even the basics.
“I left with no shoes, no purse, no toothbrush. I didn’t even have a change of underwear and my son didn’t have his little bear toys. We had nothing.’’
Then she had to deal with Senior’s relatives, who stayed more than a month in the townhouse he’d rented from Joe. She had to go to court to evict them.
Joe, 46, had no life insurance beyond a university policy equal to one year’s salary, so the loss of his income has drastically altered the way his widow and son live. While their empty house deteriorates, they’re in a rented apartment. Ice hockey and kung fu are no longer in the budget.
She and Patrick collected $19,000 from the Florida Victims Compensation Program, mainly reimbursement for funeral expenses. She said it took two years for the state to respond to her requests for more money — and the answer was “no.’’
“There’s a big misconception of how much help you’re going to get,’’ Kay said.
Although Patrick gets Social Security survivor’s benefits, by the agency’s complicated formula, Kay earns too much to collect what’s due the widowed parent of a minor child.
Ironic, she said, considering that Senior, an obese window tint-shop owner, had no trouble collecting Social Security disability benefits for the two years he sat in jail awaiting trial.
Payments stopped when he was convicted, said his lawyer, Richard Rosenbaum.
Then there are the debts. Based on Joe’s income, they took out $100,000 in student loans for Kay’s graduate work and her daughter’s education. Each month, she pays $1,015.
Last fall, she wrote to President Barack Obama, asking him to forgive the debt. She’s waiting for an answer.
“He’s the only one who can do that,’’ she said. “If he did, we could breathe.’’
For a year after the calamity, Kay kept up the mortgage on her one-time dream house, hoping some day to return. But major insurance claims remain unsettled, and the bank is foreclosing.
The place seems eerily stuck in its unfortunate past. A crucifix once hung on the wall near the spot where Joe fell. Its ghostly outline remains in soot from the fire.
In the master bedroom, where Kay and Patrick cowered in terror, Kay later scrawled in crayon: “Give me five minutes to talk alone with the devil.’’
In that room, Junior swore he’d never hurt a child — then left a 5-year-old to die in a burning house. He’s the devil, says Kay, and so is his father.
“How would you define this, in one word?’’ she wonders. “A person trying to portray himself as a human being while he has you tied on your knees with a towel over your face and a gun to your head?’’
Both mother and son suffer post-traumatic stress.
Patrick “goes really crazy when there’s a fire-alarm drill’’ at school, she said. “You cannot hold him down. He starts running.’’
Simple things have sent her reeling. One day, she found a letter in her son’s handwriting in the mailbox, addressed to his dad.
He wrote: “How are you doing in heaven? I love you so much. I miss you Daddy.’’
The first Christmas after the crime, she bought Patrick a Buzz Lightyear doll. Twist ties, tiny versions of the zip ties that bound her, secured the doll’s feet in the package. She froze when she saw them.
“I turned around and Patrick is giving me this look. He knew those ties were the ones in the crime. He was very aware of what was happening.’’
She and Patrick have had therapy, but Kay won’t take anti-depressants. She needs to face this thing head on, she insists, and show others who survive traumas that they, too, can carry on.
“I have my son, and I am determined that [the Tundidors] are not going to take over my life,’’ she said. “They took my husband’s life, but if you don’t live a complete life, then they are actually taking your life away.’’
Patrick, now 8, “is a happy child,’’ his mother said. “Very strong, jolly, so friendly and outgoing it’s not funny. He’s always joking. He’ll say one-liners with a straight face. Adults love it. He’s very, very smart.’’
He knows that the men who attacked his family “are evil,’’ she said. “He asks questions then kind of answers himself a lot of times.’’
When he asks to visit the cemetery, she takes him. Often, she goes alone.
On Joe’s headstone, she inscribed “Together Forever.’’
Kay Morrissey was back in Broward Circuit Court on Feb. 20 for a hearing. Judge Cynthia Imperato ordered the release of Senior’s medical records to a court-appointed lawyer prior to sentencing, which has not yet been scheduled. Senior isn’t fighting the jury’s death recommendation and won’t cooperate with efforts to find mitigating evidence.
Senior gave her a sidelong glance, smirking slightly. She just stared.
Kay attends every proceeding, no matter how minor, looking crisply professional. It’s a matter of honoring Joe.
“Of course I cry, but it’s so important to be able to be ‘together,’ ’’ she said. “I represent my family. I take that very seriously.’’
She enjoys watching the Tundidors shuffle across the courtroom in prison stripes and shackles, knowing she can walk away freely and Senior, at least, never will.
Years from now, when the State of Florida finally executes Randy William Tundidor, Kay Morrissey pledges to be watching. Patrick could well be an adult by then, free to decide if he’ll go.
“I want to be there,’’ she said. “I have every right to be there.’’