The One About The Murder

13 Jul

In 1994, just after high school graduation, I got a job working as a server at a very popular family-run restaurant in Paducah, Kentucky. I remember being trained by a guy named Tim, who had feathered blonde hair and reeked of cigarette smoke and CK One.  The restaurant – the Holman House – was situated in the lower lobby of the Cobb Hotel in Paducah. It was a tiny place with maybe 30 tables, but it was always busy and, according to Tim, they could make great tips.

Not long after being hired, the restaurant moved to a brand new location on a busy street closer to the mall. The new building would have three separate dining rooms and a huge banquet dining area that could be closed off for private parties. One dining room – the Paducah Room – was full of old photos of old downtown Paducah as well as a couple of quilts on the walls. (Paducah is one of the quilting capitols of the world and is home to the American Quilter’s Society’s annual Quilt Week in the spring). The smallest dining room was called the Garden Room and featured regular tables as well as a few rectangular four-top tables with porch swings for seating. I don’t remember the name of the third dining room, but it was the biggest and, honestly, had the least amount of personality.

The Holman House had been a Paducah institution for years before I started working there. It was owned and run by Bob Holman and his wife, Linda. Bob cooked and she made the desserts. The restaurant was known for its amazing pies, and people would literally line up for one of Linda’s Peaches ‘N Cream pies, which was only available seasonally. When the restaurant moved to the larger facility, their daughter Bobbi Jo and her husband, Neil, bought the place, though Bob and his wife continued to work in the kitchen. Bobbi’s sister, Regina, did the accounting. It was quite the family affair.

Bobbi’s background was in interior design and, even though she’d grown up around the restaurant business, she didn’t really seem to have a good grasp on how to run the business. Instead she ran it with an iron fist. It was quite obvious that she was insecure in her position as a leader – she constantly was looking over her shoulder, thinking that none of us respected her, which, of course, we didn’t because she was such a bitch. Her husband, however, made her look like a pussy cat. Neil wasn’t around much – he made it pretty obvious that the restaurant was Bobbi’s thing – and I’m sure he enjoyed the time it afforded him away from his wife. Rumors were always flying around the restaurant that he had been caught cheating on her again, and when we’d go back into the office after a shift to settle our money, it’d be full of flowers and her eyes would be puffy. Looking back, I should have felt sorry for her, but I couldn’t get past how cold and greedy she seemed. Well…they both seemed.

From the time it opened, the new restaurant did amazing business. We were always busy. We offered full menu service as well as an all-you-can-eat buffet, which was situated between the kitchen and the Paducah and Garden rooms. I can’t tell you how many chicken breasts accidentally ended up on my tray as I passed the buffet on my way to the server’s station in the Paducah Room or how many pieces of French Silk or Peaches ‘n Cream pie I accidentally plated upside down, thus making it unservable. Oops! Guess I’ll have to eat that… We also served hot rolls at each table, complete with four different types of butter: regular, orange (with bits of orange rind mixed in), strawberry and cinnamon. Between the au jus from the prime rib, the barbeque sauce from the ribs they served on the buffet and the butter we had to dip by hand for each table, I would come home completely covered in whatever we were serving that night because we also had to bus our own tables. One summer, Bobbi decided we needed to change from the long-sleeved white button-down shirts to embroidered coral pink polos, for which we had to pay $30 each.

Christmas at the Holman House was magical. And insane. Bobbi would go crazy with decorations (that was her forte, you know). One night we’d leave the restaurant and return the next day to find twenty-five or thirty giant Christmas trees, fully decorated, in every corner of the restaurant. There were little twinkle lights wrapped around the grapevines hanging from the ceiling. It was beautiful – and over the top. And you couldn’t get a table. We’d have waits over an hour long for dinner during the week, and people would specifically ask to be seated in the swings in the garden room, so their wait could be up to two hours. And they waited!! I remember thinking, “No prime rib in the world is worth waiting two hours just to sit in a swing and get motion sickness at dinner.”

One night I was serving a huge Christmas banquet with three other servers. It was the first of three banquets we would be working that night, so we had to get them in and out as quickly as possible. It was a corporate Christmas dinner, and when it came time to pay, the owner of the company saw that the automatic gratuity was around $250 to be split between the four of us. Out of the goodness of his heart, he added to the gratuity to make it an even $400 so that each of us could take home $100. Obviously we were all thrilled. All of us but Bobbi.

When we came into the office at the end of the night to check out, we were told that we would receive only the gratuity that had originally been agreed upon and that the additional gratuity would be absorbed by the restaurant. We were all livid. Luckily our night manager, Kathy, who had been with the restaurant since she’d been a server there 10 years earlier, was able to talk Bobbi into letting us keep our entire tip. She wasn’t happy about it, but she finally consented.

I was at Paducah Community College at the time, and my work and studies didn’t go well together. Kathy thought it was a good idea to move me up front to be a host, which required less time doing prep work and cleanup than serving, but I was allowed to continue to serve on weekends and during busy seasons. I was fine with that. It got me away from Bobbi, who had already told me she wasn’t happy with the work I was doing. She said school was getting in the way of my work. I thought, “That’s as it should be, isn’t it?!”

On the morning of July 17, 1996 – my day off, as I remember it – I woke to find both of my parents hovering over my bed, one on each side of me. My Dad was trying to wake me up. I thought perhaps I’d been called into work, but they told me no – I wouldn’t be going into work that day. Or perhaps for a long time after that. And then my Mom turned on the radio. Bobbi Jo had been found the night before, dead in her bathtub…strangled by a telephone cord.

What?!

The restaurant was closed for two days, I think. The staff was called in the second day for a meeting and to be interviewed by the police. The majority of the staff immediately suspected Neil had something to do with it, but…Neil had been the one to find her. Apparently, someone had entered their home while Neil and their 4-year old son and Bobbi’s nephew were out. Bobbi had always said that her worst nightmare was someone breaking into their house, so they’d had a security system installed, but for some reason that night it didn’t go off. According to what I heard, a struggle began in the kitchen. I was told a glass maple syrup bottle had been broken, and the newspapers disclosed that Bobbi had been hit on the head with a blunt object. A fingernail was found in the wall leading up the stairs, so apparently the struggle continued up there and finally she was strangled with the telephone cord from her bedroom and left slumped over the bathtub. When Neil and the two boys got home, he found her. Their six month old baby was in the next room, unharmed.

We were told that we could go to the visitation at the funeral home in small groups, in shifts. When I got there, Neil was standing next to the closed casket, stoney-faced and despondent. He was on tranquilizers, I was told. As I shook his hand and gave my condolences, I kept thinking, “You killed her. I know you had something to do with it.” The next day at the funeral, the restaurant staff all sat together in a group in the back of the church. As Neil got up to read a letter he’d written on behalf of their two children to their mother, we collectively rolled our eyes and kept our heads low. We were not able to attend the burial because the restaurant was scheduled to open for lunch at 3:00 and we had silverware to roll. Yes, you read that correctly – we were open the day of our owner’s funeral.

I continued to work at the Holman House for a few months after Bobbi’s murder. By that time, I was preparing to go to Murray State University, which was a 45-minute commute from Paducah, so I wasn’t able to work as much. I heard through the grapevine that in June 1999, Neil was sentenced to 12 years in prison for conspiracy to murder Bobbi. He was alleged to have paid a local hairdresser $50,000 to have someone kill her. In April 1999, the hairdresser was also sentenced to 10 years in prison for murder conspiracy for her role in the plot to murder Bobbi. She claims she gave the $50,000 to someone else who kept the money but never carried out the crime. The actual murderer has yet to be identified and the case is still unsolved almost 20 years later. The case was even featured in the “Paducah: Cruel Summer” episode of City Confidential in 2002.

What strikes me today, looking back on the whole ordeal, is that Bobbi Jo was only 35 when she was killed. She seemed so much older to me then, but…I’m now a year older than she was when she died. I didn’t like the woman, but I certainly didn’t think she deserved what she got. It’s sad to me that they still haven’t found out who did the deed. I can’t imagine what it must be like for her family to not have that closure, or what it must be like for Bobbi and Neil’s kids, to know that their Dad paid someone to have their Mom killed.

The Holman House is now a small cafeteria in Paducah. From what I understand from friends, it still does good business and is still run by Bob and Regina. Working there was certainly an education for me, and it has turned me off of the whole restaurant business. I know what goes on in the kitchen. I know what goes on in the server’s stations. I know what happens when you piss people off. You get spit in your food. Or you get killed.

cards

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3 Responses to “The One About The Murder”

  1. Adam H. July 13, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    I remember when all that happened. There were LOTS of rumors flying around about who killed her.

  2. Angy October 30, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

    Great blog post. You’re the first person I’ve ever heard that didn’t deem Bobbi a saint. I’m researching this story for a project and I’m glad I happened upon this.

    • jasonhbratton76 October 30, 2014 at 9:37 pm #

      She and I were by no means members of the mutual admiration society. I’m sure many people liked her a lot, but I’ve never liked being micromanaged, and she was the queen of that. Still, I never would have wished any of that on her or her family.

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