Kayla Tate White, formerly Buening, of Madison County, Ala., and Alison Kessler of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., lost their children to murder-suicides at the the hands of their former intimate partners despite their desperate pleas for help to the courts and law enforcement. Now, these two grieving mothers are fighting to get legislation passed in their respective states that would protect other children in domestic violence situations. Credit: Jim Rassol and Eric Schultz/MCIR Credit: Jim Rassol and Eric Schultz/MCIR



Alison Kessler read the text again on her smartphone: I want to see your head separated from your body.

She swallowed hard. That text on May, 19, 2020, was one of many threatening messages she received from John Stacey, the father of her 4-year-old son.

He had stalked her on social media, and when she blocked him, he created fake accounts to harass her. He even put a tracker on her car to watch her every move.

Now she had no choice. Now she had to act. She drove to the Broward County Judicial Complex in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and filed a domestic violence protection order against Stacey. She knew she had to protect her son, Greyson.


Kayla Tate Buening had plenty of reasons to worry. On the way home on New Year’s Eve 2011, her husband, Brian Buening, grew increasingly angry, cursing her violently. He was now slurring his words, fully drunk. He called her a loser for refusing to celebrate with him and his friends at the party they had just left.

Back home, he staggered out of the van and grabbed their son, Tate, from his car seat.

She followed close, worried he might drop their 9-month-old. After putting Tate in bed, he grabbed his gun and ordered Kayla into their bedroom. He locked the bedroom door so that she couldn’t get out. She was afraid to yell, for fear of escalating the situation. Things crashed violently against the door as Brian rampaged.

Then silence.

Kayla knocked on the door. “Brian,” she implored, “you’re scaring me. Shots rang out. And then she heard an air-piercing scream.

She broke the locked doorknob and saw a puddle of blood. Now it was her turn to scream.

Chapter 1


For Alison Kessler, it began as a fling, a brief night in New York City in 2016. It didn’t mean anything. She and John Stacey never dated, nor had plans to.

When Alison found out she was pregnant soon after the fling, John wanted her to get an abortion. She refused, and when Greyson was 6 months old, John fought filed for joint custody in Florida’s 17th Judicial Circuit Court. The move surprised Alison given his previous actions. The court ordered them to split custody 50-50. It’s Florida law unless there are compelling reasons that disqualify one of the parents.

At 4 years old, Greyson Kessler loved to laugh. He’d laughed so much as a baby that Alison gave him the nickname, “Giggs.” He loved to tell jokes that made others laugh with him. His smile was radiant and infectious. Everyone wanted to be around him.

He was fearless, eager and excited about whatever he did. Before he knew how to swim, Greyson jumped into a pool. He went down water slides when other kids his age were frightened to do so. He was passionate about school, and he loved to learn. He never wanted to miss a single day.


Kayla and her future husband, Brian, started dating in their twenties. She was a college student at the University of Alabama; he was an Army veteran with combat experience, serving two terms in Iraq.

Kayla Tate White holds a photo of her and her son Tate, who was killed Aug. 6, 2021, by his father before he took his own life. Credit: Eric Schultz/MCIR Credit: Eric Schultz/MCIR

Kayla graduated at 23 in May 2010. The next month, she found out she was pregnant. Soon enough, Brian began acting strangely. He became uncommunicative and stopped talking to her altogether. His behavior scared her.

Tate was the bright spot in her life. Kayla thought her son would be a comedian one day. He loved telling jokes and hearing laughter sing from those around him. Before he could speak, Tate would tumble around in crooked somersaults and attempted cartwheels, waiting to hear others laugh.

Once he learned to speak, he would tell jokes whenever the opportunity arose, repeating them again and again even when they lost their humor to others.

At 10 years old, Tate loved to swim, play basketball, draw and play video games. He was bold and daring. He would jump off the highest diving board at the pool and go down waterslides head-first.

Tate was good natured. He loved to make people feel good. Tate told his mother that if he won the lottery, he would buy a limo to pick up homeless people in his city. He dreamed of taking them to a mansion and giving them a banquet to give them health and strength, so they could have the potential to live forever. He told his mom multiple times each day how beautiful she was, and how lucky he was to have her.

But there was trouble at home in their young marriage. Brian’s walls started coming down, and Kayla learned who he really was. He would throw things at her such as keys and TV remotes. He was an aggressive driver with road-rage tendencies; if he didn’t like how others were driving he would slam on his brakes or cut them off. Kayla was constantly terrified that there would be a violent incident.

Brian had his demons. He’d been deployed twice to Iraq, the first time from 2004-2005 with the 58th Infantry. He then began training in explosive ordnance disposal. His second deployment as an EOD sergeant between November 2007 and January 2009 earned him the Bronze Star for meritorious service. During that deployment, he responded to over 150 combat missions with no injuries to anybody in his unit despite direct enemy contact on more than 18 separate occasions. He was a disabled American veteran who struggled with PTSD and severe emotional distress. He talked constantly of suicide and had made multiple attempts. His mood swings and violent tendencies formed a dark cloud over the family.

Chapter 2


Alison parked her car and took a deep breath before she walked into the Broward County Judicial Complex to file for a domestic violence injunction against John in the county’s 17th District Circuit Court. She had just dropped her son off at John’s and she was hoping it might be the last time. She was never happy with the 50-50 custody arrangement given John’s increasingly erratic behavior. Her main concern was to protect her son. If her filing was approved, Alison would be escorted to John’s rental apartment by a police officer to pick up Greyson. If denied, Greyson would stay with John.

Alison walked inside the judicial building and learned the news. Her heart sank The injunction was denied. The court ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence, and the abuse wasn’t directed at Greyson; it was directed at Alison.

Tired and weary, Alison drove home. Her thoughts raced, and she panicked for Greyson’s safety. She struggled to sleep that night.

Alison learned the next day that Greyson never arrived at school. She thought nothing of it. Perhaps John took the day off from work to spend with Greyson. Since he had custody, she thought that was his prerogative. Alison texted John, asking why Greyson never made it to school. Alison waited all day, but she never received any texts back.

The next day was Alison’s turn to be with Greyson. She called his school around 8 a.m., asking if he were there. Greyson was missing.

Her heart skipped a beat.

An Ominous Quarrel

It was a cloudless night. Brian, Kayla and Tate Buening were at a friend’s house for New Year’s Eve. Brian was 27, Kayla was 25, and Tate was 9 months old. Brian and the other men were doing shots in one room, while Kayla and the other women were in another room, taking care of their kids. The men were drunk, the women exhausted by their childcare duties. Shortly after midnight, the party broke up.

The drunken binge proved a catalyst for Kayla’s worst nightmare.

It was at home, after Brian locked her in their bedroom, when that shot rang out and she was forced to batter down the bedroom door. There, she found Brian lying in a pool of blood. He had attempted to kill himself with a shot to the head? It didn’t work. Brian survived though paralyzed in most of his limbs.

Kayla stayed by his side to help him rehabilitate. For nearly a year, Kayla drove him everywhere and took care of him, while also taking care of Tate. Brian eventually healed so he could walk with a limp. But one critical thing—Brian’s violent tendencies—hadn’t changed.

Things continued downhill, and Brian and Kayla separated in 2014 and divorced by April 2015. For Brian to retain custody, he had to go through counseling, multiple drug tests and other steps to prove himself safe to be with Tate. Despite these precautions, he remained unstable. He cursed Kayla in text messages, threatened to kill her; he abused alcohol while he had custody of Tate; he withheld child support. He once sent Kayla a text message that said, “I hope you die soon.” Other threats followed.

In June 2021, a friend advised Kayla to file a protection order against Brian for herself and Tate. She immediately inquired to the Madison County Sheriff’s Department in Madison, Alabama, and was advised against it. The official line was that protection orders can muddle custody issues in cases of split custody between parents. An arrest warrant for Brian might be more plausible, she was told. But Brian’s abuse wasn’t physical and his abuse by texting didn’t meet arrest warrant standards.

Frustrated, on July 9, 2021, Kayla filed for an emergency hearing in Madison County Family Court  in the  23rd Judicial Circuit District that would reevaluate Brian’s fitness to continue joint custody. But since family court only meets once a month, that meant she would have to wait until Aug. 9 for an emergency hearing. Until then, Brian would keep his custody rights — a thing that gave Kayla spasms of fear.

On Aug. 4, Brian walked out of an Academy Sports store with his newest purchase from their gun section.

A Panicked Mother Seeks Help

Alison had long been harboring fears for her child’s safety. Now Greyson, 10, wasn’t at school, and John wasn’t answering her text messages. Frantic, she telephoned the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. She explained what had happened and asked for an officer to meet her at John’s apartment.

As she floored her car, her mind raced. Greyson was her whole world, and nothing outside that world mattered. When she arrived at John’s apartment, in the Las Olas by the River complex, a gated community, the security guard refused to let her in, despite how many times he had before.

Police went ahead of Alison to knock on John’s apartment door. No one answered. They came back to Alison after five minutes saying they’d learned nothing. But she was persistent. It was supposed to be her day with Greyson. She showed police the court-ordered agreement form. Perhaps, she feared, John had kidnapped Greyson and taken him to his hometown in New Jersey.

Alison drove home and had her lawyer file an emergency pickup order with the circuit court. That way, if Greyson were found, he would have to be returned to Alison immediately.

Despite the red flags, the judge denied the emergency order. A police officer told her not to worry. Greyson was with his with his father and fathers don’t harm their sons. Nothing would happen.

Alison frantically tried to get a wellness check for Greyson. She called the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, and Child Protective Services over and over. She was desperate to get to anyone who might help her learn where Greyson was. She told whoever picked up, “I believe my child is harmed inside his father’s apartment, and he could be locked inside.”

The cops knocked on John’s door several times. But since there was no answer, they declined to enter. “You can’t just break someone’s door down,” one cop told her. “It’s a liability.”

One of John’s neighbors called Alison to let her know John’s car was at the apartment complex She reached the cops again but an officer told her no one would be available to check on Greyson until the next day. Alison would not take no for an answer.

She opened her laptop to Google seeking the owner of John’s apartment. She found the contact information and learned the only person with a spare key lived in Miami, about an hour away. Alison kept fighting. She knew if she could get in contact with a locksmith, perhaps she could get permission from the owner to access the apartment.

She got the approval she needed and got the police on the phone. It was 10 p.m. when Alison coordinated with Fort Lauderdale police and the locksmith to meet at John’s. Around 11:50 p.m. she got a text, saying police and the locksmith were at John’s door. She wanted confirmation that John and Greyson weren’t there. She truly believed John had kidnapped Greyson and had taken him elsewhere.

Five hours went by with no word. Alison sat in her closet, hugging her knees to her chest, weeping for Greyson. At 11:50 p.m. on May 21, 2021, Fort Lauderdale police waited in the 75-degree heat as the locksmith worked the apartment’s doorknob. The door creaked open, and they walked inside. A gun was on the floor, near two bodies on the couch. The metallic odor of blood lingered in the air.

Alison Kessler holds a pillow in her Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 30, 2022, stitched with a memorial to her son Greyson, who was killed by his father in a murder-suicide on May 21, 2021. Credit: Jim Rassol/MCIR Credit: Jim Rassol/MCIR

Pleas for Help Ignored

On Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, Kayla pulled into Brian’s driveway in Madison County, Alabama, to pick up Tate. Typically, he would simply come out at the honk of a horn and hop in her car. That way, she didn’t have to encounter Brian. This time, Tate didn’t come out. Kayla called the Madison County Sheriff’s Department to request a wellness check.

The deputy arrived. Upon hearing the circumstances, he declined to get involved. Kayla pleaded with him to reconsider—Tate’s safety was at issue.

You can go in as easily as I can,” Kayla recalls the deputy saying.

She tried again, explaining that relations with Brian were toxic and that she had received death threats from him. She feared her approach to the house could set him off.

The deputy still demurred.

Kayla wasn’t to be deterred. She walked tentatively walked towards the door and rang the doorbell.

No answer.

She tried the door handle. The door was unlocked and opened easily.

Walking inside, she noticed all the lights were out. She called for the officer to come, and she walked ahead of him through the house.

When she got to her son’s bedroom, she saw him – and couldn’t stop screaming.

Tate’s body lay next to his father, who had killed him in a murder-suicide.

One Child, Many occurrences

Alison believes her son died in a murder-suicide that could have been prevented. While there has been a pattern of parents killing their children in murder-suicides, the FBI does not track those crimes. The numbers collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are incomplete because a number of states, including Mississippi, fail to report such deaths.

FBI data shows that 21,570 homicides occurred in 2020. National studies place the number of murder-suicides as high as 1,500 a year, most of them men killing their intimate partners. A database assembled by MCIR shows that more than 1 in 7 murder-suicides in 2019 and 2020 involved the killings of children. More than 9 out of 10 of these children were killed by their parents.

Experts say some of these deaths could have been prevented if courts started counting domestic violence against the mothers as evidence the fathers could harm their children, too. After fighting to protect their children’s lives, these two mothers – Alison Kessler and Kayla Buening (now) White  – have not given up. Instead, they are fighting to pass legislation that would put measures in place to prevent situations like theirs from happening again.

FBI data shows that 21,570 homicides occurred in 2020. National studies place the number of murder-suicides as high as 1,500 a year, most of them men killing their intimate partners. A database assembled by MCIR shows that more than 1 in 7 murder-suicides in 2019 and 2020 involved the killings of children. More than 9 out of 10 of these children were killed by their parents.

Experts say some of these deaths could have been prevented if courts started counting domestic violence against the mothers as evidence the fathers could harm their children, too. After fighting to protect their children’s lives, these two mothers – Alison Kessler and Kayla Buening – have not given up. Instead, they are fighting to pass legislation that would put measures in place to prevent situations like theirs from happening again. 

Some Hope  for  ‘Greyson’s Law’

“Greyson’s Law,” first introduced during Florida’s 2022 legislative session, seeks to change the state’s law that provides shared custody, even if the father has carried out threats or domestic violence against the mother. Under the proposed bill, a judge is required to consider domestic violence as “evidence of detriment to the child” and can cancel custody if a parent or child is in “imminent danger” from such violence.

Democratic state Sen. Lori Berman of Boynton Beach, who represents District 31 and is one of the sponsors of “Greyson’s Law,” said coercive control should be a part of Florida’s domestic violence definition to protect victims. She said that, in domestic violence situations, the abuser will take control of the victim’s life. This may take the form of the abuser not allowing the victim to meet with others, or taking the victim’s paychecks.

“Coercive control is really important because it is a really strong way that people are controlling people, without actually physical violence,” Berman said.

Regarding Greyson’s death, Berman said Kessler did everything she could have done to prevent it from happening. “[She followed] every rule we had out there,” Berman said. “She did everything perfectly.”

“Greyson’s Law” died in the Judiciary Committee in March. Berman said the bill didn’t pass because of a few technical issues, such as parts in the bill that contradict each other. She plans to lead a rewrite of the bill this summer to simplify it and then reintroduce it in the next legislative session.

Alison, while disappointed at the outcome, believes the law eventually pass and, when it does, it will be a great leap forward in the safety of children in abusive custody relationships like hers. “The more people know about it, the more awareness that’s created,” Alison said. “Hopefully, change will happen, and it has to happen within the family courts.”

Alison Kessler has kept her Greyson’s bedroom in her Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home untouched since his father killed him in a murder-suicide on Mat 21, 2022.  Credit: Jim Rassol/MCIR Credit: Jim Rassol/MCIR

‘Tate’s Law’ – Elevating Children’s Rights

Kayla is pushing the Alabama Legislature to  adopt “Tate’s Law,” now in the planning stages. The bill, if enacted, would require emergency court hearings within 24 to 48 hours if a child’s safety is involved, or allow the concerned parent to withhold the child from the other parent without penalty. It may take suicidal ideations into consideration when determining if a parent is fit for custody. It could consider coercive control as abuse, and it could require more intensive background checks for someone to purchase firearms.

The advocacy team working on “Tate’s Law” is working to narrow the focus of the bill before trying to run it through the next legislative session.

“Kayla was as good as a mother can get,” said Courtney Hanks, a counselor in Huntsville, Alabama, and a part of the advocacy team for Tate’s Law. “She did everything by the book and really [Tate’s death] was a system failure. That’s why we’re trying to make some changes, but she was a beautiful, amazing mother.”

Hanks said part of the goal of the “Tate’s Law” is to make children’s rights paramount to parental rights in situations like Kayla’s. 

Rebecca Winters, a divorce and family law attorney in Huntsville who is also on the advocacy team, said there’s likely nothing the court system could have done differently, based on their current resources, to prevent Tate’s death. There is no designated family court in Alabama’s Madison County. For emergency hearings, 30 days is a typical wait, especially in Madison County, which only has one week per month designated to family court-related issues.

Since Kayla has been open with her story and her advocacy for Tate’s Law, Winters said she has already seen a significant impact. There have been similar situations since Tate’s death, in which parents are concerned for the safety of their children. Winters said judges have been more apt to grant emergency protection orders, some of whom have cited Tate’s death as a reason for granting the order.

Winters said several concerned parents have reached out to her, telling their stories and asking if they’re similar to Kayla’s, and if there’s anything that can be done to protect their children. “I feel like Kayla’s story has kind of given those people a voice that they feel a little more comfortable coming out, you know, and less fearful,” Winters said.

Recently, a judge retired from Jefferson County, Alabama. That judicial opening will be moved to Madison County — with hope that it will help reduce caseloads and speed up  parental applications for emergency hearings and protective orders.

Winters advises those who have safety concerns about their children to file protective orders and police reports when appropriate, so there’s a written track record. “Just don’t hesitate to tell your story or to ask questions,” Winters said. “Because I think that’s how you get the best advice.”

Needed: Training in Family Violence

April Ross, executive director of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, said suicide prevention needs to be addressed along with murder-suicides, since these suicides tend to be premediated. She also said judges will sometimes work in a “closed vacuum.” She said they have to operate within the law, and they have to make the best decision that’s in front of them.

Ross also believes judges should have proper domestic violence information training before handling those cases. “Without some of that background and foundation, it is going to be harder for a judge to make an appropriate decision to protect parties or to catch on to something that may be more subtle,” she said.

“The reality is that all of the acts and behaviors and all of the conduct that constitutes abuse as we know it…  isn’t necessarily criminal conduct,” Ross said. She added that it’s difficult for those in law enforcement and the judicial system to protect people if they don’t understand what they’re facing. “They get ongoing training on just family violence issues, generally speaking, I think they’re going to be better poised to recognize the signs that may be sitting right in front of them,” she said.

Ross said that even if judges are trained and know how to adequately handle domestic violence cases, that doesn’t mean a family is safe. For instance, with limited gun restrictions in America, someone may have PTSD, severe depression and other mental illnesses and still be able to get a gun. “They still have the ability to purchase a firearm,” Ross said. “So in that case, there’s nothing a judge could do for that.”

While a judge can mandate that someone cannot be in possession of firearms, there will be inconsistent application of such mandates without statewide policies. Ross said it has to be a policy-based change.

Florida’s 17th Judicial Circuit, the circuit that handled Alison Kessler’s concerns, emailed a statement to MCIR: “Judges are prohibited from commenting on court proceedings and cannot discuss the specifics of any orders. As we stated at the time of the event, it cannot be stressed enough that if someone has reason to believe a child or any other person is in danger, they should call law enforcement — in all instances.”

Which is exactly what Alison did.

This story was produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes MCIR, Mississippi Today, the Clarion Ledger, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization that seeks to inform, educate and empower Mississippians in their communities through the use of investigative journalism. Sign up for our newsletter.

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