It took Rachel Budko 13 years to feel comfortable talking about the night her ex-stepfather shot and killed her mother and wounded her grandmother before turning the gun on himself in Lebanon.
Even now, tears well up in Rachel's eyes when she second-guesses her own decision to run to a neighbor's house for help, leaving her loved ones behind; or when she thinks about her grandmother suffering in the hospital for six days before she died, too.
"He shot my grandma five times," Rachel said. "How does someone do something like that?"
The 38-year-old Columbia woman was sitting at an umbrella table on the patio of a local coffee shop last week. Husband Mike Budko was home with their daughter, Alaina, 3, and son, Michael, 17 months.
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It was Rachel's first interview since the 2005 murder-suicide that involved her mother, Peggy Fleming, 47; grandmother, Dorothy "Dottie" Watson, 79; and ex-stepfather, Don Fleming, 63; all of Lebanon.
Rachel seems almost surprised that she's been able to start a family and find happiness, given the way her life was shattered at age 25. She credits the love and support of family and friends, years of therapy and faith in God for helping her overcome sadness and guilt, anger and depression.
"You can turn toward God or you can turn away from God," she said. "I got baptized, and I became a member of my church not too long after that happened. He just kind of carried me through my loss."
Rachel also has found the strength to take action against domestic violence. She's the founding director of PEG Can Help, a nonprofit organization that has raised tens of thousands of dollars for battered women and their children through trivia nights, cocktail parties and golf tournaments.
On June 16, the organization will sponsor its 11th benefit golf tournament at Tamarack Country Club in Shiloh. Four-person teams can enter through June 11.
Volunteers include Rachel's friend, Tina Patti-Sanchez, 41, a physical therapist in St. Louis. She admires Rachel for not giving up after such a horrific experience and for trying to make positive change in honor of her mother and grandmother.
"How does your world get rocked to that extreme and you still cope?" Tina asked. "It wasn't like they died in a car accident, and the police called her. She witnessed it. But instead of becoming a victim, she became an advocate."
Peggy was a corporate travel agent with a complicated relationship that led her to marry, divorce, remarry and again divorce Don over a decade. During the good times, they rode his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and stayed on their houseboat.
But the former Rachel Embrich saw Don's dark side and worried that he would someday hurt her mother. She cried when they got back together.
"He was an alcoholic," Rachel said. "He never hit me, but he did some horrible things when he got mad at me. Like he put my cat in the trash compactor, and he unhooked parts of my car so I wouldn't have any heat in the dead of winter."
At the time, Rachel was a Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate who worked in credentialing and recruiting for a medical company. People always commented on her resemblance to her mother.
The PEG Can Help website describes Peggy as a fun, outgoing and big-hearted woman with many friends. She often rescued and cared for stray animals, as did her mother, Dottie.
"We had the type of relationship where she (knew) everything in my life," Rachel wrote on the website. "My mother was who I turned to for absolutely everything. We were alike in so many ways."
Rachel feels that Peggy stayed with Don because he "beat her down" emotionally, convinced her that she was worthless and told her she could never find another man if she left him.
After the murders, then Lebanon Police Chief Douglas Lebert noted that officers had been called to the Fleming home on Harmon Drive several times for domestic disputes.
On Nov. 15, 2004, Peggy filed an order of protection against Don in St. Clair County court, according to a Belleville News-Democrat story. She asked that the order be vacated on June 29, 2005, but reported on Sept. 5 that her ex-husband had been stalking her.
"Even his children agree with me leaving him," Peggy wrote in her original request for an order of protection. "He has slashed my tires, threatened to kill me and my mother ... He has purchased surveillance equipment and constantly harasses me."
Peggy found a townhouse in St. Charles, Missouri, and planned to move there with Dottie, an active church member and retired appliance saleswoman at Sears in Fairview Heights. The home Peggy and Don had shared on Harmon Drive was listed for sale.
On Thursday night, Sept. 8, 2005, Peggy went to the home with Dottie and Rachel to pack her belongings. Don burst through the back door and started shooting.
"I was actually on the phone with my boyfriend, and I dropped the phone," Rachel said. " ... My first thought was to go and get help. Otherwise, I never would have left them. I ran across the street to the neighbors' house, and I started banging on the door, and I said, 'I need to use your phone,' and I called 911."
Lebanon police arrived about 9:21 p.m., according to the News-Democrat story. They saw Don walking around the house with a gun in his hand and heard one shot while waiting for assistance from officers in Mascoutah and Shiloh.
Chief Lebert later explained that Don fired one round into the floor, reloaded his shotgun and discharged a second round that ricocheted and struck Peggy in the neck.
"Fleming then pulled out a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol and shot his mother-in-law several times and went outside and smoked a cigarette," Lebert said. "Then Fleming went back inside and shot Peggy Fleming."
Don committed suicide as police entered the home, according to the News-Democrat story. Peggy was pronounced dead at the scene. Dottie was taken to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Belleville, where she lived for six days.
"She was getting fluid in her lungs, and they would vacuum them out, but it was painful, and she stopped letting them do it," Rachel said. "I think she was to the point that 'I'm ready.' She had lost her daughter."
Force for good
Rachel formed PEG Can Help in 2007, after friends encouraged her to turn the tragedy into a force for good and help other victims of domestic violence. PEG is a name but also an acronym for providing information to those who need assistance; educating the public; and giving resources.
The annual golf tournament has been the organization's major fundraiser, collecting more than $50,000 in the past 11 years.
"A group of people pay $85 each and spend five hours playing golf and hanging out with their friends, and they can save a family," said Rachel's friend, Tina. "That's pretty significant."
This year, the tournament will begin at 1 p.m. June 16 (registration at noon). Organizers are seeking four-person teams, as well as hole sponsors, silent-auction items and cash donations.
In the early days, PEG Can Help gave money to emergency shelters. Today, its beneficiary is Lydia's House in St. Louis, which provides families with transitional housing for two years, as well as counseling, case management and help with finances, job-hunting and other needs.
"Our goal is to make sure that after the two years, women get back on their feet with safe, independent living," said Karen Kirk, executive director.
Another golf-tournament volunteer is Rachel's husband, Mike, 38, whose full-time job is senior manager of derivatives at Emerson Electric in Ferguson, Missouri.
"The good part about Rachel's organization is that there's no administrative overhead," he said. "There's no facility, no staff members, no costs whatsoever. So 100 percent of what's raised goes to Lydia's House."
Rachel's father, Keith Embrich, and his wife, Verna, live in Waterloo. Rachel's stepmother, the late Nikki Embrich, who helped her through the mourning process after her mother's death, died of cancer in 2008. Rachel has two half brothers, Austen and Corey Embrich.
Rachel met her husband-to-be in 2009 through a mutual friend at a wedding in Mexico. He heard about the murders early on but quickly recognized that Rachel's positive attributes were far more important than her sad story.
"She is the most generous person I know," Mike said. "She is the first person to volunteer to help anyone in need or donate her time and money. She really puts the needs of other people before her own."
Eventually, Mike moved from California to Illinois. He proposed to Rachel on the 13th hole during the 2011 golf tournament. They got married the following year.
Today, Mike doesn't mind that his wife is an admitted worrier. He sees it as proof of her love.
"I worry about everything," Rachel said. "I worry when my husband leaves for work. I worry when my kids are sick. Everyone worries, but I worry to an unusual extent. When you live through something like (the murders), you're always worried that the carpet is going to get ripped out from under you."
Today, Peggy and Dottie are never far from Rachel's heart and mind. Her wedding decorations included vases with their favorite flowers on a memory table. The screensaver on her cellphone is a photo of her and her mom.
At the coffee shop last week, Rachel smiled when a singing duo performed a Fleetwood Mac song. It was Peggy's favorite band.
"My mom was my everything," Rachel said. "She was my best friend in the entire world."
PEG Can Help Benefit Golf Scramble
- What: 18-hole tournament with four-person teams
- When: Saturday, June 16 (registration at noon; shotgun start at 1 p.m.)
- Where: Tamarack Country Club, 800 Tamarack Lane, Shiloh
- Entry deadline: June 11
- Entry fee: $85 per person includes greens fees, cart rental, dinner at 5:30 p.m. and prizes
- Wanted: Hole sponsors, cash donations and items for a silent auction and giveaways
- Information: Visit www.pegcanhelp.com, email to email@example.com or call 618-534-4918
- Donate: PEG Can Help fund at Regions Bank in O'Fallon