Victim of home invasion homicide remembered by woman who loved him
The burrowing owls seemed to know something had changed.
They emitted their distinctive chirp as if they could will the man who lived in a home across the street back home. They flew back and forth from one nest to another, looking, watching. The owls would no longer see the man who called the house home for a couple of years. They will never see his young sons again.
Nikki Christmas will never see her son’s father, the love of her life and childhood sweetheart again.
Early July 10, everything changed.
Eric Leigh Stuebinger had just celebrated his 28th birthday on July 1. He loved to barbecue, had three grills. He loved to fish.
But most of all, he loved being a father and would do anything to make sure Brenden, 8, Christmas’ son, and Eli, just a toddler, had the things they needed.
Christmas, 27, who lives in South Central Florida, says being a single-mother is hard, but she’s making it work. She has two other sons, both younger than Brenden.
“That’s the bad part of it,” she says. “I always knew he would be there.”
Growing up, Christmas didn’t know that at her 16th birthday party she would meet the love of her life. Her mother had paid for her and some friends to go to Halloween Horror Nights. One friend had been dating a young man named Eric, but told Christmas Eric liked her.
Soon Stuebinger and Christmas became a couple. They played on the beach, went to movies, graduated school. They had a huge group of friends including a man named Terry Frank “Franky” Ragland Jr. They all hung out in Lehigh Acres, grew up there.
She remembers one time when she and Stuebinger went to Orlando. The pool at the hotel was closed for the night, but they were young, carefree. They jumped the fence to swim.
Stuebinger and Christmas spent a few years together. Christmas became pregnant. She gave birth to Brenden. The couple would be on and off-again. Sometimes she would get mad and not talk to Stuebinger. But she knew, she just knew he was always there, always would be.
Even after he died, she picked up the phone and called, thinking he would answer. But all she got was his voicemail. She called it several more times after that, just listening to his voice, until his cell was disconnected a week or so later.
The task to clear Stuebinger’s items fell to Christmas and some close friends. His mother couldn’t go into the place where her son was killed. But someone had to do it. The family needs money from a garage sale to get his cremains.
On the last day Christmas was at the house, she reminisced, but grimaced when she moved the loveseat Stuebinger was pushed onto before he was Tasered and shot.
On a last walk-through, she took care to side-step a blanket covering where he lay as his life slipped away from the gunshot to his torso. Blood spatter was still on the walls. A hole in his bedroom wall adjacent to the living room had been patched where a bullet had zinged through.
Fingerprint dust covered the front door, his bedroom door.
His toddler son’s bedroom still had toys strewn about.
Eli and his mother, Jamie Thorpe, returned to Texas. They had been in town only a short while, even though Eli was born here. Stuebinger’s mother says on her Facebook page she feels as if another part of her son — Eli — is gone.
The men accused of killing Stuebinger had followed Thorpe into the house at 511 N.W. 2nd Ave. in Cape Coral early that July 10 when she arrived to spend the night, court records state. It was just after 2 a.m. Eli slept in his bedroom in his crib, until he was startled awake. Another person, a 14-year-old boy, had stayed in the truck. He’d pointed out where Stuebinger lived and drove the men away from the house.
One of the accused, Ragland, grew up with Christmas and Stuebinger and the crowd. They hung out together, had fun together. Never did Christmas dream Stuebinger would die in such a fashion, allegedly at the hands of someone he knew and knew well.
The boy, 14, also had known Stuebinger through his father. He has not been charged.
“No matter how big or small his bad decisions may have been, he would have never hurt anyone over drugs, or money out of meanness. He never would have broken into someone’s house,” she said, questioning why a friend would harm him.
All the men had to do was ask Stuebinger for help. He would have given it, Christmas said. They didn’t need to come in with guns and Tasers, wearing masks, Stuebinger putting up the fight of his life.
Yes, she says, she realizes marijuana was found in the house, in the big safe where Stuebinger kept them away from his boys, in his bedroom closet. Another, smaller bag was found in his bedroom, official records show. Investigators also found some pills and a small amount of cocaine, but the pills could have been prescription. He’d hurt his back about a year ago at work.
“I’m not saying I agree with things he did and that they were right,” Christmas said. “I do believe in the death penalty but not for such minor crimes.”
The masked men had demanded the drugs and a big bag of money. Stuebinger fought back, pulling the mask off one, Timothy Wayne Tuttle, 22, a man who was caught and charged after a massive manhunt 11 days later. Eli’s mom recognized him as someone she knew.
“I just don’t understand why it had to come to this,” Christmas said. “He was just too good hearted.”
Stuebinger’s dream in life?
“He wanted a family. He wanted a home life. He didn’t like punching a time card,” she said.
She was going to lend him some money to help him get his own business detailing cars, but death came first.
Stuebinger had a felony record, carrying a concealed weapon, but adjudication was withheld meaning if he completed everything he needed to, the charge would ultimately be dropped. In 2009, he was charged with battery. He was at a bar when a fight broke out and he broke a beer bottle over a man’s head. Stuebinger didn’t like it that a woman was being hit.
He lost his license because he couldn’t pay child support. He couldn’t find a good-paying, steady job because of his felonies.
And he did what he had to do to take care of his children. Some say that means he turned to drugs.
“I don’t think there are many people out there who can say they haven’t made a bad decision, or that you wouldn’t consider doing what you had to do to financially support your children,” she said. “He unfortunately got caught up in making fast money and once you get caught up in it, it’s hard to get out.”
But he also was a romantic. As Christmas went through an old telephone book where he kept phone numbers dating back to six or seven years ago — including Ragland’s — she found tickets to movies they’d been to. She found letters he written her but never sent, a food bill, silly things that mean so much now.
As she left the house one last time, Christmas, a strong woman who doesn’t let people see her kinder side, wiped a tear from her eye.
“I have so many questions. Mainly why’s, what’s if’s and if I had done something different? All the answers I may never find. One answer I do have is he’s gone and I will never have him back.”
But she and her son Brenden, who loved to play with gas-powered cars with his daddy, go to Sun Splash and play video games, do have are heart-shaped lockets, with some of Stuebinger’s ashes inside.
The rest of the cremains will be given to the family once they raise the $3,700 for the funeral home. Because he was a convicted felon, they get no help from the state, she said, even though he is the victim of a violent crime. Christmas is in the process of establishing an account to allow people who would like to donate, just so the family can have Stuebinger back.
But one thing she wanted people to understand, nothing is worth the loss of a loved one.
“There are no drugs or enough money out there worth putting all your friends and loved ones through all this heart ache and pain,” she said. “Always enjoy life but think hard about the choices and consequences you make.”