Vanessa Pruitt was born Vanessa Marie Hattin on May 5, 1982, in Florence, Alabama. Her mother, Dee Dee, stayed at home with Vanessa and her older brother, Jude.
Vanessa's father, Gerald, sold real estate and was active in community affairs. A gregarious man-about-town, Gerald kept Dee Dee busy hosting mixers and dinners but was often away evenings at meetings or business dinners.
Throughout school, Vanessa was in a number of clubs and made the cheerleading squad her freshman year. She had plenty of admirers and dated boys from her class as well as upperclassmen she met through Jude. One of Jude's friends, Dave Lockhart, was a year ahead of Vanessa and asked her out at the start of his senior year.
At first, he was one boyfriend among many, but unlike Vanessa's other dates who dreamed of college athletic stardom or a lifetime in Florence, Dave wanted to be a photojournalist. Something about Dave's shy, thoughtful demeanor pleased Vanessa, and soon they were dating exclusively. When Dave graduated, Vanessa confided to friends they were secretly engaged, planning to marry when Dave completed college.
He majored in journalism at the University of Alabama, but when Vanessa finished high school, her grades only got her as far as the University of North Alabama, where she studied business administration.
Vanessa visited Dave on the weekends whenever she could, and her friends remember her saying she was trying to get him to transfer to UNA, which had a perfectly good journalism program. Despite Vanessa's impatience, Dave continued his studies in Tuscaloosa, but he relented when she insisted they announce their engagement when he started his senior year at 'Bama. Dee Dee planned a magnificent hometown wedding for the couple, which took place a month after Dave graduated.
Dave landed a job at the Times Daily in Florence, and the young couple settled into married life. Vanessa worked part-time for her father but dropped out of her courses at UNA. She was no career girl. From the outset, she told people she and Dave wanted to have children once he moved to a bigger paper with better pay.
Finally, in late 2007, Dave got the call he'd been waiting for—the Times-Picayune was interested in hiring him. Dave made the long drive to New Orleans and left an impression with the photo editor, who recalls being sure he was going to hire the gracious young man from Florence. But fate intervened.
When Dave was driving home, a drunk driver struck his car head-on, and he died at the scene. Vanessa moved back in with her parents and spent her days numbly watching TV. After an inert year, she slowly began contemplating a new life without Dave.
Vanessa told friends she couldn't live in Florence anymore because it was too full of memories of Dave. A friend had attended Ole Miss and reported favorably on Oxford's hometown charm. In 2009, Vanessa abruptly moved there, got an apartment and a part-time job as a sales rep at the Oxford Eagle, and applied to the university to finish her degree.
The next three years were a blur of work and studies. Still outgoing and friendly, Vanessa had lost her giddy enthusiasm for life. Still, her demeanor was well-suited to sales, and when she graduated, she was offered an assistant sales manager position at the paper. She liked the business world and making the rounds of local companies.
Attending an Oxford Chamber of Commerce mixer in 2012, she met Robert Pruitt, a local attorney. She called on him for some legal advice the following week, and friends recall the two were instantly attracted to each other. They started dating seriously almost immediately and married within a year.
At first, Vanessa was happy just to have found love again, and she wrote her family bubbly postcards from their vacations to the Florida Keys and Jamaica. But within a few years, Vanessa told friends she was once again yearning to be a full-time mom. Robert preferred tinkering with electronics, hanging out with his buddy Gary, and wagering on sports. He seemed content to live the double-income, no-kids lifestyle permanently.
As time passed, Vanessa became increasingly impatient with Robert's inability to move beyond what she called his "adolescent hobbies." Personal tragedy had taught her that time was short, and she began pressuring him to change his ways.
Vanessa also felt working as a criminal defense attorney wasn't a suitable job for a father. She was outraged when Robert bought a gun, but she agreed that his interaction with the criminal element made his work dangerous. She urged him to return to the DA's office or consider moving to a bigger city with other prospects. But Robert was stubborn, and her crescendoing nagging fell on deaf ears.
Colleagues at the Eagle recalled hearing her talking to him in heated tones on the phone, and friends speculated that the marriage was on the rocks. Robert's refusal to go to Florence for the annual Hattin family reunion was a typical move in their ongoing war, and Vanessa left in a huff without him. At the reunion, she told her mother she was considering filing for divorce.