Vanessa Pruitt was born Vanessa Marie Hattin on May 5, 1977, in Florence, Alabama. Her mother, Dee Dee, stayed at home with Vanessa and her older brother, Jude, born in 1975.

Vanessa's father, Gerald, sold real estate locally and was active in community affairs, serving as a Rotarian and on the local Chamber of Commerce board. A gregarious man-about-town, Gerald kept Dee Dee busy hosting mixers and dinners but was often away evenings at meetings or business dinners.

Vanessa recalls spending time during childhood with her father helping him decorate the Chamber float for the annual 4th of July celebration, clowning around at the annual realty company picnic, or even presiding over a massive barbecue at the annual family reunion — but he was rarely on hand to help with math homework or to play games with his children.

Vanessa made up for her loneliness when she started school. Even in elementary grades, teachers recalled her as being a real social butterfly, always chattering and unafraid to interrupt lessons to share her thoughts with her classmate friends. Her grades were average, and teachers remembered her as being bright, if unfocused, and always excellent at performance-related tasks such as giving oral reports.

In middle and high school, Vanessa was active in a number of clubs and made the cheerleading squad her freshman year. Vanessa had plenty of admirers and dated boys from her class as well as upperclassmen to whom Jude introduced her when she pestered him. Like Vanessa, Jude was popular and uncomplicated, earning a varsity letter in track and editing the yearbook, which featured the energetic siblings on page after page in club photos and school spirit candids.

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 on Vanessa's schedule, but Dave wasn't like Vanessa's other dates. He had befriended Jude on the yearbook staff and wanted to be a photojournalist, whereas the others set their aspirations on college athletics or planned to stay in Florence. Something about Dave's shy, thoughtful demeanor pleased Vanessa, and soon they were dating exclusively. By the time Dave graduated, Vanessa confided to friends they were secretly engaged, planning to marry when Dave completed college.

He went to the University of Alabama and majored in journalism. But when Vanessa finished high school, she found her grades only got her as far as the University of North Alabama, where she studied business administration.

Vanessa continued to live at home during college but traveled to Tuscaloosa to visit Dave on the weekends whenever she could, and they managed to keep their relationship going. It wasn't easy. Vanessa's friends remember her complaining about the situation and how she was trying to get him to transfer to UNA, which had a perfectly good journalism program.

Despite Vanessa's impatience and her cajoling, Dave continued his studies at Tuscaloosa, but he relented when she insisted they announce their engagement when he began his senior year at 'Bama. Vanessa's parents told friends they were thrilled with the match — Dave's dad was on the Chamber board with Gerald, and the two families had much in common. Dee Dee began planning 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 down in a small rented bungalow. For four years, they had an idyllic existence surrounded by their childhood comforts and friends. Vanessa worked part-time as an assistant for her father's realty firm, but had dropped out of her courses at UNA. She was no career girl. From the outset, she told friends and coworkers she wanted to have children. Dave agreed but wanted to graduate to a bigger paper with better pay first.

Finally, in late 2002, 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.

On the drive home from the interview late at night, Dave's car was struck head-on by a drunk driver, and he was declared dead at the scene. The grief and shock were too much for Vanessa, who moved back to her family's house and spent her days numbly watching TV. After an inert year, her mother convinced Vanessa to seek counseling, and she slowly began contemplating a new life without Dave.

Vanessa decided to finish her degree and try to find some part-time work to help pay her expenses — and she told friends she could never live in Florence again because it was too full of memories of Dave. One of Vanessa's closest friends had attended Ole Miss and reported favorably on Oxford's hometown charm.

In 2004, Vanessa abruptly moved there before her application was even submitted to the university. She settled in an apartment, got a part-time job as a classified sales rep at the Oxford Eagle, and began classes as soon as she could gain admission.

The next three years were a blur of work and studies. Still outgoing and friendly, Vanessa had nonetheless lost forever her giddy enthusiasm for life and confided to childhood friends that she was certain the best years of her life were behind her.

Still, Vanessa's demeanor was well-suited to sales, and when she graduated, she was offered an assistant sales manager position at the paper. She found the business world diverting and enjoyed making the rounds of local businesses.

Attending an Oxford Chamber of Commerce mixer to troll for business in 2007, 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 began dating seriously almost immediately and married within a year.

At first, Vanessa was happy just to have found love again. She wrote her family bubbly postcards from vacations she and Robert took to the Florida Keys and Jamaica, and enjoyed making social and business connections as a couple.

But within a few years, Vanessa became restless and told friends she was once again harboring fantasies of quitting her job to become a full-time mom. Robert was less enthusiastic about raising a family. He 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 on a permanent basis.

As time passed, Vanessa became more and more 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 nagging him to change his ways.

Vanessa also disapproved of his job. Although she told friends she was outraged when Robert bought a gun, she agreed that his work was dangerous because of his interaction with the criminal element. It wasn't a suitable job for a father to have, and Vanessa began urging him not only to give up his lifestyle but also to change his career and return to the DA's office or to entertain moving to a bigger city and 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 the weekend of February 20, 2016, 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.

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