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Story of Varn brothers' killings at Plant City ranch reads like Old West shoot-em-up

PLANT CITY — Joanne Varn spotted the SUV barreling into the pasture trailing a cloud of dust and felt a sense of dread.

She hoped it wasn't her ex-husband, Milton Varn, a man with a temper who would be angry that she was there with her new husband and her former brother-in-law, Perry Varn. Moments earlier, the trio had rolled into the pasture of Rocking V Ranch to look at a horse Perry wanted to sell.

But it was Milton Varn. And he was angry.

Without a word, the weathered cowboy got out of the battered green Ford Escape armed with a pistol in each hand. He shot his brother Perry in the neck, killing him instantly. He then fired a round at Joanne's husband, hitting him in the shoulder.

Then he turned his guns on his ex-wife.

"I told you not to come back here," he said.

Moments later, Milton Varn was dead, too.

These details, included in a newly-released Hillsborough Sheriff's Office investigation report, shed more light on the Easter weekend shooting that struck down, on their own land, a generation of a well-known Plant City family.

In that pasture, the report and other public records indicate, Milton Varn decided to end a long-simmering dispute with his brother and punish his ex-wife for daring to disobey him.

•••

It was supposed to be a quick visit.

That day, April 15, Joanne Varn's son James invited her and her husband, George "Terry" Long, to see a barn James was building at his place on the north end of the Rocking V ranch, an 1,800-acre spread on Varn Road, northwest of the city limits.

Joanne, a 62-year-old registered nurse who lives in Fort Meade, asked James if Milton was going to be there.

" 'Cause I don't wanna have any run ins with your dad,' " she told him. "He said, 'No, he's fine.' So I thought he was fine."

Sitting in a sheriff's detective's car after the shooting, Joanne Varn explained why she had reason to worry.

Joanne told Detective Ed Remia her ex-husband had an anger management problem that scared her during their 28-year marriage. When he found out she was going to leave him, she said, he put his arms around her throat. She left in 2005 and they divorced three years later.

Then she shared another harrowing story with Remia.

One day when James was nine or 10, father and son were using a Caterpillar tractor to take down a tree near the house. James, the couple's only child, was goofing off and failed to engage the tractor's clutch to keep tension on a chain attached to the tree.

"Milton got that glazed, shaky look and he said, 'I'm gonna kill him, I'm gonna kill him,' " Joanne recalled.

He drew a gun and threatened to shoot the boy, she said.

"And I got a hold of him and I said, 'You need to stop,' " she told Remia. "And I told James to run to the swamp and hide until I came to get him. And not to come out for anybody. And so then I told Mil, I said, 'You need to calm down or I'm gonna go to my car and get my gun and I am going to shoot you, you need to stop.' And he did. He took some breaths and he calmed down, but I didn't get James out of the woods until that evening."

Remia asked if Milton was a heavy drinker, used drugs or had a mental illness.

"No," she said, "he's just angry." And he refused to get help, she said.

His brother was a frequent target of his fury.

For years, tension smoldered between the only children of Lamar "Ed" and Marth Varn. Ed inherited Rocking V from his father. His sons grew up there working cattle together as kids and later as men.

According to Joanne, Ed Varn told his sons for years that when he died, Milton would get the northern portion of the ranch, Perry the southern part.

"But he realized that Milton was not ...," Joanne said during her interview with Remia, pausing before finishing her thought, "... of sound decision making."

With that and tax considerations in mind, Ed Varn created a limited liability corporation and let the family members stay where they were, Joanne said. Ed died in 2012. Perry and Martha Varn were named in corporate records as managers of the limited liability company. The brothers had separate homes there. Martha still lives on the ranch.

Before his death, Ed gave Joanne Varn — by then divorced from Milton — eight acres on the north end of the ranch.

"I had been his daughter for years and I had helped out and tried to be the peacemaker for years and he just gave it to me," she said. Her son James' place is on the ranch near there.

Milton's anger at his older brother landed him in jail twice, in 2009 and 2012. Both times, he was accused of punching Perry.

Two years ago, Perry tried unsuccessfully to get a protective injunction against his brother. In a written affidavit, Perry claimed Milton, had confronted him and told him he had until sundown to pay him $1,900 to cover the costs of one of his previous court cases.

"Or he would take care on (sic) my a-- cowboy justice style," Perry Varn wrote.

On the day of the shooting, as James was showing them his new barn, Joanne caught a glimpse of Milton near one of the barn's doors. Then he disappeared.

"And I thought, well, that's not good," Joanne told Remia.

She could have left, but Perry Varn had offered to show her an Appaloosa mare she might want to buy.

"A good, broke horse," she said.

So she took a chance.

•••

Perry Varn got behind the wheel of his army-green Polaris Ranger utility vehicle about 1:30 p.m. and led the way into a pasture on the north end of the ranch. Joanne and Terry Long followed in Long's white Ford pickup truck.

They rolled into a vast pasture dotted with cow patties. Brown cows grazed under a blue sky.

They spotted the mare and stopped. Joanne got out and approached the horse with feeding cubes. She wore blue jeans a blue embroidered blouse and cowboy boots. A gold chain with a horse head pendant dangled from her neck. Perry, who had back problems, stayed in the Polaris. He wore a camouflage baseball cap, red T-shirt, black athletic shorts and Nike sneakers.

Joanne finished feeding the mare and was heading back to the truck when she spotted the Ford Escape speeding toward them amid a cloud of dust. She asked Perry who it was.

Either James or Milton, he replied.

"And as soon as he said it might be Milton I was concerned because of the past conflicts and threats that there might be a problem," Joanne Varn told Remia.

A moment later, Milton pulled up near Perry's Polaris and got out of the Escape. He wore a camouflage-patterned Columbia shirt and dirty blue jeans rolled up over brown cowboy boots. He held a rusty black Ruger .44-caliber revolver in one hand and a green Kel-Tec 22-caliber semi-automatic pistol in the other.

Perry Varn reached for a Ruger rifle he had with him in the Polaris, but there was no time. Milton fired at least twice.

Long pulled his .38 caliber Ruger pistol from his pocket and Joanne drew her Smith and Wesson .22-caliber revolver. The couple ran around to the back side of Long's pickup.

Long, 72, said he stood up to peer over the truck's bed.

"When I did, he shot me," he told Remia later. "And I went down."

Joanne Varn said Milton pulled the Escape around the other side of the pickup and pointed both guns at her. He reminded her he had told her stay away.

Fearing for her life, Joanne Varn pulled the trigger on her .22 caliber, but it didn't fire. Hammer marks on the rounds indicated she pulled the trigger six times. She threw the gun to the ground.

Milton said he would kill himself. She told him she couldn't shoot him, but then she told him to give her one of his guns.

"He said, 'No, I'll just shoot myself," she recalled. "I said, 'Don't do that.' "

Milton got back into the Ford, looked at his ex-wife and then at Long, a man he'd never met, who was now lying on the ground. Blood from a single gunshot wound in his shoulder seeped through Long's red and blue checked shirt.

"I'm sorry, Terry," he said, according to Joanne. She ran over to Long to figure out how badly he was injured. Long handed her his gun.

Milton drove toward them again and told Joanne to kill him. She told him she couldn't do it.

"And he said, 'Well, then,'" Joanne recalled. "He picked up his guns and he turned towards me and I shot him with my husband's gun."

Milton moved slightly, she said, so she shot him again.

"I was afraid with his arsenal of guns that he would come back out and finish my husband off and kill me," she said.

Deputies and paramedics arrived to find Perry Varn slumped over in the Polaris, his rifle lodged between his chest and the steering wheel. The bullet had pierced his jugular vein and fractured his spinal cord, according to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner.

He was 66.

They found his 62-year-old brother in the Escape leaning over the center console, his brown felt cowboy hat askew on his head.

Three bullets had struck him in his chest, forearm and shoulder, piercing his heart, aorta, lungs and spinal cord. He died less than a minute after he was shot, but Joanne told a responding deputy to be careful because he might be "playing possum."

The deputy assured her he was dead, but she didn't want to let go of her gun.

"I had to palm grip the entire revolver from over the top of the frame and forcibly removed it from her hand by squeezing the revolver's cylinder to prevent her from firing any additional shots," the deputy wrote in a report.

•••

The Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office reviewed the case and determined that Joanne Varn's use of force was justified.

She and Long, who is recovering from the gunshot wound, declined to be interviewed for this story.

"She simply wants to remain private," said her attorney Natalia Silver. "It was horrific, as you can imagine, and in my mind she was a hero who saved her life and her husband's life."

Other members of the Varn family declined interview requests or did not return messages from the Times.

"I don't want to talk about it," said P.J. Varn, the eldest of Perry's five children. "None of us want to talk about it."

One week after the shooting, family and friends gathered for back-to-back services for the brothers. Milton's memorial ceremony took place at the ranch. Afterward, scores of people gathered there for a luncheon in honor of both men.

Martha Varn said the family just wants to move on.

"This case is closed as far was we're concerned," she said, "and we're trying to heal."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

Story of Varn brothers' killings at Plant City ranch reads like Old West shoot-em-up 07/17/17 [Last modified: Monday, July 17, 2017 9:25am]
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