It was Halloween afternoon, 2015. Children and their families were getting ready to go out and celebrate the holiday together.
But in the midst of all the festivities, tragedy struck.
Donald and Crystal Howard had four young children at home, dressed in their costumes. They had run out of face paint, so the parents ran to the store to buy some more.
They were on their way home when Donald lost control of the vehicle and struck a tree.
They both died in the accident.
Georgia state trooper Nathan Bradley had been on the force for a year and a half when he responded to the call.
He learned that the couple had four young kids at home, and that their closest guardian, their grandmother, was seven hours away in Florida and wouldn’t get to them until the next morning.
Bradley knew that he would have to be the one to break the news to the kids.
It’s one of the hardest things you can do, telling a child their parents are gone for good. But when Bradley arrived at the door, he found it was even more difficult than he anticipated.
The four young kids were dressed in their costumes, patiently expecting their parents to return home.
“They kept reassuring, ‘My parents will be here soon, they went to the store to get more candy and face makeup; they’ll be right back,'” Bradley recalled to FOX 5 Atlanta.
Seeing their excitement and knowing it was about to turn into the most devastating night of their lives was too much for Bradley.
Not only that, but he knew the children would just have to wait in the police station until their grandmother arrived the next day. Watching the children play in the front yard, the thought made the trooper feel ill.
“It was touching and I didn’t want to leave them there, and I did not want to leave them sitting in a DFACS office,” Bradley told FOX 5.
“So I did what I thought was right.”
Faced with the ethical conundrum, Bradley decided he wouldn’t tell the kids about their parents until their grandmother arrived, and he would watch them himself instead of taking them in. There was no point in spoiling their good time just yet.
“I wanted to preserve these kids’ Halloween and the ones to come,” Bradley wrote. “I suggested that I’d care for them until their family was able to.”
He told the kids their grandmother was on her way, but she wanted the officer to watch them in the meantime.
But Bradley didn’t just want to watch the kids—he wanted to give them a fun night.
He asked the kids if they wanted to get something to eat. When they agreed, he loaded them up in his patrol car, which thrilled them with excitement. He took them to get McDonald’s—and then another trip to Burger King when some of the kids requested that instead.
Bradley did his best to keep the kids entertained and occupied. He was relieved to see that the kids were incredibly personable and intelligent for their age. They bonded over TV shows like Law & Order and even more in-depth conversations about their family.
“The eldest son, who sat to my right would carry on in conversations that were beyond his age,” Bradley recalled. “We discussed topics such as the observable universe and his father’s service with the military.”
Their night of fun continued. The kids drank milkshakes and ate candy. They stayed up late watching Disney movies. Neighbors, who had gotten word of the situation, stopped by and gave them toys and presents.
Bradley brought the kids over to the station to spend the night. He had succeeded in shielding them from the truth—but as the kids got ready for bed, one of the children told him something that made him realize the night had really meant something to them.
“You turned an F-Minus day into an A-Plus night!”
“I can’t begin to explain how hard it was to hear that, considering the night would be memorable but for reasons that were yet to be disclosed to them,” Bradley wrote.
Their grandmother, Stephanie Oliver, arrived just before dawn. They considered waking the kids, but decided to let them sleep—so they wouldn’t associate their parents’ deaths with Halloween.
When Oliver heard about what the trooped had done, she was grateful—she knew it was the right thing to do.
“He took care of my kids when they needed them,” she told NBC News.
“He was there for them, all the way.”
The children learned of the accident later that day and found out they were going to move to Florida to live with their grandmother.
But Officer Bradley wasn’t done. He told the oldest child, a 13-year-old, to call him if the family ever needed anything.
Soon enough, he got that call. The cost of moving the family to another state, on top of the funeral expenses and the cost of shipping the bodies, put a strain on the family’s finances.
Bradley realized he could help once again.
He set up a GoFundMe page, seeking donations to help the family with the costs. And people were so touched by the whole story that they came through to help them.
The page has raised nearly half a million dollars in donations.
The family was blown away by the generosity—all thanks again to Officer Bradley’s compassion for the strangers. Oliver was moved to tears.
“I didn’t know people I know cared so much,” Oliver told FOX 5. “I’ve never dealt with this.”
“It’s just so amazing.”