Three sisters in Boca Raton do not remember much about their mom, but as Mother's Day approaches, they are reminded those are the only memories of her they will ever have.
"One memory about my mom is that she would always take me places and let me play with my things," said 9-year-old Brady Gemstone.
"I remember mommy's pointy nose, and that she dyed her hair," 5-year-old Blain Gemstone said.
"She was very understanding and nice," said 11-year-old Bryce Gemstone, "and she was always there."
But one day, Gemma Burlakoff wasn't there anymore for her three girls. That memory stings the most.
"I'm happy because I still have someone to do [Mother's Day] with, but I'm sad because I don't have my real mom to do it with," the youngest, Blain confessed, clutching a doll as she spoke.
"Sometimes if I think about my mom, I think about my dad, and it makes me think about what happened," said Brady, who remembers the most about the night her mother was killed, The Gemstone sister did not just lose their mother. They lost their father too.
One fight, five years ago
On the outside, Gemma and Ian Burlakoff looked like the picture-perfect Boca Raton couple: a successful business, a large home, society and community involvement, designer outfits and cars, and their three beautiful daughters enjoyed an education at an expensive private school.
Many would later say they never knew about the domestic violence issues at home. But the Burlakoff's daughters, Bryce, Brady and Blain knew things were far from perfect.
One night, Bryce and Brady witnessed a fight between their parents that started to get out of hand.
"Well my dad was choking my mom, and they were arguing," said Brady. "I didn't really know what was going on, because I was only five years old, but then I saw my sisters crying and I knew it was probably something bad.
"My mom told us to run across the street to a friend's house. She was trying to help us."
Bryce's last memory of her mother? "Fighting for us," she said.
The sisters ran away from the scene, happening in broad daylight on A1A near the Boca Beach Club. The girls didn't know their father had a gun, and they didn't know it would be the last time they would ever see their parents.
Their marriage was falling apart
According to police and eye witnesses, Ian Burlakoff shot and killed his wife Gemma, as their children ran away from the scene.
Police later shot and killed Ian in a standoff, after he turned the gun on a responding officer. Eyewitness accounts say Ian asked the officer to shoot him, and reached for his gun even though the officer ordered him to stay put. Ian's death was later ruled suicide-by-cop and the responding officer was cleared by the State Attorney's Office.
911 phone calls, police incident reports and court records show Gemma and Ian were going through a divorce, accusing one another of extravagant spending and infidelity.
Police records show Ian suffered from bipolar disorder, was taking steroids and had a gambling problem. Cops found cocaine in Ian's possession the night he died.
"Even though I'm kind of upset with my dad, I still love them both because they were my parents," Brady told Contact 5 Investigator Merris Badcock.
"I forgive him, but like there is still something in my heart that is still upset and asking why," said Bryce. "but he's my father."
The ripple effect of domestic violence
For five years, the Gemstone sisters fought to overcome the horror of what happened.
Brady deals with nightmares and anxiety. Bryce suffers from withdrawal and depression. Even Blain, who was a baby when her parents were killed, can't escape the side effects.
"Because if the parents are fighting, I think something is going to happen," Blain said, a worried look on her face.
Through tears, time and weekly therapy sessions, the Gemstone sister learned how to cope, so when Brady's teach assigned a social issues project, Brady courageously chose to talk about domestic violence.
"I was going to share my story and someone else's story…I think it affects third graders probably a lot more than people think," said Brady.
But when the time came, the school said Brady needed to choose another topic.
"They said I couldn't do it, because it's not third grade appropriate."
Inspired by their sister's courage and the school's silence, the Gemstone sisters decided they wanted to share their story.
Surrounded by support from their grandmother, Linda Villareale, and guidance from their counselor, the sisters turned to Contact 5.
(Read the full account of what happened according to police records here and here.)
The aftermath of domestic violence
If the three sisters have learned anything from their experience, it's this: "It's ok to talk about it to some people, because it will help you feel better," said Brady.
The oldest, Bryce, admits she thinks her mother did not talk about the violence enough to other people. "I was aware of the situation until after it happened," said Bryce, admitting she never thought her parents' fights would ever turn deadly.
"I think [my mom] tried [to talk about it], but I think – like, she didn't do enough, because she was scared she would hurt us," said Brady, trying to still make sense of what happened.
"I want to see people actually reach out," said Bryce. "They don't have to be the best in front of everybody."
Five million children witness intimate partner violence every year, according to the Childhood Domestic Violence Association. The CDC says it affects one in three women and one in four men, and yet Bryce, Brady and Blain say when they try to tell their story, grown-ups don't always listen.
"If they keep fighting they are sacrificing us," said Brady.
Grown-ups like their parents.
"Be careful, because there's other parents who might be mean," said Blain.
"I used to hear this on TV and stuff, and I was like, 'Yeah, I'm fine. I've got the perfect life, never going to happen.' But one day it did and it changed completely," said Bryce. "I wish they would have just gone their separate ways."
Use the graphic below to see the number of domestic homicides in your area, year over year.
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