From wedding to body bag in 12 hours -- what happened to Elisa Gomez?

Brett Ryder

Brett Ryder

Everybody was surprised when, on a random Monday afternoon, 47-year-old Elisa Gomez announced through a series of giddy text messages that she’d gone down to the Hennepin County Government Center to get married.

She’d met her new husband, 30-year-old Bradley Alexander, on Craigslist not two months prior. He was a mystery to all who knew her.

Only after the papers were signed did Elisa send a photo of the occasion to her mother, Judy Hunt. It shows Elisa in an ivory dress, black hair piled up in a mound of curls, diamonds in her ears, holding Brad’s face to hers in a passionate kiss. He’s wearing a casual green shirt, his arms locked around her waist.

Hunt, who lives in the small northern Minnesota community of Isle, was alarmed that it had all happened so fast. Still, she understood her daughter well enough to know there was no telling the headstrong woman what to do once she’d made up her mind. Hunt could only try to express how disappointed she was not to have been at her daughter’s side.

Elisa promised a lush garden wedding still to come in April, a real spectacle with a wedding gown and bridesmaids, for all to attend.

That night, she and Brad returned to their south Minneapolis neighborhood, where they celebrated at the Cedar Inn sports bar just down the block until about one in the morning. None of Elisa’s closest friends could make it. The marriage was so sudden. They all had work the next day.

An artist by trade, Elisa Gomez filled her life with projects.

An artist by trade, Elisa Gomez filled her life with projects. Courtesy of the family

Around 2:30 a.m., a neighboring family overheard an argument brewing in the direction of Elisa’s yard. The neighbors said they could hear it was a man and a woman, and as the pair wandered just outside the neighbor’s curtained living room window, the woman could be heard screaming and crying while the man repeatedly yelled, “Fuck!” The neighbors called 911, but by the time officers drove by, the two had vanished.

Later that morning, around 9 o’clock, Elisa’s adult daughter, Jade Gomez, arrived at her mother’s house for a pre-planned breakfast date. Instead, she found the place surrounded by police cars, and watched as medical examiner personnel packed her lifeless mother into a body bag.

Later, when Elisa’s mother, Judy Hunt, called Brad, she claims he had this terse explanation for her: “My friends were over, she got mad, and I found her fucking body hanging.”

I. “Her life was completely full”

Elisa Gomez was an art teacher at a Korean immersion school in St. Paul. She ran a dog-walking business on the side, making a piecemeal living while pursuing a bachelor's in fine arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

She is chiefly remembered as a woman of copious causes, with a tender fondness for the poor and downtrodden.

First among them: abandoned dogs, which she rescued from overcrowded shelters throughout the United States. Her home was a menagerie of Beagles, her best friends fellow fanatics of the rescue world. Elisa was always calling her mother from the road, in the middle of spontaneous group excursions to deliver food to understocked pounds in far-flung cities. She was forever painting to benefit dog charities, or scheming to rope unwitting family members into volunteering.

She crusaded against surrogacy as well, motivated by the personal experience of carrying a baby girl for a gay couple, who later reneged on promises that she could have a role in the child’s life. It had hurt her deeply.

But Elisa also had two children that she kept and raised. There was 27-year-old Jade, whose father was never in the picture, and for whom Elisa was everything. And there was 22-year-old Jess, who’d been deployed to Kuwait with the Air Force for nearly a full year. His birthday came the week after Elisa’s death. She had been planning a party for his return.

Elisa’s family is wholly convinced she did not kill herself. She would have never left her kids, never left her four dogs and cat, they say. And, even if everybody who was close to her overlooked some deeply disguised despair, they say she certainly would have left a letter making arrangements for her loved ones.

A sudden and silent departure was not Elisa’s style at all, her mother says. She was a spark plug with a million projects, a princess personality type who flavored everything she did with dramatic flair.

“Her life was completely full,” Hunt says. “She was never the type to spend a day in bed, feeling sorry for herself.”

II. Paradise or Parasite?

Elisa met Bradley Alexander when he responded to her Craigslist ad for some muscle to help around the house and walk dogs.

Passion erupted so instantly that it defied family and friends’ comprehension. One minute Elisa was offering to drive Brad home to his then-girlfriend after work. The next, he’d packed his bags and moved in with her instead.

Through Elisa’s lens, Brad appeared a doting boyfriend.

Through Elisa’s lens, Brad appeared a doting boyfriend.

In Elisa’s own words, as told to fellow rescuer Elle Bourdeaux through Facebook chat in mid-September, Brad was a good man with a tragic past.

“His mama abandoned him when he was 13 and he had to take care of his sister,” Elisa wrote. “He had some dwi’s, etc. But, I know him well and I love his heart.”

Pictures of Brad began to pop up on her Facebook page. In Elisa’s dreamy captures, he is planting a doting smooch on her cheek, looking at her dog adoringly.

Elisa’s heart, which was so vulnerable to the plight of battered animals, also had a weakness for damaged men. Bourdeaux believes Elisa’s desire to help ultimately drew her to Brad. Though Bourdeaux did not approve, she resolved to support her friend. She kept her messages short whenever Elisa talked about her new love, equally afraid of stoking her enthusiasm and incurring her sometimes capricious anger.

Soon, Elisa started gushing about marriage.

Another of Elisa’s closest friends, Mallory Belille, says she was apprehensive when Elisa started telling everyone she was on the hunt for a dress, that this man she’d just met wanted to marry her in the spring.

“She has big ideas that she’s really in love with somebody, and then a month or two later it’ll fizzle out,” Belille says. “She doesn’t know these things about these men, and she just believes the best in them. I kind of just expected it to fizzle out because she’s very fickle.”

Elisa and her mother, Judy Hunt, were extremely close.

Elisa and her mother, Judy Hunt, were extremely close.

Richard Gomez, Elisa’s father, met Brad just once. They chatted briefly in his Robbinsdale home over the noise of the Vikings-Panthers game at the end of September. Elisa’s mother bought him lunch one day at Southdale Center. They each found Brad unremarkable, mild in every way. They say they were much more uneasy about his lightning-paced courtship of their daughter — which seemed unnecessarily urgent, rather than romantic.

Brad regularly turned to Craigslist to find odd jobs. From 2014 to 2015 he worked for a concrete and yardwork business in Lakeville where, according to the owner, Joe Posusta, his incompetence caused untold damage.

Because Brad seemed down on his luck, Posusta tried to help out by giving him work and teaching him new skills. Brad repaid him, Posusta says, by destroying the motor of an expensive leaf vacuum, disconnecting the fuel line of a Grand Am he was supposed to be repairing, and confusing the electrical wiring inside the family horse barn in such a way that every time Posusta’s wife flipped the light switch, it would spark, threatening to take the entire barn and the four horses stabled there down in flames.

Then, he says, Brad started leeching off another one of his employees, a woman who took him into her home rent-free, drove him to and from work, and bought his cell phone minutes, cigarettes, and liquor. It lasted a good four months, says Posusta, until Brad started putting his hands on her.

This female employee, who declined to be named, confirmed with City Pages that Brad had been eager to bring up marriage with her weeks into their relationship. But after Brad forced her down on the bed one day with his hands around her neck, she says, she put him in the street.

She didn’t involve the police, she says, to her lasting regret.

But Brad’s ex-wife did. At 20 years old, Brad was married to a woman identified as A.J. Alexander. In 2007 he pleaded guilty to fifth-degree domestic assault, writing, “In an argument with my wife A.J.A., I struck her with my hand and caused her pain.”

Brad Alexander’s most recent booking photo from when he fled police to avoid arrest for violating probation

Brad Alexander’s most recent booking photo from when he fled police to avoid arrest for violating probation

Two years after that, one wintry morning at about 5 a.m., A.J. turned up in the lobby of the Fillmore County Sheriff’s Office with her two small children in tow. Her neck was red and swollen.

A.J. told Preston Police Chief Matt Schultz, who’d been called out of bed to meet her, of a nightmarish night. She said she and her husband, Brad, were drinking and arguing over his extramarital affairs when she began to have an anxiety attack. She was trying to call 911 when Brad grabbed her phone, removed the SIM card, and confiscated it.

According to the criminal complaint, she then retreated to her bedroom, where she lay down with her four-month-old and tried to calm herself. Brad came in around 3 a.m., demanding sex. When A.J. refused, he “tried to force it,” the complaint continues. “He sat up on the edge of the bed and began choking [A.J.] by pushing on her throat with his fist and elbow and stating he wanted to kill her.”

It went on that way for several minutes, according to the complaint. When Brad finally let her go, A.J. began coughing and throwing up. It was only then that he let her be and lay down on the couch.

Since A.J. had no way of calling the police, she waited until she was certain Brad was asleep before gathering the children and making her escape, she told the chief.

Brad, when he was arrested, denied all involvement and asked for a lawyer. He was ultimately convicted of domestic assault by strangulation.

There were also four convictions for DWI, as well as a 2014 citation for animal abandonment.

Elisa must not have known about the animal abandonment, says her sister Angie Gomez. “If she had known about that, [their relationship] would’ve been history.”

III. “I’m done”

Elisa Gomez may not have known the full breadth of Brad Alexander’s history when she agreed to marry him, but there were signs that their whirlwind love was fraught with bitter moments.

One of her two roommates, Jake McDaniel, lived with Elisa only briefly before her death. But while he was there, he overheard frequent screaming matches between the couple. One came of Elisa’s suspicions that Brad was cheating on her. He became furious, McDaniel recalls, and promised Elisa that nobody could ever love her. Cups were smashed, the backyard fence kicked in.

Elisa herself hinted at pre-marital distress. In late September, she confided to a friend, Linda Velazquez, through text, “Wedding is off,” and “I am with Brad now for the moment but probably not long.”

Hours later she followed up with, “We talked. I was ready to leave him. I told him if it ever happened again, I was done. He really broke my heart. He was devastated with the realization of how he behaved as he sobered up.”

A week went by, and Elisa again complained of Brad getting drunk and mean. “He did it again,” she told Velazquez. “I’m done.”

Elisa said that while Brad was drinking, she had taken off her engagement ring.

“Your family and friends will understand,” Velazquez said, trying to soothe Elisa’s reluctance to call off the wedding.

“No they won’t,” Elisa replied, arguing that her father had been embarrassed when she broke off her last engagement, just one year prior.

While some of Elisa’s friends practiced restraint, others made no effort to hide their disgust with her soon-to-be husband.

Elisa’s niece Nicole Gibson recalls looking at Brad’s Facebook profile and discovering someone completely at odds with what Elisa portrayed — a man who looked blazed in his profile picture, who posted memes reading, “Trust no bitch.”

“I told my grandma, ‘He looks like a piece of shit,’” Gibson says. She never told Elisa that, however. Gibson’s mother, Elisa’s sister Angie, had nothing to say about the wedding either. “Because I knew Elisa wouldn’t listen to anybody, regardless. She’s very strong-headed, strong-willed, she kind of dances to the beat of her own drum, you know?”

Despite the alienation of her friends, concerns of family members, and the fights that forced them to the edge of breaking up, Elisa always found a way to accept Brad’s apologies.

The day they were married at the Government Center, Elisa told her mother and her friends that it was Brad’s idea to tie the knot sooner than later. Elisa said he insisted she change her name right away.

“He wanted to do it before I could run away lol,” Elisa wrote in a text to her friend Bourdeaux.

Twelve hours later, she was dead.

IV. Payable-on-death

Police spent about an hour picking up evidence from Elisa’s house before packing her body away to the medical examiner’s office and relinquishing all her worldly possessions to Brad.

Just a few days after he’d taken control of the house, the place was mysteriously ransacked.

Meanwhile, the medical examiner ruled her cause of death was “ligature hanging under uncertain circumstances.” The manner of death — whether suicide or homicide — could not be determined.

“Cannot exclude potential injury by another person,” the medical examiner wrote.

As word of Elisa’s death spread through her circles, no one would readily believe she killed herself, says her niece Nicole Gibson. Independently, friends and family’s thoughts turned to Brad.

Gibson messaged him on Facebook, asking for an explanation of her aunt’s sudden death.

Gibson says Brad replied four days later. “I got like eight messages left. I gotta do one at a time. You’re number three, k?”

Elisa’s friend Chuck Radivojevic had better luck getting a response.

Radivojevic, of Miami, had been boarding a plane for Minneapolis to visit Elisa the morning of October 12 when he got a call from her cousin inviting him to the funeral. He says he was shocked, and unconvinced that the woman he knew as unrelentingly “bright” and “shiny,” a “ball of sunshine,” would kill herself. They even had a big trip planned to go to Costa Rica in the winter, Radivojevic says, to volunteer at a dog shelter, zip-line, and sightsee.

So he messaged Brad.

Brad complained to him about having to “let the herd of dogs out I inherited,” and take care of Elisa’s house. “It’s all pretty much legally mine now,” he said. He also told Radivojevic that he needed to go to the bank to check on Elisa’s accounts because “meth heads looted her purse.” He later confirmed that they “stole all her money.”

“Her kids aren’t going to get a damn thing,” he lamented.

“Everything he said to me was just like red flags everywhere,” Radivojevic says.

He has no doubt that if Elisa had been contemplating suicide, there would have been some sign. She would have told someone, any one of her friends whom she always notified of any trouble or drama in her life.

In the days following Elisa’s death, Brad posted public messages of mourning for Elisa, anguishing over the cruel twist of fate that widowed him just hours after his marriage. He bemoaned his unhappy new obligations to plan a funeral and look after Elisa’s daughter, Jade.

But the family paints a different picture. Jade and her half-brother, Jess Gomez, freshly returned from Kuwait, say they were prohibited from entering their mother’s house to gather her belongings without Brad’s explicit permission.

Because the children had nothing, Hunt wanted to collect what was left of Elisa’s savings to give to them. She was the beneficiary of her daughter’s payable-on-death bank account. But by the time she had Elisa’s death certificate in hand to authorize the transfer, there was nothing left. Someone had beaten her to it, Hunt says she learned from the teller — on October 12, the day after Elisa’s death.

Brad was a no-show at Elisa’s funeral.

V. The Roommates

At the time of her death, Elisa was living with Brad and two roommates, Jake McDaniel and Cherone Vestal.

McDaniel was out of town, attending his grandmother’s funeral, on Elisa’s wedding night. But the morning after, he says, he received an urgent email from Vestal, who told him that Elisa had killed herself, and Brad’s junkie friends had moved in.

He decided to cut his visit short and return to Minneapolis, where he requested a police escort to help him retrieve his belongings.

“Just the way that Brad was acting and just because there were people in the house that I didn’t know, I didn’t feel comfortable being there,” McDaniel says. “Especially with the circumstances surrounding Elisa’s death.”

He found the house looking like the epicenter of a natural disaster. Luggage that he hadn’t even had a chance to unpack from moving in had been rifled through, his things strewn in the halls.

Brad told McDaniel there had been a break-in. That made sense insofar as everything of value that belonged to McDaniel had been stolen. But McDaniel couldn’t help but notice that all of Brad’s valuables — his TV and his computer — had survived the raid.

The other roommate, Vestal, had lived with her two children in an upstairs room. She had been present at Elisa’s wedding night celebration, and claimed to be the one who cut Elisa down from the rafters where Brad says he found her hanging.

Vestal, one of the only people who might know the truth about what happened that night, has never given a straight answer to the desperate questions of Elisa’s family and friends, they say. Her stories, told in incongruous bits and pieces, have been full of inconsistencies.

At first Vestal said she was confident Elisa killed herself.

And then, when the now defunct, non-professional Minnesota Fugitive Watch Facebook page posted a photo of Brad as a nod to Elisa’s family, she posted in response, “Do you know this piece of shit? He killed my friend, stole my children’s clothes, toys, television. Throat punch him if you see him won’t you.”

The post has since vanished. City Pages contacted Vestal to explain. She refused.

VI. Till death do us party

On December 21, long after Brad had broken off all communication with Elisa’s circle of family and friends, he was seen driving erratically through the streets of north Minneapolis in Elisa’s silver Jeep Wrangler.

The Jeep, which had been traveling far too fast for the icy curve of the road, smashed into two parked cars before gunning off. Two squad cars gave chase, lights blazing, for several blocks before the Jeep slid off the road and crashed headlong into a boulevard tree. Brad was arrested for fleeing police.

According to the criminal complaint, he admitted he had been running from police because he knew he had a warrant out for his arrest, for violating probation from a 2014 DWI.

He was housed in the Hennepin County Jail. City Pages wrote him there, but received no response.

But soon after, City Pages did receive an email from a person who did not leave a working phone number or return address, claiming “friends” said Elisa had “staged her suicide previously to show Brad how life would be without her.” None of the people interviewed for this story believed the allegation.

No one lives in Elisa’s house now. It was condemned because Brad never paid the bills, and the city shut off the water, according to owner Dana Lithgow, who had a contract for deed with Elisa. Lithgow says in the 15 years he knew Elisa, he never saw her down or depressed, capable of suicide. Brad he didn’t know at all.

“Nope, he didn’t pay a cent on anything,” Lithgow says. “He didn’t pay the water bill, the contract payments, the gas bill, electric bill. There was nothing he paid. If he’d been smart he would have made some payments on the house to keep it going. He could have inherited the house.”

When Hunt was finally able to enter her daughter’s home, she faced the wholesale devastation of her daughter’s life and work. Everything had been spilled out of the cupboards and smashed on the floor. Trash carpeted the upstairs. Broken glass littered the kitchen. The washing machine was wedged halfway up the basement stairs.

Cigarette butts, needles, and prescription medicine bottles with their labels scratched off lay out in the open. There was a severed brunette ponytail on the coffee table, and on the living room wall, an illustration of a skull and crossbones scrawled in pink with the words, “Till [death] do us party.”

The stench of sewage backed up in the bathrooms permeated everything.

All that Hunt could salvage fit in the back seat of her car.

“The house was trashed, and it’s like, in the back seat is Elisa... her memories are in the back seat of my car,” Hunt says. “From 47 years. Oh, I fell apart.”

Four months after Elisa’s death, police say they’re still actively pursuing the evidence necessary to close the case. Hunt’s hope is waning that investigators will ever have enough proof to tell her what happened to her daughter. But in her heart, she is absolutely certain that Brad played some part.

Brad spent 44 days in jail, unable to post bail, until he decided to plead guilty to the only charges pending against him: fleeing police and violating probation. Elisa’s parents and sister Maria Gomez awaited him in Judge Juan Hoyos’ courtroom at the Government Center, wanting nothing other than for him to see their faces. They were joined by Posusta, Brad’s former employer, as well as Brad’s ex-girlfriend. They didn’t expect to run into the family, but were of the same mind.

Posusta leaned over, introduced himself to Hunt, and whispered that shortly before Elisa’s death, Brad had somehow convinced her to buy up the lapsed website domain for his Lakeville businesses. Then, because Posusta had trailers wrapped with expensive vinyl signs bearing his phone number and website, Brad threatened to sue for false advertising unless he was paid $5,000 for the rights.

“He’s a little rat,” Posusta says. “Do I think without a shadow of a doubt that he did something to Elisa? Absolutely. I would bet everything that I owned that he had something to do with her death.”

Brad didn’t see the judge or Elisa’s family in court that day. His hearing was postponed until February 3, when he was released from jail and sentenced to another three years probation.

As before, he was warned to stay sober and stay out of trouble.

“Mr. Alexander, I understand that you’ve had a difficult time the last few months, and I am very sorry for your loss, sir,” said a sympathetic Judge Hoyos. “I do hope that you continue to stay in contact with [your probation officer] and that you follow through with treatment so you can get on with your life. All right?”

“Yup,” Brad answered. “Thank you.”

To Elisa’s mother, the leniency of the sentence, and Brad’s renewed probation following four DWI convictions, is a slap in the face. The thought that he is free in Minneapolis should scare her, she says, and yet she feels nothing but fury.

“I just want to throw up,” Hunt says. “It makes me ill. He trashes her house. He doesn’t go to the funeral, and then the judge tells him he’s sorry for his loss. I don’t believe it. The guy gets away with everything.”