Tracy Ader’s stepfather kept a gun at his side Saturday.
The man suspected of murdering Ader and her two young sons was at large, and Steve Ponsness was taking no chances.
Dustin William Gilman, 22, had been living with Ader and her husband, Nick Ader, at their home in Spokane for several months. He watched over Tracy Ader’s sons, ages 8 and 10, attended family gatherings and celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving at Ponsness’s Spokane Valley home.
Gilman was great with the boys, Ponsness said. But after learning Friday that Gilman was the prime suspect in the shooting deaths of the boys and their mother, Ponsness said he could think of only one thing to do if Gilman showed up at his home.
“I’d put a bullet in his head quicker than you can blink,” Ponsness said.
Police spent Saturday scouring the area for Gilman. He is believed to have stolen Ader’s blue 2007 Nissan Pathfinder after murdering Ader and her sons.
Gilman’s father, Larry Gilman, told The Spokesman-Review Saturday evening that he believes his son likely committed suicide.
“I’m very distraught right now,” he said. “My son is probably dead, along with the three people that he killed, supposedly.”
Spokane police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe said late Saturday that Dustin Gilman was still considered armed and dangerous. Anyone who sees him or Ader’s Pathfinder is urged to call 911.
Ader was visiting her husband at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he’d been for a few days with pancreatitis, when she returned home Friday to check on the boys after receiving a call, Ponsness said. After several hours, Nick Ader called a friend to check on his wife because he hadn’t heard from her.
Police responded to Ader’s home at 4411 N. Whitehouse St. about 7:15 p.m. Friday after having received a 911 call about a dead body inside the home. Authorities scoured a wide swath of north Spokane late into the night Friday in search of Gilman.
A memorial for Ader and the boys began forming Saturday near the home. A woman who identified herself only as Lisa, and her 11-year-daughter only as Alyssa, stopped by to pay respects to the boys, who attended Willard Elementary School with Alyssa. Alyssa said the 10-year-old, who was in the fifth grade, was an excellent student who withstood teasing because of his academic prowess.
Lisa said Nick Ader frequently volunteers at the school.
“He’s just the nicest guy,” she said.
The Aders married a couple of years ago, family said. Tracy Ader was born in Spokane, graduated Rogers High School in 1997 and enjoyed skiing, camping, church and spending time with family. She had worked for about 10 years at Pitney Bowes, an office supply company.
Tracy Ader had been upset lately about the murder of coworker Kimberly Rae Schmidt, 34, a leasing manager at Pitney Bowes, who was found shot to death in her north Spokane home on New Year’s Day. No one has been arrested in that case, but sheriff’s detectives say they have a person of interest.
“Tracy was having a hard time dealing with that because (Schmidt) was a direct coworker of hers,” Ponsness said.
Ponsness and his wife, Ader’s mother, Carolyn Ponsness, were preparing for sleep when they learned of the murders late Friday. Ponsness said she’d just watched news coverage of the two young boys killed in Western Washington by their father, who was suspected in the disappearance of his wife. “I didn’t really mean it, but I said, ‘What if that happened to Tracy?’” Carolyn Ponsness said. “And it did. And I feel bad for saying it.”
The Posnesses questioned the circumstances of the case as they sat Saturday in their living room, the gun at Steve Ponsness’s hip. With them was Ader’s 20-year-old sister, Justine Ponsness, and her boyfriend.
“I would have never ever, ever, thought about this. He was the nicest kid,” Ponsness said of Gilman.
Gilman is the younger brother of a friend of Nick Ader, the family said. Tracy Ader loved to help people, so it came as no surprise when she and Nick let Gilman move in.
The Aders threw him a birthday party in November. Gilman posted a picture on his Facebook page of him with the family and thanked them for everything they’d done for him, Ponsness said.
“He was basically living off them,” Ponsness said.
He helped around the home and loved to play with the boys. It wasn’t unusual for him to be alone with the boys as he was Thursday night and early Friday.
Tracy’s sister visited the family Thursday night with her young son. Nothing seemed amiss, and Gilman was there, playing with the children as usual.
“The kids loved him,” Ponsness said. “This just blows me away because I would never have ever imagined him doing this…
“It’s like, ‘Wow, what just happened?’”
Ponsness and Ader’s mother say they have no idea what could have triggered the slayings. They also don’t know how Gilman obtained a firearm but suspect it may have belonged to Nick Ader.
“He must have just snapped,” Ponsness said of Gilman.
Gilman is a convicted felon who was sentenced to nine months in jail in 2009 after pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree trafficking in stolen property.
He has an extensive juvenile criminal history, including convictions in Kootenai County in 2005 for stolen property and car theft. Court records show he was arrested for assault when he was 10.
Ader’s family had mixed feelings about what they hoped would happen to him. Justine Ponsness said he hopes he rots in prison after police find him. But Steve Ponsness said he could only hope that Gilman would kill himself or be the only person killed in a shootout with police.
“I just pray that he’s dead, because I don’t want to deal with the stupid system,” Ponsness said.