The House That Bill Built

On a windy Chicago afternoon last May, world-class triathlete David Bigoney threw the ceremonial first pitch at a White Sox-Texas Rangers game. Chicago won 7-0. "And that started their winning streak," he jokes now. The Tallahassee sports fanatic closely monitored the team's dream season through its stunning World Series victory, though he didn't see a single game.

Bigoney, 33, has been blind since December 27, 1996, when he became caught in a high-profile murder/suicide that shocked Fort Lauderdale out of its usual holiday holding pattern. That was the night his stepmother shot him and killed his father — illustrious local architect Bill Bigoney — then took her own life.

The shooting's aftermath left David in the hospital for weeks, with no memory of what had happened. With his dreams derailed, he grudgingly settled into the routine of what he calls "learning to be blind." Emerging from that rehabilitation to complete a college degree was one way to reclaim what he'd lost. "But I couldn't take not being active," he says in a lazy Panhandle drawl. So he began bicycling, running, and swimming, training for competitions.

Upon completing his first race, David felt as if he'd found a way to beat back his blindness. "I was sore, but I enjoyed it. It was something I could get into, something that keeps me balanced, mentally and physically.

"Things aren't 'Can I or can't I?,'" he continues, "but 'How can I do it? What exactly do I have to do?'" This summer, he completed the Ironman Triathlon, a tortuous, daylong blowout not for the faint of heart or weak of limb.

An upcoming film documentary, Victory Over Darkness, tells the stories of three visually impaired athletes, including David. In its trailer, he talks about coming to terms with the awful consequences of that post-Christmas nightmare, as crime-scene stills (including a pair of dead bodies, a trash can overflowing with prescription bottles, and a wall stained with blood) flash by.

To this day, friends and associates keep personal details private, though the marital discord afflicting the Bigoneys was no secret.

Finally, perhaps as a way of dealing with opening old wounds, David is able to talk about exactly what happened that night. He can't see anything but shadows now. But back then, he says, he could see disaster coming.

The same drive that had already propelled David to the rank of petty officer second class after only four years in the Navy and left him a highly decorated Eagle Scout also characterized Bill Bigoney.

Sailing was the elder Bigoney's lifetime love, and father and son tore through the waves from West Palm Beach to the Bahamas as often as possible during their time together. Don Wilkin, who worked for Bigoney's architecture firm in the mid-1980s, learned to sail at his employer's side. Weekend races brought out Bigoney's competitive edge, and he enjoyed nothing more than making the tight turn around the St. Isaac's Lighthouse.

"He'd get everything out of that thing," says Wilkin, a trim, balding man with an impish grin who favors penny loafers. "I'd think we were going to flip over for sure, but he could push it, because he knew the limits."

Bigoney never underestimated his classic 27-foot Creekmore sailboat, Spring. Nor himself. He wanted to set his own limits and exercise complete control over every aspect of his life, including, to a large extent, those around him. His revolutionary architecture took big risks as well — who'd think of designing South Florida domiciles with no air conditioning? For Bigoney, if he spent enough time on a project, he could always make it work.

His lucky streak ended with his third wife, Margaret.

"Bill would have had a ball the last ten years with the development that has occurred in Fort Lauderdale," says Wilkin, who still feels the loss today. "It's an opportunity he would just relish."

"I have no doubt in my mind he would have retired a happy sailor," David Bigoney says. "But, you know, it just didn't work out that way."

Two weeks before Christmas '96, David called an officer to the home after he and his stepmother got into a yelling match. "I don't try to hide that I got into verbal arguments with her about stupid things," he says. "It just got to the point where no conversation, no interaction, seemed to be nice."

David was unaware Margaret kept a Smith & Wesson blue-steel revolver somewhere in her bedroom. If he had known, "I would have either taken it or said something," he insists.

His girlfriend (now his wife) Jackie had planned to spend that Christmas with the Bigoneys but couldn't make the trip. "If she was in the house," David says, "I guarantee she would have been shot and probably killed."