Photography by Brandi Stage Portraiture
On June 3, 2021, Keli Mornay penned a diary entry begging God for the strength to go on.
“I am done with having a full heart that I give to those that stomp and crush it,” she confided to her journal. “I don’t deserve any more of this, not another day …. I want out! It all hurts soooo bad ….”
Three days later, on June 6, Biloxi Police responded to a domestic incident at Mornay’s South Shore Drive home. When they arrived just before 4 a.m., authorities found the 34-year-old mother of three and 44-year-old Byrain Johnson, dead from gunshot wounds. Their 7-month-old son, Brixx Nola, also was shot and later succumbed to his injuries.
Mornay’s mother, Renata Flot-Patterson, remains haunted by the events that unfolded in those early morning hours. One of the last sounds her daughter heard, she says, was glass breaking.
“(Johnson) broke into Keli’s home by shattering the sliding glass door, which was located on the back of the house and attached to the master bedroom,” Flot-Patterson says. “Upon entry, through the broken glass door, Byrain immediately approached Keli’s bed, where she was laying with (Brixx), and shot her in the head.
“Keli screamed when she heard the glass break, and before she could do anything, Byrain jumped on top of her, forcing her down on the bed, and immediately shot her.”
Mornay’s two older sons, Dio and Alli, managed to flee the scene and ran from house to house seeking help. Alli’s first call was to Flot-Patterson, who suddenly was thrust into her worst nightmare.
“At that moment, I was in complete shock mode, and I am still in shock and disbelief to this day,” she says. “It seemed like a huge fog came over me after the news …, and I honestly was just aimlessly floating around at that point; I had no idea what I was doing, where I was going, what to do or who to call.”
Mornay has invested many hours in trying to understand the details of what happened. The Biloxi Police Department has declined to comment on the case, as the window for civil liability has not closed. The tragedy has devasted Johnson’s family as well as Mornay’s, and his relatives have declined to comment due to threats received following previous media reports.
Mornay’s and her son’s deaths seem to have awakened many people, women especially, to the tragedy of domestic violence. The research has shown for decades that women are more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner than by anyone else. Such homicides typically are the culmination of a pattern of abuse, with one in three women experiencing sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during her lifetime. The problem has intensified during the pandemic as victims found themselves trapped with their abusers and households have faced mounting pressures.
Loved ones like Flot-Patterson, even if they are close to a victim, often remain in the dark. Today, the grieving mother and grandmother can only wish Mornay had shared the details she entrusted to her diary and her fears for herself and her family.
“I have now learned what the red flags are,” Flot- Patterson says, “and I am so sorry that I did not know beforehand.”
“WE ALL TRUSTED HIM”
According to Flot-Patterson, the first warning sign was Johnson’s early, intense interest in her daughter. From the time Mornay moved into an apartment upstairs from his in 2018, Johnson immediately began asking her out, she recalls.
“Byrain basically charmed not only Keli, but her boys as well as her family, into believing that he was this knight in shining armor,” she says. “We all trusted him. He was funny, witty, charming, and handy.”
The two began dating in 2019, and things seemed to be going smoothly until February of 2020, when an incident prompted Mornay to end the relationship, according to Flot-Patterson. At the same time, Mornay learned she was pregnant with Brixx.
“There was now a huge distrust in Byrain’s violent behaviors and actions and the possibility of Byrain harming Keli,” Flot-Patterson recalls.
Although the relationship appeared to improve during Keli’s pregnancy, Flot- Patterson says, Keli’s journals have since revealed the depth of her daughter’s fear and concern.
“I have now learned that a few months after Brixx was born, Byrain began physically, and mentally abusing Keli again and basically forced her back into a relationship with him that she truly did not want,” Flot-Patterson says. “He would threaten to hurt her, her children and even threatened Keli that he would hurt even me, her mother, at times. I also learned that he had previously put a gun to Keli’s head and a knife to her throat in two other incidents.”
“WE’RE ALL ABOUT TO BE DEAD”
Keli’s hopes for peace and safety were shattered, along with her sliding glass door, on the morning of June 6. After missing her grandson’s Alli’s frantic call, Flot-Patterson tried calling him back but got no answer. She then dialed Mornay’s business cell phone, and she says Johnson answered.
“I asked him calmly, ‘Byrain where are my babies?’ and he replied, ‘We’re all about to be dead,’” Flot-Patterson says. “He hung up the phone, and I immediately called 911.”
Flot-Patterson says the operator told her Alli had called, too, and units were already en route. When Flot-Patterson approached Mornay’s house, the block was filled with police cars in a scene she describes as “something out of a movie.” As authorities worked, they directed Flot-Patterson and her husband to wait at the nearby Sunkist Golf Clubhouse.
As the sun rose, police confirmed a mother’s worst fears.
“My beautiful, smart, loving, kind and ambitious daughter was gone,” Flot- Patterson says. “My world was completely shattered at that very instant, and I knew that I would never be the same.”
Brixx had been shot, too, she learned, but still was alive and bound for Merit Health Biloxi. He was supposed to be transported to Alabama but sadly never left the area.
“Very shortly after this, we were informed that Baby Brixx did not make it — another blow to the heart and mind,” Flot-Patterson says. “I just remember thinking and asking, ‘Why, why, why God?’”
Mornay and Brixx’s loved ones celebrated their lives with a candlelight vigil on the beach in Gulfport, and more than 300 people attended their June 14 funeral in New Orleans. Expressing condolences on an online tribute wall, family friend Nikole Baskin remembered Mornay’s “smile and laughter, and how it would light up the room.”
“I loved the energy you brought around family and friends; you had a way of making everyone feel like family,” Baskin wrote. “You were a joy to be around — so creative and outgoing.”
Flot-Patterson viewed her daughter as a “bright light of joy and happiness from the day she was born.”
“(Keli) touched so many people with her loving ways and kindness,” she adds. “She would truly do anything to help anyone, even if it meant that she had to go without. She was just that way.”
Mornay also had an entrepreneurial spirit, her mother says, and pursued interests in music and event planning. The mother-daughter duo founded Gulf Coast Destination Management Co., and Mornay was due to finalize her training and get her real estate license in July. She once confidently told her mother that they would appear on the cover of Gulf Coast Woman magazine someday.
In her home life, nothing made Mornay happier than spending time with her boys, including her “bundle of joy” Brixx, Flot- Patterson says. Verbal and mobile, the baby was unstoppable once he’d learned to navigate the house in his walker — despite his feet not quite reaching the floor.
“Brixx was a sweet, warm, cuddly and extremely mild-mannered infant; he never cried unless he was hungry or needed a diaper change,” his grandmother recalls. “He was pure joy to all who encountered him.”
“IT IS TIME TO GET SERIOUS”
As she mourns her family’s devastating loss, Flot-Patterson also feels compelled to be a voice for her daughter and grandson and to share their story. She urges those in abusive relationships to remove themselves from the situation as much and as quickly as possible and to have an escape plan.
“I had no idea about any of this because it was not the life that I lived,” Leflot- Patterson says. “How would I know?
“Protect your daughters by helping to remove them from their situation. Do whatever it takes to get them away from their abuser.”
To those who think such a disaster could never befall them, Flot-Patterson says she never saw it coming, either. Knowing what she knows now, her goal is to educate others and change the laws and views of the community and the legal system concerning mental health issues and domestic violence.
Too often, domestic violence is treated as minor squabbling while cries for help are ignored — and Flot-Patterson is determined to deliver a wakeup call.
“It is time to get serious because domestic violence is not a joke,” she says. “It is a crime.”
Many domestic violence centers and services want to help, and Flot-Patterson urges those suffering in silence to reach out. She also advises victims to not tell their abuser where they are going and to get away from them until they are locked up or out of their life for good.
To mothers like her, she says, “Watch for the signs.”
If you are experiencing physical, verbal, emotional, sexual or financial abuse, help is available.
Call the domestic violence national hotline: (800) 799-SAFE (7233) or the Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence crisis line: (800) 800-1396.