BELTON, Texas (KWTX) The family of a slain Copperas Cove man marked the first anniversary of the brutal murder Tuesday, hosting a picnic just a few yards from where his body was found.
Firefighters found Michael Vanlandingham’s burned body on Sept. 17, 2018 after dousing a brush fire off FM 1670 near U.S. Highway 190/Interstate 14 just west of Belton.
He had been shot twice in the head.
"He helped everybody; he was just a big ol’ teddy bear," Vanlandingham's mother, Karen Rourke, said.
Owen Thomas Free III, 38, who’s also known as “Tommy Knocker,” and Dana Francis Walcott, 40, were arrested on warrants charging murder/intends serious bodily injured causing death in connection with the deadly shooting.
Both remain jailed in lieu of $1 million bonds and both face trial next month.
The property on which the former soldier’s body was found is known as “The Compound” and drug activity has occurred in the area, authorities said.
A resident who lived on the property told investigators that Vanlandingham was killed because Free and Walcott suspected he was cooperating with police, an arrest warrant affidavit said.
But Vanlandingham's mother says those same men were introduced to her as her son’s friends a year before the murder.
"He said that they were best friends, they'd take care of Michael," says Rourke.
"The other one, he had kids, so we gave him a dryer to help him out."
It was an act of kindness that she says was repaid with betrayal.
"I want them people in jail to watch this and know he is still loved and remembered," she adds.
Family members have started a petition calling for a clean-up of the property in hopes of change it into a gathering place in memory of the man they called “Big Mike.”