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A Country Star's Tragic Life & Death

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Alone and adrift, Mindy McCready seemed to have little concept of time in the blurry month following the apparent suicide of her boyfriend, songwriter David Wilson, on Jan. 13 at the lakefront home they shared in quiet Heber Springs, Ark. “She would call you at 2 in the morning and then would call you 20 minutes later and act like she hadn’t spoken to you in a week,” says a friend of the long-troubled country singer, who had left a court-ordered rehab facility after just one day on Feb. 7. She didn’t talk much about her two sons, 10-month-old Zayne and 6-year-old Zander-both boys had been placed in foster care when she was admitted for treatment-because the subject brought her to tears. Upset over speculation about her role in Wilson’s death, McCready had been spending her days sleeping and her nights drinking and was screaming “about everything,” according to a Feb. 6 petition filed by her father, Tim, to have her committed to rehab. But even as her world imploded, McCready sounded resolutely hopeful after watching the Feb. 10 Grammy Awards. Recalls the friend: “She said, ‘I’ll be there next year. That’s a promise.'”

But as with much of McCready’s deeply tumultuous life, the moment of optimism was short-lived. Just five days later McCready, 37, was plunged into despair after being served with court papers proposing that her sons be sent to live with her long-estranged mother, Gayle Inge, in Florida. “The most important thing are my babies must come home,” she wrote in an e-mail on Feb. 16 to L.A. private investigator Danno Hanks, who stayed in touch with McCready after working with her during her 2010 stint on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab. “She lost all hope,” says Hanks. “She said, ‘I’m losing my kids. I can’t live without my kids!'” At her request, Hanks had made a video advocating suicide prevention with the song “I’ll See You Yesterday,” in which she sings, “If tomorrow’s gonna be the same/ I’ll see you yesterday.” Says Hanks: “Mindy told me that it was exactly what she wanted. Then I asked her if I could post it. And Mindy’s answer was, ‘You’ll know when it’s right.'”

The next day, McCready shot herself in the mouth on the porch of her home-the very same spot where Wilson, 34, had been found dead, according to a police source. The suicide marked a brutal end for a singer who had once been among Nashville’s brightest stars before a toxic spiral of reckless relationships, arrests, addiction and family fights played out publicly for nearly a decade. The news of her death left many who had known her “saddened but not surprised,” as her former fiance, actor Dean Cain, tells PEOPLE. “My first thought was of the poor kids. To think about the legacy those boys have been left, it’s just tragic. This is a woman who had so much talent and just self-destructed.”

A once-vivacious beauty whose big voice matched her outsize confidence, McCready had fallen so far into the abyss that when local law enforcement arrived at her house on Feb. 17 after neighbors heard gunshots, they encountered a harrowing scene. “Food was out, it smelled really bad, the dog had pooped everywhere on the floor,” says a police source. “[McCready] was filthy. The TV was on; everything was a mess. The bed wasn’t made-it was just a bare mattress. The kitchen counter, nightstand and bathroom were full of prescription pills.” McCready had also shot the couple’s dog-in a gruesome twist, the bullet that killed Wilson had previously been found in the dog’s mouth. Although the singer was never named a suspect after police termed the cause of Wilson’s death “unknown” and opened an investigation, her account was inconsistent and “she seemed like she was in a trance” when talking about it, says the police source (see box). In a sobbing phone call the night Wilson died, “she told me about the fight they had gotten into and that she kicked him out,” says her longtime friend Jimmy Nichols. “She said he went to his truck, got a gun and blew his brains out.”

Pending final autopsy results, police sources say both deaths are expected to be ruled suicides. In the meantime one question continues to haunt those who knew McCready and struggled to help her through the years: How could a platinum-selling artist whose 1996 debut, Ten Thousand Angels, earned her comparisons to Shania Twain, plummet to the point of no return? She had a rocky start: A native of Fort Myers, Fla., she tussled from an early age with her parents, who split when she was 9. She moved to Nashville at 17 and helped care for her younger brothers Tim and Josh. “It’s a miracle that all of us survived,” she told PEOPLE in 2010. “By the grace of God we all made it.” But at 18 she met veteran Nashville producer David Malloy, and her life changed forever. “She was pre-Carrie, pre-Miranda,” recalls Malloy. “There hadn’t been a young, fiery blonde at any label at that time.” And she spoke her mind: “When we were looking for songs, she would say, ‘I would never say that,’ or ‘I would never let a guy do that to me.'” She also had “more charisma than anyone I had ever seen,” recalls her music manager Stan Moress. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw her in the doorway of my office. I said, ‘We have a star!'”

The album catapulted her to fame, including a touring gig opening for George Strait. “The first night of the tour we went out to support her-and to see if she could pull it off, quite frankly,” says Joe Galante, then the head of RCA Nashville. “Right before she went onstage, she vomited and then went up and nailed it. She was charming, she was drop-dead gorgeous, she was sweet, she could connect, and people went nuts. And she was a great singer.”

But “cracks in the wall” soon began to surface, says Moress. “I think she had some emotional scars from her childhood, and she had a tumultuous relationship with her mother.” Adds Nichols: “She didn’t know honesty could come with love.” Her romance with Cain, now 46, fizzled in 1998 after a year. The former Lois & Clark star remembers her as “poisonous. She was never abusive or addictive with me, but red flags were everywhere. I saw all the bad signs and told her to get out. She would start arguments, start drama. Things weren’t allowed to be good.”

Her erratic behavior also affected her work. Once when she was invited to attend a benefit dinner in New York City with Kenny Chesney, “it was a big opportunity,” recalls Galante. “I said we’d meet in the bar of our hotel, and this big guy comes walking in to meet Mindy, and I said to Kenny, ‘Who is that?’ And he said, ‘It’s Roger Clemens, the pitcher.’ There was clearly something going on between them. I was thinking, ‘Where are your priorities? We don’t have time for this!’ She was making excuses, as if it was a coincidence that he was there, telling me she knew him from Florida.” In fact, McCready later claimed that she and Clemens had begun a relationship when she was just 15, though things didn’t become sexual until she was 18. (Clemens denied the affair; see box.)

Galante dropped her from the label after her third album. Starting with an arrest in 2004 for faking prescriptions, she spent the next four years in and out of court, particularly as her volatile relationship with aspiring singer Billy McKnight turned ugly. (She also waged a long-running custody battle over their son Zander, who was placed in her mother’s care during McCready’s rehab and jail stints.) “I lost myself in that relationship,” she told PEOPLE in 2010. “Everybody I loved or cared about turned their back on me because they couldn’t stand to watch me. I was killing myself.”

In between arrests, suicide attempts and rehab stays, she would resolve to start over. “I’ve done things that are completely stupid and wrong,” she said in 2010. “But I wasn’t crazy. I was doing crazy things. I was just really empty and searching for anything to latch onto.”

In 2011 she took Zander from her mother’s house and fled to Arkansas, where the boy was ordered into foster care while her custody war raged on. But she seemed to find a new start with Wilson, and she gave birth to their son Zayne in April 2012. In December she regained custody of Zander. Wilson “touched my soul,” she told Dateline‘s Andrea Canning on Jan. 29. “I just keep telling myself that the more suffering I go through, the greater character I’ll have.”

In the end she was faced yet again with the threat of losing her children-who remain in foster care for now-and the suffering finally seemed too much to bear. “People talk about a train wreck, but the world lost a real person, a human being, a mother,” says country singer Chely Wright, a friend of McCready’s from their early days in Nashville. “I’m praying for her kids.”