The shock of his death is still fresh in the hearts and minds of all who knew and loved Steven Payne, the 35-year-old assistant manager at Aubrey’s Maryville who was bludgeoned to death in the early hours of Thanksgiving Day.
The loss of their friend, family member and co-worker is still being felt by those who saw him every day.
But one thing all who are missing Steven Payne say over-and-over: People need to know what kind of man he was. The community needs to hear about his caring heart and love for others.
Payne was beaten to death in the early morning hours of Nov. 25. Maryville police said robbery was the motive and that one of Payne’s childhood friends then stole a Blu-ray player and a large screen television that were traded for drugs.
Bryan Kevin Thomas, 37, of Sevierville, was taken into custody Nov. 27, and charged with criminal homicide. He is being held at the Blount County Jail on $750,000 bond pending a grand jury hearing.
This past weekend, several of Payne’s family, friends and colleagues shared their thoughts on Payne and how he impacted their lives.
Betty Henry is Payne’s grandmother - his Mamaw - who raised him and his older brother, Tony, from the time Payne was 9 or 10. It was his love of his grandparents, said family friend Betty McKenzie, that brought Payne back to Maryville. “When Steven’s Papaw got sick, he called Steven and asked him to come home, and Steven did,” Betty McKenzie said.
Payne’s grandmother Betty said Payne always looked after her. “When my husband got sick, Steven was living in South Carolina. He came home and took care of us. When my husband died, Steven kept on taking care of me. He lived with me until about a year ago when he moved into the apartment downtown. Even when he moved out, he would talk to me, or his cousin Kim Davis, who moved in with me, everyday.”
Betty McKenzie, who is best friends with Mamaw Betty, said Payne was, “the sweetest person I have ever known. He was so loving and good to everyone,” Betty McKenzie said.
His grandmother said it was probably his goodness that led to the tragedy they are all trying to deal with.
“Anybody who was in trouble, if they needed help, Steve would be there for them. He grew up with that boy (who is accused of the murder). I guess his goodness is what got him killed,” she said. “He was being good to the wrong people.”
At Aubrey’s Maryville, where Payne worked, servers, managers and customers all wanted to talk about Steven.
“He smiled all the time, and he had a great sense of humor,” assistant manager Chuck Finley said. “He never really had a bad thing to say about people, and he didn’t gossip. When you consider the qualities that make somebody a great friend and co-worker, he had more of those qualities than probably anyone I’ve ever known.”
Assistant manager Katie Bowerman said Payne was a fallen brother, friend and co-worker. “He was a kind, gentle, fun-loving man who was ripped from our family in the prime of his life.” Bowerman said anytime Payne walked into a room, it immediately became brighter, and he always lifted the mood. “Steven was one of those people who are absolutely irreplaceable, and I can honestly say a piece of my heart has gone with him. I will always smile when I think of him because that is what he would have wanted, but many tears will be shed throughout the remainder of my life during the moments I wish he could have been a part of. The world has lost a beautiful soul, and Maryville has lost a piece of our community.”
Bowerman said all she can hope for is that justice will prevail. “I hope everyone who was ever touched by our ‘angel’ will keep him alive with stories and memories,” she said. “I love you, and you will forever be missed.”
Server Justin Chambers said, “You can’t think of Steven and not have a good memory really. The man was always happy to see you, always friendly and pleasant and never had a day when he got short or angry with you.”
Server Shannon Malanga said Payne always gave constructive criticism in a positive way. “He never got angry, yelled or even raised his voice. If he made a mistake, we worked with him or if I made a mistake, he worked with me,” she said. “He never raised his voice. He was effective, and he was a good leader, and, at the same time, he was a friend, someone you could talk and anything you talked to him about he never repeated. He kept everything in confidence if you wanted him to.”
Kitchen manager Travis Stevens said Payne was a good guy. “If I had to pick a best friend, he would be one of them. He was a very trustworthy person and was always a person to brighten your day,” he said. “If you were in bad mood or had a lot going on and were in the dumps, he picked you up. If you needed anything, he was there for you. His attitude was outstanding.”
Stevens said Payne was a good cook and always came up with different ideas for recipes. “He was always brainstorming, and I am pretty much the same way. We had a lot in common in that way,” Stevens said.
Assistant kitchen manager Aaron O’Connor said Payne was person who was willing to listen if someone was having a bad day. “If you ever had a bad day, he was always there for you. If you ever needed anything, he was the guy you could talk to. You could really count on him,” O’Connor said. “If you were down in a slump and something was wrong, he always brightened your day, made you laugh and took your mind off things.”
Cook Shawn Williams said Payne had a passion for life that is rare. “He loved food. We stood back there in the kitchen talking about different recipes he had tried - crazy, off-the-wall stuff,” he said. “He loved everybody and everybody loved him. He was a great person. He was understanding, more so than most people, which is rare in this day and age. You rarely see someone who had that much impact on everyone he worked with. He was a phenomenal person with a passion for life like I’ve never seen.”
Server Jojo Whittington said Payne wasn’t judgmental of others and always made customers feel right at home. “The customers adored him. He wanted to make them feel at home, and he wanted them to feel part of the Aubrey’s family. He was a giver, but with his giving, he never expected anything in return. He didn’t realize how many lives he touched simply by being himself. Steven was genuine, inside and out.”
Server Laura Worley said Payne was a rare gem. “He was one of those people you couldn’t help but love,” she said. “His smile set him apart. He had a genuine smile.”
Worley said Steven was good in the kitchen. “That man could cook like you wouldn’t believe. His Jerk Chicken was awesome, and he made some really, really good pineapple salsa,” she said.
Cook Josh Wormsley said Payne kept the workplace in a laid back frame of mind. “You would see a French fry fly by your head, and then he would hide. He was always mischievous, always flipping the lights off in the walk-in freezer, and when you came out, he would be standing there smiling. He was positive, and let people know when they were doing a good job,” he said.
Server Steve Alan Duckett said he worked with Payne for five and a half years. “In all honesty, he was one of the best people I’ve ever met in my whole life. He was a good individual and would give you anything he could,” Duckett said. “He was a good person, and he is going to be missed greatly.”
Server Sarah Edmiston said she started with Aubrey’s in January. “He was always showing me things to make my work easier - shortcuts - and he was very friendly from the beginning.”
Anna Gaul, cook, cried while remembering her friend. “He had the most mischievous grin. He was the kind of person most people aspire to be as far as what he would do for other people,” she said. “You could talk to 20 people in this restaurant he helped out. He would do anything for people he cared about, and I can’t imagine why someone would want to do anything to him. He’s going to be missed very, very badly.”