Accused from the grave

My sister was dead, but she still had something vital to say...

Published by: Laura Hinton and Sharon Ward
Published on: 1 December 2011

The body of my sister Julie, 40, lay in her open casket. Clearing my throat, I gently brushed my hand against her cold cheek.
Suddenly, the numbness that had held me for the last three days thawed as the enormity of it all hit me - she was gone.
‘I love you, Julie,' I whispered, my voice cracking.
It felt like only yesterday that we were kids at home, being noisy and boisterous.
Me beating away at my drum kit in one room, and my big sis playing all elegantly on her violin in the next. There had never been a quiet moment in our house! Now Julie would never make another sound...
Staring down at her, I wished I could find the right words to say goodbye to her. All the feelings and emotions I felt were on the tip of my tongue, but the words just wouldn't form. I'd never been much of a speaker, had always preferred to write down how I felt... it just seemed easier.
‘Why?' was the only word I could whisper. Her death was incredibly difficult to comprehend, more so because we didn't yet know how she'd died.
Beside me, her husband Mark, 48, coughed quietly, so I said my final goodbye and moved on.
Turning around one last time, I caught a strange expression on his face.
It was odd - he was just staring blankly into space.
The next thing I knew, someone else had walked in the room. They patted Mark on the back, and he laughed at their comment.
Frowning, I told myself it wasn't my place to judge. Everybody mourned in their own way. Perhaps Mark's grief was still bottled up inside. Soon enough, it would come out. So would mine...
As we walked out of the funeral home, my wife Jill, 40, gripped my hand. ‘She was such a lovely person,' she sighed. ‘It's so unfair.'
Nodding, I couldn't help but think back to the last time I'd seen Julie.
‘If only I could have told her then just how much she meant to me,' I sighed.
I'd popped round to see her a couple of weeks before to ask what her plans were for Christmas. Her boys David, eight, and Douglas, three, had been play fighting with each other at the kitchen table, at the same time as trying to put together their Christmas lists.
Julie had seemed a little stressed and distracted. ‘Are you sure you're all right?' I'd asked, as she'd stood preparing dinner at the stove.
‘Absolutely,' she'd smiled, stifling a yawn. ‘I'm just know what it's like at this time of year.'
Of course, Julie was always busy. As a full-time mum, she didn't get much help from Mark because he worked long hours as an investment broker. Julie never seemed to mind, though.
Not that life was easier when he was around - she waited on him hand and foot, cooking dinner every night and making sure the house was spick and span.
I guess Julie was trying to make amends. You see, shortly after David was born, she'd had a brief affair. It had taken a while for them to get through the rocky patch.
Once, I'd caught her pottering about in the garden, and she'd had the cordless phone on her. It was so Mark could keep tabs on what she was doing - but he was inside the house! ‘Tell him to stop being stupid!' I'd laughed.
‘I don't mind,' she'd snapped.
I'd known then that it was best to keep my opinions to myself. They'd worked hard at their relationship, and things had got back on track. But now my lovely sister was gone...
A week later, Julie was cremated, but we were still no nearer to finding out how she'd died.
There were rumours that she'd committed suicide, but I wasn't having any of it.
‘All we know is that she'd been very sick a few weeks before she died,' I pondered with Jill one night.
Mark, who'd been the one to find Julie dead in her bed that night, told me she'd been taking anti-depressants and had been vomiting. He believed she'd had
a bad reaction to the drugs.
‘If she was so poorly, why didn't he take her to hospital...'
I grumbled on to Jill. ‘It just doesn't make any sense.'
‘You can't blame Mark,' Jill said. ‘You're grieving, but so is Mark - just in a different way.'
He certainly was... I'd already heard from a friend that he'd started seeing a woman called Kelly LaBonte, 48, from work. If it turned out to be true, I'd be furious.
As Christmas passed, along with the New Year, I couldn't hide what I was feeling any longer.
‘Do you think Mark could have anything to do with Julie's death?' I suddenly blurted out to Jill one day.
My heart was thumping as I spoke the words. They'd been niggling away at me ever since that day in the morgue. Now I couldn't hold back any more.
‘Don't be silly,' she frowned. ‘Mark would never do anything like that. We have to support him and the kids.'
Mark still didn't seem to be acting like a grieving man, though. There were no tears, no anguish, nothing. He was just so matter-of-fact, so in control. If it had been Jill laying in that open casket, I'd have been inconsolable.
So, without telling Jill, I went to the Prairie Police Department at the end of January.
‘I need to know what happened to my sister,' I told the officer in charge.
‘The investigation is still ongoing,' he admitted, but there was an odd look in his eye.
‘Although, we did receive a letter from one of Julie's neighbours... Your sister gave it to him 10 days before she died.'
‘A letter?!' I repeated. This was news to me. ‘Well, can I see it?'
‘Okay,' he said. ‘Wait there.'
An hour later, my hands shook as I read her final words. If anything happens to me, Mark would be my first suspect, it read. I know he has never forgiven me for that brief affair I had seven years ago.
I paused and took a deep breath before carrying on eading.
I pray I am wrong and nothing happens, but I am suspicious of Mark's behaviour and fear my early demise. However, I will not leave David and Douglas. My life's greatest love, accomplishment and wish.
I was speechless. She'd been worried that Mark could cause her harm - and now she was dead. Why had she shared her fears with a neighbour and not me...?
Then I noticed there was something else attached to the letter. Reading it, I realised it was a shopping list.
Aspirin, patches, syringe, bottled water, it read in scrawled black writing.
‘What on earth is this all about?!' I challenged the officer.
‘We believe that note was written by her husband,' he said. ‘She gave that, with the letter, to her neighbour. He handed it in the day after she died.'
‘So this proves Mark was involved,' I cried.
‘We'll have to wait for the results of the autopsy,' the officer replied, shaking his head. ‘We can't say anything for sure yet.'
I knew, though. ‘He killed her,' I cried to Jill when I explained everything back home.
Two weeks later, the autopsy results revealed that antifreeze crystals were found in Julie's kidneys. But still there wasn't enough evidence to arrest Mark, even though the police confirmed they were working on it.
By then, Mark had cut off all contact with our side of the family. He wouldn't answer anyone's calls. Soon, I'd lost touch with the boys, and only heard about how they were doing through friends.
We sent Christmas and birthday cards, but never heard anything back. ‘Julie would hate us not seeing them,' I fretted to Jill. But part of me was glad, too - this way I didn't have to face Mark, pretend to his face everything was fine.
Four long years passed like that. Then, one day, we got the bombshell news. Mark had been arrested and charged with first-degree homicide. ‘I can't believe it,' Jill gasped when I told her. ‘Those poor boys...'
‘It's tragic,' I agreed, shaking my head. ‘They've lost their mother already, and now they're about to lose their father, too.'
Except it didn't quite turn out that way. Mark pleaded not guilty, and was let out on bail until the case went to court. We were told it could take years, as the police had to compile so much evidence.
‘He's still walking free while my Julie is dead,' I raged.
Just two months later, he married Kelly. It was yet another kick in the teeth.
But we never stopped campaigning for justice. Still, it took another six long years of computer forensics, interviewing witnesses and toxicology reports until the trial could begin.
Only then - 10 years after Julie's death - did I hear the full story of what happened to my sister in her final days. Jill and me sat clutching hands in
the courtroom.
My stomach was churning, but I held my head high for my sister.
One of the first witnesses was Julie's neighbour Ted Wojt who'd lived next door for seven years.
‘She was shaking and crying,' he said. ‘She said Mark had been playing mind games with her, and that he kept leaving internet searches for poison open on his computer where she could see them. A few days later, she handed me the letter. I didn't open it until after I'd heard that she'd died.'
‘Why did you never tell me, Julie?' I wanted to scream out loud. It was a question that had haunted me all those years.
The evidence was all there, too. Computer experts discovered that Mark had done numerous internet searches for poisoning, antifreeze and chemical absorption in the months before her death. Meticulously plotting her murder.
Both Douglas and David gave evidence, too. They said that they'd witnessed their mum throwing up in her final days, and had begged their dad to take her to hospital - but he'd refused. Of course he'd refused. He'd been lacing her food with poison, and it was having the desired effect.
Prosecutors argued that when the antifreeze poisoning didn't work quickly enough for Mark, he'd panicked. If Julie made a recovery, she might tell someone what he'd done... so he smothered her with a a pillow, suffocating her to death.
‘You're a monster,' I whispered, glaring at him in the courtroom. The coward didn't look at me once.
Harder still was listening to the lies of his defence. They claimed Julie was depressed and had taken her own life after finding out Mark was having an affair with Kelly. They said she'd plotted her suicide to frame him.
But surely if Julie wanted to commit suicide, she'd have swallowed a lot of poison, and that would have left large amounts in her blood after death. Instead, only trace amounts were found, proving that someone slowly poisoned her.
‘Your crime is so enormous, so monstrous, so unspeakably cruel,' Kenosha County Judge Bruce Schroeder said. Too right.
Mark Jenson was found guilty of Julie's murder, and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
As we left the courtroom, I felt such relief. After all those years, it was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. We had justice for Julie at last.
Sadly, her sons are sticking by their father. I miss them so much and wish we could be involved in their lives, but their dad's brainwashed them. Maybe one day they'll understand the truth.
I'd like Julie's story to remind women in abusive relationships there's help out there, and they need to do everything possible to escape. Maybe that way another tragedy could be prevented, and another brother won't be looking down at the body of their dead sister.
I feel so proud it was Julie's letter that helped put Mark in jail - from the grave she brought her killer to justice.
Paul Griffin, 47, Kenoha, Wisconsin, USA