Did He or Did He Not Murder His Wife?

The Gardener’s Story Unfolded Over Several Years

GARDEN FLOWERS photo by @Dunelair © Sue Moran Thole

I met a quirky divorcee a while back when I went to a local open house in a semi-rural area. We were there to view the many hummingbirds the homeowners had attracted with their array of feeders and native plants.

The quirky woman and I became friends. Let’s call her Fiona.

Her older home is on two acres that slope to a seasonal creek. She keeps a small herd of goats on the steeper back half.

For years she had been landscaping the front half of her property with drought-tolerant plants. Finally, she recognized that the work was more than she could handle alone and was seeking a housemate to help her.

At the open house, Fiona met a woman who thought her brother might be interested in helping. Fiona met him, and they agreed to a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Let’s call her new renter Michael.

MORNING GLORY in ROSEMARY photo by @Dunelair © Sue Moran Thole

Michael turned out to be the answer to her prayers. He was an older man who had grown up on his parents’ avocado ranch. He was a skilled worker who loved the land and was knowledgeable about drought-tolerant plants.

He was also mysterious. Quiet, gentle, self-contained.

Michael’s sister had alluded to a dark past — something about a bad auto accident that had led to his wife’s death, leaving Michael guilt-ridden because he was driving while under the influence. He gave up alcohol, and he no longer had a driver’s license because of the DUI. He bicycled most places and took the local buses when he needed to go further.

After Michael helped get Fiona’s landscape under control, he started gardening for others. My husband and I also hired him.

Michael was our dream gardener. He was reliable and good at suggesting creative solutions. One spring, we collaborated on spiffing up everything front and back so we could include our yard in the community garden tour. It was a satisfying accomplishment. He was proud of his work and garnered a couple of new customers.

Another year or so went by, and Fiona and Michael’s friendship deepened due to their love of gardening.

PRIDE of MADEIRA photo by @Dunelair © Sue Moran Thole

Then, without any warning, law enforcement swooped in the day before Thanksgiving and charged Michael with murder. Five years after he had discovered his wife’s body, the authorities accused him of murdering her and threw him in jail.

Fiona and I were shocked.

Neither of us could believe that gentle Michael was capable of murder. Yet, we had heard rumors that his wife had been unhappy and made his life miserable. Could he have been capable of killing her in a fit of anger?

Michael had rented a room from Fiona for four years and had never mentioned anything about his wife’s death.

In our county, the wheels of justice turn slowly. There is no such thing as a speedy trial. Especially if the person charged is poor.

Fortunately for Michael, he was assigned a first-rate public defender; nevertheless, two years elapsed before his case went to trial.

During those years that Michael waited in jail, Fiona and Michael’s sister assisted the public defender in preparing his defense.

Fiona did all in her power to help him and his investigator; she was an integral member of their team. When the trial started, she had lined up her friends to attend.

Clearly, it was a good idea for the defendant to have faithful supporters present every day of the three-week trial. Most of us were older women, and we each took care with our appearance to show the jury that we were respectable.

FOUNTAIN GARDEN photo by @Dunelair © Sue Moran Thole

As the trial began, the defense attorney approached the bench, reviewed charges of incompetence against the arresting authorities, and requested a dismissal. The judge refused.

Jury selection took two days. I was deeply concerned about the public defender’s approach. He closely queried each potential juror regarding their personal experiences of knowing anyone who had committed suicide.

Only one person stated she had never known anyone even attempt suicide. However, her manner was such that Fiona and I labeled her the ice queen.

As I witnessed jury selection, I started counting the suicides that had touched me in some way over the years. Fortunately, I had not had a loved one commit suicide, but I was shocked to recall the number of persons I had known who had succeeded or failed to kill themselves. I had never added them up before.

The public defender chose this approach because Michael’s wife had had a history of depression and had attempted suicide at least once. So, he had decided to build the case on the theory that she had killed herself.

After the first day, Fiona texted the public defender that we had terrible feelings regarding the “ice queen.” When the case resumed the next day, he immediately had her dismissed. I could see that Fiona had developed a close connection with the public defender.

I had a previously scheduled trip, so I missed much of the middle of the trial. However, the days that I attended delivered much drama.

Defense made convincing presentations regarding errors of the officers who responded to the initial 911 call and other sloppy police work, including actions that seemed fraudulent.

Defense engaged a handwriting expert who verified the likelihood that the deceased’s suicide note was authentic.

Defense called upon credible witnesses to attest to Michael’s terrible state of mind upon finding his wife’s body.

Defense had witnesses who testified that Michael and his wife had been their good friends during the years she and they had been doing graduate work at university. They bore witness to an average, happy couple during those years, and they sadly recounted their friend’s emotional decline as she suffered years of back pain.

I never heard the defense attorney mention that the photos of the body had plainly been “enhanced” or “photoshopped” by the prosecution. He didn’t need to; today’s juries are sure to have several members who could recognize that, just as I did. Blood that is hours or days old is not bright red. What was the prosecution thinking?

In the end, the jury found Michael not guilty of murdering his wife. So, after spending two years in jail, he was free.

A few days after reuniting with his mother and sister, Michael returned to his room at Fiona’s. A lot of yard work awaited after his long absence.

When his fitness did not return, he saw a doctor and learned he was dying of prostate cancer. He went into a hospice facility and died a few months later.

To this day, neither Fiona nor I know if he murdered his wife. How does one kill oneself by drowning in a bathtub?

DAISIES photo by @Dunelair © Sue Moran Thole

While I have used fictional names for the key players, I have otherwise stuck to the truth in my reporting here.

The close reader may be asking, where was the blood?

I was absent when the defense explained that the deceased woman had first tried to hang herself but managed only to cause rope burns that had bled.

I saw the photo only briefly during closing arguments. IMO the photo raised more questions than it answered.



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: Friend, reader, and photographer with eclectic interests. Loves living on California's central coast. Born and raised in West Virginia.