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LOVE AMONG THE RUINS

AT GEORGE MURRAY'S JUNKYARD, PARTING OUT IS SUCH SWEET SORROW.DEARLY DE-PARTED INSIDE GEORGE MURRAY'S FINAL RUSTING PLACE.

Bob is referring to Winona's arrest, in February 1985, for cruelty to animals. Briefly famous as the Littleton Cat Lady, she pleaded guilty to harboring up to thirty live, diseased cats. (Sheriff's deputies also found four dead ones in her freezer.) Neighbors had reported Winona when the stench began to cross their property lines, and they apparently did not exaggerate. "We had to wade knee-deep in offal and refuse through appalling and sickening conditions," said one deputy at the time.

"But see, my dad was always out for the underdog," Bob sighs. "He and Ray spent weeks cleaning out that Littleton house of cats, and then Winona somehow ended up moving here. He just couldn't resist a loser."

Although Winona does not want to discuss her cat years, she accepts the "loser" label with a graceful laugh. "Bob is nothing like his father," she says.

Of course, she loved his father. She first came to know Murray's in 1973, when her daughter Cheri began hanging out there, looking for pieces of "thoroughly rusted metal" to use in a sculpture class at Arapahoe Community College. Soon after, George gave Cheri a job--but he lost his new employee almost immediately when he introduced her to a customer who owned racehorses. "My daughter was stagestruck relative to horses," Winona recalls, "and this man offered her a groom's job beginning the next morning. I thought Cheri should have given George two weeks' notice, so I went down in her place and ended up staying for ten years."

Winona says she made friends easily with George's wife Noreen, who impressed her as "a good woman, and very smart. I ate dinner with the two of them almost every night. George and I were very friendly, too," she adds. "Noreen used to say that our signs were compatible."

After Noreen was stricken with cancer, Winona says she spent hours driving her to doctor's appointments and chemotherapy sessions. The romance with George, she adds, did not begin until six months after Noreen's death. "George needs women in his life," Winona explains. "We knew each other so well. And I have a master's in psychology, you know. We thought I might have some skills to deal with his depression."

No matter how busy George was in the yard, depression lurked on the periphery. "He told me he had spent several weeks in a mental hospital in 1943," Winona says. "And when I met him, he was in the middle of another bout. He sometimes took medication, but the doctor only prescribed fifteen pills at a time, because George was worried about committing suicide. None of it helped very much."

And yet, after George emerged from one of his dark spells, life could be idyllic, Winona recalls. "He treated women as if they had intelligence," she says. "And he was handsome, too, a little heavy sometimes, but very attractive, with light-brown hair and blue eyes. We used to go for walks down the creek, and we always went out on Friday nights for hot-fudge sundaes. He was a trifle bossy. I loved him very, very much."

Winona insists George considered their union a marriage, going so far as to buy two silver wedding rings. She says he wore one on a chain around his neck and told her that was all he needed in the way of a formal commitment. He also told Winona tales of his past--how his mother had come over from Ireland at sixteen and worked as a housemaid for twenty years until she met his father; how he was their only child; how the three of them had worked feverishly to live off their Littleton farm. He showed her letters from a woman who'd borne him a son out of wedlock, a situation that still tormented him. And eventually, Winona says, George told her he'd been cheating on her.

"Oh, George had so many lady friends," she says. "Some were just friends, and some were other--and as to that, he had many more volunteers than he ever took advantage of. Women would come around and want something done, and sometimes he would completely miss the flirting. I knew when it started and I knew when it ended. It was me he relied upon."

He even relied on Winona to find his body--but Ray beat her to it. When she returned to her home in the junkyard on the evening of February 26, 1993, Winona was met by a Littleton police officer. George was dead. He had left her a note: "Winona--call 911."

"He was thinking of me," she says, succumbing to tears. "He did it outside my house instead of inside. He could have gone out to the farm to do it, but he made sure we could find him right away. He was that kind of man."

George's will divided ownership of the back 2.78 acres of the yard between Winona and Ray. "I asked Ray to give me first chance at buying his half if he ever wanted to sell," Winona says. "But not a week later he came back to tell me he was deeding it to George's children. Ray does not want to own anything."

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