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Loved to Death

Jim Garner wanted to murder his wife, Dana. Even from the grave, he may get his way.

Jim rarely came home except to check up on her and teach her the occasional "lesson." He'd show up to take the boys "to the movies," then disappear with them for days. Once he called from Kansas and said he was heading back home to Tennessee and taking the kids with him. It was just a ruse to punish her, but she lived in fear that he'd make good on his threats. He'd warned her not to call the police. If she did, he told her, "it'll be the worst mistake of your life."

Physically, Jim continued to deteriorate. In the three years since his business had gone bust, he'd aged fifteen. His hair was gray and his eyes were always glassy and red; he'd lost weight until his skin seemed to hang on him like hand-me-down clothes.

In early December 1994 Dana found a home to rent just a few houses down from her mother's old place. She liked the big backyard with a tree the kids could climb, and the thick tangle of bushes in the far corner where the boys were soon making paths like rabbits in a warren. She felt safer here, and she prayed her mother would watch over her and the children.

Jim had shown no interest in moving with them, but he helped Dana move in. Along with her boxes, he brought over dozens of his murder books. A friend who saw them exclaimed, "Oh, my God, Dana! He is going to kill you."

Dana didn't need her friend's warning to recognize that Jim was growing more dangerous by the day. Just how dangerous, she learned a week later.

All day at work, Dana had the feeling that something wasn't right. Finally she called home. To her surprise, Jim picked up the telephone. In the background she could hear thirteen-year-old Ashley screaming.

Dropping the phone, Dana rushed home. She arrived to find Jim drunk and sitting on the front porch. "She bumped her own head," he said. "But I'm sure you'll blame me."

Inside, Dana found her hysterical daughter. Ashley pointed to where Jim had kicked a hole in a bedroom door. Then he'd hit her and choked her and threatened to kill her. "And he said he was going to get you," she told her mother.

As if Dana needed any proof, the hole in the door and the red marks on her daughter's face and neck verified the story. When she went to call the police, Jim, who'd followed her into the house, pushed her away from the phone. But when she reached for it again, he backed off. "I'm leaving, I've had enough," he said, and stalked out.

When the police arrived, Dana filled out a complaint for a restraining order to keep her husband away from her and her children. "He is very verbally abusive. He takes the kids, including out of state, to get to me...and I don't know where he is at," she wrote.

"He tells the children and other people that I am crazy. When he gets drunk, his behavior gets worse. He reads a lot of books about murder--he is fascinated with those books in an unhealthy way. He reads books on how to plot murders and how to kill your wife.

"He is physically abusive when drunk and has worsened since his serious head injury in January 1994...I have thought he was going to kill me."

Still, she asked that the police go easy on him. "He's suffering from depression and needs medical attention," she said. "He's salvageable."

The police found Jim at the bar Dana had suggested. They arrested him for assault and took him to jail.

Jim's incarceration took care of the immediate danger, but it didn't solve Dana's other problems. She had no money for food, much less Christmas gifts for the kids, and she wouldn't be paid again until after the holiday.

Living in her nice Greenwood Village home, she'd never imagined she could sink so low. But she swallowed her pride and went to a local food bank, which gave her groceries and a bag of presents for the children. It was a sad, tearful Christmas.

Dana got her restraining order. Jim got even by filing for divorce.
He hadn't expected Dana to be so relieved, though, and quickly decided he wasn't really ready to give her up. The divorce filing was a mistake, he said. He reminded her of the Biblical passage from their wedding ceremony: "A wife is not to depart from her husband...Even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife."

However, now that Jim had taken the first step, Dana was prepared to see the divorce through. She'd already signed the papers and, with the restraining order in place, she wanted nothing more to do with him.

Jim pleaded guilty to reduced charges of "wrongs to a minor" and was given a deferred judgment. He was to attend anger-management, divorce and alcohol-treatment programs and check in regularly with a probation officer. If he complied, his record would be clear.

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