By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
But the cops aren't the only ones who've accused Grainger of causing Sonia's death. In 1996, before any criminal charges were filed against him, Tonia Kucera, Sonia's daughter from a previous marriage, filed a wrongful-death suit in Boulder District Court accusing Mike of killing her mother. She asked for a portion of the seven-figure settlement Mike had received from the railroad and got it when the suit was settled out of court.
Police reportedly charged Grainger with murder in part because they believe he incriminated himself during depositions he gave as part of the civil suit. But Cohen, who was present for those depositions, says they include nothing remotely incriminating.
Mike Grainger, now 43, has yet to enter a plea as he awaits the results of a psychiatric evaluation to determine his sanity. Schild says he expects his client will plead not guilty.
For Mike, little remains of the life he once knew. "The old Mike died in 1990," he says, echoing his brother-in-law. "I want him back today." Mike's conversation is marked by stuttering, disjointed trains of thought and constant repetition. When he is bothered, as he always is this time of year, he has an even tougher time expressing himself. His entire left side remains numb.
Mike lives alone with a toy poodle and three Pomeranians, surviving off what's left of his settlement with the railroad. His townhome smells slightly of urine but is furnished with a new Sony TV. He has time to contemplate where he stands, and his future--the prospect of a lengthy trial and possible imprisonment--may prove to be as bleak as the wreckage of his and Sonia's lives.
"If people think that I'm guilty, fine," he says of his accusers. "I'm not trying to sway any votes. I'm not an idiot. I'm a lot smarter than people think."
Right now Mike is more interested in the question of Sonia's guilt. "She blamed herself for the accident," he says. "She thought I blamed her for the accident. She took that guilt to her grave. I could never convince her otherwise."
To call Mike and Sonia's relationship symbiotic is an understatement. Sonia took care of Mike in the years after his head injury. In the years before her death, as her weight mushroomed to life-threatening proportions, it was Mike who kept watch over her.
"Both of them felt they were unloved by other people," Tonia Kucera testified during a preliminary hearing on Mike's murder charge. Both were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I still miss her," Mike says. "I never will forget her. Nobody'll ever replace her." From all accounts, even Mike's, he and Sonia were miserable together. But there was no other place for them to go.
Sonia Kunes grew up in Ravenna, a farming community of 1,300 in south-central Nebraska. She wasn't always so fat. When she was young, remembers her friend Joyce Nason, Sonia was "very thin. She was absolutely beautiful." Sonia was shy but popular in high school. She even joined the cheerleading squad. But she used to smoke up to three packs of cigarettes a day, and when she quit, remembers Barb Thomsen, "let me tell you, she started eating."
Sonia married a local boy named Terry Kucera and had her only child with him. Tonia was born in 1966. Nason remembers little about Sonia's first husband. "I think he was a partyer; she wasn't as much," she says. (Terry Kucera now lives in Grand Island, Nebraska, and declined comment for this story.) After the couple divorced, in the early '70s, Tonia lived with her mother for a while, but she spent most of her formative years with her dad.
Robert M. "Mike" Grainger grew up in Tennessee and came to Alliance to live with his sister, Elaine Wade, and her husband, Richard. Alliance was a railroad town of about 16,000, and Richard Wade helped Mike get on at the Burlington Northern, the town's main employer. "Back then they were looking for anyone that was a warm body and could give a good day's work," says Elaine.
Mike had no prior railroad experience, but he quickly took to the job of guiding the train engines that lumbered in and out of the switching yards.
His nickname was "three-times Mike" because he learned things by repeating them. His sister says Mike was not retarded but suffered from learning disabilities. According to Richard Wade, Mike's slowness stemmed from the injury he suffered at the Boy Scout meeting. The Wades think the phenobarbital Mike was given for his injuries may also have affected his development.
Mike grew up relatively normal, playing football when he was in high school. "A better friend you would never want to have," Elaine says. "He'd give you the shirt off his back if you were cold."
Sonia had also found a job at BN in the late 1970s and eventually worked her way up to engineer. Her co-workers remember her for her sharp wit. She had expensive taste in clothes and jewelry, particularly diamonds. She and Mike also collected Mickey Mouse paraphernalia.
In most ways, though, they lived simply. They shared an inexpensive trailer. They had the same rest days, grew a garden together and traveled to Aspen in the fall to watch the leaves change. She wore the pants, he doted on her, and they kept largely to themselves.