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The Oddest Couple

He was thin, she was fat. He was passive, she was pushy. He's alive, she's dead.

Barb Thomsen's memories of seeing Mike, post-coma, still haunt her. "They had him tied down," she says. "He was wild, kicking around. He didn't know me at all. He was cussing Sonia out, called her a 'fucking bitch.' He was not himself. If he could have gotten hold of her, he'd have killed her."

When Mike was better, he and Sonia sued the railroad. Though the terms of the 1992 settlement are sealed, Rachetts says the couple received $2.4 million. The bulk of the money went to an annuity that eventually became worth $4 million. According to Rachetts, $150,000 of the settlement went directly to Sonia, who was named conservator of the settlement trust.

Some observers, including attorney Cohen, think the idea of Sonia getting money for an accident that she may have caused is ridiculous. "Really, it was her fault," Thomsen says. "How she ever got anything, I don't know. It's really crazy. She probably should have got fired."

After Mike was released from the hospital, Sonia and Mike's family arranged to have Mike transferred to the Mapleton Rehab Center in Boulder. Mike and Sonia got a townhome on Joslyn Place and cut their ties with Nebraska. "Maybe she wanted a clean break," Rachetts says. "She was always morbidly afraid he'd never get back to the point where they could have a normal life."

In April 1990, not long after their arrival in Colorado, Mike and Sonia were married. But a normal life proved too much to ask for. Mike was too busy learning how to live again at Mapleton. "I couldn't do nothing," he says. "I couldn't swallow. It took three or four months to learn to dress."

While he struggled to cope, Sonia grew depressed and gained more weight. During the first six months after the accident, Rachetts says, she put on 100 pounds. "She's always been big, ever since I knew her," remembers Mike. "She got bigger. We couldn't go in a lot of places. She wouldn't fit in chairs. It got really bad here--people in Boulder were rude and nasty."

But Mike still managed to make friends. He couldn't work a full-time job, so he turned toward volunteer work. His neighbors on Joslyn Place say he was always doing favors for them: He shoveled snow from their driveways and sidewalks, trimmed their hedges and left their papers on their front porches. He brought pies one Thanksgiving, and fruit and candy for Christmas. He asked for nothing in return.

One neighbor, Benny Classetti, remembers stuffing forty dollars in Mike's pocket as compensation for some job Mike had done. When Classetti returned to his home, the forty dollars was tied to his doorknob.

At the behest of his therapists at Mapleton, Mike also began to volunteer at the Community Food Share food bank in Boulder. While most volunteers manage to squeeze in a few hours in between their other jobs, Grainger became a well-liked regular.

The work was unglamorous--loading and unloading food--but "he made it look like a spit-and-polish, elegant job," says Sue Ericson, the food bank's volunteer coordinator. Mike even received a Volunteer of the Year award. Officials at the food bank say that Sonia drove him to work. They describe her as friendly and supportive.

But there was trouble at home. "We never had sex," Mike says. "She changed. I changed. The chemistry was over. I still don't accept it. Before the accident, she had a sense of humor. She laughed about it. Then she just gave up, dug her heels in, like quicksand."

Sonia became trapped by her own body. She couldn't get up the stairs, so Mike set up a mattress and box springs in the living room. Mike says he tried to get her to walk and exercise, but she wouldn't. "Take three or four steps, people thought she'd have a heart attack," he says. "She had to have a place to sit down."

Mike did the cooking, cleaning and laundry; Sonia kept the finances, spent the money, and drove the car. However, when they went grocery shopping, she'd stay in the car while he went inside to shop.

When Sonia grew too fat to make it to the bathroom, Mike put towels and plastic sheets under her and cleaned up after her.

Benny Classetti and his wife were invited over to the Grainger home on Christmas Eve 1994, less than two months before Sonia's death. Though they had lived next door for four years, it was the first time Classetti had met Sonia. "She was a very pretty woman," he recalls, "but oh, so fat."

Shortly before Sonia's death, she arranged to see a psychotherapist named Diane Rudine. Rudine made four visits to the Grainger home in the weeks before Sonia's death. She stayed for an hour and charged $50 each time.

"The first time I saw her, she was lying on a double bed--it could have been a queen-sized--and she took up most of the bed," Rudine told the court at the October preliminary hearing. "I would have guessed her at 400 pounds or so."

Rudine said that Sonia suffered from agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, as well as low self-esteem. Sonia wanted to attend her daughter's marriage, a modest Catholic ceremony being planned in Omaha, but was afraid people would stare at her. Rudine also testified that Sonia was being treated for depression by Dr. Jed Shapiro at the Boulder County Mental Health Center.

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