Dead Reckoning

Only Michael Furlong knows how his wife fell to her death. But the authorities know this isn't the first time he's lost a mate.

By the beginning of this year, Deanna Furlong had been thinking about divorcing her husband, Michael, for over two years. On the afternoon of January 5, she left work early and returned to their Longmont home, intent on getting him to sign divorce papers.

By evening, she lay dying at the foot of the stairs.
Questioned by the Longmont police, Michael Furlong admitted that he had forcibly restrained 36-year-old Deanna at the top of the stairs, holding her and begging for another chance--when suddenly, violently, she pulled back and stepped into thin air.

Friends and family members who watched Deanna die at Longmont United Hospital said she was heavily bruised, her face swollen almost beyond recognition.

On July 9, having pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide in connection with Deanna's death in May, 38-year-old Michael Furlong appeared before Boulder District Judge Frank Dubofsky for sentencing. Under the plea deal, Furlong was expected to receive up to two years in Boulder County Jail on work release, followed by an indefinite period of probation. But Dubofsky had a surprise announcement: He wanted the sentencing continued for three weeks.

The probation officer responsible for the pre-sentencing report had said he felt Furlong should go to trial, and the judge wanted more time to study the issue. According to Dubofsky, the officer had seen an inaccurate summary of one of Furlong's comments to police. Although the summary indicated that Deanna had been "fighting vigorously" at the top of the basement stairs, the actual transcription of the police interview did not bear that out.

"I was holding her arms, trying to get her to stop that [Deanna was moving around, gathering laundry] and keep talking with me," Furlong had told the police. "I was holding her hands. I was holding tight. And she yelled, 'Let go!' and jerked away from me."

Dubofsky asked Deanna's father, Jack Kissell, to address the court. Kissell spoke strongly and simply. The family had agreed to the plea bargain, he said, because there seemed to be no alternative; he hoped the judge would impose the maximum sentence possible.

His daughter had suffered from serious eye problems, Kissell continued. She'd had six operations, was almost blind in one eye and had minimal vision in the second. To protect her vision, she had stopped water skiing and riding horses several years before.

"There's no way she would get into a fight unless she was in imminent danger of death," Kissell explained. Given "the bruises to her face and arms, it must have been a pretty good fight."

Dubofsky asked Kissell if Furlong had ever threatened his daughter. Kissell hesitated.

"She told me he told her he would fight her to keep custody of his daughter," he finally responded. "You can take that various ways." Kissell added that while Deanna had mentioned death threats to her best friend, she had not told him about them.

Deanna's fifteen-year-old son, Andy Luntsford, also took the stand. He said he was grieving not only for his mother but for his little sister, Jessica, who now lives with Furlong and his parents in Colorado Springs. "I was there when she was born," Andy said, weeping. "We've called. We've tried to get permission to see her. We couldn't even do that. I hold Michael responsible for both losses."

Prosecutor Trip DeMuth spoke in support of the plea bargain that had been arranged by the Boulder District Attorney's Office. DeMuth quoted the opinion of Boulder County Coroner John Meyer, who said that Deanna's injuries had resulted from a fall, not an assault.

"We are satisfied with the disposition," Sergeant Jim Bundy of the Longmont Police Department, which had investigated Deanna's death, told Dubofsky.

Outside the courtroom, Furlong's defense attorney, Peter Schild, agreed. "The facts don't support a more serious charge," he said. For this case, he added, a plea of criminally negligent homicide meant that his client "should not have been holding her arms and not letting her go in a zone of danger."

"We believe he's probably guilty of more than that," says Commander Tom Fixmer of the Longmont Police Department, "but we realize the shortcomings of our evidence and what we can prove, and I think this is about the best we can expect to get out of it."

After all, it's more than the justice system has gotten out of Michael Furlong before. And chances are he'll remain a free man.

Soon after Deanna Furlong's death, Fountain resident Patty Jacques received a phone call from Detective Shane Weis of the El Paso County Sheriff's Department. The call surfaced memories that had haunted the edge of her consciousness for over a decade.

Weis wanted to go over testimony Jacques had given in the 1986 murder of 26-year-old Linda Robson, who had also been in the process of breaking up when she was killed. Her boyfriend at the time? Michael Furlong.

Early in their investigation of Deanna Furlong's death, Longmont police had caught wind of Michael's connection with the Robson case. Sergeant Bundy had contacted El Paso County. And after twelve long years, the sheriff's department there finally reopened the investigation into Robson's still unsolved murder.

Robson and Jacques had been close. Both single mothers, they had provided babysitting for each other's children, partied together, swapped clothes and shared bartending duties at the Star-Lite Lounge in Fountain, just north of Colorado Springs.

"She was one of the best. Good friend. Good mother," Jacques says now. Jacques is sitting at a wooden table at the Tomahawk Truck Stop with three other women, all once friends of Robson. They nurse large paper cups of iced tea; smoke hangs blue in the air.

Fountain is a very small town. Locals joke that it consists of five bars, six liquor stores and a police station--and boasts the highest number of DUI citations in the state. Together, the Tomahawk and the Star-Lite constitute the town's social heart.

For Robson, who came to Fountain with her boyfriend and her two-year-old son in 1980, they represented home. And Jacques, Sue Mattson, Theresa Tryon and Karol Abeyta were family.

Now these women are struggling to do the impossible: to communicate why they loved Robson, to describe all the qualities that made her unique. She was tough, they say, and loving. A small woman with graceful hands who ate hot peppers like candy, appreciated purple, went to flea markets, did crochet and macrame work and loved to cook.

Jacques remembers Robson bringing over salmon-and-rice dinners for her while she tended bar. "She was a little mother hen," she says. "She took care of all of us, and we took care of her."

But if Robson had her cozy domestic side, she also liked drinking, partying and men. She had a wicked sense of humor. She played "I Wanna Bop With You Baby" over and over on the Star-Lite jukebox. She loved celebrating holidays. The women crack up as they remember Halloween 1986, when Robson jiggled around behind the bar wearing "a big plastic butt, huge boobs and enough makeup for three hookers."

One of Robson's most tender relationships was with Theresa Tryon's father, Billy Bob Northern. Billy Bob looked like a beat-up Santa Claus, with his one eye, long white beard and round paunch. Long retired and suffering from emphysema, he was employed as a bouncer at the Star-Lite. Robson looked out for him, taking lunch to the trailer park where he lived, once running out of the bar when he didn't respond to her phone call, finding him comatose on the floor and summoning help. In return for her care, he took her to the Tomahawk for brunch every Sunday.

"She bought my dad a unicorn clock for Christmas," Tryon says, "a big gold plastic clock with red roses. It was the ugliest, cheesiest thing you ever saw. He loved that clock. He never took it down."

Nothing came easily to Linda Robson, her friends agree. She grew up on the Makah Indian Reservation in Neah Bay, Washington, daughter of an alcoholic mother and an abusive alcoholic father.

Her aunt, Vickie Burley, remembers her own father rushing over to Linda's house to intervene after Vickie had seen the little girl being thrown off the dining room table. After Linda's mother died of liver failure, Burley's family took in the young girl. But when Burley's father was forced to leave for California in search of work, Linda went to a foster home.

Linda gave birth to her son, Eugene James--now generally called JR--while in her teens; JR's father went to prison when the child was just three months old.

But then Linda met another man, Bill Humphreys, in Oregon. When he moved to Colorado, she followed, and they lived together in Fountain for five years. "At that point, I was the only father JR ever knew," Humphreys says.

For a while the relationship flourished. But Robson and Humphreys both started drinking heavily, and eventually "she started going out," Humphreys says. "I partied way too much. It got pretty bad."

Finally Robson and JR moved out, and soon after, Humphreys left town. "I was just getting too radical," he says, "drinking too much, feeling sorry for myself and lonely." Humphreys has been sober for ten years now.

Several months after Humphreys moved on, still grieving the loss of the relationship, Robson began dating Michael Furlong, an engineer who worked in Colorado Springs, the town where he'd spent much of his childhood.

At first, Theresa Tryon and Billy Bob Northern approved of Robson's new beau. They hoped that Furlong, with his quiet demeanor and professional career, would provide some stability for Linda and JR.

Jacques, however, mistrusted Furlong. "He had a weasel, sneaky, beady-eyed look to him," she says.

The relationship was strained from the start. Robson did not want a long-term commitment; Furlong did. He preferred a quiet life; she liked to party.

Sue Mattson passes a photograph around the table. It shows a slender woman in jeans. Her hair is dark and smooth, her smile wide, and she wears rose-tinted spectacles with large, round frames. "That's her," says Mattson.

"He was very possessive," she continues. "They would come in here after closing the bar. She'd come to the kitchen to talk to me and he would stand in the doorway to make sure she didn't go out the back door. If she went to the bathroom, he would follow her, stand right outside the door and wait. She told me once, 'I wish he would just let me breathe.'"

Then Furlong began beating Robson. Tryon remembers sitting at her father's kitchen table, trying to persuade Linda to leave the relationship. Linda was emotional at first, but then pulled back and implied that the violence was no big deal. "She was strong," says Tryon. "She had to be strong, to act like pain doesn't hurt."

Karol Abeyta says that Linda and JR sometimes came to her for shelter in the middle of the night. And when Abeyta babysat the boy, he'd wake up screaming, sure that something terrible was about to happen to his mother.

Robson and her son "were always together," says Tryon. "Always hugging. He had quite a temper, kind of a wild little guy. But she was patient with him, and he was in counseling."

Then Jacques noticed a sign advertising a $99 move-in special at the Hitch-N-Post apartments (now the Abilene Apartments) across the street from the Star-Lite. She told Robson, who was delighted. The sign meant freedom. It meant she could afford to move away from Furlong.

But even after she'd moved out, the couple didn't separate completely. Linda called her aunt the night before Christmas 1986, drunk and crying, talking about Furlong's violence toward her. "I said, 'Get away from the guy,'" says Burley. "'Why do you stay there?'"

On December 27, 1986, a Saturday night, Robson was tending bar. She wore tan corduroy overalls, says Jacques, with "gaudy gold zippers and a dainty blue-and-white flowered blouse." Jacques pauses and chuckles. "That girl," she says. "You could not allow her to dress herself."

Jacques, who stopped in at the Star-Lite around 10:30 p.m., remembers hearing Robson on the phone to then-owner Charlie Bow. She told him she had something important to discuss with him.

Later that night, Furlong showed up. At 3 a.m., after the bar had closed, he drove Robson across the asphalt parking lots to her apartment. That was the last time any of her friends saw Linda Robson.

As the women describe what happened next, their voices sometimes break with emotion.

On Sunday morning, Billy Bob Northern went to Robson's apartment to take her to their regular brunch. There was no one there. That afternoon, it was Patty Jacques's turn to tend bar. She expected Robson to drop in, as she almost always did when Jacques was working; Jacques was a little hurt when her friend didn't appear. Then Monday came, and Robson didn't show up at the Star-Lite for her own shift. So Jacques and Northern went back to Robson's apartment.

The door was not only open but ajar, says Jacques. (The buildings were so run-down that Robson locked her door even when she was just carrying out the trash, Tryon explains.) Inside, Jacques saw a sweatshirt she shared with Robson hanging over the back of the couch. Robson had had it at the Star-Lite Saturday night. "So we knew she'd been back to the apartment," Jacques said.

The place was pristine. Although Robson was a tidy housekeeper, when Jacques had been in the apartment shortly before Robson's Saturday shift, "the place was a disaster," she says. "We had been putting her waterbed together. There was stuff spread out everywhere. Yet it was immaculate Monday. She disappeared Saturday night. So who cleaned that apartment?"

Robson was a chain-smoker, but there wasn't a cigarette butt in the place. The ashtrays were all clean, stacked by the side of the sink. "There wasn't even one in the bathroom," says Jacques, "and she always smoked when she put on her makeup."

Robson's bathrobe lay neatly across her bed, adds Jacques, "with the arms out like it was waiting for her."

When Jacques and Northern reported what they'd seen to the Star-Lite's owner, Charlie Bow called the police that Monday afternoon. The women are unanimous in their fury at the police response to Bow's anxious call. Then-Fountain police chief R.A. Ritchie simply filed a missing-persons report. He did not have the apartment searched, claiming that Robson's friends would have contaminated any evidence that might have been there--even though Jacques swears she and Northern disturbed nothing. Nor did his men comb through the trash cans outside.

They did question Michael Furlong, who said he'd dropped Linda off early Sunday morning, watched her get safely inside and then left. (Six months later, Furlong was quoted in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph as saying he last saw Robson the day before her final shift.) Furlong was given a lie detector test. Although the results were inconclusive, Ritchie said they showed Furlong was "not really fibbin' about it."

"When it gets right down to the basics," Ritchie told the Rocky Mountain News at the time, "what we have is a young lady who is a barmaid, who has a tendency to imbibe a little too much, has several boyfriends and is a...well, a free spirit."

Nonetheless, he contended that his men were thoroughly investigating the case and had called Robson's friends and family in California and Oregon. One of Ritchie's men told Jacques that Robson was probably lying drunk in a ditch somewhere. Another suggested she had run off to California with a truck driver.

This theory was repeated by Michael Furlong in a call he made to Robson's aunt on the reservation. "It's funny he called up here to me," says Vickie Burley. "He never had spoken to me before. He seemed very concerned and said, 'We figure she took off with a truck driver or something. She was real friendly.'"

But Robson's friends were not as easily satisfied. A neighbor had told Billy Bob Northern that early in the morning of December 28, she'd heard a woman screaming, "Michael, don't do this." When she ran to the window, she'd seen a man dragging a woman along the sidewalk.

Construction workers who lived across from Robson's apartment said they had seen Furlong's black pick-up parked outside during those early Sunday-morning hours and again later during the day.

Two weeks after Robson disappeared, her landlord asked to have the apartment cleared out so it could be re-rented.

JR had been staying with Bill Humphreys's sister, Connie Griffiths, in Ellicott--a town a few miles east of Fountain--over the holiday. After Robson vanished, Humphreys visited Griffiths. When he tried to leave, the eight-year-old JR clung to his leg. "I felt terrible," says Humphreys. "I know the boy was scared. I was scared for him."

For over four months, there wasn't a sign of Linda Robson.
Then one day in May 1987, two people dumping trash on Meridian Road in eastern El Paso County were startled to see a corpse partially covered by rubbish. The skull had been picked clean by predators, and the trunk was so decomposed that the hands had to be amputated and sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for identification.

The body was that of Linda Lou Robson, clothed in the tan corduroys and light-colored blouse she had worn during her last night at the Star-Lite. The heart-shaped charm with a diamond chip that Furlong had given her for Christmas was still around her neck. She was wrapped in a blanket with a horse design that had belonged to JR.

The cause of death couldn't be pinpointed, but the coroner believed Robson had been strangled or struck in the neck. At this point, the El Paso County Sheriff's Department took over the investigation. They questioned Furlong and several other witnesses, but the case was cold, and any evidence the apartment might have yielded was long gone.

The town of Fountain held a memorial service; Robson's ashes were shipped back to the reservation. Humphreys's sister continued to take care of JR. But the boy was deeply troubled. Eventually Griffiths surrendered him to the Myron Stratton Home for Boys in Colorado Springs. After his father's release from prison, JR went to live with the man he'd last seen when he was three months old.

As Patty Jacques talked about Michael Furlong with El Paso detective Weis this past spring, she learned one thing that gave her small comfort. Weis told her where she could find JR, now almost 21: serving time for armed robbery in Walla Walla, Washington.

Jacques has since spoken to JR on the phone several times, and they have exchanged letters. She has become his Aunt Patty; Sue Mattson is Momma Sue. They are determined to help him turn his life around. "We've looked for him for twelve years, and we're not gonna lose him now," says Mattson. "He knows he's got people that love him and care about him here in Fountain."

At various times, JR has said that he was present when his mother was murdered or that he saw Michael Furlong clean out her apartment. In letters to Jacques and Mattson, he hints that he knows the whereabouts of the murder weapon. But he also admits he has trouble separating what he remembers from what he may have imagined or dreamed. On one point, however, JR is adamant: He says that the blanket with the horse design, the blanket found wrapped around his mother's body, had never been taken to Robson's apartment at the Hitch-N-Post but had been left behind at the house they once shared with Michael Furlong.

The question of the blanket, as well as so many other questions connected with Linda Robson's death, has never been answered.

Current Fountain police chief Larry Baldonado agrees that Robson's disappearance was never fully investigated. "They didn't do any followup," he says. "I don't know why. There's just the missing-persons report in the computer."

After Furlong made his plea in Boulder this spring, Lieutenant Joe Breister of the El Paso County Sheriff's Department presented Detective Weis's findings regarding Linda Robson's case to the El Paso district attorney. Although there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Furlong in connection with Robson's murder, the DA asked Breister to continue the investigation.

Furlong remains under suspicion, according to Breister, and a grand jury may be convened. David Gilbert, the district attorney assigned to the case, maintains that his office has successfully prosecuted murders older than Robson's.

"I haven't heard one indication that he is going to be facing any sort of charges," responds Schild, Furlong's Boulder attorney. "I have a concern that he's been maligned about that case, because there was an investigation over a decade ago, and the fact that he was essentially cleared seems to have been lost in the shuffle."

Gilbert doesn't downplay the difficulties involved in reopening the investigation. The neighbors and construction workers who may have seen suspicious goings-on at the Hitch-N-Post apartments are scattered. Billy Bob Northern, Robson's beloved surrogate father, died in 1997.

To the end, says Tryon, her father believed Linda Robson was trying to communicate with him, to let him know she forgave him for not being there when she needed him. Robson's death so distressed Northern that Tryon sometimes had to go to his home in the middle of the night to comfort him.

And among the living, Gilbert says, "memories fade." JR, for example, can offer only the tangled fears and memories of his savagely traumatized boyhood.

But some memories are not perishable.
Bill Humphreys is currently collecting photographs and mementos for JR. "I've got a place in the mountains I go visit Linda every year, kind of in a spiritual way," he says. "Linda's mom died at a very young age, and she always feared she would, too. She made me promise that if anything happened to her, I would take care of Bucko--that's what we called him. I'm struggling with that. I want to reach out. But then there's the question, What am I reaching into?"

Patty Jacques will never stop missing her friend. "I still don't celebrate New Year's," she says. "I swore there would never be a good New Year's again until I had her back or the man who killed her is laid to rest or in prison for the rest of his life." She sighs. "Mike will get his justice," she concludes, "whether it's with the criminal-justice system or with his maker."

After Linda Robson's murder, Michael Furlong moved to Texas. There he dated Jennifer Diane Leurke for six months in 1993 before returning to Colorado.

Contacted by an investigator after Deanna Furlong's death, Leurke described how Michael had explained his move to Texas: "He had, ah, at one time he was seeing this girl and, ah, she came up dead...It was best he got out of Colorado for a while.

"He was a gentle person to me," she added.

Deanna Furlong was the single mother of two children, Andy and Jacquie, when she met Michael Furlong, an engineer who'd recently moved to Boulder.

Soon after graduating from Fairview High School, Deanna had married Daniel Luntsford. According to her close friend Megan Hammer, the couple was "ecstatically happy."

"They didn't have a lot of money," Hammer says. "It didn't bother either of them. They had a tiny apartment in Berthoud; they were living out their dreams. The first child was a beautiful healthy boy, followed by a beautiful healthy little girl."

But over time, things changed. As Hammer sees it, Deanna began advancing in her work at Packaging Resources in Longmont, steadily gaining independence and self-confidence, and "the more she grew in that direction, the more he digressed in the other direction," Hammer says. "It was almost like she was taking his self-confidence. She wasn't. But the more she gained...and it just got to a point where she didn't want to live like that anymore. She felt smothered."

In August 1991, Deanna told Luntsford she wanted a trial separation. A day later, Luntsford abducted her and his children at gunpoint, drove them to Flagstaff Mountain, put the gun in Deanna's hands and told her to shoot him. When she refused, he shot the gun into the air, telling her that killing him would be easy. Finally, he ushered everyone into his truck and took them home.

Luntsford was arrested; that November, his bond was revoked because he had again threatened to kill both himself and Deanna. Ultimately, he spent almost two years in prison in connection with the abduction. But although she did not relent on the subject of divorce, Deanna supported Luntsford through the ordeal, bringing his children to see him, once writing a letter in his support to a judge.

"They loved each other intensely," says Hammer. "She loved him up until the day she died."

No one detected similar currents of love and loyalty between Deanna and Michael Furlong, however. "There was no 'twitterpation' between them," says Hammer, referring to the word used by Thumper in Bambi to describe a state of great excitement. "She said she didn't need to be twitterpated. He provided some sense of financial security, some stability. She had no inkling of what a monster he would become."

But Deanna did have some concerns. "She actually asked me right before they were married--we went out for a margarita--she said, 'Do you think I'm making a mistake?'" says Hammer. "I said, 'Yes. I think you're making the worst mistake of your life.'"

Hammer, with her rich, warm voice and quick laugh, seems the quintessential best friend. "Deanna," she says ruefully. "Deanna. Deanna. Deanna." She shakes her head, sighs. "Deanna said, 'It's too close to the wedding now. I can't back out.'"

Deanna's family and friends soon saw signs of Michael Furlong's temper for themselves. Deanna's father remembers that at his bachelor party, Furlong wanted to fight a man who had accidentally bumped him. "He was a contrarian," says another male acquaintance. "He has to show his superiority on every issue. Gun control--he's a supporter of the NRA. Boulder, because he hated the people and the politics."

Terry Roberts, a co-worker of Deanna's at Packaging Resources, remembers the first conversation she had with Furlong--back when he and Deanna were still engaged. Roberts was having trouble with her son at the time, she says, and "Michael proceeded to tell me his children would be beaten and put in a closet if they ever acted out."

Roberts thought of Deanna's children: Andy, then eleven years old and devoted to his father; seven-year-old Jacquie, still recovering from the kidnapping, still afraid that someone was coming to kill her.

Roberts says she listened for a long time, then grabbed the slightly built Furlong by the shirt. "You most certainly will not touch those children, because if you do, the next time we have this discussion you'll be in jail," she told him.

Deanna went ahead with the marriage in April 1994, however, and her complaints started soon after. Michael refused to help around the house; he rifled through Andy's drawers and destroyed or gave away the children's possessions, once throwing out a handmade antique rocking chair Jacquie had been given by her grandparents. He demanded that the children say "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am" to adults; when they refused to eat, he spoon-fed them.

Almost anything could serve as a weapon in Michael's long and weary war of attrition against Deanna, even the assaultively loud rock he insisted on playing when she was in the car.

Dealing with the stress had Deanna looking haggard and old, Hammer remembers. She'd stay awake past midnight in her struggle to keep up with her job, take care of her children, manage the tight family budget and keep the house in order. Hammer ate dinner with the family once and once only--on that occasion, she says, Furlong made Andy stand in the corner throughout the meal.

A year after they were married, the Furlongs had a daughter, Jessica. Although Michael was devoted to her, having his own child seemed to exacerbate his cruelty toward Andy and Jacquie. Another co-worker of Deanna's, Sandy Schara, reports that she took the family some food soon after Jessica's birth. Michael was holding the baby, and Andy was playing with her fingers. "Andy's finger went in her mouth and she made a face," Schara says. "What came out of Michael's mouth at that point was, 'I don't blame her. I'd spit out that fat finger myself.'"

If there were no actual beatings in the Furlong household, there was a constant threat of violence. Andy was sometimes physically hurled into his room; Jacquie was led by the ear into hers. At one point Michael threw Andy down the stairs. The boy's knee made a hole in the wall as he spun and caught himself halfway down. (Andy reported that this had happened only once, but a police report after Deanna's death quotes Furlong as saying, "No one gets hurt falling down those stairs. Andy fell down the stairs a bunch of times and didn't get hurt.")

And once Furlong told Andy, "I'm gonna beat you like I own you."
Although social services investigated the Furlongs more than once, their findings were inconclusive. A social worker did suggest, however, that Furlong stop leaving loaded guns where the children could get to them.

Deanna began to arrange her schedule so that Furlong was never alone with the children.

Eleven-year-old Jacquie Luntsford is curled on her grandmother's lap, talking about life with her mother and Michael Furlong. "Sometimes he'd be so strict with my mom that I'd just have to go to my room and sit because I'd be too scared to go out," she says. "Like, at one point in time, at dinner, he raised his hand at my mom and threatened to slap her because she wouldn't pick up a few plates off the table."

Now Jacquie's voice starts to waver. "And my mom, my mom had bad eye vision, so that could have really messed her up." Jacquie hides her face against her grandmother's front; Darlene Kissell runs a hand over the child's shining hair.

Daniel Luntsford's sister, Michelle Kerr, remained close to Deanna even after Deanna's divorce from her brother. She and her husband, Wayne, saw enough at the Furlong household to concern them. "He was big into roughhousing," Wayne says of Michael. "He would punch her head. It wasn't done in a fit of rage, but Michael was fully aware of her eyes. And he did belittle her quite a bit. The constant bickering: 'You don't know how to cook. Shut up, Deanna. I'll take care of this.'"

"He was a bully," says Michelle flatly. "He was like a little kid--always hitting her, poking at her, sitting on her, pushing her. It would have hurt me. I know it did her. She was always ruffled really good by the time he got done. I know I've seen bruises on her arms from Michael roughhousing with her."

"She couldn't stand him at the end," says Terry Roberts. "She cringed. She said it made her sick being in the same room with him."

Like Linda Robson with her $99 move-in special, Deanna finally glimpsed the exhilarating possibility of escape. It came when she went on a rafting trip with some of the women from work, taking the family trailer--despite Furlong's warnings that she wouldn't be able to handle it. According to Roberts, Deanna drove the trailer competently. "After it was all over," Roberts remembers, "she said, 'Now I don't need him. I know I don't now. I can do it all on my own.'"

By late 1998, Deanna was convinced that divorce was her only option. As the couple's divorce discussions proceeded, Deanna's friends became more and more afraid for her. Deanna had told Hammer more than once that Furlong had threatened to kill her before he would give her a divorce. "I can't tell you how many times we'd leave work on Friday, and I'd be scared to death I'd never see her alive again," says Hammer. Her fears were so high that she worked out a system for checking on her friend's well-being. She'd phone, ostensibly to discuss a recipe. If Deanna's conversation remained culinary, Hammer would know Furlong was listening. Otherwise, the women could talk frankly.

But Hammer maintains that Deanna herself was not afraid. "She indulged me in this," Hammer says. "To soothe my fears. After her death, the police really wanted me to tell them that she was terrified for her life. I would have loved to have lied. I wanted to desperately. But I couldn't. It's true he had threatened to kill her. But was she terrified for her life? No."

Puzzling over what they themselves might have failed to see or do, friends and co-workers try to explain Deanna's apparent invulnerability to fear.

"She had finally got her feet back under her after Danny, and she had had such a tough time that no man was ever going to pose that type of fear for her again," speculates Sandy Schara. "If you go through the guilt, the agony of losing a marriage, rebuilding your self-esteem can be even more traumatic. You convince yourself you're there so you won't backslide."

"She had almost a walk-through-life Teflon coating," says Hammer. "It's like, bad things happen, but they don't."

"I once asked her why she put up with the way he belittled her," says Darlene. "She said, 'Oh, I guess I just let it go in one ear and out the other.'"

"That's how she taught me and Andy to deal with it," echoes Jacquie, still holding her grandmother.

"It was because of her caring," says Roberts. "She was naive with her caring. All of us kind of suspected him to go wacko, but she didn't want to see it. She was in her own little world of protection. She wanted to protect everybody's feelings."

But Deanna was more forthright with her onetime sister-in-law. Because of the couple's problems, Michael had agreed to spend Christmas with Jessica and his parents in Colorado Springs. But instead, he returned home. This made Deanna noticeably tense, Kerr says, and Deanna confided that she had become afraid of Michael. She was particularly afraid that he would find a way to take Jessica away from her.

At noon on January 5, Deanna and Michael Furlong visited a marriage counselor. Deanna made it clear she was not seeking reconciliation but wanted to make the transition as smooth as possible for her husband. Then she left.

The counselor commented that there was nothing more to be done. "I have to do it myself, then," Michael Furlong said.

Deanna went to her parents' house for lunch. "She told us what her intentions were, to get him to sign the papers," her father remembers. "So that the sheriff wouldn't have to serve them to him at work the next day. She was going to try to save him the embarrassment."

After Jack and Darlene promised to take care of the children that evening, Deanna returned to work. Once there, according to Sandy Schara, she called the counselor and asked for an opinion on Furlong's state of mind. "The counselor said, 'I cannot read the man. I don't know if he's suicidal. I know he's depressed.' She shared that with us," says Schara.

In the middle of the afternoon, Jacquie called her mother. She said Furlong was at the house, begging her and Andy to help him change Deanna's mind. "He was on his knees telling us he loved us and he didn't want to lose us," Andy says. "It was so extreme it was almost funny."

Deanna promised Jacquie she'd be right home. "I said, 'Please don't go over there,'" Schara recalls. "The weather's beautiful. Call the kids back; have them walk over here. You don't know what kind of shape he's in. Please don't go over there.

"'I'm fine,'" Schara says Deanna told her. "I mean, she was absolutely adamant."

Deanna picked up Andy and Jacquie and took them to her parents' house. Then she returned to the modest home she and Michael shared in a quiet Longmont cul de sac.

Only Michael Furlong knows exactly what happened next. He told police that he and Deanna had been arguing at the kitchen table and that she'd stood up and moved away so that he was "almost chasing her around the table." Then she went to the top of the basement stairs and started putting laundry in a basket. Furlong told police he was "hugging her from the side," trying to get her to look at him. They were both seated next to the laundry basket, he said.

"I told her I was holding on to her for everything I am, everything I have, and everything we are," Furlong told police. She replied, "Just let go," and stood up.

The report continues: "Michael stood up and grabbed hold of her biceps. Deanna pulled away, and Michael's hand slid down to her elbows, then her wrists. She continued to pull away until he only had hold of her hands...Deanna screamed 'Let go of me!' and jerked away."

"I couldn't catch her," Michael told the officer. "She just went down. She hit the floor. I went running down the stairs and held her and begged her to talk to me."

After holding his wife, applying a washcloth to a bump on her face, straightening her body and "shaking her head by the hair," Furlong said he performed CPR until he was exhausted. Then he dialed 911.

Later, with fire personnel working over Deanna's close-to-lifeless body and the Longmont police on the scene, Furlong "crouched down, hugged his knees and was crying...He tried repeatedly to get back to his wife, saying, 'I want to help.'"

One of Michael's shirt buttons had been torn off. There were scratch marks on his neck and back and a dark contusion on his forehead, for which he never offered a convincing explanation. There were "several very small injuries...on his fingers and knuckles," according to the police report. Later, Furlong said he'd sustained those injuries playing with his dog.

"Based on the amount of injuries to both M. and D., it is apparent that the disturbance between them was far more involved than M. indicated," wrote one of the investigators.

Michael was asked by a detective, "Do you think you caused this to happen?"
"By trying to hang on?" he responded. "Yeah, I did. I did." But he insisted over and over again, "I did not push her down those stairs."

The officers reported Michael had been curled into a fetal position during some of the questioning. Later testing revealed cocaine in his system.

After two days on life support at Longmont United Hospital, Deanna died. The coroner's report listed the cause of death as "fracture dislocation of the vertebral column...with associated crush injury of the spinal cord." It gave the manner of death as homicide.

The contested divorce papers were never found, says Deanna's father.

If the high school photographs of Deanna Furlong and Linda Robson are placed side by side, the two women look like sisters, says Breister, the El Paso County lieutenant. Both were slender and attractive, with lively eyes and long dark hair.

And they were similar in other ways, too. Both confounded the stereotypes surrounding battered women: They were strong personalities, effective in the worlds they inhabited. Both seemed to have a knack for inspiring profound love and loyalty. But Deanna was older than Linda and came from a stable, nurturing and loving family; this support system may have helped her prevent Michael from beating her or the children. Deanna also managed to convince most of her friends that, despite the looming tensions in the Furlong household, she was keeping the situation under control.

She was wrong.
None of Deanna's friends want her remembered as a faceless victim of domestic violence. Deanna's friends, like Robson's, search for ways to communicate her particularity, her specialness. The great calzones she cooked; the huge burritos, slathered with cheese and sour cream, that she would consume at the Armadillo on her lunch breaks--while remaining infuriatingly slender; what they call the "F.U." eyebrow that she'd sometimes cock at her boss, and the facetious hand-on-hip stance she'd adopt when someone got ahead of her at the copy machine.

"When she walked, her hips would go from one side to the other," says Terry Roberts. "She had such a walk...She was funny...with her little ponytails bouncing..."

Deanna was genuinely kind, her co-workers say. After her death, they discovered that she'd been creating the invoices the company's landscaper used for billing because he wasn't computer literate. She was helping a legally blind co-worker wade through thickets of paperwork to find out what benefits he was entitled to and how many hours he could work without losing them.

"I miss being frustrated with her," says Hammer. "I miss, in this world, her sense of fairness and goodness."

"I have dreams about Deanna a lot," says Roberts. "She's always trying to tell me that it was an accident. I don't know if it's my subconscious telling me to let it go, stop being so angry. I'm always wanting to touch her and tell her how much I miss her, and she's there and I can do it. It gives me a little feeling of peace the next day."

Under District Attorney Alex Hunter, the Boulder County District Attorney's Office has long been criticized for relying too heavily on plea bargains and letting many homicides go uncharged or under-charged ("He Aims to Plea," September 24, 1998). But many legal experts agree that, given the available evidence, Deanna Furlong's homicide would be difficult to prosecute--although an aggressive prosecutor might have decided to take the risk.

Instead, the DA cut a deal with Furlong, a man with no official prior record. In exchange for pleading guilty to criminally negligent homicide, Furlong is expected to get probation when he's sentenced July 30.

Prosecutor DeMuth finds the projected plea bargain satisfactory. Probation can be open-ended and fairly restrictive, he points out. Besides, he adds, if Furlong did go to trial and was convicted of criminally negligent homicide, he would draw no more than a three-year sentence and become eligible for parole in a year and a half. Under the plea bargain, he will remain under supervision longer.

Deanna's friends worry about the danger that Furlong may pose to other women. "It's not my role to control my clients' futures," says attorney Schild. "It's my role to ensure that they aren't punished for past crimes they never committed.

"There was a genuine question as to whether this was a domestic tragedy or a more serious crime."

Michael Furlong, who has full custody of four-year-old Jessica, has been staying with his family in Colorado Springs. He did not return calls made by Westword to his father's house.

The thing that was going through my head over and over and over when she was laying in the hospital was, 'What were her last thoughts?'" says Terry Roberts of her friend, Deanna. "Was she afraid for her life? I don't want that picture in my head. That she was laying there just petrified. And was he kicking her and beating her? You don't know. And I didn't want that to be her last memories."

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