Sonia Grainger's massively obese body was found stiffening with rigor mortis at the Graingers' Boulder home on the morning of February 2, 1995. There was a bloody gash on her face--according to coroner Dr. John Meyer, it was "a laceration of the eyebrow and upper eyelid that tore away the skin and tissue from the underlying bone and exposed the globe of the eyeball."
Michael Grainger told police he had no idea how the wound had occurred. No one but the two of them had been in the house, he said, and the couple's four dogs would have alerted him to any intruder. Over the next few days, he gave differing accounts of his and Sonia's interactions the night before her death and said both that they had been sleepin together on the mattress where she was found and that they had not. When a police officer pointed out the discrepancies, Grainger flew at him and had to be restrained.
Meyer's autopsy report gave the cause of Sonia's death as "complications of morbid obesity with blunt trauma of the head being a significant contributing factor." Meyer added that "the manner of death is homicide." The defense theory floated by Grainger's first set of attorneys in the early days after the killing made maximum use of the ambiguity of Meyer's report. Sonia would have died within days anyway, the lawyers said, and a healthy person would not have been killed by the blow she suffered--a piece of sophistry that might give weak and respirator-tethered hospital patients pause. Then the attorneys began suggesting that, despite the coroner's assertion that Sonia had been struck by a blunt object, Michael had hit her by accident while flailing about in his sleep. They pointed out that February 14 was the anniversary of a terrible accident he'd suffered.
In 1990, when Michael and Sonia both worked for Burlington Northern Railroad in Nebraska, Michael had been crushed between two railroad cars being moved in a switching yard. Sonia had been driving the locomotive on which he stood, although investigators concluded that the accident was not her fault. At that point the couple was not married but had been living together for several years. Michael Grainger almost died. He had been a somewhat slow thinker before the accident, but when he awoke from a six-week-long coma, he had to painstakingly relearn such everyday acts as holding a conversation and going to the store.
In what seemed yet another example of Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter's strange reluctance to prosecute ("He Aims to Plea," September 24, 1998), Grainger was arrested and charged with second-degree murder only in September 1997--more than two and a half years after Sonia's death--and only after a civil suit against Michael by Sonia's daughter, Tonia Kucera, had been settled in Tonia's favor. This was because the suit revealed new evidence, according to Deputy District Attorney Pete Maguire. But many of those close to the case have trouble figuring out just what that new evidence might be.
"I think that was a red herring," says Grainger's attorney, Peter Schild. "There were events in Boulder that put a lot of focus on the law-enforcement community. The mood changed. People were saying, 'How come you never pursued the Grainger case?'"
In the course of the civil suit, Tonia Kucera had said she believed Grainger abused Sonia. There had been a great deal of bitterness between the two families, and Grainger's defenders had accusations of their own: Tonia was the greedy daughter of a greedy mother; she'd been estranged from Sonia anyway, suing Michael after Sonia's death only in the hope of financial gain. Asked if there was any evidence that Michael had abused Sonia before her death, Schild responded: "No. They had their spats."
But a journal Sonia kept in 1990 and 1991--several years before her death--chronicled an abusive and steadily worsening relationship. It begins as Michael lies in the hospital while Sonia deals with lawyers for the railroad (which the couple successfully sued) and with his family--members of whom, Sonia indicated, looked on her with profound suspicion.
"Graing-a-poo," she wrote. "I miss you so much; I just wish you could wake up and talk to me and tell the bad guys to go away!! I want you back home with me where you belong!! I need you so much!!! You're everything to me Graing-a-poo Everything!!!"