The Oddest Couple

Even before the accident, Mike Grainger wasn't quite right. "We called him 'Mike Grainger, Mike Grainger, Mike Grainger,'" remembers Barb Thomsen, one of his former co-workers at the Burlington Northern railyards in Alliance, Nebraska. "He always repeated everything. He was kind of slow in the head."

But everybody liked Mike. He always volunteered to inspect the trains whenever they stopped. He read his orders over and over to make sure he got them right. He was slow, his family says, because he'd been injured at the age of twelve, hit in the back of the head by a ceremonial log at a Boy Scout meeting. Life had been a challenge ever since. But Mike made the best of it.

Mike had come to Alliance in 1977 looking to make a clean start. There he found a good job and a girlfriend, Sonia Kunes, who also worked at the railyard. They were a strange pair, say co-workers. She was heavy, he was skinny. She was witty and intelligent, he had trouble remembering the simplest things. Yet they were happy together.

The happiness went away on Valentine's Day, 1990. Standing brakeman-style at the front of a string of locomotives being driven by Sonia, Mike was pinned against a metal bar when one of the engines swung toward another engine on a curve. He took a crushing blow to the head before being rolled between the giant locomotives like paper through a press. Every one of his ribs was broken. He was still conscious when he hit the frozen soil.

Mike spent the next six weeks in a drug-induced coma in a Scottsbluff hospital. "They revived him eight times on the emergency table, which they shouldn't have done," says his brother-in-law, Richard Wade. "Mike never fully recovered. He was never the same. The Mike we know is dead."

In the ten years leading up to the accident, Mike and Sonia enjoyed a quiet, comfortable life together in Alliance. But from that day on, their lives became joined in a tightening knot of co-dependence and guilt. They moved to Boulder, where Mike, who suffered brain damage in the accident, toiled to relearn basic tasks. Sonia, who blamed herself for the accident, was tormented by the idea that she had taken away the personality of the man she loved. She sank into a deep depression and began overeating. She got so big she couldn't get out of bed.

Mike continually assured Sonia that he wasn't angry, that he didn't blame her for his condition. But according to Boulder police, his powers of forgiveness were limited. In February 1995, they say, he hit Sonia over the head with a blunt object while she slept in their Boulder townhome, killing her. He now stands charged with second-degree murder.

Mike Grainger says he's innocent. According to him, he found his 44-year-old wife dead after taking his dogs for a walk. And his attorney notes several anomalies that could raise doubts in the mind of a jury. For one thing, Boulder prosecutors waited a full two and a half years before filing charges against Grainger. And Boulder County Coroner John Meyer has ruled that while the "manner of death" in the case was homicide, the actual cause of death was "morbid obesity." The coroner based that uncommon finding on his belief that while the blow to Sonia's head was not a lethal one, it may have been enough to push a woman in her condition--he estimated her weight at 325 pounds--over the edge.

There are no signs that anyone other than Mike was in the home the night of Sonia's death. But any evidence linking him to her death was, and is, circumstantial. The weapon that allegedly delivered the blow has never been found. The case is further complicated by another of Meyer's findings: Even without the blow to the head, the coroner said, Sonia was in such poor physical condition that she may well have died from natural causes within a few days.

The Boulder District Attorney's Office cited insufficient evidence when it declined to file charges against Grainger in 1995. But last September, DA Alex Hunter, whose controversial handling of the JonBenet Ramsey case had already earned him a place in the national spotlight, acted. Peter Maguire, the deputy district attorney assigned to prosecute the case, refuses to comment on the reason for the delay. But given the laborious and so far inconclusive investigation into the Ramsey murder, some have suggested that the Boulder police and the DA's office are using Grainger as a scapegoat, a man who can present them with a very public conviction to combat the deluge of bad press both have received in the last year.

"I just don't know if it's political," says Grainger's attorney, Peter Schild. "I have no proof of anything. The DA says they have more evidence, but I don't think they do."

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T.R. Witcher