The widow was the sole beneficiary of the estate and a $350,000 life insurance policy.
A week before the man's death, a teenager visited the rancher's home and became deathly ill after he drank juice that was in the rancher's refrigerator. Two years after the millionaire's death, a bottle of arsenic was found in a storage locker rented by a woman under an assumed name.
The millionaire's ex-wife, the mother of his children, became a sleuth to help solve the murder. No one could have predicted the aftermath with its strange twists and unexpected results.
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Fighting the DevilA True Story of Consuming Passion, Deadly Poison, and Murder
By Jeannie Walker
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Jeannie Walker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCalling the Police
Calm and collected, I was able to handle anything thrown at me. But at this moment, I was an emotional wreck. My stomach was in knots. All I could think of was the devastating news.
It was six o'clock in the afternoon. Hesitantly, I walked to my office and picked up the telephone. My hand was trembling as I dialed the long-distance number. The phone rang three times.
My usual ability to stay calm in the face of disaster deserted me. I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. My voice was quivering.
"I'm calling to report a murder."
"Did you say someone was murdered?"
"Yes, sir, a man died at Bethania Hospital. He was poisoned. Please send an officer over to the hospital right away."
"Lady, try to calm down! I need some information. What's your name?"
"My name is Jeannie Walker."
"What is the name of the person who was murdered?"
"Jerry Sternadel. He was a patient at Bethania Hospital. He died a few minutes ago. His widow is saying he died from natural causes. But he was murdered with arsenic poison. The widow's name is Lou Ann Sternadel."
"How do you know all this?" the detective questioned.
"My daughter called me from the hospital. I just got off the phone with her. She said she heard the doctors say something about her dad dying from arsenic poison."
"Is the person who died related to you?"
"Yes, he is my ex-husband."
"Ma'am, where are you calling from?"
"I'm calling from Long Island, New York."
"You're in New York? And you're calling about a man who died here in Wichita Falls, Texas?"
"Sir, I live on Long Island. I'm calling to tell you my ex-husband was poisoned to death. Can you please send an officer to the hospital right away? His death needs to be investigated. The widow is saying she won't allow an autopsy."
The police officer responded, "Ma'am, we already received a call. Officer Ritchie has been dispatched to the hospital. Just for the record, if it is determined that a crime has been committed, the dead man's wife won't have any say as to whether there will or won't be an autopsy. Did you say the dead man was your ex-husband?"
"Yes, sir. He was my ex-husband and the father of my two children. They were at the hospital when he died. They're over at the hospital right now."
"Ma'am, I need your phone number and address for the record."
After giving the officer the information he needed and hanging up the phone, I said a prayer before sitting down to make another call.
My twenty-six-year-old daughter was standing by a pay phone in the hospital in Wichita Falls. She grabbed the receiver on the first ring. In between sobs, Becky told me that two police officers had just arrived at the hospital. She said her brother had broken down and was given a sedative.
"Honey, I'm so sorry about your dad. I know how devastated you are. But you need to be strong so you can help your brother. I'm calling American Airlines right now for a flight to Wichita Falls. Lord willing, I'll be there tomorrow. The good Lord will help you and your brother get through this terrible time. Honey, just hang on!"
Relatives and friends of my ex-husband were gathered in Bethania Hospital just steps away from the critical care unit. They had just been told of his passing and were bewildered and grief-stricken.
My twenty-four-year-old son was devastated by the news of his dad's death from arsenic poisoning. He was on the verge of collapse.
Becky used a tissue to wipe away her tears. She had overheard a couple of nurses talking about arsenic the day before but had not been able to believe what she was hearing. Now she knew that it was true, but it was too late for her to help her father. She tenderly wrapped her arms around her younger brother, who had just been given a tranquilizer by one of the doctors.
Becky looked over at her stepmother, Lou Ann, and screamed loudly, "I'll tell you one thing. There's no way Daddy would poison himself."
She pointed at the woman who had married her father after our divorce. "Look at the way she's acting. She and Debbie Baker are laughing and joking, like this is all a big party. She's not sad Daddy died. I think she poisoned Daddy."
My daughter's comment about her stepmother was the first time anyone said openly that Lou Ann might have poisoned Jerry.
When I made that long-distance call to the Wichita Falls Police Department, I did not know that an anonymous caller from the hospital had already tipped them off. Officers had immediately gone to the critical care unit in the hospital where they had produced identification and begun questioning hospital personnel. The detectives had learned that Jerry had been diagnosed in the hospital as having had acute gastric enteritis. They also learned that toxicology tests had revealed high levels of arsenic in his system.
Right away, homicide investigators determined that the death was a probable homicide and promptly gave the order for an official autopsy to be performed. The officers knew it was highly unlikely that anyone would have chosen such an unpleasant and painful method of suicide.
The investigators also learned that Jerry's behavior during his hospitalizations was inconsistent with that of a person self-administering poison. Hospital personnel said he had fully cooperated with doctors and nurses. He had made it known to everyone that he wanted to get better and didn't want to die. He had even begged the nurses and doctors to save his life and not let him die.
Toxicology tests performed at the hospital proved that the arsenic poisoning could not have been accidental because of the continuous arsenic administration and the extreme amount of arsenic in the body at the time of his death.
The corpse was taken from the hospital and transported to the coroner's office in Dallas for a postmortem examination. The forensic pathology examination would determine the exact cause of death and whether or not the death was a homicide.
Neighbors, friends, and relatives believed Lou Ann Sternadel to be a loving wife. They thought they saw an affectionate and considerate woman who would do anything to help her husband. But the police saw the widow in a different light. They believed the marriage had grown stale and that a divorce was in the offing. They had an idea that Jerry's wealth had given Lou Ann a taste for a more exciting lifestyle and that she needed him out of the way in order to retain it. They saw her as someone who wanted to dispose of her husband and believed she may have used at least one accomplice to achieve that goal.
When detectives questioned Lou Ann, she said she had no idea how arsenic could have entered her husband's body. She said she didn't think her husband had any enemies who would want to see him dead.
The murder case was within the jurisdiction of the Clay County Sheriff's Office in Henrietta. Sheriff Jake Bogard had been in law enforcement for twenty-five years and had been sheriff for sixteen of them. His longevity in office gave him a confident manner.
Texas Ranger Bill Gerth was called in to help with the homicide investigation. When Bogard and Gerth questioned the widow, they both felt she provided pat answers. She came up with different answers to the same critical questions. They knew the widow's habit of repeating verbatim answers was a typical defensive pattern.
This wasn't a typical murder or an ordinary homicide investigation. It wasn't an open-and-shut case like one in which the victim is shot or stabbed to death. This was a murder the perpetrator had planned on getting away with. It was going to be a hard case to investigate and prove. Death caused by arsenic poisoning could easily mimic or appear to be a natural death caused by some unknown disease. In essence, murder by arsenic could be a perfect murder.
Good and evil fortunes fall to the lot of pious and impious alike ... -Spinoza
Wednesday, June 13, 1990, at 8:10 am Eastern Daylight Time, I sat looking out the small window of the commercial jet. Thinking about the murder made me a bundle of nerves. Jerry Sternadel had been, after all, the father of my children. He had always been in excellent health, but now he was dead from arsenic poisoning at the age of forty-nine.
My mind flashed back to Memorial Day weekend when my daughter called to tell me her dad had been admitted to the hospital. Becky had said she drove to Wichita Falls from Dallas to visit her dad at the hospital on May 23. The doctors thought he was sick with a stomach virus.
"Daddy looked pale and weak. But he told me he felt better after he was admitted to the hospital. I told him I wanted to go to the horse races in Louisiana and asked him if he thought it would be okay. Daddy said for me to go ahead to the races. Mother, do you think I should go to the horse races or stay with Daddy?"
Knowing my daughter was miserable spending time around her stepmother, I advised her to go to the races but to call often and check on her dad. "If your dad is still in the hospital next week, make sure you go to Wichita Falls and visit him."
Becky called me on Monday, May 28, around six o'clock in the evening. She said her dad had been released from the hospital. When she had called the ranch, her stepmother had said her dad was asleep.
"I told Lou Ann I wasn't going to hang up until I talked to Daddy, so she finally put him on the phone. Daddy said he was glad to be out of the hospital. He said he would be up and around and back to checking on his men. Mother, Lou Ann did not want me talking to Daddy. Do you think Daddy told Lou Ann he didn't want to talk to me? You know Daddy and I have been arguing lately every time we talk."
"Becky, believe me, if your dad did not want to talk to you, he wouldn't have picked up the phone. How did he sound?"
"He sounded kind of weak, but he said he was feeling better. He asked me when I was coming down to see him. He said, 'Becky, I've been sick, real sick, and I want you to come visit me.'"
"What did you tell your dad?"
"I said I would come visit him as soon as I could."
"Well, then, go see your dad as soon and as often as you can. You can't visit me very often, but your dad is right there in Texas. Wichita Falls is not that far a drive from Dallas."
"I know," Becky said. "But Lou Ann makes me feel like I'm not welcome. She hates it when Daddy shows me any attention. Lou Ann is always putting me down."
An air pocket made the plane ride a little bumpy, bringing me back to reality, but left me feeling a little melancholy. Gazing out the small window, I recalled telephoning the ranch on the afternoon of June 3, a Sunday. My ex-husband had answered the phone. He sounded weak but seemed glad to hear my voice. I asked him how he was feeling.
"I'm tired, and my stomach is bloated."
"Are you constipated?" I questioned.
"Hell, no!" he replied. "I've been having real bad diarrhea but I can't urinate."
"What have you been drinking and eating?"
"I've been drinking 7UP this morning, but I don't feel like eating. I don't really feel like eating or drinking anything."
"You should be drinking iced tea-it's good for your kidneys," I responded. "A doctor told me that a long time ago."
"I don't give a shit what your doctor said. I've been drinking 7UP and Cran-Apple juice."
"Are you okay? Who is at the ranch with you? Where's Lou Ann?"
"Lou Ann went to town for something."
"What did your doctors say?"
"Hell, the doctors don't know what the hell is wrong with me. Lou Ann and Debbie keep pouring Cran-Apple juice down me. They keep telling me I've got to drink lots of fluids or I'll get dehydrated."
"Cran-Apple juice is good for you. By the way, who is Debbie? Is she a good friend?"
"Hell, Debbie works for me. She's my bookkeeper. She's only worried about getting a paycheck. Debbie practically lives here. She and Lou Ann stick together like glue. And don't tell me what the hell I should drink."
It was easy to tell Jerry was getting agitated. It also sounded as though he was having trouble breathing. My suggestion was that he try to eat something to build up his strength.
"I sure hope you get to feeling better."
"Mother is making some soup and bringing it out this afternoon," Jerry replied. "Look, I'm tired. I'm gonna hang up now."
It seemed that the phone call had been only yesterday. But Jerry didn't get better, and now he was dead from arsenic poisoning.
I began thinking about the early morning phone call I had received from my son on June 5. From the tone of his voice, I could tell Sandy was worried. He said he had argued with his stepmother in order to get his dad to the hospital.
"Mother, I thought I was going to have to knock Lou Ann out just so I could get Daddy to the hospital. She kept standing in between the door and me. Daddy was gasping for air just to keep breathing. I was afraid he was going to die. I went next door and got the neighbors to help me carry Daddy to the car. Lou Ann kept grabbing my arm saying, 'Your dad is fine. He don't need to go to the hospital. He's doing just fine right where he is. You're not taking him to the hospital. The doctors can't do anything for Jerry anyway.' I told her to get out of my way before I knocked the living daylights out of her.
"I told her Daddy was going to the hospital, and when he got to feeling better there were going to be some changes made out here. I told Lou Ann I was going to take charge until Daddy got well. I was tired of Lou Ann not caring that Daddy was getting worse all the time. I told her I was calling Becky to come down here and then Becky and I were going to get some good doctors for Daddy. Mother, the doctor at the emergency room told me that if Daddy hadn't been brought to the hospital, he would have been dead before morning. I don't understand why I had to fight Lou Ann. She knew how sick Daddy was. I don't understand why Lou Ann didn't care if Daddy lived or died."
A sudden drop in cabin pressure inside the airplane ended my flashback. But I couldn't quit thinking about Jerry's death. I remembered Becky telling me her dad was strapped down in the hospital.
"Daddy's hands and feet were tied down to the hospital bed. It looked like Daddy was a prisoner."
The thought of the agony and terror my ex-husband must have felt being strapped down to the hospital bed brought back a very unpleasant memory. It was the summer of 1970. My two small children were playing outside. Jerry drove up and walked into the house. It was lunchtime. I quickly fixed a couple of ham sandwiches. Jerry sat down at the kitchen table. He took a bite of the sandwich. "Umm, this is good. But dessert is going to be a lot better."
After finishing my sandwich, I went into the master bathroom to wash my hands and brush my teeth. Jerry followed me into the bathroom.
Before I realized what was happening, he grabbed one of my hands and wrapped a short piece of white nylon rope around my right wrist.
"What are you doing? Is this a joke?"
Jerry glanced at me. Without saying a word, he quickly grabbed my other hand and wrapped the nylon cord around it. "I didn't come home for a damn sandwich. I came home to knock you up."
"Okay, you're scaring me! Untie me please," I said as I held my hands out. "This is not funny. Please cut me loose."
He ignored what I was saying and pushed me down onto the bed. "I'm not going to cut you loose. I don't know why I have to rape my wife just so I can have sex with her."
He walked over to the bedroom dresser, opened a drawer, and pulled out a long length of nylon cord. I was becoming very frightened of my husband. I rolled off the bed and tried to run out of the bedroom.
Jerry raced over, quickly closing the bedroom door. He grabbed the ropes on my hands, pushed me backward onto the bed, and tied my hands to the bedpost with the nylon cord. I started tossing and kicking as he pulled my skirt up past my waist.
"Kick, you bitch. That'll just make it more fun!"
"Please! Please! The kids are outside. They'll come into the bedroom."
"No, they won't. I locked the outside doors. Wouldn't you like another brat to go with those two?"
He grabbed my foot as I kicked and wrapped the cord around it. He tied my right foot to the right bedpost at the foot of the bed. Then he wrapped the nylon cord around my other foot and tied it tightly to the left bedpost at the foot of the bed, spreading my legs out.
Excerpted from Fighting the Devil by Jeannie Walker Copyright © 2010 by Jeannie Walker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations....................ix
Calling the Police....................7
The Funeral Home....................26
Love Gone Awry....................39
The Grim Reaper Strikes....................99
Fighting for Life....................110
The Grave Site....................121
A Murder Suspect....................131
Search for Justice....................137
Sign from beyond the Grave....................181
The Murder Trial....................209
The Jurors Speak....................260
The Continuing Fight for Justice....................275