Justice For Terese

The Nightmare Begins

By Donna J. Wade

I met a woman the other day who has, for the last decade, lived every parent’s worst nightmare.

Mary Stewart’s story contains all the elements of a blockbuster movie, only it wasn’t scripted by the creative Tinseltown minds that brought us "Erin Brockovich". Primarily written, performed, and directed by officials in the Riverside County criminal justice system, it is a story of how a botched death investigation, influenced by faulty logic, political expediency, misogyny, and even homophobia, resulted in a monumental miscarriage of justice. And in this story, the actions of those sworn to protect and serve are as frightening as Mary’s persistence and determination are inspirational.

On June 10, 1992, Mary awoke to discover her first-born child, 29-year-old Terese, slumped in a chair in a spare bedroom of their Temecula, CA home. Because of her daughter’s history of amphetamine dependency, Mary feared her daughter had become so distraught over the increasing friction between herself and the general manager of their computer company, that she had relapsed after two years of sobriety and accidentally overdosed. In her initial observation, Mary noticed "something dark" on her daughter’s face, but at that panicked moment, all she could think about was calling 911.

Mary didn’t realize that her daughter died from a gunshot wound to the forehead until a Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy asked if anyone in the house owned a gun. She acknowledged that a friend had given her one sometime prior. Officers found Mary’s .25 caliber semi-automatic handgun between the seat cushions, just under Terese’s armpit. The gun was wedged butt down, barrel facing away from the body. A spent shell casing was found in the same location.

Deputies taped off the home as a crime scene and summoned homicide detectives. They photographed the spare bedroom, as well as Terese’s mini-apartment, located in the garage separate from the house. A key was required to open the deadbolt, so Mary gave investigators her keys. After completing the photos and witness interviews, homicide investigators and the coroner deemed the death a suicide.

Mary agreed to forego an autopsy because the coroner on-scene advised her it wasn’t necessary since the cause of death was obvious. The coroner’s toxicology report found no drugs or alcohol in Terese’s blood at the time of death.

After completion of their investigation, deputies left Mary in the company of a colleague, Dr. Peggy Taylor, friends John and Lynn Wesley, and a local Mormon bishop the Wesleys brought along to offer spiritual guidance. The Wesleys’ presence in her home that day was uninvited and, for the most part, unwelcome, given the contentious nature of John’s work relationship with Terese, but, out of respect for the clergyman, Mary opted to not ask them to leave.

The Wesleys came into the Stewarts’ lives two years prior, through the purchase of a puppy the Wesleys had for sale. Over the next several months, the couple came to their home three times to administer the dog’s vaccinations, and a friendship developed. John informed Mary that he and Lynn had made a personal fortune from art and other investments. In the succeeding months, John became Mary’s financial advisor, then her business consultant. During the formation of the computer business (Giant Computer Business Centers, Inc.), inventory was stored in Mary’s spare bedroom, and she trusted the Wesleys enough to give them keys to the residence, allowing them to come and go as they pleased.

Mary left Dr. Taylor, the Wesleys, and the bishop at her home while she informed Shane of his sister’s death. "Shane never believed Terese suicided," Mary said. "When he got into the house, he went through it like a detective, looking for anything out of place, any clue as to what happened." They found Terese’s keys on top of the TV stand, which seemed odd, because they’d never before known her to leave them there.

According to Dr. Taylor, after Mary left to locate Shane, John instructed Lynn and the bishop to wash the blood off the walls and further clean up the scene. John then went to Terese’s apartment and began hurriedly going through files on her personal computer. When questioned by Dr. Taylor, he indicated he was searching for a suicide note, journal entry, or anything that might indicate Terese’s motive.

A trained, experienced marriage, family and child counselor, Mary struggled with why she, of all people, had been unable to recognize signs that her daughter intended to end her life. She then realized Terese sent none of the customary signals. Terese wasn’t depressed. On the contrary, she was happily anticipating the next phase of her now drug-free life, including completion of a potentially lucrative accounting software program she’d developed for marketing to mental health professionals. She’d socialized with friends the evening before her death and they reported she was in good spirits, and seemed genuinely excited about their company’s potential and her role in it. Terese also had numerous community college applications in her apartment, indicating her intent to enroll for the fall semester.

A few days after the incident, Mary and Shane reported their suspicions that Terese was murdered to the homicide investigators. Although the detectives and a supervisor insisted there were no grounds to re-open the case, they grudgingly agreed to test the gun for fingerprints. Not a single print or smudge was found on the weapon. It had been wiped clean.

One might think that the absence of the victim’s prints on the suicide weapon would cause an experienced homicide cop to ask "how could someone shoot herself in the head, and not leave prints on the gun?" Apparently, that didn’t strike RSO detectives as unusual. According to Mary, Det. Brinkman adamantly asserted that Mary and Shane were just in denial. Two years later, after consulting with the two detectives at the death scene, and a third detective he’d assigned at Mary’s urging to review the case, Sheriff Coyce Byrd told Mary that because it didn’t really look like a suicide, it must be a suicide.

Mary Stewart was about to discover that the real nightmare was just beginning...

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Donna J. Wade
Freelance Commercial Writer
Graphic Designer / Print Media Consultant

Phone: (909) 338-9778
Email: donnajwade@gmail.com

Copyright 2007 Donna J. Wade / All Rights Reserved