In the early morning, just before dawn, on February 1st, 1988, Barbara Stager called 911 claiming that her husband, Russell, had been shot. No one, perhaps not even Stager herself, was aware of what this call would unearth, along with the tumultuous investigation that would reveal an alarming secret.
When the authorities arrived and questioned Barbara, she explained that Russell tended to hide a handgun under his pillow, likely as a precaution for fear (and possible paranoia) of home invaders. Barbara said that she was attempting to move the weapon when it discharged. The gunshot was said to have been accidental, Barbara suspecting that she must have touched it during the toss and turn of sleep. Sadly, Russell wouldn’t survive the gunshot.
It was easy to believe that the discharge was accidental. Barbara was in almost every way innocent. Her friends, neighbors, and family described her as a kind person and a devoted mother of two. She was a Christian and a Sunday School teacher. Any suspicion of foul play was never pointed in her direction.
Barbara Stager’s turbulent relationship with Russell Stager
Russell a divorcee, and Barbara recently a widow, the two met and were soon married. His ex-wife, Jo Lynn Snow remained a close friend; Barbara’s previous husband, Larry Ford, had died shortly before she met Russell. Both details became key pivot points in the investigation to follow.
In the months leading up to February 1, Russell had confided in Jo Lynn about the stress and financial strain he and his family were experiencing; furthermore, he also believed that Barbara may be cheating on him. It seems home life was tense and Russell was turning to someone he could trust for help, and also to warn Jo Lynn.
Russell’s ex-wife Jo Lynn is suspicious
After Russell’s passing, Jo Lynn began her own investigation of the events, as per a promise she made to Russell, who asked her to investigate should anything happen to him. Enough to cause suspicion, the fact that Russell was paranoid and afraid for his life.
Jo Lynn would be the one to provide the evidence that would pull back the serene and seemingly perfect home life, including Barbara’s true character. Contrary to the persona everyone around her had believed, Barbara was found to be foolish and careless with money, contributing greatly to the financial strain the Stager family had been weathering. Russell’s suspicion of his wife cheating on him was also found to be true. This all came to a crucial point when the investigation revealed that Barbara’s first husband, Larry, had died in a manner eerily similar to that of Russell’s, accidental gunshot et al.
Barbara Stager arrested and tried for Russell’s murder
Barbara was detained and, in the summer of 1989, she was tried and found to be guilty of first degree murder. At first, the verdict demanded that she be given the death sentence, yet soon it was amended to be life in prison.
Though she has been given the possibility of parole, today Stager remains in prison. Her actions have mystified many.
In fact, the tale of her murderous ways have been chronicled in a 2003 episode of A&E’s American Justice series, 2012’s Till Debt Do Us Part, and more. The case is frequently the talk of True Crime aficionados on social media, with many podcasters discussing sinister motivations and greed.
Jerry Bledsoe’s book dives into the Stager case
Author Jerry Bledsoe’s chronicle of Stager’s motivations and murders, titled Before He Wakes: A True Story of Money, Marriage, Sex and Murder, is a deep examination of the entire Stager case, from the mirror image deaths of her husbands, her secret “double life,” and more.
The book includes detective Rick Buchanan’s illuminating investigations, which exposed Barbara’s paper trail of impulse and greed. The book reveals, among other things, the illusion of a perfect murder and the caution of people who take special care to curate and maintain a “perfect public image.”
Take a look at an excerpt from Bledsoe’s book below.
Reach your own verdict by reading the excerpt of Before He Wakes below, and then download the book.
Sergeant Rick Buchanan was at his desk in the detective division of the Durham County Sheriff’s Department, starting a new work week, when the telephone rang. Frank Honkanen, a young pathologist at Duke University Medical Center who served as the county’s medical examiner, was on the line. Buchanan jotted down the time of the call: 10:35.
A previously healthy forty-year-old male was at the hospital, shot in the head, supposedly accidentally, Honkanen said. The man was brain-dead. Death was certain. The family wanted no extreme measures taken to keep him alive. He was an organ donor. Would organ removal interfere in any investigation? Would an autopsy be required?
Buchanan couldn’t give an answer. He hadn’t heard of the case. That was unusual, because as lead homicide investigator for the Durham County Sheriff’s Department, he normally was alerted to any shooting in the county.
What was the name? Buchanan asked.
“Stager,” Honkanen said. “A. Russell.”
He’d have to look into it and get back to him, Buchanan told him.
When Buchanan located the incident report filed by the deputies, he realized that the shooting had happened before the shift change. Both deputies would be home asleep after their all-night shifts. The reports contained only the barest details of Barbara’s version of events and gave no indication that the shooting was anything other than an accident, but Buchanan would have to talk with the deputies before determining whether any additional investigation would be required.
Before he was able to get in touch with the deputies, though, Buchanan received a call from the hospital saying that Russell Stager had died at 12:35. The possibility of an autopsy had kept doctors from taking his organs for transplant.
At midafternoon, Buchanan got into his unmarked silver-gray Plymouth cruiser and drove to Barbara’s parents’ house, a beige brick ranch-style house set deep in woods in the Willow Hill subdivision north of Durham. He was met in front of the house by Barbara’s father, James Terry, who showed him the bloodied sheets and pillowcases from his daughter’s bed and asked if he would need them. One of the investigating deputies had told him they wouldn’t be needed, he said, since the shooting was an accident.
“No, we won’t need them,” Buchanan said. He just wanted to speak briefly with Barbara.
He met her in the dining room, and he was surprised that she was not as distraught as he had expected.
She told him about hearing the alarm going off in her son’s room and reaching to remove the gun from beneath her husband’s pillow. It went off as she raised it, she said. She described how she and Russ were lying in the bed, and when Buchanan asked if she would mind going with him to the house so that he could see the room and bed, she quickly agreed.
That surprised Buchanan, too. Somebody who’d undergone such a traumatic experience presumably would be reluctant to return so soon to the scene.
Yet another surprise was in store. Buchanan assumed that Barbara would be overcome with emotion upon entering the bedroom. The guilt of having caused such a horrible event, even though accidentally, surely would be overwhelming. But she showed no signs of distress as they walked in. Instead, she began calmly pointing out Russ’s position on the bed and how she had been lying next to him.
The bed had been made. The room was immaculate, as if no tragedy had occurred there just hours earlier. Buchanan took note of a pump shotgun standing in one comer, and as he nosed about the room, setting the scene in his mind, Barbara picked up Russ’s wallet from a dresser top and thumbed through it.
After returning Barbara to her parents’ house, Buchanan wasn’t sure what to think. “Most cases, you get a feel of them,” he said later. “This one, I couldn’t get a feel of it. Somehow it just didn’t feel right.”
He returned to his office and called the medical examiner to find out more about the wound. It had been a close shot to the back of the head, said Honkanen, who had questioned Barbara before she left the hospital. The bullet was still in Russ’s brain.
Both men agreed that Barbara’s story had sounded plausible enough. No autopsy would be necessary. The body would be released to the funeral home.
When Buchanan wrote up his reports about the shooting before going home, he added, “Based on the current information as was provided, the death was being declared accidental.”
Still, something nagged him about it, and that night after he got home, he called Deputy Clark Green to question him about the position of the gun on the bed and the location of the cartridge. Nothing Green told him led him to think the shooting could have been anything other than an accident. Yet something about this incident still didn’t feel quite right.
Russ Stager’s first wife, Jo Lynn, had just arrived home from work Monday night when her parents appeared unexpectedly at the door of her house in north Raleigh. She could tell from their expressions that something was wrong.
“We have some bad news,” her mother said without preliminaries. “Russ is dead.”
Jo Lynn was shocked. “A car wreck?” she asked. Russ had narrowly escaped being killed in an accident just a year before.
“No, he was killed accidentally with a gun.”
“How?” Jo Lynn asked. “Who shot him?”
Jo Lynn was stunned. It had happened! When Russ had told her, it had seemed inconceivable, yet it actually had happened. She reacted instinctively. She went straight to the telephone and called the Durham police, only to learn that the department hadn’t investigated the shooting. Try the Sheriff’s Department, she was told. She called and asked to speak to the person investigating the Stager shooting, only to be told that he was gone for the day.
“You have to get a message to him,” she said. “I have to talk to this person.”
Twice more she called, but the return call never came. She was too agitated and upset to go to bed, and she sat up all night, her mind churning with memories and regrets. Early Tuesday morning she began calling again. After several tries, she finally reached Rick Buchanan. She identified herself as Russ Stager’s former wife and said that she had to talk to him immediately. Could she come over?
Buchanan agreed to meet her at his office in the courthouse in downtown Durham at ten.
To organize her thoughts and make certain that she didn’t forget anything that she intended to say, Jo Lynn sat down and wrote a letter of introduction before leaving.
As Jo Lynn drove into town, she was unaware that Durham’s morning newspaper had spread the story about Russ’s death across the top of the obituary page: “DURHAM HIGH BASEBALL COACH ACCIDENTALLY SHOT TO DEATH.” The article quoted Buchanan and recounted the version of events that Barbara had told the officers. “There was no evidence of a struggle or foul play,” it said.
Jo Lynn, though, was on her way to try to get somebody to think differently.
She got a bad impression of Buchanan when he remained seated at his desk as she introduced herself and offered the letter she had brought. He seemed utterly disinterested, she thought, and it irked her. Russ was dead and he didn’t seem to care.
She took the chair that Buchanan offered and waited impatiently as he opened the letter and began to read.
Dear Officer Buchanan,
Thank you very much for agreeing to meet with me today regarding the death of A. Russell Stager III. In order to establish some credibility for myself, I would like to tell you the following. I am a 1975 graduate of Meredith College in Raleigh. N.C. I taught school briefly. I am currently office manager for a very large, successful residential builder in Raleigh. My employer is currently president of the Home Builders Association. Russell and I were married for approximately five years and after the usual distance a divorce brings, we became very close friends and confidants. That is why I can share the following information with you.
Russell feared for his safety with his wife, Barbara. Russell no longer believed that her first husband’s wound was accidental.
Buchanan’s interest suddenly picked up. First husband’s wound?
He, too, died from a gunshot wound and Barbara was the only person with him. Russell always said that if anything suspicious happened to him that he would want me to remember his telling me that.
Barbara Stager had had another husband who died from an accidental gunshot wound in her presence? What were the odds of that?
Buchanan did not betray his surprise, though. He never wanted anybody to be able to guess what he was thinking or anticipate what he might do.
Russell thought Barbara did not have a firm grasp on reality. Supposedly she was writing about her first husband’s death in a book entitled Untimely Death. She told him a publisher wanted to publish the book and showed him a letter from the publisher. He later found where she had written for information from the publisher, cut the letterhead from the response and made up her own stationery to write herself letters from the publisher.
Russ found huge sums of money missing and she would not account for it. He insisted she get a job so he could monitor her whereabouts during the day. He also thought she was having an affair and followed her one weekend morning to a parking lot where she parked her car, got out and got into a man’s car and immediately began heavy petting.
Barbara received a huge insurance settlement from the accidental shooting death of her first husband.
Russell completed army basic training in the late 1960s, and I believe he has been in the army’s reserves for at least 10 years, maybe more. He received the best training this country had to offer in the use and proper storage of the handgun. Russell had a gun during our marriage, but I only saw it on maybe two occasions. It was kept safely in a drawer unloaded. Russ had a very healthy respect for guns, and I remember his comments about accidental shootings and how they would never happen if people handled their guns with respect. He would never have slept with a loaded gun under his pillow. I pray that God’s will be done in this tragedy.
Money problems. An affair. Bizarre behavior. Insurance. Nobody had to tell Buchanan that all of that could add up to murder. Nor did anybody have to tell him that murder could be difficult to prove.
“Well,” he said, looking up at this woman who suddenly had changed everything, “the evidence is consistent with her story.”
But he knew now that he would have to find out whether Barbara Stager could be believed. And to do that he would have to find out who Barbara Stager really was.