There’s nothing you can’t conquer when you’re with the one you love… or so we’re led to believe. In 1978, Dan Montecalvo was serving time in a Wisconsin prison for bank robbery when he received his first handwritten letter from a faithful Christian woman named Carol. Carol contacted Dan through a program at her church; she considered it her Christian duty to write to the convict and steer him in the right direction. Dan responded in kind. Soon, however, their exchanges turned personal. Carol fell for the man behind the letters, igniting a jailhouse romance that resulted in the pair getting married in the prison chapel in 1980.
Upon Dan’s release, the couple relocated and settled in Burbank, California. It seemed nothing stood in their way. But darkness gathered on the horizon—and on on the night of March 31, 1988, shots rang out at the couple’s home.
Responding to a 911 call placed by Dan, police found Carol dead with two gunshot wounds to her neck; Dan had been shot in the lower back. According to Dan, two unknown assailants broke in to couple’s home and attacked them. Investigators initially believed the story, but soon shifted their suspicions back onto Dan after learning of his checkered past—one that included extramarital affairs, sizable gambling debts, and a half-million dollar insurance policy he had on his wife. In March of 1990, investigators charged Dan Montecalvo in the first-degree murder of his wife, despite not having the murder weapon or any eyewitness testimony. In November of that year, Dan was convicted of the murder Carol Montecalvo and was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison.
However, some have doubted Montecalvo’s culpability; he vehemently stood by his claim of innocence, and with little evidence, questions remain. Was the ex-con truly guilty? New York Times bestselling author and former Los Angeles Times reporter Karen Kingsbury unravels the brutal slaying and the shocking case that followed in Final Vows: Murder, Madness, and Twisted Justice in California.
Read on for an excerpt from Final Vows, and then download the book.
On the evening of March 31, 1988, just after 10:30, Carol Montecalvo reached into her dresser drawer for a pair of lightweight blue shorts, folded them neatly in half, and placed them inside her brown vinyl suitcase. Hawaii would be warmer than Burbank, California, where spring temperatures often dropped to the low 50s at night, and Carol had packed several pairs of big, baggy shorts. She sorted through her nearly full suitcase. A few more items and she would be finished.
Easing herself slowly onto the bed, she drew in a deep breath and ran her fingers through her short, dark brown hair. It was hard to believe that in less than twelve hours she and Dan would be on an airplane leaving the hectic pace of Los Angeles County for the peaceful Hawaiian Islands. Carol closed her eyes and silently began to pray.
Her expectations for this trip were high. Lately she had grown more and more concerned about her husband’s drinking. The problem had not yet affected their marriage, which Carol believed was still better than most even after nearly eight years. As far as she knew, Dan didn’t cheat, didn’t complain about the weight she’d gained in recent years, and for most of their marriage hadn’t let alcohol cross his lips.
The problems had started in 1986 when a bleeding ulcer had forced Dan to quit work. Not long afterward he began drinking to ease his frustration and boredom. At first he took only a few mixed drinks in the evenings but after a year of unemployment, drinking had become part of his daily routine. Sometimes he was so drunk Carol would wonder how he drove home from the bars without killing someone.
Carol began to think up ways she could rescue him and improve their marriage—before the alcohol could do permanent damage to both. She believed Dan needed only some time away, a place where he could regain the faith in God he’d had early in their marriage. There had been just one problem. Because of Dan’s disability they had barely enough money to buy groceries. Carol tried to imagine ways they might scrape together the money for a trip, but the demands of day-to-day living were always too costly. A getaway vacation would be financially impossible.
At about that time, Carol began to pray that God would somehow provide them with the means.
Answered prayer came in the form of a sales contest sponsored by her employer—Pacific Bell Yellow Pages. First prize: An all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. The couple had visited Hawaii early in their marriage and during their stay had fallen even deeper in love with each other. Hawaii, she decided, would be the perfect place for Dan to rediscover that love, abandon alcohol, and come home a changed man.
Carol knew the changes would need to be drastic. By late 1987, Dan had turned fifty. He had slid even deeper into depression and alcohol abuse, perhaps because he realized he was no longer a young man and would have fewer opportunities to turn his life around. Carol, who at forty-two was no less in love with her husband than she had been the day she’d married him, knew this trip might be Dan’s only chance.
The more Carol thought about the vacation the harder she worked. Through the end of 1987 and into 1988 there were evenings she wouldn’t come home until eight or nine o’clock when she was certain she couldn’t sell one more ad. In January when the company named Carol the Southern California winner, no one was less surprised than her supervisor. In fifteen years with the telephone company, Laura Annetelli had never seen a sales representative sell ads like Carol Montecalvo.
Carol could hardly wait to tell Dan the good news.
If Dan had been thrilled later that night when he came home from the bars and heard about the trip, he was most likely too drunk to remember. Carol patiently repeated the story the next morning, refusing to allow Dan’s increasing reliance on alcohol to dampen her excitement.
The hopes and dreams of her entire lifetime took shape as Carol began planning the vacation. The Montecalvos scheduled it for April and even saved enough money to lengthen their trip by two days. More than a week in Hawaii and surely Dan would be more relaxed, his ulcer might get better, and they could make plans for their future. Best of all, Carol believed with all her heart that Dan would stop drinking during this vacation. In fact, she believed the trip could quite possibly change their entire lives.
“Want to take a walk?” Dan sauntered into their bedroom combing his hair as he glanced at the open suitcase on the bed. He had been packing in the next room and taking care of last-minute necessities before the trip. “I could use a break.”
Carol smiled and held out her hand. She was a short woman of Italian ancestry who kept her dark hair attractively cut close to her plump face. Those who knew her agreed that Carol’s eyes were by far her best feature—sparkling brown eyes that were every bit as full of compassion as they were full of life. In fact, she would have been quite pretty if not for the extra seventy pounds she carried.
Carol took great pains to hide her weight by wearing fashionably loose black and navy clothing and by always adding matching stockings, shoes, and accessories to her outfit. Makeup was also important to Carol, and she rarely left for a day at the office without painstakingly applying the subtle peach and brown hues that brought her soft face to life. She took pride in her appearance, and perhaps she wanted to imagine herself as she had been the day she married Dan—a much slimmer 130 pounds.
If Dan minded Carol’s excess weight, he never said so. Carol had even commented to friends that Dan had always been patient and understanding about the weight she had gained over the years. In fact, outsiders tended to notice Carol’s weight far more quickly than her husband did. Although several inches taller than Carol, Dan was a rather small man; therefore, when the two of them stood together, Carol’s weight tended to be more obvious to others. In addition, Dan seemed to shrink in comparison, appearing even smaller than he actually was.
Carol, however, saw Dan as larger than life. He had the inexplicable ability to charm her and the shy, humble way he spoke to her still made her weak at the knees. Although she was aware of Dan’s troubled past, she thought him a handsome misunderstood gentleman with charming black-brown eyes, black hair, and a dashing mustache.
In truth, Dan was born and raised in Boston, and his accent, one associated with the poorer sections of that city, reflected his lack of education. But that did not change Carol’s opinion of Dan. No matter that he looked like the gangsters in B-rated films, she thought he bore many similarities to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
Carol’s friends smiled politely when she talked about Dan that way, lending further credence to the notion that love really was blind. Not that they found Dan unattractive. He simply was not the prince charming Carol made him out to be. Dan stood five-eight, 170 pounds, and wore his thin black hair short and slicked back toward the right side of his head. His voice had a hard edge from years of cigarette smoking.
There had been a time when women had enjoyed Dan’s dark looks, but that time had long since expired. What had once been a pleasant, baby face was now spoiled by a slightly ruddy complexion from excessive alcohol consumption, and troubled, beady dark eyes. And while not overweight, he was beginning to soften around the middle and no longer possessed the type of physique that most women admired. Either way, their friends at Overcomers’ Faith Center Christian Church believed that physical shortcomings mattered little to the Montecalvos, who always seemed so happy and in love with each other.
That night appearances were the last thing on their minds. Dan clasped Carol’s outstretched hand and helped her up, waiting for her response. She shook her head and yawned. “Not tonight. I still have a lot of packing to do.”
Dan pulled her into a hug, and began stroking her hair. “I just wanted to start this vacation a day early. Come on, it’ll be quick. Just a walk around the block.”
Carol laughed at his persistence. “Okay, okay. You win.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll walk. But let’s make it a short one. What time is it anyway?”
Carol slipped her flip-flop sandals on as Dan glanced at his watch. “Quarter to eleven. Think you’ll be warm enough?”
Carol nodded. Although her office dress was impeccable, at home she was most comfortable wearing flip-flops, sweatpants, and casual blouses. Occasionally, like that evening, she would even go without a bra. Carol didn’t care what anyone thought of her need to be casual after work. In her opinion, home was all about feeling safe and comfortable.
She followed Dan down the hallway of their three-bedroom home and out the front door. “If it gets a little cold we’ll just walk faster.”
Dan shut the door, testing it to be sure it was locked. “Same way?” he asked, nodding his head in a northerly direction up South Myers Street.
“Same way,” she answered.
Four or five times a week the Montecalvos walked in that direction, past several neighbors’ houses, around the block, and back home to the house they had shared since Christmas 1985. Dan took Carol’s hand in his and the couple started walking.
Fifty yards down the street they passed Suzan Brown’s house. Earlier that March evening, like most evenings, Suzan had been busy building Popsicle-stick lampshades in her garage. This habit was not the only indication of the forty-two-year-old woman’s oddities. She was also in a wheelchair, seemingly without reason. Her neighbors routinely saw Suzan romping about her backyard playing with her three dogs and appearing perfectly able-bodied—the chair nowhere to be seen.
If that wasn’t enough, Suzan’s appearance raised more than a few eyebrows around the neighborhood. She was heavyset and wore her brown hair short and straight, cropped close to her head. On her arms were tattoos of anchors and hearts and whenever she dressed up she’d wear men’s trousers and dress shirts. In fact, if a person didn’t know her, he or she might easily have mistaken her for a middle-aged man.
Most of the time Suzan’s sexual preference tended toward women—many of whom she had met while serving time in jail for various charges. But occasionally she would date men—especially those who looked like her.
Although Suzan sometimes sold Avon products and once in a while received five dollars for one of her Popsicle-stick lampshades, her primary means of support came from a monthly military pension for her role as a nurse in Vietnam and from a monthly government disability check. Even with that money, she could not afford to lease her one-thousand-dollar-per-month home in Dan and Carol’s stable neighborhood without her roommates. It seemed to Suzan’s neighbors—none of whom were fond of her—that the woman was always taking in new boarders. Word around the neighborhood was that some of these boarders contributed by paying a portion of the rent and providing drugs for Suzan’s weekly parties.
South Myers Street was lined with fruitless pear trees that in the summer fanned out to form a green archway over the road. Set back twenty feet from the sidewalk, the single-story homes were quaintly small with adequate front and backyards separated by beige cement block walls. This was the kind of neighborhood that typified Burbank.
For the most part, these rather plain homes were built in the 1950s and still housed the original owners. A majority of the residents along South Myers were getting on in years, their houses paid off and their children moved away. They could sometimes be seen sitting on their front porches in the middle of the afternoon sipping lemonade and discussing the virtues of being Republican.
But occasionally, as with the Montecalvo home, the houses had been sold to new families. As is often the case when this sort of turnover begins, some of the homes had been sold to people whom neighbors saw at odds with Burbank’s quiet image. Worse, some of the houses had been rented to unstable low-income people whom longtime Burbank residents found quite distasteful.
This was how neighbors viewed Suzan Brown. Although her rent included a weekly gardening service which maintained the property, Suzan often kept her garage door open allowing anyone who passed by to see the disarray inside. This was not an acceptable practice along South Myers Street. Also, shady characters frequently drove by Suzan’s home, stopping for only a moment, and returning to their cars counting what appeared to be currency. Drugs had never been a problem on the quiet street, but neighbors felt certain Suzan Brown was buying and selling something more than Avon.
Many of the neighbors had long since agreed that Suzan was a crazy woman. They even suspected her and some of her transient boarders of performing a handful of burglaries that had been happening in the neighborhood in recent years.
Because of that, they kept a close eye on the woman. Almost every night, often dressed in the same shorts and tank top, she would roll her wheelchair out the front door and into the garage at exactly 8 o’clock. Then she would spend nearly three hours making Popsicle-stick lampshades before going back into the house for the 11 o’clock news. Many nights her routine included looking for Dan and Carol sometime between 10 and 10:30. The couple walked nearly every evening, and watching them pass was one way Suzan gauged the time. After 10:30 Suzan stopped looking. By her assessment, the couple never walked later than that.
So when the Montecalvos strolled past her house that evening at 10:50, Dan did not notice whether Suzan was sitting in her garage. Perhaps, in keeping with her schedule, she had already gone in for the night, or maybe the couple had been too wrapped up in their conversation to notice her. Or perhaps, as defense attorneys and investigators would later contend, Suzan had been so busy orchestrating a neighborhood burglary that night that she had spent only an hour or so making her lampshades. Unaware of any of those possibilities or the importance they would have in later years, Dan and Carol continued their walk without any discussion of their quirky neighbor.
As the Montecalvos made their way around the block and back up South Myers Street toward home they did not cross the street until they had passed the house of their next-door neighbor, Ralph Atwater. The Montecalvos did this on purpose to avoid Ralph’s German shepherds. The dogs barked whenever anyone walked near Ralph’s property.
At 10:56 that evening, Ralph was caught up in a routine of his own as he prepared for bed and the 11 o’clock news. His wife had been asleep for some time, but he rarely went to bed before the news.
He pulled his striped pajama top over his head and turned back the covers on his side of the bed. Ralph’s wife, May, thought it odd that her husband liked to end his day watching the news. After all, there was nothing good in the news. Natural disasters. Crooked politicians. Senseless murders. Innocent people getting the raw end of the stick. Most people had enough real-life problems without getting tangled up in the sorry affairs of perfect strangers.
Ralph only laughed at his wife’s assessment. He thought the news was exciting. Amazing and terrible things happening to real people. Drama at its best. Never did he feel more in tune with the world around him than after watching the 11 o’clock news. He picked up the remote control, turned the television on, and hit the mute button. Fixing his eyes straight ahead at the small color set, Ralph waited.
At exactly 11:00, the familiar faces of ABC’s news anchors flashed across the screen. Ralph hit the mute button again, allowing sound to accompany the pictures. The introductions rolled on in typical upbeat news fashion. Ralph rather liked the opening theme song of the network news. He turned the volume up a level, glancing over to be sure the sound wasn’t disturbing his wife.
But at 11:01, when the song was almost finished, a different sound caught his attention. It was frantic—a scream or cry perhaps, and it seemed to be coming from next door. Quickly Ralph hit the mute button again and turned toward the noise. For nearly ten seconds Ralph tried to make out the voices, but he could tell only that someone was very frightened and upset. For a split second the voices stopped and Ralph listened, perfectly still in the silent room. At that moment the quiet was broken by two sudden blasts of what seemed to be a car backfiring. Before Ralph had time to analyze the sounds, another single crack rang out.
Next to him, May sat straight up in bed.
“What happened?” she asked, her eyes filled with panic. “What was that?”
Ralph knew instinctively the sounds had nothing to do with a car’s exhaust system.
“Gunfire,” he whispered. “Sounded like three shots.”
May reached for her husband’s arm and he could feel her hands shaking. “What should we do?”
Ralph climbed out of bed and walked to the window that directly faced the Montecalvo’s home. The two families did not socialize together, but they were casual acquaintances and Dan had asked Ralph to water their lawn while they were in Hawaii.
“They don’t leave until tomorrow, do they?” he asked.
“No. Why, what do you see over there?”
“Nothing, nothing. But it sounded like the shots came from next door.”
“Oh, my God, Ralph. What if something happened to them?”
Slowly, he walked over and sat down on the bed. His mind raced with ideas of what he might do if Dan and Carol really were in trouble. But before he could form a plan, he heard sirens in the distance. In seconds, they were closer and Ralph was certain they were headed toward 315 South Myers, where the Montecalvos lived.
At that same moment, five houses down the street, the 11 o’clock news was four minutes old when Suzan Brown thought she heard something in her backyard. She, too, muted her television set and listened intently. It sounded like her woodpile had come crashing down, but now there was only silence. Suddenly she remembered the three loud sounds she’d heard a few minutes earlier. She began considering possible connections between those sounds and the noise she had just heard in her backyard when in the distance she heard sirens getting closer.
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Back at the Atwater home Ralph went to the window again and watched as the first police car arrived. A uniformed officer with his gun drawn carefully climbed out, using the car door as a shield. Keeping his head low, the officer darted silently across the street. Ralph was glued to the scene, horrified and unable to believe that a crime, maybe even a murder, had just occurred in his neighborhood.
At 11:06, with Ralph intent on the scene unfolding next door, the Atwaters’ dogs began barking. They were so loud he was sure they would ruin the officer’s cover.
“Darn dogs,” Ralph whispered as May joined him at the window. “Bark at anything.”
More than once Ralph had vowed to get rid of the dogs. The slightest thing could set them off and once they got started they could bark for an hour or more without letting up. They barked whenever anyone walked near the property.
Now something terrible had happened next door and his dogs were barking so loudly they were going to give the officer away. Ralph believed the gunmen were still inside the Montecalvo house. Unless of course they had fled the other way—northbound toward Suzan Brown’s house and away from his dogs.
After all, until the officer arrived, his dogs hadn’t barked once all evening.
Want to keep reading? Download Final Vows today.
Before developing “Life-Changing Fiction” and contributing a massive collection of fiction novels with a Christian emphasis, author Karen Kingsbury began her writing career in true crime. Final Vows follows the sensational story of the Dan Montecalvo case, a case that has left more questions than answers. There is no denying the chilling events that led up to Carol’s murder—from Montecalvo’s extramarital affairs to the discovery of her large life insurance policy. Despite a myriad of circumstantial evidence leading back to Montecalvo, Carol's murder became another tale of twisted justice. Montecalvo was eventually convicted of Carol's murder; he maintained his innocence until his 2013 death. Kingsbury acknowledges his possible innocence, but authorities continue to believe that Montecalvo was the sole responsible killer. What really happened the night Carol was killed? Download Final Vows to find out.
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