Loved to Death

Dana always refers to May 25, 1996, as the day she was murdered. But she did not die.

After Jim shot her, she lay still in the grass--for how many minutes, she didn't know. Her mouth tasted funny. She moved her hand and placed a finger to her lips. No blood. She touched her nose and then her ears. No blood. She placed her hand on the back of her neck. It came back warm and red.

I'm sorry, Dana, she told herself. You did everything you could. The police should have stopped Jim.

But what about Ben? She'd heard that other shot. Had Jim killed Ben? Would he be back to finish her off?

She willed herself to her feet. Unsure of where Jim might be, she went to the fence.

Matt Smith, a painter who was working across the street, ran over. "I'll save you," he yelled, and went to the house next door, where he asked a woman for a gun. She wouldn't give him one.

Dana was sure she was bleeding to death. She went to the door at the back of her garage and opened it. Smith stood there. He helped her across the street to the house he'd been painting. She laid down.

The first police officer to arrive was the one who'd admired Jim's Jaguar a month earlier. One of several who had told her to calm down, that Jim just wanted to see his kids. "Oh, it's you," he said when he saw Dana.

"I told you he was going to kill me," Dana spat back. "You should have protected me."

Within a few minutes, a Denver SWAT team had surrounded her house.

The police saw Ben looking out of the living-room window. After nearly ninety minutes, they coaxed him out of the house. He'd spent all that time alone with his dead father.

Jim had gone back inside after shooting Dana, sat down at the dining-room table, put the gun to his head and fired. The .38-caliber bullet had passed right through his skull, and he lay in a puddle of blood beneath the table.

Dana was taken to Denver General Hospital. When she arrived, the television cameras were already there, covering the latest stalking assault.

She was convinced she was dying. How could she be shot in the back of the head and not die? But X-rays revealed that the bullet had stopped just short of doing any real damage. It rested in her neck muscle against the vertebrae and a major artery to her brain.

None of the surgeons could explain why the bullet hadn't killed her. At that range, a .38-caliber could have passed through a tree. And the next round had gone through her ex-husband's skull with no problem.

Perhaps the bullet hadn't received the proper charge at the factory. Maybe she had tensed her neck muscles at just the right moment in just the right way. Dana preferred one surgeon's explanation.

"It was a God thing," he said.

In the hospital, Dana finally was interviewed in person by a Denver detective. "You hit the jackpot," the detective said. "Ben's alive and Jim's dead." To him, the case was closed.

For Dana, the shooting had blown it wide open. Neighbors came forward to say they knew she feared her husband and that he was stalking her. Smith had heard her chew out the officer for not believing the threat was real.

Denver police spokesman John Wyckoff defends his department's actions in the Garner case. "There is nothing we could have done differently," he says. "Just because there's an arrest warrant out on some guy doesn't mean we can find him."

In this case, he says, officers were watching Dana's house and the house of Jim's friends, and they had gone to the bars that Dana indicated. "Unfortunately, he got to her before we could get to him."

Wyckoff suggests that Dana's anger is misdirected. The police don't have enough officers to stick with every potential victim 24 hours a day. But the real problems, he says, begin when a perpetrator is arrested and allowed back on the streets within a few hours.

"I think maybe she ought to be asking her questions of somebody else," he says of Dana. "Why was he constantly back out on the streets? The DAs give the old excuse: They never question the decision of the jury. The judges give the old excuse: They did everything they could.

"We can't be all things to all people, but we're the easy targets."

According to Detective David Schultz with the Denver Domestic Violence Unit, stalkers often are hard to control because they have no respect for court orders. "Some do get scared off by police action," he says. "Or some get in the system or see a therapist...But with others, there's a mental-illness component, and nothing matters to them except their obsession."

In 1996 there were 64 domestic-violence-related deaths in Colorado. Four involved children; almost all involved stalking. That same year, the state's women's crisis centers received more than 150,000 calls for help.

According to Laine Gibbes, director of the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence, many of the calls came from women being stalked.

"It's one of our keys to lethality," Gibbes says. "The obsession leads to a very strong correlation to lethality."

Under the Colorado "stalker law" passed three years ago by the legislature, a person commits harassment by stalking if he directly or indirectly makes a credible threat against a person and in connection with that threat repeatedly follows the person or a member of that person's family. A credible threat is defined as something that would cause a reasonable person to be in fear for his life or safety.

A first offense under the stalking law is a Class 6 felony punishable by up to eighteen months in prison. A second or subsequent offense within seven years is a Class 5 felony, punishable by up to three years.

Last August, Dana Garner's lawyer notified the city of her intent to sue the department for a million dollars, claiming the police acted negligently and improperly. "Ms. Garner repeatedly asked, begged, demanded or pled with various police officers to arrest Mr. Garner, and in doing so provided the officer with a location where Mr. Garner could be found," attorney Jay Freeman claimed.

"Each time, the officer either refused or failed to go and arrest and incarcerate Mr. Garner. Indeed, and in response to Ms. Garner's request that an arrest be made, the officers were rude, demeaning, and insulting.

"Each time, the officers were made aware that a restraining order had been issued, and that Mr. Garner was violent in nature."

The female detective who interviewed Dana over the telephone knew of the weapon and the passport, "a classic sign of an explosive situation," Freeman noted. "However, and yet again, rather than go and arrest Mr. Garner, an easy option, the detective simply sought another arrest warrant--and not for theft or stalking, but for...trespass."

Although Dana admits she could use the money, she says it's more important that the department change its ways--or at least follow its own policies. She wants officers to listen, really listen, to a woman's story. Grimly, she points out that the money order she'd reported stolen, a report the Denver police discounted, was cashed by Jim's brother-in-law in Tennessee--in exchange for the gun Jim used to shoot her.

If Dana does follow through with her suit, it will be an uphill battle. Government employees in Colorado, including police officers, are protected by strong immunity statutes. Another legal firm that Dana had contacted declined to take the case, noting that she would have to prove the officers' conduct was "willful, malicious, or intended to cause harm.

"We know you think that changes need to be made," the attorneys wrote, "and we agree with you, but it is our opinion that trying to change the law, in this case, through the legislature is a better option. This would also allow you to avoid the emotional heartache and public access to your personal life, in a case that would probably be unsuccessful anyway."

Even police spokesman Wyckoff suggests that Dana ought to take a hint from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "They got sick and tired of seeing guys getting off with three and four DUIs," he says. "So they started putting the heat on the judges by showing up at sentencing."

Dana hasn't given up on finding an attorney willing to take on the police. But in the meantime, she's actively helping women to help themselves. She's joined with security consultant Mike Newell, a former Denver cop and an expert in "stalker suppression," to form the nonprofit Crisis Action Network, doing business as Stalking Rescue.

Newell's practice is to stalk the stalker, monitoring his activity and building a case to get him into the justice system before he strikes.

Like most dangerous stalkers, Jim Garner gave plenty of warning, Newell says. "He repeatedly violated restraining orders, meaning he felt omnipotent and above the law," he notes. "He followed her to work. He was constantly checking with friends, associates and family members to track her lifestyle. He threatened her verbally on numerous occasions.

"Hell, for years he read books on how to murder people. He lived vicariously through the killers he met in those books until he decided to act himself."

The police lack the manpower, especially when it comes to followup, to deal with stalkers adequately. "You need someone who can see the pattern over time," Newell explains. "This is not just a trespass or a burglary or a phone harassment. It's a pattern of escalating criminal activity. Right now, with the antiquated justice system, there's not much in the way of consequences for the stalker, which is giving these predators tacit approval to escalate what they are doing."

According to Newell, there's only one "cure" for stalkers: isolation. "Get them away from the local bar and their good buddies who tell them that they're right," he says.

"Give them time to see that their behavior is wrong. Most of these guys, I believe, are changeable. They don't start off wanting to hurt or kill the ones they love--it just escalates."

And if authorities don't help the victims, victims have to help themselves. The Crisis Action Network, with Dana Garner as its executive director, plans to show how they can. "We want to provide, at little or no cost, training for victims of predator abuse," says Newell. "That includes case management and development--including how to communicate with police, district attorneys and judges, optimum use of the justice system, self-awareness, personal protection/self-defense and emotional recovery."

But the network will step in only after a victim requests a temporary restraining order. "They have to take that first step," says Newell. "Until they make that commitment to themselves, we're unable to help."

Dana had taken that step--but after that she found little support. "Here was a middle-class woman working to make ends meet and raise her children," Newell says.

"She exemplifies the sort of heroines who face this kind of abuse daily in America. She fought back against the predator, contended with an antiquated criminal-justice system that could not protect her, and still raised her children with values and morals, put dinner on the table and didn't miss her kids' baseball games.

"What these women put up with is absolute terrorism. It's miraculous they hold it together."

Dana Garner feels like she's barely holding it together. Out of the blue, she'll ask a new acquaintance, "Are you going to hurt me?" Strangers are never to be trusted. When an armed security guard got in the elevator with her at the hospital where she works, she almost lost control. She can't watch violent movies--even chase scenes in Star Wars send her running.

Shadows and reflections make her jump. She can't go into her backyard without becoming physically ill. Even looking out her kitchen window at the place "where he killed me" nauseates her.

When she tries to sleep, she's haunted by nightmares of Jim chasing her with a gun. But she can't go downstairs to make a cup of tea--that would mean going to the room where his blood still covered the carpet when she came home from the hospital.

She would like to move, but she's ruined financially. The only places she could afford are in high-crime areas, and she won't subject her children, all of whom are in therapy, to that.

Sometimes it is only the kids who keep her going. The kids, and the abused and battered women who seek her out. She tells them not to count on the police for protection. "It's an illusion," she says. "They won't be there when you need them."

Dana lives with this knowledge. She may die with it.

For weeks after the shooting, pain from her wounds burned like a poker. Her anger toward the police still burns. It lies just beneath the surface, like that thing that lies beneath her skin.

Even though Jim Garner has been in the grave nearly a year, he is still stalking her. Several surgeons have told Dana it is too risky to remove the bullet that still rests at the base of her skull. The best she can hope for is that scar tissue will envelop the bullet and hold it in place. But a blow to the back of the head, even one wrong movement, could propel the bullet up against the artery, causing a stroke that could kill her.

He may have murdered her after all.