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Friday, April 16, 2010
Police Taking New Look at Writer's Death
By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
Last summer, Albuquerque animal advocate Kari Winters' credit cards were used. Items were purchased, account names and passwords were changed. Her car was driven. Her laptop was operated.
Normal stuff — except Winters was dead.
Authorities paid no nevermind, seemingly content with their initial assessment that the 58-year-old writer and former psychiatric nurse had killed herself one Saturday in May with an odd assortment of antidepressants and cold medications. Anything that happened after that was off their radar. Her case was closed.
But that was then.
Last month, I suggested that Winters' death deserved a second look now that so many curious circumstances have come to light.
Well, my friends, somebody is looking.
You know the story — or you do if you read a few of my columns last month. Winters' friends and her mother had never bought into the suicide scenario. None of it — the method of her death, the positioning of her body, the way Winters' so-called suicide note had been found, how it had been written (and, according to a computer expert, rewritten), what it had said — had made sense to them.
They became even more suspicious when the post-mortem activities with Winters' credit cards began popping up.
If those things were occurring after Winters' death, they wondered, could that suggest shenanigans occurred before her death?
A stretch, perhaps, but worth investigating.
After the columns were published, the friends formed Justice for Kari Winters, urging both the Albuquerque Police Department and the state Office of the Medical Investigator to reopen Winters' case.
Last week, officials responded.
"We are looking into the matter," Albuquerque Deputy Police Chief Beth Paiz said, adding that a detective has been assigned to investigate allegations of fraud, particularly as they may pertain to Winters' death. "If we have something that definitively links those allegations to Winters' death, we can reopen the case."
Paiz said that Winters' housekeepers, Joann Valentine and daughter Jennifer Sandstrom, are under investigation and that police have been in contact with them.
A phone call this week to the women ended abruptly with a terse "no comment" from Sandstrom.
It was Sandstrom, you may recall, who found Winters dead May 19, three days after friends, most of whom live out of state, had urged her to check on Winters because she was not returning phone messages or e-mail.
It also was Sandstrom who found the so-called suicide note still on Winters' password-locked laptop. The note, which is not legally binding, purportedly willed "any of the possessions" in the house to Sandstrom and her mother.
And it was Sandstrom who admitted both to me and in a deposition concerning Winters' estate that she had been the one using Winters' credit cards.
According to the deposition, Sandstrom said she bought two computers, jewelry, an MP3 player and Beatles music and tickets to "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and paid off a water bill — purchases she said "fulfilled what Kari's wishes would have been."
In a separate deposition, Valentine said she transferred the title of Winters' car to herself, that she knew Sandstrom was using Winters' credit cards and knew Sandstrom had listed herself as an authorized user of one of Winters' credit cards.
Both women say Winters was a close friend, not just a client, and that they believed what they did was what she would have wanted.
Police welcome any further tips the public might have, including any information concerning a van believed to have been willed to the housekeepers by another housekeeping client after his death.
More news: Dr. Ross Zumwalt, chief medical investigator at OMI, said in an e-mail last week that his agency has reviewed Winters' case and is interested in doing a "more detailed review."
I've said before that authorities were too quick to assume that the "suicide note" was authentic and thus concluded Winters' manner of death was by her own hand.
Perhaps it was, or perhaps it was accidental. Or worse. With a more detailed OMI review, coupled with an actual police investigation, perhaps we can feel a little more confident in whatever the outcome is.
Finally, there is this: Last week, animal welfare officials removed Winters' four cats from Sandstrom and Valentine's Rio Rancho home at the behest of a state district judge in Sandoval County. The pets had been a huge source of concern for Winters' friends, who say the housekeepers should have never been allowed to keep them.
The cats, cared for by volunteers of Albuquerque Animal Services, were expected to be flown courtesy of American Airlines out of state today to new homes the friends say Winters would have been pleased with.
I suspect Winters would have been pleased with many of her friends' efforts today.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Joline Gutierrez Krueger can be reached at 823-3603 or email@example.com, or you may follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.