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'It Just Doesn't Add Up'

By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
          It was easy enough to write off Kari Winters' death last May as the suicide of a lonely cat woman unable to endure chronic pain and myriad ailments any longer.
        The state Office of the Medical Investigator had done that, concluding that she had fatally mixed medications ranging from Prozac to Benadryl.
        The Albuquerque Police Department had done that, the investigation of her death distilled down to little more than a page as if it were a minor traffic offense.
        Winters, 58, had overcome thyroid cancer. She also had lupus and a heart ailment. A spinal injury had left her on disability and in pain. She had recently undergone eye surgery. She had a cold. She had prescription medications.
        And, there was a suicide note.
        "Because I can't go on with this horrible chronic sciatic pain which reuns (sic) into my leg and the burning 'glove effect' in my right foot and toes, and because I've been through so many surgeries, have tried so much PT and other therapies and have worked so hard at overcoming the pain and regaining my functioning, I no longer believe that anything will help," the grammatically butchered note found on her laptop said.
        But some people who knew Winters, a nationally recognized writer and well-known animal advocate, were not as easily convinced that she had killed herself.
        She loved cats (and dogs), but she was no lonely cat woman, they say. She had endured pain, but she was not suicidal.
        "It just doesn't add up," says Steve Stucker — yes, the funny KOB-TV Channel 4 weather guy and pet lover — who met Winters through their mutual work on behalf of animals and who became unexpectedly more involved with her affairs after her death.
        "She had big plans to travel soon," he says. "She was receiving a writing award soon. She was to have lunch with the mayor. Her friends were moving here. I can't make sense of it in any way, shape or form. I will never in my heart believe it was suicide."
        Winters, her friends say, would not have killed herself knowing her beloved three dogs and six cats would be left alone without food or water until someone found her body.
        She would not have killed herself crumpled on her bedroom floor atop a fallen lamp in her Paradise Hills Knolls home, as the police report indicated.
        Pain, they say, would not have been a motive to take her life.
        "She was managing her pain totally," says Nancy Marano, an Albuquerque writer and friend. "She was really on top of it. She managed her pain and did it well."
        Winters, a retired nurse, would not, they say, have chosen to mix or overdose on her medications — and neither the autopsy report nor the police report indicate that anybody had checked whether the 10 medications found in her system in moderate doses were among the prescription pills she regularly took.
        "She was an advanced practice psychiatric nurse with a pristine reputation who repeatedly cautioned friends not to keep pills at their bedside because it would be too easy to forget you had taken them and take them again," says Darlene Arden, a Massachusetts writer, one of Winters' closest friends and the one who contacted me.
        Winters' last words in a suicide note, they say, would not have been so poorly written. In fact, they contend Winters didn't write that note at all.
        "Kari was a writer and a good one," says Gary Rohde, Winters' longtime friend and business manager in California. "But the way this was written, what she said, the way she said it, does not compute."
        Rohde says it's also curious that the note was a file on Winters' password-locked laptop.
        It was found by Winters' housekeeper, Jennifer Sandstrom, who also found Winters dead May 19.
        Sandstrom, who says that Winters entrusted her with the password, accessed the computer file and showed the note to police.
        The note, titled Last Will and Testament and dated May 16, also designated some of Winters' possessions to various people: her house and car to a goddaughter, her Wii to a neighbor girl.
        Sandstrom and her mother, Joann Valentine, who also worked for Winters, were entitled to "any of the possessions" in the house, the note stated.
        Such an unsigned, unwitnessed note is not legally binding as a will, and that meant the matter of Winters' estate went to probate court. In those court documents, Sandstrom and Valentine are accused of repeatedly using Winters' credit cards, transferring the title of her 2004 Honda to Valentine, removing items from her house — including the laptop — and gaining control of the estate by convincing Winters' elderly, blind mother to sign away her rights as Winters' sole heir in June.
        Interceding on behalf of Winters' mother, Stucker filed an emergency request in July for an injunction against Sandstrom and Valentine, contending there were "serious concerns" regarding the administration of the estate and management of Winters' affairs even before her death.
        Winters' friends say what they have learned of her final days and the weeks after her death have convinced them that something more troubling than suicide befell their kind and talented friend.
        At the very least, they say, the cleaning ladies should be held criminally accountable for attempting to clean up financially at Winters' expense.
        Sandstrom says she knows what Winters' friends are implying. And though she admits she "did wrong" after Winters' death, she says she loved Winters too much to wish her harm.
        "I was one of Kari's closest friends. She was like a big sister to me," she says. "I'm a pariah to them now. Nobody asked me my side of the story."
        • Up next: In my column Monday, Sandstrom will talk about her close relationship with Winters.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. You can reach Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.
       

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