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'We Came With the House'

By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
          Editor's Note: This is the second of three columns on the mysterious death of animal activist Kari Winters. You can read the first online at www.ABQjournal.com/upfront.
        When Kari Winters bought her Paradise Hills Knolls home in 2006, she also acquired the services of housekeepers Jennifer Sandstrom and her mother, Joann Valentine.
        "We came with the house," Sandstrom says.
        Because of Winters' debilitating spinal injury caused by a fall, lupus and an earlier bout with cancer, the women seemed to be just what she needed.
        But Sandstrom says she became more than a housekeeper.
        "I was one of her closest friends," Sandstrom, 35, says. "My daughter called her Aunt Kari."
        Winters and Sandstrom shared a love of animals, particularly cats, she says. Winters, 58, had championed animal rescue groups for years. After her injury forced her to retire as a psychiatric nurse and relocate from California to New Mexico, Winters also became an award-winning writer of feline nonfiction.
        "Kari lived and breathed for animals," Sandstrom says. "She was an amazing woman."
        And that's why Sandstrom says she can't believe Winters committed suicide — the official conclusion of the state Office of Medical Investigator and Albuquerque police.
        Neither can many of Winters' friends, though they are more likely to point the finger of suspicion at Sandstrom, citing events that followed Winters' death.
        It was May 19, a Tuesday morning, when Sandstrom says she found Winters cold and dead on the bedroom floor.
        "She had been passed for a while," she says. "It looked like she was trying to get out of bed and fell face forward."
        Before investigators arrived — and before anyone suspected a suicidal mix of medications as the cause of death — Sandstrom says she decided to access Winters' password-locked laptop to look for a list of prescriptions Winters kept.
        "I was the only one she trusted with the password," Sandstrom says.
        That's when she says she found a suicide note — a crucial piece of evidence authorities had used to conclude that Winters' death was a suicide.
        If you read last Friday's column, you already know Winters' friends don't believe she would have written such a note, which also gave everything in the house to Sandstrom and her mother, or would have taken her own life.
        And they wonder whether the troubling issues that surfaced after Winters' death might be an indication of something more sinister.
        Weeks after Winters' death, her business manager, Gary Rohde, says he was notified by her bank about unauthorized activity on her credit cards.
        Probate court documents allege Sandstrom and Valentine tapped the dead woman's credit cards for more than $3,000 to pay their water bill, open new accounts and make purchases that included two Dell computers, clothing, computer games and programs and a payment to eHarmony, an online dating service.
        Some transactions were for cash.
        Court documents also indicated that Valentine had transferred the title of Winters' 2004 Honda to her name, which she was able to do after Winters' mother and sole heir had signed papers making her the estate's personal representative.
        Meanwhile, Sandstrom and her mother began living in Winters' home, allowing the deceased woman's four cats so much free rein the stench of the accumulating urine and feces stung the eyes.
        So says Steve Stucker (yes, the KOB-TV weather guy), who interceded in July at the request of Winters' elderly mother to become the personal representative of the estate. Among his duties was to clean up the house so it could be sold.
        Sandstrom admits that some of her actions after Winters' death might not be seen as the actions of a close friend.
        "Yes, I did wrong. I did charge things, but that does not make me Satan incarnate," she says.
        She is bitter, angry over the suspicions and accusations expressed by Winters' friends — friends she also believed were hers.
        "What killed me the most was everything I did for Kari was forgotten," she says. "I feel betrayed. I could give a flea about the money. All I care about now are the animals and my name."
        She says Winters' mother, Leona Winters, signed off on Valentine serving as personal representative and having the car. But court affidavits show that Leona Winters, who is 93, blind and lives in a Minnesota retirement home, never believed she had signed anything that would give Valentine the car or that much authority.
        Last January, a state district judge ordered Sandstrom and Valentine to return the Honda and various items taken from Winters' home, including the laptop on which the supposed suicide note was written.
        (A check of the laptop done by Chuck Harris of Technical City Computers in Albuquerque at Stucker's request found that the note had been modified at least once and that numerous files had been erased after Winters' body was found.)
        The housekeepers dropped their claims against the estate for more than $37,000 they had sought for "services rendered" during the last weeks of Winters' life. The judge also allowed them to keep the items bought with Winters' credit card and did not require them to reimburse the cost.
        Four of Winters' nine pets — two had died and three went to another home — were allowed to remain with Sandstrom and Valentine.
        This, despite conditions of probation stemming from Sandstrom's child abuse conviction that she not be allowed to have pets other than her mother's dog.
        Sandstrom was charged with child abuse in May 2007 and lost custody of her 13-year-old daughter when Rio Rancho police found the home she and her daughter shared with Valentine overrun with 14 cats and enough waste matter to require officers to don "bunny suits" to enter the premises, a police report states.
        Her probation continues through January 2011.
        Sandstrom says she had nothing to do with Winters' death, but doesn't believe Winters took her own life, either.
        "Kari was not one to talk about her pain, but I did know she worried that one day that pain would turn into paralysis and she didn't want to live that way," she says. "It's hard to imagine she would have left her animals like that, though."
        • Coming Friday: Life of and after Kari 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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