Keeping Her Word

updated 04/12/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/12/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DONNA WRIGHT CAN CLEARLY RECALL the awful emptiness she felt on that muggy July night in 1967. She was just 14 when police appeared on her family's doorstep in Alton, Ill., and announced that her beloved uncle, John Hale, 38, had been murdered. He had been found slumped in his Chevy with a bullet in his temple. "I couldn't believe I would never see my uncle again," Donna says.

Nor could she believe it when Norval "Bill" Wells, a handyman, showed up an hour later at a gathering of grieving relatives to offer his condolences. "No one had called him, so we were all surprised that he knew what had happened," says Donna. Hale, a steel-worker, had once considered Wells a close friend, but just weeks before his death had consulted a divorce lawyer because he believed Wells was having an affair with his wife, Jean. As Wells left the gathering, Donna confronted him. "I told him I knew he killed my Uncle Johnny," she says. "He winked at me and walked away. I told the cops, but they didn't pay much attention. I was just a kid."

More than a quarter century later, Donna, now 39, will come face-to-face with Wells again next month when he finally goes on trial in Alton for allegedly killing her uncle. Wells, who has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges, had been a suspect at the time of Hale's death—in fact, a police search of his apartment had turned up a pair of shoes with minute bloodstains in the eyelets—yet he had never been indicted. "We thought we had a solid case," says retired Alton police chief John Light. But the murder weapon was never found and forensics technicians used up the entire sample of blood from Wells's shoes without determining the blood type. "Twenty-five years ago prosecutors were more cautious about taking a chance on a circumstantial case," explains state's attorney William Haine.

As the 25th anniversary of the murder approached last summer, Donna, now a nurse's aide, pushed relentlessly to have the case reopened, bombarding Haine and other officials with calls and letters. "I didn't always want to take her calls," says Haine. "But her persistence kept the case alive." For Donna, John Hale's murder had created a terrible void. Hale, the younger brother of Donna's mother, Vera, was Donna's childhood hero. "I could talk to him when I couldn't talk to anyone else," she says.

As young as Donna was when Johnny was shot, she was aware that there was trouble in his life. A few weeks before Johnny died, Donna dropped by the Hales' house and discovered Jean kissing Wells. "I tried to run out the door," Donna says. "But my aunt grabbed me and said that if I knew what was good for my uncle, I would keep my mouth shut." When Donna told her mother, she learned that her uncle had hired a private detective to keep tabs on Jean and Wells.

Johnny's murder devastated Donna. She dropped out of school at 16 and found it difficult to maintain lasting relationships. "I was afraid to love anyone because I was sure I would lose them," she says. Following two brief marriages, Donna moved into her uncle's old house in 1974 and struck up a romance with her current husband, Bob Wright, 63, a steelworker who had been a friend of Hale's. Although she was preoccupied for the next few years with raising her three small children—Roger, now 23, Herb, 21, and Christina, 17—she found it difficult to put the murder behind her. "I couldn't let go," she says.

In 1981, Donna's mother made a tearful request a week before she died of ovarian cancer. "Don't let them get away with killing Johnny," she pleaded with Donna. Over time, Donna filled dozens of notebooks with information about the case and called Alton police periodically to remind them that a killer was still at large. "All the police would say was that they would keep an eye on the case," she says.

Though police brass claimed budgetary concerns forced them to keep the case on a back burner, Donna was not the only one who wanted to see it reactivated. After becoming a police detective in 1988, Mick Dooley, who had once been in a Boy Scout troop led by Hale, studied the old case file in his free time. "I was astonished that no one had been arrested," said Dooley. "It was a classic love-triangle case."

Last July, city officials finally authorized funding for a new investigation after Donna persuaded the Alton Telegraph to publish an article about the unsolved murder. Dooley and his partner, David Hayes, got their first big break when they located Hale's daughter April Kay, 41, a homemaker, in Washington State. Estranged from her mother, April promised to testify about allegedly incriminating comments she said she had overheard Wells make after he moved to Colorado with Jean, who had sold her home in Alton and married Wells on New Year's Eve 1968. Having Wells as a stepfather was an ordeal for April, who suspected, she says, that "I was living in the same house with the man who killed my father." But her sister Cynthia Paytosh, 36, a home-maker in Castle Rock, Colo., believes Wells is innocent. "This is all built on rumor and gossip, and it is tearing apart my family," says Cynthia.

Divorced from Wells since 1976, Jean, now 59, is a housekeeper and school-bus driver in Parker, Colo. When questioned by Dooley and Hayes, she insisted that neither she nor Wells had anything to do with Hale's murder. The weekend Johnny Hale was killed, she was away on a Girl Scout camping trip. But police say she is still under suspicion in the case and is expected to be called as a witness at Wells's trial.

Wells, 68, who was working as a handyman in Aurora, Colo., and had been taking some law classes in his spare time, surprised the detectives when he agreed to be interviewed without an attorney present. "He thought he could talk without incriminating himself," says Dooley. "But he talked himself into a hole." Contradicting statements he had given to the police years ago, Wells admitted having an affair with Jean before the murder. He also tripped up when asked about the blood-flecked shoes found in his apartment. "He said the blood on the shoes could have come from camping, but the shoes were wing tips," says Dooley. Susan Jensen, the trial prosecutor, says, "Now it is a much more prosecutable case."

Wells was arrested exactly 25 years and one day after Hale's murder. That afternoon, Donna looked heavenward and shouted, "See, Mom, I told you I'd do it! Now you and Uncle Johnny can rest, and I can get on with my life!"

DAVID GROGAN
CIVIA TAMARKIN in Alton

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