Strong Convictions

UPDATED 03/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST

When a survivor calls, Jane Alexander lets her vent her frustration. "How are you doing?" she asks, then listens silently. After hanging up, Alexander sighs. "That was the widow of a police officer," she says, adding that the man who had shot the caller's husband 15 times in April 1998 has yet to be tried for the crime. "They stuck the killer in a mental hospital," she says, "and he just sort of vanished." As Alexander knows well, sometimes the system needs a good, swift kick to make it work. "You've got to get mad," she says.

Alexander, 77, has been honing her anger ever since her aunt Gertrude McCabe was murdered in 1983. In a bizarre twist she became convinced that her own boyfriend, Tom O'Donnell, was the killer. Driven to find the truth, she spent 13 years gathering evidence that resulted in his 1996 conviction. Her sad, curiously empowering odyssey is chronicled in a new book, Citizen Jane, by James Dalessandro and David Mehnert, which is being developed into a TV movie by CBS.

The experience also inspired Alexander to cofound Citizens Against Homicide, a nationwide group that helps families of murder victims motivate authorities to solve the crimes. "I thank God every day that Jane came into my life," says Jacque MacDonald, whose own efforts to get her daughter's murderer captured and convicted came-to fruition last June after one of Alexander's billboard campaigns prompted a tipster to come forward. "It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease," says Mike Yore, a police detective in Palo Alto, Calif., who recently cracked another murder case with Alexander's help. "Well, Jane is the squeakmaster."

For most of her life the woman they call Citizen Jane didn't have much to complain about. Married to Al Alexander, a successful San Francisco banker, she raised six children in a spacious five-bedroom home in suburban San Anselmo. But when Al died in 1977, his wife lost her focus. "I had enough money," she says. "So I had nothing to do but work in the yard." Then Tom O'Donnell, now 74, arrived.

A longtime friend of Al's, O'Donnell called out of the blue in December 1980, and after a brief visit blossomed into a romance, Alexander's friends were delighted. "Tom was one of those pull-out-the-chair, close-the-car-door-for-you gentlemen," says Alexander's friend Vaux Toneff. "Jane blossomed in this." Naturally, Alexander introduced her boyfriend to her 86-year-old Aunt Gert, who had raised young Jane after her parents divorced when she was a baby. She also trusted him to look after her finances. "I had never balanced a checkbook in my life," she says. When O'Donnell suggested she take out a second mortgage on her home to support his many business schemes until a $1.2 million trust, which he claimed to have, would mature in 1984, Alexander agreed. "He was good," she says, shaking her head. "So good." Their affluent life also seemed wonderful—until the day that would alter her life forever.

On Oct. 23, 1983, the police phoned with terrible news: Aunt Gert had been murdered. At first, Alexander had no reason to suspect O'Donnell of committing the brutal crime. Even when he skipped town 10 months later, writing in a letter that he was threatened by former business partners, she was less concerned about the $10,000 he took than with his safety. "I was scared something was going to happen to him," she says.

Alexander's fears took a new shape when she realized O'Donnell's financial "management" had nearly bankrupted her. When a police investigator new to the case told her he suspected O'Donnell had been responsible for Aunt Gert's death, she eventually tracked her former boyfriend to Las Vegas and had him I arrested for defrauding her. O'Donnell was convicted on the fraud 5 charges in 1986 and sentenced to nearly four years in prison. But with 1 only circumstantial evidence in the murder case, Alexander couldn't convince a prosecutor to indict him for that crime.

Long since drained of her inheritance, Alexander moved to a one-room apartment in 1986 and took a job at a retirement home. In her free time she worked with Jeff Ouimet, a sympathetic police investigator, hoping to turn up more clues. Five years later they had produced two crucial pieces of evidence: A nephew of 'Donnell's said that his uncle had told him of Aunt Gert's death a day before the police knew about it, and a photo that revealed O'Donnell had altered the crime scene between police visits.

Arrested a second time in March 1992, O'Donnell—who had been living with another wealthy widow in Los Angeles—was convicted of first-degree murder four years later and given a 25-years-to-life sentence. "Without Jane it wouldn't have happened," says Grant Cunningham, an investigator for the Santa Clara district attorney's office. "She got hold of it and wouldn't let go."

Figuring" her experience could be a valuable lesson for other crime victims, Alexander joined with Jan Miller, now 55, a real estate appraiser whose daughter had been murdered, to form Citizens Against Homicide in 1994. The 2,500-member, nonprofit organization uses billboards to raise public awareness of unsolved crimes, wages letter-writing campaigns to block paroles of convicted killers and lobbies investigators to press for action in stalled murder cases. "We try to help the families and assist the police," says Alexander, who is eager to point out that she supports the police even when she feels frustrated by them: "I always say, 'Don't get mad at the cops. They're your only hope.' "

Although their results are often incremental, the group's efforts have helped solve at least two dozen crimes, including the murder of Abigail Niebauer, whose grisly shotgun death in 1985 in Palo Alto at the hands of her husband had once been labeled an accident. "That case was dead until Jane brought it back to life," says Palo Alto detective Yore, who saw James Niebauer convicted of first-degree murder in December 1998.

Alexander also has another passion: making sure O'Donnell never gets paroled. She plans to attend his first hearing, which won't occur until 2007. "He won't get out as long as I'm alive," she vows. "And I work out every day."

Peter Ames Carlin
Johnny Dodd in San Anselmo

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