Diabolique, American Style
(“A Welcome Intrusion,” Forensic Files)
If I ever brought a guy like Mark Winger home to meet my parents, they would have died.
“A nuclear engineer for the state of Illinois,” I can hear my mother saying in awe. A graduate degree and solid job would be a nice parcel of news to relay to the extended family in Miami Beach.
“He must have some great benefits if he works for the government,” my dad would chime in.
Mr. Wonderful. Yes, a Mark Winger would mean all that plus a wedding at which the band would assuredly play “Hava Nagila” and someday grandchildren who would hunt for the afikomen.
Winger also seemed to have a nice personality — mild-mannered and friendly. And to top it off, he was, according to some reports, a first cousin of the actress Deborah Winger.
Unbeknownst to Donnah Brown and her approving parents, however, Mark was no prize.
Donnah, a medical technician, married him in 1989 and, by 1995, he was having a secret affair with her best friend. The Wingers had recently adopted a baby girl named Bailey, and Mark’s apparent plan was to get rid of Donnah, marry her friend DeAnn Schultz, and keep the baby for the two of them to raise.
To accomplish his goals, he devised the most foolproof-seeming murder scheme ever portrayed by Forensic Files.
Favorite half hour. “A Welcome Intrusion” is my favorite Forensic Files episode of all because it illustrates how a) the surface only tells half of the story, b) even the most stable-appearing family is just a house of cards, and c) people who get away with murder — literally or figuratively — just can’t stop pushing their luck.
The story of Mark Winger’s crime was also featured on 48 Hours in “An Invitation to a Murder.” It included interviews with Donnah’s mother and step-father, Sara Jane and Ira Drescher, who supported their son-in-law up until the evidence grew impossible to refute.
And later, even when it turned out Mark Winger was plotting against Ira, the way that the couple seemed utterly without vindictiveness toward Winger was admirable.
But all this is getting ahead of the story. Here’s what happened:
Winger, who up until 1995 had been an in-law-pleasing pillar of society, grabbed a chance to put a diabolical plot in motion after his wife’s chance encounter with a young man suffering from psychiatric problems.
Roger Harrington, 27, an airport shuttle driver, had driven recklessly and muttered some disturbing thoughts during a ride Donnah took from Lambert International Airport in St. Louis to the couple’s home in Springfield, Illinois. At Mark’s urging, she wrote a letter of complaint to the shuttle service owner.
The company suspended Harrington.
Deadly ruse. Mark Winger, 32, then lured Harrington to the Winger home on August 29, 1995, under the pretense of wanting to smooth things over. When Harrington showed up, Winger shot him in the head.
Donnah, 32, ran into the room to find out what the commotion was. Winger beat her about the head with a claw hammer.
Then he called 911 and, doing his best impression of a hysterical grief-stricken husband, blamed the carnage on Harrington.
“I just found this man in my house. He beat my wife…He’s lying on the floor with a bullet in his head…,” Winger said in a breathless state of rehearsed melodrama. “Yes, I shot him — he was killing my wife!”
Both victims died of their injuries without speaking.
They bought it. Winger wanted the world to believe that Harrington was a deranged malcontent who invaded his home to seek revenge — by bludgeoning Donnah to death for making him lose his job — and that Winger shot Harrington to halt the attack.
Winger’s plan worked. The authorities and the media believed him. Shortly after the crime, a Sun Sentinel article by David Nitkin reported:
“‘How [Harrington] got into the house, we don’t know,’ Springfield Lt. Bob Shipman said…Mark Winger was exercising in the basement when he heard his wife’s body thud to the floor…[Mark Winger] grabbed a 45-caliber pistol and shot Harrington fatally in the head. Police said Harrington had a history of mental illness, and that Mark Winger shot in self-defense and will not face any charges.”
Although it’s not clear whether Winger knew this in advance, Springfield Police Det. Charlie Cox was already familiar with Harrington. Years earlier, Cox had to break up at least one physical fight involving Harrington and Harrington’s then-wife. (Cox owned the trailer park where the couple lived.)
It established a pattern of violence, giving police all the more reason to accept Winger’s story without question.
A beautiful mourning. Winger received $25,000 from a fund for crime victims and a $150,000 life insurance payout, according to a Chicago Tribune story by Linda Rockey. The grieving husband wrote a letter to a local paper thanking residents for their support during his ordeal.
He resumed his life, hiring a nanny, Rebecca Simic, to care for Bailey. He married Simic (instead of DeAnn Schultz), converted to Christianity for his new bride, and had a baby with her. The couple also adopted two children.
The Dreschers stayed loyal to Mark Winger, and they remained part of one another’s lives.
But Winger, apparently feeling that $175,000 wasn’t payment enough for his homicidal deeds, sued the shuttle company. Bootheel Area Rapid Transportation, however, wasn’t going to just hand over the millions Winger demanded, and began its own investigation. Springfield police reopened the case in 1999.
Denouement. Evidence of the deception trickled in. DeAnn Schultz told investigators about her relationship with Mark and that he had talked to her about wanting Donnah dead, although at the time she didn’t take him seriously.
Lead detective Doug Williamson, a member of the Springfield Police Department who had always harbored doubts about Winger’s narrative, now had a second chance to examine evidence. The original placement of the bodies — visible in rediscovered Polaroids — contradicted parts of Winger’s story to police.
After reviewing Winger’s 911 call — which picked up the sound of Harrington moaning in pain — and talking to a neighbor who had heard gunshots, investigators concluded that Winger hadn’t immediately fired his gun twice at Harrington as he’d claimed but rather waited 5 minutes in between shots.
“My baby’s crying, my baby’s crying. I’ve gotta go,” he told the operator on the 911 tape before hanging up and using the gun a second time to finish off the already incapacitated Harrington.
Hard cell. Investigators also turned their attentions toward a note found in Harrington’s Oldsmobile. It listed the Wingers’ address and “4:30,” suggesting that, rather that showing up unexpected, Harrington was attending a prearranged meeting. Harrington’s roommates said they remembered his receiving at least one phone call from Winger.
In 2001, Winger was indicted, arrested, and held on $10 million bond. He asked his friend Jeffrey Gelman to put up the money, but the successful Florida real estate developer declined. In 2002, a jury convicted Winger of two counts of premeditated murder.
Now Mark Winger was once again a great catch — this time for the criminal justice system. He received life in jail without parole.
Oh, there’s more. That’s where the Forensic Files episode, made in 2003, ended, but Mark Winger stayed busy dreaming up other, even more complicated murders that he hoped to phone in from his new home at Pontiac Correctional Center in Illinois.
Update: Reader Part 2 of the Mark Winger story