Durham County

She’s serving a life sentence for killing her husband. But she goes out to lunch?

A Lee County deputy sheriff leads Barbara Stager out of the courtroom in 1989 after Stager was given the death penalty for the murder of her second husband, Russ Stager.
A Lee County deputy sheriff leads Barbara Stager out of the courtroom in 1989 after Stager was given the death penalty for the murder of her second husband, Russ Stager. News & Observer file photo

When Barbara Stager was sentenced in a Lee County courtroom 28 years ago for the fatal shooting of her husband while he slept in their bed, another woman at the hearing was overwhelmed with emotion.

Russ Stager, the popular Durham High School football coach found bloodied and near death in his Durham home on Feb. 1, 1988, had confided in his first wife shortly before then that he feared for his safety.

He had begun to question whether Barbara Stager, his wife of seven years, had a hand in her previous husband’s death. Had Larry Ford died in an accidental shooting, as she alleged, or was there something more sinister there – a homicide for which she was never charged?

Lynn Snow, who had been married to Russ Stager for five years and developed an amicable relationship with him since their divorce, had promised her ex-husband that she would speak for him if the unthinkable happened.

Barbara Stager had been described alternately as aBlack Widow killer” with two dead husbands and a plot to inherit their wealth or a devoted wife, mother and misunderstood church woman.

Snow believed the former, and though she was conflicted about the Lee County jury’s recommended death sentence and the heartache she felt for Stager’s two sons and the parents of both the convicted and victim gathered in the courtroom, Snow was at peace when the trial resulted in a first-degree murder conviction and death sentence.

“I felt like I had fulfilled my promise to Russ,” Snow, a Wake County resident, said recently.

But things changed, and now Snow is struggling to keep her first husband’s widow from gaining a new lease on life.

Not only was Stager’s death sentence overturned on appeal, a new jury settled on a life sentence that has made her eligible for parole since 2009.

Lunching beyond prison

Snow recently found out that Stager, 68, has been granted privileges to go out to lunch outside the walls of the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh as long as she is with a prison-approved sponsor.

“It just seems bizarre to me that our society supports a first-degree murderer going out to nice lunches and being treated to that,” Snow said. “On the one hand, the state says first-degree murderers will be punished to the full extent allowed by law and on the other hand, the state rewards her with lunch outings and grooms her for release. This defies logic. It’s like one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing.”

It was a friend, not prison officials, who informed Snow of Stager’s expanded privileges. It was in the summer, and the friend mentioned in passing that she had seen Stager at a Wake County restaurant.

“I don’t know what restaurant it was,” Snow said. “I don’t think it was fast food that they were eating. I heard it was a nice, sit-down place.”

Jerry Higgins, a spokesman at the state Department of Public Safety, said Stager, indeed, has the freedom to be out and about as long as she is accompanied by a sponsor who has been certified through the department’s Community Leave Program.

The program is designed to give North Carolina prison inmates a taste of the world they’ve been locked out of and prepare them for life in a society that more than likely has changed while they were incarcerated.

“If they’re eligible for parole,” Higgins said, “we have to prepare them as if they might get out.”

Efforts to get an interview with Stager were unsuccessful. Prison officials, citing privacy laws, said they could not provide information about who her sponsor is or where they go, without Stager’s permission.

One of the changes that has happened in the nearly three decades since the prison doors first clanked behind Stager is countrywide criminal justice system reform that led to fewer and fewer prisoners being eligible for parole.

North Carolina implemented a new structured sentencing law on Oct. 1, 1994 that applied to all felony and misdemeanor crimes except driving while impaired that were committed on or after that date. A sentencing commission developed recommended ranges of punishment for offense and offender categories, set priorities for the use of correctional resources and developed a model to estimate correctional populations.

Under the new sentencing law, most prisoners no longer would be eligible to have their sentences cut short through the parole system in which a panel of commissioners reviews each case and decides whether early release should be granted.

As of Nov. 30, 2016, there were 2,208 people serving prison sentences from before the structured sentencing laws went into effect, according to a January report by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. Sixty-one of those inmates have been sentenced to death, but 1,733 have life sentences with eligibility for parole.

“It is more than enough that Barbara gets to live out her natural life,” Snow wrote in a letter to Ken Lassiter, director of the state’s 55 prisons and more than 36,500 inmates. “I understand that she has received a quality college education courtesy of the State of NC. She spends her time watching television and knitting afghans, etc. in prison. The State has seen fit to allow her to leave prison and go with others outside of prison to lunch in nice restaurants. The state of North Carolina has given her these huge gifts. What gift did Barbara give to her husband, the man she promised to love and care for, the man who adopted her two young children? She coldly shot a bullet into his brain while he slept.”

Two stories, two deaths

Twenty-nine years have passed since Snow walked into a Durham police officer’s office with a letter for Durham detective Ricky Buchanan. Her parents had been at her house to greet her as she arrived home from work the day that Russ Stager died. They heard about their former son-in-law on the noon news. There was an accident, Snow recalls her parents telling her. What happened, she had asked. A car wreck?

No, a gunshot from a .25-caliber pistol killed Stager.

Barbara Stager’s initial story for the first emergency responders who arrived at their house shortly after 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 1, 1988, was that her son had gotten up in the early morning to go to the bathroom and she worried the noise would startle her husband out of his deep sleep. As the emergency workers tried to stem the flow of blood rushing from Russ Stager’s head and mouth, Barbara Stager kept repeating that she wished her husband didn’t have guns, that she was scared of them, that she wished he wouldn’t keep them under his pillow.

Buchanan, a sergeant in the Durham County Sheriff’s Department at the time and lead homicide detective, was mulling that scenario when Snow handed him the letter she had written the night before, anxiously awaiting their meeting and unable to sleep.

Barbara Stager had grown up in Durham, and many in the city where the pungent aroma of tobacco once hung thick in the air, had trouble believing that the Northern High graduate, a seemingly shy, hardworking student shaped by the Baptist faith, was anything more than the woman who worked in real estate, bank and beverage distributor offices.

“Russell and I were married for approximately five years and after the usual distance a divorce brings, we became very close friends and confidants,” Snow said in the letter to Buchanan. “That is why I can share the following information with you. Russell feared for his safety with his wife Barbara. Russell no longer believed that her first husband’s wound was accidental. He, too, died from a gunshot wound and Barbara was the only person with him. Russell always said that if anything happened to him that he would want me to remember his telling me that.”

In her letter, Snow informed the detective of money problems plaguing the Stagers, a possible affair, an insurance settlement for Stager’s previous husband’s death, and her own doubts that Russ, who had been in the Army reserves for at least a decade, would have slept with a loaded gun under his pillow.

Indeed, he had kept a gun in the house when Snow was married to him. But in her letter, she told the detective, she saw it maybe twice. He kept it in a drawer, unloaded.

The Stager story unfolded in the days before Court TV and other cable shows routinely broadcast cases of high interest. It continues to captivate trial trackers around the globe. It has spawned a true-crime book, documentaries and made-for-TV dramas from here to Japan.

The trial was moved to Lee County upon the request of Stager’s attorneys, who complained that all the publicity in Durham had made it unlikely their client would get a fair trial there.

The 1989 trial was filled with treachery, adultery accusations, greed, love and a tape that prosecutors said was the victim foreshadowing his death, as well as details about Stager’s previous husband’s death. The death sentence was overturned on a technicality, based on instructions given to the jurors who recommended capital punishment.

Relentless watch

As the convicted killer fights for a new life outside prison, Snow, Russ Stager’s mother, the lead Durham detective on the case, and the prosecutor fire off letter after letter to try to persuade the parole commission and prison officials that Stager’s sentence of life should be served in prison.

They fought against her efforts in August to gain even greater freedoms than the privilege to go out to lunch. Prison spokespeople did not reveal what Stager wanted to do, citing privacy laws, but said the program gives inmates the right to go to work or do other activities as long as they are approved, the inmate is with a sponsor and stays away from family of the victims.

Snow and the others opposed to Stager’s release are steeling themselves for the parole commission’s next review of her case in August 2018, reviews that have happened every three years since 2009 when Stager first became eligible for parole. She has been turned down on her previous three attempts.

Though the monitoring of a woman they know by her prison number is not always foremost on their minds, it has created a bond between Russ Stager’s mother, his first wife, his sister, detective Buchanan and prosecutor Eric Evenson, the former assistant Durham district attorney who tried the case.

They rally each other when they hear of potential changes to her imprisonment, and they now find themselves fighting against Stager’s attempts to get more time on the outside.

“I am the mother of Russell Stager,” Doris Stager, 91, wrote in an August letter to prison officials. “His wife, Barbara Stager, Inmate#0386206, shot him in the back of his head as he lay sleeping in the bedroom they shared. I beg you not to give her the privilege of leaving the prison. ... I pray she is never released as I am confident she would murder another husband for his insurance...”

Evenson added his thoughts in a letter, too.

“This case has focused a spotlight on our criminal justice system in NC, as it has been the subject of a made for TV movie, a book entitled “Before He Wakes” by Jerry Bledsoe, Forensic Files, American Justice, City Confidential, Sally Jesse Rafael and Yolanda TV shows,” Evenson said in his letter. “It has also been the subject of international attention, as it has been shown in a television documentary in Japan. She has been appropriately denied parole 3 times, by our parole commission. In April of this year, she was charged by prison authorities with disobeying orders in prison, found guilty, and given 30 days in segregation. …It is my sincere belief that granting this custody reduction would be a mistake.”

Stager has a job in prison, according to prison officials, and public records show her next custody review is set for Feb 1, the 30th anniversary of her husband’s shooting.

She’s had three infractions while incarcerated; the most recent was issued on April 10 for disobeying an order.

Snow says she supports the idea that prisons should focus on more than punishment of the inmates and make rehabilitation a part of their mission.

But Snow says she thinks there are some inmates, and she includes Stager as one, who should never be released.

“I think she is such an evil person,” Snow said. “She’s very smart, cunning and extremely capable. I would not put anything past her.”

Buchanan, who has retired, echoed the sentiment in a phone interview. “She’s a killer. That’s the bottom line.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1