A Terrible Beauty

Faye Wenell was the life of the party--bright and artistic, with a smile you couldn't resist. But that was before the bodies began to turn up.

When police found Dora Maria Silva's body in June 1996, little was left but her bones. The corpse was lying in bed, the officers' report noted, "with hands above the head, palms facing upward. The lower portion of the anatomy was covered by a sheet. There was a significant infestation of maggots." The medical examiner found that a slender bone in Silva's throat, the hyoid, had been broken in two places. This meant someone had strangled her, probably by closing two hands around her neck.

Police also observed several piles of human feces on the floor in the bedroom. Perhaps because the apartment--the top floor of a slumping triplex in Duluth's East Hillside neighborhood--was hot, and the smell unbearable, investigators didn't bother to collect samples. Instead, they moved the body out and brought in fans.

Police quickly came up with two possible suspects: Ron Huff, the man with whom Silva had been living, and Faye Wenell, the woman Silva had left for Huff. Both had been arrested in domestic-violence incidents involving Silva. Prosecutors eventually settled on Huff, in part because of an officer's report that Huff told him he might have accidentally killed Silva while drunk. Wenell, police concluded, had been in Arizona at the time of the death. It looked like an open-and-shut case.

Polly Becker

Until another body turned up. On February 18, 1998, police discovered a man named Michael Grube dead in a Duluth motel room registered to Faye Wenell. He had been strangled and left lying on the floor faceup, partly covered with a jacket. Police noted that "there was a fecal deposit on the bathroom floor, fecal matter smeared on Grube's clothing, and fecal smudges and deposits on the carpeting near the body." The name Maria was found scrawled on a mirror in the room.

Within a half-hour of the estimated time of Grube's death, police found Faye Wenell drunk and unconscious in a booth in a restaurant next-door to the hotel. She had Grube's eyeglasses, wallet, and watch; a hair officers believed could be the dead man's was stuck to her shoe with "what we take to be blood and fecal matter."

Wenell was never charged in that homicide, either. But, in an odd twist of legal procedure, she would spend the following months preparing to testify about both murders: Attorneys for Ron Huff were arguing that the similarities between the two deaths proved Wenell was the killer.

Three days after Wenell finally told her story to a jury, Duluth police had yet another body on their hands. This one was found facedown at the bottom of a sand pile in a lakefront lot used to store construction equipment. The face was red and swollen and there were stab wounds on the head and neck. Police found remnants of what looked like a pool cue at the scene, along with a broken steak knife. Faye Wenell, an autopsy determined, had bled to death.

Though the killings made headlines in Duluth, they drew little notice outside the port city. But in the south Minneapolis watering holes, new-age cafés, and artists' studios that were once Wenell's hangouts, there have been whispers: What happened, people have asked, to the beautiful, self-assured young painter who attended Macalester College, created murals for the Seward Cafe, and showed up at parties with a succession of beautiful lovers? How did she turn, within a few years, into a hulking crone whose bizarre threats terrified West Bank barflies? And how was that woman transformed into the devastated, defiant character Duluth police and court records describe?

Most of the people who knew Faye Wenell are reluctant to discuss their memories of her. Some have gone on to build lives far removed from the circles they traveled with her. Others would prefer not to besmirch the image of a woman they prefer to remember in happier times. Some are simply scared, a fear that seems to persist beyond death.


After Faye Wenell was killed, her sister Kelly visited some of the places where she'd spent her final years. It wasn't a long tour; all the scenes that led up to Wenell's murder were played out within a few blocks of each other on the ragged fringe of downtown Duluth.

She went to the construction-equipment storage lot where Faye had been found and counted the paces to the outcropping that falls away into Lake Superior. Would the people in the quaint lakefront houses just a few yards west have heard car doors slamming as the body was dumped out? Would late-night strollers on the Lakewalk--a manicured path designed to draw tourists to the city's shoreline--have seen the lights? The police report didn't hold any clues; all it said was that Faye's socks were clean, suggesting she was already dead when she was dumped in the sand pile.

Just up the hill from the lot sat the Olde World Inn boarding house, where Faye had rented a room. It was a short walk from there to the Voyageur Lakewalk Inn, the tiny, tidy motel where Michael Grube had died, and to the liquor store where Faye had once been heard yelling out the name of her murdered lover Maria.

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