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A Terrible Beauty

Polly Becker

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.

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.

Before she left town, Kelly had a drink at the Red Lion, the bar where police believe Faye Wenell met her killers. The place is most charitably characterized as a dive: What of its tiled façade hasn't crumbled away is chipped, and the sign spelling out the bar's name in Old English-style letters is faded and dirty. Inside, the metal seems to have washed away from the wall mirrors, and the tables wedged between the pinball and video machines have lost the topmost layer of their Formica veneer. Little about the Red Lion, Kelly Wenell says, would have appealed to the sister she grew up with.

Faye Annette Wenell was born in Wayzata on Christmas Day 1955 to Paul Wenell and Patricia Rock Wenell. Her father was white, her mother Oneida and Ojibwe. "She was tiny and beautiful," her mother wrote in a package of verses and recollections she sent to City Pages for this story. "Her father wanted to name her Jane. I don't think so--the child who shared my body would not have such a common name. Faye Anne was his second choice. He had a sense of humor--'We can call her Café-Inn.'"

Faye had five siblings. At times during her childhood, the family lived in Cass Lake on the Leech Lake Reservation, and in Minneapolis near the intersection of Bloomington and Lake. She would later tell friends that her father left when she was a child; Kelly--Faye's junior by ten years--won't discuss that, saying she doesn't remember much about the family's circumstances during her childhood.

What is clear in her mind is the picture of a healthy, vibrant Faye. "She was my idol," Kelly says. "She was so happy and full of life. I would just look up at my big sister and think, 'Wow, she's so cool.' She used to go to dance contests. She had these bell-bottoms with bells so big they looked like trees--some of them with Tweety Bird on them." Sometimes Faye took Kelly dancing, usually to the basement of a church near Lyndale and Franklin avenues in Minneapolis. "The music would be blaring--Fleetwood Mac--and everyone would be so happy," Kelly recalls.

Some facets of Faye's personality were clear from the start. There doesn't seem to have been a time when she didn't paint and draw, and it was understood early on that she was a lesbian. "No one ever sat me down and said, 'I've got something to tell you about your sister,'" Kelly Wenell says. "When she was young and she was healthy, she was happy with it." Faye often brought her girlfriends home to meet her family; Kelly recalls them as a succession of women so beautiful they could have been movie stars.

Faye's weren't the kind of anonymous good looks that sell eyeliner for Maybelline or bras for Victoria's Secret: At nearly six feet tall, she had the proportions of an Amazon, along with dark eyes, jet-black hair, and a gaze as direct as a man's. The air around her seemed to bristle with energy. "She was in love with herself when she was younger," recalls Kelly. "When she was young and it'd be summer and she'd come in in a tank top, she'd say, 'Do you want to come to [a former lover's]?' We'd jump in her VW van and go." Faye was a regular in the south Minneapolis hippie scene, hanging out at the Seward Cafe (where, her family says, she painted a mural) and becoming a vegetarian before it was fashionable. Among her favorite nightspots, says Kelly, was the bar at the Black Forest Inn on Nicollet Avenue.

When Faye was 20, her older brother Royal was shot and killed outside a bar on that same stretch of Nicollet. Faye took his death hard, according to Kelly, and responded by chiseling him a headstone.

A few years later, Faye started attending Macalester College in St. Paul, where she enthusiastically jumped into anthropology and journalism classes. But she quit after her sophomore year, according to the college's registrar; friends say she gave up in the face of conflict and academic frustration. She struggled with depression and talked about feeling rejected by people who found her direct manner uncomfortable.

"People started reacting by just staying away from her," Kelly recalls. "Everyone was too busy with their own mortgage, their own bills. Her depression didn't seem to be anything I could help. I'd eat with her when she would come around. I'd tell her to start taking care of herself again. She was probably drinking, but I didn't see it."  

In 1984 Faye had an accident while driving her van alone and, according to friends and family, drunk. She ended up with steel pins in her legs and a head injury that qualified her for Social Security disability payments. But it was the damage to her body that bothered her the most. "Faye couldn't wear jewelry," Kelly Wenell says. "Her skin was too sensitive. [The pins] really bugged her. She just got really super-skinny. I've heard a lot of people say it was a turning point for her."

It was at about the same time that those who knew her say Faye seemed to become two different people--the flirting, dancing, laughing life of the party when she was sober, aggressive and confrontational when she was not. Many, including her sister, couldn't cope with the hostility alcohol provoked in her. "She would come up and say, 'Oh hi, what's new with you, why aren't you talking to me?'" Kelly remembers. "One time I told her to knock it off and she walked off and then stopped and came back and said, 'No, I won't knock it off.'

"The pain of the rejection is what made her so intense," Kelly adds. "She started to wear down and the hurt showed in her eyes. After a while she just said, 'This is the way I am.' Not a lot of people do that."

 

Without her family's knowledge, Faye Wenell was also earning a reputation as a batterer. Police records indicate that she was involved in abusive relationships with other women as early as age 22. By the late 1980s, restraining orders started popping up on her record. One woman claimed Wenell broke into her Minneapolis apartment, waited for her to come home from work, then started choking her. Another former lover told police investigators that Wenell beat and threatened her and her children when they lived in Tucson. She told police she never filed charges because Wenell left town.

Still, Wenell's electric presence continued to draw people to her. Peg Wagner, a Duluth massage therapist, met her in 1990 at a Rainbow Gathering in northern Minnesota. Wagner says it was impossible not to notice Wenell among the crowd of latter-day hippies. "She had a smile that would blind you," Wagner recalls. "I had never seen anyone like her. Mythology seemed to surround her at all times."

The two stayed friends for the rest of Wenell's life. "Some people warned me about her and her alcohol problems," Wagner recalls, "and so I laid down some real clear boundaries." Rule number one: When Wenell was drinking, Wagner would not spend time with her.

During the nine years the two were friends, Wagner estimates Wenell attempted five times to get treatment for her drinking problem, in everything from conventional treatment centers to programs aimed at Native Americans. According to Wagner, she had her longest period of sobriety--nine months--after attending a program geared toward gays and lesbians.

But as her problems became more obvious, Wenell became estranged from her onetime supporters. Wagner says many Native Americans were uncomfortable with her lesbianism, while lesbians rejected her as a batterer. "There wasn't a safe place for her to be in the world," Wagner concludes. "Because of her combination of problems, she didn't fit anywhere."

In the early 1990s, Wenell stopped producing the complex, realistic paintings she'd created in earlier years and began making cards and T-shirts to sell at art fairs. Most of them contained simple line drawings of women; some pieces contained direct references to domestic abuse and alcoholism. In all of the drawings, the women were faceless.

Wagner recalls finding two sketches in 1996 that in retrospect seem prophetic. One showed a female figure with a crown on her head, surrounded by friends, money, a rainbow, a sea with dolphins, and a tipi--the life Wenell wanted, according to Wagner. The other featured a woman bound, hanged, and stabbed, flanked by a snake and a bottle with the words die bitch written on the label.

Wagner describes Wenell's behavior as a vicious cycle: "Rejection was a major hot button with her. Her rough-and-tough exterior was her shield. Over the years she became bolder at testing people to see whether they would accept her for who she was. She understood she was frightening people. It was deliberate."

Wenell quit seeking help in battling her demons when she met Maria Silva. "It's my perspective that she met her match in Maria," says Wagner. "Somebody as abusive and alcoholic as she was."  

Kelly Wenell says that when her sister introduced her to Silva, she couldn't get over what a stunning pair the two made. Silva, who told people she was of Mayan descent, was several inches shorter than Faye and more curvaceous, with long, wavy black hair and bow-shaped lips. Faye told friends that Silva had married young in her native California and had been held virtually captive by an abusive husband. She had an adult daughter who lived with her mother in the border city of Calexico. Like Wenell, Silva frequently drank to excess, had a history of depression, and survived on disability payments from Social Security.

The two hadn't been together long when Wenell began referring to Silva as her wife; the two sealed their bond with matching silver rings. "She loved Maria, there's no doubt about that," says Peg Wagner. "They had some good times. They both had sober times together. They'd go hang out and have dinner with friends."

But those good times were punctuated by violence--fights, according to Wagner, in which both women did their share of battering. At various points, she says, Silva gave Wenell a black eye, a stab wound to the neck, a bite injury to the ear. Still, among the myriad legal documents spawned by the relationship, none cite Wenell as the complainant; all refer to her as the batterer.

Wenell's first arrest for assaulting Silva appears to have occurred in June 1994, just months after they met. By New Year's there were four more. In 1995 police arrested Wenell at least 11 more times for beating Silva; one of those incidents took place in a St. Louis Park hospital, where, according to police reports, Silva was being treated for injuries inflicted by Wenell.

In July of that year, both women were arrested for disorderly conduct in Bemidji when a fight they were having in the middle of a busy street scared passersby. Wenell was arrested two more times during the next four days for harassing Silva, who had successfully petitioned for a restraining order against her. Two months later came the incident that severed the relationship for good.

According to police reports, Wenell barricaded Silva in a room at Duluth's Seaway Motel and beat her for two or three days. Police found them both passed out from drinking, Silva covered with dried blood. Doctors at St. Luke's Hospital cataloged her injuries: cuts and scrapes on the face, fractured sinuses, a ruptured eardrum. Wenell was ultimately convicted of assault; by the time she was released from jail several months later, Silva was living with Ron Huff, a Green Bay man with homicide and assault convictions on his record. According to Wagner, Wenell was upset that she had done time while Silva hadn't. Others say she was beside herself with jealousy.

Whatever the case, Wenell defied Silva's restraining order and found her way into the rooming house where the couple lived. Exasperated from arresting her yet again, Duluth police offered her a bus ticket out of town, according to Peg Wagner, who urged her to go: If she and Silva continued to run into each other, she argued, one of them was going to wind up dead.

In February 1996, according to police reports in Arizona, Wenell got off the bus in Bisbee, an artists' colony some 100 miles southeast of Tucson. During her few days in town, she had a number of run-ins with local police officers, one of whom described her as "a large woman who was dressed in western wear"--long duster coat, big belt buckle, Stetson hat. She told him she was on her way "home" to New Mexico.

Wenell next surfaced in Tucson, where her record contains arrests for a series of small-time offenses including drunk and disorderly conduct, street fights, and drunk driving. Police reported that Wenell used several aliases, sometimes introducing herself as Maria Silva.

 

Back in Duluth, the real Silva was falling into a familiar pattern with her new lover. In March 1996 Ron Huff was charged with assaulting Silva after the couple had a fight about Wenell. On June 1 he was arrested again, this time for attacking Silva at a neighbor's house. She ended up with six stitches in her upper lip, and told police she wanted charges pressed.

Two days later Huff was released from jail. That afternoon, neighbors would later tell police, he was in the alley behind the apartment he and Silva shared, ranting that he "caught [her] with some other guy." Other witnesses said they saw the couple downtown, walking hand in hand. Several friends reported seeing the two during the next couple of days, though the details of those accounts grew increasingly sketchy.  

On June 22--at least two weeks after Silva was last seen alive--a neighbor noticed a bad smell and decided to check on the couple's apartment. Inside he found Silva's badly decomposed corpse.

In addition to the feces on the floor, the crime scene yielded several curious details. For one thing, the doors of the third-floor unit were deadbolted--meaning that whoever killed Silva had locked the door upon leaving. Duluth's chilly lakefront climate had helped preserve the groceries in the apartment even as Silva's body rotted under its sheet: "The house was remarkably orderly," police noted, "and it was noticed that although the body appeared to have been there for weeks, there was a partially consumed loaf of bread on the kitchen table that did not have mold on it. There were also a number of bananas in a bowl on top of the refrigerator that still had portions of yellow showing on them." In the kitchen, police found a pot of stew that had barely begun to mold, along with a receipt for the ingredients from a store where Huff and Silva had been shopping, according to witness accounts, on June 4.

Huff's murder trial--and Faye Wenell's alibi--would later turn on estimates of exactly how long Silva had been dead. Forensic entomologists studied the flies and maggots found at the scene. Temperatures in and around the house were logged in an effort to learn how quickly the insects might have multiplied. The experts eventually decided Silva had been dead for more than two weeks, and possibly as long as a month.

Police soon located Huff at Duluth's detox center, where he had just been checked in for the second time that month. He told detectives that he had last stopped in the apartment June 3 to get some clothes. Silva, he claimed, had suffered from depression and grand-mal seizures. "She only took her pills when she was drinking and she sometimes took Huff's medication because she felt hers was ineffective," the police record of the interview notes. "Her drink of choice [was] vodka mixed occasionally with pop or Kool-Aid. He described a [January 1996] incident in which she began to drink a bottle of alcohol without stopping. When Huff took the bottle away from her, she stated she was dying anyway." Huff also said Silva was frequently incontinent.

Tucson police located Wenell on July 3, told her about Silva's murder, and questioned her about her own whereabouts. According to their reports, she appeared "genuinely shocked" and claimed not to have left Tucson since she'd arrived earlier in the year.

Duluth police actively investigated Silva's death through August 1996, says Cynthia Evenson, one of the attorneys who later defended Ron Huff. After that, she says, very little happened until October 1997, when a woman police had interviewed once before came forward and said Huff had confessed to her.

There were problems with seizing on Huff as the perpetrator, though. For one, Evenson notes, Huff's keys were visible in a police video of the murder scene, right where he said he'd left them on his last visit to the apartment. For another, Gordon claimed Huff had told her he'd hit Silva in the back of the head with a baseball bat--an account inconsistent with the injuries noted in the autopsy. In court 18 months later, Huff's defense would note that Gordon had asked police about reward money and threatened to withdraw her cooperation if no cash was forthcoming.

Still, Gordon's account seemed to tip the scales for law enforcement officials. It dovetailed with one officer's report that during a chance encounter at a pawnshop, Huff had tearfully volunteered that he experienced days for which he had "no recollections at all. He states it is possible he got into a fight with Silva and she ultimately did die, but he has no recollection of the events." That conversation, Evenson notes, was the only one of many police interviews with Huff that was not taped.

On November 3, 1997, Ron Huff was arrested and charged with Silva's murder. Though the trial would not begin for another 16 months, the case finally seemed closed.

 

During the nearly three years between Maria Silva's murder and Ron Huff's trial, Faye Wenell continued to leave a dramatic trail of police reports wherever she went. While most of her arrests were garden-variety "drunk and disorderlies," more and more bizarre episodes started showing up in court files.

Four months after Silva's death, Wenell was arrested at a Payless Shoe Source store in the city of South Tucson. According to the police report, she had grown angry after the salesperson refused to give her money for the shoes she was wearing.

Three months later, on New Year's Day 1997, Wenell was arrested after dialing 911 from a pay phone in South Tucson and screaming for help. When police arrived they found a frightened man and a drunken, rambling Faye Wenell. The man, who told police he was homeless, said he had been walking down the street when Wenell approached him asking for money and a cigarette, and that when he refused she punched him in the mouth and sliced at his neck with a razor saying she "wanted to get his jugular vein." The arresting officer reported that after she was handcuffed, Wenell struggled to get away and threatened, "I'm going to cut your dick off and swallow your balls."  

As it happened, the officer recognized Wenell. "I have had frequent prior contacts with [her] in the past," he noted in his report. "She is mentally disturbed and has assaulted City of South Tucson police officers. During the week of 12/25/96, [she] was suspected of assaulting a man with a meat hook. Victim did not want involvement with police."

Wenell was charged with two felonies and held on suicide watch in the mental-health unit of the local jail. According to court files on the case, she told staffers that she had been homeless for a year, and "was suffering from bouts of depression after the loss of her 'wife.'" Wenell's public defender requested a psychiatric evaluation, the results of which were sealed by the court. The case was dismissed on the eve of trial, May 27, 1997, because prosecutors could not locate the alleged victim.

Wenell reappeared in Minnesota two months later and quickly drew the attention of local law enforcement. At one point police picked her up for prostitution at the intersection of 15th Avenue and Lake Street in Minneapolis. They reported that she had offered to perform oral sex on two undercover officers for $40 each, noting that "it's a little more expensive when one watches." One of the officers noted that after the arrest she berated him: "Why'd you leave Hiroshima, to escape the radiation? What, are you some kind of mutant? Did you come over here to work for the white man who stole our land, you Japanese bitch?"

In February 1998 Wenell was picked up outside Palmer's Bar in Minneapolis's West Bank neighborhood. According to police reports, after bar employees refused to serve her, Wenell lay in wait for several hours and jumped them when they came out. Minneapolis police officer Bobby Thunder, who worked the Cedar-Riverside beat at the time, says he heard plenty of talk about Wenell but never had occasion to arrest her--mostly because the alleged victims were afraid to swear out complaints. Other neighborhood regulars say some of her attacks were directed against people she thought were involved in the upcoming trial of Ron Huff.

 

At various points during those months, Wenell also began revisiting her old Duluth haunts--sometimes in the company of Michael Grube, a man she'd known for years and with whom, according to Peg Wagner, she felt safe because he was of slight build and unlikely to attack her. On February 17, the two were seen together drinking vodka in a downtown alley. Later they took a taxi to another bar and a second cab to the Voyageur Lakewalk Inn, where they'd registered. "During the second cab ride, Wenell was slapping Grube in the face," the police report noted. A witness at the motel reported he heard the two yelling in the hall, and saw Wenell punch Grube.

At 4:57 that afternoon, police were called to a Mexican restaurant two doors west of the motel. They found Wenell passed out in a booth and took her to detox. There she used several beds to barricade herself in an observation room while threatening suicide. Police were called again and moved her to the mental-health lockup unit at St. Luke's Hospital, where she was still being held when Grube's body was found the next day. An autopsy reported that Grube's hyoid bone had been broken, just as it had been in Maria Silva's murder. The medical examiner told police he believed the death to be "homicide by asphyxia."

When the police returned to the lockup unit to question Wenell, she acknowledged that she had Grube's eyeglasses, wallet, and watch, and that the handwriting on the mirror scrawled with the name "Maria" was hers. A hair police believed to be like Grube's was stuck to her shoe, along with blood and feces.

This time, police collected samples of the feces at the crime scene. The state crime lab could not find any analyzable DNA in the stool, and investigators never managed to get a sample from Wenell to find out whether she, like the person who soiled Grube's room, was one of the "non-secretors" whose excrement doesn't contain DNA.  

Dr. Carl Malmquist, a psychiatrist who serves as a consultant to Hennepin County District Court, says that while it's rare for a murderer to defecate at the crime scene, most veteran cops eventually run into such a case. Typically the crimes are sexual in nature and the perpetrators male, he says. "It's an act of desecration, which can [also] take different forms, such as cutting up a body or mutilating it. It's usually an act of great anger, contempt, and humiliation."

Police questioned some of Wenell's past lovers and found that she had unusual toilet habits. One woman recalled Wenell talking about having had anal surgery as a child; others said she frequently gave herself enemas, something she believed to be an element of good hygiene. Lovers and acquaintances alike told stories of Wenell urinating or defecating over a bed, on a living-room floor, out a window or in public to humiliate someone.

There were other clues pointing to Wenell as the perpetrator. Peg Wagner told police that Wenell called her from the mental-health unit even before officers questioned her. "Do you remember what you said was the worst thing that could happen?" she asked, according to Wagner's statement. "It happened!" Wagner told police that "she tells all of her alcoholic friends that if they continue in their paths, some day they are going to come to and someone is going to be dead. She further explained that she told them that 'not remembering' was not an alibi."

Though Wagner considered Wenell and Grube to be friends, police saw their relationship differently. "In 1991 [Grube] had a romantic relationship with a woman who had previously had a lesbian relationship with our suspect, Faye Wenell," they noted. "There are reports, but no charges, of two incidents of violence by Wenell against Grube. One of these allegedly resulted in 21 stitches to Grube's face or head. However, that was in 1993."

Last August Det. Mike Moyle of the Duluth Police Department closed the investigation into Michael Grube's death and recommended to the St. Louis County Attorney's office that Wenell be charged with homicide. He declines to speculate on why that recommendation was not followed, saying, "You'd have to ask another agency about that." John DeSanto, the prosecutor handling the Grube case, did not return phone calls requesting comment for this story.

But another investigation of the Grube case continued. As soon as details of the killing surfaced, attorneys preparing a defense for Ron Huff in Maria Silva's murder had seized on the similarities between the two crime scenes. In Huff's trial, they hoped to convince a jury that it was Wenell who had killed both Grube and Silva.

Peg Wagner says Faye Wenell spent the months leading up to Ron Huff's trial in Minneapolis--in the basement of a burned-out church, she told one friend--preparing herself to testify. When the court proceedings began this past January 25, she moved back to Duluth and rented a room at the Olde World Inn.

At the start of the six-week trial, both sides laid out their theories of the crime. The version presented by St. Louis County prosecutors Gary Bjorklund and Tisha Tallman went like this: After he was released from jail on June 3, 1996, Huff returned to the apartment he shared with Silva to get some money. He learned that Silva had spent all the cash at a bar, and the two argued. Silva hit Huff, giving him a bloody nose, whereupon he slapped and choked her until she was unconscious. He went to get a beer, came back, and found her dead on the floor. He put her into the bed, covered her up, took off clothes smeared with his own blood, and left.

The prosecution never called Jacqueline Gordon, the woman to whom Huff had allegedly confessed, but it did submit testimony from a former cellmate who told a similar story. (Defense attorneys later noted that the witness had been offered a reduced sentence in another crime in exchange for his testimony.) The manager of a Duluth shelter testified that Huff confessed to him as well.

Next, defense attorneys Joanna Wiegert and Cynthia Evenson began presenting their case that "Faye Wenell was the actual perpetrator." The judge had ruled, just after the prosecution rested, that they could not present evidence relating to the Grube killing because it was "irrelevant and thus highly prejudicial." In his opinion, the judge stated, there weren't enough similarities between the two crimes to suggest a "signature crime."

Instead, the defense lawyers called witnesses who testified about Wenell's history of violence toward her lovers, her toilet habits, and the fact that at least twice while intoxicated she had bragged about having "killed two people." They also presented testimony suggesting that Wenell's alibi for the period when police believed Silva died was less than watertight.  

On June 3--the day Ron Huff and Silva had been seen walking through downtown Duluth hand in hand--Wenell had had her $426 Social Security payment wired from her bank in Cloquet to a check-cashing facility in Tucson. Although she didn't show ID when she picked up the money, bank files indicated that the cash was given to a woman matching her description. On June 8--about the latest date, according to the forensic testimony, when Silva could still have been alive--South Tucson police ran a computer check on "Yolanda de Leon," a name Wenell sometimes used. (Trial testimony never conclusively established whether that meant Wenell had been picked up by police on that date, but the prosecution argued it was a "reasonable assumption.") Tucson police officer Theresa Rengal testified that on June 11 she responded to a sexual-assault complaint from Wenell. On the stand, Rengal said Wenell also told her she had recently killed her lover in Duluth. Rengal had no explanation for why she did not act on this information or note it in her report.

Huff's defense offered several scenarios that would have allowed Wenell to have been in Duluth when Silva died. Among other evidence, they produced Greyhound bus schedules showing that Faye could have picked up her Social Security payment on June 3, traveled to Duluth, and been back in Tucson by June 8.

Huff's defenders also called a St. Louis County Jail manager who testified that on at least one occasion after Silva's death, Wenell was booked carrying two plain silver bands, one of which had been cut at some point. (A year before her death, Silva had broken her wrist and the ring had to be cut off because her finger had swollen.) "I have her ring," Faye told the guard, explaining that she kept it in her "cavity"--her vagina.

On March 4 Wenell took the stand, wearing a maroon blazer the prosecutor's office had bought her for the occasion. She had been scheduled for questioning at 9:00 a.m. but showed up so drunk that her testimony was delayed until 2:00 p.m. The Duluth News-Tribune reported that she laughed, joked, and cried on the stand. She talked back to the judge, telling him not to call her "ma'am" and saying she liked it when he raised his voice. "Somebody ask me some questions," she was quoted as saying. "I want to talk." When asked whether she had killed Silva, however, she offered a coherent, monosyllabic answer: "No."

On March 10, after 16 hours of deliberation, the jury found Huff guilty of first-degree murder. A week later he was sentenced to life in prison. "I expected it," he told the News-Tribune. "There are too many laws that contradict each other. The jury couldn't understand them.... If it hadn't been for the prior assaults on Ms. Silva, I would have been found not guilty."

Huff is appealing his conviction. A hearing in the case is unlikely before the end of the year.

"I think she knew it was going to go down this way a long time ago," Peg Wagner says of the months leading up to Wenell's death. While preparing herself for the Huff trial, she says, Wenell had been terrified. "I was afraid she was going to suicide rather than go through with it. She was going to have to own every bad thing she'd ever done. But the week before she testified, she had a peace about her that I never saw before."

That week, Wenell brought Peg Wagner some new drawings she had made. One of the drawings shows two benches positioned under twin niches in a church vestibule. One was bathed in light, the other contained a sculpture of a female saint. "Maria came to me only once in my dreams, but now she has arrived again. Gracias Dios!" Wenell wrote on the back of the drawing. "She said, 'Hi honey, come sit with me, there is something I must tell you.' At that moment I had to decide whether to pick the dark or the light bench."

The other drawing showed a faceless figure reclining in a casket, a fringed blanket covering her from the waist down, a heart at the base of her throat. Around her floated Native American icons, flowers, a flute, and a cross. At the time, Wagner concluded that her friend was finally getting over Maria Silva's death.

Wenell called Wagner on Thursday, March 11, the day after Ron Huff was found guilty. She said she'd lost her money at a casino and wanted to go to the Twin Cities and see her mother. A chaplain she knew arranged to have a ticket waiting for her at the Duluth bus station, but Wenell never picked it up. "She was that close to getting out of town," Wagner says. "Seeing her mom would have helped." That night, Wenell was overheard telling people at a Duluth drop-in center for the homeless that she wanted to "go down to the lake to be with Maria."  

Two days later, on Saturday, March 13, Wenell was arrested in Cloquet, 20 miles south of Duluth, after allegedly wandering the halls of an apartment building at dawn, banging on doors. According to reports in the Duluth News-Tribune, she was released from the Carlton County Jail at about 6:30 p.m. and had a drink at a nearby bar. Someone she met there drove her back to Duluth.

According to the criminal complaint against the three people now charged with Wenell's kidnapping and murder, she ended up at the Red Lion Bar, where she ran into Stacey L. Mullen, Kenneth J. Budreau, and Daniel Deegan. Mullen later told police Deegan was angry at Wenell because he thought she had once made a pass at his girlfriend, and Budreau said he wanted to "get that bitch."

According to Mullen, the two men suggested that she chat up Wenell and talk her into coming with them at closing time. She said they drove around for a while and finally stopped near the lakeshore, where Budreau began swinging the broken end of a pool cue at Wenell. According to the police report, she recalled that "Ms. Wenell tried to defend herself, but was overcome and eventually lost consciousness," and that the beating continued nonetheless. Mullen said she got out of the car because she feared one of the blows would hit her. Eventually, she said, the trio carried the body to the sand pile and drove off. (The two men gave police considerably different accounts, with each saying he had gotten out of the car shortly after leaving the bar while the others drove on.)

Wenell's body was found at 10:30 the next morning. She was clothed, but without the maroon jacket she had last been seen wearing--presumably the one she'd had on during Huff's trial. A witness told police she saw Mullen bagging up a maroon blazer at about 3:30 Sunday morning.

Investigators discovered few clues in the room Wenell had rented for the month she'd been in Duluth. There was a box of condoms--one used--and a Bible opened to the 31st Psalm: "For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel."

After medical examiners released the body, Faye Wenell's remains were sent to a funeral parlor in Richfield. Kelly Wenell, Patricia Rock Wenell, and other family members drove out to the home's parking lot and sat in the car, "just to be near her," Kelly says.

While they were sitting there, they concluded that Faye would have hated lying inside, naked and alone with a male undertaker. So, just as Wenell had chosen to carve a headstone for her brother some 20 years earlier, Kelly Wenell decided to wash and dress her sister. Arguing that the corpse was badly battered, the mortician tried to talk her out of it. Wenell prevailed, and bought Faye a simple white linen shirt and a black jacket and pants. Faye's head had been shaved during the autopsy, so Kelly bought a hat, too. Her sister had always liked hats, she says, and she looked good in them.

Faye's funeral was held in Cass Lake; her mother, in the letter she sent to City Pages, said that people traveled from all over the nation to attend. Later, Wagner organized a memorial service that packed Duluth's Peace Church to capacity. Faye's drawing of a woman in a coffin was reproduced on the cover of the program, and some of her poems were printed inside. "Many of the attendees had not spent time with her in years," Wagner notes.

In the three months since the funeral, Wagner and the Wenell family have kept in touch. Much of Faye's art was stored at Wagner's house, and she has shipped it to the family. Kelly Wenell has been reading journals Faye kept. She and Wagner have talked about how odd it will be if Duluth police finally conclude Faye died because of a simple barroom brawl. "It was just so strange the way it went down," Wagner says. "She kept saying it was over for her."  

 

Intern Marlene Huwe contributed to this story; research assistance in Arizona was provided by Zach Thomas of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism.


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