Haunted, she seeks justice for a stranger

SBI firearms expert witness Eugene Bishop holds the .25 cal pistol that killed Barbara Stager's first husband, James Larry Ford, while testifying May 11, 1989 in Stager's murder trial in the death of her second husband Russ Stager.
SBI firearms expert witness Eugene Bishop holds the .25 cal pistol that killed Barbara Stager's first husband, James Larry Ford, while testifying May 11, 1989 in Stager's murder trial in the death of her second husband Russ Stager. N&O file photo

Barbara Stager, a convicted killer alternately described as a misunderstood churchgoing woman and a black widow with a trail of dead husbands, was the last to see Larry Ford before he died of a gunshot wound in the bed they shared.

Now, three decades later, another woman sees Stager’s first husband in her dreams. He asks for justice. She is determined to get it for him. “I never even met Larry, and I had a dream about him one night,” said Jo Lynn Snow, a Wake Forest resident haunted by the case. “I couldn’t breathe. I felt like someone was just sitting on me. It was like he was saying, ‘Help me.’ I’d had a real empathy for Larry, but since that dream it got really personal for me.”

Stager is behind bars for killing another husband, her second — Russell Stager, a popular Durham High School baseball coach. He was shot in the back of the head while he slept Feb. 1, 1988.

The 1989 murder trial, steeped with treachery, adultery accusations, greed, love and a tape that prosecutors said was the victim foreshadowing his death, held great intrigue. Stager, 60, was convicted of first-degree murder. Ford’s death figured prominently in the trial, but no one was ever charged in that case.

Snow, moved by a decades-old pledge she made to Russ Stager - her first love, her first husband and Stager’s second - is fighting to change that.

Investigators say their strongest evidence lies in residue tests showing Ford did not fire a gun the day he died, although his wife claimed he shot himself accidentally.

Snow continues to study the case to amass evidence.

She is stirred, in part, by the ghost of Ford, a stranger she cannot forget. She is driven, also, by worries that some day Barbara Stager could be freed. After the state Supreme Court overturned an initial death sentence, Stager was resentenced in 1993 to life in prison. That was a year before a change in state law removed the possibility for parole in such cases.

Stager’s first attempt at parole was denied several weeks ago, but she will be up again in three years, possibly sooner.

The prospect means the family and friends of Russ Stager must continue to entwine their lives with Barbara Stager’s as they argue against her release appeals.

Russ Stager’s mother, Doris, now in her 80s and living in Tennessee, went before parole commission members last month to plead for Barbara Stager’s continued incarceration. She worries that prison crowding and escalating costs might bring pressure to release older prisoners. Others made their case in letters and tapes that could stay permanently in Stager’s prison files.

“I think folks are frightened at the thought that she might get out,” Snow said recently. “I’m not a supporter of the death penalty, but I think anybody who murders in cold blood like that, well, I will fight to keep her behind bars.”

Accident or homicide?

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.

Snow, who freely offers her insights to the writers and documentarians, was instrumental in getting Durham detectives to classify Russ Stager’s death as a homicide, not the accident it was initially deemed to be.

Now Snow hopes to resurrect interest in the 1978 death of Ford with the details being so similar to Russ Stager’s last hours in Durham.

Ford, reported to be the father of Stager’s two sons, was found dead under bloodied sheets in the couple’s home in Trinity, a small town in northwest Randolph County.

Stager maintained that Ford shot himself accidentally while she was elsewhere in the home.

At Stager’s resentencing hearing in Chatham County more than 15 years ago, Randolph authorities testified that they were called to Ford’s home early March 22, 1978. Upon their arrival, according to court testimony, Stager told them, “He’s upstairs. He’s been shot. I think he’s dead.”

Shortly after Ford was buried, Randolph County detectives received test results that showed he had not fired a gun that day. A judge ordered his body exhumed in May 1978 for an autopsy, but the findings then were inconclusive.

Durham prosecutors used the Ford case to bolster their theory that Barbara Stager killed Russ Stager and her first husband to collect more than $200,000 in life insurance.

Snow stepped forward within hours of Russ Stager’s death to recount a conversation Stager had with her a couple of years before his death. Russ Stager had become suspicious of his second wife and told Snow.

“He said, ‘I’m probably being paranoid, but if anything ever happens to me, will you please look into it?’ “ Snow recounted. “I think he knew, of all the people in his world, I was a fighter. So I promised. I told him, ‘I’m sure you’ll live to be a very old man.’ I was trying to make him feel better.”

Snow, 56, is married again with a son, two stepdaughters and two young “grandboys” in Seattle.

She and her first husband had come to an understanding before he died.

“Russ was a very caring, supportive person,” Snow said recently. “He had come to regret some of the decisions he had made in our marriage. He had asked for my forgiveness, and I had released my anger. We worked better as friends.

‘The blood’s the story’

Although Snow spends much of her time volunteering with the Guardian ad Litem courts program and helping her husband of 20 years with their kitchen remodeling and consulting company, Ford occupies her thoughts.

In her Wake Forest home, she pores over details of his autopsy report. She combs through court documents from the Stager murder trial.

With a few computer strokes, Snow researches forensic theories and blood science. Often, she puts her findings and suppositions in correspondence to the Randolph County district attorney’s office - communications rarely answered.

If Stager had called emergency dispatchers immediately after hearing a gun go off, as she claimed, Snow theorizes, then Ford’s blood on the bed sheets would have been moist.

“The blood’s the story,” Snow said recently. “It seems to me, without witnesses, you just have to pay attention to Larry’s blood. It’s amazing what the body will tell you; you just have to listen to the language of the body, even after death.”

Old case revisited

Durham investigators reviewed the Ford case two decades ago after Russ Stager died under similar circumstances.

Ricky Buchanan, a captain with the Durham County Sheriff’s Department, was the lead investigator in the Russ Stager homicide.

And although he was one of the people who appealed to parole commission members to keep Barbara Stager behind bars, the former detective does not share Snow’s eagerness for bringing charges in the Ford case.

“We reviewed the Ford case,” Buchanan said. “We didn’t feel like we could try and convict her of that one, so we used it to show continued criminal enterprise.

“It was a weak case to begin with, and now, your first deputy on the scene is dead, your investigator is dead, you’ve got nobody to testify. The gunshot residue didn’t show that he used the gun that day, but that’s the only evidence you have.”

Despite concerns about weak evidence, Snow plans to continue her pursuit of the Ford case.

“I’m a fighter; I feel like I have enough fight for me and other people, too,” Snow said. “I never even met Larry, but this just has to do with justice, and Larry deserves some. I keep thinking if I say it in the right way, maybe somebody will listen.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

Sentencing, then and now

North Carolina implemented a new structured sentencing law Oct. 1, 1994, that applied to all felony and misdemeanor crimes except driving while impaired committed on or after that date. Under the new sentencing law, parole was eliminated. 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.

As of the end of February, 3,286 people were serving prison sentences from before the structured sentencing laws went into effect, according to data provided by the state Department of Correction.

Nearly half - 1,542 of the inmates - are serving sentences for first- or second-degree murder, with eligibility for parole, those data show.