"My wife is dying on the floor! Please, please come help!" The frantic 911 call sent emergency units racing to a tidy brick home in suburban Springfield, Illinois. Beautiful, vivacious Donnah Winger had been bludgeoned to death by a male intruder. Her attacker was fatally shot by Donnah's husband, Mark. In the aftermath of the horrific home invasion, family and friends rallied round Mark, a well-liked and respected nuclear scientist, and the infant daughter he and Donnah had just adopted. Some even called him a hero.
But one rookie detective didn't buy Mark Winger's version of the grisly events of that August afternoon. After four years of relentless investigation, a closed case is reopened, and fragments of truth—including shocking new witness testimony—come together to reveal how Mark Winger turned a chance meeting with a troubled young man into the almost seamless killing of his own wife, with an Invitation to a Murder.
Interview By Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
What's the most compelling or surprising aspect of this case?
Zimmerman: In this case, the police – at least some of them – initiated the re-investigation. The usual problem in cases where something goes wrong is that the authorities are extremely reluctant to admit they made an error. It seems that the fear of public embarrassment is an amazingly strong force, often stronger than a desire to seek the truth.
I have followed cases in which innocent people languish in prison while the state drags its feet, lest someone have to admit he or she made a mistake. I found it refreshing that, in this case, police said they were wrong, and that the case needed a fresh look. Once they were committed to that, they put everything they had into it. In my experience, that rarely happens.
What do you consider the most fascinating forensic element of the story?
Zimmerman: Undoubtedly, the position of the bodies at the crime scene. It is deceptively simple and something you might not even think of until someone points it out to you. It's foolproof when you look at the bodies of Donnah Winger and airport van driver Roger Harrington, and think about where they would have to have been to end up in the positions they did. The fact that there were Polaroid pictures of the victims before they were moved to the hospital ultimately saved the case.
A bombshell witness eventually comes forward to turn the investigation upside down. Tell us a little about that, and the psychological drama that's involved?
Zimmerman: This was an enormous and very painful decision for DeAnn Schultz to make. She had an affair with Mark Winger that began shortly before Donnah Winger was murdered. I spoke with DeAnn Schultz at length. They were difficult conversations. Had her information not been known, the case probably would have never made it to court. Nobody would have known the secret – but it was eating her alive. By coming forward, she was exposed to a lot of scorn. Of course, there are people who think that scorn is deserved and, to this day, have little sympathy.
Police Detective Doug Williamson is a hero in this case. What did he do to deserve that distinction?
Zimmerman: He stubbornly held onto his opinion; he would not let it go. He followed his instincts and thought the case out. But there are other heroes, too. Jim Graham did a lot of the investigation. Charlie Cox had the courtesy to listen to Williamson's reasoning and consider that he might have been wrong. Let's not forget that quick-thinking patrolman who snapped those Polaroids with his own camera. And the people who were personally pulled into this story are also heroic… as noted below.
What will stick with you longest about the Donnah and Mark Winger story?
Zimmerman: It sounds cliché, but there are so many amazing people associated with this case. It's an overwhelmingly sad story and I was immersed in it for more than a year. What kept me going were the good people involved in it. I found them inspiring. Donnah's mother, Sara Jane Drescher, is an incredibly strong and compassionate woman who has done so much good work in her daughter's memory.
She and her husband Ira – a true force of nature – have made so many other lives better as a result of their tragedy. Mark's second wife has a loving, supportive family that has seen her through everything. With their help, she has selflessly raised a lovely family of her own. The Harringtons are terrific people who never gave up on their loved one. There are so people who felt the impact of this: friends, lawyers, jurors, a businessman. So many of them acted honorably, ethically, passionately. It is uplifting to know that can happen in the face of such a horrible crime. I truly admire so many of these people.
What's the difference between producing a television show and writing a book?
Zimmerman: There is so much work in writing a book – at least one like this, with a long history. I had an abundance of information – which I always love. There are thousands of court documents, Ira Drescher – Donnah's step father – wrote copious notes that he shared with me, and almost everyone involved in the story agreed to talk with me – or with those of us who first did the TV program. When we write for television, we often have to simplify everything due to time constraints, which can mean leaving out big chunks of the story (for example, in this case, the civil lawsuit.) In the book, you get to go into greater detail and depth – which is a double-edged sword. It is gratifying but it is also a challenge to keep track of all that information and to present it so that it's understandable. I knew it would be intense and time consuming – but it exceeded all expectations.
Invitation to a Murder was a full episode of 48 Hours Mystery
Gail Abbott Zimmerman is a three-time Emmy Award-winning television news producer and a producer for 48 HOURS | MYSTERY. She was previously a producer for ABC News 20/20, and a director on a variety of programs including several network news productions and Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve. She lives in New York City with her husband, Albert.
Read an excerpt of the book here.>
Purchase a copy of the book here.
Publisher Pocket Star Books is an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which is part of the CBS Corporation.