Book Excerpt: "Invitation to a Murder"

"48 Hours" Producer Gail Abbott Zimmerman Pens True-Crime Book

"Invitation To A Murder," published by Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books division, is the fourth in a series of true-crime books that are based on the broadcasts of the CBS News reality drama "48 Hours Mystery". Pocket Books, like CBSNews.com, is a unit of CBS Corp.


CHAPTER 1

A CRY FOR HELP


The call came from a tranquil residential neighborhood in the heart of Springfield, Illinois. The caller was frantic.

"Emergency! Emergency! There's a man - he beat my wife - and I shot him! My God, my wife's bleeding!"

The 911 operator dispatched responders to the scene as she gathered whatever information she could. "Is the man still in your house?"

"Yes! He's lying there on the floor with a bullet in his head!"

"Did you shoot him?"

"Yes, I shot him; he was killing my wife!"

The operator thought she heard a human sound in the background. The caller paused, then blurted, "My baby's crying! I'll call you back!" He hung up.

The operator muttered an obscenity. It was 4:27 in the afternoon. The call came from a part of town where even petty crime was rare, especially in broad daylight. The telephone number was assigned to Mark and Donnah Winger. The operator swiftly tried to reestablish the connection. The panicked man picked up.

"Yes! Yes! Hello!"

"Mr. Winger?"

"Yes!"

The operator spoke firmly. "This is the police department. I've got officers en route. I need to know what is going on there."

"My wife is dying on the floor!" Winger was panting.

"Who is this man who attacked her?"

"I don't - I don't know who he is!"

"Is he still inside the house?"

"Yes, he's laying on the floor! I gotta hold my wife, I gotta get to my wife!"

"Okay, are you Mark Winger?"

"Yes, I am; yes I am."

"Okay, and your wife is Donnah?"

"Yes, she is."

"When did the man get there?"

"I don't know, a few minutes ago…" Winger's voice trailed off, then grew urgent. "Please -- let me get to my wife! I won't hang up! My door is open."

"Okay, but --" Before the operator could give further instructions, Winger dropped the phone. The operator gave brief instructions to the crews as she strained to hear what was happening in the house. There were sirens in the distance but the man's pleading voice through.

"Don't die!" he shouted "Oh, my God, Donnah, don't die!"

Beneath the wailing, there was another sound: a low-pitched moan.

A MODEL COUPLE

Mark and Donnah Winger were newlyweds when they left Hollywood, Florida, for Illinois in 1989. Donnah knew she'd be homesick for her family, but Mark, a nuclear engineer, had a job offer that was too good to pass up. They eventually settled into a modest four-bedroom, redbrick ranch house on a tree-lined street a few miles west of the sites famously associated with Abraham Lincoln. Donnah loved hearing the sounds of children playing in nearby yards. Both she and Mark were eager to have a family of their own.

Donnah had an unshakable commitment to family. She was close to her two younger sisters. Her best friend was her mother, Sara Jane Drescher, whom Donnah included in every aspect of her life.

"She would tell me everything," Sara Jane told 48 Hours correspondent Richard Schlesinger.

Back when Donnah was single, the men she dated may have found her a little more old-fashioned than they expected her to be. A striking beauty with thick, dark wavy hair, she dressed in the latest fashions. Her disarming smile and slim, athletic build all but guaranteed an active social life. But her vivacious spirit and willingness to have a good time belied her traditional nature.

"She did not have a history of appropriate young men in her life," Sara Jane said. Donnah did not consider any of the men she dated to be worthy of becoming part of her family, until, at age twenty-four, she met Mark Winger.

At the time, Donnah was a surgical assistant in a busy hospital. The training had been rigorous, requiring an ability to concentrate throughout lengthy, tedious procedures. Donnah persevered, overcoming a learning disability that made it hard for her to study written material. Her heart was set on having a job that would have a positive impact on peoples' lives. She had developed a strong passion - and stomach - for the medical profession.

"Mom, I had the most incredible morning," Donnah once enthusiastically told Sara Jane during a break. "I did an amputation. It was fabulous!" She hung up, saying it was time for her lunch.

"If she didn't have the learning disability, she would have been a physician, because she just had that instinct to know the right thing to do at the right time," Sara Jane said.

One day at work, Greg Winger, a nurse anesthetist, told Donnah that his brother, Mark, had just returned from a year in Korea. Mark had been an army lieutenant and had a degree in physics from the Virginia Military Institute. He thought Donnah would like Mark and offered to fix them up. Donnah had reservations and, as always, turned to her mother for advice.

"How bad could it be? Just go."

Mark Winger exceeded all of Donnah's expectations. He was soft-spoken and polite. His round glasses and bushy eyebrows gave him a bit of a goofy look, but, like Donnah, he kept himself fit. He was five foot ten, but his broad shoulders and soldier's posture gave him a taller appearance. Donnah was struck by his intelligence and wry sense of humor. Even that first night he easily made her laugh.

Mark did not expect his blind date to be so attractive. He was drawn to Donnah's large brown eyes and the way they made him feel important. He also liked Donnah's lack of guile. The party was a blast, he thought, but the best moment came when he walked her to her car. There was the inevitable awkward silence when she turned to him before leaving. What should he say? Should he kiss her? Wave good-bye? Before he could do anything, Donnah spoke up.

"I had a great time," she said, adding bluntly, "I knew I'd like you from the moment we met."

Mark stumbled his way through a response but let Donnah know that the feeling was mutual.

"We kissed good-bye," Mark said, seemingly savoring the moment. "It seemed to linger long after it was done." There was no turning back.

He told his family she was a breath of fresh air. He had never met anyone like her.

"You could tell they clicked right away," said Mark's brother, Greg. "They were just right for each other."

Sara Jane and her new husband, Donnah's step-father, Ira Drescher, could not have been more pleased. Mark came from a good family. He had graduated college. He was on a solid career path - a nuclear engineer, no less! To top it off, he was, like Donnah, Jewish.

"It could not have been a better scenario," Sara Jane said.

Ira agreed. Sara Jane's high-estrogen family was a new experience for him. He came from an unabashedly macho background.

"My father was a professional boxer," he said proudly.

Ira had three children from his previous marriage, two athletic sons and a daughter who played quarterback on the powder-puff team. Still, he warmed quickly to his stepdaughters, especially Donnah.

"Donnah and I would watch boxing together," he said. 'She liked boxing."

Mark was the perfect balance for Donnah. He was a little on the quiet side and pragmatic; the Dreschers affectionately called him "the geek." Donnah, bursting with energy, was not necessarily always focused. Their attraction for each other was striking. They could not stand to be apart, and when they were together, they could not keep from touching each other. They held hands, put their arms around each other, or simply cuddled. They had become soul mates.

"They were really cute," Sara Jane said. "I can remember times when Donnah might get upset about something and Mark would say something funny and she would laugh. Then they would be giddy and silly with each other."

"They loved each other very much and that love rubbed off on everybody around them," said Mark's mother, Sallie.

To the delight of both families, Mark proposed to Donnah six months after they met. They celebrated with a dinner at a Springfield restaurant. Knowing it would be a big night, Mark arranged for his parents to be there, along with Ira and Sara Jane Drescher.

"Amazingly, she said yes," Mark announced proudly. The older couples slipped into easy conversation. Mark and Donnah held clasped hands on the table. They were lost in their own little world.

"They were adorable, a model couple," Sara Jane said.

Sara Jane, who divorced her first husband when Donnah was seventeen, knew how hard a failed marriage could be on a family. She had told her daughters that she would pay for their first weddings, but if they re-married, they were on their own. She was confident that her oldest daughter was getting it right the first time. She and Donnah would spend the next nine months working out every detail of the wedding.

"It was the most wonderful time of our lives," Sara Jane said. "We were working together, mother and daughter. I wish every mother could have the experience I had with Donnah."

There was never any tension, only joy.

Sara Jane remembered the night Donnah called her to say she finally found the wedding dress.

"She started the conversation with this shriek that almost knocked the phone away from my ear," Sara Jane recalled.

Donnah, an expert shopper, knew which clothes best suited her shapely figure. Still, she wanted her mother to take a look. They went to the bridal shop the next day.

Donnah directed Sara Jane to a chair and disappeared into a back room. A few minutes later, she emerged.

"You can turn around," she told her mother softly.

Sara Jane slowly pivoted in her seat. Donnah stood above her, on a platform, in front of a three-way mirror.

"I focused on the vision I saw in front of me. It was my oldest daughter in a wedding gown," Sara Jane said later. "Tears welled in my eyes and I saw her smile, so proud and so happy."

"What do you think?" Donnah asked.

Sara Jane finally found her voice.

"Oh, Donnah, it is just beautiful. You are just beautiful. It's perfect."

Donnah had chosen a graceful princess gown with long tapered sleeves. She stood tall and sashayed around the small space, looking very much like a professional model to her mother. Sara Jane walked to her daughter and embraced her. They held each other tight, savoring the moment.

The rest of the planning went just as smoothly.

"There was never a time when either one of us felt stressed," Sara Jane said. "We were always on the same page."

The big event took place on March 4, 1989. One hundred thirty guests gathered at the temple for the ceremony. It was sunny with the temperature in the mid-seventies - the type of day that inspires people to move to the Sunshine State.

"Donnah looked more beautiful than I had ever seen her," Sara Jane said. "She glowed." Even better, she was marrying a man who loved her unconditionally and would take care of her.

Mark, looking unusually sophisticated in his tuxedo, was flanked by his parents when he walked down the aisle. Ira, trim and tan, smiled from ear to ear as he escorted the mother of the bride. Sara Jane, petite and blond, was dressed in an elegant pale pink gown. Donnah's sisters - bridesmaids who bore a striking resemblance to the bride - could barely hold back their tears as they made their entrance.

Donnah was radiant. She held the attention of everyone in the room. Walking down the aisle alone, she stopped half way. Mark met her and took her hand, and they walked the rest of the way together. They stood under the chuppah, the canopy used in Jewish weddings. They recited their vows, exchanged rings, and, following tradition, Mark smashed a glass with his foot. The crowd shouted "Mazel tov!" wishing them good luck. The music resumed and they strolled back up the aisle together, never letting go of each other's hand.

The newlyweds made their debut dancing to "I Only Have Eyes for You." It was the perfect choice. Although Donnah loved being surrounded by family and friends celebrating her joy, for the moment Mark was the only one who mattered. She loved being showered with his affection. She felt protected. She had grown to idolize him.

"The smile that Donnah walked down the aisle with never left her face," Sara Jane said. It lasted through the reception, the dinner, the dancing, the toasts.

Sara Jane was the first to pay tribute on the wedding video.

"It's the happiest day of my life for two of the most beautiful young people I know," she said. "I love you both.'

Ira focused on the future. "We wish you a lot of beautiful, healthy babies."

The party ended and the two families hugged. Everyone was elated that Mark and Donnah had found each other. Donnah loved her new in-laws and they returned the affection. Sara Jane felt that Donnah had found a real-life prince.

"I was blessed and I knew it," she said.

The following day, before leaving for her honeymoon, Donnah made a quick call to her mother.

"I just had to tell you when Mark and I were getting ready to go to bed, he took off his tuxedo pants and he was wearing Cleveland Browns boxers," she reported.

They laughed. That was Mark, a die-hard Browns fan with a great sense of humor. That was Donnah, candid as always, filling Sara Jane in on every intimate detail of her life.

Copyright Pocket Books. All rights reserved.
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