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Invitation To A Murder

Produced by Gail Abbott Zimmerman and Douglas Longhini

This story was originally broadcast on Dec. 13, 2008.

Mark and Donnah Winger seemed to have it all - successful careers, a new adopted child, and a nice home in Springfield, Ill. But their seemingly peaceful and happy family life was shattered in August 1995 when Mark says he came upon a man beating his wife with a hammer. Mark shot the man, and investigators soon determined that he had acted in self-defense.

As correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports, while the case seemed open and shut, after several years, it turned out to be anything but.

Almost everyone who knew Mark and Donnah Winger thought they were perfect together. They were both respected and successful members of their community.

Mark was a nuclear engineer for the state of Illinois, and Donnah an operating room technician. Both sets of in-laws were delighted when the couple married in 1989.

The Wingers were eager to start a family, but there was a problem: they learned Donnah could not bear children. So when Donnah and Mark adopted a baby girl in June 1995, they were elated.

Mark and Donnah doted on their daughter, and they showed her off to everyone, especially Donnah's best friend DeAnn Schultz. "Donnah was really special, very friendly, really exuberant, full of life," she remembers.

But just three months later the good times ended abruptly. It all began when Donnah returned from a visit to her mother Sara Jane and stepfather Ira in Florida.

Donnah and her baby arrived at the St. Louis airport and got into a shuttle van for the hour and a half ride back home to Springfield.

It was an unusual drive, with an unusual driver - a man named Roger Harrington, who had been working for the van company for six months. "The guy scared her. She said that he was very frightening," Mark recalls. "He said things about killing people, setting car bombs, mutilating people."

Harrington was also speeding. "He was telling Donnah that sometimes when he drives this God like character would come to him and pull him out of his body and he would be flying above the trees," Mark says.

She and the baby made it home, but Donnah was very rattled. Mark complained to Harrington' boss. "I blew up at him and told him about his van driver speeding with my wife and my baby, the inappropriate things he was saying," he remembers.

Then, less than a week after Donnah's wild ride, Winger says, he was on his treadmill in the basement when he heard a thump.

The baby, he says, was alone in the master bedroom, and there were strange sounds coming from the dining room. "Instantly, I knew that that wasn't right at all," Mark remembers. "I just grabbed my gun and started going down the hall."

Winger says when he came down the hallway, he saw one of the most horrifying things any husband could see: his wife was on the floor in the dining room, and there was a stranger over her bludgeoning her with a hammer.

And that's when Winger says he shot the man in the head. When police got to Wingers' house, the victims were in terrible shape but alive.

As paramedics went to work, Officer Dave Barringer got his Polaroid camera. "I thought that if we're gonna have pictures with - showing where the bodies were located, I'm gonna have to take these pictures now because they're gonna be gone within a matter of a few minutes," he remembers.

Within minutes, both Donnah and the man were rushed to the hospital, and Mark began telling police what happened that day.

Homicide Detective Charlie Cox knew that there was little hope that either Donnah or the man lying near her on the floor would survive their wounds.

Cox grabbed the man's ID from his wallet and then got right to work, questioning Mark Winger in the bedroom. "I was in shock. I was in shock the whole time they were questioning me. I did my best," Mark remembers.

"And he's more or less rocking back and forth as he's talking to us. And you could tell he's nervous and upset. So I'm trying to be as delicate as I can with my questions," Cox recalls.

Winger told the detectives the hammer was his, left out by Donnah as a reminder to hang a hat rack. And he had a question of his own: "He said, 'Who is that guy out there?' And he says, 'Is his name Roger?' At that point, I felt compelled to let him know the truth and I said, 'Yes, that's Roger Harrington,'" Cox says.

Harrington - the very same van driver who drove Donnah home from the airport six days earlier. Winger told Cox about that harrowing ride. He also told Cox about two anonymous phone calls that Winger believed were from Harrington.

Mark says he thought he was going to jail because he had just shot a man in the head, but he couldn't have been more wrong. Police had all but cleared him. They didn't consider him a killer, they considered him a victim.

Cox's partner, Doug Williamson, helped to calm Winger. "I was trying to let him know what we were going to do, how the police were going to help him," Williamson remembers.

After Donnah and Harrington were taken away, Winger managed to give the detectives a detailed statement. He told them that Donnah was on her knees when he took aim at Harrington.

Cox's investigation of the crime scene backed up Mark's story. What's more, Harrington had been a psychiatric patient, with a history of delusions, and Cox knew him: he once broke up a fight between Harrington and his wife. "He had her bent over the couch, getting ready to hit her again when I grabbed him," Cox says.

Harrington died shortly after arriving at the hospital, and Donnah died minutes later. She never regained consciousness.

Donnah's mother and stepfather were inconsolable when they heard about her murder. "I had to hold her because she was wailing, howling, wailing," stepfather Ira remembers.

They were shocked to hear that Donnah's ride from the airport had escalated into a homicide. Asked if she was scared by this driver, Donnah's mother says, "No, she wasn't scared, no. She wasn't scared. She was just…disturbed in a way. That this was such a crazy conversation."

Ira and Sara Jane rushed to their son-in-law's side.

It was an open and shut case. One day after Winger shot Harrington, the prosecutor announced his conclusions, saying that Winger had acted in self defense and that no charges would ever be filed against him.

There was an outpouring of support for Mark in Springfield. Almost everyone believed he was a good, family man whose life had been shattered by a madman. But one family wasn't buying that story at all: Roger Harrington's.

Harrington's sister, Barbara Howell, says her brother wasn't capable to commit such a crime and pleaded with Detective Cox. "He was very rude, very, very rude," she remembers.

"He said, 'Ma'am, any time you want to know how your kid brother walked in that home, snapped , and killed that woman, come to my office and I'll show you step by step,'" she remembers.

The Harringtons bore their grief quietly. Believing they were alone, they didn't realize that someone else doubted Winger's story: Detective Doug Williamson.

He says he wasn't convinced by Mark's story and had a lot of questions. Why would Donnah leave her baby alone on her bed and open the door to Harrington, a man she supposedly feared?

And Harrington parked right in front of the Winger home, leaving behind a piece of paper with a puzzling message. "I saw that there was a note on the front seat. and it had Mark Winger's name, his address and 4:30 p.m.," Williamson says.

"He says he doesn't know Roger Harrington, has never met him, and does not indicate an appointment. When I have already seen the note which indicates an appointment," the detective adds.

Cox saw no reason to doubt that the nuclear engineer justifiably shot a disturbed intruder. But Williamson wanted to investigate further. His bosses turned him down flat.

And that's the way it stayed for three and a half years, until a surprise witness came forward.

Everyone in Springfield, Ill. knew Mark Winger's story. It was heroic and heartbreaking, but Detective Williamson had never believed one word of it.

At first, Williamson couldn't even persuade his own partner, Charlie Cox, that Winger was a murderer. But Cox says he became suspicious when Winger kept showing up at the police station. A few months after the murder he came by to ask for his gun back.

"I released the gun back to Mark and we sat and talked for about a half hour," Cox remembers. "He was wanting to know how the case was going. As far as I was concerned, he should have just accepted it was closed."

Winger denies it, but Cox remembers him dropping by a second time. This time to say he was getting remarried, to his daughter's new nanny who he had hired just five months after Donnah's murder.

Winger's behavior was making Cox believe that his partner had been right all along. He thought about the problems in the case, like that note in Harrington's car. Now Cox also wanted the case reopened, fearing that Mark Winger had duped the police.

"And the bosses said no way. We're not going to open a case of this magnitude with your gut feeling and embarrass the department and embarrass Mr. Winger," Cox remembers.

As years passed, Mark's new wife adopted his child and they had two other children. And then, all of a sudden, the whole case got turned on its head.

Police say they got a luck break when DeAnn Schultz, Donnah's friend, came forward. For three and a half years, she had kept a secret, and what she was finally ready to say something that would change everything.

DeAnn told police she had been having an affair with Mark Winger.

It was a shock to everyone - especially Cox - who right after Donnah's murder had written about the Wingers' marriage "it was very apparent that he and his wife were very much in love and that this should have never happened."

DeAnn told them the affair began a month before Donnah's murder and continued a few months after she died - until Winger ended it.

And she dropped an even bigger bombshell: she told police Mark wanted out of his marriage so badly, he had talked about killing Donnah. "He mentioned that it would be easier if Donnah just died," DeAnn says.

DeAnn said Winger suggested that she could play a role. "He said that he would be out of town and he mentioned me coming and finding Donnah. That was the gist," she recalls.

And, DeAnn said, Winger even talked about the van driver Roger Harrington. "According to De Ann Schultz, he told her he had to figure out a way to get him into the house," Williamson explains.

Winger does admit he had an affair with DeAnn. "I was a good husband to Donnah. I made a mistake, I'm human, it was stupid. And it was wrong."

But he denies everything else she said.

At the time, DeAnn says, she didn't take Winger's comments seriously, but as the years passed she felt mounting pressure from her own conscience.

With DeAnn's dramatic revelation, the case was finally reopened. The detectives went straight to the old files, and found yet another surprise: those three Polaroids taken by Officer Barringer.

Cox says he didn't look at the photos in 1995 because he didn't know they existed.

The Polaroids were taken before Donnah and Harrington were moved to the hospital, but were never shown to investigators. When the detectives finally saw the photos, they were flabbergasted.

"It didn't take but ten seconds. It was a smoking gun," Williamson explains. "Roger Harrington's body. The placement of that body in that photo blew Mark's story out of the water. It was over. Roger Harrington's head and feet were in the opposite way of what Mark told us had happened."

In the chaos, detectives did not have time to note for themselves where Donnah and Harrington lay before paramedics rushed them to the ambulance. To understand why police thought Winger had to be lying requires a little forensic fancy footwork. Charlie Cox went with 48 Hours to the Winger's old house to demonstrate.

"The story that Winger told us, Mr. Harrington would have been lying basically lying basically like this... he would have fallen backwards and landed down here," Cox explains.

Remember, police said Winger told them when he shot Harrington, Harrington fell backwards off of Donnah.

So how was he found? "He was actually, completely, 180 degrees [in a different direction]," Cox explains.

Police believe it could not have happened as Winger said. Barringer's three Polaroids were becoming the centerpiece of the case.

Four years after the crime, the detectives had no doubt that they had botched the original investigation. They had allowed Mark Winger to get away with murder by pinning the crime on the obvious suspect, Roger Harrington.

Police believe Mark Winger began methodically plotting the double murder immediately after Donnah's bizarre ride with Harrington on the way home from St. Louis.

The detectives could not afford any more errors. After DeAnn Schultz came forward, it took them two more years to cover every detail and put together a murder case against Mark Winger. Finally, six years after Donnah was killed, Winger was arrested and put in jail awaiting trial.

Detective Charlie Cox, who once called Winger a hero was now intent on proving him a cold blooded murderer, vindicating the innocent man who was killed.

But Mark Winger is just as determined to prove that police got it right the first time. "Roger Harrington killed my wife. I saw it with my own eyes," he says.

Nearly seven years after Donnah's death, Sara Jane and Ira Drescher came to Mark Winger's trial, knowing the evidence against him was strong but still clinging to the hope that something would exonerate him.

"Why were you so eager or him to prove that he didn't do it?" Schlesinger asks.

"'Cause we loved him," Sara Jane explains. "Because he was part of our family. because Donnah loved him. Because they appeared to have such an incredibly wonderful marriage."

Mark insists he did not kill Donnah with that hammer.

The prosecution team, led by John Schmidt, said Winger lied from the beginning, even during his 911 call, when he told the operator he didn't know who the man in the house was.

They say Winger knew very well who that man was. They believe he invited him to his house, and that was the crux of their case.

Ray Duffey, who owned the airport van company, provided the crucial link for the prosecution. Duffey testified that Winger called to complain about Harrington's behavior during the ride and afterwards. "He just wanted to talk with this driver and tell him to leave his family alone," Duffey says.

Mark Winger claimed Harrington was making anonymous phone calls to Wingers' house.

Duffey says Mark Winger wanted to talk directly to Harrington, which he says was unusual. "Usually when people have a complaint, they just call the office."

And Duffey said Harrington was eager to work things out. "I explained to him that Mr. Winger wanted to talk with him, and he said 'That's fine, give him my number and have him call me,'" Duffey remembers.

"Mark called Roger Harrington and set up an appointment for 4:30," Williamson says.

But police believe there's one thing Winger didn't plan for when he lured Harrington to his house: the note Detective Williamson found in Harrington's car. "If Mark would've told us there was a meeting and the guy went berserk in the house, this case would probably still be closed, it would be done, but he didn't," Williamson says.

When Harrington went in the house, Williamson says Harrington was not armed, carrying a coffee mug and pack of cigarettes.

But Harrington did have a deadly object. "Roger Harrington had a tire iron fashioned as a weapon in his car. If he was going to bludgeon someone, he had a weapon in his car. Yet, he chose a weapon from inside the house that he would have no idea was there?" Williamson says.

Asked what he thinks happened, Williamson says, "I think that Roger Harrington showed up, they were seated at the table in the dining room, and he held a conversation. At some point, Mr. Winger shoots Roger Harrington in the head. I believe that Donnah was in the bedroom because she didn't want to be around Roger. She comes running out of the bedroom to see what had happened. Mark Winger picks up a hammer, he strikes her several times."

Untangling the evidence in this seven year old case was a huge job for the jurors.

Three of them sat down to talk with 48 Hours. The defense told them, that, unlike Winger, who was successful, and a respected member of the community, Roger Harrington had a troubled, violent past.

"Here is some testimony that really does make Roger look guilty. I mean Roger was weird. Roger showed up at their house, there were some phone calls - it could've been him," one juror commented.

The defense also pointed out that at the time of the murder in 1995, detectives had the Polaroids, they had the note in the car, in fact they had all the same evidence that they now found so incriminating against Winger.

"Trained professionals saw the same scene that we saw and they closed the case the next day," the juror commented.

DeAnn Schultz, who was given immunity, provided the only new evidence, testimony that Winger had talked about killing his wife. But she had attempted suicide four times, and had undergone electroshock therapy. The defense called her unreliable.

The jurors knew what was at stake. By now, Winger and his new wife had four children, including the baby he and Donnah adopted.

But Roger Harrington's family was looking for justice.

No matter what the decision was, one family would feel more pain.

After nearly two weeks of testimony, Sara Jane and Ira Drescher are overwhelmed by the evidence against Mark Winger. "And what's so hard to understand is the way he murdered Donnah was so vicious and so violent," Donnah's mom says.

Roger Harrington's family hopes to clear his name. "I was praying, I kept going, Rog, if you're up there, you hear me - bring us some good news. Bring us something so that mom and dad can sleep good tonight," his sister Barbara says.

The jury deliberates for 13 hours before reaching its verdict: guilty.

It is the verdict that Donnah's parents both hoped for and dreaded - confirmation that they'd been betrayed and deceived by a man who had been part of their family.

Winger's parents, who had spent a small fortune defending their son, were stunned by the verdict.

The jurors say the case against Mark Winger was clear, and they believed DeAnn Schultz. But, ultimately, the jurors say, the state's best evidence was the first evidence police ever collected - the three Polaroids.

Mark Winger didn't offer any explanations because he didn't testify. But five months after the verdict, he spoke with 48 Hours at a prison in Pontiac, Ill. He now claims that he personally saw the paramedics move Harrington - although they all denied that at trial.

But Winger cannot explain the note in Harrington's car. "The thing is, I can't offer you any answers to why Roger Harrington had 4:30 written on a note," he says.

Harrington's family says the meaning of that note has always been clear: Roger went to Winger's home because Mark Winger invited him.

Former lead detective Charlie Cox says he learned a valuable lesson, acknowledging that Mark Winger came "very close" to getting away with murder.

Instead, Mark Winger was sentenced to life in prison, which could have been the end of the story, except it wasn't: in Spring 2005, an inmate at the prison in Pontiac came forward and said that Winger tried to involve him in a murder-for-hire plot.

The intended victim was DeAnn Schultz, and Winger's plot was so complicated - you might say twisted - it took 19 handwritten pages - and hours of secretly recorded conversations to spell it out.

DeAnn would be kidnapped and forced to write and record lengthy statements scripted by Winger, saying that she lied, made everything up and believes Winger is innocent. Then she'd be killed. Winger's notes covered everything: only DeAnn's fingerprints can be on the tape cassette, letters and envelopes. Her saliva must be found on the stamps. And Winger asked for one more victim, if possible: former father-in-law Ira Dresher.

In June 2007, Winger stood trial in a Pontiac, Ill. courthouse. He told jurors the whole thing was a fantasy he never planned to carry out.

Ira Drescher was there. "He was chained by his hands, and he was chained by his feet, and I looked at him straight in the eye and I said, 'Mark, your miserable life is over,'" he remembers.

This time the jury took less than three hours - including lunch. Mark Winger was convicted of soliciting murder and sentenced to another 35 years.

With Winger locked up for good, Sara Jane and Ira Drescher are dedicated to keeping Donnah's memory alive. "Donnah really was the ultimate victim of spousal abuse. I had to find a way to keep her spirit going," Sara Jane says.

And they do that by helping other abused women, raising money for a charity named for Donnah. Donnah's Fund is part of the organization "Women In Distress." It continues to help abused women and their children.

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