Bitter battle ends up in high court, Fremont widow seeks to retain home, property — (The Post-Crescent)

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The Post-Crescent

By Susan Squires, Post-Crescent staff writer 

May 3, 2008

FREMONT ­ Diana Sanders’ journey through hell began with a blast from a .22 caliber Ruger on June 25, 1999.

It may or may not end this spring with a state Supreme Court decision.

In the intervening nine years, there have been accusations of homicide, civil suits and a bitter battle over the will David Sanders changed shortly before his death, disinheriting his wife of 17 years “for reasons that are known to her.”

But she didn’t know ­ and still doesn’t know ­ why. And she didn’t know he had changed his will.

She didn’t know he had told people he feared she would shoot him. She didn’t know he was suicidal. And she didn’t imagine she would spend almost a decade fighting to hold onto her home.

“It’s been a long road, and I still don’t know to this day where I’ll end up,” Diana said.

Best friends

On their first date, David Sanders and Diana Harris did the chores on his farm just east of Fremont, and that was fine with her.

“We enjoyed the same things,” she said. “We were so much alike. If I wanted to go fishing, I had a fishing buddy.”

Their wedding day began with chores, too. Then, David went to get a new suit and the wedding rings. Diana’s sister baked them a cake. After the ceremony, they went to a baseball game and out to eat. It was his first marriage, her second.

“It was a great day,” Diana Sanders says now. “A great day.”

For the next 17 years, the Sanders were nearly inseparable. They saw little of other people, including David’s three brothers. When they weren’t working the farm, they hunted, fished and trapped together.

Diana opens her picture album and flips through photos she took of David with a deer he had shot, David and a trophy bear, David with a pile of raccoon pelts, David drawing sap from a maple tree.

“I married my best friend,” she said.

But the 1990s were volatile for dairy farmers, and the Sanders ­ who by then were in their 50s ­ decided in 1998 to sell their herd and lease out their land. Diana, for the first time in their marriage, took a job off the farm.

After that, Diana’s son, Bert Harris would later tell police, David didn’t seem to know what to do with himself.

In late 1998, David sought treatment for depression, and complained to doctors his marriage was unhappy. They prescribed Celexa, Doxepin, Xanax. The Sanders saw a marriage counselor, but the therapist, David thought, sided with Diana, and they never went back.

David sought legal advice, too. In April 1999, he went to see New London attorney Tom Johnson about changing his will. Instead of leaving it to Diana, he wanted his brothers and three nephews to inherit the farm, which had been in his family since 1877.

“Every time he came to see me about the will,” Johnson would later tell investigators, “he would repeat that he feared for his life because of his wife.”

Joan Huzzar, an attorney in Johnson’s office, told authorities David “expressed great fear for his life and personal safety regarding his wife’s behavior toward him. In fact, he stated he thought his wife would shoot him.”

David gave the will to his brother Dennis in a sealed envelope with the instructions that if anything happened to him, Dennis should open it.

On June 21, David went to see Harry Deets, a psychotherapist. He told Deets he felt suicidal but didn’t plan to act on his feelings, and intended to file for divorce two days later, which happened to be his birthday.

June 23, 1999

David, who had planned to retire at 55, called a truck driving school on his 56th birthday and left a message. He called his brother, James, also born on June 23, and left a birthday greeting on his answering machine. His uncle and aunt, Elmer and Bernice Schonchek, stopped by for a visit. David, they later reported, seemed extremely nervous and paced the floors.

That night, he took some guns, a skinning knife and three traps to his friend Wally Pollex’s house in Oshkosh. He asked Pollex to store the hunting gear, which he said he was afraid his stepson would steal. He also took a change of beneficiary form for his $300,000 life insurance policy, which he asked Pollex to witness.

The next day, he talked to his brother, James, for about 45 minutes. David said he wanted to end his marriage, but didn’t know how, and told his brother he had changed the beneficiary on his life insurance policy. He didn’t file for divorce that day and, according to his wife, never even mentioned he wanted out.

June 25, 1999

A loud noise roused Diana around dawn, but she hadn’t gotten home from work until 2 a.m., and was too groggy to make sense of it. A ringing phone awoke her again shortly after 8:30 a.m. It was the trucking school David called on his birthday.

Diana got out of bed to look for her husband. She found him in the living room, in his recliner with her Ruger handgun in his lap. She told police she knew he was dead because the wound in his head had stopped bleeding.

She went to the extension phone in the kitchen, and told the caller David could not come to the phone. Then, she put a teakettle on the stove and got dressed. Instead of calling the police, she phoned the Lewin Funeral Home.

“I was in such a state of shock,” she said. “I was blindsided. You think I was a zombie? You bet I was. You bet I was.”

The funeral home called the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department and the county coroner’s office. Confident David had committed suicide, the sheriff’s department investigator and deputy coroner allowed the funeral director to remove his body.

But Coroner Barry Tomaras ordered an autopsy after he found out Diana was in the house at the time of the shooting. Meanwhile, horrified members of David’s family called the police to report what he had told them in the days before his death. The sheriff’s department quietly began an investigation.

Living in fear

Diana was oblivious to the suspicion in the air until the morning of David’s funeral.

“One of his relatives said to me, ‘David would be here today if it weren’t for you,'” she said.

David’s insurance agent got a call from a woman who said, “You realize Diana killed him.”

People began to treat her as something other than a bereaved widow.

“I had no idea what was coming next,” she said. “I was afraid to go into town. I was afraid to pick up my mail. I was afraid to answer the phone.”

At about the same time, she found out her husband had changed his will. The first attorney she saw told her “everything, including the jewelry in my jewelry box would be sold and the estate would get half.”

Thus began a series of tangled legal proceedings between some of the most bitter litigants ever to enter the Waupaca County courthouse that eventually would lead to the state Supreme Court. The relationship between Diana and the Sanders brothers had always been strained. The circumstances of his death and estate made them enemies.

“David’s relatives thought she murdered her husband,” said Waupaca County Circuit Judge Philip Kirk, who presided over many of the proceedings. “She, of course, was egregiously insulted. For them, there was great angst and vitriol.”

Diana, who claimed David was mentally ill at the time he changed his will, attempted unsuccessfully to have it thrown out. She also filed, then dropped, a civil suit, charging two of David’s brothers and two of her sisters-in-law with defamation of character.

David didn’t file the change of beneficiary form he apparently signed for his $300,000 insurance policy. David’s brothers attempted unsuccessfully to keep Diana from claiming the insurance money.

But the most furious battle was for the farm.

Diana, who had put her own money, in addition to 17 years of labor, into the farm didn’t want David’s brothers and nephews to benefit from her investment. They, likewise, didn’t want her to get anything that was David’s.

A voicemail message from Ronald, David’s younger brother, was the Sanders’ family’s only response to The Post-Crescent’s request for interviews.

The family, he said, had no overwhelming attachment to the farm. They just wanted to make sure David’s wishes were carried out. The family, with whom David had re-established contact about a year before he died, was convinced Diana had made David miserable.

“Why would they want to give her a gift?” asks Tom Johnson, the attorney whose firm wrote the will that disinherited Diana.

The coroner, the sheriff’s department and an independent pathologist eventually exonerated Diana, but Johnson said he doubts the family has been able to accept suicide as the cause of David’s death.

Eventually, the parties agreed to put the farm up for sale, and that Diana would have the option of matching the highest offer. One party offered $375,000.

Four days after a deadline the court established for setting the purchase price, however, another buyer offered $800,000. Kirk allowed the estate to accept that offer, which then set the price for the sale, even though the buyer subsequently withdrew it.

All the state Supreme Court will determine is whether she can appeal the ruling that set the higher price. Nevertheless, if the state’s highest court rules in her favor, Diana Sanders will feel vindicated.

“I have absolutely nothing to hide,” she says.

She estimates the legal battles have cost her more than $100,000 to keep a home in which her husband killed himself.

“I can’t think of a place I’d rather live,” Diana said. “I had 17 wonderful years here. Everything I worked for all my life is here.”

Loving husband

David Sanders is buried in a cemetery about a half-mile from the farm. The inscription at the base of his tombstone reads: “Loving husband of Diana.”

She believes he loved her, and she believes he was desperately ill. But she cannot completely forgive him for putting her through such hell.

“I know how sick he was,” she said. “I know that, but at the same time it hurts. He tried to take away everything I worked for.”

Shortly after his death, she took down the wedding portrait of the couple that had hung in their kitchen.

“You know, there’s a fine line between love and hate,” she said. “I knew if I had to look at it every day I’d start to hate him, and I never want to hate him, so I took it down.”

Susan Squires: 920-993-1000, ext. 368, or ssquires@postcrescent.com