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updated 2008-02-29 T23:51:09
This story originally aired Dateline NBC on Feb. 29, 2008.
He’d been a runner in the past. And he would run again — leaving unbearable grief behind, creating more heartache as he moved across the country.
Jean Kilduff grew up in a large Irish Catholic working class family in St. Paul, Minn. She was the youngest of four girls, sandwiched between two boys.
Kathy Rysgaard: Jean was a wonderful woman. Just kind, good-hearted, sweet, smart. I can’t say enough good about Jean and how many friends she had, how beloved she was.
Lucky as she was in her own family, Jean seemed to have been equally blessed in the man she chose.
The couple married in 1981. The following year, Gordon earned his master’s in business and they moved to California, where he took a job at a large construction company. The following year they had a son, Sean, the delight of Jean’s life.
To outward appearances, they were the perfect family. But the move to California had sealed a secret. What no one, not even her family knew, was that the marriage had been toxic almost from the start.
Kathy Rysgaard: We later found out that he was emotionally abusive to her out there. When they finally moved back here, she told us, and they separated shortly after that.
In 1987, Jean moved out with their son Sean. But Jean’s sisters say Gordon pleaded with his wife to move back home, and after four years, she did so — for the sake of their child.
Colleen Dropps: She wanted to keep her family intact.
Kathy Rysgaard: I think it was okay for a while. They went on a European trip, but it – I remember it wasn’t long after that that things started to go sour again.
Sometime in late 1998 Jean confided in Colleen that her marriage to Gordon was in name only. Colleen Dropps: She said that Gordy lives in the basement and had for the past year and she had the bedroom upstairs.
Colleen says Jean told her she was going to hang on until Sean graduated high school in 2001. But in 1997, a traumatic illness in the family would change everything. The fourth Kilduff sister — Patty — was diagnosed with brain cancer… Colleen Dropps: Once Patty died, it was like your world can change in a day. Jean realized that.
Kathy Rysgaard: That is when Jean knew — time to get out. Life is too short.
She was going to move on.
As summer turned to autumn, the trees flamed scarlet and gold. Jean, who had just turned 40, seemed to glow just as brightly. On Saturday, Oct. 16, the sisters were meeting for a weekend at Colleen’s cabin in northern Minnesota.
Jean planned to meet Kathy at her home, and they would drive north together.
Kathy Rysgaard: She was supposed to be here at a certain time. And she didn’t show up.
Kathy Rysgaard: Oh! I called their house. The phone was like dead. I told my husband something’s wrong, something is just wrong. So we got in the car and started driving to her house.
Sara James: You had a bad feeling.
Kathy Rysgaard: Oh my God, yes. We get to her house. Her car was in the garage. I ran around to the front of the house. She had a big picture window and it was all black. So I ran to the front door and I heard beeping and then it’s when it hit me that that’s the fire alarm.
Terrified, Kathy called out to her husband to phone 911 as she tried to get into the house, but the smoke was too black and oily.
Kathy Rysgaard: I smashed her bedroom window open and she wasn’t in there. And then all we could do was wait for the firefighters to come. And I just, oh, was praying and praying.
When firefighters arrived on the scene, they made their way into the smoke-filled home, where they discovered Jean lying face down in the basement laundry room.
Kathy Rysgaard: They wouldn’t let me go near her, and they — I understood that she was still alive when they brought her out and that they were working on her. And I remember thinking, you know, this is bad. And then the fire chief came over and said she was gone.
A fire. Their beloved sister dead. What could have happened? Was this a terrible accident — or something far more sinister?
When firefighters pulled Jean Kilduff Weaver out of her basement that October Saturday in 1999, the choking, black oily smoke made it instantly appear she must have died of smoke inhalation.
But when firefighters lifted the limp woman, they discovered she also had a life-threatening injury.
That day, Jean’s relatives tried to locate her husband, Gordon. They called the indoor golf and tennis club he owned.
Sara James: And what did Gordy say?
Colleen Dropps: He, according to my husband, just acted really matter of fact and said, “Well, you know, he left that morning at such and such a time and she was getting ready to leave — he didn’t know anything about it.”
The police questioned Gordon, who told them he knew nothing about any of it. His wife had been perfectly fine when he’d left for work that morning.
But police didn’t believe him. Neither did Jean’s sisters. Kathy Rysgaard: I said to the first cop on the scene, “Her husband has done this.”
Sara James: What made you so sure?
Kathy Rysgaard: Because that she had told him she wanted a divorce and that he was a control freak. And I bet anything he went – he was mad that she was going away that weekend. And he went to confront her and he was mad and I think he shoved her so hard. After she was unconscious, he saw his chance. He set the house on fire. He set her on fire.
Jean’s sisters say there was another reason they were suspicious of their sister’s husband — timing.
They say while Jean initially agreed to Gordon’s request to reconsider getting a divorce — on Oct. 13, three days before the fire — she’d told them she’d warned Gordon that his time was up.
Colleen Dropps: Unlike in August when he had been very upset about it, he was very calm and matter of fact that Wednesday morning. And he said, “You know, this isn’t what I want.”…
The state argued the motive was control. His wife, Jean, wanted a divorce and the prosecutor’s theory was: if Gordon Weaver couldn’t have Jean, no one could — not even the couple’s son Sean.
The sisters say that Gordon’s golf and tennis club was in financial trouble. They believe he was counting on his wife’s income from her new job to make ends meet. What would he do when she divorced him?
Kathy Rysgaard: I just can’t get over the fact that my sister was treated like a piece of trash by him.
Police wasted no time. Two weeks later, they arrested Gordon Weaver for second-degree murder and first-degree arson.
Surprisingly, he was granted bail — he wouldn’t have to await trial in jail. Then it looked like the charges were going to be even more serious.
Just before he was to be indicted for first-degree murder in March 2000, he disappeared. The last trace of him? His mother’s car, which he had been driving. Police found it abandoned, 400 miles away in suburban Chicago — with blood inside. At a nearby hotel, police also found some of his personal items: clothing and medication for depression.
What’s more, prosecutors said, the defendant had practically admitted guilt by running away.
But, the defense argued that this wasn’t murder but manslaughter, little more than an accident. How could that be? They said Gordon Weaver never intended to kill his wife, and they put Gordon himself on the stand to try to prove that. It would be the first time he’d spoken publicly about that October morning in 1999.
And testifying, his defense team said, was proof that he was coming clean about what happened that day.
Sara James: Is he a cold-blooded murderer?
Friedberg: No, absolutely not.
Gordon Weaver wouldn’t speak to Dateline, but his attorney Joseph Friedberg — considered one of the best in the Twin Cities — would.
Friedberg says the couple got into a spat about Jean’s decision to spend the weekend at her sister’s, when Gordon wanted her to attend their son’s soccer game.
The attorney showed the jury this animated reenactment of what Gordon says happened next.
Friedberg: He said he got annoyed at her and he pushed her with his forearm. She stepped back from the push. She put her hand out behind her and she grabbed onto one of these collapsible dowel driers, which collapsed causing her to fall backwards in an unprotected fall. Her back of her head hit the concrete washbasin that was right behind her. Her brain herniated and impacted her brain stem.
Friedberg says when Gordon saw what he’d done, he became desperate.
Friedberg: He was shocked. There was blood all over the place. He got down. He picked her up. He felt for her pulse. He could detect neither breathing nor a pulse.
Sara James: Why doesn’t he call 911?
Friedberg: Because he panicked. He thought she was dead — which is another reason for not calling 911. Not a good one, but a reason. He panicked and that’s when he burned the house down.
Friedberg: It’s a big panic. Bad choice, but it’s our position that that isn’t what killed his wife. If Gordy Weaver had called 911, they wouldn’t have been able to save her – that’s for sure – because that was a fatal head injury. She’d have never survived the injury.
So as despicable as it was to set the fire, Friedberg told the jury, legally, it was irrelevant because Jean had died from the head wound and Gordon hadn’t meant to kill his wife when he pushed her. That meant this wasn’t first-degree murder, but unintentional manslaughter.
Sara James:I’m sure that the prosecution was able to say, “Look, this is a guy who’s lied all these times — why should we believe his version of events?”
Shannon Prather: The prosecution said, “’Liar’ seems like a strong word but that’s exactly what this man is. And he’s a shrewd liar. The best lie is the one closest to the truth.”
So who would the jury believe? And what would they decide? After more than 24 hours of deliberation, the jury, in effect, split the difference.
Gordon Weaver was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. But that verdict was overturned on appeal, largely due to questions about lab testing used by prosecutors in their case. Gordon Weaver has been granted a new trial. Given that he’s a proven flight risk, he remains in prison.
No date has been set for Gordon Weaver’s new trial. Because of the Constitutional protection against double jeopardy, Weaver can’t face any charge more severe than the one he was convicted of in the first trial: Second-degree unintentional murder.