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True trash, or: Marriage can be murder


Have I got a trashy book for you. It's Tobacco Road trash, the kind that smolders in a large stinky pile on a rural Southern road, singeing the skin if you get too close -- which, of course, you do, because you just can't help yourself.

"Before He Wakes" is the latest foray into true crime by Jerry Bledsoe, a former Greensboro, N.C., News & Record reporter. He delivers in fascinating, absorbing and gossipy detail exactly what its subtitle promises: "A True Story of Money, Marriage, Sex, and Murder." But what Mr. Bledsoe ("Bitter Blood," "Blood Games") actually sells here is a trashy, two-faced, Bible-carrying, Southern Jezebel, a profile of evil.

Mr. Bledsoe, an exceedingly competent and methodical writer, could never have invented the anti-heroine of this sordid little morality play: The Baptist black widow with an insatiable appetite for sex and a compulsion to spend, spend, spend -- and the panache to obtain loans, loans, loans -- is straight out of "America's Most Wanted." She's that cute blond with the painted-on smile who can put a bullet in the back of her husband's skull, clean the bloodied linen, and then teach a Sunday School class without missing a beat.

In this case, she is Barbara Terry Ford Stager, a 40-year-old mother of two who decides that husband No. 2 must be dispatched like husband No. 1, the victim of an early morning "accidental" shooting in the couple's bedroom. Floating too many debts and fretting over recent check forgeries, Barbara urgently needs life- insurance cash to continue her extravagant lifestyle.

There is nothing comical about the fates of the naively trusting husbands or the deep sadness felt by their families, especially their devout parents, who are touchingly portrayed here. Yet the manipulative Mr. Bledsoe imbues his narrative with so much melodrama that he sometimes goes over the top.

His book is less about human failings and personality disorders than it is about near-mythical archetypes and classical betrayal. I raced through "Before He Wakes," gobbling up the trashy tidbits and eagerly anticipating the legal outcome. But the question remained: How could so many people (especially creditors) be so gullible and stupid?

True to genre technique, Mr. Bledsoe begins with the crime itself -- the shooting death of popular Durham (N.C.) High School coach Russ Stager, 40, at 6 a.m. on Feb. 1, 1988. Then he drops back to develop the characters and their motivations before covering the criminal investigation and murder trial. He is thorough and engrossing, but amateurish in his psychological analysis.

Barbara tells police that she sleepily reached under Russ' pillow, removing the loaded and cocked pistol (!) that her husband, a skilled reserve soldier, kept there for protection against prowlers. Then, she says, the pistol discharged.

Never mind that none of the forensic evidence -- the bullet's trajectory, the location of the rejected clip, the body's position -- supports her claim. The Durham sheriff's department accepts the demure, dry-eyed homemaker's version of the "tragedy" and quickly moves to declare the death accidental. So do officials in the sheriff's office of Randolph County, who botched the investigation of the death of her first husband, Larry Ford. An autopsy isn't even ordered.

Are North Carolina criminal investigators usually this bad, or were they especially lax in this case?

Mr. Bledsoe never judges the adequacy of the law enforcement; he just gives the facts. But it is clear that if Russ Stager's first wife, Jo Lynn, had not reported to Durham authorities Russ' fear of Barbara, and his request that Jo Lynn question anything "suspicious" that might happen to him, Barbara might have gotten away with murder twice.

Many friends, family members and former co-workers weigh in with conflicting opinions and incriminating anecdotes about Barbara. She's depicted as a shy, unattractive, sexually repressed girl -- dominated by her demanding mother -- who became a nymphomaniac and accomplished liar and embezzler -- as well as a "loving and devoted" wife and mother. Barbara's trial, well summarized by Mr. Bledsoe, is interesting for its unusual evidentiary rulings, its invocation of the death penalty, its jury and its small-town venue, but the woman herself is the main event.

Mr. Bledsoe ends his seamy Southern saga right where he began, on Tobacco Road, amid the trash, contemplating God, forgiveness, salvation and evil. The Elmer Gantry of true crime, he gives a virtuoso performance. Heaven help us all.

Ms. Sjoerdsma is a lawyer and writer who lives in Kitty Hawk, N.C.


Title: "Before He Wakes: A True Story of Money, Marriage, Sex, and Murder"

Author: Jerry Bledsoe

Publisher: Dutton

Length, price: 368 pages, $22.95

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