Durham, N.C. — Russell Stager appeared to have it all in the late 1980s. He was a respected baseball coach at Durham High School and had a loving wife.
It all came to a sudden end the night of Feb. 1, 1988.
Stager was killed by a gunshot wound to the head. His wife told police she accidentally jostled the handgun he kept under his pillow, and it went off while he slept.
Prosecutors didn't believe Barbara Stager's story, and after a sensational 1989 trial in Lee County – the case had to be moved from Durham because of intense publicity – a jury deliberated less than an hour before convicting her of first-degree murder in her husband's death.
Twenty years later, Barbara Stager is up for parole. Investigators and Russell Stager's family say they're afraid of what might happen if she is released from prison.
"I believe Barbara is a serial killer," said Jo Lynn Snow, Russell Stager's first wife.
Stager's first husband, Larry Ford, died under similar circumstances in Randolph County in March 1978. Authorities there initially ruled Ford's death an accident. They never found enough evidence later to file any criminal charges.
"She got away with the first one. She thought she could do it the second time, and she didn't make it," said Capt. Ricky Buchanan of the Durham County Sheriff's Office, who investigated Russell Stager's death.
Barbara Stager, 60, declined to speak with WRAL News, and no relatives, friends or former attorneys would speak on her behalf.
Russell and Barbara Stager married less than a year after Ford's death, said Snow, who remained on good terms with her ex-husband.
Two months before he died, Snow said, he told her his new marriage was plagued by money problems and infidelity and that he had become suspicious of his wife.
"He asked me, if anything ever happened to him, would I please look into it," Snow said.
Buchanan still keeps in his office the files on the 21-year-old case, which was the foundation of the 1994 novel "Before He Wakes." It was made into a television movie of the same name four years later.
He said he vividly remembers the day Barbara Stager was sentenced to death, a sentence that was later overturned on procedural grounds and replaced by a sentence of life in prison.
"Life then was (a minimum of) 20 years, and here we are 20 years later," he said.
The North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission won't rule on Stager's parole until May, but investigators and Russell Stager's family are expected to speak to the panel this week to oppose her release.
Like Snow, Buchanan said he's afraid of Barbara Stager getting out from behind bars. The former Sunday school teacher has a way of gaining trust that makes her especially dangerous, he said.
"She's the pillar of the community during the day, but behind closed doors at night, she's another woman. She's evil," he said.
Snow said she fears not only for her safety if Stager is released, but also the emotions that return whenever her ex-husband's death is replayed.
"He loved life. He gave an awful lot to his community and to his family," she said. "Whenever we talk about Russ or we act on his behalf, he sort of comes alive again for us, and then when that is over, we have to bury him again."