Local News

Parole opposed for Durham woman who killed husband

Posted March 2, 2009
Updated March 9, 2009

— 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.

Russell Stager Man's family, authorities oppose parole for killer

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."


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  • Eduardo1 Mar 3, 2009

    Jo Lynn Snow. If you were so tight with your former husband, why
    were you divorced from him? Can your statement be trusted, or are you a "WOMAN SCORNED"?

  • Eduardo1 Mar 3, 2009

    St. Ives.....you are on the case!
    If the LAW, says 20 & out and the murderess, has met all of the conditions necessary while in prison, then she should be paroled. If they could cut that other free after serving only 6 years for murder and an unresolved felony, then I guess, if they have it in the law, to have a person be eligible after serving the required sentence following prison rules, then parole is in order. momof5..who knows if your posting is accurate.

  • eambaker Mar 3, 2009

    Maybe Stager and Peterson can get together! The "King and Queen of Denial".

  • Adelinthe Mar 3, 2009

    Can anyone help me understand why someone who has killed another is ever parolled???

    I just don't understand, never have.

    Should it not be a life for a life???

    God bless.


  • Piny tek Mar 3, 2009

    What's this thing of women killing their husbands today! The football's wife was release and now they are considering this woman to be out on parole. I bet you she's going to relocate to another State and take down her third victim!

  • JAT Mar 3, 2009

    No, Stager and his first wife were not still seeing each other when he was killed. And while I don't think she'd kill family members (she couldn't get close enough to them to make them trust her), she could get another man to trust her and he'd be victim #3.

  • JAT Mar 3, 2009

    Great story and book. The evidence leaves little doubt as to who did it. And some man would be stupid enough to marry her again. That always amazes me - if I met someone who had been married before and both spouses died under odd circumstances, one murdered, I just don't think I'd jump into bed with that person so quickly.

  • momof5 Mar 3, 2009

    I workeda at the women's prison and Barbara was one of my "employees". She doesn't talk about the murder, she will never admit that she did it. However, she would lie to the parole board to get out of jail.

  • paise Mar 3, 2009

    Boomylar: I'm not condoning what this woman did, if she did in fact murder her husband, which none of us can HONESTLY say she did since NOBODY but she and her husband were in the room when it occurred; hwr, you are but a baby yourself so I imagine you've not been married long. Answer the question you posed about your feelings toward hubby when you've been married for more than a few years. I'm pushing 20 years or so now. I love him w/ all my heart but at times I "wanna throttle him." LOL! It always annoys me that women get far more prison time for murdering husbands than husbands get for murdering wives. It's esp true for abusers. Abusive husbands who murder wives serve less than 10yrs on average yet wives who murder abusive husbands to save themselves and/or their children get 25+/- to life prison sentences & serve it all while the men don't.

  • kikinc Mar 3, 2009

    St Ives-some people make better friends. My parents were miserable together while they were married, but now are the best of friends. They separated after 20 years. They tried to work it out, went to counseling, went to the church. Nothing worked. At least now I can have my parents in the same room without worrying that they'll be fighting. Don't be so judgmental.