Local News

Victim's family urges parole board not to release killer

Posted March 3, 2009 12:27 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:13 p.m. EDT

— The family of a former Durham High School coach who was slain two decades ago met Tuesday with state parole officials in an effort to keep his killer behind bars.

Russell Stager was fatally shot on Feb. 1, 1988. His second wife, Barbara Stager, told authorities she accidentally jostled a gun he kept under his pillow, and the gun went off, killing him while he slept.

Prosecutors didn't believe Barbara Stager's story, and a jury convicted her of first-degree murder in 1989. Part of the evidence against her was the fact that her first husband, Larry Ford, also was killed in his bed in what she said was another accidental shooting.

Randolph County authorities ruled Ford's death an accident and have never found additional evidence to file any criminal charges in the case.

Russell Stager's slaying and the sensational murder trial of his wife was chronicled in a 1994 book, "Before He Wakes," and a television movie by the same name.

Barbara Stager's death sentence was overturned on a procedural issue, and the life sentence she subsequently received made her eligible for parole after 20 years.

Russell Stager's family drove from Tennessee to meet Tuesday morning behind closed doors with the state Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission to express their opposition to Barbara Stager's release.

"In my opinion, I feel like 20 years of rehab still doesn't equal the fact that he wasn't given a chance after she killed him – after she murdered him," Cindy Stager Thomas, Russell Stager's sister, said after the meeting. "The murder she committed completely destroyed my parents' and my life."

Doris Stager, Russell Stager's mother, said the pain of his death hasn't faded with time.

"It's very hard on me. I live with it all the time. You can never get around it," she said.

The Stager family said they knew they eventually would have to make the trip to Raleigh to plead with parole officials not to let Barbara Stager out of prison, but Thomas said that didn't make the trip any easier.

"It's very, very, very, very difficult. I didn't want to face the day of having to come here and do this," she said.

Capt. Ricky Buchanan of the Durham County Sheriff's Office, who investigated the case, and Eric Evenson, the former assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, also spoke to the commission about why they feel Barbara Stager, 60, should remain in prison.

"She, in cold blood, killed an innocent man," Evenson said.

"I've put a lot of killers in jail over the years, and this is one I think that should remain exactly where she is at," Buchanan said.

The parole commission is expected to rule in May on her release.