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'Just Do It': Last Word Became Last Rites for Doomed Grandmother

Crime: Girl, 13, and 15-year-old boyfriend were convicted of murder. But questions remain. Was victim a disciplinarian or a child abuser? Was plot a game gone awry? And who manipulated whom?

April 13, 1997|MICHAEL HILL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

KINGSTON, N.Y. — When her grandmother died, 13-year-old Wendy Gardner was supposed to have the last word.

Wendy had planned to say, "You beat me . . . now it's your turn to get beaten." But she confessed that even before her boyfriend pulled the kite string around Betty Gardner's neck, plans had gone awry.

"Just do it," she said. Then she fled upstairs and lay down; she sang "Jingle Bells" to blot out the carnage below.

*

Wendy Gardner is polite and pretty, with a round face and long brown hair. In school, she earned A's and B's. She plays the flute--pretty, sweet melodies--and keeps a diary.

In it, she has fantasized about ripping an old boyfriend's flesh to pieces.

The contrasts--darkness and innocence--are typical of this child of drug users: a prostitute mother who died after contracting AIDS and a father who boasted of how his own father dropped dead during an argument between them, according to testimony at Wendy's trial.

Betty Gardner took Wendy and her sister, Kathy, into her home in the Hudson Valley town of Saugerties when Wendy was 5 and Kathy 3. Gardner was a widow who fervently believed in God and discipline, and sometimes the girls were slapped or paddled.

The prosecutor, Michael Miranda, said this was merely old-school discipline, but defense attorney Lisa Beth Older said there was actual abuse, much of it psychological.

Betty Gardner, 67, would tell Wendy she was going to turn out just like her mother. Once, Wendy was made to watch as her grandmother knelt in prayer and cursed God for leaving the girl with her, Older said.

Then in October 1994, Wendy met James Evans. He was older--15--and he stole bicycles and tortured cats, prosecutors said. Trial psychiatrists diagnosed him as a sociopath.

Before long, Wendy began skipping school. Her grades dropped. Wendy, Older said, was becoming like James.

Dr. Kevin Smith, a psychiatrist who testified in Wendy's trial, said there was a logic to the relationship. James received affirmation for his behavior; Wendy, operating on the emotional level of an 8-year-old, had a rebel boyfriend to complement her own angry and rebellious feelings.

"They were truly a perfect match," he said. "It's like a lock and key system."

By Christmas 1994, Wendy had essentially lived with James and his mother for two weeks. Betty Gardner ordered her granddaughter home.

According to a confession Wendy gave days after the killing, the young lovers had other plans. They talked about marrying--on a boat, five miles offshore, so it would be legal. They talked about killing Betty Gardner.

"If I kill her, will you love me?" James asked, according to Wendy's confession. "And I said, 'Yeah, but I don't think you'll do it.' "

"Want to bet?" he asked.

Wendy said James considered using a gun (they didn't have one), chopping her to death (too bloody), stabbing her (ditto).

They decided to snap her neck.

*

The night of Dec. 28, 1994, James accompanied Wendy to her grandmother's house.

According to Wendy, Betty demanded that James leave. James lunged at Betty and put her in a chokehold. He took out a kite string and pulled it with his foot at the base of her neck.

When he told Wendy to say her lines, she was too upset. So James said, "Remember this, bitch, you're never going to be able to hit her again."

Wendy and Kathy hid upstairs.

Later, Wendy and James had sex in the room where Betty was killed. She then helped him stuff the body into the trunk of Betty's 1984 Mercury.

The body stayed in the trunk for the next three days as James--who had no license--drove Wendy to buy video games, sneakers, candy and lingerie with $880 stolen from the dead woman. With the body in the trunk, and a teddy bear in the front seat, they went for fast food. They went bowling twice.

Kathy was made to sit in the back seat sometimes. She did as she was told and stayed quiet. But three days later, she sneaked out to a neighbor's house.

The neighbor called 911, but the operator wouldn't take the call, reasoning it wasn't an emergency because Betty Gardner was already dead. Then the neighbor called the Saugerties police, who found the young couple in the Gardner house and the corpse in the trunk.

*

James Evans was convicted of second-degree murder in July and is serving a sentence of nine years to life.

Wendy's trial, last February, presented more nuanced questions: Was she under the influence of James at the time of the killing? Or did she manipulate him?

Two years after the killing, a poised Wendy Gardner told jurors she loved her grandmother, the woman who tucked her in and kissed her good night. When she confessed, she said, she was merely telling police what they wanted to hear.

"I never literally meant I wanted my grandmother to die," she testified.

Smith, the psychiatrist, testified that Wendy was emotionally stunted and saw the murder plan as just a game. And the demand to "Just do it"? Wendy told Smith it referred to showing some Christmas presents.

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