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Diary Tracks a Fateful Attraction

November 21, 1997|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Megan Whalley's diary was a work-in-progress, each entry marking the wonderful confusion and scattered hopes of the high school sophomore from Orange. It was intended for her eyes only.

But now her thoughts echo like a voice from the grave.

Mary Meloch, an Orange County deputy district attorney, reads portions of the journal to a classroom of teenagers in Costa Mesa. She wants them to understand how 16-year-old Megan entered into the relationship that would cost her her life.

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"I got a guys phone number. It was weird. I don't know how it happened. Heather was talking to him. Then he asked for my number and Heather gave it to him and he gave me his. While we were there he put his arm around me. Once we hugged. Then he left. I came in and 5 minutes later he called. We talked for 2 hours. His name is Dan and he's 20 years old. We were just getting to know each other and he said if you do something about your boyfriend, we'll go out Friday. . . ."

The relationship got serious right away between Megan and Danny Eugene Stewart, the often jobless, sometimes homeless, smooth-talking object of the honor student's affection. The pair seemed joined at the hip.

Megan's mother didn't like the guy.

"There was something about him, and later, I knew what it was," recalls Susan Whalley of the young man who was with her daughter "every waking minute."

"I don't know if it's a gut feeling, or what you get, but there came a point when I had to get her away from him."

One of the warning signs of a violent relationship are courtships that progress at high speed. Diary entries reveal that after two weeks of dating, Dan whispered "I love you" to Megan. They made love 18 days into the relationship.

All the while, the outgoing redhead put thoughts to page.

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"I went out with Dan tonight. We played miniature golf. Then we went to his friend's house for a party. It was boring. So we went to his house. And you know what we did there. He said he can't wait to get into a fight so we can make up."

Like most parents reflecting on their children's adolescence, Whalley says hindsight is crystal clear.

"I was never one to choose her friends or make her decisions for her," she says. "When I saw him verbally abusing her, though, I stepped in. But I never, never, imagined that anything like this could happen."

The events came in rapid succession: Megan got pregnant. Stewart, losing job after job, lived in his car until he lost that too. Nicholas was born. Megan started taking classes at a nearby community college while Whalley cared for her grandson. It was about this time--three years into the relationship--that Stewart literally parked his life in the family driveway.

He took up residence in Megan's 1983 Toyota Tercel, the perfect place for him to watch her every move.

"He relied on Megan for everything," Whalley recalls. "His idea of getting a job was making a sign that said, 'will work for food.' "

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"Nothing has changed. Dan still comes over every day at 8:30 and he still sleeps in my car. He still has to know everything I do. It's New Year's Eve and I have no plans."

"The only good thing about this year was Nicholas. Things between me and Dan were terrible the whole year and now it's over. Maybe in 1995 I can have something good happen."

But nothing good was to happen again for Megan Whalley.

The class of high school students listening to Megan's story turns somber as the deputy district attorney describes what police say happened 10 days after the New Year's Eve entry in Megan's diary.

It's believed that, in a jealous rage over Megan meeting with an old boyfriend, Stewart began arguing with her as their baby sat in his high chair.

"Danny picked up an orange crate that had toys in it and began beating Megan over the head with it over and over until the crate splintered into pieces on the floor," Meloch says.

An autopsy revealed that every bone in Megan's face was broken. Police say she was kicked repeatedly, had a pair of socks stuffed in her mouth to keep her quiet and was strangled.

Taking their 13-month-old son with him, Stewart left the house and headed for Ortega Highway, where he drove off a 300-foot cliff. Nicholas was thrown from the car and died of massive head trauma.

Stewart survived the crash. He later told police that he had wanted to be with his son in death. He was tried and convicted, receiving two life sentences for the murders.

After losing her daughter and grandson, Whalley struggles with the void in her life as the third anniversary of their deaths approaches.

"I miss her so much," says Whalley, fighting back sobs. "And Nicky was such a wonderful baby. . . . I don't want them forgotten."

As to why her daughter stayed in the relationship, Whalley still has no real answers.

"Megan was such a big-hearted person; she wanted Nicky to see his dad," she says.

"To me, a man can't really love a woman if he treats you that way. Sooner or later, you wake up to that, but sometimes it's too late. I wish I knew. I wish I knew."

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