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Murder victim's family held out hope Wright was alive for almost a decade
For 9 1/2 years, Byron Wright's family held out hope that he was still alive.
"We all hoped by some miracle that he was sitting on a beach in Mexico having a good time," his youngest sister, Sharon Diehl, says in court papers.
He wasn't. He was killed almost 10 years ago by his wife, Michele Donohue, in their rural home in the hills between Arlington and Marysville. He was stabbed in the back of the head about a dozen times sometime in September of 2004.
Donohue pleaded guilty to second-degree murder July 11. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison July 29.
Wright's father left the family when Byron was 4 or 5, so he and his three siblings were raised on welfare by their mother, who had multiple sclerosis. Being the oldest, Wright was the main caretaker.
Wright's younger brother, Norman, says it was a close-knit family.
"My mother raised us in a loving home before she became ill," he says in court papers.
When their mother could no longer care for them, they went to live with their aunt and uncle in Ballard in 1967. Wright was 15.
Larry Ringstad, a neighbor, became Wright's best friend. They both loved cars and working on them. They would cruise the Renton Loop and Colby Avenue in Everett. Wright even raced some at Seattle International Raceway.
Wright joined the Coast Guard for four years and enjoyed some adventures.
"Even though he got motion sickness it was a means for him to get ahead," family friend Joan O'Malley says in court papers. "He came home from being at sea talking about playing football with the penguins."
Loved his family
As he got older, Wright stayed in touch with his family.
"He never missed a holiday with his youngest sister, Sharon, and her family. He would never miss his nieces' birthdays. He came to most of the milestone events in my life," Ringstad says in court papers.
Wright's oldest niece, Jennifer Wheeler, says: "My 'Uncle By' was the silly, fun uncle that bought goofy presents because he had no idea what to buy a young girl, but they always turned out to be the present my sister and I loved the most."
At Easter he would dye eggs with them and at Christmas stay after everyone else left to listen to the traditional record "T'was the Night Before Christmas." He would help their parents put together bicycles, Barbie houses or other presents.
"He didn't have any children of his own; we were his kids," Wheeler says in court papers.
Wright worked hard at Boeing for 23 years and was able to save some money. He was proud of the double-wide mobile home, huge shop and land he bought.
"He was a happy and proud man because he had done it on his own," Diehl says of Wright's "little piece of heaven on earth."
Being a "car guy," he also had a collection of eight automobiles, including a Corvette Stingray and a '65 Chevy Malibu. Some say that collection was worth half-a-million dollars.
'Shelly' enters his life
Wheeler says the family first met Michele "Shelly" Donohue when Wright brought her over for a Thanksgiving dinner.
"Byron was a car nut. He could talk cars for hours. She knew more about cars and their parts than any woman I ever knew," O'Malley says of Donohue.
But the family says she became controlling.
"We would have loved to have spent more time with Byron, but Michele didn't allow that to happen," Norman says.
Norman said family tried to contact Wright by phone or by sending cards, but Donohue would intervene.
"I'm not even sure my brother knew we were trying to reach him," Norman says.
The niece, Wheeler, says she spent years feeling guilty that the family had done something to push Wright away.
"The uncle that was once at every event in my life suddenly stopped after he met this woman," Wheeler says.
Ringstad said there were always excuses for not getting together. He and Wright would see each other in the parking lot at Boeing, but that was it.
"We had said we would get together soon - we never did - now I know why," he says in court papers.
In the heat of an argument, Donohue stabbed Wright multiple times in the head and neck. Despite his pleas she let him bleed to death. With an axe and knife she cut him up in her kitchen. She then buried the dismembered body under 36 yards of dirt, saying she wanted to create a “hill for her daughter to sled on when it snowed.”
She divorced Wright in absentia and received almost everything he owned.
She remarried in 2005 to Joel Donohue and told him about the killing, saying Wright was abusive. The new husband was worried about the body’s location so he recruited two friends to help relocate the body, re-bury it and cover it with concrete so a “ground penetrating radar” couldn’t detect it. A large “blue tote” filled with concrete concealed Wright's torso and head, with two smaller bags containing his arms and legs.
Realizing he's gone
The family started to realize Wright was missing a few years later. Diehl tried to contact Wright, but Donohue called back. Donohue told her Wright had run off with a young, red-headed woman who had money.
The family said it was skeptical of the story from the start.
"After I heard Michele's outrageous story that Byron had run off with a young, red-headed gal, stating he left his passion job at Boeing, I didn't believe it," Linda Wright Kezele, Wright's cousin, says in court papers.
Kezele says he loved his job as a mechanic, wouldn't leave his money behind, or his cars, or the large shop he built.
Norman also didn't believe it.
"As much as he loved to race and collect cars, I never believed that he would leave them all behind," Norman says.
The family tried to file a missing person's report with law enforcement in Arlington, but were told sometimes grown men disappear, court papers say.
Diehl says she was told "unless I have proof of foul play there was nothing they could do."
The family even set up a Facebook page, using social media in an effort to find Wright.
"Years went by and no evidence of Byron surfaced anywhere. It was heart-breaking," Kezele says.
Finding out the truth
The break in the case came when Michael Huselein, one of the friends who helped re-bury Wright's remains, unwittingly told a jail informant in December 2013 about the killing.
There was some concern between the two that Michele might tell police about illegal activity going on at the home because she was upset that new husband Joel Donohue had a pregnant girlfriend living there. Huselein told the informant not to worry because they had something on Donohue - she had killed her previous husband. Police wired the informant, and they got that information on tape.
Police issued a search warrant for Donohue's property on Feb. 13, 2014. Police broke apart the concrete at 8121 Wade Road and found Wright's remains.
Donohue was arrested Feb. 13 when Wright’s body pieces were dug up. She was held on $1 million bail because of the “cold and calculating behavior after the offense, the years of hiding evidence, recruiting others to assist in the covering up the murder of Wright, and her recent discussion about needing her current husband to disappear and possibly be murdered,” court papers say.
Donohue pleaded guilty to second-degree murder July 11. Prosecutor Cindy Larson said there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Donohue of first-degree murder – that would require premeditation.
Extra prison time
When the family learned what happened, they wanted extra prison time for Donohue.
"I feel Michele got to play and live the high life for free for ten years on Byron's hard-earned life savings. He should have been planning his retirement right now. After he was brutally murdered, I feel she deserves to live in a prison cell until she is really old," O'Malley says.
Wheeler says: "Because of her, he was not part of the important milestones in my life: graduating high school and college, my wedding, the death of my father and the birth of my son. I miss my 'Uncle By' every day and cannot imagine what he went through because of her."
Norman says the murder was pre-meditated because Donohue waited until her daughter, Heather Wagonblast, was vacationing in Europe before killing Wright. Wagonblast was living with them at the time.
Ringstad said Donohue deserved a stiffer sentence because she showed no remorse, was a "very evil person" and that she would do it again if she had the opportunity.
She "lied and deceived the court system in order to acquire all of his possession," Ringstad says. "Shelly not only took his life, but everything he worked hard for."
Diehl says her brother's property has been completely destroyed by Donohue, her new husband and his friends. There are reports of a chop shop and drug use there. Donohue also sold much of Wright's car collection on Craigslist.
"Michele lied to everyone," Diehl says.
Some family members said they are having recurring nightmares.
"My youngest dreamed on the night of her wedding (three years ago) that Uncle Byron came to the wedding," Diehl says.
Laurie Wright, Wright's sister-in-law, in court papers says: "The scene keeps replaying itself in a never-ending loop in my mind. I can only imagine the shock and terror Byron must have been feeling. I can hear him pleading desperately, knowing that he would bleed to death if someone didn't come to help."
Laurie cited Donohue's "cruel, calculated, twisted determination" to kill Wright for money. As a nurse, Laurie says she understands Wright's demise.
"I know he would have felt himself become colder and more and more thirsty as the seconds and minutes ticked by … until he finally succumbed alone, afraid, in disbelief at what had occurred."
She asked the judge for an extended sentence so that Donohue could never hurt anyone else.
"Apparently she has become indifferent or numb to the pain and suffering that other people feel from her actions and has an utter disregard for the value of another human life."
Sentenced to 16 years
Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Bowden's sentence is more than the 15 years agreed to in a plea deal, but less than the maximum of 18 years. Bowden said he did that to make sure Donohue would get the maximum three years of supervision once she gets out of the women's prison in Purdy.
Bowden explained he could only sentence according to the agreed-upon guilty plea of second-degree murder. He said he's not sure if the state could have proved pre-meditation.
"She needs the maximum time regardless," Bowden said. "She needs to be locked up."
The judge sentenced her to 192 months. The plea deal was for 180.
"One more year is scant solace for the family of the victim," Bowden admitted.
He gave Donohue credit for pleading guilty, accepting responsibility, not having any prior criminal record and not putting Wright's family through a trial.
But he added it was "distressing" that Donohue allowed Wright to bleed out. Bowden said it "concerned him greatly" that she kept the killing secret for almost 10 years, and that she put great effort into the disposing of the body.
Donohue apologized to Wright's family, saying she was "so very sorry" for taking his life. She talked quietly, saying there was nothing she could do to ease their pain, in between sniffles.
"I did not plan this," she insisted.
Donohue said she has been getting counseling and realizes now Wright's death could have been prevented. She said by learning to deal with her anger she could have dealt with their marital problems.
Ringstad spoke about what a nice man Wright was.
"He was simple. He treated everybody fair. I never heard him say a sour word to anybody," Ringstad said.
Wright's sister, Diehl, spoke on behalf of the family. She said they loved Wright: he was "kind, funny, loving."
Diehl said Donohue manipulated not only Wright but the entire family, and included the court system, too. She said the family can't understand how Donohue couldn't get more prison time for this "horrific thing."
"Think of what you did and how many lives you changed," Diehl said to Donohue.