Cries unheard

Donna thought she had met the perfect husband, but life turned upside down, when she had to endure a life of domestic abuse

Donna thought she had met the perfect husband, but life turned upside down, when she had to endure a life of domestic abuse

When there was trouble, Dennis Yaklich was your man. At 6ft 5in and 19 stone this 40 year-old detective in the police drug squad at Pueblo, Colorado  was always  the man to volunteer when danger and violence was involved. A competitive weight-lifter in peak physical condition, nothing seemed to frighten him. He seemed unbeatable, unstoppable and invulnerable.

But he wasn't. And when two men stepped out of the shadows in the early hours of December 12, 1985, as Dennis Yaklich climbed out of his car outside his house after finishing a late shift, he proved as vulnerable to a hail of semi-automatic rifle bullets as anyone else. As a colleague told reporters: "It's not a question of who killed Dennis, but who didn't...That guy had more enemies than anyone in the state of Colorado... on both
sides of the law."

For Yaklich struck terror even into the hearts of the cops he worked with. A man with a ferocious temper, the least sign of criticism could spark off a violent reaction and Yaklich had several times been carpeted by his bosses and found unsuitable for promotion. It took police two months to get a lead on who killed Dennis Yaklich. Then a tip from an underworld contact led them to two men who lived near the Yakliches in Pueblo.

They were Edward Greenwell, 24 and his brother Charles, only 16 and eventually they admitted they had become contract killers — they were due a pay-out of $45,000 for killing Yaklich. But who would pay that sort of money to kill a low-ranking, and not very bright policeman? And where would the money come from?

The Greenwell brothers wouldn't say who their employer was but Charles did let slip that he thought the money was from an insurance policy on Yaklich's life.

And who was most likely to take out such a policy? That was the question police chiefs were soon asking Yaklich's tearful widow Donna. And after several days of questioning she confessed: her husband was a violent brutal bully who had made her life hell for years. Now she could stand it no longer: she wanted him killed and she had taken out a $45,000 insurance policy on her husband's life to pay for the murder.

The moment she confessed to seeking help from the Greenwells, the brothers' attorneys instantly made a plea bargain with the district attorney in exchange for giving evidence against 29-year-old Donna.

Pleading guilty to second-degree murder, Edward was jailed for 30 years and Charles for 20, but with parole being considered after only ten years. District Attorney Gus Sandstrom told Donna: "If only you had done it yourself you would have walked. Now you can expect the worst — the guys who were Dennis' buddies are on your case..."

Donna had been married to Dennis Yaklich for seven years and for most of that time claimed she was in fear of her life.

They met on a blind date only two months after the death of Yaklich's first wife, Barbara,  and Donna moved in a few months later to help him with his three-year-old daughter and his three stepchildren aged nine, 11 and 12. She didn't intend to stay but "I didn't expect to fall in love with the children who desperately needed someone to look after them." Donna would claim that only a month after she moved in Yaklich became violent and abusive. "I left several times but like most battered women I went back," she would tell police.

"I fell in to the trap of thinking that if I could make everything perfect for him he wouldn't get mad at me or the kids... Because he was a police officer, I knew I wouldn't be protected from him. None of his fellow-officers would speak against him. Donna's attorneys would allege that there was no doubt that Yaklich operated a reign of terror at home. A postman would give evidence that he saw the cop hit his wife repeatedly in the face and other visitors saw cuts and bruises on Donna's face and body. Lawyer John Schwartz said: "The constant threat of injury or even death loomed over Donna Yaklich every day. She reported the violence several times to the police but they told her that domestic problems were none of their business.

In November, 1983, Donna went to a psychologist who advised her to leave her husband but provided no advice on how she could do that safely. Eventually Donna fled to a battered wives' refuge, but was persuaded by her husband to return home.

"He promised to change but in days things were even worse than ever," said John Schwartz. "And early in 1985 Donna was telling friends that she had real fears that Yaklich would kill her and the children.

"She was in such a state of panic and torment that she could see no alternative to killing her husband. But she knew she couldn't do it. Like most battered women she was ambivalent towards her brutal husband. She loved him and hated him at the same time."   

So she looked around for someone to do the dreadful deed — and found the Greenwell brothers. After Yaklich was murdered, Donna made a statement in which she said: "As soon as I saw my husband's body in the driveway I knew it was the worst thing that could have happened.

"It's hard to look at yourself and realise that you're that bad. When I was arrested it was actually a relief."

At her trial, which was sensational news across America, Donna Yaklich pleaded not guilty to first degree murder but admitted conspiracy to murder, claiming that it was the only way left to escape a violent marriage.

There was apparently evidence to suggest that some jurors felt Donna should be acquitted on all charges but voted guilty, placing their reliance on the fair-mindedness and mercy of the judge.

They had some reason to believe this would happen: in pre-trial negotiations both prosecution and defence had agreed that in this extraordinary case justice would be served by a maximum sentence of eight years followed by probation and rehabilitation. The probation service had said that Yaklich's treatment of his wife and family was some of the worst ever encountered. In the meantime an official inquiry had been opened into the death of Yaklich's first wife, Barbara who on Valentine's Day 1977 had waved goodbye to her daughter Vanessa as she left for school and an hour later was found dead.

Her husband was the only person known to be with her at the time. A post-mortem gave the cause as "internal bleeding caused by a lacerated liver." Yaklich had told the original inquest that his wife had fainted and that his resuscitation attempts must have accidentally caused the fatal injuries.

Yaklich was asked to take a lie-detector test, which he refused and no charges were ever brought against him. Donna told the court that on several occasions her husband had threatened that "You will end up like my first wife." The official inquiry is still officially open, but no result has ever been announced. But the biggest shock came when Judge Charles Seavy announced Donna Yaklich's sentence — an unprecedented 40 years without parole.

Even the jurors on the case were astonished by the severity of the term and most of them wrote protesting letters, resulting in a sentence reappraisal.

But the sentence stood. Announcing the result, Judge Roy Halaas said: "The opinion of former jurors is not useful." Donna Yaklich is serving her term in Colorado Women's Penitentiary. Recently a movie based on the case Cries Unheard: the Donna Yaklich Story, has sparked a campaign to have the case retried. In the meantime, Donna stipulated that any money due to her from the movie should go to Dennis Yaklich's elderly parents.


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