REVISITED: Fort Bragg’s Deadly Summer
After a string of slayings and suicides at the base, the army is grappling with its domestic-violence problem. In three cases, model soldiers who’d served in Afghanistan killed their wives. Were they simply unable to leave the war behind, or did an anti-malaria drug turn them psychotic?
by Maureen Orth
Vanity Fair, December 2002
Last January, Jennifer Wright began telling close friends that she was getting letters from an anonymous stalker and threatening phone calls. She said they warned her to stay away from the choir director at her church, a divorced man who made it no secret that he found
Jennifer attractive. Jennifer, 32, was married to Master Sergeant William Wright, 36, a career army man for 18 years, assigned to the Special Forces and seemingly away on duty more than he was home.
After 12 years of marriage, Jennifer had begged Bill to leave his job or at least find a way to be home more, but he refused, and their relationship had been shaky for some time. In 1991, Jennifer had left Bill for a short period, only to return and ask forgiveness.
Two years ago she became attracted to another man and, according to a friend, confessed it to her husband when he returned from Bosnia. She told friends that he had stayed angry with her ever since.
In February of this year he left for training in Georgia, and in March he was sent to Afghanistan.
Jennifer, a pretty, slight brunette from Mason, Ohio, was only 20 when she married Bill, in 1990. In August 1998 they moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where Jennifer homeschooled their three sons, now 13, 8, and 5, and appeared to be “a perfect Christian wife and mother,” according to members of Arran Lake Baptist Church, where she directed the children’s choir.
During Bill’s deployments the church became the center of her life, and the mysterious calls and letters were originally thought to have come from another church member, who was jealous of Jennifer Wright.
While Bill was in Georgia, Jennifer told friends that she and her husband were getting a divorce, at his instigation. Once the threats and letters had escalated to the point where she reported someone prowling in her backyard and the burglar alarm going off, police went to investigate.
Meanwhile, Jennifer told church members that she had to go to the army’s Judge Advocate General to sign divorce papers, because her husband had circumvented North Carolina’s law requiring a one-year pre-divorce separation by going to Florida, where his father lived, to file the paperwork.
In early March, Special Forces soldier Stanley Harriman, the husband of Jennifer’s close friend Sheila Harriman, was killed in
Afghanistan. Jennifer, with the choir director in tow, showed up to comfort Sheila and tell her the divorce was final. The children had been told, she said.
But then Jennifer attended Harriman’s funeral with Bill, who had returned from Georgia and would leave in a few days for Afghanistan. Once he was gone, “it wasn’t but a sneeze,” says Sheila Harriman, before the choir director asked Jennifer for a date. The church’s pastor gave his permission, as long as they were chaperoned, and for the next two and a half months Jennifer and the choir director appeared together everywhere. Harriman says that Jennifer told her they never went to bed together, although they were making plans to get married.
At church, according to congregation members, Jennifer would denigrate Bill and say he was being investigated for a conspiracy case.
In Afghanistan in May, Bill Wright ran into a fellow church member, who informed him that his wife was dating the choir director. Wright, who had no inkling of the romance, immediately called the pastor. “Jennifer is my wife,” he reportedly told him. “I love her.” The pastor contacted Jennifer and took her up on her offer to produce the divorce papers.
Instead she presented him with another stalking letter and said the hard drive on her computer had mysteriously crashed. The pastor, according to his wife, told Jennifer she needed help beyond anything he could do for her.
Bill Wright secured permission to come home from Afghanistan and deal with his “personal problems,” and military spokesmen say he had a brief session with an army chaplain. Jennifer claimed to friends that Bill was setting her up. But when Sheila Harriman threatened to report Bill and have him arrested—by then she had learned that the police did not believe Jennifer was being stalked—her friend broke down and tearfully confessed. She said she had responded to the choir director, Harriman says, because “he was the only one to pay attention to her.
She did it for the attention, because she was lonely, miserable, depressed.” Unable to break away on her own and reluctant to abandon the precepts of her church, she had fantasized that she was divorced and had entangled many members of the congregation in a web of deceit. The strain of having to stay in an unhappy marriage was so great that Jennifer had lost 20 pounds, dropped much of the homeschooling, and stopped paying the bills.
Finances had often been a problem, especially when Bill would take off. “He would leave her there with all the bill collectors calling and go on a mission,” says Jennifer’s father, Archie Watson. “It was tough for her.” Sheila Harriman says, “She just wanted somebody who was there—there all the time—who could show her attention. She was very, very lonely, a homeschooling mom for six years with three boys. All the life she had was a few friends, the church, and waiting for Bill to come home.” Jennifer’s sister, Donna Walker, says, “He put the army before my sister. He put the army before anyone.”
Once home, Bill found that all of his belongings had been put out in the shed and the garage. He moved into the barracks at Fort Bragg, but he was adamant about wanting to stay married. “He said he would do anything not to get a divorce,” says Archie Watson.
A normally shy nondrinker and a stutterer, only five feet four, Bill came home every day, but, according to what Jennifer said and neighbors told her family, he began to drink and behave strangely. Jennifer told her mother he was a completely different person after he came home from Afghanistan.
He would fly into rages—just as he had when he returned from Bosnia—and get mad over insignificant things. Jennifer’s parents visited in late May. “He was like a different person to me and to his boys and to her,” says Archie Watson. “He’d be talking to you and then he’d go off on something else, something unrelated to what you were talking about.” Other times he would just walk away.
Authorities Investigate Fort Bragg Soldier’s Suicide in Jail Cell
WRAL, March 24, 2012
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — A Fort Bragg soldier who admitted to strangling his wife to death last summer apparently has committed suicide in jail.
Shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday, former U.S. Army Sgt. William Clark Wright Jr., 36, was found hanging in his cell in the Cumberland County Detention Center.
Officials say cameras are in the jail, but not in the cells. Computer records show Wright was checked 28 minutes before he was found. He was not under suicide watch.
“Jailers are required to make periodic checks of every cells, to physically look in every cell a number of times each hour,” said Lt. Sam Pennica, of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.
“I was in shock. I heard about it in the very early morning. I was saddened. I liked Bill. He had a lot of good qualities,” said Tom Maher, Wright’s attorney.
Wright was transported to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 2:05 a.m.
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Between early May and the beginning of June, Bill Wright sent three E-mails to Tracy Quinn, the family-readiness specialist at Fort Bragg, but family members say Quinn did not respond. Quinn told Jennifer’s family that she had intended to respond but had just not done so.
Special Forces public-affairs officer Carol Darby, however, says that although Quinn did not meet with Wright she sent him a list of resources. The army is not releasing the contents of Bill Wright’s E-mails, but relatives and friends who have seen them say they were asking for help, albeit cryptically.
In one, Archie Watson remembers, Bill wrote that “his wife’s gonna leave him—she’s asking for a divorce. He has three boys, two cats, two cars, and a house. ‘What would you do?’ ”
In general, Special Forces members are loath to request help, because there is no confidentiality regarding psychological counseling in the army. Visits to a mental-health professional are noted on a soldier’s record and can easily lead to his security clearance being revoked, which can be a career breaker.
“He specifically asked for any type of help he could have, anybody he could talk to,” says Donna Walker. “He asked for help, period.”
The last time she talked to her sister, Walker says, Jennifer told her, “He’s smothering me; he won’t leave me alone.”
On the night of Friday, June 28, Jennifer joined a group of women from her church at the home of Connie Veeder, a Creative Memories consultant, for a kind of Tupperware party for materials with which to make distinctive photo albums combined with “journaling.” “She was one of my best customers,” says Veeder. “All of her albums were up-to-date.”
There’s no reason to believe right now that Lariam affected the behavior of the individuals.
— Army spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis
We have found for most soldiers this is the drug that they’re able to handle very well and even the side effects they’ve had have been relatively minor.
— Col. Robert of the U.S. Army
Veeder saw that Jennifer was troubled.
“There was something on her mind. She kept making negative comments about her marriage.” Jennifer hung around at the end of the session to ask Veeder about becoming a Creative Memories consultant herself. “I have to get a job,” she said. “I have to earn extra money, but I have to stay at home, because I’m homeschooling.” Veeder gave her details. Jennifer did not have quite enough cash to pay for her materials, but she promised to return the next day with what she owed. She had plans to have dinner and go to a movie on Saturday night with her old friend Kim Bunts, a native of Fayetteville living an hour away, who knew she needed cheering up. Neither Bunts nor Veeder saw Jennifer the next day or heard from her. Finally Bunts went looking for her. “I was worried she might do something to herself, she was so down.”
Bill Wright, police say, entered the house about 7:30 on Saturday morning, June 29, ostensibly to pick up some tools. His wife was still in bed.
They began to argue about divorce, and within minutes Bill picked up a baseball bat and struck her.
Their oldest son, Ben, came to the closed door of the bedroom, but his father told him that his mother had a headache and that he should leave.
According to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, it is unclear where the other children were in the small house the couple had purchased only a year earlier.
Bill Wright would later explain what happened next. “Something just snapped in my mind,” Archie Watson said his son-in-law told him.
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Filed under: Resources Tagged: | Army spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis, Cumberland County Detention Center, Fort Bragg Murder-Suicides, Fort Bragg’s Deadly Summer Vanity Fair, Jennifer Wright, Lariam Mefloquine, Lt. Sam Pennica Cumberland County Sheriff's Office, Master Sgt. William Clark Wright Jr., Tom Maher, Tracy Quinn Fort Bragg family-readiness specialist