The woman who was stabbed to death in her Spokane Valley home this week may have started the fight with her estranged husband, investigators said Friday.
Mary “Cookie” Birnel suffered 33 cuts, including a fatal stab wound to the left side of her chest. The 12-inch butcher knife cut the pulmonary artery above her heart, according to an autopsy.
Other wounds were found on her arms and legs, and another behind her ear. She died on the family room floor. A sheet was draped over her body when paramedics arrived.
“It appears that she had not been moved,” said Dexter Amend, the Spokane County coroner. “Many of her wounds were superficial. There were several cuts on her hands and fingers.”
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Thomas “Rick” Birnel, 39, after finding him at the house with blood on his hands and clothes. When deputies arrived, Birnel said, “I did it,” according to reports.
He was treated at Valley Hospital and Medical Center for cuts on his hands.
Investigators said Rick Birnel had been baby-sitting the couple’s five daughters and three other children Wednesday night while Cookie Birnel was out.
When she returned - sometime around 3 or 4 a.m. - deputies said she flew into a rage because their 10-year-old daughter was still awake and Birnel started accusing her of being on drugs.
It is unclear whether either had been drinking, although a half-empty bottle of wine and some NyQuil was found on a table near the victim’s body.
Friends of the couple, who asked not to be identified, said Cookie Birnel was addicted to methamphetamine and in the past had threatened to kill her husband.
Rick Birnel told deputies that after he accused his wife of being on drugs, she grabbed a large knife and went after him. Blood was found in the kitchen.
The couple struggled with the knife and fought for about 30 minutes.
At one point, Birnel said he was cut on the hand and managed to get the knife away from her.
The 10-year-old, Lisa Birnel, called 911. Detectives believe she witnessed all or part of the stabbing and questioned her.
Birnel on Friday made a first appearance in District Court, where Commissioner Vance Peterson ordered him held on $200,000 bond. If he posts bail, Birnel is not allowed to be with any of his children, Peterson said.
A group of relatives who watched the hearing on closed-circuit television was angered by that decision.
“It’s not right,” said one of Rick Birnel’s cousins, who refused to give her name.
“He is a good man. He is the best thing that’s ever happened to those girls.”
The Birnels each have been arrested at least twice for domestic violence in the past, but charges were never filed.
During one fight in 1991, Rick Birnel went to the couple’s home and put his wife’s head through a window, according to reports.
Birnel, who owns Rick’s Carpets, 8507 E. Trent, had been separated from his wife for nearly two years.