Darlene McMullen forced herself to go to the bank of the Clark Fork River a few weeks ago. But she didn’t have to force herself to remember what happened near that stretch of water in Trout Creek, Mont.
It was 31 years ago. Her sister Luana “Ninny” Warrick, a blue-eyed, dark-haired beauty, endured a merciless beating on Halloween night.
Warrick’s drunk husband, Sarge, tossed her over his shoulder and hauled her out of a Trout Creek bar in 1967.
Ninny Warrick was punched, kicked, bitten and raped by her husband. Her body was tossed over the bank into the chilly Clark Fork River.
McMullen saw her sister at a Sandpoint hospital. Every part of her was bruised. Half her hair was pulled out. An imprint of Sarge Warrick’s boot was visible behind her ear. “It definitely didn’t look like my sister,” McMullen said. A sheriff’s deputy vomited while taking pictures of Ninny’s injuries for evidence.
Ninny wasn’t dead. She was beaten into a coma. Her brain was “scrambled” from the blows, one doctor said.
Ninny lived in bed, unable to speak or move. She never took a bite of food. She was “fed” through a tube in her nose. She never opened her eyes again, but a tear would roll down her face every now and then.
For 31 years Ninny lived that way. She died Jan. 11, at age 64.
Now, Ninny’s family wants her former husband charged with murder.
A Moscow, Idaho, attorney is exploring the possibility. He says police in Bonners Ferry and Thompson Falls, Mont., have offered to help but adds the family faces several legal roadblocks.
“What he did to her was worse than murder. Murder would have been easy,” said Darlene McMullen, her sister’s look-alike except for the auburn hair. She dabbed tears from her cheek recalling Ninny’s nightmare.
“You would think after this long it would be easier,” she said. McMullen lives in Bonners Ferry, where Ninny spent 14 years in a nursing home. Before Ninny was moved to Bonners Ferry, her mother, Neva Rasmussen, took care of her for 18 years in Spokane.
Ninny’s family - eight brothers and sisters and her mother - spent not just days, but decades at her bedside. They talked to her, sang to her, introduced her to all the nieces and nephews as they were born.
“Thirty-one years is a long time to have hope - to hope that this girl was going to talk or come out of this one day,” McMullen said. “She was not the only victim. We all were. It changed all our lives. I want Sarge convicted of murder for those 31 years of pain.”
Ninny hardly aged in her comatose state. She didn’t have gray hair. But under the blankets, her thin frame was crumpled. She looked nothing like the black and white photos scattered on McMullen’s kitchen table.
Ninny helped run the gas station with her husband in Trout Creek. She fished and hunted. One photo shows her bottle-feeding a fawn in her home.
“He (Sarge) did everything horrible you could do to another human being, then dumped her in the river like she was garbage and walked away,” McMullen said. “We don’t know how much she felt, how much she hurt or what she was thinking those 31 years.”
Sarge Warrick stood trial for aggravated assault in Montana. He was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. He was released after serving only 17 months. No one knows for sure where he is now.
“To me there was no justice. Nobody should be able to do that to somebody and just walk away. He went on with his life as if nothing had happened,” McMullen said. “I want him to face this family. I want him to look at pictures of Ninny and see what he really did to her.”
After the beating, McMullen learned Warrick told people in Trout Creek that Ninny was fine and had left him. He claimed to have seen her dancing in Spokane.
Ninny never danced - let alone walked - after the night Warrick beat her.
“I decided when I saw her in the hospital, someday, someway I was going to see what I could do,” McMullen said. “I’m going to be her voice now.”
Moscow attorney Craig Mosman specializes in domestic violence cases. When McMullen told him her sister’s story recently, he was “shocked.” He offered to help.
“I think back on some pretty terrible cases and (none) comes to mind that was as awful at this,” Mosman said. “This is a ghastly case of domestic violence, and there probably was not much interest in it at the time.”
While Ninny’s story is a sad one, Mosman said it’s also an inspiring tale of family members who spent their lives caring for Ninny.
“What they are hoping for now is some measure of justice in this, or that some good comes from this,” he said.
McMullen wants to help victims of domestic violence and help other people to understand how horrible it can be. She also intends to help families who are trying to care for incapacitated loved ones. McMullen now cares for elderly bedridden patients in her own home.
“Maybe some good can come from Ninny laying there for 31 years. I would never want another woman to go through that in her life,” she said.
Mosman has talked with authorities in Bonners Ferry and Thompson Falls, Mont., about filing a murder charge against Sarge Warrick. Both sheriff’s departments have offered to help, but said there are several legal roadblocks.
Under Montana law, it could be considered double jeopardy to try Warrick again for the crime. But because the charge would be murder, not aggravated assault, Mosman believes there is a case.
In Idaho, an old law bars filing a murder charge, Mosman said. That statute, passed in the 1890s, says if a person survives more than a year and a day after the blow was struck, a murder case cannot be filed.
The law made sense before modern medicine. Mosman wants it repealed and will work with lawmakers to do that.
“Do we really want someone to get away with murder if medical advances can keep them alive longer?” he said.
“What if a person is in a coma for 11 months after a beating or shooting? Do you pull the plug now so the person who did it doesn’t get away with murder?”
If a criminal charge isn’t filed, the family still could file a civil case against Warrick.
“The memory of what he did was in front of us for 31 years. It’s still an open wound,” McMullen said.
The family still is trying to break three decades of habits. McMullen has asked her mother many times since January if they were going to go see Ninny that day.
“I still get sick to my stomach when I pull into mom’s driveway about 4 p.m.,” she said. “That’s when we would go see Ninny.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LEGAL QUESTIONS Sarge Warrick stood trial for aggravated assault in Montana. He was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. Under Montana law it could be considered double jeopardy to try Warrick again for the crime, even though the charge would be murder this time. In Idaho, an 1890s law says if a person survives more than a year and a day after the blow was struck, a murder case cannot be filed.