Shellye L. Stark’s jaw dropped, her breathing grew heavy and she leaned on the defendant’s table to steady herself.
She’d just learned a jury had convicted her of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the shooting death of her estranged husband, Dale Robert Stark, and she told her lawyer she was going to faint before being led away in handcuffs Wednesday afternoon.
“I’ll be fine,” Stark, 47, told her mother and two sisters as she walked out of Judge Tari Eitzen’s courtroom. “I’m so sorry. I love you. Oh, my God, I love you.”
During the two-week Spokane County Superior Court trial, Stark claimed self-defense, describing her husband as an abusive and compulsive gambler who years earlier had forced her into a secret life in the sex industry, including online prostitution, then threatened to expose her to family members if she ever defied him. She said that her husband of 23 years charged at her while threatening her, and that she never intended to kill him.
Prosecutors said she carefully planned the killing, traveling from California where she’d moved to be with her boyfriend, Brian Moore, and obtaining a temporary restraining order against Dale Stark before making arrangements to obtain firearms from family members in North Idaho.
Dale Stark, 48, died Dec. 9, 2007, from five bullet wounds – four from behind – that his wife fired moments after he arrived home at 1620 S. Maple St. Shellye Stark admitted in testimony to firing the final bullet at her husband as he lay on the floor but said she thought he was reaching for her as she walked to the front door.
Stark’s sentencing is scheduled for April 9. She faces about 45 years in prison for the charges, which included weapons enhancements.
A jury of nine men and three women took about a day to reach the verdict.
Friends of Dale Stark said their finding brought him justice.
“It’s very easy to put someone through the mud once they’re dead,” said Richard Terzieff. “He was a good friend.”
Brandi Hicking, a Spokane woman who knew the couple and told the jury she’d once been threatened by Shellye Stark, said she was “thrilled” with the verdict.
“Dale’s smiling today,” Hicking said.
Shellye Stark’s lawyers said they will appeal.
“She was obviously taken aback by the verdict,” said defense lawyer Bryan Whitaker, who argued the case with Russell Bradshaw. “With our presentation, we had expected that we would get a not-guilty verdict.”
Stark’s defense included a Florida-based psychologist, Dr. Lenore Walker, who argued Stark suffered from battered woman syndrome, which caused her to overreact when her husband threatened to kill her as he reached for a knife on the kitchen counter.
But an Eastern State Hospital psychologist disputed Walker’s testimony, and police testified Stark appeared to have staged the crime scene, noting the presence of an onion and the knife that Stark said her husband eyed even though no food was being prepared.
Stark told jurors she’d been chopping onions for a dinner with her sister Karen Jachetta two days before the killing before leaving the onion and knife on the counter as she left to visit Jachetta, who was in critical condition at Deaconess Medical Center after hitting a moose on Highway 2 while driving to Spokane from Priest River.
The prosecution pointed to that crash and Jachetta’s injuries as evidence that Stark planned to murder her husband – she drove to the scene of the wreck and waited for her nephew to arrive to retrieve two guns, including the .357-caliber revolver she used to kill Dale Stark.
Stark said she hadn’t planned to be at the home when the temporary restraining order was served against Dale Stark, but he’d arrived early.
“If she didn’t intend to be there, why did she need a gun?” Deputy Prosecutor Larry Haskell asked Tuesday in closing arguments. Haskell, who prosecuted the case with Deputy Prosecutor Mark Cipolla, called the verdict “appropriate.”
The Starks signed a marriage settlement in September 2007 to begin divorce proceedings, but Shellye Stark said Moore, her boyfriend, helped her realize the settlement was unfair. She traveled to Spokane to rework it and get the restraining order against Dale, whom she said had been threatening to kill her.
Stark met Moore through an online message board devoted to prostitution while she worked under the name Nikita Jennifer, which she said was partially in memory of her daughter who’d died shortly after birth.
She told the jury her husband caused the baby’s death during a sexual assault while she was pregnant, then forced her to take on the name while she worked as an online prostitute about a decade later.
Moore was listed as a state witness, which prohibited him from contacting Stark, but couldn’t be located to be served a subpoena.
Stark was jailed before the trial after police saw her with Moore. Police didn’t have the subpoena with them at the time.