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Wednesday, December 23, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Killer `Breathed' Wife's Terror -- Edwards Was Tyrant, Observers Say

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

He built her a jail before he shot her.

Carlton Edwards told his wife so many times that he would kill her, the threat is now a numb soundtrack for people she knew. He wouldn't let her shop alone or write her teenage daughter in England. She covered black eyes with theatrical makeup.

So when Melanie Edwards took her daughter and left, burrowed down so far that her husband couldn't find her, she started to see possibility. She planned to move into her own apartment, with her daughter, next month.

"It's a waste," said Michele Tokarski, one of Melanie Edwards' closest friends from Illinois. "She was trying to get out of this, doing all the right things. And then this happened."

Carlton Edwards shot and killed his wife and 2-year-old daughter two weeks ago, outside the one place that he knew they would be, Common Ground, a neutral spot where he picked up his daughter for visits.

The murder charges against Carlton Edwards were upgraded last week to first-degree-aggravated murder. Two days after the shooting, he called a friend and said he shot his wife and daughter because his wife "tripped out" and tried to spray him with pepper gas.

"Obviously what I did was completely wrong," Carlton Edwards told the friend.

Last weekend he shot and killed himself in the San Francisco Bay Area after a police officer approached him.

Since the killings, people involved with the Edwards family have looked to plug the holes in the system. Common Ground has already decided to change its drop-off procedure to protect custodial parents from accused batterers.

Small fixes have been suggested. If authorities order a batterer's assessment, to evaluate whether a parent seeking visitation is dangerous, it should be done before the parent gets to visit the child, said Gene Oliver, Melanie Edwards' lawyer.

On Nov. 10, King County Superior Court Commissioner Leonid Ponomarchuk said Carlton Edwards could have overnight visits with his daughter. He also ordered a batterer's assessment, which wasn't done.

Some domestic-violence advocates are calling for changes. The group Survivors in Service was planning a demonstration from noon to 3 p.m. today at the King County Courthouse to protest "court decisions that kill women and children."

It's not easy to make these decisions. A court commissioner hears as many as 15 cases on family-court motions and protection orders in one morning, Superior Court Commissioner Kim Prochnau said. She makes decisions based on slim reading, slimmer testimony and gut instinct, and she's been lucky.

"It is an art rather than a science, determining what the risk is," she said.

No history of domestic violence

On paper, Carlton Edwards had no domestic-violence history.

He met Melanie Cunningham in February 1992 while on vacation in England. At the time, Edwards was still married to his second wife. Four days after divorcing his wife and six months after meeting Cunningham, Carlton Edwards married her. They lived outside Chicago.

Carlton Edwards wanted a son, but Carli was born in August 1996.

"This man wouldn't buy her a stroller for her baby," said Sharyn Romano, who threw the baby shower. "He was just a tyrant. He lived and breathed her fear."

Carlton Edwards, an airline mechanic, moved the family to the Seattle area in June 1997. A year later, they moved to a home in Gig Harbor.

Melanie Edwards decided to leave after a fight in late July. A friend snapped photos of her bruised leg and swollen eye. Melanie Edwards said that her husband had slammed her head in the door and had punched her repeatedly in the back of the head. She planned her escape and left Oct. 19, three days early, because she was afraid.

"I need to be able to stay where he cannot get to us," she wrote when she filed for divorce. "If that means leaving this area I will need to do that. I cannot stress too much how much danger I believe I have put myself in by leaving him. The only thing worse would have been to stay."

She went to a shelter for a few days. Kim Frinell, who had worked with Melanie Edwards, and his wife offered to let her move into a tiny studio apartment beneath their garage in Magnolia.

Melanie Edwards moved in with her daughter, her clothes and a couple of decorative prints of Harlequin masks. She started a job at the Museum of Flight. Her old boss paid Risk Management Services for a bodyguard to protect her from her husband.

Her lawyer hid her file, concerned that her husband might break into his office to find it. On Nov. 2, Melanie Edwards won a protection order. On Nov. 10, Carlton Edwards was granted overnight visits with his daughter.

Melanie Edwards left the courtroom that day and drove straight for a car lot, where she traded in her 1996 Ford Taurus for a car that her husband wouldn't recognize.

Although scared of him, she started to feel that she would survive, co-workers said.

A taste of freedom

"She reminded me of someone who had been in prison and suddenly tasted freedom," said Michael Friedline, her boss at the Museum of Flight.

She asked everyone to call her Melanie Cunningham. She had a date on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and she wore Sandra Frinell's crystal necklace and fox jacket.

She ran up her credit cards, bought new silverware, dishes and quilts, all still in their wrappers in her hideaway apartment, waiting to be opened when she moved. The new furniture from Ikea was supposed to be delivered last Thursday.

Early this month, she sat down with Risk Management President Michael Carlucci and said she no longer needed his help. At the time, Carlucci thought Carlton Edwards still posed a significant risk to her, and he told her so.

Carli got sick the next weekend. Melanie Edwards still brought her to see her father for their fifth visit. When he brought her back three days later, 13 minutes early Dec. 9, Carlton Edwards said Carli was better.

Carli ran inside Common Ground to play. She asked the program supervisor to comb and fix her hair. For the first time, Carlton Edwards was friendly toward Common Ground staff members before he left.

Melanie Edwards showed up at 6:22 p.m., picked up her daughter and walked back to her car, parked 50 yards away. Carlton Edwards approached and shot them both in Melanie Edwards' new car, at 6:30 p.m.

Co-workers held a memorial service for Melanie and her daughter a week ago at the Museum of Flight. About 100 people grasped for meaning. They looked at pictures of Melanie and Carli throughout the service - mother smiling in the borrowed fox jacket, daughter in a matching yellow-orange hat and outfit, holding a stuffed bunny.

Melanie Edwards used to say that she didn't have many friends because her husband wouldn't let her see people socially, unless he was there.

At the service, several people walked to the microphone, said they'd miss her, said she'd be surprised at the turnout.

Carlton Edwards was only mentioned once by name during the service, in a prayer. Otherwise, he was called "someone who promised to love them."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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