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Monday, May 8, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A trial of tangled webs

Seattle Times South bureau

"Romantic, spiritual seeker, lover of life and dad" seeks "28- to 45-year-old female for pen pal, activity partner, short-term or long-term relationship. Enjoying all the magical moments life has to offer."

It was signed "Freedom."

About seven months after placing the ad on a dating Web site, Robert Durall got his short-lived freedom. Carolyn, his wife of 12 years, had vanished - possibly, he said, with someone she met through the Internet.

A few days later, Durall was arrested, accused of murdering her.

Now, after 19 months in jail, Durall, a former Sunday-school teacher, church deacon and supervisor of the King County Housing Authority's information systems, will go on trial June 5 in King County Superior Court.

He is charged not only with the first-degree murder of his wife, who was 36, but also with conspiracy to commit murder. The second charge was filed July 9, 1999, after Durall allegedly tried to hire a fellow inmate at the Regional Justice Center to kill his wife's former lover and pin her death on him.

It's the latest twist in a case with its roots deep in cyberspace, from Durall's ad to allegations that before Carolyn's death he searched the Internet using words such as "suffocation," "homicide," "spouse + kill" and "sleep + pills + death."

Neither the prosecution nor the defense will comment, but that Carolyn Durall planned to divorce her husband, and probably seek custody of their three children, likely will be at the center of the case.

Robert Durall, 42, has been in jail since his arrest Aug. 22, 1998, and faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted. He has always maintained his innocence.

The Duralls met while both worked at a property-management firm in Bellevue. They dated for about a year and then married in 1986 at Mount Baker Presbyterian Church.

There were frothy dresses in beige and white, trim tuxedos, a swanky reception at the Sunset Club and a honeymoon on the sugar-sand shores of Hawaii.

Typical tiffs

For most of their marriage, the couple lived in a white, two-story home on Renton's East Hill. It's in a quiet neighborhood where, on warm days, women in the Hoquiam Court Northeast cul-de-sac sit in front of their houses as children zip from house to house, sharing pools and Popsicles.

Although she worked, Carolyn Durall "did Cub Scouts," took her turn hosting the neighborhood play group and was "always there to help somebody out," said neighbor Linda Gunderson.

The Duralls had their typical tiffs, Gunderson said, but nothing serious. Yet Carolyn Durall always seemed tense when her husband was home and complained that he made her account for every penny. The tension lifted, Gunderson said, when he was away on business.

During summer 1998, Carolyn Durall seemed like a new woman. She bought a few new clothes and exuded a "new confidence," Gunderson said.

Confident enough to tell her husband she wanted a divorce.

`I am dying inside'

In a letter to her husband shortly before her death, she said the marriage was a mistake from the beginning. She loved him "too little" and he loved her "too much."

After years "of being unhappy, guilt-ridden and humiliated, I am dying inside," she wrote. "There is so little left of who I used to be. My spirit is crushed. I feel that you are too controlling and obsessive and jealous."

On Aug. 6, she confided in her Morgan Stanley Dean Witter co-workers that she was going to tell her husband of her intent to leave him. She added, "If anything happens to me, my life is in my desk."

They never saw her again.

In her desk, co-workers found the letter and notes to her husband, indicating her unhappiness.

Carolyn Durall also said in the letters that she had had an extramarital affair but denied she was now involved with anyone.

The co-workers discovered that she had a separate bank account containing $900, which had not been accessed since she disappeared.

Neighbors notice

On the morning of Aug. 7, 1998, Gunderson glanced out her window at the Duralls' house and noticed that the window of the upstairs master bedroom was not wide open - as it always was, even when the Duralls were away on vacation. Indeed, the entire house was "sealed up tight," she said.

Later, she went to visit Carolyn Durall, but no one was home. A co-worker called Renton police that afternoon after she didn't show up for work. Police went to the house and found nothing amiss.

That night, Robert Durall reported his wife missing, telling police he hadn't seen her since that morning, when she told him she was going downstairs. He told police she had been meeting men she'd encountered through an Internet chat line and had had at least one affair.

Police initially treated Carolyn Durall as a missing person, but her co-workers thought otherwise. With neighbors, they handed out fliers with her photo and formed search parties to comb surrounding woods and hotel and motel parking lots.

On Aug. 19, they found Carolyn Durall's red Ford Aerostar in the Radisson Hotel parking lot near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. There was no sign of her.

Net date calls police

Meanwhile, Robert Durall's supervisor asked two of his co-workers to search his computer to determine how much personal time he was spending on the Internet during work hours.

What they turned up, prosecutors contend, shows he premeditated the slaying of his wife. They also found correspondence with women in dating chat rooms and an Internet ad in which Durall described himself as "confident, healthy, intelligent, attractive, a dreamer . . . a romantic lover and a moonlight walker. My focus is on nurturing my spirit by making great decisions."

He had attracted a Seattle woman, Shelley Arenas, who began writing to him in December 1997 and later met him. During their first of three meetings - over lunch at a University District cafe - he mentioned that his wife would be better off dead and the thought of not seeing his children daily "brought tears to his eyes," court records say.

On Aug. 18, he wrote to Arenas: "I don't know how to say this, but Carolyn has vanished. I assume she's run off somewhere but no trace. . . . I am worried and confused. Our family could use some prayers."

Arenas then read about Carolyn Durall's disappearance in the newspaper. She called police.

Police obtained a warrant to search Robert Durall's home and, court documents say, they found 100 blood spatters on the walls. They also found parts of the carpet had been cut away and that the plywood underneath was stained with blood.

Robert Durall was arrested at his mother's Seattle home and charged Aug. 26 with murder.

A few weeks later, he agreed to take police and prosecutors to her body - left in a wooded area two miles off Interstate 90 - provided that it not be used against him in trial.

The medical examiner ruled Carolyn Durall had died of blunt trauma to the head.

In the Duralls' neighborhood, friends planted a pink-flowering tree in her honor, gathered for a candlelight remembrance in a park and made dishes from her recipes.

Since then, Robert Durall has been at the center of a whirlwind of pretrial arguments. He lost an attempt to have evidence from the search of his house thrown out, alleging that police did a sloppy job in presenting a warrant. And he lost an attempt to block testimony from a corrections officer at the Regional Justice Center who, according to court documents, allegedly overheard Durall say to himself, "Forgive me for what I have done."

His attorney said his client had a right to pray without interference from government employees.

Another twist

A twist in the case came a year ago when, according to charging documents, Durall met Elmer Clark playing pinochle in jail.

The documents allege that Durall asked Clark to kill a man he thought had been his wife's lover. Once Clark got out of jail, he was to force the man to write a letter confessing to Carolyn Durall's murder and expressing guilt for what he had done and for allowing her husband to be unfairly accused.

Charging papers say that Clark, a 39-year-old transient, was to be sure the man left his fingerprints on the letter and even his DNA by licking the stamp. The letter was to be mailed out of state so it would appear the man had fled. The letter and copies were then to be mailed to the media, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office and Robert Durall.

Clark then was to drive the man to a remote area, kill him, bury the body and hide the car.

The charging papers allege that Durall thought police would conclude the man had fled the area or committed suicide.

In exchange, Durall promised that if Durall was acquitted, Clark "would want for nothing" and that he'd not only be financially rewarded but also be known as "Uncle Elmer" to Durall's children.

Clark - who was doing time for third-degree assault, taking a motor vehicle without permission and eluding a police vehicle - said he had no intention of going through with the murder plot. He told his attorney, who told police.

Grieving over losses

During Durall's 19 months in jail, his 82-year-old mother, Bernice Durall, has been one of his most frequent visitors.

A soft-spoken woman, she grieves for her son, for the loss of a beloved daughter-in-law, for the three grandchildren who now live in California with Carolyn Durall's parents, and for family traditions, like the red geraniums she bought her daughter-in-law each Mother's Day.

Recently she recalled how on the day of the Duralls' wedding, she met her son downstairs in the church.

"I hugged him and told him, please remember to treat (Carolyn) like a queen, like your father always treated me," she said.

And as far as she knows, she said, he always had.

Nancy Bartley's phone message number is 253-437-9461. Her e-mail address is nbartley@seattletimes.com

PUBLISHED CORRECTION DATE: 05/10/2000 - An e-mail acquaintance of Robert Durall called police after she read about Durall's arrest in the slaying of his wife, Carolyn. This story incorrectly reported that she called police after reading of Carolyn Durall's disappearance.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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