By Susan Daly
Saturday October 03 2009
In the weak, early winter morning light of November 6, 2001, a homeless man stumbled upon a body in an isolated car park. Dr Andrew Bagby had been shot five times: in the chest, the left cheek and, as his body swivelled and fell, twice in the rectum. The final bullet had been fired at close range into the back of his head -- an execution-style shot.
The vicious nature of the murder suggested that the victim had made a very serious enemy. But Andrew was a 28-year-old family practice medic in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, USA; a much-respected colleague, beloved friend and adored only son of Kate and David Bagby.
It was an incongruous murder, but one that would spark a notorious case that would pit the judicial systems of two countries against each other, thrust his parents into a living nightmare and culminate in another heinous crime. And, as the film Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father about the case -- screened at this year's Stranger Than Fiction documentary festival in Dublin -- shows, it has implications for any country that is interested in justice and the safety of its citizens.
It had seemed inconceivable that anyone would have wanted to hurt Andrew. Tributes poured in describing him as kind, generous, joyful. "A good kid," his father David says simply, speaking to Weekend magazine from his home in California.
It quickly became clear that there was only one suspect for his murder: Dr Shirley Turner, an obsessive and jealous woman who he had dated casually for two years. The romance had been souring for months. On one day alone in July, she left 30 angry messages in Andrew's voicemail.
Andrew finally ended their affair two days before he was murdered. Turner boarded a plane to her own home in Iowa, but just 24 hours later, on Sunday, November 4, she loaded her handgun, climbed into her SUV and drove all night back to Pennsylvania, turning up on Andrew's doorstep in Latrobe on Monday morning.
He put her off so he could attend his shift at the nearby hospital, promising to meet her that evening instead. Shirley shot him dead that night in the car park of nearby Keystone State Park and drove back to Iowa.
When David and Kate Bagby were notified to contact the Pennsylvania coroner's office, life as they had known it was shattered forever. "I used to be a Pollyanna," says Kate in her soft English accent, joining David on the phone. "I had a lovely childhood, a lovely son and husband and a job that I loved."
She had met David while travelling America as a young nurse, and never went home. The years of raising their son, the wonderful family life they had together in California, have been annihilated. "There is before Andrew's murder," she says, "and there is after. That's all."
Wracked with grief, the Bagbys came up with a plan as they flew to Pennsylvania to identify Andrew's body. They would bring him home, hold his funeral service then kill themselves. Only the love of their friends and family brought them back from the edge -- that, and the thought of seeing Shirley Turner face up to what she had done.
Andrew and Shirley had been an odd couple. There was a 12-year age gap between them, she was twice divorced and had three children who didn't live with her. Andrew, for his part, was vulnerable after a broken engagement. He was also too nice a guy to judge someone on the basis of their past.
When police closed in on Shirley -- who brazenly rang Kate repeatedly on the morning after the murder to ask if she had heard from Andrew -- she fled to her homeland of Newfoundland in Canada. The Bagbys hoped that extradition would bring her to trial in front of an American jury.
Then came the sucker punch. Shirley announced that she was pregnant with Andrew's child. The Bagbys attended extradition hearings in St John's, Newfoundland, in early 2002, where they were confronted with the sight of Shirley ostentatiously patting her swollen belly and walking about the courtroom. She had already been released on bail after her recently-hired psychiatrist signed a guarantee for her surety.
The Bagbys had no choice but to sit in silent frustration as they heard the judge speak of his sympathy for Shirley, whose life was "on hold" because of the cumbersome extradition process.
"I wanted to stand up and scream, 'My son's life is on hold forever'," says Kate. More appallingly, Shirley began to make contact with them, complaining about the inconvenience of the protracted extradition process. Inconceivable though it might seem, the Bagbys bit their tongue and put up with her rants. They hoped that if Shirley was convicted and jailed for Andrew's murder, they might gain custody of her and Andrew's child, their only link to their dead son.
Eight-and-a-half months on from Andrew's death, Zachary Andrew Turner was born. There was no doubting his paternity: baby photographs of the two show the same laughing blue eyes, chubby cheeks and smiling, rosebud mouth.
It was at this point that a private tribute which Andrew's childhood friend, film director Kurt Kuenne, had been compiling about his murdered friend found a new purpose. He had been collecting reminiscences from people whose lives Andrew had touched. He also had hours of footage of the teenage Andrew acting in amateur movies that Kurt had shot as a budding film-maker.
"When it came to light that Shirley was pregnant with Andrew's child, I was hit by the enormous significance my little tribute film would have for this boy, because it would be an absolute goldmine for him in learning about his dad," explains Kurt.
"It was never my intention to release this film publicly at this point, beyond giving it to family, friends and recipients of the scholarship funds that had been established in Andrew's memory." He called the film Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father.
But when events took another nightmarish turn, the film was to turn into something entirely more powerful and devastating.
The Bagbys had moved to Newfoundland indefinitely in 2002 to attend the ongoing extradition hearings and apply for as much access as they could to their beloved grandson. "To us, he was just a baby. He came into this world and he was half Andrew," says Kate.
All the while, Shirley grew more demanding and unpredictable. At first, the Bagbys were allowed only a single one-hour visit with Zachary a week, before which they were subjected to a humiliating personal search. They were forced to pay for an independent observer to sit with them as they played with Zachary, as if they were the dangerous party.
David describes how he had to go into "ice mode" to deal with Shirley. During one visit, she twisted the knife, asking: "Did Andrew have curly hair when he was a baby?" Kate remembers that awful moment. "David couldn't answer because he would have hit her."
With breathtaking arrogance, Shirley once even tried to get the Bagbys to pay for a private investigator to find out who "really" killed Andrew. As David writes in his memoir Dance With The Devil: A Memoir of Murder and Loss, the Bagbys and Shirley must have looked "almost like a normal family ... Except that mommy shot daddy and grandpa wanted to strangle mommy".
Their restraint paid off for a time when Shirley was put behind bars in November 2002 -- 12 months after Andrew's murder -- and the Bagbys got to look after their beautiful Zachary. As David notes, their fears for Zachary had always centred around the fact that when he was with Shirley, he was "at the mercy of an emotional time bomb".
In early January 2003, the "time bomb" was released on bail for a second time. Justice Gale Welsh decided that "while the offence with which she (Shirley) is charged is a violent and serious one, it was not directed at the public at large".
David Bagby says he still suffers rage when he thinks of that decision. "People don't take murder seriously," he says. "It's like that judge said, 'It's a nasty crime, but you only wanted to kill Andrew and you've done that so you're not a danger to anyone else'."
The Bagbys, despairing and disbelieving, had to hand Zachary back to a mentally unstable mother. Shirley, meanwhile, was unravelling completely. At Zachary's birthday party in July, she hit the roof when Zachary reached for Kate, muttering that he loved Kate more than her.
Shirley met a guy at a bar around this time, but he ended the fling when he found out who she was. She grew erratic, harassing him with calls day and night.
It would emerge that this was a familiar pattern. She had previously made a suicide attempt on the doorstep of a former lover in 1999. She also threatened a medical college supervisor who didn't give her the review she thought she deserved. In short, when Shirley Turner didn't get what she wanted, she turned nasty.
Then, in the early hours of Monday, August 18, 2003, Shirley put Zachary in his car seat and drove to the house of the latest man to 'reject' her. She left photographs of herself and a used tampon under his car before taking off and running her own car into a ditch near his home. From there, she walked the short distance to the nearby rocky coastline and fed Zachary some prescription pills. She strapped him to her chest and jumped into the sea, murdering Zachary and killing herself.
When this awful climax to the tale of Shirley's madness was recounted in Kurt Kuenne's film in Dublin, the audience sobbed in horror. It is unbearable to imagine how the Bagbys must have felt.
David pauses on the phone. "It's still there, the fury. I can work into a hell of a frenzy," he says. At times he has wondered if he shouldn't have killed Shirley before she had a chance to harm Zachary. "I think, 'How could you be so stupid?'"
It is hard to understand where they find the strength to go on. They hardly know themselves, except that they feel their mission now is to stop the same tragic fate befalling another family. A child death review in Newfoundland by coroner Peter Markesteyn found that Zachary's safety had been utterly neglected by the province's child protection services. Kate and David lobby for the rights of vulnerable children, and Kate acts as a child advocate.
Their biggest issue, however, is with the bail laws of Canada, which allowed a dangerous psychopath such as Shirley Turner to walk free not once, but twice. "Basically," says David, "someone on a murder charge should not be allowed out to walk the streets."
To this end, Kurt recently sent 400 copies of Dear Zachary to every member of the Canadian parliament. Some MPs have begun to add their voices to the call for changes in the federal bail laws, something which gives the Bagbys some hope that their tragedy might prevent another.
Nothing will mend their broken hearts. These past few months are always the most difficult of the year. "Zachary was born on July 18 and murdered on August 18," says Kate. "Andrew's birthday was in September and his murder in November. Life isn't easy anymore. You just live minute to minute."
• CONSTRUCTIVE RAGE: The Bagbys constantly attend screenings of Dear Zachary so that they can answer audience members’ questions and fill them in on how their campaign to have the federal bail laws changed. “Every ex-Commonwealth country is affected by this,” says David. “I don’t want to say that the whole system stinks but there are serious flaws.” Details of how to support their campaign are available on www.dearzachary.com under the section ‘Support Bail Reform’.
If you are interested in learning more about the Andrew Bagby case, and his parents’ work, Dance With The Devil: A Memoir of Murder and Loss, by David Bagby, is available on www.amazon.com
The award-winning DVD of Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father, which the New York Times described as an “incendiary cri de coeur” is now on sale from www.dearzachary.com Proceeds from the film benefit medical scholarships set up in the names of Andrew and Zachary Bagby.