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Sunday, December 19, 1999

Death of a good wife

Gail Fulton lived for her marriage and may have died for it, friends say

BY ELLEN BERNSTEIN
Caller-Times


[Click image for larger version]

   LAKE ORION, Mich. - The new surveillance camera outside the Orion Township Library deterred vandals who had started fires in the Dumpster at night.
   The library director never thought it would capture images of something far worse.
   "We never thought we'd have to use the camera for something like this...," said librarian Linda Sickles, still shaken by a crime that's stunned not only this quiet township, but its crime-hardened neighbor to the south, Detroit.
   A fuzzy surveillance tape, now in the hands of the FBI, just barely illuminates the quick and brutal shooting death of a former Corpus Christi woman in the parking lot of the library where she worked part-time.
   Martha Gail Garza Fulton - a doting mother, a military wife always ready to move her family, a eucharistic minister who never missed a Sunday Mass and the daughter of two Hispanic leaders in Corpus Christi - was remembered by those who knew her as so sweet and caring no one could possibly have wanted her dead.
   But someone did, investigators say. And Fulton's unsuspecting nature - an optimism seen in her wide, dark eyes and broad smile - makes her execution-style murder on Oct. 4 all the more cruel, Michigan authorities say.
   "Whomever she came in contact with, everyone thought this was a terrific lady and a good friend," said Oakland County, Mich., prosecutor David Gorcyca, referring to homicide investigation reports. "Not that some murders are not tragic, but it's really disheartening when they've had such an impact on a community."
   Shortly after 9 p.m. on Oct. 4, Fulton, a 48-year-old mother of three grown children, left her evening job at the library. She drove out of the parking lot in her minivan.
   The surveillance camera caught her turning back because of a flat tire. Someone had slashed the tire, investigators said.
   When Fulton, who was known to friends as Gail, left the minivan to get help, a vehicle pulled alongside her in the parking lot. She approached the vehicle and then attempted to back away. A man with a gun got out of the vehicle. He chased her several feet, and shot her once in the head.
   As she lay crumpled on the pavement - all 105 pounds of her - the killer stood over her and fired two more bullets into her lifeless body. Then he drove away.
   In this upper-income hamlet in the rural reaches of sprawling suburban Detroit, many wondered who would murder a small-town library clerk?

Cooperation and arrests

   Some startling explanations surfaced with the recent arrests of four suspects on first-degree murder and conspiracy charges. They are being held without bond in jails in Michigan, Florida and Connecticut. If convicted, they could face life in prison.
   Authorities in Michigan and the Florida panhandle say their investigations uncovered a murder-for-hire scheme as cold-blooded as any found in a mystery novel.
   Investigators said they believe a scorned mistress of Fulton's husband hired three associates to kill her rival. Two of the suspects told police they were promised $15,000 to kill Gail Fulton.
   George Fulton, a retired career military officer, fully
Trapani
cooperated with investigators and gave them information that led to the arrests, they said. He was never involved in his wife's death, prosecutor Gorcyca said, other than that he brought the suspected killers into their lives through his relationship with a woman named Donna Kay Trapani.
   The co-defendants are Trapani, 46, of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Fulton's former mistress who police believe planned the scheme; Sybil Ann Padgett, 36, a licensed nurse practitioner who worked for Trapani's home health care business in Fort Walton Beach; Patrick Allen Alexander, 19, Padgett's boyfriend; and Kevin Joseph Ouellette, 32, a long-haul trucker who investigators believe is the gunman. Padgett, Alexander and Ouellette list addresses in Defuniak Springs, Fla.
   Padgett and Alexander were arraigned on Dec. 11 on murder charges in Oakland County Circuit Court in Michigan. The magistrate entered not guilty pleas for Padgett and Alexander.
   Trapani and Ouelette are currently fighting extradition in Florida and Connecticut, respectively.

'Jealous rage'


   The murder of Gail Fulton was the result of a "jealous rage," said Deputy Rick Hord of the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Department near Pensacola, Fla. Trapani was apparently angered by George Fulton's attempts to reconcile with his wife, Hord said.
   Police learned of Fulton's affair when they questioned him on the night of his wife's murder. Fulton's account of the affair is documented in an affidavit filed by the Oakland County Sheriff's Department to obtain a search warrant.
   At the time of his wife's murder, George Fulton was at home talking to Trapani on the telephone, the affidavit states. Fulton's 17-year-old son Andrew interrupted his father's last conversation with Trapani in Florida to tell him a library employee was on the other line with the news that his wife had collapsed and he was needed at the library, the court documents state.
   Fulton has turned down repeated requests for media interviews, including a Caller-Times reporter who came to his house in Lake Orion.
Contributed Photo
Gail Fulton, shown tending to her vegatable garden at her family's home in Lake Orion, Mich. in 1995, was a sweet, caring person, friends say.


A sense of family


   Others talked openly about Martha Fulton, who was known to friends and family as Gail. Longtime friends like Jeanette Cantu-Bazar, a Corpus Christi lawyer, said they hope to preserve Fulton's memory by shedding light on this extremely private woman - a devout Catholic who wanted nothing more than to be a good wife and mother to her three children.
   "She lived for the concept of family," said Cantu-Bazar, who knew Gail Fulton and her husband since Gail's high school years at Incarnate Word Academy.
   "And in my mind she died for the concept of family, because she did everything to bring her family together and to forgive probably the worst thing that could happen to a woman. To have that basic trust betrayed, she was willing to do it because she wanted her family together."
   How Gail Fulton came to such a tragic end speaks to an unshakable faith in God that was tempered by a strong sense of family and history, Cantu-Bazar said.
   "In the Catholic Church, you are married for life unless there's a death or annulment, which is difficult to get," Cantu-Bazar said. "So marriage isn't something that you enter into lightly, and dissolving it isn't something you take lightly.
   "When there's a 25-year history there, someone as committed as Gail wouldn't walk away. She would do everything possible to keep that marriage intact."
   Gail's loyalty to family kept her in a marriage that bore the strain of physical separation and infidelity in recent years, her mother and friends said.
   It's unclear when George Fulton began his affair with Trapani, a woman he met in a bar. He became her business accountant and moved into her house in Florida in 1998, investigators said.

A Calallen couple

   The Fulton's marriage had seen better days. Gail first met George in 1969 through a Catholic youth group. Both were seniors in high school, he at Calallen, she at Incarnate Word.
   Gail always looked up to George, her friend Cantu-Bazar said. He was a top student, a band musician, cross-country runner and president of his senior class.
   George's father died young and his mother raised ten children on her own. Unable to afford college, George applied and received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
   Meanwhile, Gail excelled at Incarnate Word Academy, then an all-girl Catholic school, said her mother, Dora Garza. Delicate and refined, her daughter wouldn't attend public school.
   "She felt it was too rough," Garza said.
   While raising her children, Dora Garza worked for her husband, Noe C. Garza, who was a lawyer and federal administrative law judge hearing appeals in San Antonio. He died in 1987. Gail's uncle was former district judge Margarito Garza.
   After her husband's death, Dora Garza became active in Hispanic cultural affairs. A past president of El Instituto de Cultura de Hispanica, she helped start a Hispanic cultural museum in Heritage Park.
   Shy and reserved, Gail was unlike anyone in the family, Dora Garza recalled. She encouraged her daughter to build a career, but all Gail wanted was to be a wife, mother and volunteer, her mother said.

Travel, then home

   Gail graduated from Baylor University, where her father had attended law school. She earned a bachelor's degree in speech therapy.
   George graduated from West Point and married Gail in June 1974.
   As a young officer's wife and soon-to-be mother, Gail excelled in home crafts. She loved to cook and bake, planning menus weeks ahead. She also loved to garden.
   Every few years, the family moved, living in Colorado, Georgia, Germany, Ohio, Virginia, El Paso, Panama and New Mexico.
   Gail never complained about the frequent moves, Dora Garza said. But she was relieved when George retired from the military in 1993. Gail looked forward to moving back to Corpus Christi after 19 years away, her mother said.

Another move


   The three years the family lived in Annaville were happy times for Gail, her mother said. The Fultons rented a house near West Guth Park, where Gail grew up. Gail started working at the library at Tuloso-Midway High School. Her three children, Melissa, Emily and Andrew, did well in Tuloso-Midway schools. At St. Teresa Catholic Church, Gail volunteered as a eucharistic minister and became active in the altar society.
   Everything seemed perfect in Gail's life now that she was close to family and friends, her mother said.
   Everything except George. He couldn't find a suitable job in Corpus Christi, Dora Garza said. So the family lived on savings and his military retirement.
   College tuition bills loomed and the family needed more money.
   So in 1996, George took a job in Michigan. And the family moved again.

Confrontations

   It was Christmas 1998 that Dora Garza first noticed that something was wrong with Gail. In holiday photographs mailed to her mother, Gail appeared too thin. Her smile seemed strained, her mother said.
   Garza learned from Gail that George was living apart from the family in Florida. She urged her daughter to leave Michigan and move to Corpus Christi with her children.
   But the family had moved one too many times, Gail told her mother. She made a promise to her teen-agers that when their father retired from the military, the family would stay put, Garza was told.
   Every night, Gail prayed the rosary, hoping that her husband would come back to Michigan, Garza said.
   Last April, George Fulton moved back in with his wife. But his relationship with Trapani was far from over, investigators said.
   Trapani made threatening phone calls to Gail from Florida, investigators said. She also harassed family members in Corpus Christi.
   Prosecutor Gorcyca said Trapani wanted Gail to divorce her husband.
   "When she wouldn't, (Trapani) became scorned," Gorcyca said. "The others were profit driven."
   "Trapani was relentless," said Larry Ashley, an investigator with the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Department. Witnesses told investigators that Trapani repeatedly confronted George's wife. 'You've had 25 years with him. Now it's my turn,' " Ashley said, repeating witness statements.

A plot hatched

   Fulton maintained contact with Trapani after he reconciled with his wife, investigators said.
   On July 4, Fulton set up a meeting between himself, his wife and Trapani. It's uncertain what was discussed there, but at some point, Trapani told Gail she was carrying George's baby and dying of a terminal illness, Ashley said.
   All lies, Ashley said. While serving a search warrant, Ashley personally removed the padding that was Trapani's phony pregnancy.
   The plot to kill Gail was hatched in Trapani's living room in Florida, investigators said, based on two suspects' statements.
   Padgett told investigators that the initial plan was to kidnap Gail and poison her with antifreeze, Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor John D. Pietrofesa said at her arraignment. Padgett also told investigators they considered killing the entire family, Pietrofesa said.

Saying goodbye

   A month before Gail was murdered, her killers stalked her to learn her habits and daily routines, investigators reported. One stood on line beside her at the grocery check out counter. Another bumped her purposely on a banking line.
Memorials
   The Orion Township Library is taking donations for a memorial bronze sculpture in the library garden.
Gail Fulton Memorial Fund
c/o Linda Sickles, library director
825 Joslyn Road
Lake Orion, Mich. 48362
(248) 693-3000

   Tuloso Midway High School is taking donations to purchase books and a courtyard tile in Fulton's memory.
Gail Fulton Memorial Fund
c/o Stella Hatch,
Tuloso Midway High School
P.O. Box 10900
Corpus Christi, Texas 78410
(361) 241-4253

   Stalking her at home, they might have seen Gail tending to late-season vegetables, her Michigan neighbors say. Or a woman bringing homebaked sweets to work, the library staff said.
   "Of all people, we could not believe that something like that would happen to Gail," said Stella Hatch, a Spanish teacher at Tuloso-Midway, who knew Gail when she worked in the library. "No one could imagine anyone having any bitterness toward her."
   Gail Fulton finally came home to Corpus Christi on Oct. 6. She was buried the next day at Rose Hill Memorial Park. Hundreds attended the funeral and Mass at St. Theresa Catholic Church.
   Three years ago, Gail Fulton left Corpus Christi for what would be her final move for her husband and family. Gail drove north in the same minivan she drove on the night of her murder, Dora Garza said.
   "When they left for Michigan that day, I was very unhappy," Garza recalled. "I thought they were going to stay. They all dragged their feet that day, she and the kids.
   "All the other moves, Gail could deal with, but this one was tough," Garza said. "I thought they were home to stay. If she stayed, I probably still would have her."

Staff writer Ellen Bernstein can be reached at 886-3763 or by e-mail at bernsteine@caller.com
 





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