Death in a Small Town : After Months of Rumors and Startling Twists Rock Quaint Marshall, Mich., a TV Anchorwoman's Husband Faces Trial in Her Ambush Slaying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The countryside was patched with late-winter snow the evening that Diane Newton King came home to her death.

As the 34-year-old newscaster pulled a Jeep Wagoneer up to her rented house in the early darkness, her killer lay snugly in the loft of the barn overlooking the gravel driveway.

Newton King, wearing a sweat shirt with an American flag emblazoned across the chest, got out of the car. The killer shot her through the heart. While she lay dying, the sniper, firing a bolt-action .22 rifle, shot her again, in the groin.

Newton King's 3-year-old son and 3-month-old daughter remained strapped in their car seats. Authorities estimated that the morning news anchor, who lived her last days in a web of fear, died within three minutes.

At first, the slaying appeared to stump investigators, who said they had no clues regarding the killer's identity.

"Everybody is a suspect," Calhoun County Sheriff Jon Olson told reporters at the time. He added that no power on Earth could have saved Newton King after the first shot, "even if she had been standing next to an ambulance."

Now, 13 months after she died, the case finally may be building to a dramatic finish. After a series of startling twists and turns, her husband Bradford, a 45-year-old former policeman and criminal justice instructor, was ordered 10 days ago to stand trial for a crime that, for better or worse, has made Marshall something other than gas stop--and for those in the know a mecca for antiques--on the interstate between Detroit and Chicago. . . .

Before Newton King's slaying on Feb. 9, 1991, the biggest event in town probably was the annual home tour. Each September, in a ritual combining nostalgia and interior decorating, several thousand visitors line up for guided expeditions through Marshall's lovingly renovated and immaculately maintained Victorian homes.

Compared to such gentle pleasures, the cold-blooded killing of a woman in a glamorous, high-profile occupation was a shocking anomaly in this community of 6,800 in southwestern Michigan, 110 miles west of Detroit. Although no court exists to calibrate the voyeurism quotient of such cases, the death of Newton King, a Mohawk Indian who was proud of her roots, apparently contains enough titillation, terror and tragedy--even a loyal police dog--to satisfy a thousand movie producers, TV crime-show hosts and newspaper editors:

* For starters, the Kings' four-year marriage was in trouble. On the day she was killed, court testimony shows that Newton King spoke to her mother about needing time to mend her relationship with Bradford, who is unemployed. Other testimony indicated that Bradford King showed little or no emotion over his wife's death.

* Shortly before her death, Newton King had been living in fear of a "fatal attraction" admirer who had called her repeatedly at her Battle Creek television station, WUHQ, and sent her a threatening note pieced together with letters clipped from newspapers and magazines. It is now uncertain whether this demented admirer existed.

* After the slaying, the couple's children became the center of a custody fight between Bradford and his late wife's parents. And after the arrest, it was learned that the Kings' oldest child, Marler, now 4, told playmates that his father did not commit the murder.

* Last but not least, this dark eruption of the human spirit occurred, not in some grimy, murder-a-minute big city, but in the rural outskirts of a pristine, historic heartland town where a penny still buys time on a parking meter.

So maybe it isn't surprising that for more than a year the slaying--and the complex case it spawned--has attracted a steady flow of media interest. The prosecutor's office at the Calhoun County Courthouse in Marshall has logged calls from as far away as London and Australia. The state's major newspapers cover each twist in the case, often giving the story major play. The affair has even claimed a media casualty: The news director of a Colorado station where Newton King once worked was fired for unflattering comments he made about her to a newspaper. And, finally, a writer of true-crime books thinks the Newton King case may contain the ingredients for a nonfiction epic with universal appeal.

"These stories boil down to sex and death, because sex and death are the alpha and omega of our existence," says Lowell Cauffiel, author of "Masquerade," about the dismemberment murder of a Detroit psychologist, and "Forever and Five Days," about two nurse's aides who killed half a dozen residents of a nursing home where they worked.

The attention baffles some of Marshall's citizens. One courthouse worker, declining to be identified but willing to chat at length, says the publicity would be understandable if it involved the demise of a major network star.

"It's not Jane Pauley," the worker says.

Despite such disavowals, the slaying has worked a strange and sinister magic on Marshall itself.

Before Bradford King was arrested Jan. 31, a rumor swept through town that a prominent local businessman--who allegedly had been having an affair with Newton King--had been charged in the case. The county sheriff's office was swamped with calls from citizens seeking confirmation.

Local resident Kathleen Bosserd, who heard the tale when her husband called her from work, says residents typically are not gossip-mongers. "If you paint your house a real weird color, people might talk about you, but normally people here are pretty protective of their own," she says.

County prosecutor Jon Sahli shakes his head as he recalls that episode of mass delusion. He notes that he took the unusual step of asking the sheriff's department to issue a statement to squelch the unfounded gossip.

No one knows how the rumor started.

Although he could be sentenced to life in prison without parole, the suspect at the center of this Midwestern melodrama seems calm, almost nonchalant.

Wearing a bright orange prison uniform, Bradford King, who is being held without bail, was generally impassive at the preliminary hearing at which he was ordered to stand trial on one count of first-degree murder and one count of using a firearm in the commission of a felony. Like some of the spectators, the veteran of the Pontiac, Mich., police force appeared bored during extended testimony about ballistics and other technical aspects of the killing.

Although the small, almost intimate, courtroom contained several friends and relatives of the slain woman, he was relaxed enough to smile broadly during whispered conferences with attorneys. Once he apparently told a joke.

Many of those close to Newton King suspected her husband long before he was arrested. One relative told a Battle Creek newspaper that he was "happy as a pig" the day of Bradford's arrest. Since then, family members have declined interviews.

Prosecutors also have put themselves under a self-imposed gag order. But they, too, apparently never seriously considered any other suspects.

Bradford King's behavior the night of the killing may have been a powerful signal to authorities. According to testimony and accounts of the slaying, King did not go near his wife's body, nor did he attempt to remove the children from the car until authorities arrived. King, who is said to have been wearing camouflage gear, had called police and told them he had been out for a walk and found Newton King in the driveway after returning home. He said he had heard shots but assumed hunters were in the area.

Normally, King's absence from home that night might well have disturbed his wife. In testimony at the hearing, a family friend said that Newton King, worried by the calls and the anonymous note, relied on her husband to signal that the coast was clear before she left her car and went into the house.

King was extradited to Marshall from Denver, where he had moved with the two children several months after his wife's death. Even after his arrest, he still sought to retain custody of Marler and Kateri, now 16 months.

Last month a Denver court awarded temporary custody to the maternal grandparents, Royal and Freida Newton of Sterling Heights, Mich. But there was a twist, according to Bernard Messer, the attorney who represented Bradford King in the custody dispute: The in-laws were ordered not to discuss the case in front of the children, he says, partly because Marler had told his friends that "his father was not the person involved" in the shooting.

In a terse interview at the courthouse, prosecutor Sahli indicated he would not call the boy as a witness at the trial, for which no date has been set. Defense attorneys did not return telephone calls.

Some acquaintances describe King as mild-mannered and easy-going. Mike Moran, the Grand Junction, Colo., television news director who was fired for his comments about Newton King, recalls Bradford King as "a pretty mild guy" who was "always in a good mood." Bradford, Moran adds, was "the last guy you'd expect" to be accused of killing his wife.

Moran, who says he was fired because his comments violated station policy, apparently is the only acquaintance who was willing to speak critically of Newton King after her death.

She was "an excellent reporter" who unrelentingly pursued stories, says Moran, who was Newton King's boss at KJCT. But she allowed those professional qualities to spill over into her personal life, he adds.

"She could really dig in her heels," Moran recalls. "If she didn't like something about someone, she would let them have it."

From Moran's perspective, the Kings were compatible. "They seemed like a real good match, because he seemed real submissive and she was goal-oriented," Moran explains.

But Moran and others note that Newton King, a devout Roman Catholic, had a desire to contribute to the community. In Colorado she was a volunteer at a church soup kitchen and was active in a group that cared for disadvantaged children.

Joann Karaba, a Marshall resident who testified at the hearing, said she and Newton King became friends shortly after the Kings moved to Marshall three years ago from Grand Junction. She described the newscaster as a woman who sought out friendship and enjoyed going to local charity auctions and other events, particularly if they appealed to children.

But Karaba also remembered Newton King's fears of her secret admirer and an apparently uneasy relationship with her husband. The few times she met him, Karaba testified, Bradford King was withdrawn and wandered away to be alone for long periods.

Karaba particularly recalled an evening when the Kings stopped by their house after the baptism of one of their children. What should have been a joyous moment was dampened by Bradford King's "distant" behavior--he looked as if "he might have been crying" or he and his wife had been arguing, she said.

In the final analysis, the emotional climate of the King household may prove irrelevant. Prosecutors say they are keeping the lid on the real motive for the killing until the trial.

However, both the prosecution and the defense could take some cold comfort from evidence at the preliminary hearing.

Under cross-examination, a Michigan State Police ballistics expert admitted that he could not positively link the deformed bullets extracted from Newton King's body with the murder weapon. The expert did link a shell casing found in the barn with the weapon, discovered in a creek bed near the house two days after Newton King's death. Bradford King told police that he did not own a rifle.

Another bit of evidence came from Gary Lisle, a state trooper who for 11 years has been the handler for Travis, reputedly one of the state's best tracking dogs.

On the night of Newton King's death, Lisle told the court, Travis followed a fresh human scent from the loft of the barn. The scent led across muddy, brushy fields, a creek and banks of unmelted snow back to the driveway of the Kings' house, where Travis lost the scent.

District Judge Marvin Ratner cited the shell casing and Travis' indirect testimony as reasons for holding Bradford King for trial.

After that trial, perhaps Marshall can put its flirtation with fame aside and the home tour can resume its rightful place in the sun.

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