A Murder Story
The beat-up black BMW sputtered to a stop, and Harold Stonier stepped out onto the New Bedford waterfront. The sky was overcast, with gulls wheeling in circles overhead. Their cackling grew to a din as Harold walked through the parking lot, past trucks painted with the name “Tempest Fisheries.” A cold breeze, carrying with it the stench of dead fish and brine, blew off the water as he climbed the concrete steps to a rusty, steel-sided building.
The desolate waterfront must have looked perfect to Harold, who was a fan of mob movies and TV shows like The Sopranos. It must have been exactly the type of place he had in mind when he logged onto Mafia.com to search for a hit man.
The name he'd found was Frank “Bruno” Moniz, a bodybuilder and right-hand man to South Coast mob lord Timothy Mello. Moniz was working as a truck driver at Tempest Fisheries while awaiting trial on charges including racketeering, drug trafficking, and illegal gambling. If Harold had any second thoughts about hiring Moniz, he must have pushed them aside. As he entered the office, the secretary saw a tall, well-dressed man with a boyish face and neatly trimmed hair parted to one side.
“Is Frank here?” Harold asked. The secretary told him no. Harold had come prepared for this. He took a white envelope out of his coat and handed it over. “Just tell Frank this is from Alan Parker and that I'll call him,” he said. The secretary dutifully printed on the envelope “Alan Parker. He'll call you,” in cramped letters.
Prosecutors would later allege that the envelope contained an article about Moniz's release on bail, along with four typed sheets of paper. “I am a desperate man, I've never done anything like this,” began the first. The next three pages, with one or a few words on each, cryptically spelled out the details:
3 carat diamond ring appraised at $20,000
objective . . .
The day after Harold dropped off the envelope, Moniz had a meeting with the feds. Someone wanted to hire him for a job, Moniz told them, and he was willing to cut a deal.
He cracked. that's the explanation offered by family, friends, neighbors, even Harold's wife, for why he tried to have her killed. Harold was a loving father, they say, raising two boys on a quiet street in Concord. He could be hard-headed, even arrogant, but no one ever would have expected this. “I don't think he was all there when he did it,” says Harold's wife, Jamie. But according to federal prosecutors, this was not the first time Harold tried to hire a murderer. Ten months earlier, he had allegedly driven to Maine for the same purpose. For months, while he slept next to his wife, he had apparently been wrestling in his mind with if, when, and how he would have her killed. “I don't know who this man is,” Jamie says now. “How could you go home every night and look someone in the eye knowing you wanted them dead?”
Through his lawyer, Harold declines to talk about his story, which won't be fully told until his trial on murder-for-hire charges this fall-if then. Sitting at her kitchen table a year after her husband's arrest, Jamie struggles to put together the pieces of the drama. She wears a sleeveless cable-knit sweater, her brown hair neatly clipped into a soccer-mom bob, and just a trace of makeup. Only her hands, wringing together around her coffee cup, reveal her pain. On the finger where she once wore her engagement ring — the ring her husband allegedly promised her killer — she now wears a simple ring with a heart-shaped rose quartz, which she bought for religious reasons. “I'm a strong Christian, and I know that God is looking out for me,” Jamie says. She's forgiven her husband, she adds. But understanding is harder.
Around the house is scattered the memorabilia of a happy suburban family — flowers and pastels, American flags and angels. In every room is at least one photo of her two boys. Harold is there, too, if you know where to look. He's in the intricately carved jack-o'-lanterns his son and stepson posed with on the front steps, and in the giant snowman he built for the kids the winter before he was arrested, captured in the snapshot that sits atop the stereo. After work in the evenings, Harold always used to play Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World” on that stereo. “That was his favorite song,” says Jamie. “I can't even listen to it now. He always said that was his image of a perfect life.”
But perfection demands control, and Harold's grip on control over his own life apparently slipped out of his hands as he gave up a structured military life for the inherent messiness of marriage and family. Looking for someone to blame, he convinced himself that he was sleeping with the enemy.
Jamie knew Harold her whole life, but really only met him in the summer of 1998, at their 20th high school reunion in Plattsburgh, New York. The lights of a patio bar glimmered on Lake Champlain as friends met there to become reacquainted. Jamie saw Harold as she was dancing, and her heart skipped a beat. As kids, they had lived on the opposite sides of town; she knew Harold only as a shy, freckled boy who ran with a wisecracking crowd. She could hardly believe his transformation into the tall, handsome Marine who laughed so confidently.
“You've lost half of you!” Harold blurted out when he saw Jamie: He remembered her as an overweight girl his friends used to tease. Now they discovered they had a lot in common. Both were divorced, and both devoted to their children — Jamie to her four-year-old son, and Harold to his three daughters, who were living with their mother in California. Jamie and Harold spent that night and the next day talking. He told Jamie he had joined the Marines after high school and risen to chief warrant officer in the telecommunications department at Quantico. Jamie told Harold about her job at an insurance company in Missouri and how she was still trying to make things work with her ex-husband.
The weekend ended with nothing more romantic than a good-night kiss. But by the time they met in Plattsburgh for Christmas, Jamie's marriage was finally over, and things changed. In February, Jamie told Harold she was pregnant with his child. The couple decided to live together for a year in Virginia and see how the relationship went. It was a happy time. Harold was solicitous of Jamie and her son, always helping with the housework. Jamie, in turn, listened patiently while Harold talked about the increasing stress of his job.
The G-6 telecommunications section at Quantico was getting a reputation for dysfunction. In February 2000, a female employee was accused of sexually harassing subordinates. “It was about power,” Harold was quoted telling the Washington Post. “It was about embarrassing these guys into doing what she said without question.” Though not involved directly in that scandal, Harold was at the center of another controversy around the same time. He became convinced that his own superiors, including a three-star general, were misappropriating funds by overcharging the government for telephone service. Though he had already put in the 20 years needed for a pension, Harold obsessively copied documents to try to prove his claims before going public. While an initial inquiry supported his accusations, they were eventually dismissed, and he was brought up on charges of disrespect. While these charges were also dismissed, Harold was transferred out of the unit he loved. “Instead of being commended for saving taxpayers millions of dollars,” he told the Post bitterly, “I was relieved, transferred, and false charges were brought against me in an attempt to force me into retirement.”
But his work troubles took a back seat as Jamie and Harold planned their wedding, which was held in May on a riverboat on the Potomac. His Marine uniform buttoned to his chin, Harold cut a fine figure as a groom, carrying his new son to the ceremony and grinning self-assuredly in photos. A few months later, he retired from the military, taking a civilian job with General Dynamics in Needham as project manager for a telecommunications system. He moved his family to Westwood, where they rented the biggest house in a neighborhood full of big houses. In back, a spacious deck looked over an in-ground pool. From the outside, the Stoniers' life really did look like a “wonderful world.” But on the inside, things were not so picture perfect.
Their first fights were about money. Although Harold had a good salary and his pension, the family always seemed to be strapped with credit-card debt, alimony payments to Harold's first wife, payments on a second home in New York, and the sizable rent for the house. After they got married, Harold resented the fact that Jamie wasn't working. She insisted that any job she could find wouldn't pay enough to offset the cost of childcare. Their disputes became more and more heated. As Harold's careful arguments degenerated into yelling, Jamie retreated to the bedroom or drove around aimlessly for hours. “He had a short fuse,” says Harold's first wife, Sylvia Vega Stonier. “Anything would trigger him. I played 'reverse psychology' and just walked away.” For Jamie, playing along wasn't an option. “I basically told him to go and stuff it,” Jamie says. “I was not a good Marine.”
Strictly regimented after his decades in the military, Harold had gotten used to giving orders. Now he complained that he couldn't even control his own wife. Jamie balked at his request that she prepare her dinner menus a week ahead of time. When his daughters came to visit in the summer, Harold made a schedule for them, too, laying out in 15-minute intervals when they should get up, eat breakfast, and swim in the pool. One day he was incensed to find Jamie and the girls still in bed at mid-morning. “He was like a puppeteer,” says Susan Everett, a high school friend of both Harold and Jamie. “He made the orders and expected her to follow them.”
More sparks flew over Harold's children. From almost the moment that Jamie and Harold got married, Harold pushed to get custody of his girls. Jamie told him that she didn't think she could handle five kids — three of them teenagers — but Harold persisted, filing a lawsuit and spending thousands in attorney fees. When he lost, he resented Jamie for not supporting him. “That was one of the turning points,” says Everett. “He took it as, she didn't like his girls, and he didn't want to hear that.”
Around Christmas that first year, they got in such a big fight that Jamie took the car and their two boys and went home to Plattsburgh alone. Harold felt betrayed. “This is our first Christmas together. Why did you leave?” he demanded of her over the phone. “Your parents will think I'm terrible.” She ultimately returned to Westwood to fetch him, and they drove to Plattsburgh together.
As the couple's marital problems spiraled out of control, Harold's family — who worshipped him for his intelligence and success in the military — came to his defense. “Everyone who knew him loved him and thought he was a great guy,” says his sister Melissa. To her, he was pushed over the edge from the constant humiliation of his marriage. “It was one stressful thing after another.”
The low point came on May 29, 2001. After another fight about money, Harold angrily threw two crystal candlesticks off the deck, where they shattered by the pool. He picked up a chair, too, but put it down. Instead, he went out into the driveway and unplugged the engine coil from the car so Jamie couldn't drive away. Then he went to bed, while she called the police. The officers questioned Harold and, when he refused to respond, put him in the squad car, barefoot and in his pajamas. “Harold always thought he was the smartest guy in the room,” says Westwood Police Lieutenant Christopher Sheehy. “He had a hard time with any attempt to counter-argue him.” The next morning, Harold walked home fuming from the courthouse in Dedham, a mile away. The police told Jamie that she should consider getting a restraining order, but Jamie said her husband was just under a lot of stress — she knew he would get better. “Men like that don't get better,” she says an officer confided in her. “They get worse.”
The only thing that seemed to make Harold happy was his children, in particular his newborn son. Harold doted on the boy, sweeping him up in his arms as soon as he came home from work, and taking him canoeing on Walden Pond on weekends. Harold's relationship with his own father had been difficult. After leaving the Air Force, Richard Stonier opened an appliance business where Harold had helped his father repair washers and dryers. But Richard Stonier, too, demanded strict discipline. According to a close high school friend, Harold's father used to berate him about not being tough enough. After a neighborhood boy picked on one of Harold's brothers, Richard commanded Harold to beat up the boy in front of all the other kids. Harold refused, and ran away, staying for three days at a deserted cottage.
Even as his marriage foundered, Harold poured his love into his relationship with his own son. That summer, his sister Melissa suggested he should get a divorce. “You've only been married for two years. You guys are newlyweds. You are supposed to be happy,” she said.
But Harold was devoted to his child. “I'd kill myself before I'd lose him.”
Sometimes before things get worse, they get better. After his arrest, Harold agreed to enter couples' counseling and even to attend a men's group at Jamie's church. Jamie, too, tried to be more understanding. “My faith told me that if I show him I'm not the enemy, I can be his partner in life,” she says. Initially, nothing seemed to improve. One night driving home after a therapy session, Jamie says, Harold told her he was taking her name off of all their shared bank accounts. “It just pushed me over the edge,” she says. Jamie pressed hard on the gas, and their Jeep spun out of control, crashing into a guardrail. Both Harold and Jamie ended up in the hospital. They saw the counselor separately after that, however, and slowly made progress. By the summer of 2002, the couple even decided to move into a less expensive ranch house in Concord.
But according to prosecutors, Harold's good behavior masked a more sinister agenda. Harold's sister had died of cancer a few years before, and he and Jamie drove to Maine to deal with the sale of a painting he'd inherited. While there, says Jamie, Harold announced that he wanted to check in on his nephew, Robert Pelkey. He drove to Pelkey's apartment, says Jamie, and put his business card under the door. Weeks later, Harold told her he needed to see Pelkey again to help him find a job, and drove to Maine alone. When Harold returned home that afternoon, says Jamie, he lay on the bed, not moving for hours.
A few nights later, as Jamie tells it, she found two Concord police officers at her door, following up on a tip from the FBI. They asked her husband if he knew a Robert Pelkey, then told her Harold was under suspicion of hiring his nephew to kill her. (Prosecutors say Harold offered Pelkey $20,000 for the job. But Pelkey told his sister Brandy, who called the police.) That night, the officers told Jamie that they weren't taking Harold into custody, but that protection could be provided for her if she were afraid. No, responded Jamie; she didn't think she was in danger.
Later, as the couple lay in bed, Harold asked Jamie if she thought he was capable of something like that.
“I really don't know what you are capable of,” she recalls saying. “You've changed so much.” But it was Jamie who gave him the alibi he needed, suggesting Brandy had made up the story because she was angry about the sale of her mother's painting. (Robert Pelkey later recanted his story to the FBI. Neither he nor Brandy Pelkey responded to interview requests.)
Around midnight, Jamie says, an officer called her again to tell her that the story wasn't panning out, but he'd call if anything else developed. He never did.
After that, the relationship between Harold and Jamie deteriorated further, and by the next February, Jamie had had enough. “You've sucked everything out of me,” she remembers telling Harold on Valentine's Day. He asked her if they could start over, but she refused. “You just aren't the example of a father and husband that I want to show our two children,” she said. She would be leaving to live with her family, Jamie told him, and she'd be taking the kids.
Later, when Harold fretted about getting custody of his boy, his therapist told him his chances of winning in court were slim. That was the last straw. Harold could give up his wife, but he wasn't about to lose his son.
Even though it was April, a light snow was falling outside the window of a New Bedford Dunkin' Donuts as Harold entered to meet with his would-be hired assassin. Shaking off the cold, he saw the hulking form of Bruno Moniz, sitting at a table with a long-haired woman. Moniz introduced her as his girlfriend, Stephanie. She was actually Stephanie Schafer, a federal agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) who was secretly recording their conversation.
After some preliminaries, Harold handed over a manila envelope, Schafer later testified in court. Inside was a picture of Jamie with photos of the two boys taped to the back, along with other documents useful for the supposed hit man. Included were MapQuest directions to his house; a diagram of the interior with notations like “dry, creaky wood floors”; and a list of possible scenarios the killers could use, such as “accidents: woman changing flat tire in garage pinned under car,” suggesting Harold plotted his wife's murder with the same attention to detail he had applied to uncovering the Quantico phone scandal.
He would be leaving on Friday for a month-long business trip to Qatar, Harold said. Moniz suggested that Harold meet the next day with the man who would actually be performing the job, who he identified as Schafer's half-brother, Ken. That meeting took place at a Joe's American Bar & Grill parking lot in Dedham, less than a mile up Route 128 from the Stoniers' former house in Westwood. Harold sat in an SUV with Schafer and Ken Croke, another ATF agent, watching families enter and leave the restaurant. Jamie was out every Tuesday morning attending a women's club meeting, Harold said, according to Schafer's testimony. If Croke could break into the house and wait for her, he could strangle her or hit her over the head, and then leave the body in a car at the Lexington Holiday Inn, making it seem as if Jamie were having an affair.
At that meeting, Harold handed the agents $300 as a down payment for supplies — the daily maximum he could withdraw from the ATM. Harold agreed to withdraw another $600 before their final meeting on Thursday, April 10, the day before he would be leaving for Qatar. For good measure, the agents followed Harold home to Concord. There, says Schafer, Harold got into their car, guiding them to his house, the boys' school, and a pond where he said they could dump Jamie's body.
Harold's final meeting with the undercover agents, at a New Hampshire State Liquor Store on I-95 just across the state border, was recorded on video as well as audio. On this tape, Harold sits in the passenger seat of an SUV, his wedding band periodically flashing in front of the camera lens. Sunlight blinds the camera every time Harold moves his shoulder. Only his face is hidden out of the frame, making it impossible to read what he's thinking.
“Let's say we go with this infidelity option, which I really like,” Harold says, in a tone of voice more suited for ordering takeout than plotting murder. “You put her in the car . . . and later that night you come back and spread some gasoline around . . . and ignite it.”
“Your kids would be the only issue,” says agent Croke, sitting in the driver's seat. “You said one of them tends to float around at night.”
“The three-year-old, even if he saw you, he can't communicate very well,” Harold assures him. “The nine-year-old, he's a pretty sound sleeper.”
“And you don't give a shit if it happens next week or the last week,” Croke prods.
“Anytime while I'm gone, I don't care,” Harold responds calmly. “This is to me actually a small price to have my son with me full-time for the rest of my life, and comparing it to child support over the years . . . in the overall scope of things, I'm glad. It doesn't bother me at all.”
Those were among Harold's last words as a free man. As he crossed the state line back into Massachusetts, he was arrested by the state police. Several days later, the video was played on the news, shocking neighbors used to nothing more criminal than underaged drinking. Harold saw the tape, too, when it was played in court during his detention hearing. But it wasn't what it looked like, he later explained in papers filed in court. Yes, he wanted to kill his wife, but he had changed his mind. In an 80-page letter written to the judge on yellow legal paper, Harold insisted it was the government that forced him to go ahead with the plan.
At that Dunkin' Donuts meeting, he wrote, Moniz had taken him aside and said point-blank: “Now that you started this thing, understand that there is no backing out.” That sent a “cold wave of shock” down his spine, wrote Harold. “Blind-sided with a sucker punch ultimatum by a mifioso [sic] do you really expect the defendant to stand down this muscle mut [sic] felon on his own turf?” So he played along, Harold said, offering up elaborate scenarios just to keep up appearances. Harold said he even tried to call Moniz on his cell phone on the way to New Hampshire, only to get the mobster's answering machine.
“Like the prodigal son, seeking atonement and maybe even redemption, I chose the harder right rather than the easier wrong,” Harold wrote. “I tried to abandon the scheme, but there would [be] no reprieve allowed.” As for why he approached Moniz in the first place, Harold blamed his marriage counselor, saying therapy was an “emasculating experience” that led to “a nervous breakdown.”
Watching the videotape again at her new house in Concord, Jamie stares, riveted, at the television. When it's finished, she looks away more in wonder than anger. “My heart races when I hear it,” Jamie says haltingly. “In my heart I don't understand. I don't want to feel it. It's too painful. It's painful to think of someone you love wanting to do something like this to you.”
The townhouse where Jamie Stonier lives now is cluttered with the overflow of a larger home. A box in the living room is full of Harold's belongings she keeps finding around the house. She hasn't decided yet if she will attend the trial this fall, at which Harold faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Jamie's first priority has been her children and trying to keep their lives as normal as possible. She has enrolled them in a program called “Strengthening Families and Communities” and joined a woman's group herself dealing with domestic violence, where she's learned a lot about verbally abusive men. “They believe that in marriage the person you marry becomes an extension of them,” Jamie says. “They feel like they are above the law, like they don't have to answer to anyone.”
Nothing she's learned, however, can explain how Harold planned her murder with such callous indifference. Jamie jokes with her girlfriends that if she ever wrote a book about this, she would call it Familiar Stranger. In the end, that's what he was. “I have my moments when I'm angry,” Jamie says, fingering her quartz ring. “And then I have moments where I grieve for the part of him that made him do this. He could have been happy. It seemed like he wanted the same things as me, he just couldn't break down the wall and find where the pain was.”