Police detail last moments of councilwoman’s life

MESQUITE — Not even her closest friends can make sense of what happened in Donna Fairchild’s final hours.

Melanie Giarratana said Fairchild was her usual, feisty self when the two met for lunch Monday, and she was still sending joke e-mails to her friends at 8 p.m. that night.

"She was not despondent. She was not lethargic. I had no indication anything was wrong," Giarratana said.

Eight hours later, the 52-year-old city councilwoman and her husband, Bill, 62, were found dead in their bed by police summoned to the home by Fairchild’s 12-second call to 911.

"We’re in the bedroom, the front door is unlocked, and I’m post-suicide," she said, her voice fading to a whisper on the final word.

Officers found a 9 mm pistol in her hand.

That was the sequence of events outlined by Mesquite Chief of Police Douglas Law, who said the murder-suicide investigation is closed.

At a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Law called the couple, both retired Denver police officers, "fallen comrades of ours" and said they were well-known and well-liked in the community.

He said investigators might never know exactly what pushed Fairchild over the edge.

"We don’t know what’s going on in someone’s head when something like this happens,” Law said. "We may never have the answers to those questions."

Giarratana has more questions than most.

Sometime in the hours before sunrise Tuesday, Fairchild stopped by Giarratana’s house, about a half-mile from her own, and left a box of personal effects on the doorstep. At 4:20 a.m., Fairchild sent an e-mail to Giarratana.

"I have left a box full of items for my Mom by your front door," she wrote. "Please make sure she gets it! I know this will never make sense. I am sorry. Thank you for being my BFF. Donna."

By then, police think, Bill Fairchild had already been dead for an hour, shot once in the head with no sign of a struggle.

Giarratana didn’t read Fairchild’s e-mail and retrieve the box wrapped with rubber bands until 7 a.m. Tuesday. Inside she found cash and "the jewelry that I see her wear everyday," Giarratana said.

There was also a note to Fairchild’s mother in Denver, apologizing for having disappointed her and leaving instructions for settling the couple’s affairs.

"It was essentially a suicide note," Giarratana said. "It seems this was well- planned."

There hadn’t been a hint of it during their lunch on Monday.

"She seemed fine. We were joking around," Giarratana said. "It was just a lunch between two girlfriends."

She said Fairchild seemed prepared for Tuesday afternoon’s council meeting, where she was to face sanctions or possible removal from office over a $94.60 travel reimbursement form for a trip she did not take.

She also was being accused of violating the city’s code of conduct for comments perceived as negative remarks about city business published in a local newspaper story about her upcoming run for mayor.

Giarratana said Fairchild told her she submitted the form by mistake but never signed for or cashed the check.

"I know she had that weighing on her mind because they were going to accuse her of things," Giarratana said.

But Fairchild also joked about it, telling Giarratana that she wanted the matter moved to the top of the agenda, so she wouldn’t have to sit through the whole meeting if she were just going to get tossed off the council.

"That was how feisty she was," Giarratana said. "She was still going to run for mayor. She was going to keep fighting."

But at 8 p.m. Monday, Fairchild called City Attorney Cheryl Truman Hunt, Law said. The councilwoman asked Hunt to arrange a special meeting with Mesquite’s mayor and the rest of the council so she could resign, he said.

It was right about then that Fairchild e-mailed a joke to Giarratana and several other friends.

"I don’t know what happened between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m.," Giarratana said. "Something snapped."

Charles Paulson, who lives across the street from the Fairchilds’ house on Arguello Drive, was similarly without an explanation.

"I spoke with Bill on Saturday," Paulson said, explaining that his neighbor had served on the Veterans Honor Guard for a memorial service over the weekend.

Paulson said he didn’t hear any gunshots Tuesday morning and didn’t know anything was wrong until he saw the police cars outside.

Jean Watkins spoke with Bill Fairchild at the Mesquite Recreation Center on Monday after her tai chi class. Bill Fairchild worked part time at the center. Watkins then drove to the Fairchilds’ house to talk with Donna Fairchild.

Watkins said the councilwoman told her she had been reading comments posted on an online story about her.

"She saw how many people were supporting her, and that encouraged her," Watkins said. "It confirmed she had made the right decision to face the charges against her and explain her side of what happened."

Giarratana insists her friend was "not thin-skinned politically." In eight years on the council, "she had been through attacks and nasty e-mails and calls many, many times before," Giarratana said. "She was a tough cookie."

Giarratana said she just can’t believe that a dispute over $94.60 could push Fairchild to take her own life, let alone the life of her husband.

That’s the part that Fairchild’s friends seem to be struggling with the most, Giarratana said: Why Bill?

"She had no right to do that. That wasn’t her call to make," she said.

Giarratana described him as "mild mannered" and agreeable, especially when it came to his wife.

"Whatever Donna wanted was fine with him," she said.

Married 21 years, the Fairchilds were outgoing and adventurous. They loved to travel, especially to places where they could snorkel and scuba dive, Giarratana said.

They first discovered Mesquite while vacationing by motorcycle, she said.

One other item Giarratana remembered about her lunch with Fairchild was that the couple were starting a new diet to help lose the weight gained since giving up cigarettes in October.

In a newspaper interview after her graduation from smoking cessation class, Fairchild said she and her husband were using Zyban.

"It’s a medication used to help quit smoking," Fairchild said at the time. "It balances out emotions."

After the Jan. 11 City Council meeting, Fairchild told people she had quit taking the medicine.

There was no indication that any medication played a role in the murder-suicide, but the U.S. National Library of Medicine website sponsored by the National Institutes of Health reports that some Zyban users have reported suicidal tendencies.

"You may become suicidal, especially at the beginning of your treatment and any time that your dose is increased or decreased," the article said.

The website of Zyban maker GlaxoSmithKline also warns that "serious neuropsychiatric events, including but not limited to depression, suicidal ideation, suicide attempt, and completed suicide have been reported in patients taking Zyban for smoking cessation."

The Clark County coroner’s office conducted autopsies Wednesday morning, but Law said it might take four to six weeks before toxicology test results are available.

Contact Las Vegas Review-Journal Reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Contact Mesquite Local News Editor Morris Workman at 702-346-6397.

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