Cries Unheard: The Donna Yaklich Story (1994) Jaclyn Smith, Hilary Swank, David Lascher, Brad Johnson
Your abusive husband: Should You Kill Him? ABC is ambivalent. Part 3 in a series.
(This is an ABC made-for-tv movie occasionally rebroadcast on the Lifetime Movie Network.)
Based on a true story, using real names! Donna Yaklich hired a neighborhood teen and his older brother (Charles & Edward Greenwell) to kill her narcotics cop husband Dennis in 1985 in Pueblo, Colorado, and presented the battered woman defense at her trial for murder and conspiracy to murder.
The movie begins with Donna in prison, explaining to her adult son Dennis Jr. (who was about five when his father died) why she had to have Dennis Sr. killed. As told in flashback, when Donna first meets Dennis Yaklich, he is a kind and loving man whose late wife had died of an allergic reaction to diet pills (he claims!), and whose grieving stepdaughter Patty needs a mother. Soon after seeing Donna interact with Patty on one of their dates, he invites her to move in and look after Patty, purely as “a business arrangement.” They gradually fall in love and marry. But during their courtship, a cop friend of Dennis who turns out to be a steroid pusher remarks on how Dennis, whose hobby is bodybuilding, seems to be “shrinking,” so Dennis goes back on steroids, and has a complete personality change. He has a hair-trigger temper and begins physically abusing Donna. Donna can’t reconcile this change with “the man I fell in love with,” and marries him anyway.
The abuse continues, and Donna finally learns about his renewed steroid use (“It makes him crazy,” Patty explains). Donna discovers that she cannot leave the marriage; Dennis tells her the police won’t do anything for her because he is a cop, and that he will take Dennis Jr. away from her, and kill both her and her sister too, if she tries to leave and divorce him. Donna comes to believe that Dennis actually killed his former wife as well; she had some damage to her liver which Dennis explained as having resulted from his attempts to revive her with CPR, but Donna thinks he must have beaten her to death. Desperate, she convinces a neighborhood teen (who eventually involves his brother) to kill Dennis for her, in exchange for $50,000 that she will receive from Dennis’ life insurance.
The Greenwells lay in wait for Dennis near the driveway and shoot him one night when he comes home from work. After a few months, another teenager overhears them talking about the murder, and the plot soon comes to light. Donna is acquitted of murder one based on her battered woman defense, but convicted of conspiracy to murder, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
The movie ends with Dennis Jr. accepting Donna’s explanation, and a voiceover intones: “The average sentence for a man who kills his wife is 2-6 years. The average sentence for a wife who kills her husband is 15-20.* Donna Yaklich’s 40-year sentence for conspiracy to murder is currently under review.”
After watching this movie, I began to think maybe I needed to add a “When She Was Stupid” category; I’ve seen a couple other Lifetime movies lately (Terror in the Family, The Girl Next Door, reviews forthcoming) that were intended as “serious” portrayals of female violence, in which they seemed to be having trouble writing violent female characters, and opted to portray them as borderline retarded to explain their extreme behavior. In the movie, Donna lacks certain core competencies battered women generally seem to develop, like scheduling your sister to come and pick you and your son and your belongings up when your abusive husband ISN’T home, or coming up with any one of 200 possible reasons to explain why his teenage step-daughter is crying on your shoulder, other than “she’s pregnant!” so you can put that revelation off for a better time, or at least after certain things have been figured out, like where else she could be staying when you tell him, for example. Or just generally always walking into confrontations with him and being surprised every time that it didn’t go so well. True, the various stratagems abused women develop to “handle” their abusers usually fail in the end, but they do generally exist for a while first. I assumed however that all this was an artefact of tv-movieness rather than a reflection of what actually happened. I also kind of wondered if a man with three dependents would really only carry $50,000 in life insurance.
To Google! It turns out, there is a Free Donna Yaklich website (which appears to enjoy some degree of direct participation from Donna Yaklich, and which I will not link to directly, since I don’t necessarily want those folks to notice me all that much, for reasons that will become clear as we proceed). But apart from that and announcements about and reviews of the ABC movie, there isn’t much on Google (presumably because the murder and trial happened back in the 80s). There is a story about Vanessa Yaklich (who?), who was 11 at the time of her father’s death (what, more children in the house?), and strenuously objects to Donna’s characterization of her father as an abuser.
Using my magical powers to access some online newspaper databases, I discovered the following highly interesting facts about Donna Yaklich, as reported in the Colorado Springs Gazette 1985-1993, that somehow didn’t arise in the movie:
- Dennis Yaklich actually had 4 children from his previous marriage, 3 his and Kim (apparently “Patty”) his step-daughter.
- Donna cleaned out a $20,000 trust fund Dennis’ late wife had set up for her four children.
- At the time of her murder trial, Donna pled guilty to charges that she had fraudulently withdrawn $70,000 from her in-laws’ bank account.
- Dennis Yaklich was carrying about $250,000 in life insurance at the time of his death.
- Donna had one extramarital affair about a year before the murder.
- Donna had a new boyfriend within weeks of the murder, and was arrested while on vacation with him in Jamaica.
- Most of the money had been spent at the time of the arrest, and she never paid the Greenwells more than a few thousand each.
- Donna negotiated with the Greenwells about her husband’s murder for a period of 10 months before the murder.
- Donna did spend two days at a shelter several years before the murder, but left voluntarily (in the movie, Dennis is shown barging in with his badge out, and dragging Donna out while shelter workers look on helplessly, since he’s a cop and can totally do that).**
- Dennis was a Pueblo city cop, but the Yakliches lived outside of his jurisdiction, and any police calls from their house would have been answered by the local sheriff’s department instead.
- Donna never sought medical treatment for any injuries resulting from abuse by Dennis, nor did she ever call police about any incident.
- Donna described only two instances of abuse at her trial, one in which Dennis hit her with a thrown soda can, and one in which, 3 years before the murder, he held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her.
- None of the Yaklich children, who all still lived in the house at the time of Dennis’ death, ever witnessed any physical abuse of Donna by Dennis.
- Co-workers who noticed bruises on Donna’s arms or had conversations with her in which she described Dennis’ threats to kill her and take her children reported those incidents as within the 10-month time frame when Donna was in the process of hiring the killers.
- Expert psychological testimony for the defense came from Dr. Lenore Walker, who both coined the term and wrote the book on battered woman syndrome, and Donna had read her book before meeting Dr. Walker for the psychological evaluation.
- When asked if she’d ever done any comparative studies on the psychology of abused vs. non-abused women, Dr. Walker remarked that she’d not been able to find enough non-battered women to study.
- On the night of Dennis’ murder, Donna rattled off a list of drug offenders Dennis had arrested to police to suggest possible suspects. Once the Greenwells had talked to police, Donna at first denied even knowing them. Once the police showed that they could prove that she did know them, she said that Dennis had talked about committing suicide, but wanted to go out “in a blaze of glory,” so had probably hired the Greenwells himself. Then finally she began telling the abuse story.
- One of the expert witnesses for the prosecution, Dr. Alice Brill, testified that Donna didn’t seem to fit the profile of a battered woman who kills her husband in fear of her life, since they tend to experience constantly escalating abuse up to the time of the killing, act with little premeditation, are remorseful and cooperative with police afterwards, and have little interest in pursuing relationships with other men.
- Shortly before he was killed, Dennis Yaklich told his brother that he was planning to divorce Donna after Christmas (he was killed on December 12th).
- The script for the movie was based solely on interviews with Donna Yaklich in prison.
However, I also learned:
- Donna actually moved in with Dennis and started looking after his children a few months after the death of his first wife.
- Dennis’ behavior towards Donna was generally described by witnesses as derogatory and unaffectionate.
- A telephone repairman who came to the Yaklich residence to replace a phone that had been ripped out of the wall did recall seeing a woman there who had bruises on her face and neck.
- Both the Greenwells said they had seen Donna with bruises.
- Dennis Yaklich had a reputation as a hyper-aggressive cop who was believed by his family and associates to have been the subject of a citizen complaint in which an officer grabbed a child and held a gun to its head to get drug suspects to tell him where drugs were hidden in their house. (The complaint was dropped so the name of the officer was never made public; one friend of the family testified that Dennis had said he was the officer involved).
- Dennis did indeed kick his stepdaughter Kim out of the house for getting pregnant; at the trial, Kim testified that he had always treated her worse than the other children because she was not his biological child.
So I ask you, dear reader: Would it be easier for you to think about killing your husband for the insurance money if he were a misogynist dick who was planning to divorce you after you’d wasted your youth raising his young children from a previous marriage for him, in return for presumably whatever a police officer with 4 other children is expected to pay in support for one ex-wife and one child? If he had always been mean to you and even beat you up sometimes?
Yeah, me too. Nonetheless, this is still a crime! And getting this movie made in this particular way is kind of a creepy continuation of it.
*Probably an ABC/Lifetime fact for women, further research needed, watch this+ space.
**Definitely an ABC/Lifetime fact for women
Lifetime Rating: * (for being a house of lies)
+Lifetime Fact Update: here.