'Til Death

Why did a gay-rights activist stab her wife with a screwdriver 222 times?

Late one evening in the early '70s (friends disagree on the exact year), a group of women flagged down Jessica's cab and dumped a very drunk, petite, fiery woman in the back seat with instructions to take her home. Jessica liked the woman — Carol Anne Burger — and the two became friends. In time, however, life carried each in a separate direction. Carol moved to Hawaii and became a scuba instructor. Jessica moved to Miami, where she worked at a series of tech companies and began hosting her show.

In 1998, Jessica took out a classified ad in a local GLBT newspaper. She was particularly intrigued by the clever response of a diving instructor named Carol living in Boca Raton. When the two met, they realized they'd dated 20 years earlier.

Carol was another well-read, worldly woman from New York. She was smaller, with a wild blond mane and a smile that lodged in the memories of the people she met. Like Jessica, Carol was verbose and passionate about politics. She quoted Shakespeare and liked fine dining, obscure trivia, and relaxing with her greyhound, Cleo, in front of the TV set, where she'd watch her favorite show, CSI. Growing up, she'd been a tomboy and a bit of a wild child. She attended the original Woodstock. (On the 25th anniversary of the festival, she bragged to a Palm Beach Post reporter: "I did inhale.") In her 20s, she worked as a photographer as well as a scuba instructor, bouncing between New York and Hawaii before moving to Florida in the late '80s. She worked at the now-defunct Delray Beach Times and Twin Cities News in Pompano Beach before landing a job writing for Credit Union Times, where she won awards for her coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Jessica's blood was splattered inside her BMW, where police found her body stuffed underneath the back of the driver's seat.
Jessica's blood was splattered inside her BMW, where police found her body stuffed underneath the back of the driver's seat.

She told friends that most of her family had shunned her because of her sexual orientation. (Her family says it was actually Carol who cut communications, saying their conservative beliefs were too frustrating to deal with.) Her closest friends recall a gentle, sensitive woman. "If Carol found a cricket in the house," friend Helen Gale remembers, "she would gently scoop him up and take him outside and let him go. Sometimes she got upset if she thought she hurt an animal."

Carol appreciated the secure feeling she had around Jessica, and Jessica liked Carol's free spirit and tenderness. Soon they were spending every free moment together. One night when Jessica was away on business, they talked to each other on the phone until the sun came up. They decided to buy a house together in 2000, on Churchill Drive, in a quiet, diverse subdivision on the east side of Boynton Beach. The couple made quick friends. Neighborhood children came over to watch movies and play with the peaceful greyhounds. On hot days, Jess and Carol would pass out old-timey glass bottles of Coke.

When they noticed conservative bumper stickers on a new neighbor's car, the women baked a welcoming cake and brought it over to announce — in front of the children — "We're gay!" As a couple, they were ardent, vociferous participants in the political process. "If there was a rally anywhere around here," a neighbor recalls, "they were the first two there, with signs." After George W. Bush moved troops into Iraq in 2003, Jessica and Carol began flying their American flag upside down.

Jessica was the moneymaker, always suave, always the first with a sharp, witty joke. Carol was the dreamer, at home in the vastness of water, a freelance writer — and also financially dependent upon Jessica. Money eventually became a contentious issue for the seemingly happy couple.

Another point of tension: Jessica's family didn't like Carol. Early in the relationship, while they were staying with Jessica's parents in New York, Jessica's mom caught Carol smoking pot. On another trip, as the couple said goodbye to Jessica's family at LaGuardia Airport, Carol realized she'd forgotten her laptop and began shrieking at Jessica. "She threw a childish tantrum," Sibyl says. "She made an awful, embarrassing scene in the middle of the airport. Even security wanted to know what the problem was."

Other people witnessed Carol's tantrums too. One morning, as a lawn service was cutting down a neighbor's branches with a chain saw, Carol bolted out of her house, phone in hand, screaming at the startled landscapers. "It was 11 a.m. on a weekday," the neighbor remembers. "I kept telling her: 'You're out of line here, Carol. You're out of control right now.' But you could tell by the look in her eye at the time, there's no way to describe it other than just pure 'crazy.'"

A few days later, Jessica apologized for Carol's behavior.

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Despite their growing problems, the couple couldn't resist the chance to make a political statement. In 2005, not long after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in that state, Carol and Jessica flew up for a ceremony of their own. The reception party, paid for by Jessica's parents, was held in Connecticut.

By then, though, friends noticed the couple fighting more frequently. At a party just after the wedding, the women had to excuse themselves for the duration of dinner to go to another room and argue.

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