'Til Death

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

When Carol Anne Burger called police just before 1 p.m. October 23, 2008, she sounded panicked.

"I... I don't know if this is an emergency, but it could be," she told the 911 operator. Carol was breathing heavily. "My girlfriend didn't come home last night." She immediately rephrased her statement: "my roommate."

Carol stammered on: "And... um... I... you know, that's very unusual — she went to the gym... about 8:30 to 9 or something, and she didn't come home. I woke up this morning, and she wasn't here. And I just got a call now from a woman at Pyramid Books... somebody turned in her wallet and her car keys." Carol's heels clicked rhythmically in the background as she paced around the house. "I don't know where she is!"

Jessica Kalish
Newscom
Jessica Kalish
Carol Anne Burger
Newscom
Carol Anne Burger
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.

The operator asked for her address, and Carol gave it, but she sounded hesitant, as though she wasn't quite prepared for the reality of investigators showing up at the house. "Now... you know... I don't know what what's... that's not... that's —"

"Hold on, ma'am," the operator interrupted. "I have to ask you some questions."

Carol said she wasn't sure about her roommate's age. She said she drove a gray BMW but didn't know the license plate. The cadence of her clicking heels picked up.

"I'll send someone over to meet with you," the operator told her.

"Oh," Carol said. "I can't — I'm supposed to be at the unemployment office." Then she relented: "I guess I'll call them."

Officer Evelyn McCoy arrived at the pink and yellow Boynton Beach house minutes later. Carol, age 57, was wearing makeup, a pantsuit, and three-inch heels. She repeated her story to McCoy: Her ex-girlfriend — they were separated but still living together — had left for the L.A. Fitness around 9 the night before and hadn't been home since. Carol said she'd tried calling to ask her to bring home milk but that the call had gone straight to voicemail.

"I don't know where she could be," Carol told the officer. "This is so unusual." McCoy briefly looked around and saw no signs of a struggle.

Police issued a missing-persons alert by 4 p.m., just in time for the evening news. The story aired on every local TV channel that night and was on the front page of every daily newspaper the next morning.

Jessica Kalish was a gregarious software executive who used to host AlterNet, a gay and lesbian radio talk show in Miami. Her wife, Carol, was a writer covering the presidential election for the Huffington Post. To outsiders, it seemed they were the embodiment of contemporary domestic bliss: two smart, professional women living in an immaculate house replete with screened-in pool, a cabana bathroom, and plenty of room for their two adopted racing greyhounds. Soon, though, all of South Florida learned the unsettling truth.

Just after 11 that night, a woman driving on Congress Avenue spotted Jessica's BMW sedan between two dumpsters, around the block from a police substation. The driver's-side window was smashed. There was blood splattered on the left side of the car. On the back tire. On the undercarriage. There was more blood — and hair the color of Jessica's — along the rear bumper. At the edge of the trunk. On the upholstery of both front seats.

And there, on the floorboard, stuffed headfirst beneath the back of the driver's seat, her legs bent awkwardly across the back seat, was the body of 56-year-old Jessica Kalish.

Lead detective Alfredo Martinez arrived within 20 minutes of the discovery. He knew immediately this was no indiscriminate robbery or random act of violence. "When I looked in the back seat, at first glance, you could automatically see that this was an emotionally driven crime," Martinez would recall. "Somebody was in a rage."

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Jessica spoke four languages, had a black belt in karate, and prided herself on being a tough, strong woman. She was tall and lean, with short, dark hair and eyes like tiny flames. She liked fine single-malt Scotch, expensive cigars, and smart, passionate women. She grew up in a quiet neighborhood in Queens, in a traditional Jewish home with both parents and a younger sister, Sibyl. As a child, Jessica would disassemble kitchen appliances and put them back together. She had an intense fascination, her family would later say, with the way the world fit together. She knew very young that she liked women, and at 17, she left her parents' house in Forest Hills to live a bohemian life in Greenwich Village.

"It was the 1960s, and Jessica epitomized the new kind of fearless lesbian," Sibyl Kalish remembers. "She wasn't really butch, and she wasn't a fem. Jessica always defied any label anyone wanted to put on her, but everyone around her fell in love with her energy and her desire to get the most out of every moment in life."

Jessica earned a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was one of the first women enrolled in the esteemed engineering department. To pay the bills, she lied about her age and began working as a bartender in a lesbian bar and driving a taxi at night.

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.

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.

Near the end of 2007, Carol and Jessica began telling friends they were separated but still sharing the house until they could sell it. Carol slept in the guest room, and the two would go days without speaking to each other. She told friends that she and Jessica wanted to divide their property and go separate ways, but neither woman trusted the other enough to sell the house and split the money fairly. And a traditional divorce wasn't an option: Since their marriage wasn't recognized in Florida, they couldn't get a divorce here; and since they didn't live in Massachusetts, they couldn't get a divorce there.

Then Carol lost her job at the Credit Union Times. She applied for — and began receiving — unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, Jessica bought a BMW and started seeing another woman, a feminist writer living in Massachusetts named Wendy Hunter Roberts.

"Carol would get so sad," Helen Gale recalls. "She said [Jessica] had become cold and cruel to her." Carol told friends that Jessica said she'd never loved her, that she didn't know how she'd ever been attracted to Carol. She complained that Jessica would spend hours on web-cam dates with her new girlfriend, intentionally speaking loud enough for Carol to hear.

In June 2008, Carol wrote out a suicide note, but she couldn't follow through with the act.

"Jess didn't even say happy birthday to me this morning," Carol wrote in an email to Helen later that month. "What a putz. [It's] hard to reconcile the person I loved so much with the person I see before me now."

Helen was a close confidant of Carol's in the year before Jessica's murder; Helen too was ending a long relationship, and the two women connected over the shared experience. Carol stayed with Helen in California for two months in early 2008. Helen often came to Delray Beach to see her mother and also visited Carol. They emailed daily.

The correspondence reveals, in Carol, a torn, complex woman. She was at times optimistic, hoping to sell the house, travel, and put this part of her life behind her. Other times, she sounded jaded: "Frankly, I just don't have much faith in living in America in the next coming years," she wrote at one point. She was still devastated by the death of her mother a few years earlier. She was worried about losing the money she had tied up in the house and felt alone and abandoned. But she never hesitated to extend warmth to her friends, often dropping in a quick "I'm thinking of you" or "Please feel better..." and always closing with "Love, Carol."

Some emails reveal she made a conscious effort to be cheerful. "Better days are coming," she wrote Helen in early summer. "Happy days, brighter days... I'll put the house on the market and get away from this toxic human being ASAP!"

Last July, Carol was invited to cover the presidential election for the popular political blog Huffington Post. She wrote about young Florida Democrats, about the opening of the Obama campaign headquarters in Delray Beach, and about the South Florida gay community's push to shoot down Florida's Amendment 2, which would, as Carol wrote in a post, "enshrine one-man, one-woman marriage into the state Constitution."

"The amendment is vague," Carol told her readers, "so it could allow for disenfranchising contractual and domestic arrangements and take away recognition already granted by many cities and counties in Florida."

Though the exposure on such a highly trafficked media outlet was great, the Huffington Post job didn't pay. Still, Carol told Helen she was hopeful: "I'm gathering the strength I need to do the unpleasant work that lies before me: getting the house ready to sell and then selling it and moving on," she wrote.

A week later: "I've so much work to get done in order to put the house on the market," Carol wrote. "My goal is to list it in Sept. or Oct. and hopefully to do the sale and be out by year's end."

In an email from August, two months before the murder, Carol mentioned that Jessica "had her lover pick her up again." She said she was sad. "I'm feeling pretty isolated," she wrote. "I just can't bring myself to punish people with my sad self whenever I'm down. But I usually bounce back in time."

As credit markets froze in September and the price of real estate in South Florida plummeted, Carol grew more desperate. She told people she felt trapped. The rotating highs and lows seemed to spiral, taking Carol deeper into a dark depression. But she refused to take medication. "I'd rather just be sad than chemically dependent," she wrote to Helen. "If medication works for you, great. It's not for me. Most people I know who've taken them never seem to get off that merry-go-round."

When she took Helen to the airport at the end of a trip in October, Carol began sobbing uncontrollably, saying she didn't want Helen to leave. "I can't go back to that house," Carol cried. "Not with her. I can't take it."

"You've gotta move out, Carol," Helen said as she comforted her friend. "You have to."

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About noon on Friday, October 24, Boynton Beach Police announced they had found Jessica's body. Calls to the house and to Carol's cell phone went to voicemail. Knocks from neighbors and reporters went unanswered. When officers didn't get an answer at the door just after 2:30 p.m., they headed around the side of the house. They could hear a greyhound barking inside. In the back yard, they found Carol. She was dead, lying in a pool of still-warm blood next to the screened-in pool.

"When we first found her and secured the scene, we weren't even sure at that point what we were investigating," Detective Martinez recalls. "We didn't know if Carol was distraught, missing Jessica, and just couldn't take it anymore. Or maybe this was a double murder, set up to look like suicide."

As police moved from room to room, Martinez noticed what looked like a single drop of brown paint on the floor of the garage, near the washing machine. But since the rest of the garage appeared undisturbed — there were piles of furniture, scuba gear, old lamps — the detective didn't think much of it. Only later, when another detective found a similar spot on the wall in the cabana bathroom, did they test both drops and determine they were blood.

Police obtained the necessary warrants and spent the rest of the afternoon moving furniture out of the house. The back bathroom was the first place crime-scene investigators went with the Luminol, a chemical that attaches to iron found in hemoglobin. Even if the area has been cleaned thoroughly, when sprayed under a black light, Luminol turns bright blue wherever blood has been present — a reaction scientists call "chemiluminescence." The Boynton Beach crime-scene technicians first sprayed the chemical on the bathroom wall, near the spot of blood. The wall began to glow. They sprayed over the sink. It too started to glow.

"From the amount of blood we found in the bathroom," Martinez says, "we originally thought the murder must have occurred in that room." Evidence of blood was present on every wall, all over the shower, on the door, the mirror, the tile floor. The sink had overflowed at one point; the Luminol unveiled haunting blue streaks down the front of the cabinets.

That, though, did not compare to what police discovered in the garage.

With the carpets and futon and scuba gear out of the way, the Luminol revealed what looked like a killing floor. There had been, at one point, three large puddles of blood and a set of footprints mapping the killer's path. There was more blood in the washing machine and patterns outlining where Jessica's car had been parked during the attack.

Though friends and family members dispute some of the details, police pieced together a narrative of what they think happened: On October 22, Carol spent the day helping Helen Gale's mother move boxes after a flood. After work, Jessica and her new girlfriend chatted via web cam until about 7:30 p.m. Jessica showed Wendy her new haircut; she had just gotten her dark brown hair cropped short, with sassy spikes in the back. Jessica used her L.A. Fitness membership card at 7:48 p.m. and worked out for an hour. Carol was at home, stewing over something — what exactly, no one will ever know. When Jessica pulled the BMW into the garage, Carol confronted her in a rage. Carol picked up a screwdriver.

Because there were scratches on the car door and the driver's-side window, police believe Jessica was still in the car when the attack began. When Jessica got out, Carol didn't stop swinging the screwdriver. Jessica's forearms were scratched, her hands punctured. Carol chipped Jessica's front teeth. She struck Jessica's chest. Then again. Then Jessica's face. Her shoulders. Jessica fell to the ground. Streaks of blood beneath where the car had been parked suggest that Jessica — who was much taller and stronger than Carol — was stretching out her hands, desperately trying to get under the car. Then Jessica crouched into a prone position near the rear driver's-side tire.

Most of the screwdriver blows landed on Jessica's neck and on the back of her head, perhaps directed at her new haircut. All told, there were 222 stab wounds. The lacerations were, on average, an inch to an inch-and-a-half deep, and most were shaped like the tiny plus sign on the tip of a Phillips-head screwdriver. The fatal strike was likely a blow to the spinal cord. The struggle — and subsequent overkill — probably lasted about 20 minutes.

After the attack, an exhausted Carol pulled Jessica's body toward the trunk, but she was too tired to lift her lifeless former lover. She dragged Jessica's body back around the side of the car — leaving smeared blood and hair along the front of the trunk and on the tires. She opened the back driver's-side door and pushed Jessica up, onto the back seat. Then she walked around to the passenger side, leaned in, and pulled Jessica the rest of the way into the car.

Carol drove the BMW, with Jessica stuffed in the back, to the parking lot where it was found — at some point leaving a broken cigarette on the back seat to throw off the police. (Though Jessica relished the occasional expensive cigar, she detested cigarettes.) Then Carol walked home two miles in the rain and began cleaning. She wiped the weapon clean and put it away. She mopped up the blood in the garage (except for the drop Martinez saw). She stripped down, ran around back to the cabana bathroom (so as not to track blood through the house), washed herself, and then washed that bathroom. She got dressed, drove a mile in the opposite direction of the BMW, and dropped Jessica's keys and wallet in a rough neighborhood. Later, she moved carpets over the spots in the garage where the most blood had been and put furniture over the carpets.

Then Carol made herself a snack, worked on her resumé a bit, and waited.

After she got the call that Jessica's wallet had been found, she called 911 with a panicked voice. She paced through the house while on the phone, her heels clicking down the seconds before her life unraveled. She spent most of that evening talking with police and, later, telling a neighbor how worried she was. "Where could she be?" she said again and again, still pacing. "I don't know where she is."

The morning of October 24 — after police had discovered Jessica's body but before the information was made public — Danielle Dubetz, a reporter with WPTV-TV Channel 5 at the time, went to the house with her cameraman and spoke with Carol, seeking an update on the previous night's missing-persons story. Carol answered the door in her bathrobe and looked like she hadn't slept in three days. She agreed to email photos of Jessica but asked not to appear on camera. As they left, Dubetz noticed something especially odd: As Carol had repeated over and over I don't know where she is. Where could she be? — the supposedly grieving woman wasn't making eye contact.

"Normally people are in such distress," Dubetz remembers, "they stare at you in your eyes and it just cuts you to your core. We're the first people there, and they're pleading for help. She was asking for help, but she wasn't looking at me at all. It was so strange."

At some point between 11:30 a.m., when the reporter left her house, and 2:30 p.m., when police arrived, Carol brought her .38-caliber pistol to the dining room table in its case. She loaded the gun and walked out back by the pool, shaded by the screened enclosure extending from the house. She removed her flip-flops and reading glasses and placed them gently on the glass patio table. Wearing only a bathrobe and panties, she looked at herself in the mirrored sliding door and placed the gun under her chin.

Nobody heard the shot. The bullet left a hole in the top of the screen.

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When police found Carol's body, they noticed an odd, deep, L-shaped abrasion on her knee. It looked fresh, but they couldn't think of what might have caused such a wound. But when they examined the garage, they noticed that a large, metal Coleman toolbox had one drawer sticking out slightly. The shape of the drawer matched the wound exactly. Detectives concluded that Carol must have been running at the car when it pulled in, and she knocked her leg on the drawer's metal lip. Perhaps that was what pushed her over the edge. That drawer contained three Phillips-head screwdrivers.

After the sad incident, some observers suggested that the story of Jess and Carol highlighted the need for across-the-board legal recognition of civil unions and same-sex marriages. "It's very messy for us to get disentangled," says Elizabeth F. Schwartz, a Miami-based family attorney specializing in same-sex issues. "This is one example of many of a couple that entered into a marriage and then couldn't get themselves out of it. When the kind people of Massachusetts grant you the right to marry but Florida won't recognize those marriages, it can make getting a divorce very difficult. Certainly the answer is not to kill your ex, but it does remind us that the consequences can be grave when we don't have a legal and appropriate way out."

As details of the murder-suicide trickled out, the crime captivated the public. Not only was it remarkable in its brutality (the number 222 was an inescapable representation of one woman's immense pain and anger), but also perhaps more shocking were the demographics involved — two married, postmenopausal, educated lesbians.

In spite of the uniqueness, what happened with Carol and Jessica echoed so many other cases of domestic violence: Tension built and built until the relationship, and the lives of the participants, came to a horrible, climactic end. Beyond the luxury cars, the beautiful house, and the high-profile careers, they were not impervious to the stresses of a sour relationship, worries over money, or the desperate pains of mental illness.

And in that way, Carol and Jessica were just like everyone else.

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