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Family of murder victim thinks 2 Montana men should still be in jail

Posted at 8:00 PM, Apr 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-21 22:00:47-04

Time, it turns out, does not heal all wounds.

After more than 20 years, Donna Meagher’s family still feels the pain of her loss.

As the Montana Innocence Project has generated state-wide headlines with their successful effort to have the convictions of Fred Lawrence and Paul Jenkins overturned, Meagher’s family have been unwilling spectators reliving a slow-motion nightmare; the night in 1994 when Donna was kidnapped from the Jackson Creek Saloon, beaten to death, and left in a ditch along Colorado Gulch Road.

Despite new evidence that may implicate another suspect in Meagher’s murder, her family remains more than unconvinced. They are adamant that Jenkins and Lawrence are guilty.

“They know what they did,” says Janelle Meagher, Donna’s daughter.

“They know exactly what they did. They sure shouldn’t be out breathing fresh air.”

“It’s really hard on the family,” says Dave Simac, owner of Chubby’s Bar and Grill in Clancy. “I mean, it’s a tough deal.”

“I think the biggest thing is, everybody knows what a tragic event it was,” says Simac.

“But a lot of people actually weren’t here 25 years ago. I mean it brought up a lot of memories of course, everybody’s emotional about it.”

“We saw them (Jenkins and Lawrence) 25 years ago, and our hopes were that we’d never have to see them again.”

While new DNA evidence convinced a district judge to overturn both guilty verdicts in the case, Meagher’s family say the rest of the evidence in the case points to the two men who are now free.

“Lawrence and Jenkins actually both wore gloves,” says Simac. Which may have hampered the transfer of DNA from the suspects.

“We have several witnesses that actually went past Jackson Creek on the night of the homicide and place Lawrence and Jenkins’ vehicles out front in the early morning hours.”

Meagher was alone and closing the saloon the night she was killed.

Simac points out that Jenkins wife bought clothing from the Helena Dillards with quarters he says were taken from the Jackson Creek Saloon. He also claims Jenkins and Lawrence painted their cars after the murder in an attempt to conceal themselves from law enforcement.

“The evidence is there,” says Janelle, who was 11 years old during the two murder trials held in Helena.

“I mean, I don’t know how just because a little bit of DNA and a law that was put in place lets them walk the streets.”

One family member told me there is another reason they believe Jenkins and Lawrence are guilty. It would have taken two men to overpower Donna.

“She was too tough to be captured just by one guy,” I was told.

Now, after more than 20 years, Lawrence and Jenkins are free, but Donna Meagher’s family is still in prison, held captive by pain and loss.

“A lot of Donna’s stories have stayed with us over the years,” says Dave.

“My younger kids and grandkids, who weren’t actually born then, I mean, we just tell them stories about her, and it’s like everybody knows her and some never even met her.”

Donna’s family have been left with memories and a few pictures. Her daughter Rachelle says Donna spent more time behind the camera than in front of it.

Her family describes Donna as a woman who held her family together and would do anything for anyone.

“She was a good person,” says Janelle. “She was my Mom.”

“She was a very hard worker,” says Dave. “Always wanted to help somebody out, very compassionate about her family. It’s left a huge hole in our family.”

“She would have given them that money,” says Janelle. “It never had to be as bad as it was.”

The family feeling runs deep. Karl Meagher was Donna’s high school sweetheart. They married young.

“As far as I’m concerned,” says Karl, “I’m still married.”

Donna’s memories keep her family together. Her memories also help them cope with a fear born two decades ago that still haunts them today.

“My kids are young,” says Janelle who works as a waitress at Chubby’s. “They’re 8 and 12.”

“Mostly they’re scared. They always ask me like, ‘Are you gonna get murdered when you go to work today?’”

As for the future, Donna’s family want another trial for Lawrence and Jenkins.

“Jenkins should never walked out on prosthetic legs out in the open,” says Janelle. “They should still be locked up.”

“They’re animals.” 

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