Prosecutors call Barbara Opel the Fagin-like mom who destroyed her children's lives. Now she wants the kids to save hers. Defense attorneys are hoping the three children Opel allegedly involved in the brutal homicide of an elderly Everett man last year will be able to persuade prosecutors that executing their mother would harm them as well. In addition, Opel is seeking mercy by trying to show that her own abuse as a child—beginning perhaps in the womb, damaged by her mother's drinking—set her on an inevitable course of cruelty and murder. It's a legal long shot to save Opel from becoming the first woman put to death in Washington history.
Snohomish County officials are likely to announce this week whether they will seek the death penalty for the 39-year-old divorced mother of three. She is accused of trying to hire 11 children and one male adult to kill her employer, Jerry Heimann, and empty his bank account (see "Little Girl Lost," Jan. 24).
Opel eventually recruited five teens, including daughter Heather, 13, to kill Heimann in April 2001. The girl and four other Everett youths reportedly beat and stabbed the 64-year-old retiree to death while Opel hid in the basement with her two other kids—a girl, 7, and a boy, 11—and yelled out murder commands. Prosecutors claim Barbara Opel paid her kiddie contract killers a few hundred dollars at most. Heather, who savagely stabbed Heimann, hoped to be rewarded with a dirt bike.
The four other youths have all been convicted and sentenced. In a case that rattled Everett's nerves last year, that leaves Barbara and Heather facing trials this fall.
Neither Barbara Opel's attorneys nor prosecutors are commenting. The court has closed some proceedings and sealed thousands of pages of state child-welfare documents related to Opel's attempt to use the children in her defense. But through interviews and other documents a picture emerges:
The defense has hired four experts to study Opel's behavior and to interview her three children and others associated with the case. A. Shulamit Glaubach, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Seattle, has interviewed Heather, her brother, and her sister, while a guardian and possibly two attorneys—representing Heather and her brother—watched through a two-way mirror. (The sister is in a foster home and the brother is serving time on an unrelated juvenile criminal sexual conviction.)
Dr. Glaubach's mission is to form an opinion on the psychological effects an execution could have upon the children and present it to prosecutors. The defense hopes to demonstrate a harm so deep and lasting that it endangers the kids' ongoing recovery and future survival—that killing her kills a little bit more of them. The children's past abuse is already well documented, dating back to times, witnesses recall, when Opel repeatedly slapped one of the children as a baby. She reportedly had "been yelling at Heather since she was 3 years old," and left the kids alone for hours at a time when they were toddlers. Opel, as a single mom, and her brood lived in 22 different locations in seven years, including motels, strangers' homes, and their car, existing on welfare and child support. The offspring, who begged for money on the street, often went hungry.
The kids, especially the two younger ones, may be exposed to more suffering merely from the questioning demanded by their mother's defense strategy. "It is expected," concedes Opel's attorney Brian Phillips, "that the children may experience distress by the very nature of the matters to be discussed" in the interviews.
The defense is also looking for life-saving mitigating factors from Barbara's own erratic childhood and adolescence. Opel has been seen by a psychologist and by experts in fetal alcohol syndrome and toxicology. One researcher determined that her parents and other relatives suffered from mental and alcoholic illnesses. Dr. George Woods found that "Opel's family history of severe psychiatric illness requires neuropsychological testing in order to determine if Ms. Opel has any [signs] of mental illness. . . . There are also indications of significant alcohol abuse by [Opel's mother] during her pregnancy. . . . [The mother] was also employed in a dry cleaners during the first eight months" of pregnancy. He asked that Barbara be tested for possible "behavioral consequences of any chemically related deficits."
Sharren Wells, an Everett social worker who interviewed Opel, says, "I think there is neurological damage there." She cited thought blockage, misfiring motor skills, and possible brain trauma. "She is disconnected" from the world, Wells said.
One of Opel's sisters, Shirley, says the man some thought was Barbara's father in fact wasn't. Opel's real dad, claims the sister, was an itinerant racehorse fancier whom Barbara's mother followed around to racetracks while drinking and carousing. The sister calls Barbara "brain dead" for her inability to act rationally: "I always thought she had psychiatric problems" as an adult. "I think my whole family tried not to think about what was going on with Barb."
Even if prosecutors are not persuaded by mitigating circumstances and Opel is convicted at her September trial, a jury would still make the final decision on the death penalty. Any of the information that her attorneys consider to show mitigating circumstances can be introduced then, as well.