"He loved her to death"
Herb Trammell heard the shotgun blasts just after dawn on August 1, 1989. He looked out his bedroom window in time to see an orange car with wood side panels speeding past. He ran half-dressed out of his home in a middle-class east Phoenix neighborhood and looked around.
Trammell saw Frank Wade writhing in agony on the front lawn next door. Frank was more than a neighbor to Trammell. The two were Harley-riding, beer-sucking sidekicks who worked together at Allied-Signal Aerospace Company.
Frank had taken three 12-gauge blasts to his torso and another to his left thigh as he mowed his lawn in the early-morning light. Remarkably, the six-foot-six, 250-pounder was still conscious.
"He had all these big holes in him and he was really hurting," Trammell says. "I asked him who done it and he told me. He said it was Mike, his wife's daughter's boyfriend. He asked me if he was gonna die. I said, `No, man, you're too ornery to die.' I tried to comfort him. But it was real bad."
An emergency rescue team rushed Frank Wade to Maricopa County Medical Center, where he died within the hour. He was 49.
Detectives at the murder scene on East Almeria Street scoured the area for clues. They interviewed a bicyclist who'd also heard the shots and seen the orange car with wood panels. Two neighbors similarly identified the car.
The cops found a note tacked to Frank's front door.
"Nancy," it read in part, "I want no more trouble from you in any way. We will split what we had bought together. You go your way and I will go mine. P.S. I changed the lock. So please call."
MDRVON THE RUN
In the days after the murder, suspect Peter Bernard Fraser purchased about $10,000 worth of merchandise at Phoenix stores. He bought guns, a gold ring, a rebuilt car engine, a police scanner and a fancy pool cue.
Fraser bought the merchandise with 42 blank checks issued to Frank and Nancy Wade. He signed the checks with Frank's name and presented one of Frank's check-guarantee cards. If anyone asked for more identification, Fraser pulled out an Arizona driver's license with his picture, but in Frank's name. He obtained the new license from the Department of Motor Vehicles the day after Frank's murder with a phony birth certificate.
Obtaining fake identification was easy for Fraser. He had used at least 27 aliases during his first 27 years. Frank Wade called him "Mike," but he mainly used the first names "Maverick" and "Matt."
Fraser sold several of his newly purchased guns to Valley pawn shops for cash. He and his girlfriend Renee left Phoenix about five days after Frank Wade's murder.
The couple stayed on the lam for 14 months. Acting on a tip, FBI agents arrested Fraser at the Raleigh, North Carolina, airport on October 11, 1990. Fraser, Renee and their baby boy had been living for months near Raleigh.
Pete Fraser is now serving a 46-year prison sentence for first-degree murder and theft. He won't be eligible for parole for 39 years. Fraser remains the only person charged and convicted in the Frank Wade case. That nags at the detectives who investigated it.
"Peter Fraser never would have gone over to kill that man by himself," says former Phoenix homicide detective Armando Saldate, now a county constable. "Con men like him usually draw the line. Something made Peter go over the line and kill. I think that something was Nancy Wade."
MDRVFRANK AND NANCY
Frank Wade was a mountain of a man with a wild beard that matched his extroverted nature. "A man's man," is how more than one person--male and female--summed him up. As cliche as that depiction is, it seems to have been true. His world revolved around traditional guy-type things--fishing derbies, rodeos, poker and camping. He spent many evenings after work knocking down beers at friendly east Phoenix pubs such as Draw 10, the Wanderin and the Annex.
Frank was as loyal to his friends as an old hound, and they reciprocated. Some pals still visit the north Phoenix cemetery where he's buried. They'll open a cold can of Bud and place it atop his grave. Then they'll sit until the wee hours hoisting brews in tribute to their fallen friend.
"We loved the guy," says Arley Capps, one of the mourners. "I get shook up when I think about what happened to him. At least he lived a lot in his life."
Born into a blue-collar Ohio family, Frank Wade grew up to become a lanky high schooler with some promise as a basketball player. But his future first wife's teenage pregnancy forced him into marriage at 17.
Frank and his first wife would have five children together. His in-laws set him up in a little junkyard business that did well enough. After this stab at fidelity, however, Frank met a female bartender at a tavern.
Frank and Joan became an item. They married, and in the mid-1960s they left Ohio for Phoenix with her two children. Frank worked several jobs until Allied-Signal hired him as an apprentice in 1971. He worked his way up to senior engineer for the big firm. The company paid him well--$927 a week at the time of his death--as a mechanical troubleshooter.
Frank and Joan broke up after nine years of marriage and he hooked up with Johnnie Hall, a drafting-and-design instructor at local community colleges. Johnnie became Frank's third wife in November 1986, though the union wasn't a long one.
After his split with Johnnie, Frank Wade met Nancy Smith Dunivan Murphy at the Phoenix Park 'n Swap. That was in the late 1980s. He hit it off with the hairdresser, then an extroverted divorcee in her late 30s. "It's one of them stupid things," Nancy says. "We liked the same things--camping out, riding the motorcycle, shooting and stuff."
Frank's friends recall his infatuation with Nancy. "He was a hell of a guy," says Chris Fleet, "but he just had a blind spot where Nancy was concerned. He loved her to death. He said that nothing like this had ever happened to him before, as far as falling hard, even when he was a kid."
Nancy's working-class background and outgoing personality matched Frank's. She, too, grew up in the Midwest, the fifth of nine children. The clan moved from Indiana to west Phoenix in 1964.
Always a hard worker, Nancy Smith got a job at the age of 14 as a waitress at a west-side joint. Like Frank, she married at 17, in her case to a man a quarter-century older than she. The union produced Renee Morton, who later married Pete Fraser.
In 1970, Nancy married air-conditioning repairman Robert Dunivan, who fathered her second child, Bobby Jr. That marriage ended in 1974. Her third husband was a Louisiana native named John Murphy. That marriage also ended in divorce, though the pair remained good friends.
"I loved all my husbands," Nancy says, "but I guess I wasn't meant to live my whole life with one of them."
Nancy was a lusty John Wayne fan who could swear like a sailor, but prided herself "on being a lady." Her hair color could change as often as her moods. Still, even Frank Wade's friends grudgingly describe her as vivacious and personable.
"Nancy became an obsession with Frank," says Frank's friend Chris Fleet. "The more any of us told him that she was a user, a conniver, the more he was bound and determined to prove us wrong."
Frank's third wife, Johnnie Hall, remembers Frank telling her, "`That woman is so entrancing. It's like I'm possessed.'" Frank called Johnnie in March 1989. "He told me he was going to give marriage with Nancy a shot," she says. "I said, `Be careful.' I didn't mean physically--I meant emotionally."
MDRVPETE AND RENEE
Kathy Sweet and her son Darrel met Pete Fraser on a New Year's Eve in the mid-1980s. Fraser's Volkswagen had broken down at a west Phoenix Circle K and Darrel could fix a Bug in his sleep.
The good-natured, handsome Fraser inched his way into the Sweets' lives. Then in his early 20s, he became a surrogate son to Jerry and Kathy Sweet, and he lived with the family of four off and on for years. They knew him as Matthew or Maverick, not Pete.
The Sweets say they knew little of Fraser's past other than that he'd supposedly had a rough upbringing in his native Ohio. "He was good to us and that's what mattered," says Kathy Sweet, a librarian at a local community college. "We knew he wasn't perfect, but he was very loyal. He told us, `If anybody ever hurts you, I'll take care of them, Mom.'"
Fraser had a million stories: He bragged of being a Vietnam vet and a former University of Southern California student. Actually, he'd joined the Army years after the Vietnam war ended and received a bad-conduct discharge; he was a high school dropout who may have earned his GED, but apparently never attended college.
But Fraser was an ace forger. He doctored birth certificates, car-insurance cards and the like--for a price. Darrel Sweet says he and Fraser also sold stolen car parts to interested consumers. "I learned a lot about scams from Mav," says Sweet, now 23 and on felony probation for car theft. "He learned a lot about cars from me. We got along great." Sweet says he introduced Fraser to future wife Renee in 1986. The two dated for a time, then Fraser returned to Ohio in early 1988. Police in Marion County arrested him later that year on forgery and theft charges.
A judge sentenced Fraser to a year in prison, but he served only a few months before his release. Within weeks, Fraser was busted again on theft charges. He bonded out of jail on the day after Christmas, 1988, and fled Ohio for Arizona.
Renee Morton had kept in touch with Fraser during his prison stint in Ohio. The pair started to date again when he returned to Phoenix. The couple stayed with the Sweets on and off in early 1989. Kathy Sweet recalls that Renee complained often during that time about her mother's new boyfriend, Frank Wade.
"Renee would call Frank every name in the book," Kathy Sweet says. "She did not like the man. This was way before he beat Nancy up."
On St. Patrick's Day, 1989, Frank and Nancy tied the knot at the Little Chapel of the West in Las Vegas. It was the fourth marriage for each. Nancy's daughter Renee attended the ceremony.
The couple honeymooned on the West Coast in their motor home, then returned to Phoenix. Nancy depicts her romance with Frank as idyllic, except for glitches occasioned by his drinking. But Nancy's good friend Laura Willhite recalls the relationship as explosive.
"They went through the same routine time after time," Willhite says. "He'd drink, she'd leave him, he'd change the locks on the house, he'd play around for a while, then he'd plead with her to come back. Frank had his sweet-talking ways and she'd come back. Then it would all start up again. But as much of an asshole as Frank was, he was Nancy's guy."
No one recalls Frank as a physically violent man. "He never hit me, never," says his third wife, Johnnie Hall. "I can't believe he would beat on someone the way he was supposed to have beat on Nancy. It wasn't him."
But graphic police photographs taken July 21, 1989, show the results of Frank's savage attack on his bride of four months--deep cuts and bruises to Nancy's breasts. Frank spent the night in the county jail after inflicting them. "You could tell someone very sadistic had done this to her," says Laura Willhite.
Nancy claimed the fight started when a drunken Frank accused her of flirting with another man while playing darts at a bar. But Frank told detectives he'd snapped during an argument over Nancy's two children. He'd been complaining to friends that Nancy had been giving his money to her two kids.
Nancy admitted to detectives that she'd shot three rounds from a .357 revolver at her husband in self-defense, but missed. "He said, `I'm going to kill you, bitch,'" she told them.
Now, more than two years after Frank's death, Nancy is aware of an odd truth. She knows that if she had killed Frank during their July 1989 clash, few juries would have convicted her of anything. "I wish I had killed him then," she says, "considering what's happened to Pete Fraser and all. It's all a big mess."
Nancy moved in with girlfriend Laura Willhite after the July 21 assault and was staying there when Frank was murdered. She says she never saw the note Frank stuck on his front door, the one that implored her to stay cool and to pick up her things.
Two Phoenix detectives went to an Avondale beauty school after Frank's murder to break the news to Nancy. She "appeared in shock," one noted in a report. She said she had no idea who had murdered her husband.
Later that night, one of Nancy's brothers spoke with detectives at his west-side home. Jess "Bubby" Smith said his brother Felson had been with Pete Fraser at a pawn shop a few days earlier when Fraser had purchased a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun.
Felson Smith then showed up at his brother's place. According to police reports, Felson said his niece Renee had told him a few days earlier that she and Fraser "were not letting Frank get away with beating her mother."
Pete Fraser and his pal Darrel Sweet stopped at a store during the spending binge after Frank Wade's murder. A clerk jotted down the license-plate number of the car that the pair drove away in.
The cops tracked that lead to Sweet's west Phoenix home. Sweet admitted he'd been hanging out with a fellow he knew as Maverick Falcone. But he said he hadn't seen or heard from Mav in some time and didn't know about any murder.
That was a lie, Sweet tells New Times. He now says he saw Pete Fraser about three hours after the murder. "Mav showed up at my parents' house," Sweet says. "He told me, `Hey little bro, I need to borrow your old man's car.' Then he asked me to pick up some stuff he and Renee had on Indian School. I took his orange Datsun--the getaway car, I guess. I saw the 12-gauge sitting right there. Later on, Mav told me, `The guy deserved it. No big deal.' But he never told me he did it himself."
Sweet says he "knew better" than to ask Fraser if he'd killed Frank Wade. "I kept thinking to myself, `This murder don't sound like Mav.' Do you use your own car, shoot a guy on his lawn in a neighborhood? You know, eyewitnesses. Then the guy lives for a while, but you still use his bank card and checks? Shit. He wasn't a murderer--he's a scammer. I'll never believe it was his thinking behind it."
Sweet tells New Times that, to protect Fraser, he never told detectives, prosecutors or even Fraser's jury much of what he says he knows about the murder.
"I was trying to protect Mav without getting nailed for perjury," Sweet says. "Mav was like my big brother. It put me in a bad spot. I ain't a snitch. I believe that Mav killed that guy, but he shouldn't be the only one to go down for it."
Sweet also admits he lied to police when they first questioned him about Pete Fraser's whereabouts. "They asked me if I'd seen the girlfriend or Mav and I said no," Sweet says conspiratorially. "Mav was right up there on our roof. They didn't see him. Renee was right there in the house. They took off a couple of days later."
The truth, Sweet now says, points to a murder-for-hire scheme in which Pete Fraser was the murderer and Nancy Wade was the one who hired him.
MDRVTHE TELEPHONE CALL
Pete Fraser and Renee moved to San Diego in the spring of 1989, where they'd met a guy named Barry Appel. They moved in with Appel, a person who--like Fraser--often ran on the wrong side of the law.
Darrel Sweet visited San Diego a few weeks before Frank Wade's murder.
During that time, Sweet says, he overheard a telephone call from Phoenix. Sweet tells New Times he heard a female caller talking to Renee and later to Pete Fraser over a speaker phone at Appel's home. Although Sweet's revelation of the telephone call may have been important to the case, this is the first time he has mentioned it publicly. Fraser's prosecutor, Lou Stalzer, says Sweet's overhearing the telephone call is news to him.
"Mav was supposed to come to Phoenix to arrange the murder, not to do it," Sweet says. "The woman said her husband had beat her up and she wanted him dead. I could believe that Mav could find someone to do a murder. He knew a lot of people. But that's the last I heard of it until after it happened."
And does Sweet know the identity of the female caller? "It was Renee's mom," Sweet claims. "Renee said so." Renee, however, denies the telephone conversation ever took place.
Darrel Sweet says he returned to Arizona the same day of the telephone call, about a week before Frank Wade's murder. His implication of Nancy Wade in the murder is given credibility because Barry Appel contacted the police about the same telephone call. Sweet says he didn't know that until a few months ago.
And police reports indicate that Appel, unlike Sweet, told a cop about the murder plot before Frank Wade died. A professional police snitch and an admitted longtime drug abuser, Appel told a San Diego cop he'd heard Fraser plot murder on the telephone with someone he knew only as "Renee's mother."
Appel, however, didn't mention the speaker phone. He did say that Fraser told him the caller had promised a Harley-Davidson, check-guarantee card, credit cards and a motor home in return for a murder.
Appel didn't know the intended victim's last name, but the San Diego cop telephoned the homicide bureau of the Phoenix Police Department anyway. That's where Appel's tip sat until after Frank Wade's murder, when Appel repeated what he knew to a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent. The agent put Appel in touch with the Phoenix cops, who interviewed him in late August 1989.
Describing the telephone call, Appel told police in a taped interview three weeks after the murder, "Matt told her she'd better be sure, because once he started the ball rolling there was going to be no way to stop it." After the woman hung up, Appel said, "Renee told Matt, `She wants him dead, she wants him killed.'"
MDRVTHE WIDOW Nancy Wade is sitting in her living room, smoking cigarette after cigarette and telling her story. The 40-year-old owns her own beauty shop and is the popular director of a Tempe cosmetology school. But, she says with a hollow smile, "I'm not what you'd call a happy camper. I'm mad at a lot of people."
She's mad at her brothers Felson and Jess, who she says were coerced by detectives into telling lies about Pete Fraser. She's mad at Fraser's attorney Phil Seplow, who took $25,000 of her money and "sold Peter down the river." And she's irate at the detectives who investigated the case.
"Those cops just know I did it, right?" Nancy says in her dimly lighted living room, a loud whisper from where her husband was murdered. "Open and shut. They think I hated Frank because he hurt me, but they're wrong. I loved him. He was the biggest, ugliest, sweetest guy I ever met in my life--when he wasn't drinking."
It wouldn't surprise her, Nancy says grimly, if someday the police arrest her for murder at the home she shares with her daughter Renee, 19-month-old grandson Sloan and an elderly family friend.
"They want me bad, but they're not gonna get me because I didn't do anything," she says through a haze of cigarette smoke. "I don't have a life anymore. I'm in a nightmare. I don't talk to anybody about anything anymore except hair."
Nancy is correct when she says the Phoenix detectives have considered her a prime suspect since shortly after Frank's murder. A few weeks after the murder, detectives got permission from a Superior Court judge to tap Nancy's telephone at her home on East Almeria Street. The tap was limited, however, to learning what numbers Nancy was dialing and vice versa. But that was enough to disprove Nancy's claim that the last time she had been in touch with Renee had been the night of the murder. The Phoenix cops traced a call from Nancy Wade's home to Cameron, Louisiana, and learned that the number belonged to her third husband, John Murphy. Murphy told the detectives that Nancy had asked him to lend Renee $1,000. Nancy said Renee would be around in a few hours. Murphy told the police he'd lent Renee the money because he loved Nancy and thought of Renee as a daughter.
Nancy flew in the day after Murphy lent the money to Renee. She repaid him the $1,000 in the presence of his niece Karen and returned to Phoenix.
"You know," Nancy says after being confronted with the information contained in the reports, "I think that my ex-husband [John Murphy] called me and asked me if he should lend some money to Renee. I said, `If she calls or comes by, give her the money and I'll pay you back.'"
Late in 1989, the tap produced another lead. Bobby McDonald, a relative of Nancy's from her home state of Indiana, told FBI agents that Nancy had asked him to lend Renee and her boyfriend from $4,000 to $5,000. McDonald said he knew the boyfriend was a suspect in Frank Wade's murder, and that he told Nancy he'd buy Renee a one-way ticket back to Phoenix. Nancy declined the offer.
In late January 1990, Phoenix cops raided Nancy's house looking for more evidence that could help them build a case against her for "hindering prosecution." That's a felony in which "a person renders assistance to another person by providing the other person with money."
The cops found little of substance in the search, though they did uncover a copy of the book 100 Ways to Disappear and Live Free. The author advises readers how to fashion new identities, noting that "the Sheep go to slaughter, the Wolves wherever they wish."
That was the last official contact Nancy has had with the police. She says no one seems to be interested in her theory of the murder.
"I told [Fraser's lawyer] Phil Seplow all about the boyfriend of this gal, Candy," Nancy says. "The guy came over to the house a few weeks before the murder and pointed a shotgun right at Frank. I was there. He told Frank to stay away from Candy. Frank peed his pants, he was so scared. He's the one who did it."
Seplow says his investigator did follow the irate-boyfriend lead, to no avail. But Nancy Wade keeps pushing the theory: If Candy's boyfriend is the killer and Pete Fraser is innocent of murdering Frank, then Nancy is in the clear.
To further minimize her own possible motives, Nancy tries to downplay her beating by Frank shortly before his murder. "I healed up pretty fast," she says. "It wasn't that bad. It wasn't any reason for murder."
Some of Frank's friends, however, say that if the beating wasn't reason enough for Nancy to conspire to murder Frank, his money was. The day after Frank was killed, Nancy Wade had a friend drive her to Allied-Signal. She inquired about collecting Frank's life insurance and related benefits.
But Nancy got another bad piece of news: Frank had named his ex-wife Johnnie Hall as the sole beneficiary of two policies that totaled $105,513.
MDRVTRIAL, VERDICT AND SENTENCE
Deputy county attorney Lou Stalzer says he offered Pete Fraser a plea bargain "from day one" after Fraser's arrest in October 1990. "We would have been happy to deal with him if he told us who else was involved," Stalzer says. "He would have been looking at maybe 15 years instead of life, but his attorney told me Fraser wouldn't give up Nancy. So we went to trial."
Despite the colorful characters and whodunit aspects of the case, Pete Fraser's trial drew little attention. A court clerk, in fact, muses that if Frank Wade had been a child, a cop, a Buddhist or a rich white woman, the case would have been big news.
On the stand, Fraser admitted he'd used Frank Wade's checks, but claimed he'd found the bank card and checks at Frank and Nancy's trailer in Ash Fork before the murder. He tearfully denied killing Frank Wade, and tried to sell an alibi that Renee corroborated during her testimony.
Phil Seplow tried to create "reasonable doubt" of Fraser's guilt in the minds of jurors. "We know that Frank Wade was tragically killed," Seplow told the jury in his closing argument. "I don't want to be out mowing my lawn at 5:30 in the morning and getting shot. It happened. But what's worse? What's worse is if you convict a man of doing it just because we don't know who did it."
The jury didn't buy it. After a day's deliberation, it convicted Fraser of murder and theft. The jurors didn't speak with the attorneys after their guilty verdict. But Nancy Wade's possible role in this bloody affair gnaws at the panel.
"It was like Nancy hovered over everything," says juror George Person, echoing the sentiments of several jurors who spoke with New Times. "We all wondered what the story was, the real story. We all wondered how she and her daughter could get off scot-free."
Prosecutor Lou Stalzer says he may not be able to provide those answers. "I know a lot of people think Nancy is involved and want us to go after her," Stalzer says. "But I have to deal with proof."
Naturally, Fraser continues to proclaim his innocence from the state prison in Florence. "I wrote his checks, but I sure as hell didn't kill him," Fraser recently wrote New Times. "I bet you heard that before."
Moments before he sentenced Fraser in September, Judge Jeffrey Hotham said he had read a letter from Nancy Wade. "I am not making excuses for Peter," Nancy wrote in part, "because I believe if you make a mistake you pay for it one way or another. If God doesn't get you, someone else will or something bad will happen to you. Nothing will bring Frank back, but I know Peter did not shoot him."
Fraser, handcuffed and shackled, turned from the judge and looked blankly at Nancy and Renee. They stared back at him without expression.
The judge then imposed a sentence that, barring a successful appeal, will keep Fraser behind bars until he's almost 70.
MDRVMOTHER AND DAUGHTER
Renee Fraser--never charged in the case--is working these days at her mom's east Phoenix hair salon. She says she plans to stick with her imprisoned husband "until the end--that's what `for better or worse' means." (Although the couple long claimed to be married, they didn't tie the knot until a Phoenix jailhouse ceremony earlier this year.)
Renee dotes on her son, a bubbly little boy with his dad's winning smile. The boy's name is Sloan Justis Fraser, eerily similar to the name Pete Fraser used--Vincent Sloanjustis--to buy the shotgun before the murder.
Earlier this year, Nancy Wade won her legal fight against sole beneficiary Johnnie Hall for at least half of Frank's life-insurance money. That came to about $50,000, before attorney's fees. Johnnie Hall says Nancy has also collected all of Frank's retirement funds--possibly $30,000--and an undetermined amount from Frank's stocks and bonds.
Nancy, however, claims she wound up with little. "Everyone thinks I got rich because of this," she says bitterly. "Ha-ha. Would I work 70-something hours a week if I was rolling in money? Like hell."
Nervously fingering the $3,000 diamond ring she says Frank bought her a lifetime ago, she ends a four-hour interview with a creepy story:
"I was sleeping one night about a week after Frank died. The string on the overhead fan started knocking against the blades for some reason. It woke me up. Frank was hanging there right over me on the bed, his ghost. He was coming down on me. I screamed and jumped up."
Nancy sold the bed that she and Frank Wade once shared.
"My eyes will still pop open wide some nights and my heart will start pounding," she says, lighting another cigarette. "But I haven't seen that ghost ever again, thank God."
"He asked me if he was gonna die. I said, `No, man, you're too ornery to die.'"
Frank Wade was a mountain of a man with a wild beard that matched his extroverted nature--"a man's man."
Her hair color could change as often as her moods. Fraser was an ace forger. He doctored birth certificates, car-insurance cards and the like--for a price. "He told me he was going to give marriage with Nancy a shot. I said, `Be careful.'"
"He wasn't a murderer--he's a scammer. I'll never believe it was his thinking behind it."
"I don't talk to anybody about anything anymore except hair."
"It's one of them stupid things. We liked the same things--camping out, riding the motorcycle, shooting and stuff."
"Frank was hanging there right over me on the bed, his ghost.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.