Longform

'Til Death Do Us Part

The frantic call came at 5:36 a.m. on September 24, 1999. "Hurry, hurry! My wife is bruised everywhere! I don't know what's going on!" Brian Eftenoff shouted into the phone. A 911 operator listened as he pleaded with Judi, his 30-year-old wife and mother of their two young children. "Baby, don't you do this to me! I can't raise those children on my own!"

Judi lay on the carpeted floor of the large master bathroom. As the couple's nanny looked on, Brian tried breathing into Judi's clenched mouth. Blood seeped from Judi's left nostril. Brian alternately pressed his large hands into her chest in a futile effort to revive her.

Brian says he knew Judi was dead by the time Phoenix fire paramedics arrived at the Eftenoffs' home in the Ahwatukee foothills a few minutes later. She was cold to the touch, and rigor mortis was setting in, which was why Brian hadn't been able to get her mouth open.The paramedics pronounced Judi dead at 5:52 a.m., and police took control of the scene. Someone hustled the couple's two children, Rikki and Nickolas -- then ages 5 and 3, respectively -- over to a neighbor's.

Officers found Judi sprawled on the bathroom floor in Joe Boxer underpants and a colorful tee shirt. The 5-foot, 8-inch woman looked bone thin. Parts of her face and body seemed bruised, and her body already was turning a ghoulish purple color.

A hair brush and other items on the floor suggested Judi had been grooming near the time of her death. A purse, sitting on a nearby counter, held a small amount of cocaine in two tiny baggies.

Police found no signs of a break-in. The nanny, 20-year-old Natalie Lemmon, told detectives she'd come home around 1 a.m., noticed nothing unusual, and went to her room without seeing her employers.

In an interview later that day, Brian told homicide Detective Joe Petrosino that Judi had been fine when he and a buddy left about 10 p.m. for a night of gambling at the nearby Gila River Casino. He'd come home about 5:30 the next morning, and soon found Judi crouched face down on the bathroom floor.

Brian said he had no clue why or how Judi could have met such a fate. Later in the interview, he told Petrosino that his wife used cocaine "to keep her weight down," and also had been taking diet pills.

Brian spent his first night as a 39-year-old widower at his next-door neighbors' house, snuggling with Judi's favorite "blankie," he later wrote in a journal.

Judi's death attracted local media, with one television report intimating a possible love triangle among Brian, Judi and the young nanny. The next day, Saturday, September 25, reporters swarmed the usually quiet neighborhood to hear what Brian had to say. Surrounded by family and friends in front of his home, he praised Phoenix police for not treating him like a suspect.

"Judi was a wonderful wife, mother, daughter and friend," Brian said. "I would urge all husbands and fathers to take some of the pressure off our spouses and spend some more time sharing the load of parenthood."

He retreated into his home without taking questions. Inside, he faced an increasingly tense situation with Judi's family. The Harding clan had flown in from North Dakota and elsewhere, and they wanted answers. Their suspicions that Brian -- never their favorite -- had something to do with Judi's death already were bubbling to the surface.

Judi was buried at Green Acres Mortuary in Tempe, after a service attended by a few hundred people. That day, Phoenix police spokesman Jeff Halstead told the Arizona Republic that pathologists hadn't yet determined how she'd died.



"It could be a combination of factors or it could be a single factor," he said. "It could be 100 percent medically related, some kind of freak accident, maybe an accidental combination. The whole gamut is out there as to why this could have happened."

The gamut narrowed on November 16, 1999, when the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office announced that Judi Lynn Eftenoff's death had been caused by a cocaine-induced stroke. It listed the "other" cause of death as a "blunt force head injury." But instead of classifying the "manner" of death as a murder, suicide or accident, the coroner's office pronounced it "undetermined."

The news did little to assuage Brian Eftenoff, who spoke with Detective Petrosino on November 23, in a call taped by the cop.

"You gonna treat it as a homicide?" Brian asked.

"Yup," Petrosino replied.

"Is the light gonna be shined in my face again? Or are you shining it in a different direction?"

"I'm not shining it in any direction. I'm just going everywhere."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin