Longform

'Til Death Do Us Part

Page 5 of 9

"Welcome into the Harding family, Brian!" Judi's parents wrote their new son-in-law in a note that day. "Always love and care for our precious jewel, Judi. Love you, Mom and Dad."

But Judi's friends say the gulf between Brian and his new in-laws grew, even at the wedding. "Things were tense," recalls maid of honor Joellen Wick. "Brian made a big deal out of not liking her dress, then he stiffed her parents for money, and he was controlling to the max."

All that was temporarily forgotten on February 11, 1994, when Rikki Lynn Eftenoff was born. She was a little beauty, and home videotapes show the parents doting over their newborn. However, Judi's friends claim Rikki and Nickolas were "trophies" for Brian, and that he never truly bonded with them.

"That's outrageous," Brian counters, seeming as irate about that allegation as about being charged with his wife's murder. "These people who are saying that obviously never saw us interact. Yeah, Judi usually put them to bed, and, yeah, we had a nanny. But I loved my kids then, and I love them now."


If her family and friends are right, Judi first complained about domestic violence at Brian's hands soon after the couple married.

"She called me one time and said he'd taken a fist and hit her," Tamra Coalwell says, estimating that the call came a year or so after the 1993 wedding. "I know she was telling the truth because I know my friend. I'd ask her later if he was still hitting her, and she'd say, no, he'd calmed down a lot. But then she told me she was going to leave him -- this was 1999 -- and I believed her 100 percent."

Joellen Wick recalls a similar call from Judi, probably within a year of Rikki's birth. "She told me Brian had beat her up," Wick says. "I called her mother, and I called the police in Scottsdale or Paradise Valley. I was Rikki's unofficial godmother, and I had a responsibility to her and to my friend. But you can't force someone to leave a situation they aren't prepared to leave."

Neither Scottsdale nor Paradise Valley police could find any record of domestic violence allegations against Brian Eftenoff. But Judi's mother, Sharon Harding, recalled Wick's warning in an interview with police late last year.

Brian's recollections of marital combat with Judi have varied. He told Detective Petrosino shortly after paramedics pronounced Judi dead, "Let me tell you my rule, it's set in stone. I have two sisters, a daughter, a wife, and I have plenty of respect for women. But if you act like a guy, you're gonna get treated like a guy. You hit me or something, throw something at me, smack me in the face, good chance you're probably gonna get smacked back. . . . I'm not saying that's what I did. That's just the way I was brought up. But, nothing ever major, nothing major [with Judi]."

When Petrosino asked Brian, "So she's throwing things at you?" the question elicited a pause.

"You know what?" Brian then said. "When you come up with the cause of death, then I'd feel comfortable talking about this. We've gotten in major fights."

"My question is," the cop continued, "would she defend herself?"

"Hell, fucking yes."

In 1995, the Eftenoffs moved into a new home on South 25th Place. Judi continued to work full-time at Neiman Marcus, even after Nickolas' birth that December. Brian's auto parts/car alarm business was flourishing, and the couple took to hiring live-in nannies to help with child-rearing and housekeeping duties.

One nanny who worked for the Eftenoffs from the summer of 1997 until August 1998 told police the couple fought, but only verbally. She did say she'd once seen Brian drunkenly try to hit Judi, and added that Judi had kicked Brian out of the house twice during her tenure for unspecified wrongdoing.

That nanny said Judi's weight was a nagging issue between the couple, with Brian always telling Judi how fat she was, despite the fact that the woman ate little, and was getting thinner and thinner.

One of Judi's sisters told police after Judi died that she'd stayed with the Eftenoffs in late 1997. Janell Harding also said the couple had a prickly relationship, but she hadn't witnessed any physical violence, only heard about it from Judi.

"[Janell later] told her sister that she had to get out," Detective Petrosino's report says. "She explained to Judi that if she did not leave, she [Judi] was going to end up dead."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin