She would have turned 47 last Monday.
While her family waited anxiously by the phone to find out if her killer would be released on her birthday, they thought of all the things Wendy Palmateer could have done in the 30 years since her murder.
She could have graduated high school, gone on to college, married, had children, forged more memories with her sister, brothers and parents.
Her family knew it would be any day that Craig Winchell would be released. Every time the phone rang their hearts raced.
Wendy could have laughed and shared stories with her sister Jamie. She could have worried her parents, Mary Ellen and Jim, over curfews and drinking and boys, the way a teenager can. She could have experienced the joys and the setbacks that come with careers and kids and aging.
“I am writing to advise you that when the Parole Board saw Craig Winchell, release was granted,” said an Aug. 9 letter from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision addressed to Mary Ellen and James Palmateer. “Craig Winchell is being released on or about 9/13/2011.”
Sept. 13 came and went. And her family just had a feeling. Wendy’s birthday was in six days.
Just as the feeling they had about Craig Winchell proved true when Wendy went missing 30 years ago, they were right again.
Craig Winchell was released from Woodbourne Correctional Facility on Sept. 19, the day the high school girlfriend he strangled would have turned 47.
Night of the murder
The details of what happened the night of Aug. 7, 1981, were initially unclear, and Craig Winchell’s story changed over the years.
A 16-year-old Wendy Palmateer went to a house party in Gloversville with some friends. The friend she was living with that summer told Wendy that her on-again, off-again boyfriend Craig had called for her.
When they got home, Wendy called him, and at some point that night, she left her friend’s house. Whether it was to see Craig or not, no one knew.
Wendy was never seen alive again.
Ten days after she disappeared, police swarmed a house on Prospect Avenue, where a man had noticed an odd smell carried by the breeze.
“It was not the first time he had noticed the revolting odor of putrefaction,” according to a September 1982 article in Inside Detective that rehashed the story of Wendy’s disappearance.
“For nearly a week it had been hovering over the area of neat, well-kept homes. Determined to do something about it at once, he grabbed a rake and poked around the crawl space under his neighbor’s garage. It was precisely 4:58 when he ran to a phone to tell Gloversville police that he had discovered what appeared to be a human arm.”
In the moments police were recovering the body of Wendy Palmateer from underneath the garage, Craig Winchell was racing home to hang himself. He had seen the police, and was terrified and guilt-ridden, he later told police and parole commissioners.
After an unsuccessful suicide attempt and a poorly concocted story about an attack in a cemetery to explain the burn marks around his neck, Winchell told police the first of many versions of what happened the night of Aug. 7.
Wendy was drunk, he said. She threw a pebble at his bedroom window at his parent’s house. He came down to see her. They talked about “old times” until she felt sick and said she wanted to lie down.
He took her out back, where she lay down on pavement to rest. He put her bra around her neck to make certain she wouldn’t choke on her vomit should she throw up, and went back to his room.
Around dawn, he told police, he found Wendy dead in the yard and, in a panic, picked her up and hid her in a crawl space beneath a garage on a neighbor’s property.
The jury didn’t buy his story, and convicted him of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.
Winchell long ago finished his 18-year minimum sentence, and appeared before a parole board every two years after that. At each hearing, his story of his last encounter with Wendy shed new light on what really happened.
Wendy did come over to his parent’s house, he said. They talked and laughed out back, until she began detailing a sexual encounter with a boy she had met at the party earlier that night, he said.
She was taunting him, he said. Their relationship had always been like that — the mind games, the hot and cold, the jealousy, he told parole commissioners. He got so angry that he started choking her, for about 30 seconds, he said. But when he stopped she was unconscious.
He carried Wendy to the neighbor’s garage and put her underneath it, where cinder blocks kept it raised above ground. When he heard her struggling to breathe he panicked, and wrapped a bra around her neck to “finish the job,” he once told commissioners.
Parole Board Commissioner James Ferguson had trouble understanding how someone could look a person in the eye whose life was ending. He asked of Winchell during a June 2007 parole hearing how panic could cause him to inflict further injury, rather than pause.
“To continue to engage in an act, showing decision of a body, showed a period of time where there should be a pause to regain oneself and do what is probable, if ever there was a pause — you choked her for like 30 seconds,” Ferguson said. “She wasn’t — she wasn’t dead. She was unconscious. She was breathing.”
“That’s where the panic came in,” said Winchell at the hearing. “I’m like what did I do. I tried to shake her awake, ‘Wendy. Wendy,’ and I knew she was in trouble. I proceeded to try to cover it up and that’s — I’m sorry for that.”
Parole was denied for another 24 months.
But the 16-year-old who strangled Wendy Palmateer in a rage in 1981 wasn’t the same person who sat before the parole board. Or so Winchell pleaded before the board every two years.
“You maintained a clean discipline record since November ’04,” the 2007 letter from the parole board read. “This panel notes your many program accomplishments including completion of Phase 3, ART, and continued leadership in chemical dependency/domestic violence program. You continue to work productively has [sic] an administration clerk.”
Every two years, his list of accomplishments grew.
While in prison, Winchell earned a two-year degree in liberal arts. He married and had two children. He kept a clean discipline record and earned an outside work pass. Officials in his wife’s community wrote letters in support of his release, as did his corrections supervisors and even his sentencing judge. He had a full-time and part-time job waiting for him upon release and a family struggling during a recession.
All the while, the Palmateer family wondered why Winchell had the chances Wendy never did.
“He’s able to have children, he’s able to get married. She’s not,” said James Palmateer of his daughter during a victim impact meeting March 4. “All we have left of her is a gravestone. That’s all we’ll ever have from her. We live right by the cemetery. I’m probably in there five times a week, holidays and birthdays, and that’s all we get out of it. We don’t get to see her, see what kind of family she would have had. He has all those things.”
By 2011, Winchell’s lawyer successfully won his client a de novo parole hearing to go before a fresh board after a contentious Sept. 7, 2010 hearing. He would go before them in a year when sweeping changes to parole board guidelines and procedures were being introduced by the state Legislature.
In July, Acting Supreme Court Justice Frank LaBuda ordered a de novo review — what would be Winchell’s 11th and final hearing — holding that the board had failed to look beyond the seriousness of Winchell’s crime to consider other factors when weighing his release.
After 29 years in prison and a hearing via video conference before entirely new commissioners, Winchell was granted release.
The New York State Legislature updated the laws governing discretionary parole release just this year, after they had remained virtually unchanged since 1978. According to a Sept. 1 article in the New York Law Journal, a parole board must now measure rehabilitation of a person appearing before the board and the likelihood of their success upon release. A board can no longer deny release to prisoners solely on the basis of a crime committed many years ago.
“What occurred on September 7, 2010 was an attack on this Court’s record, and willful disobedience to the law,” wrote Winchell’s attorney David Lenefsky in the Supreme Court matter of Winchell v. Evans.
“Through its own conduct, as reflected in the transcript, it is obvious that before the petitioner even appeared, the members of this parole board had no intention of entertaining even the slightest thought of his parole,” he said.
Lenefsky went on to cite that a board’s discretion is not unlimited and it cannot deny parole by merely repeating the statutory criteria — in Winchell’s case, that he murdered his girlfriend in 1981 and was convicted of second-degree murder.
The court decided in Winchell’s favor on July 19.
“We are aware of the 2011 changes in legislation affecting parole and the procedures used to determine the release of violent criminals,” wrote Wendy’s family in a statement. “It sickens us to know that laws have been changed to give more rights to individuals who commit murder and now show little to no regard for the rights of the victims and their families.”
Whether Winchell is deserving of a life outside of prison is a question experts in philosophy, law, criminal justice and science have strived to answer for centuries.
Transcripts from Winchell’s parole hearings show a change in how he views what he did to Wendy Palmateer. He acknowledged he was an impulsive, reckless teenager who never thought of consequences and grew up in a negative atmosphere surrounded by drugs and alcohol.
The birth of his daughter hit him hard, he told commissioners at repeated hearings, because he realized that he ended the life of someone else’s daughter. He expressed remorse for what his 16-year-old self did to another human being.
Attempts to reach Winchell for this story were unsuccessful. His attorney, David Lenefsky, declined to comment.
When Winchell, now 46, was released from prison Monday, Wendy’s family wasn’t thinking of the man who strangled their loved one so many years ago. They were thinking only of Wendy.
The family — her parents, her sister Jamie Kucel and brother-in-law Kevin Kucel, and her brothers Tim Fagant and James Palmateer Jr. — issued the following statement:
“As always, our family’s thoughts are of Wendy … beautiful 16 year old girl with a lifetime of opportunities and experiences ahead of her … all brutally taken from her. The emotional pain of her loss is something that our family lives with every day. All we have are the memories of her and the dreams of what could have been or more importantly, what should have been. Not a day passes where we don’t think of Wendy, when we hear a song that reminds us of her or see a smile she would give or a facial expression like hers in the faces of one of her nieces. We love and miss Wendy dearly.”
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Categories: Schenectady County