The bar owner doesn't remember what time they came in that night or when they left. But Grady Meadows, former owner of the Tipsy Tiger in St. Paul, remembers Aaron Foster grabbing Barbara (Bobbi) Winn by the arm and hitting her twice in the face.
And he said he remembers Foster cursing her, saying, "If I can't have you, no one else will," according to investigative reports from the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office.
A few hours later, Winn, 35, lay dead from a gunshot wound to the chest in the bedroom of her Maplewood home.
More than 26 years passed before a grand jury indicted Foster, now 56, on charges of third-degree murder. He has maintained since Winn died shortly after midnight on May 8, 1981, that she shot herself, and in her dying breath told him to get rid of the gun.
But as attorneys work to prepare for his trial this summer, Winn's family hasn't wavered in its long-standing belief that Foster is a murderer.
"He [Foster] needs to go to prison," said Patty Bruce, Winn's sister-in-law, who has become a crusader against domestic violence. "He should have been there a long time ago."
Details of what transpired that night in 1981 are spelled out in police and autopsy reports and transcripts that were filed in February as appendixes to motions by Foster's attorney, Earl Gray, who hoped to have the case dismissed. Other details emerged when several retired Maplewood police officers testified at a two-day motion hearing last month.
According to the records:
Maplewood police went to Winn's home on Dorland Road about 12:15 a.m. May 8 on a report of a domestic dispute.
Foster met the officers in front of the split-level townhouse and led them to a second-floor bedroom. Winn was already dead.
Foster told officers that he and Winn had argued at the Tipsy Tiger bar and he'd come home to pack his clothes and move out. He said Winn returned a couple of hours later.
"Aaron heard a shot and went upstairs," officer Steve Heinz wrote in his report. "She was still able to speak. She said, 'I just shot myself.' Then she told Aaron to get rid of the gun."
Foster told police he punched out a kitchen window in frustration while trying to call for help. He said he then drove to a nearby 7-11 store to call an ambulance and threw the gun out the window along the way.
What the children saw
But Winn's children told investigators a different story. Winn's eldest son, Randy, then 15, told Sgt. Norm Green that he and his brother, Tyrone, 12, heard their mother and Foster arguing, "then I heard a real loud noise that sounded like something clapping, then me and my brother went into the room and saw our mother bent over bleeding and he [Foster] was running out," according to a 1981 transcript.
Tyrone Winn told Green that he picked up the gun "and was going to go downstairs with it. ... I figured he shot her so I was going to go shoot him."
Foster was later arrested and held for two days before being released without charges.
Gunshot residue tests conducted by an FBI lab in Washington, D.C., showed residue on Winn's hands but "no significant amounts" on Foster's. "However," the lab report said, "this does not preclude the possibility that he could have discharged a firearm ..."
The Ramsey County medical examiner's office never ruled on whether Winn's death was a suicide or a homicide.
When the case was presented to Assistant Ramsey County Attorney James Konen in the summer of 1981, he declined to take it to a grand jury, citing "insufficient evidence."
The investigation into Winn's death remained largely stagnant until 2006, when Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher created a cold-case unit and reopened the case. Almost immediately, the investigation took on political overtones -- Fletcher was in the midst of a contentious campaign for reelection with retired St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney, a longtime friend of Foster's.
Despite skepticism about the timing and Fletcher's motives, Winn's family says the sheriff was just doing his job. "If he had overlooked this case because of the upcoming election, that would have been political," said Bruce, Winn's sister-in-law. "He did exactly what he was supposed to do."
Once the case was reopened, investigators talked to several people who hadn't been interviewed, including Meadows, the former bar owner, and Brenda Jones, who was at the bar with Winn and her sisters that night.
Jones told Sgt. Bill Snyder, the lead investigator, that she'd seen Foster hit Winn that night and that Winn told her he'd hit her in the past. Jones also told Snyder that Foster had pulled a gun on her brother the night Winn died.
"I asked Jones why she never told the police about this," Snyder wrote. "She stated she has been waiting many years to give this information but no one ever came."
It's not clear what prompted prosecutors to present the case to a grand jury last fall. Neither Snyder nor prosecutors Deirdre Aanstad and Andrew Johnson would speak on the record for fear of jeopardizing the case. Defense attorney Gray said last week that District Judge Edward J. Cleary has cautioned the parties not to talk to the media.
The here and now
Despite Gray's attempts to have the case against Foster dismissed, Cleary last week denied defense motions to do so. He did grant, in part, motions to suppress evidence and some statements Foster made to police.
Winn's family was not deterred. "We're going to trial!" Bruce shouted when she heard about the ruling.
Bruce was 19 when Winn died, and said she watched family members, including her husband, Calvin, build a fortress around their emotions as the case stagnated.
Thanks to her efforts, the case attracted the attention of the national media in 2006. Later this spring, "Dateline NBC" plans to air an hour-long documentary on it.
"It's a horrible thing for anybody to lose a loved one," Bruce said. "It's even more horrible to lose someone because somebody took their life. But it's unbearable when one of your loved ones is murdered and there's no justice. It's like that person didn't count, like that person didn't matter."
Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551