Editor's Note: This article was initially published on June 8, 2012.
LAWRENCEVILLE — In his career, shopping center magnate Harold "Hal" Wenal scored real estate deals around the globe. He drove a Bentley and wore a fine Gucci watch. The value of his estate was estimated at more than $30 million. Despite his means, Hal died without the thing he wanted most: The name of his wife's killer.
He spoke of his wife, former model Eva "Kay" Wenal, in glowing terms, saying they felt like love-struck teenagers together. Her death, caused by a brutal knife wound to her neck, haunted him. He'd found his wife's body in their kitchen and was too distraught to even dial 911. A few months later, he would offer $250,000 for the arrest and conviction of her killer.
In June 2010, Hal, 75, was having dinner with a client at a Gwinnett restaurant when he suffered a massive heart attack and died. Today he shares a plot with his wife in a small cemetery near Lake Lanier, their names etched into a black marble headstone beside two urns that brim with roses. At the edge of the plot is Hal's former thinking place, a marble bench. The bench is inscribed with a message from Hal to his wife, who died 13 years his junior at age 60: "Eva Kay Wenal: My wife, my life, my world."
Four years since Kay's slaying, the investigation has new life in the form of two seasoned homicide detectives who are re-examining old clues and shedding light on newer ones, including photographs of an associate of the Wenals -- a man whom police have not been able to identify. No arrests have been made, no suspects named. But from the beginning detectives have felt certain that the crime was one of passion, committed by someone with no other motive than to kill Kay. A cut-and-paste confession letter released by police this week could support that theory.
Riddled with profanity, the letter paints Kay as an unhappy, deceptive housewife. It disparages her family as "white trash." The tone is that of a jilted lover turned killer. "I told her this would happen if she didn't keep her (expletive) promises to me," it reads.
Gwinnett police have had the unsigned letter in evidence since two months after Kay's killing, so long that paste on the original has dried and the letters have fallen into a heap. It was received as part of a suspicious mail package on July 23, 2008, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Gwinnett bureau on Best Friend Road in Norcross, where a security officer intercepted it.
Police sent the letter to the FBI to be analyzed, and though no fingerprints or DNA evidence was lifted, those tests convinced local investigators of its legitimacy, said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith.
"The FBI profilers felt that it was someone who knew the family and that it was legitimately from the person who committed the crime," Smith said this week.
Homicide unit Detective John Richter thinks the use of profanity in the letter is an extension of intense anger toward Kay. Whoever wrote it, Richter opines, knew it would end up with police eventually but wanted others to understand the reasoning behind the killing, and probably wanted the newspaper to print it.
To send such a letter to police would mean it would stay with police.
"I've never seen a letter like this one," said Richter, an 11-year department veteran. "Taking responsibility is rare in any case, outside of a serial killer looking for attention."
The photos in question first became of interest to police when they found them in Hal's personal belongings after his death. Investigators are calling the unnamed man in the photos an obvious acquaintance of the Wenals whom they simply want to speak with at this point. Two photos appear to date back to 1987.
Smith stopped short of drawing comparisons between the man in the photos and a "person of interest" depicted in a rendering released by police two months after Kay's murder, though he acknowledges that there are similarities. The rendering came from the recollections of the Wenals' neighbor, who spotted a man with glasses walking in their cul-de-sac the day before, and day of, the killing.
"We've talked to everyone we can get our hands on who knew (the Wenals) -- I mean, everyone," Smith said. "This guy (in the photos) clearly knows them. To this day, we don't know who this is."
'A fun-filled life'
Kay was the daughter of a Texas oilman who moved his family around the United States, but the relocations didn't faze her. She was stunningly beautiful and ebullient, a combination that helped her make friends quickly. After college, Kay, a certified dental assistant, worked as a cocktail waitress at the Playboy Club in Miami. She modeled for clothing lines and hotels, among them Las Vegas stalwarts Bally's and MGM.
One hot night in Reno, Kay was working as a tour guide for Bally's when Hal stepped off a plane with his entourage. The New Jersey-bred owner of Flexxon Operating Ltd. was there to visit clients. Kay took his group to a show. They fell for each other.
"When she met Hal, he was a high-roller," said Ned Timmons, a Michigan-based private investigator and retired FBI agent hired by Hal. "She was attracted to that."
Within a few months, they would combine their lives at Hal's home in Florida. Their honeymoon included a camera safari in Africa.
Over the years, they would own homes in California and Arizona before settling in Gwinnett in the late 1990s, where the company Hal headed until his death was located. In 20 years of marriage -- the second marriage for both -- they lived lavishly, traveling on down weeks to Taiwan, Tokyo, across Europe. "It was a fun-filled life, I can tell you that," Hal told the Daily Post in 2009. "It was a great way to live."
Hal earned prestige as a shopping center developer, though associates and court filings indicate his business acumen was slipping. Investigators closest to the case haven't ruled out that the murder was committed by a spurned business associate, though that's not the chief theory.
Hal was the president of Flexxon Operating in Sugar Hill, which boasted six shopping centers in the Atlanta area, including two retail centers in Lawrenceville. Flexxon had other projects in Florida, New York, Illinois, Texas, California and the Carolinas. Hal's earlier dealings stretched farther, including to Israel, where a deal with investors had landed him in jail for a few months, Timmons said.
"He had tentacles in Brazil and Asia and Las Vegas and all over the world," Timmons said. "This was a global case. The leads were global."
Hal's only child, Sherri Wenal, of Boca Raton, Fla., succeeded in having Hal's longtime attorney removed from his estate last year. The estate's new administrator, Phil Weener, has told police the $250,000 reward is no longer in play. Neither attorney nor Sherri Wenal returned calls for comment this week.
Kay's sister, Pam Sleeper, of San Angelo, Texas, said Hal told her five weeks before his death -- on the second anniversary of the murder -- that he was stashing the reward money in a safety deposit box, and that it should be used for no other purpose, Sleeper said.
After pending lawsuits are settled, 90 percent of Hal's estate will go to his daughter, and the remainder to Kay's only child, a son who lives in Oregon, according to Hal's will.
Court records indicate Hal was indebted to banks far more than his estate was worth. One Florida investor alleges Hal improperly used more than $3 million from limited liability companies he participated in with Hal to buy land in Lawrenceville, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida.
"I think (Hal) was failing. I think he was tired," said Timmons, whose company Hal still owes a "substantial" amount for investigative services. "I think he was getting mixed up occasionally."
Still, the couple had dreams.
The Sugar Lake Court home where Kay was killed was to be a temporary rental en route to their dream abode. Sleeper recalls touring a downtown Atlanta penthouse with Kay after her 60th birthday that April, a place with its own elevator. In Buckhead, the Wenals fancied a $3.5 million antebellum mansion girded by towering white columns.
"Kay was trying to get Hal to retire because he worked so much, 12- to 14-hour days," said Sleeper. "He was a go-getter."
A malicious intent
Hal last saw his wife alive around lunchtime on May 1, 2008, when she stopped in his office to say hello. Fanatical about exercise, she wore a sweat suit. He told her not to worry about cooking dinner, as they could run out and grab something together. She kissed him and walked out.
Hal left work around 6 p.m. and went straight to their home in a tony subdivision separated from Discover Mills Mall by Sugarloaf Parkway. He opened the garage door, then entered through the kitchen. On the counter was a box of old take-out. His wife lay face down on the hardwood kitchen floor, amid a pool of blood he described as being the size of a compact car.
Hal noticed that Kay's face was swollen -- a sign that she was punched in the face, probably in the foyer where blood splatter was found. He could see her throat was badly slit. The position of her body, to him, looked as though she had tried to run but was caught.
Hal, crying, ran to a neighbor's and asked him to call 911. When the police arrived, they found Hal at the neighbor's home.
Richter, the detective, said evidence shows that Kay was likely slain a few hours before Hal found her. There was no evidence of forced entry, nor was anything missing in a home loaded with valuable televisions, electronics and jewelry worth an estimated $20,000.
"It doesn't seem that crime was motivated by robbery or burglary or sexual assault," Richter said. "The motivation behind it is a death. It's an injury that you would associate with personal feelings, and that she knew her attacker."
Richter is confident Kay's relationship with her attacker was outside of Hal's knowledge, though the nature of that relationship is unclear, he said. Smith said foreign DNA was recovered at the scene, "but it's difficult to tell whether or not it was from our suspect."
As the victim's husband, Hal was the investigation's natural starting point. But that direction was wrong.
"I think every investigator that's ever looked at it has come to the conclusion (Hal) was not responsible," Smith said. The initial detective, in an investigator's report, "went into great detail about how natural his reactions were. Genuine reactions are very hard to fake."
Detectives have recently been tracking down business associates listed in the case's 132-page report. The investigation has led them over the years to Texas and Tucson, Ariz., where Kay had gone for a lengthy spa trip before her death. "They've gone down many, many paths," Smith said.
As for Hal, a year after the killing, he was still wearing his diamond-encrusted wedding ring for the same reasons he stayed in the Sugar Lake Court home -- it made him feel closer to Kay. Hal believed then that someone, perhaps a total stranger, hooked his eyes on Kay and went ballistic.
Timmons said Hal paid to bring in a profiler to the case and for lab work that Timmons' company, LSS Consulting, has kept on file. "We still have a deep desire to solve this," he said.
In Texas, Kay's sister said she leans on her Lutheran faith to stay strong. Her feeling is that the killing was so clean -- bereft of fingerprints or a bloody shoe print -- that the culprit had to be a hired professional.
Somehow, Sleeper went to the morgue and found the strength to do her sister's hair, as Kay would have wanted it, which exposed her to her sister's injuries. Through therapy, she's become able to discuss those things. And now that Hal has passed, too, she's finally been able to let her sister go. She said Hal would call her daily to hash over the unknown.
"If we don't catch him, that's OK," Sleeper said. "God will deal with this person. Absolutely, He will."
Anyone with information on the killing of Eva Kay Wenal is asked to call Gwinnett County Police Department detectives John Richter or Shelly Millsap at 770-513-5387.