This report aired on Dateline Monday, June 11
HOMER, ALASKA — It was the question that wouldn’t go away. The question that haunts many people even now.
Lary Kuhns: People would ask, ‘Hey, whatever happened to that case with the lady on the cliff?’
Her name was Wanda — “the lady on the cliff.”
Jay Darling: Everybody asked what happened. And everybody seemed to scratch their head when I said, ‘I don’t know’.
Farrah Tittle: I dreamed about Wanda every single night. And in several of those dreams, I always felt like Wanda was trying to tell me something.
Wanda and her new husband had turned off the highway near Homer, Alaska, to this remote cliff top overlooking a broad Alaskan bay with not a soul around.
At the very end of that dirt road etched into the bluff lived a mystery writer named Ron Hess.
Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: This is kind of the frontier in a way.
Ron Hess, writer: That’s right. That’s right.
For Wanda it was a frontier indeed. She was 4,000 miles from her hometown of Haleyville, Alabama. She was farther from home than she had ever been before.
It was a summer day in 1997. Ron Hess was the first to hear.
Ron Hess: He was shouting. He was very distraught.
Hess was having lunch with his wife when a stranger came running down the road to his house.
Ron Hess: He stopped about right in here. And said, ‘Help. My wife has fallen over the cliff.’
Hess drove the stranger back down the dirt road and parked. On the way, the man was so distraught, he vomited. Together, the two men rushed to the edge of the cliff and looked over.
Ron Hess: And then he got down on his hands and knees and said, ‘It should have been me. It should have been me.’
Alaska state trooper Lary Kuhns responded to the 911 call.
Lary Kuhns, state trooper: It came in at 12:32pm… [I] remember the dispatcher saying, ‘Lady fell off a cliff.’ I said, ‘What? Where?’
Trooper Kuhns rushed to the bluff, where he learned the stranger’s name was Jay Darling.
Lary Kuhns: He was very despondent… There was anguish on his face.
Darling told Kuhns he and Wanda had been married just four months and were on a belated honeymoon. They had stopped at the bluff on their way out of town, he said.
Lary Kuhns: They were up there taking photographs. And Wanda had fallen face forward down the cliff.
Keith Morrison: Did he tell you how she fell?
Lary Kuhns: Yes, he did. … She was taking photographs and she had tripped on a clump of grass.
Wanda fell a thousand feet down a cliff face studded with rubble and obstacles, her body smashed into those obstacles all the way down. Virtually every bone was broken. Her last conscious moments would have been terrifying, and when she hit the bottom, she was dead.
Jay Darling seemed so distraught, Kuhns sent him to the hospital.
Then, when he checked on Darling later that day, he was struck that the man still seemed to think his wife might have survived the fall—although perhaps briefly.
Lary Kuhns: He says, ‘Did you find Wanda?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘What’d she say?’
Keith Morrison: What’d she say?
Lary Kuhns: ‘What’d she say?’
Keith Morrison: And surely he knew that she had fallen to her death.
Lary Kuhns: Well, any logic and common sense, yes. … He also asked the doctor if Wanda had said anything before she died.
Maybe the man didn’t know it was a thousand feet down that cliff. That no one could have survived such a fall.
For Kuhns and his partner, there was still work to be done.
Lary Kuhns: We got down on our bellies and crawled out to the very edge of the cliff. And we both kind of peered over the edge there. I looked at him and he looked at me and I remember saying, ‘This is bleeping odd.’
Just getting close set off waves of vertigo in the troopers.
Why would newlywed sightseers have wandered way out here at all?
Lary Kuhns: This spot is so remote in relationship to the highway. It’s down a dirt road that says “road closed”. There’s two “road closed” signs. It’s not visible from the roadway.
And the Darlings had just driven right past a well-marked scenic overlook—with a guardrail—where the view was every bit as spectacular.
They retrieved Wanda’s body from the bottom of the cliff and Kuhns couldn’t get the thought of the young newlywed out of his head.
Lary Kuhns: Wanda was somebody’s daughter. She was part of somebody’s family.
Of course dreadful accidents have implications far away. Jay Darling phoned the news of Wanda’s death to this little town by the tracks in northwestern Alabama called Haleyville.
And the reaction was instant and it was shocking: That this was no accident at all.
Cindy Kaelin: I knew. I called my supervisor and said, ‘I’ve got to go home, Wanda’s been killed. He’s killed her.’
A man with a very surprising plan
The people who knew Wanda best felt right away that something in the story was all wrong.
Tammy Ward [Wanda's sister]: I thought, ‘Oh my God. She would never fall from a cliff. He had pushed her.’
But why would her family have been so suspicious?
Well, that was easy if you knew Wanda, they said.
Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: How would she have felt being anywhere near the edge of a 1,000 foot precipice like that?
Tammy Ward: Terrified.
Wanda’s other sister felt the same way.
Cindy Kaelin, Wanda's sister: She held onto the rail when she walked down stairs. I mean she could walk down four stairs and she could hold onto the railing.
They were suspicious. Wanda’s sisters Tammy Ward and Cindy Kaelin seemed to have many reasons for that in the story of the not-so-little girl who grew up poor on the outskirts of Haleyville, Alabama.
Farrah Tittle: There was a pine tree on the playground that had a swing on it. And sometimes the swing would go around the limb and be too high for the short kids to reach the swing. And Wanda could always reach up and knock the swing back over the limb. And help (LAUGHTER) everybody out.
Something else happened back then, too. Wanda had a bad fall and broke an arm. She grew up with a terrible fear of falling.
Farrah Tittle: And after that I never saw her climb up on any type of playground equipment or picnic tables or anything.
She was sweet and smart, her school’s valedictorian.
She worked at the local Piggly Wiggly for a time and then went on to become a registered nurse.
Nursing was perfect for her, said her friends, because she was a natural care-giver, always thinking about how to make somebody else’s life better.
Farrah Tittle: Wanda was friends with everybody. It didn’t matter if somebody was 60, or if they were two years old.
But she wanted something, too, for herself. That seemed more remote with every passing year.
Farrah Tittle: She’d always told us she wanted to get married and have a family. Always wanted to have a wedding in December; a big Christmas wedding.
When Wanda went to the movies here in Haleyville, it was not to hold hands with a boy in the dark. The dating scene here, as everywhere, was cruel. She had friends who were boys—but not boyfriends. She was taller than they were, bigger. Romance, for her, was apparently unattainable. And so when she called out of the blue one day to say there was this man and he had asked to marry her, her family was stunned.
Cindy Kaelin: I was home in December for Christmas. And she told me about him. But now she called him a friend… And when I went back—in March—Tammy told me they were getting married. And I said, ‘I thought they were just friends.’ ‘In December they were just friends.’ (LAUGHTER) Now they’re getting married.
Wanda had met Jay Darling while working at a hospital; he was a new physical therapist on staff.
Farrah Tittle: She thought he was handsome. She was talking about him being like a big ol’ bear, she really, really liked the guy immediately.
Keith Morrison: She was a bit smitten with the guy?
Farrah Tittle: She was smitten.
But, Farrah says, the feeling back then was not mutual. Wanda once dropped in on Jay at home unannounced.
Farrah Tittle: He told her that he wanted her to leave. That she was getting on his nerves. … She was heartbroken.
Was there more to the relationship than Wanda’s family and friends knew? Just weeks later, they were stunned to discover that Wanda and Jay had eloped.
Farrah Tittle: Wanda told me that she was at home one day. And Jay had called her from work and asked what she was doing. And she said, ‘Oh not much.’ I think she had just gotten up. … And he told her to get ready. That they were just going to go get married. And that’s what they did.
There was no longed-for December wedding. There were no family or friends. Jay wanted it his way, Wanda told Farrah, so that’s what they did.
And when it came to choosing where they would live, Wanda did what Jay wanted then, too. She left her nursing job in Haleyville, Alabama and moved 200 miles or so away from Wanda’s family to Grenada, Mississippi.
But when Wanda came back home to visit Farrah not long after her marriage, Farrah noticed bruises on her arms and legs, and her nose was broken.
Farrah Tittle: Her faced looked terrible. And we asked Wanda what happened; my family was there. And we said, ‘How’d you get these bruises?’ And Wanda said, ‘Oh I was gonna tickle Jay, and it surprised him, and he hit me. But he didn’t mean to.’
The decision to move to Alaska was just as sudden.
Ollie Wood, Wanda’s mother, didn’t want her to go. On the phone, the day before they left, Wanda promised they’d be back in a year or so after they made some money. But Ollie had a bad feeling.
Ollie Wood: [The day before Wanda left] I said, ‘I want you to tell Jay that he’s taking my baby.’ … He did take my baby off, and he didn’t bring her back either.
Wanda’s family told all of these things to Trooper Kuhns, who was now all the more determined to find out what happened. Was it a fall, or was it something far more deliberate—a push?
Kuhns first turned to Jay Darling for answers, interviewing him five times in the two days after Wanda’s death.
Each time, he says, Darling’s story of Wanda’s fall changed a little.
She was taking a picture when she lost her balance. Or, she’d tripped on a stake stuck in the ground. Or, he didn’t see anything because he’d turned away.
Lary Kuhns: This does not smell right. Doesn’t smell right at all.
So trooper Kuhns began to poke around for any motive Jay might have had for getting rid of Wanda. He called Wanda’s mother Ollie.
Ollie Wood: That was the first thing I told him, was there was a lot of insurance.
Shortly after they were married, trooper Kuhns discovered, Jay had taken out two separate insurance policies on his life—and two on Wanda’s. The total coverage was a million dollars for each of them.
But there was more: before she married Jay, Wanda had bought a $60,000 policy of her own, naming her parents as beneficiaries.
Farrah Tittle: She felt good about that. Because she just felt like she was trying to prepare for the worst. And Jay immediately wanted her to change the beneficiary on that policy—
Keith Morrison: To him.
Farrah Tittle: To himself.
Keith Morrison: So she did.
Farrah Tittle: She did. But she wasn’t happy about it.
Now Kuhns thought he might be on to something.
And he knew he was when Wanda’s friend Farrah Tittle passed on a story about Jay planning something highly illegal.
Farrah Tittle: Jay indicated to Wanda that he was going to buy a kayak and fake his own death in the Gulf of Mexico.
This was shocking information. If Farrah was right, Jay had come up with the ultimate scam—a plan to fake his own death and then hide in another country until the insurance was paid to his compliant wife.
Keith Morrison: Did you advise her about what to do?
Farrah Tittle: Yeah she, she was really worried. … And I told her I just thought that was crazy.
Keith Morrison: Why didn’t she walk the other way? Why didn’t she leave him at that point?
Farrah Tittle: I think that she probably thought she could talk him out of it.
This was very strange. A man tells others about his plan to fake his own death in order to collect insurance. And then his brand new wife falls off a cliff?
Cindy Kaelin: Who has a plan to fake their death and then, woop, somebody just falls off a cliff? People don’t just fall off cliffs.
Keith Morrison: By now, how suspicious were you?
Lary Kuhns: Pretty darn suspicious.
The more trooper Kuhns learned, the more he became convinced Jay Darling had killed his new wife.
Although Kuhns had found what he believed was a motive for murder, there was no physical evidence up here on the bluff that would prove it. The wall of evidence he was building against Darling was circumstantial. And as hard as he tried, he couldn’t quite make a case strong enough to satisfy the district attorney.
Kuhns, advised to stop working on the case, took it home with him.
Lary Kuhns: I made a lot of personal phone calls from my house. And I guess one can construe that as being obsessed. But it wasn’t obsession. It was tenacity.
Back in Haleyville, Alabama, members of Wanda’s circle fumed.
Farrah Tittle: I wanted to punish Jay. … I can’t even explain my reaction because I’ve only felt that way one time. But it—it was almost—just like a storm in my head. I took a gun to the funeral home and I thought, ‘I’m going to kill him. I’m just going to kill him.’
Finally, in 1998, trooper Kuhns brought Darling’s insurance scam, the one that began with the plan to fake his own death, to the attention of the FBI. And in 2002, Darling was charged not with murdering Wanda, but with mail fraud for trying to claim insurance money after her death. He pleaded guilty.
The sentence: 40 months in prison.
Was this the end of story? Not quite.
In 2005, just as Darling was completing the sentence imposed for insurance fraud, a grand jury decided there was enough evidence to charge Darling with murder.
Last spring, Darling was back in Homer, Alaska to face a jury – and former friends were now testifying for the prosecution.
Mike Rabb, Darling friend: No, he didn’t seem grief-stricken or anything.
The story of Wanda Darling and her strange, sad demise at the base of a cliff had become a local legend of sorts in Homer, Alaska.
Over the years, many people heard the story told that Wanda met her end courtesy of a push from her husband, Jay Darling.
He did it for the insurance money, they’d say.
But did he?
In Homer’s little courthouse, a trial was about to begin and trials play by different rules than backyard gossip.
Time was an enemy for the prosecutors of Jay Darling. By the time they gathered to try him, Wanda had been in her grave for almost nine years. Memories fade and evidence can degrade.
Still, in the modest Homer courthouse, brick by brick, the prosecutors set about re-assembling that wall of circumstantial evidence for first-degree murder.
There, in front of the jury, prosecutor Crandon Randell finally gave the dogged investigator Lary Kuhns the chance to tell a jury what he’d discovered. It began with the motive: money.
Crandon Randell, prosecutor (in court): In that third interview, was there any discussion about life insurance?
Lary Kuhns: Yes, there was.
Crandon Randell: What did Mr. Darling say about that?
Lary Kuhns: He said they had about $1 million in life insurance.
In fact, in the months before Wanda’s death he’d bought 2 policies. Wanda and Jay were covered for a million each, plus another policy on Wanda for $60,000.
Former insurance agent Jan Staten said Jay tried to get even more, but it was denied.
Crandon Randell: Why didn’t the company approve $3 million?
Jan Staten: Financial statements and medical history.
Staten said Darling called her repeatedly in the months before Wanda’s death to see if the $1 million policy she sold him had been approved.
Crandon Randell: How many calls did he make?
Jan Staten: Anywhere from 15 to 20.
An old friend of Darling’s—a man named Mike Rabb—testified that he overhead some of Jay’s calls to the insurance companies in the days before Wanda’s death. They were all made with Wanda out of earshot.
Jay certainly seemed to be planning something, he said.
Mike Rabb: The tone was, ‘Is the policy in effect, was the paperwork on the way,’ things along that line.
Crandon Randell, prosecutor: What kind of policy?
Mike Rabb: Life insurance.
Rabb told the prosecutor there were three or four such calls in his presence, but none when Wanda was in the room.
Crandon Randell: Would he wait until his wife left the room?
Mike Rabb: Yes, she’d be in the restroom or stepped out.
The prosecutor said the accumulation of insurance policies became far more suspect when put together with Darling’s scheme to fake his own death. Ex-girlfriend Lisa Eddins said she knew Jay married Wanda to pull off his scheme.
Crandon Randell: What did he say?
Lisa Eddins: That he would have to be married and that he was going to have a kayaking accident.
Crandon Randell: Go ahead.
Lisa Eddins: And that he would disappear and then this wife would be the grieving wife, you know, for however long it took the insurance company to deliver the money.
But, said Mike Rabb, a little problem developed for Jay. After he married Wanda she seemed to have changed her mind about playing along.
Mike Rabb: I take it she wasn’t a willing participant.
And so, suggested the prosecutor, Jay’s plan to get that insurance money may have changed from faking his own death in a kayaking accident to using the same method to kill Wanda.
A boat captain testified that the day before Wanda died, Jay ignored his pointed warning about kayaking in the choppy water.
Crandon Randell: Do people commonly kayak in water with a 2-3’ chop?
Karl Stoltzfus, captain: Not if they can help it.
The two went out even though Wanda was a complete novice and unlike Jay, she was not wearing a wet suit.
And when, sure enough, they capsized, Jay got back into the kayak, but Wanda could not. She spent more than an hour—unprotected—in that cold water. Jay threw her a rope and towed her to shore.
Hypothermia threatened when she—not Jay—flagged down a passing boat for help.
It was just a day later that Wanda died, not in the water but over the cliff.
And the day after that? After Wanda was already dead?
Jay called the insurance agents but left out one important detail.
Crandon Randell: Did he happen to mention his wife?
Jan Staten: I asked how their trip was going and the response, as far as I can recall, was everything—they were having a great time.
Then a couple of days later, Darling called the agent again.
Crandon Randell: What did Mr. Darling say in this second phone call?
Jan Staten: He was advise—letting me know that Wanda was deceased. And he wanted to know what procedures he needed to do as far as the policy was concerned.
Crandon Randell: What’d he say, how did his wife become deceased?
Jan Staten: He told me she fell off a cliff. … He wanted to know how to get the process started for the life insurance, for the death benefit amount.
But, remember, Darling was holding more than just one insurance policy on Wanda’s life.
An agent for the second company, a man named Thomas White, testified that Darling called him, too, the day after Wanda went off the cliff but did not reveal that anything was awry until a second call three days later.
Thomas White: On Thursday, when he called, he said, ‘Mr. White, oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you that Wanda passed away. She slipped and fell off a mountain last Sunday.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘I was too distraught and forgot about it.’
During the trial, the prosecutor asked Darling’s friend Mike Rabb about Darling’s attitude towards his dead wife Wanda.
Crandon Randell: Did he show any remorse?
Mike Rabb, Darling friend: No, he didn’t seem grief-stricken or anything.
Rabb said soon after Wanda’s death, Jay talked about spending that insurance money.
Mike Rabb: He spoke about, like, trips that we could take, these trips—Tibet, Nepal, trekking, outdoorsy.
Crandon Randell: When did this discussion take place?
Mike Rabb: In the weeks after her death.
The prosecution turned to Darling’s ex-girlfriend to show how Darling told conflicting stories about what happened to Wanda on that cliff.
Lisa Eddins: They were taking pictures. And he was going back to take a picture of her. And when he turned back around she was just not there.
Then, a few days later, she said, he called again with a completely different story. He was claiming Wanda had committed suicide.
Lisa Eddins: He then went on to tell me that he saw her jump off the cliff. … He said that Wanda was very depressed and upset.
There were so many stories and only one could be true. Jay Darling had already admitted that he tried to defraud life insurance companies out of a small fortune. Did he also murder his trusting young bride just to get his hands on the money?
The defense was going to tell its own very different story of the death of Wanda Darling.
There are two sides to every story.
James McComas was Jay Darling’s defense attorney.
Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Surely the simplest explanation is she got a little push from behind.
James McComas: If you think that’s simple, Keith, then you may have a talent for crime.
Keith Morrison: But the problem was your client did have a talent for crime.
James McComas: Not for killing people. Not for injuring people. The difference between a con man and a killer is night and day.
McComas says he was representing an admitted crook but not a killer.
Keith Morrison: Looks pretty bad for this guy.
James McComas: That’s the basis of suspicion that might lead investigators to want to find evidence in the case. The suggestion that you’re making, and really that they’ve made all along, is that that’s enough. And, it’s not enough when you understand the surrounding circumstances.
McComas set out to show the jury, piece by piece, that Jay’s suspicious behavior was not as it seemed.
Why take a private road to a lonely bluff? Because, says McComas, they were simply exploring, like tourists do.
What about all those conflicting stories he told about exactly what happened? That he saw her fall, that he didn’t see her, that she was taking a picture and lost her balance, that she was picking a flower and tripped.
Keith Morrison: Why did he tell conflicting stories about what happened on that cliff top?
James McComas: Because he didn’t know the why. That’s the reason. … And, Jay Darling pled guilty to what it was he did. He made false representations to try and get a large insurance scheme so he could fake his own death. And, he pled not guilty to what he didn’t do. He never murdered that woman.
Jay Darling had hired a persuasive attorney. But, as McComas laid out his defense, would a jury agree?
Defense attorney McComas called Norm Thompson, the medical examiner who performed Wanda’s autopsy, to testify for the defense. Generally, the medical examiner testifies for the prosecution in murder cases.
James McComas (in court): Is it reasonably possible that Wanda Darling fell because she passed out or fainted at the bluff?
Norm Thompson: That would be possible.
James McComas: Was there sufficient evidence … for you to conclude whether or not in manner of death that this was a homicide?
Norm Thompson: No, there was insufficient evidence to consider this a homicide.
James McComas: Another option that you could have picked would have been an accident. Was there sufficient evidence on that?
Norm Thompson: There was insufficient evidence to conclude that this was an accident.
In fact, McComas offered a completely different possibility. That it wasn’t Jay Darling who killed Wanda, but perhaps heartburn medication.
Pharmacologist James O’Donnell testified that Wanda’s medication—Propulsid—was taken off the market in 2000, three years after she died.
James O'Donnell: It was very, very, very effective but because it killed people, it had to be taken off the market.
O’Donnell told the jury the Propulsid could have caused a type of heart attack that’s untraceable after death, along with other symptoms.
James O'Donnell: Chest pain, rapid heartbeat, palpitations, dizziness, anxiety, weakness, fainting.
Defense attorney McComas raised the possibility that Wanda could have become dizzy while standing at the cliff’s edge. He introduced records to show she had been hospitalized several times in the year before her death for some of the very symptoms Dr. O’Donnell described.
Of course, there was no way to prove that Propulsid had anything to do with her death. But was it possible? Did Wanda have an increased risk of falling?
James O'Donnell: Yes, in my opinion, she did.
The prosecution countered with Wanda’s own doctor, who rejected out of hand the idea that Propulsid had anything to do with her illness or her death.
Dr. Reddy: All her symptoms were from anemia. Once we treated her anemia, she was not having anymore symptoms.
But the question had been raised—was it something other than a push that sent Wanda tumbling down that cliff?
Remember how Darling’s good friend Mike Rabb had told the jury about Darling’s insurance scam, about the calls to agents when Wanda was out of the room, about plans to spend the insurance money on a good time?
The defense set out to convince the jury that Rabb should not be believed, that he had been threatened by investigators and eventually told them what they wanted to hear.
James McComas: You said ‘I don’t think he murdered her, I really don’t’. And then they accused you of possibly being complicit.
Mike Rabb: Yeah, the guy pointed his finger and said, ‘We’ll get you, too.’
Mitigating evidence? Maybe. But Darling still had a lot to answer for.
If the defense had any chance of breaking down that long-standing suspicion that Jay Darling had murdered his wife, if it had any chance of destroying the brick-by-brick assembly of circumstantial evidence itself, then Darling himself would have to sit up there in the witness box and look the jury in the eye and sell his version of what happened that day on the bluff. It was a risky thing to do.
James McComas: Mr. Darling, did you push Wanda Darling off the bluff in Homer here on Sunday, the 24th of August 1997?
Nine long years after Wanda Darling fell—or was pushed—from the cliff on bluff road, the jury finally had its chance to look into the eyes of the man accused of killing her. Could they believe him?
James McComas, defense attorney: Would you briefly tell us what feelings you had for Wanda Darling?
Jay Darling: I loved Wanda. We were best friends. She loved me.
Did he really love her? And what did he actually see when his wife went off the cliff?
Jay Darling: I turned around to walk back up to take Wanda’s picture and I got part of the way back up to her and she just fell off the bluff.
James McComas: Did you push her, hit her or whack her with a bat or do any physical act to cause her to go over the bluff?
Jay Darling: No, I did not.
James McComas: How did you feel when you saw Wanda Darling fall off the edge of the cliff?
Jay Darling: Astounded. Astounded. …
James McComas: How’d you feel about the loss of her?
Jay Darling: I didn’t know she was lost yet. I thought, wow, this is horrible.
In an effort to prove their relationship was genuine, Jay read a card Wanda gave to him on Valentine’s Day, 1997.
Jay Darling: It says, ‘I know I can always count on you to be there for me. You know me better than people I have known for years. I think that’s pretty neat. P.S. For the record, I do consider you my best friend.’
Two months later, they were married.
James McComas: What were the reasons you got married?
Jay Darling: One of the reasons was that she was willing to go along with this fake-my-own-death insurance scheme. The bigger reason was that I wanted her around me.
But what about those bruises and broken nose friends saw soon after the marriage? A play-fight accident, said Jay.
Jay Darling: She touched me kind of in the pork chops and I was real relaxed and I jumped and jerked my elbows back and my elbow hit her in the nose and cracked her on the bridge of the nose.
Was he believable? Remember how Wanda’s family and friends told of her almost life-long dread of heights? Jay had known her for only a year or so when he took her to a remote cliff edge, a thousand feet up, with uncertain footing and no guardrail.
Jay Darling: Wanda was not afraid of heights. She was normally cautious.
James McComas: What was she afraid of?
Jay Darling: She was afraid of falling down, she was afraid of the ground moving under her feet.
And what about that near-miss the day before Wanda’s death, when she and Jay were tossed into the bay while kayaking?
Jay Darling: (chuckles) I thought, ‘What the hell?’ Sorry, that was the first thought that went through my mind, like what’s going on here. And once we were in the water it was like, damn, this is cold water. It was like, let’s get back in the boat and get out of here.
Darling’s attorney says this was not attempted murder. In fact, it was quite the opposite: it was Jay Darling saving Wanda’s life. Had Jay not towed her to shore, he said, she certainly would have died.
Back at the hotel that evening, Jay said, Wanda was furious.
Jay Darling: I told her listen, if we can’t get past this, if this is just going to destroy our friendship, if this is going to tear us apart, we haven’t been married that long and maybe we can just get an annulment.
James McComas: What’d she say in response?
Jay Darling: Nothing.
James McComas: Did you want to annul the marriage you had with Wanda?
Jay Darling: No, I didn’t.
Maybe Wanda was so distraught at the thought of losing him, said Darling, that she threw herself off the cliff.
Yet the day after Wanda’s fall—or jump—he neglected to tell those insurance agents that she was dead.
James McComas: Was that some deliberate effort at concealment or something?
Jay Darling: No, I’d gotten two or three hours sleep the night before at most.
Why did he call again and again to check on the insurance?
Simple, said Darling.
He has attention deficit disorder, he claimed, which causes compulsive behavior, and had barely slept the night after Wanda died.
In response, the prosecutor seemed barely able to contain his disbelief.
Crandon Randell, prosecutor: So you attribute the reason you forgot to tell him or didn’t tell him was because of your lack of sleep?
Jay Darling: Yeah.
Crandon Randell: But the lack of sleep didn’t prevent you from calling him to ask where the policy was?
Jay Darling: That’s true
Crandon Randell: You remembered that
Jay Darling: I’d been thinking about that for 3 days
Crandon Randell: But you forgot about the fact that your wife was dead.
Jay Darling: Yeah, I wasn’t thinking about it. I don’t think I forgot I just had this one thing in my mind, this hyper-focus, oh yeah, I’ve been wanting to call this guy.
Crandon Randell: The hyper-focus was the insurance.
Jay Darling: The call, yeah.
Crandon Randell: Money.
Jay Darling: It was about the policy.
The prosecutor confronted Darling about his question to trooper Kuhns and a doctor the day Wanda went off the cliff.
Crandon Randell: Were you worried about whether or not she might have said something if she wasn’t quite dead when she hit bottom?
Jay Darling: There would be no reason for me to be worried. There was no reason for me to be worried.
The jury listened very carefully. Were these skillful excuses? Or could they believe Jay Darling’s story of what happened to Wanda all those years ago?
Now, it was their turn.
The trial, the string of accusations, the litany of denial, had drawn a crowd of spectators to Homer’s little courthouse for three weeks running.
Now each side had one last chance to persuade the jury.
If he was found guilty, Jay Darling would spend the rest of his life in prison.
If found not guilty, he would walk out of the courthouse a free man.
Crandon Randell, prosecutor: This is our guy and … I would submit to you that the evidence in this case has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Darling killed his wife. That he killed her for the money.
McComas, defense attorney: The question is not ‘Could Jay Darling be guilty?’ It isn’t ‘Could this be a murder?’ It’s not even ‘Is it a murder or an accident?’ All of those are the wrong questions. The only question submitted to you is this: Is there any reasonable doubt about the state’s claim that this was intentional murder? … The cause of death - fall from a coastal cliff. The manner of death - undetermined. There’s not enough evidence to say homicide or accident. Reasonable doubt!
It was time. The jurors left the courtroom. Wanda’s family waited.
Cindy Kaelin, Wanda's sister: It was bad. It was very nerve-wracking.
Nerve-wracking, too, for the jurors who would choose while the whole town watched them. Three of them, Paula Snell, Rick Bates and Sandra Stark, agreed to tell us what happened.
Sandra Stark, juror: We kept going back to what was the scenario at the top of the bluff. … Trying to crystallize well, what happened? And then as part of it, what proof do we have?
Back and forth they went. Did he push her? Did he want her dead?
Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Everybody in the room … thought what happened?
Rick Bates, juror: In some fashion thought he probably pushed her. Or had something to do with her going over.
A few of them wondered whether it was something else.
Paula Snell: Well, I went more of thinking that possibly she did get light-headed. And maybe she did faint.
And what did they make of the kayaking incident the day before Wanda’s death? Did Jay try to kill Wanda that day?
Paula Snell: If that was his plan, that was—that would have been the perfect time to do it.
And what about Jay Darling’s testimony? Had it helped—or hurt him?
Sandra Stark: I felt he was an individual that could say certain things and believe them himself. But they were not what I would call the truth.
For three days they reviewed the evidence, and counted the votes again and again. Finally, they had agreement.
Jay Darling and Wanda’s family steeled themselves for the verdict.
JUDGE: We the jury, duly empanelled and sworn to try the above-entitled cause do find the defendant Jay R Darling not guilty of the crime of first-degree murder as charged.
There were gasps in the courtroom. Not guilty.
Keith Morrison: What’s that feeling?
Cindy Kaelin: Anger.
Ollie Wood: You can’t describe it. Hurtful.
Tammy Ward: Devastating.
Cindy Kaelin: Pain.
Tammy Ward: Waited for nine years—
Cindy Kaelin: Yep.
Tammy Ward: --for him to pay for what he did to … my sister, and then he walked away.
And trooper Kuhns, who had spent nine years doing what he could to keep the case alive?
Keith Morrison: When they said “not guilty”?
Lary Kuhns: Pissed off. Shame. Not on me, on them. Shame on them. If the issue was proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that doesn’t mean proof beyond all doubt.
Jay Darling’s attorney was ecstatic.
James McComas: Every effort was made to turn what is almost certainly an accident into an act of murder. And fortunately, the backstop of our system, and that’s never the judge. And it’s never the lawyers. It’s the jury. And the jury prevented that from happening.
But were members of the jury happy about what they had done? No, they were not.
Keith Morrison: As you became aware, all of you, in the jury room that it was going to be not guilty verdict, what was the feeling in there?
Rick Bates: Deep sorrow.
Paula Snell: Yeah. You didn’t feel like there was any justice for Wanda and her family. … But you couldn’t sentence someone that you didn’t feel there was enough evidence to show that he actually did something.
Keith Morrison: Do you think that … Jay Darling was innocent?
Sandra Stark: Do I think he’s innocent?
Keith Morrison: Yeah.
Sandra Stark: Absolutely not.
Keith Morrison: But is he guilty?
Sandra Stark: Not by evidence that’ll hold up to the standards that we needed … to meet.
After the verdict was read, Jay Darling walked away a free man. In the parking lot of the courthouse he encountered the man who’d been chasing him all these years—officer Lary Kuhns.
Keith Morrison: So what’d you do?
Lary Kuhns: I had to do it. I had to ask him. … I says, ‘Hey, Jay. … Relax, man. I can’t—I can’t get you. I said, but I’ve got to know. You’ve got to tell me. How’d you do it?’ And his eyes got big. And he says, ‘No, no, no. You don’t understand. … I didn’t—I didn’t—I didn’t kill her. It was an accident.’ I said, ‘Sure it was. Sure.’
Lary Kuhns had been waiting nine years.
Lary Kuhns: We’re trained from out of the academy, you don’t get - you know, don’t get emotionally involved. But we’re humans. We’re not robots. And you know (crying) --
Keith Morrison: It matters.
Lary Kuhns: Wanda’s family.
And up near Bluff Road in Homer, Alaska, up through the scrub and the wind at the top of that terrible precipice, there is a small wooden cross that marks the place and remembers Wanda Darling.
Farrah Tittle: I still dream about her from time to time. But every single day I think about her. And I think about all the people’s lives that are affected because she’s not here. … Wanda just tried to be good. And it was sincere, and truthful. And you don’t replace people like that.
Jay Darling never collected a dime on any of those insurance policies. As for Lary Kuhns, he's no longer a state trooper -- he's now an investigator with the Homer, Alaska police department.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints