Dateline   |  February 15, 2013

'A Gathering Storm', Part 1

In August 2004, all eyes were on Hurricane Charley as it pounded Punta Gorda, a small town on Florida’s Gulf Coast. In the midst of the tempest, one Florida man was holed up in a hotel room, seeking shelter from the storm and hiding from his past. Dateline NBC's Josh Mankiewciz reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> is a motive.

>>> it's a tale of love turned lethal featuring an adoring wife, a pageant queen .

>> she was a whole lot of gorgeous woman.

>> and at center stage , a charismatic guitar hero.

>> just charming. you know, everybody loved him. he was playing for quite some time.

>> two women, one man. a love triangle with sharp edges.

>> jim at one point had told me that he wanted to know what it felt like to kill somebody.

>> in this twisted game of hearts, how many would have to pay the price?

>> she called and let me know that russ was dead.

>> how far would things go?

>> i looked in her eyes and i mean, she's evil. she is evil.

>> a man hunt would stretch from the northwest down to mexico and run smack into mother nature .

>> your suspect is quite literally in the wind.

>> he's gone.

>> i'm lester holt and this is "dateline." here's josh mankiewicz .

>>> love, according to the song writers, is a many splendored thing.

>> financial empires have been built on our annual homage to hearts and flowers. but this story is about people caught in the powerful grip of love's darker side, obsession. everybody's getting crazy

>> it involves talented and beautiful people .

>> miss washington .

>> smart people , whose obsessions made them do stupid things. passionate people caught in an emotional whirlwind.

>> we, the jury, find the defendant --

>> and finally, innocent people who paid the price when those passions ran amok.

>> it all began, of course, on a dark and stormy night .

>> they now expect what they're calling a worst-case scenario.

>> it was august 2004 , friday the 13th. hurricane charlie was hammering florida 's gulf coast , particularly the coastal city of punt punta goreda.

>> the message is urgency and safety.

>> get to safety and hunker down.

>> that night jean huden thought her life was quite literally in shambles.

>> i stayed and rode the hurricane out by myself in the house and watched my house come apart around my ears.

>> 60 miles to the south jean's husband jim was holed up in a hotel, hiding, not from the storm, but from his past.

>> he was scared so he figured he'd get while the getting was good.

>> as soon as the worst of the storm had blown over jean says she joined her panicked husband. they ordered pizza and turned on the tv.

>> the losses are substantial.

>> but jean couldn't concentrate on the hurricane news. the personal storm that was wrecking her marriage and ruining her life took precedence.

>> it was the big tensionfest. we talked and asked a lot of questions, you know? why? what were you thinking? what are you going to do now?

>> it was a messy situation, betrayal, deception, dissertion, the usual menu of dysfunction that all too often falls under the category of another woman, but there was more to it than that. much more.

>> a homicide investigation was at stake, one that just days earlier had led detective mark blumberg from the isle of washington all of the way to punta gorda , florida . he was hot on the trail of a potential suspect, and then came the hurricane.

>> i didn't think he was going to stick around for us to come back.

>> so the hurricane comes and goes and your suspect is quite literally in the wind.

>> he's gone.

>> for detective clumber, the twisted trail that led him from washington to south florida began just months earlier just after christmas 2003 . a geotracker, a small suv had been spotted in a secluded driveway in a remote section of whidbey island , passenger door open and light on.

>> the first thought was suicide, but on initial investigation they couldn't find a weapon.

>> standing in the damp, december cold, the detective took stock. the body inside appeared to have been dead for 24 hours . i.d. found in the glove box indicated the dead man was named russel douglas , a rag ged hole between his eyes had frozen his age at 32.

>> there was a robbery, a whole lot of stuff left behind in the car that didn't make sense.

>> just inside the driver's side door an empty .380 caliber shell casing lay on the floor. the detective thought it was a curious place for a homicide.

>> near the end of a dead-end road parked into bushes as though he meant to be there with his car in gear, his emergency brake on and casually dressed in flip-flops.

>> sounds like he was there to meet someone.

>> that was the only thing that really made sense to us.

>> but who? the detective hoped russel douglas ' widow brenna douglas might shed some light on that, but that night when he told her the father of had her two children had been murdered the detective says he got a strange feeling.

>> i never tried to judge how people are going react when i tell them thing, but her response wasn't what i expected.

>> as in not emotional enough?

>> she wasn't shocked, at least not visually shocked. it was a bit matter of fact and that did leave us at least wondering when we walked out of the house. yes.

>> and so brenna douglas , as the wives of murdered men often do, became a person of interest, the domestic situation seemed unsettled.

>> they were separated. russel was living in an apartment in renton. according to brenna they were trying to work it out and talking about getting back together.

>> in fact, the new widow told the detectives that her husband had spent the holidays with her and the kids.

>> she said the last time she saw him was the morning of december 26th . he left the house somewhere mid-morning and she thought he was going to run some errands.

>> brenna douglas have an alibi?

>> she didn't need an alibi at the time we went to talk to her. it was basically a death notification. she was able to answer our questions for us.

>> who didn't like russel douglas ? nobody could think of someone who really truly didn't like him.

>> as winter turned to spring, the detectives' investigation seemed to be going nowhere , but a routine check of the numbers in russel douglas ' cell phone had yielded a tiny clue.

>> there were a few phone calls to a number with a las vegas area code and we made a phone call to that number. there was no answer. it went to an answering machine.

>> was it a cell phone voice mail or a person's voice?

>> it was a cell phone voice mail for a woman named peggy .

>> peggy . that's a name you will hear again. the detective made a mental note to have that number traced, but within minutes of hanging up his phone rang.

>> and there was a female who said she had gotten a phone call from that number and she identified herself as peggy thomas. explained that she was a friend of brenna and russel douglas .

>> peggy douglas told the detectives she'd been visiting friends over the holidays and explained that she had simply contacted russel in order to pass along a present for brenna .

>> she answered all of my questions to my satisfaction. there was nothing about that phone call that made me include her in the suspect list.

>> but then again, the detective 's suspect list was essentially a blank page . there were no names on it from florida or nevada or new mexico or any of the other places this investigation would eventually lead him, at least not yet.

>>> chapter one of this whodunit closes with more questions than answers. detectives don't even know who the major characters are. so the investigation begins close to home with the dead man's on-again/off-again wife.

>> you don't want to believe the mother of your grandkids would ever be a suspect.

>> but a wife as a potential person of interest is just the beginning in this cross country tale of love