The Tragic Death of Zachary Turner – An Entirely Preventable Murder
A murder is always an event of unimaginable grief for the loved-ones the victim leaves behind. Yet for the family and friends of Andrew Bagby, a promising young doctor who had seemingly found fulfillment after several hard years of putting himself through medical school abroad, his untimely death was only the beginning of their ordeal. It was a story that would start with his cold-blooded execution in a parking lot and would end with the death of his infant son. The story is made all the more heart-wrenching by the fact that one-year-old Zachary Turner did not need to die, his death was entirely preventable.
Andrew Bagby – The Father of Zachary
By all accounts, Andrew Bagby, the only son of a US Navy serviceman and an English nurse, was a charismatic and well-liked young man with a bright future ahead of him. His hoped-for career in medicine suffered an early setback when he failed to secure a place at medical school at the first time of asking, but his response was characteristically positive, and he resolved to find a job and reapply the following year. He was finally accepted into Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, and he prepared to move away from his native California to follow his dreams.
In 1999, in his third year at medical school, Bagby began dating a medical intern 12 years his senior named Shirley Jane Turner. The following year, Turner took up a position in Sac City, Iowa, while Bagby accepted a surgical residency at New York State University in Syracuse; however, the couple continued to see each other when possible, attempting to maintain a long-distance relationship.
Bagby’s friends were uneasy about Turner. She was not only much older than him, but also had three children from two previous marriages. When they were together, she was crude, often making inappropriate sexual comments, and she had a controlling and possessive character. However, Bagby was far from home and recovering from a failed engagement. He was probably in need of companionship, and his friends, at least in part, attributed their relationship to this. They found her unsuitable perhaps, even unpalatable, but not a cause for undue concern.
The breakup and a murder
In 2001, Bagby quit his surgical residency and transferred to a family practice in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and with the move, it seems he finally found his calling. He was an instant success and quickly become a favorite among his patients. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was at this point that he decided to finish things with Turner.
In the months leading up to November 2001, it was clear he had already made his decision, and in July of that year, when he attended a friend’s wedding, he did not invite her. She reacted badly, calling him many times throughout the day, and when he lost patience and stopped answering, she left up to 30 voicemail messages on his cell phone.
He finally ended their relationship when she visited him in Latrobe on November 3rd, seeing her off on a flight back to Council Bluffs, Iowa, almost 1000 miles away, where she was living by that time. At around 5.30am the following morning, she unexpectedly showed up at Bagby’s home, apparently having completed the 16-hour drive from Iowa throughout the night; surprised by her unannounced arrival, Bagby agreed to meet her that evening after work.
In his flustered state, he explained the situation to his supervisor, Dr. Clark Simpson, referring to her as “the psychotic bitch”. Simpson urged against meeting with someone displaying such obviously unpredictable behavior just hours after a break-up but Bagby ignored his friend’s advice, saying he would call at Simpson’s house by 7.30 that evening.
The following day, Bagby’s body was discovered in a parking lot. He had been shot five times, once in the face, once in the chest, once in the back of the head and twice in the buttocks. He was 28.
The evidence against Turner was compelling. A month before the murder, she had purchased a handgun and began taking shooting lessons. Her third and final lesson had been just days before the murder.
Her handgun fired the same .22 bullets that had killed Bagby. Furthermore, her shooting instructor confirmed that her firearm sometimes ejected unspent rounds. One such round was recovered close to the body. The bullets were manufactured by CCI, the same ones Turner used at the range.
A passer-by claimed to have seen Turner’s SUV next to Bagby’s Toyota Corolla at 6.10 p.m. The following morning, the same passer-by confirmed that only the Corolla remained. Map printouts of the route from Council Bluffs to Latrobe were found at Turner’s home.
At first, Turner claimed to have been sick in bed at the time, but phone records showed a trail of calls all the way from Council Bluffs to Latrobe and back. She had also accessed eBay and Hotmail from Bagby’s residence and used his phone to call in sick. When confronted with these facts, she changed her story, admitting that she had been there but that she had given the gun to Bagby and told him to put it in the trunk.
Despite the evidence against her, in order to secure an arrest warrant, it was necessary to confirm each call she had made with individual telecom towers along her route, a process that could take up to two weeks. In the meantime, she fled the country.
The true nightmare begins
After this callous and apparently premeditated murder, for Bagby’s family and friends, events took a cruel and unexpected turn.
By mid-December 2001, Turner was back in St John’s, Newfoundland. She was formally charged and procedures to extradite her to the US began. The first shock for Bagby’s family was when on the very same day she was taken in, his suspected murderer walked free on bail. Worse, it emerged soon after that she was carrying the dead man’s unborn son.
For David and Kate Bagby, Andrew’s parents, what ensued was harrowing. In an effort to maintain the final tie with their dead son, they began a battle for custody of the unborn child, eventually leaving their jobs and moving to Newfoundland to continue the fight. Throughout the process, Turner played for time, drawing out the extradition procedure as much as possible while the Bagbys spent all their savings on legal fees.
Once the child was born, the Bagbys were compelled to bargain with their son’s suspected murderer to see their grandson. In order to gain access rights to the child, they were forced to spend time with her, going to the cinema, going swimming or going to the mall, playing happy families with the woman who had, in all likelihood, killed their only son.
In what must have been an excruciating experience, driven on only by their love for Andrew and for baby Zachary, they continued to play along. Their only hope was that eventually, the extradition procedure would be completed, Turner would stand trial and they would finally be granted custody of the boy so they could raise him and begin to let the wounds heal.
The final tragedy – Murder of Zachary Turner
The extradition dragged on. For a time, Turner found herself back in jail, and Zachary was passed to the care of his grandparents. However, in January 2003, a judge ruled that there was no psychological evidence that Turner was a threat to society; she was once again released on bail and Zachary was returned to her.
Then, as the process neared a conclusion and her extradition began to look inevitable, the final tragedy struck.
On 18th August 2003, exactly one month after Zachary’s first birthday, Turner drove to a pharmacy and bought a box of Ativan tablets before driving to Conception Bay South. There, she shared the tablets between herself and little Zachary, tied him to her chest and jumped into the Atlantic Ocean. Both mother and baby drowned.
Baby Zachary’s Murder was preventable
The findings of the resulting enquiry into the suicide-murder were unequivocal: the tragic death of baby Zachary could have been prevented and the authorities had been too concerned with presuming the innocence of Turner, the probable perpetrator of a first-degree murder. No consideration had been given to the child’s welfare. As coroner Peter Markesteyn commented, “nowhere did I find any ongoing assessment of the safety needs of the children.“
First of all, the ruling by Judge Gale Welsh that there was no psychological evidence to suggest Turner was a danger was patently false. During the enquiry, Markesteyn uncovered scores of documents that revealed a history of erratic behavior. Turner had experienced a number of failed relationships, including her two previous marriages from which she had three children. When another relationship with a man nine years her junior ended, she had continued to harass him over the next two years. He even moved away to avoid her, but she pursued him, on one occasion hitting him in the face with a high-heeled shoe. This behavior continued until 1999 when the ex-boyfriend found her unconscious in an apparent suicide attempt.
Judge Gale Welsh’s ruling that Turner posed no threat was also essentially founded on the premise that, since Andrew Bagby was the object of her rage and Bagby was now dead, she was no longer a danger to the wider community. David Bagby himself pointed out the glaring flaw in this argument that normal, stable members of society do not plan to murder an individual just because they are angry.
Turner’s time at Memorial also reveals an insight into her character. It was noted by her supervisors that she became “hostile” when faced with criticism and that it was difficult to give her feedback. It was stated that she “lacked personal commitment” in her relationships and that her relationships seemed “superficial”. She was also later described as a “manipulative, guiltless psychopath.”
Darlene Neville, Newfoundland and Labrador’s child and youth advocate, summed up the case by saying that two things were clear:
- Zachary Turner’s death was preventable;
- Zachary was in his mother’s care when he should not have been.
The death of baby Zachary left David and Kate Bagby, as well as the wider community, devastated. After the initial shock of their second loss, coming so soon after the murder of their only son, the Bagbys decided to fight for a change in the law which might have meant their grandson could have lived. As a way to help deal with the senseless deaths, they pushed for a bill to be passed allowing bail to be refused in the case of an accusation of a serious crime when the safety of a child is involved.
David Bagby later wrote a book about their tragic ordeal, choosing the title Dance with the Devil. After such wanton acts of cruelty that tore apart a family and a community, it is easy to question whether Shirley Turner was evil; indeed, many of her acts throughout her life, especially as events neared their conclusion, seem to have been motivated by spite. Yet in one of the suicide notes she left after the failed attempt to take her own life in 1999, she herself wrote, “I am not evil, just sick.”
In a sense, the question of whether she was just a deeply troubled individual in desperate need of help or someone who was truly evil has little meaning. In any case, it is a question that can now never be answered. Perhaps at least “Zachary’s Bill” will help save lives in the future, something that may offer some small comfort to those who lives were touched by Andrew Bagby and his little baby son, Zachary Turner.
Baby Zachary’s death could have been prevented, just as was the case with Victoria Martens.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father made a documentary on this heart-touching case. You can buy or watch the movie on Amazon. Kuenne is donating all profits from the film to a scholarship established in the names of Zachary and Andrew Bagby.
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