Earlier in the day of Sept. 22, 2012, Dan and Heather Fredenberg were once again feeling in love. Their second wedding anniversary was three days away, and though their first two years of marriage were turbulent, the couple woke up that day gushing. From the morning shift at the drive-thru coffee hut where she worked, Heather texted Dan: "Hey baby have i told you lately how much i love you?!...Thank you for always being by my side.!"
Dan received the text message at the shop where he refurbished classic cars for resale. That day he was prepping a 1978 Z28 Camaro for a new engine. He responded, "Thank u beautiful. I wish u knew how deeply I love u even though i cant always show it." They made plans to meet after Heather got off work to lower the engine into the Camaro's front end.
Even if things had happened differently that night, there is reason to believe their marriage would still be over. Members of Dan's family say their union was on an inexorable path toward dissolution. Heather had already disclosed her relationship with another man to Dan, and Dan had expressed to his father that things were coming apart. But what happened on and in the weeks following the night of Sept. 22 make up the sort of tragedy that transcends reason. Hours after exchanging text messages, Dan would say his final words to Heather as he crumpled to the floor of an empty garage: "Call 911."
Six days later, Sept. 28, Flathead County issued Dan's death certificate. It read: "Date of Birth: 09/19/72; Spouse: Heather Fredenberg; Manner of Death: Homicide; Date and Time of Injury: September 22, 2012 20:38 Military; Describe How Injury Occurred: Victim was shot multiple times by his wife's boyfriend."
On Oct. 9, Flathead County Prosecutor Ed Corrigan issued a press release. Corrigan concluded:
"I am acutely aware that the Fredenberg family and others believe this matter should be presented to a jury and strongly disagree with the position I am taking. I am, however, ethically precluded from charging an individual with an offense, particularly Deliberate Homicide, when I do not believe the evidence and the law will support a conviction.
"For these reasons, I am declining to charge Brice Harper with Deliberate or Mitigated Homicide."
In his decision, Corrigan invoked a law updated in 2009 by the Montana State Legislature often referred to as the Castle Doctrine. The law gives a homeowner the right to use lethal force if the individual "reasonably believes" force will "terminate the other's unlawful entry into or attack upon an occupied structure." The "wife's boyfriend," Brice Harper, was released from police custody 10 hours after fatally shooting an unarmed Dan. By the time an ambulance arrived, Dan lay in a pool of blood on the concrete floor of Harper's garage, already dying.
"Let's get married"
Dan Fredenberg met Heather King at Copper Mountain Coffee, a drive-up coffee shack in Kalispell. She had tan skin, glossed lips and black-cherry hair that escaped its bands by the end of her shift. When she handed Dan his 20-ounce mocha with whipped cream, they allowed the moment to linger. After a few months, Dan asked Heather for her number. She wrote it on the back of a receipt. Dan texted her a week later.
In mid-September 2010, after a few months of dating, Dan was putting the finishing touches on a silver 1970 Corvette with black racing stripes. He'd already invested some $60,000 in the Corvette. He planned to trailer the car to Las Vegas for the Barrett-Jackson auto auction where he thought he'd get his greatest return on investment. The day he was set to leave, a doctor told Heather she would be having twins. She was crying when she called Dan. He invited her to Las Vegas.
On Sept. 25, 2010, the Corvette sold for $30,000 at auction. Hours later, in the hotel elevator, his mind liquid with tequila and debt and the prospect of fatherhood, Dan turned to Heather. "Let's get married," he said.
Friends and family of the couple agree Dan and Heather were genuinely in love with one another, but their love came with baggage. Dan complained that Heather was unreliable. Heather felt that Dan drank too much and spent inordinate time and money on his cars. She said that Dan was abusive with her. She admits that she was abusive with him. Dan's father and former Kalispell police detective, Ron Fredenberg, remembers Heather was emotional and would suddenly, hysterically become unhinged. Dan, he says, struggled to handle the pressures of a new family. "The real problem," Ron Fredenberg remembers, "was Heather was 21 going on 15. Dan was 40 going on 25." (Dan turned 40 three days before he was shot. Heather was 22.)
Tammy Kampf, Dan's cousin, remembers Dan as a "big kid" who loved practical jokes. "He was just always smiling," she says. "He just had a look when he was up to something." She remembers Dan, who even in middle age had the stickish physique of a 10th grader, used to wear a mullet hairdo to "hide his skinny neck."
Ron Fredenberg and Kampf both remember Dan drinking often, but struggle to recount instances of excess. Ron Fredenberg recalls Dan getting in two fights in his life, one which he lost decisively (he was sent to the hospital), and one which he "probably lost." Heather's own recollections of Dan's behavior can be difficult to dissect. "I saw a side of Dan that most people probably never saw ... He would ... strangle me, choke me. He'd tackle me or bite me or slap me across the face," she remembers. "But he was also a very gentle person, you know? He hated confrontation."
According to Heather, their relationship troubles came to a head one night in mid-July 2012. After work, Heather called Dan. She left him messages. No response. She picked up their infant twins from a friend's house and called Dan again. Still no response. The evening became night and she began to worry. She drove out to a garage where Dan sometimes worked and drank beer. She called the police station, the hospital. He was nowhere. That night, Heather remembers, she decided something would have to change. Around 12:30 a.m., Dan returned home "drunker than hell." They fought. She gave him an ultimatum: Dan would straighten out or she'd "start looking for someone else."
A few days later, Heather says, she met Brice Harper.