A dark day in New Windsor

Ton Loewy and Eric Timmons
Dana Whiting

Dana Whiting struggled to sit up in the darkness. If she still could hear, maybe the sound of Max's barking reached her. If she still could see, perhaps the sight of the big black Labrador Retriever approaching gave her a glimmer of hope. As Max's barking ceased, another sound took its place. Dana's moans grew to a brief wail. She was trying to stand up.

The 30-year-old came to New Windson, a village with a population of roughly 700, to stay with friends Amy Freberg and Rich Waggoner at the home they share on Sycamore Street. She was trying to escape a crumbling marriage and had been shot once in the head allegedly by the man friends and family say Dana feared most -- her husband, Chad Whiting.

It was just before 8:15 p.m. on the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 28, 2008, when Chad apparently turned the gun on himself after allegedly shooting his estranged wife at the bottom of the driveway on West Sycamore Street. He died in the space between his car and the one Dana borrowed from her mother. He was 35.

Dana held on for three more hours before dying during surgery in Peoria's OSF St. Francis Medical Center. The Mercer County coroner has called the incident an apparent murder-suicide. Police say the violence was domestic.

The Whitings were married for eight years. In the aftermath of the violence, Dana's family and friends struggle to understand how the marriage deteriorated before ending in the darkness on the day after Thanksgiving.

They may never know the answer.

A brief courtship

Dorothy Hutt gave birth to her only daughter on June 8, 1978, in Davenport, Iowa.

"Dana was a tomboy from the start," Hutt said. "She would never wear a dress. Never. We finally got her into one for her prom."

"She hung out with her two brothers (Curtis Livingston and Daniel Beals Jr.). Whatever the boys could do, Dana could, too. And she loved the color black. Always wore black and she wanted to paint her bedroom black. I had to put my foot down on that one."

Dana spent most of her young life in Mercer County and graduated from Sherrard High School in 1996. Her aunt, Wendy Reckers, said Dana was a creative person. "She cross-stitched. That was her thing," Reckers said. "Her step-dad (Robert Hutt) loved Elvis and Dana would put together Elvis puzzles for him and glue them down.

"She made her own frames for them, too. Made them and stained them. She framed the cross-stitch, too."

As best as any family member knows, Dana met Chad in Galesburg sometime in 1999.

Chad Whiting grew up in Galesburg and graduated from Galesburg High School in 1992, studied welding at Carl Sandburg College and joined the United States Army in April 1993.

His first of two stints with the Army lasted until March 2005. "Dana brought Chad over and introduced him to the family," Hutt said. "He was a nice guy. He was funny and I know Dana liked him. I think, looking back on it, he kind of swept her off her feet."

Reckers agreed.

"Dana said they went to dinner and the movies," she said. "He did the things girls want and he was a good-looking, older guy. I think she liked his attention."

Hutt and Reckers said they were surprised, though, when the couple eloped and married on Jan. 11, 2000.

"I didn't know she was in love with Chad," Reckers said.

According to Hutt, Chad struggled to find work. The young couple's first two years of marriage were spent living in Hutt's house.

"Chad was a joker," Hutt said. "They were happy. They played cards and laughed."

The couple moved in with Dana's biological father, Daniel Beals Sr., in 2003.

When her father moved to Colorado, Dana and Chad moved with him. Hutt said she thought life out west was hard for the Whitings.

"Dana told me they lived in a camper," she said. "And Chad couldn't find work."

In 2004, the Whitings returned to Galesburg. They bought a trailer home and started a cleaning business.

"I got the impression from Dana that Chad wanted her to work with him," Hutt said.

"I know they were having a tough time financially."

Chad re-enlisted in the Army in April 2006. He was stationed in Hawaii and Dana joined him. The couple lived there for the better part of three years.

Four months ago - after the couple returned to Galesburg - Dana told her mother Chad abused her while in Hawaii. Hutt said as Chad's possessiveness escalated, Dana separated from him and wanted a divorce. 

The moments before the shooting Waggoner isn't sure of the exact sequence of events that unfolded the night of Dana's shooting, but said Dana took a call from Chad earlier that Friday evening.

Waggoner and Freberg were in the home with three of their four kids.

"I know he called her on her cell phone and I got the impression that Chad said he had taken some pills," Waggoner said. "I'm pretty sure he asked her to come see him because she asked him to call his brother. She basically said it wasn't fair for him to do that to her."

After she got off the phone, Dana said Chad was coming out to give her a key to a shed that had her belongings in it.

"I didn't really get it. I didn't know if the pills thing was for real or not, but he must have been OK to drive out," Waggoner said. "I know that on the day before Thanksgiving or on Thanksgiving Day, he had called her and asked her to spend two days with him. He said he wanted to look in her eyes again.

"I know Dana wanted that key. She wanted to get the rest of her stuff. He had some of her cross-stitch and things that were important to her."

Waggoner said he was watching television before Chad's arrival. At some point, Dana and Amy went into the attached garage.

"The garage is where we smoke. We don't smoke inside because of the kids," Waggoner said.

"Dana and Amy were in the garage when Chad pulled into the driveway next to Dana's mom's car.

"Dana handed Amy her cell phone and told Amy that if Chad got her in his car to call 911."

Dana's darkest fears

Hutt said she will never forget her daughter's smile - and wonder about all the things it might have covered up.

"Dana could lie with her smile," Reckers added. "When Dana got back from Hawaii in the spring, she still smiled and put up a front, but things were not going well."

Chad eventually found work at Walmart, while Dana took a job with Lowe's. The couple lived with Chad's parents.

"At Dana's funeral, there were 25 to 30 Lowe's employees," Hutt said. "I can't say enough about how good Lowe's has been to us."

"But at the funeral, the employees told me Dana told them about her troubles with Chad."

The employees recounted tales of Chad waiting in the parking lot for hours while Dana worked. They said Dana feared violence.

Hutt said employees told her sometime during late fall Dana came to work with bruises on her neck. Dana told co-workers Chad had tried to strangle her.

Waggoner supported the assertion. Dana spent some nights in New Windsor during the early part of the summer, then moved in with Waggoner and Freberg in the late summer.

"I got the impression from Amy that Chad had been rough with her and had threatened her," Waggoner said. "I know he sat outside her work and tried to make it so she didn't have a car. He really seemed like he wanted to control Dana's life and Dana didn't want that."

When Chad took back the car he gave Dana, Hutt let her daughter use one of her vehicles.

Dana moved back in with Chad, but the marriage was not - according to what Dana told family and friends - working.

In mid-November, Dana moved back in with Waggoner and Freberg. She brought most of her belongings to the house in New Windsor.

"I remember teasing her about that," Waggoner said. "Amy and Dana had been friends for a long time - since, like, fourth grade. So any friend of Amy's was a friend of mine, I guess. But I really got to like her. She tried so hard. She played with our kids, did dishes and laundry and helped out. She wasn't free-loading off us. This last time she came, I could tell she was making a move."

Waggoner said Dana told Amy she was determined to break free from Chad. She also told the couple she feared Chad would become violent.

Waggoner doesn't know what transpired between Chad and Dana on the day before Thanksgiving, but "whatever it was really scared Dana."

"I know Dana took a bunch of her stuff with her to Lowe's and she was really upset," Waggoner said. "Dana said Chad had the rest of her stuff in a shed and wouldn't give it to her."

"I know she was upset about that. Amy told me she had been crying at work."

Waggoner is convinced Chad's offer to bring the key to the shed is the only reason Dana agreed to see him on that fateful Friday night.

Two 'pops' in the darkness

A short time after Dana left the garage, Waggoner and Freberg started into the garage for a cigarette. "I was pulling on my first boot when we heard a pop," Waggoner said.

"Amy said 'What was that?' The kids were playing in the basement, so my first thought was it was them. I said, 'I don't know.' It almost sounded like a firecracker or a party-popper. Something like that.

"The next pop came like, maybe, 30 seconds later. I know I didn't even have my second boot on. Amy said 'What is that?' I didn't want to interrupt Dana and Chad talking, I didn't want to make him mad."

Waggoner and Freberg tried to look out the garage door's four small windows. They couldn't see anything in the darkness and their view was blocked by Freberg's Mountaineer.

Waggoner quickly thought of an excuse to open the door and "check on things." He re-entered the house, collected Max and started to let him out the door of the garage that sits next to the larger garage door.

"As soon as I opened the door, I saw someone lying next to the end of our driveway," Waggoner said. "I let go of Max and he ran over to the figure and was barking like crazy. I went after him and that's when Dana sat up."

"Something was so wrong. She couldn't lift her head and I yelled at her 'Where is Chad?' I couldn't see him anywhere. I pulled Max into the house and I told Amy to call 911."

Waggoner said New Windsor Police Chief Clayton Brendal was on the scene within a minute of the 911 call.

"The chief found Chad between the cars and I asked 'Is he there?' The chief said 'Yeah.' And I said 'Is he down?' The Chief said 'Yeah.' I just raced out to Dana. I rubbed her arm and told her to lay back. The chief yelled at me to get some towels."

Waggoner raced back to the house for towels, telling Brendal he saw a shell casing near Dana.

When he returned, Waggoner found Dana still trying to sit up. In the chaos, his eye caught one small detail.

"I saw that one of her fingernails was bend back and there was dirt under it," he said. "I just kept telling her to hang in there. I just tried to keep talking to her.

"She was breathing. I remember she grabbed my hand with hers and she held it tight. She held it until the EMTs arrived."

Editor's Note: The family of Chad Whiting declined to be interviewed for this story.