Longform

Return of the Black Widow

Page 3 of 13

The few facts are that Sandra Powers was born on April 5, 1944, in Sedalia, Missouri, and adopted as an infant by Arthur Powers, owner and manager of the local Dr Pepper bottling plant. When Sandra was 3, her adoptive mother, Camille, was killed in a car accident. Three years later, the family moved to a small house in Oak Cliff, and her father worked as a cemetery-plot salesman for Laurel Land. Her father had remarried, but Sandra didn't get along with her stepmother. Sandra painted Doris Powers as evil, a stepmother who shut her in a closet and failed to send out invitations to her birthday party, telling her that no one wanted her.

A 1962 graduate of Kimball High School, Sandra rarely dated and is hardly mentioned in the school annual. That changed during her 20s, when Sandra was besieged with suitors mesmerized by her Southern Belle persona and what a friend described as her "ladylike, 'poor helpless me' routine."

Sandra instinctively knew what men desired: a beautiful woman intensely focused on them. While her single girlfriends read movie magazines, Sandra subscribed to Southern Living, learning how to cook gourmet meals and decorate her apartment. Though she attended only one year of junior college, Sandra was a fiercely focused autodidact. When she got interested in a subject, she read and memorized until she knew as much or more than those she was trying to impress.

In May 1967, Sandra Powers married David Stegall, a dentist from Fort Worth. Sandra told friends she'd dated a lot of people, but she waited to marry someone with a good financial upside. Stegall, who'd studied under a Los Angeles dentist with a Hollywood clientele, had that potential.

During the early '70s, Sandra reinvented herself as a chic Highland Park wife. The Stegalls bought a bungalow in Greenway Park, the Park Cities neighborhood on the west side of the Dallas North Tollway. David drove a Cadillac, and Sandra had a live-in maid from Mexico long before anyone else in her group did. She read voraciously about art, decorating, antiques, china and porcelain. Paying $35,000 to a society decorator, Sandra filled her home with fine furniture and fabrics. Everything she did had to be in the best of taste.

While caring for three children, Sandra taught herself photography and began to take pictures for charity groups, using that as leverage in her efforts to join the Junior League and other society clubs. But while she worked on many blue-chip projects, there was something unsettling about Sandra that kept her from being completely accepted by other women.

Behind the elegant exterior, in fact, the Stegalls were drowning in debt, thanks to Sandra's extravagances. By early 1974, the IRS was threatening to foreclose on their house, and David borrowed $100,000 from his father to pay off creditors. Depressed, he began seeing a psychiatrist. After a frantic phone call from Sandra, his attorney Jack Sides rushed over to the Stegall house one night to find David crouched in a closet, a pistol to his head. Sides took it away.

David seemed to improve, insisting he'd never kill himself, because of his children--Britt, Kathryn and Emily. A psychiatrist concluded that David was no longer suicidal. A week after the suicide attempt, an upbeat David told Sides he was filing for divorce. "He was in good spirits," the attorney says. "He was going to change his life."

Sides and other friends were entirely unprepared for what happened on February 22, 1976. An emotional Sandra called a doctor friend at 7 a.m. "I think something has happened to David," she said. The doctor and his wife raced to the Stegall home. Sandra explained that she'd been sleeping in a child's bedroom and had heard something ominous; she hadn't looked in the master bedroom.

The doctor found David slumped in the king-size bed. He'd slashed his wrists and shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber pistol. The doctor was puzzled because the wrist slashes ran horizontally. A dentist would have known to slash the arteries vertically if he wanted to die.

Before his death, Sandra had called their insurance company to find out if it paid in case of suicide. It did. The insurance and the sale of David's practice settled Sandra's debts, with enough left over for a vacation.

Marry a Millionaire

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