On the stand and accused of killing her husband and staging his death as a suicide, Loretta Van Buren stood her ground Friday evening inside Comanche County Chief District Judge Scott D. Meaders’ courtroom.
Her legal counsel, John Zelbst, asked his client if she was guilty of the first-degree murder of her husband Terry Van Buren.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “I’m guilty of letting him down. I thought I could get him through.”
Making a definitive statement, the eyes of the six men and six women of the jury stayed transfixed on the woman accused of murder.
Earlier in the day, home security video from the Van Buren home showed Loretta Van Buren leaving the home. At one point, she turned toward the house, presumably at her husband who she said was alive around 3:35 p.m. Sept. 2, 2019, inside the Cache house they’d built and moved into in 1999, and she said something indiscernible on the silent video as she made a hand gesture.
“That was the old wife wave off,” she said, citing a personal joke between husband and wife. He just asked her to be careful with his truck while she ran errands, she said. She left moments later for a documented trip to several stores, including to buy a lottery ticket, just in case they got lucky, she said.
Loretta Van Buren arrived back home at 4:56 p.m. to make dinner and watch the World News Tonight on ABC with her husband at 5:30 p.m. She told of arriving and finding the door to the garage closed, the family cats inside.
Next, she told of going to their bedroom. It was dark; the television had gone to the floating screen awaiting a button push to resume play.
In the bed, Loretta Van Buren said she saw her husband’s silhouette. He was lying in bed and she thought he was asleep. When she leaned in, she said, she thought she saw blood.
Clay Zelbst laid on the floor of Meaders’ courtroom and Loretta Van Buren reenacted her story of the discovery of husband, Terry, around 5 p.m. Sept. 2, 2019. It was Labor Day that year.
Loretta Van Buren moved the younger Zelbst’s left arm up onto his stomach, the right arm out at an angle. A bright, orange and yellow toy gun was lying at the base of his skull, resting against the right shoulder. She showed how, she said, she grabbed the gun, lifted the arm to try and find the wound, before tossing the gun back to the shoulder and neck area.
The jurors watched intently. Those on the second row stood to see.
When first responders arrived, Loretta Van Buren said she didn’t think to say she’d touched the weapon; she believed it an obvious suicide. A bullet wound from his right side of the head, below and to the side of his right ear marked the entrance; a wound almost straight across that severed his spinal cord and injured his brain in its path marked the bullet’s exit.
Later, during interviews with Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Agent Michael Francis, Loretta Van Buren didn’t relay the sequence of events as she did in the courtroom. She said she didn’t think she had to; her husband had killed himself, she said. It seemed obvious to her.
“I didn’t realize the implications of what I was saying,” she said during cross-examination by District Attorney Kyle Cabelka. “I remember it (gun) being in my hand and then, not in my hand.”
After raising the blind and with sunlight pouring in, Loretta Van Buren said the image before her and the “deafening silence” with it still haunts her.
“I’ll never get it out of my head,” she said.
Loretta Van Buren said she and her husband met in 1989. She was attracted to him, but they didn’t get together until dating in 1992 and marrying in 1993. She said she was devoted to him. Her mother-in-law, Leda Van Buren, sister-in-law Tammy Keifer, and children, Sarah and Adam Van Buren, testified to that. They all said she defended him, even at his worst.
At the time of his death, Terry Van Buren was suffering from increasing health problems. From an enlarged heart, herpes in his eye, hypertension, anxiety, severe depression, and erectile dysfunction. He had recently been diagnosed with Hepatitis C.
Also, his business, Cement Works, was in trouble due to rising costs and ill will due to his temper. The family was left in a bind. It was one that Loretta Van Buren said they would find a way to work out of. They always had, she said.
The couple was in debt. Their line of credit was just about up with the bank, about $60,000 and their credit card debt tallied about the same. Terry Van Buren’s cement business had cratered; he’d had one job in 2019 and rain and rising costs had killed prospects for more. Loretta Van Buren had been laid off on March 31, 2018, after 25 years at The Lawton Constitution. Job prospects were bleak, she said.
But her 401k had amassed $185,000, according to a statement entered into evidence. In March 2019, she’d put $25,000 into their personal account and another $13,000 into the business account to keep it afloat.
Loretta Van Buren testified that on the day after Labor Day 2019, her husband Terry had a doctor’s appointment regarding his recent Hepatitis C diagnosis followed by a visit with the banker about the credit line. She said she offered to cash out her reserves, settle everything and for them to just go back to zero. She said he declined.
Audio recordings were played in court that Loretta Van Buren made of conversations with Terry Van Buren when he was belligerent. In one, she suggested they sell some of his heavy equipment and all would be good. They would get through, she said.
In the audio, Terry Van Buren sounded slurred and used violent language. Often, he would demean her. In many, he threatened to “blow his head off” with his .40 caliber pistol or kill others and set it up to look like a murder/suicide.
Loretta Van Buren admitted her husband had a problem with Xanax. Medical Examiner Mark Harrison testified he had 114 nanograms per milliliter of blood of it in his system during his autopsy toxicology. He said that wasn’t a toxic, or lethal, dose.
Dr. Craig Stevens, a pharmacologist who specializes in research of drugs, said that by itself, Xanax, a benzodiazepine, is not lethal for an overdose. But added with the antidepressant Trazadone and another antidepressant Lexapro, it could become lethal for Terry Van Buren. In a study, he said, depressed people who take a combination of the three groups of drugs could have a 47 percent higher rate of suicide attempts/success than if they’d taken the drug by itself.
Terry Van Buren had a problem with Xanax, according to his wife as well as another friend who testified, Trent Santos. Reading the medical examiner’s toxicology report, Stevens said he had 10 times the amount at his death than he should if he’d taken his prescription dosage.
In the months before his death, Loretta Van Buren had taken to recording her husband’s tirades. Over five hours of her recordings from her phone were turned over to investigators.
Cabelka brought up statements from the recordings by Terry Van Buren calling his wife multiple derogatory terms, blaming her for some of his malaise and threatening divorce. Loretta Van Buren said those weren’t serious arguments, they were part of their dialogue. Those who know them testified to their truth.
Loretta Van Buren said they would have made their way; they always had. She wasn’t divorcing him, and she didn’t believe he would her.
“I don’t believe Terry wanted a divorce,” she said. “I did not want a divorce and he knew that.”
In cross examination, John Zelbst asked his client one last question: “Did you kill your husband?”
“No, I did not kill my husband,” she replied.