On June 22, 1996, Maria Silva was found dead in her Duluth apartment she shared with Ronald Huff. A neighbor noticed a bad smell and decided to check on the apartment. Inside he found Silva’s badly decomposed corpse. The doors of the third-floor unit were deadbolted – whoever killed Silva had locked the door on leaving. Police had two possible suspects: Ron Huff, the man with whom Silva had been living, and Faye Wenell, the woman Silva had left for Huff.
Related Murder & Mayhem Podcast Episode
See also: Podcast Website
Faye Wenell was born in Minneapolis on Christmas 1955 to a white father and Oneida mother. During her childhood, the family alternately lived on the Leech Lake Reservation and Minneapolis. Her father left when she was a child. Faye was part of the Minneapolis hippie scene, hanging out at the Seward Cafe, the Black Forest Inn on Nicollet Avenue, and becoming a vegetarian.
When Faye was 20, her brother Royal was killed outside a bar on Nicollet. A few years later, Faye started attending Macalester College, where she took anthropology and journalism classes, but quit after her sophomore year. In 1984 Faye had an accident while driving her van alone and drunk. She ended up with steel pins in her legs and a head injury that qualified her for disability payments.
When drunk, Faye was a batterer, involved in abusive relationships with other women as early as age 22. One woman claimed Wenell broke into her apartment, waited for her to come home from work, then started choking her. Another former lover said Wenell beat and threatened her and her children, but she never filed charges because Wenell left town.
In the early 1990s, Faye began making cards and T-shirts to sell at art fairs, some with direct references to domestic abuse and alcoholism. One drawing featured a woman bound, hanged, and stabbed, flanked by a snake and a bottle with the words “die bitch” written on the label.
Faye Wenell & Maria Silva
Wenell quit rehab when she met Maria Silva, who was equally abusive. Silva had married young to an abusive husband. The two women hadn’t been together long when Wenell began referring to Silva as her wife; the two sealed their bond with matching silver rings. At various points, Silva gave Wenell a black eye, a stab wound to the neck, a bite injury to the ear. Wenell’s first arrest for assaulting Silva occurred in June 1994, just months after they met. In August, police found Silva bleeding from a head wound where Wenell hit her with a metal rod. By New Year’s there were three more calls.
In 1995 police arrested Wenell 11 more times for beating Silva; one of those incidents was in a hospital, where Silva was being treated for injuries inflicted by Wenell. In July 1995, both women were arrested for disorderly conduct in Bemidji when a fight they were having in the middle of a busy street scared passersby. Wenell was arrested two more times over the next four days for harassing Silva, who had petitioned for a restraining order. Two months later came the incident that severed the relationship for good. Wenell barricaded Silva in a room at Duluth’s Seaway Hotel and beat her for two or three days. Police found them passed out from drinking, Silva covered with dried blood. She had cuts and scrapes on the face, fractured sinuses, and a ruptured eardrum.
Wenell was convicted of assault; by the time she was released from jail, Silva was living with Ron Huff, a Green Bay man with homicide on his record she met shortly after Faye went to jail. [See also: other Ronald Huff post]
Wenell was upset she’d done time while Silva hadn’t. She was jealous and defied the restraining order and found her way into the rooming house where the couple lived. Police offered her a bus ticket out of town: If she and Silva continued to run into each other, one of them was going to wind up dead.
In February 1996, Wenell got off the bus in Bisbee, Arizona, an artists’ colony 100 miles southeast of Tucson. During her few days in town, she had a number of run-ins with local police officers, who described her as “a large woman who was dressed in“ a long duster coat, big belt buckle, Stetson hat. Wenell next surfaced in Tucson, where her record contains arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct, street fights, and drunk driving.
Wenell sometimes took on Silva’s identity by introducing herself as Maria Silva.
Ronald Huff & Maria Silva
In Duluth, the real Silva was falling into a familiar pattern with Huff. On March 17, 1996 Huff assaulted Silva after the couple had a fight about Wenell. Silva had been treated at an emergency room on April 7, for bruising on her face, neck, chest, abdomen and a leg. She and Huff were living together, and Silva told the doctor the injuries resulted from “her husband” beating her.
On June 1, he was arrested again for attacking Silva at a neighbor’s house. She ended up with six stitches in her upper lip, and told police she wanted charges pressed. Two days later Huff was released from jail. That afternoon he was in the alley behind the apartment he and Silva shared, ranting that he “caught her with some other guy.”
[See also: other Ronald Huff post]
Maria Silva – Murdered June 22, 1996
On June 22, 1996, Maria Silva was found dead in their Duluth apartment. A neighbor noticed a bad smell and decided to check on the apartment. Inside he found Silva’s badly decomposed corpse. The doors of the third-floor unit were deadbolted – whoever killed Silva had locked the door on leaving. Duluth’s chilly lakefront climate helped preserve the groceries in the apartment (purchased June 4) even as Silva’s body rotted under a sheet. “The house was remarkably orderly,” police noted, “and it was noticed that although the body appeared to have been there for weeks, there was a partially consumed loaf of bread on the kitchen table that did not have mold on it. There were also a number of bananas in a bowl on top of the refrigerator that still had portions of yellow showing on them.” In the kitchen, a pot of stew had barely begun to mold.
When police found Silva, little was left but her bones. The corpse was lying in bed “with hands above the head, palms facing upward. The lower portion of the anatomy was covered by a sheet. There was a significant infestation of maggots.” Forensic entomologists studied the flies and maggots; temperatures in the house were logged to learn how quickly the insects might have multiplied. The hyoid bone in Silva’s throat was fractured, and Silva had three broken ribs that had not begun to heal. The medical examiner speculated that Silva’s ribs were broken during the altercation in which she was strangled, but they could have been broken a week earlier. The cause of death was “strangulation most likely occurring during a beating,” and Silva likely died at least 2 weeks before her body was discovered, but not more than a month. Thus, sometime before June 8.
Police also observed several piles of human feces on the floor in the bedroom. They moved the body out and brought in fans. Police quickly came up with two possible suspects: Ron Huff, the man with whom Silva had been living, and Faye Wenell, the woman Silva had left for Huff.
Ronald Huff was at a detox center, where he checked in for the second time that month. He told detectives he last stopped in the apartment June 3 to get some clothes. Silva, he claimed, had suffered from depression and grand-mal seizures. “She only took her pills when she was drinking and she sometimes took Huff’s medication because she felt hers was ineffective,” the police noted. “Her drink of choice was vodka mixed occasionally with Kool-Aid.” He described an incident in which she began to drink a bottle of alcohol without stopping. When Huff took the bottle away from her, she stated she was “dying anyway.” Huff said Silva was frequently incontinent.
Tucson police located Wenell on July 3, told her about Silva’s murder, and questioned her about her whereabouts. She appeared “genuinely shocked” and claimed not to have left Tucson since she’d arrived earlier in the year. Duluth police actively investigated Silva’s death through August 1996.
Faye Wenell’s Erratic Behavior
Months after Silva’s death, Wenell was arrested at a Payless Shoe store in Tucson. According to the report, she was angry after the salesperson refused to give her money for the shoes she was wearing.
During Christmas 1996, Faye assaulted a man with a meat hook and was charged with two felonies and held on suicide watch. The case was dismissed when prosecutors could not locate the victim.
On New Year’s 1997, Wenell dialed 911 from a pay phone in Tucson and screamed for help. Police arrived and found a frightened, homeless man and a drunken, rambling Faye Wenell. The man said he was walking down the street when Wenell approached him asking for money and a cigarette, and when he refused she punched him in the mouth and sliced at his neck with a razor saying she “wanted to get his jugular vein.” The officer reported that after she was handcuffed, Wenell struggled to get away and threatened, “I’m going to cut your dick off and swallow your balls.”
Wenell appeared in Minnesota in 1997. At one point police picked her up when she offered sexual favors to two undercover officers for $40 each, noting that “it’s a little more expensive when one watches.” After the arrest, she berated one of the cops, an Asian man, saying, “Why’d you leave Hiroshima, to escape the radiation? What, are you some kind of mutant? Did you come over here to work for the white man who stole our land, you Japanese bitch?”
In February 1998, Wenell was picked up at Palmer’s Bar in Minneapolis. When employees refused to serve her, Wenell waited for hours and jumped them when they came out. Wenell began revisiting Duluth with Michael Grube, a man she knew for years. On February 17, the two were drinking vodka in a downtown alley. They took a taxi to a bar and a second cab to the Voyageur Lakewalk Inn. During the second ride, Wenell slapped Grube in the face. The two yelled in the motel hall, and Wenell punched Grube. At 4:57pm, police were called to a Mexican restaurant next to the motel. They found Wenell passed out in a booth and took her to detox. She had Grube’s eyeglasses, wallet, and watch; her shoes had traces of blood and feces. At detox, she used beds to barricade herself in a room while threatening suicide. Police came again and moved her to a mental health lockup.
Michael Grube Murdered
On February 18, police found Grube dead in the motel room, which was registered to Faye. He had been strangled and left lying on the floor face up, partly covered with a jacket. There was feces on the bathroom floor, feces smeared on Grube’s clothing, and feces on the carpeting near the body. The name “Maria” was scrawled on a mirror. Evidence clearly linked Wenell to the murder, and she had a motive: a former girlfriend, Tamara Blufrog, left Wenell for Grube five years earlier.
Police questioned Wenell’s past lovers and found she had unusual toilet habits. One woman recalled Wenell talking about having anal surgery as a child; others said she frequently gave herself enemas. Lovers told stories of Wenell urinating or defecating over a bed, on a living room floor, out a window or in public. There were reports of two incidents of violence by Wenell against Grube. One of these resulted in 21 stitches to Grube’s face or head. Charges of murder were forwarded to the DA, but not immediately followed through. Ultimately, Wenell was never charged.
Huff Arrested, Charged & Indicted for Silva’s Murder
Little happened in the Silva case until October 1997, when Jackie Gordon came forward and said Huff confessed to her. There were problems, though:
- One, Huff’s keys were visible in a police video of the murder scene, where he said he left them on his last visit to the apartment.
- Two, Gordon claimed Huff told her he hit Silva in the back of the head with a baseball bat, inconsistent with injuries noted in the autopsy.
Gordon had asked police about reward money and threatened to stop cooperating if no cash was forthcoming.
On November 3, 1997, Huff was arrested and charged with Silva’s murder. On January 23, 1998, roughly 19 months after Silva’s death, a grand jury indicted Huff for Silva’s murder. His defense? It was Faye Wenell, not him, who did the killing. Soon, this defense gained support.
When details of Michael Grube’s murder surfaced, defense attorneys for Huff seized on the similarities between the two crime scenes. Defense attorneys claimed “Faye Wenell was the actual perpetrator.”
The judge ruled they could not present evidence relating to the Grube killing because it was “irrelevant and thus highly prejudicial.” The judge stated there weren’t enough similarities between the two crimes. Instead, the defense called witnesses who testified about Wenell’s history of violence toward her lovers, her toilet habits, and that while intoxicated she bragged about having “killed two people.” They presented testimony that Wenell’s alibi for the period when Silva died was less than watertight.
- Tucson police officer Theresa Rengal testified that on June 11 she responded to a sexual assault complaint from Wenell where Wenell told her she recently killed her lover in Duluth.
- Edna Whiteman testified she saw Wenell in Duluth on June 6, 1996.
- Clint Perrin testified Wenell told him in the summer of 1998 that she had killed Silva with a pipe.
- Lupe Herrera, a Minneapolis police officer, testified that in May 1998 Wenell said “her lover was murdered” and that “she did it.”
Wenell was called to testify as a witness. Wenell admitted she physically abused Silva several times, but denied involvement in Silva’s death. Wenell said she moved to Arizona in January 1996 and did not return to Minnesota until August 1997, and was not in Duluth when Silva was killed. Wenell testified money was wired to her in Arizona on June 3, 1996, and identified her signature on a Western Union money transfer receipt issued in Arizona.
On March 10, 1999, after 16 hours of deliberation, the jury found Huff guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. “I expected it,” he said. “There are too many laws that contradict each other. The jury couldn’t understand them. If it hadn’t been for the prior assaults on Ms. Silva, I would have been found not guilty.”
Faye Wenell Murdered
On March 13, 1999, Faye Wenell was arrested 20 miles south of Duluth, after wandering the halls of an apartment building at dawn, banging on doors. She was released from jail at about 6:30pm and had a drink at a nearby bar. Someone she met there drove her back to Duluth. She ended up at the Red Lion Bar, where she ran into Daniel Deegan, Kenneth Budreau and Stacey Mullen.
Deegan was angry at Wenell because she once made a pass at his girlfriend, and Budreau said he wanted to “get that bitch.” The two suggested Mullen chat up Wenell and talk her into coming with them at closing time.
When the bar closed around 1:10am, Wenell left in Deegan’s car with the trio. Wenell and Mullen sat together in the back, Budreau sat in front, and Deegan drove. They drove around for a while and finally stopped near the lake, where Budreau began swinging the broken end of a pool cue at Wenell. Wenell tried to defend herself, but was overcome and lost consciousness; the beating continued nonetheless. At Budreau’s urging, Deegan drove to a construction site. The trio carried the body to a sand pile and drove off. Wenell’s maroon jacket was kept as a trophy.
Wenell’s body was found by a construction worker at 10:30am. She was clothed, but without the jacket she had been seen wearing – the one she had on during Huff’s trial. She had been beaten with a pool cue and stabbed at least nine times by a steak knife in her chest, neck, back, and head.
The day after Wenell’s body was found, police encountered Deegan entering a stolen car with mismatched, muddy tires that matched the tracks at the construction site. The car contained kitchen utensils and blood stains. Deegan admitted that he left the Red Lion Bar with Faye and Mullen.
A grand jury indicted Budreau, Mullen, and Deegan for first-degree murder. Budreau alone stood trial. A jury found him guilty and the district court convicted him of first-degree premeditated murder, a conviction the supreme court affirmed. Mullen avoided trial by pleading guilty to second-degree murder and kidnapping, and she agreed to testify in Deegan’s trial.
Deegan pleaded guilty in November 2000 to aiding and abetting kidnapping and second-degree murder. In exchange for his plea, the state agreed not to seek imprisonment longer than 30 years and to drop the first-degree murder charge. The district court sentenced Deegan to 12 years in prison.