Families torn apart by killer dad reflect on the years they believed he was a hero

Watch the '20/20' episode 'The Perfect Lie' streaming now on Hulu

ByAllie Yang, Denise Martinez-Ramundo, Jayson Haedrich, and Laura Dimon ABCNews logo
Saturday, April 17, 2021
Crime author discusses evidence police reexamined in Mark Winger case
EMBED <>More Videos

Only three months had passed since the seemingly happy couple adopted their first child when Mark Winger told the 911 operator that he'd shot a man who was killing his wife with a hammer.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- After the brutal murder of his first wife, Mark Winger moved on. After all, he was seen as the hero who tried to save her, subsequently killing her supposed murderer with his handgun moments later.

Police quickly concluded the 1995 killing of Donnah Winger was a tragic incident, committed at the hands of a seemingly mentally unwell driver who'd once driven her home from the airport.

It was an earth-shattering tragedy for Donnah's family and Winger went on to marry the beautiful young nanny that he'd hired to care for his and his late wife's recently adopted newborn. He then had three more children with her in the following years.

Watch the full story on "20/20," streaming now on Hulu.

It wasn't until 1999, more than three years after Donnah's murder, when her best friend DeAnn Schultz came forward to say that she'd had an affair with Winger before her friend's killing that police began to look deeper into the case. At the time, Schultz told police that Winger had made several incriminating comments, including, "It would be easier for us to be together if Donnah just died," and, "All you'd have to do is come in and find the body." Schultz said she felt at the time that the comments were just "crazy talk."

Donnah's family and Winger's ex-wife, Rebecca Simic, spoke to "20/20" about the horrific realization that Mark Winger was a manipulative killer hiding beneath the mask of a brilliant engineer and a kind, loving husband and father.

Donnah and Mark Winger fall in love

"He was smart, Jewish. He was attractive and he was fun," Donnah Winger's sister, Jenny Levin, told "20/20." "[Donnah] just felt like she had found her person."

Donnah was the eldest of three sisters in what they described as an incredibly close-knit family. The Dreschers grew to love Winger too.

(After Mark and Donnah Winger were married in 1989, he was offered a job and the newlyweds settled in Springfield, Illinois.)

"We always joked about that when one sister marries, that husband marries three sisters," Levin said. "We shared our lives with Mark."

After Mark and Donnah Winger were married in 1989, he was offered a job and the newlyweds settled in Springfield, Illinois. Donnah was working as an operating room technician and he was a nuclear engineer.

"Donnah couldn't have been happier. The only thing was she would have liked to have had a child," her step-father, Ira Drescher, said.

Donnah's mother, Sara Jane Drescher, said her daughter was overwhelmed when she learned that she could not get pregnant.

But then, one day while working at the hospital, a doctor told Donnah that a teenager was looking to put her baby up for adoption. Adopting the child was an easy decision for her.

"She looked at me with tears and she said, 'Michelle, I knew it the minute they put that baby into my arms, she has always been mine,'" Donnah's sister Michelle Hansen told "20/20."

The Wingers welcomed baby Bailey into their home on June 1, 1995. Donnah's family said the couple loved their new roles as parents. They seemed to have all the makings of a long and happy life together.

"Mark was just as excited to become a dad as Donnah was to become a mom," Hansen said.

Donnah had met the woman who would eventually become her best friend, DeAnn Schultz, at the hospital and with the arrival of Bailey the two bonded over motherhood.

August 29, 1995: The day of the murders

People were just returning home from work the day Mark Winger called 911 to report that he'd shot a man who "was killing" his wife.

When former Springfield police Det. Charlie Cox arrived at the Winger's home, he remembered they could see the victims from the front door.

(Donnah with her mom and step-dad Sara Jane and Ira Drescher and her two sisters Jenny and Michelle.)

"Donnah was clinging to life," former Sangamon County assistant state attorney Steve Weinhoeft said. "She had been hit no less than seven times in the head with a hammer."

The second victim, a white man, had suffered two gunshot wounds to the head but still had a pulse when police arrived, Weinhoeft said.

"It was quite chaotic," Cox said. "I knew that they were probably gonna be transporting the victims soon, so I wanted to try and get identification on the male subject." Cox found the man's wallet and was able to identify him as Roger Harrington.

Police recovered a bloodied hammer near the two bodies and found Winger's .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun, a yellow mug and a pack of cigarettes on the same dining table. They also noticed that Harrington's car had been parked against traffic, facing the wrong direction.

At the crime scene, Cox said Winger was "very upset [and] very emotional," and that he repeatedly asked who the man he'd killed was. Cox avoided identifying Harrington and tried to calm Winger down.

Winger told police he was on the treadmill in the basement when he heard a noise upstairs, former Springfield police Detective Jim Graham said. Winger went to investigate, first going to the master bedroom in the house, where he found Bailey on the bed, Cox said. Then, he heard more noises and grabbed his handgun from the nightstand before heading to the dining room.

Winger told police that as he walked down the hallway, he saw Harrington with a hammer swinging at his wife, Graham said. Winger said he shot Harrington, then immediately shot him a second time after he began to sit up, Cox said.

As police combed through the scene, Winger asked police if the intruder's name was Roger. Cox confirmed that it was.

"Mark was shocked and he said, 'Oh my god! That's the man who has been harassing my wife this week,'" Cox said.

Just days prior, Donnah had gone to see her parents in Hollywood, Florida. Her mother had dropped her off at the airport and hired a driver to pick her up in St. Louis, Missouri, and drive her back to Springfield. That driver was Harrington.

"It was about a two-hour drive and there was a lot of time to talk," Levin said. "This gentleman started opening up to Donnah about issues he was having. He had a voice in his head named Dahm. ... Dahm would tell him to do bad things. Recently, Dahm was telling him to hurt people."

Cox said the driver started flirting with her, telling her he liked older women and even inviting her to attend what he described as one of his "sex parties." Donnah had told her family the ride was terrifying and that he was driving erratically at 75 miles per hour.

"After the harrowing ride, Donnah had been the victim of some strange phone calls," Weinhoeft said. "They had believed that the driver had been stalking her and was a danger."

Winger called the limousine company to file a complaint and Harrington was suspended. Winger urged his wife to write the story down in case they might need it, Hansen said. Police later found the note describing Donnah's harrowing car ride in her handwriting at the crime scene.

Cox, who was familiar with Harrington after he'd lived in a trailer park owned by Cox, believed it was possible that Harrington had "snapped."

"I knew him as a very volatile-type subject. ... Him and his wife rented a trailer from me," Cox said. "Knowing what I knew about Mr. Harrington in the past, how quick he was to anger, I thought that he very well could have went over there to try to get his job back ... there's a hammer layin' right there on the table. He picks it up and goes into a rage then the husband shoots the bad guy."

(After Mark and Donnah Winger were married in 1989, he was offered a job and the newlyweds settled in Springfield, Illinois. Donnah was working as an operating room technician and he was a nuclear engineer.)

After police examined the scene and listened to Winger's story, detectives concluded that he had acted in self-defense. The case was closed in about 48 hours, Weinhoeft said.

Harrington's family insisted from the beginning that their son was harmless.

"He was no troublemaker. He was a good kid. He wouldn't even strike at anybody," his mother, Helen Harrington said. "I don't think he would hurt anybody and I don't think he was crazy."

Donnah's mother spoke to "20/20" about the evening that the family received the news of her daughter's murder.

"It was 4 [o'clock] in the morning ... and I said, 'Jenny, it's mom. Something terrible has happened,'" Sara Jane Drescher said of her call to Levin.

"We sat there in my room ... just crying at this unimaginable loss," Levin said.

In the following months, Donnah's mother and sister took turns traveling to Illinois to help take care of Bailey.

"I loved [Mark] because he loved Donnah and that's what was important to me," Sara Jane Drescher said. "But I had to be very careful, because I did not want to ruin my relationship with him, because I did not want to ruin my relationship with the baby. I wanted to be a grandma and [Bailey] made me a grandma."

Over time, they realized it would be too difficult to continue traveling to take care of the baby so they suggested that Winger hire a nanny.

January 1996: Rebecca Simic becomes Bailey's nanny and then something more

Rebecca Simic was a young and beautiful nanny with a "heart of gold" who wanted to help the family, Hansen said.

"I didn't want to like Rebecca, but it was hard to not like her," Levin said. "Seeing her with Bailey, there was really nothing bad we could say about her."

Simic told "20/20" she was "blown away" by what the infant had been through in such a short time.

"She lost two mothers by the time she was 3 months old, and she was so smiley," Simic said. "I wanted to get in there and say, 'I'm gonna help and I'm gonna make this little girl's life better.'"

But as Simic adjusted to her new role, Donnah's friend, DeAnn Schultz, began to make her feel uncomfortable and seemed to be pushing to stay involved in Bailey's life, Simic said.

In January 1996 Winger stopped by the police station to get his gun back. He asked Cox about the status of the case and if it was still open, Cox said.

"I just had an uneasy feeling about it," Cox recalled.

Meanwhile, Simic's role at Winger's home had begun to evolve.

"When you live with someone and you're taking care of a child together, it's very easy to kind of play 'house.' You're already put in those roles," Simic said. "Mark made me feel like I was like an angel sent to him from God or Donnah, and it was my purpose to make this family whole again."

She said she saw Winger as a hero in the family's tragic story of Donnah's murder, and that she believed he'd tried his best to save her.

"I remember asking him how he could move on so quickly, and he explained to me that when you have a good marriage it's natural for you just to want that again," Simic told "20/20."

Simic said Winger had told her he wasn't able to have children. So, she said she was "very surprised" when she found out she was pregnant with his child only months after moving in.

"Obviously, I wasn't careful ... It was just kind of a shock," she said.

Winger, on the other hand, was "thrilled," Simic recalled.

"I felt like it was a victory to him," she said. "Mark put pressure on me to marry him and have children with him."

(Rebecca Simic and Mark Winger eloped in Hawaii.)

Simic said that Winger, who was Jewish when they met, even started going to church with her. She said he told her they could raise a family in a Christian home.

"'I would be honored to be your husband and blessed if you were my wife,'" Winger wrote in a letter to Simic.

Winger's rabbi Michael Datz asked him about his change in faith, and he says that Winger explained, "Judaism is just too difficult and unforgiving."

Rabbi Datz didn't understand, asking, "Mark, I don't know what you're talking about. What do you need forgiveness for?" He said Winger didn't respond.

The couple eloped in Hawaii.

December 1996: Mark Winger and his growing family drift apart from Donnah's relatives

Sixteen months after his wife's death, Winger told Sara Jane Drescher that he was going to sell the house where Donnah Winger had died and buy another one just outside of town. He and Rebecca had started a family of their own and he started cutting ties with Donnah's parents.

"I received a letter from Mark one day saying to me I could not be called grandma," Sara Jane Drescher said. "I wrote him back and I begged him, 'Please let her call me grandma.' And he said, 'I'm sorry. There's no way that I am going to allow her to call you grandma, and that's the way it is.'"

She said she mourned that loss for "a long time."

Bailey Simic, now 25, told "20/20" that her grandmother and grandfather, Ira Drescher, would send a birthday card to her every year.

"I always remember asking my mom, 'Who's Sara Jane and Ira?'" she said. "My mom would always explain, like, 'Those are Donnah's parents and they just wanna let you know that, like, they love you and that they remember you.'"

February 1999: DeAnn Schultz comes forward to police

Three-and-a-half years after the murders of Donnah Winger and Roger Harrington, Schultz came forward to police about the affair she'd had with Winger before his wife's death.

"Mark was having a romantic relationship with DeAnn -- one of our sisters, as we considered her -- and that was something that we never, ever suspected," Levin said.

Schultz told police about the incriminating statements Winger had made to her before the murders.

"DeAnn stated that she declined to participate in that," Weinhoeft said, referring to potentially finding Donnah's body. "After Mark learned about the trip that Donnah took with Roger Harrington, he told DeAnn, 'I've gotta get that driver in my house.'"

After the murders, Schultz's life went into a downward spiral as investigators claimed she struggled to make sense of the information she knew. She revealed to investigators that she had attempted suicide several times.

Once Schultz came forward, investigators decided to reexamine the evidence on the case, but to their surprise, it was gone.

The evidence they'd once held from Harrington and Donnah Winger's case had been released to Winger's attorney, who was working on a civil lawsuit against BART Transportation. Winger filed the suit in an attempt to hold the company accountable for his wife's death, presumably committed by Harrington, who was the company's employee at the time.

Police reexamined certain aspects of the incident, such as why there weren't signs of forced entry into the home and why Harrrington might've left potential murder weapons inside his car, including a tire iron and a knife, and instead used a hammer belonging to the Wingers, which happened to be on the kitchen table.

Harrington's car had also been conspicuously parked the wrong way, appearing to indicate Harrington did not try to hide that he was at the Winger's home.

Detectives also discovered Polaroid photos that had been taken by one of the officers first to arrive at the scene on that day in 1995. The three photos revealed the positions of the bodies before they were rushed to the hospital. The images did not fit the story Winger told.

"Mark Winger had stated that Roger Harrington was kneeling down right next to Donnah Winger's head, and he was beating her with a hammer," Weinhoeft said. "He stated that he shot him and that the man fell backwards, so that his feet remained near Donnah's head. In reality, the Polaroids photographs show the exact opposite."

Cox said the photos showed that Harrington and Donnah Winger were laying in the same direction.

"As such, there's no way this murder could've happened the way Mark Winger described," Weinhoeft said.

"Mark Winger had concluded that he wanted to kill his wife," Weinhoeft said. "Then, Roger Harrington happened to be the one who drove Donnah Winger. ... Mark saw this as a golden opportunity. And he told DeAnn that he needed to get that man into his house , and that's exactly what he did."

December 1999: Mark Winger seen as a suspect in wife's murder

In December 1999, more than four years after the murders, the Springfield State Journal Register ran an article based on allegations in the civil lawsuit that Winger had arranged the murder himself and killed both his wife and Harrington. The allegations were based on a blood spatter expert hired by BART Transportation in the case.

"Everything came to a head ... It changed everything," Simic said of the article. "I mean, it went from Winger as the hero who was defending his wife -- this noble, stand-up guy -- that every man wanted to pat on the back, to manipulative, deviant murderer."

As the detectives continued their reinvestigation, they learned that Harrington's roommate, Susan Collins, had initially told police that someone asked to meet with Harrington on the day of the murders, and that she'd seen Harrington on the phone arranging that meeting. Inside Harrington's car, they found a note written on a bank deposit slip with Mark Winger's name, his address and the time to be there.

"Roger Harrington was not an intruder but rather he was lured into that home by Mark Winger," Weinhoeft said. DeAnn Schultz's cooperation with police and evidence that raised questions about Mark Winger's story prompted the voluntary dismissal of the civil suit against BART Transportation."I didn't see it coming," Simic said. "I didn't know that this whole investigation was brewing. I never thought the whole time that they thought my husband was a diabolical murderer."

Aug. 23, 2001: A grand jury indicts Mark Winger

A grand jury quickly returned an indictment against Winger for the murders of Harrington and Donnah Winger. A warrant was issued for his arrest and he was taken into custody while at work.

"I had made plans to go to McDonald's Playland," Simic said. "We were there and I got a phone call. And it was Mark's secretary, and she told me that Mark had just been arrested -- I just was sick. Like, my whole body just kind of went numb, and I just couldn't believe it. ... I was shaking so badly and I just remember feeling so scared."

Hansen, Donnah's sister, said she didn't feel relieved following Winger's arrest.

"I still wanted to believe he was innocent," she said. "Here's this person that I know ... in handcuffs, and what's gonna happen?"

Simic said when she learned about Winger's arrest, she was "feeling so scared" and didn't feel like "anybody really cared about the kids and I because we were a part of him."

"I felt that I owed it to him and to my kids to just stand by him," she said.

Bailey was just 6 years old at the time of Winger's arrest. She said no longer having her father home was scary.

"I just remember everyone just trying to remain calm and kind of, at the time, being like 'Dad's just going away for a while and that he'll be back soon,'" she said.

While he was detained, Winger wrote letters to his children. Bailey remembered how excited she was when they arrived in the mail.

"He would always draw the circle at the end of his letter and then he said that he would kiss it, and then we would kiss it and it was like he was giving us a kiss," she told "20/20."

May 20, 2002: Mark Winger's trial begins

"The first time I saw Rebecca was at the trial. I wanted to love Rebecca. She adored Bailey," Hansen said. "But, I also wanted to hate Rebecca, because Rebecca took my sister's husband, married him, adopted her child, and then had three more children that my sister wasn't able to do."

Levin also said she felt their bond with Simic "was no longer there."

One of the key points the prosecution had to prove was that Harrington had gone to the house to meet with the Wingers, not to commit a murder.

They presented the cigarettes and coffee mug that he'd brought inside as well as the weapons he'd left in his car and the note with Mark Winger's name and address.

Winger's attorney argued that Harrison was mentally ill, that he behaved erratically and that these traits indicated he was capable of murder.

When prosecutors presented the Polaroids showing the position of the bodies before they were removed from the scene, Winger's attorney argued throughout the trial that first responders could have moved the bodies.

"It's our belief that Roger comes to the house, he's allowed into the home," retired Detective Jim Graham said. "There was no signs of forced entry and he was executed at that time. Hearing the gunshot, Donnah Winger then comes from the bedroom to investigate. He then beats his wife to death with a hammer. Mark then calls 911."

In the 911 call, Harrington can be heard moaning in the background when Winger tells the operator he can hear his baby crying and hangs up. He had told the operator there was "a bullet in [Harrison's] head," but when police arrived, Harrington had been shot twice.

Schultz also gave damning testimony at the trial, saying that Winger told her that "it would be easier if Donnah just died."

"I thought it was ... crazy talk," she said during her cross-examination.

After a chance meeting years later, Schultz testified she confronted Winger in the hopes of gathering information and asked him how he lived with himself and that he'd replied that he had found Jesus Christ and was forgiven. She said he warned her that if she ever said anything, they would both be in trouble.

"I didn't think that anybody would believe her," Simic said. "I just thought if Mark truly did that, she would have come forward right away."

Winger's defense argued that Schultz was emotionally unstable and just a woman who'd been scorned.

"DeAnn Schultz's testimony was able to demonstrate that, in reality, Mark was obviously unhappy, unfaithful and had specifically talked about wanting to kill his wife," Weinhoeft said.

"Schultz was granted immunity for her testimony," he added. "There was no direct evidence that directly linked DeAnn to actively participating in this crime. At the end, she was such a valuable witness as it relates to presenting the motive."

June 5, 2002: Jury returns verdict on Winger case

After a trial that lasted three weeks, the jury found Winger guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.

Simic said she believed he would have been going home with them. After hearing the verdict, she said the words "guilty" rang through her head and that she wanted "the earth to open up and swallow me."

Sara Jane Drescher said her daughters, Donnah's sisters, were with her when they heard the verdict. "The three of us just embraced and cried," she said.

Helen Harrington was relieved and grateful her son had been vindicated of Donnah's murder. "We knew that Roger was innocent, and it finally got proven," she said. "He was branded a murderer at the time, but then all this came to an end."

The police had to come to terms with the faulty initial investigation.

"I was ashamed of the way the investigation went," Cox said. "I hurt Roger Harrington's family. I ran his name through hell for no reason. I mean, he was an innocent victim."

"The police department had too hastily closed the case and turned a blind eye to some red flags, and to right such a wrong, it felt great," Graham added.

Simic said there wasn't any closure for her or her family.

"When we lose someone, you know, we gather. We have a funeral," Simic said. "But when someone goes to prison, well, what do you do? You're just kind of left with this emptiness and this hole that, you can't really-- have closure with that."

On Aug. 1, 2002, Mark Winger was sentenced to life in prison with no parole for the murder of his wife and Harrington. To this day, Winger maintains his innocence.

"It wasn't just him being sentenced to life," Simic said. "We were sentenced to a life of a father in prison."

A lifetime of consequences following Mark Winger's murders

Bailey Simic says she missed having her father around while growing up.

"It was really hard being in school seeing all the other kids have their dads and that relationship," she said. "And now, suddenly, I couldn't just go to my dad's room or have him pick us up from school or anything like that."

Ben Simic was only a year old when his dad went to prison.

"I can look at the pictures and look at myself and say, 'That kid had no idea. He was way too young to know anything that was going on,'" he said.

Rebecca Simic moved out of Springfield with her kids and the home that she'd bought with Mark Winger was foreclosed. Simic, who had been a stay-at-home mom for seven years, filed for bankruptcy.

"I didn't have anything to give my kids. Everything had been taken away. All I had was love," she said.

The family changed their surname from Winger to Simic.

In 2005, Mark Winger was implicated in a murder-for-hire plot where he allegedly tried to put a hit on DeAnn Schultz and a childhood friend who refused to pay his bail.

He was tried and convicted again, this time of solicitation of murder. He was sentenced to an additional 35 years in prison.

Bailey has since reunited with Donnah's family.

"It was so incredible to see that there's this whole big family that loves me and Sara Jane still has my baby picture on her kitchen counter with all of her other grandkids, even though we've been gone for so long," she said.

"We'd been hurt a lot by the same person. But it didn't break us," Rebecca Simic said.

Although Sara Jane Drescher says there will never be closure for the murder of her daughter, the family has worked together to set up Donnah's Fund, which is a part of Women in Distress, an organization that works to provide shelter for women trying to escape abuse.

"I think her legacy will live on through the people that we help," Levin said. "and through the beautiful memories that we have of her."