Who would want to snuff out such a vibrant spirit? Justin would tell investigators that he thought the culprit was a crazed mugger. But a few of those close to April suspected the killer was someone she knew very well.
April grew up in Hennessey (pop. 2,024), Oklahoma, an island of century-old storefronts and modest homes in a sea of prairie. She was an A student, thoughtful yet popular, as comfortable at a rodeo as in biology lab.
During April’s senior year of high school, her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died after six months of agony. April’s father, an oil field worker, was too traumatized to care for the kids. Though relatives took them in, April became a surrogate mom to her siblings Julie, then nine, and Kendon, one. Still, she kept her grades up. She went on to the premed program at Oklahoma State University, then studied radiation therapy at the University of Oklahoma.
In October 1998, Amber Mitchell introduced April to one of her business school classmates—a handsome blond named Justin. The two clicked instantly. April had dated a string of men for whom fidelity was not a strong point; Justin seemed different. He spoke of his Christian values. He had grown up in a town even smaller than Hennessey, herding cattle with his brother on their parents’ 120-acre spread. A quiet, solitary boy, he’d blossomed into a star athlete in high school and graduated as valedictorian. He’d married in college and spent a few years drifting between jobs, but when he met April, he was newly divorced and aflame with ambition. “He was among the best and brightest in our class,” says Amber. “April was attracted to his drivenness.”
April and Justin quickly became engaged. On August 4, 1999, they married in a small ceremony in the Bahamas, then relocated for Justin’s new job in Douglas, Georgia. April found work at a hospital. A month later, her siblings moved in, and the trouble began. Julie was 15 then, and her rebellious behavior infuriated Justin, sparking fights between April and him. At one point, according to several of April’s confidants, he threatened to never let April bear his children. Within a year, Julie and Kendon were back in Oklahoma.
By then, some of April’s loved ones had begun to see a disturbing pattern. “Justin seemed very into appearances,” says April’s aunt Patti Parrish, a civil court judge. He tried on his jeans from high school every month and fasted until they fit. He made fun of his overweight mother behind her back and publicly criticized April’s singing voice, her clothing, and her weight. He warned her not to embarrass him at his company Christmas party and discouraged her from contacting him at work. When his barbs made her cry, he mimicked her sobs. Yet April tolerated Justin’s mistreatment.
But in January 2001, when Justin was transferred to Jacksonville, April decided to stay put. “She told me that if they lived together every day, they’d kill each other,” Amber says. Justin bought a condo in an upscale neighborhood, and the two saw each other on weekends. Usually it was April who drove the three hours to visit.
She just wasn’t ready to give up on Justin. He could be charming, and his criticisms dovetailed with some of her deep insecurities. “She was harder on herself than anyone else,” says Amber. “She put up with a lot from her men.”
Still, there was always a point at which she drew the line.