It was around 2:45AM on January 14, 2009, when Gilbert, Arizona, police received a distressing 911 call from a woman. She reported that her husband had strangled her and tried to sexually assault her. Rushing to the scene, police officers found the front door wide open, and moments later, a frantic woman emerged. She bore bloodstains on her forehead and in her hair, but when questioned about her injuries, she claimed the blood was her husband’s.
The distraught woman was Marissa DeVault. An officer entered the residence and proceeded to the master bedroom, where he discovered 34-year-old Dale Harrell. Dale lay naked, face down on the floor, bleeding profusely from the head, and thrashing his arms and legs while moaning in pain. A blood-soaked pillow adorned the bed, and a blood-stained claw hammer rested on the bedside table.
Dale was urgently transported to the hospital, where medical professionals revealed the extensive damage to his shattered skull. Remarkably, he clung to life, requiring extensive surgical intervention.
Dale and Marissa’s story had its origins in their teenage years in Lake Havasu, Arizona. Though they lost touch, they reconnected in their twenties while both living in Phoenix. Marissa, who already had a child from a previous relationship and worked as an exotic dancer, found in Dale a promising partner who assumed a fatherly role for her daughter.
Initially, the case seemed straightforward when Marissa asserted that she knew the identity of the assailant. She pointed the finger at Stanley Cook, claiming that he had attacked Dale with a claw hammer in response to Dale strangling her and attempting sexual assault. Marissa maintained that Stanley had saved her life. During interviews with investigators, Stanley admitted to the attack, asserting that he had rescued Marissa. However, he also disclosed that he suffered from memory problems resulting from a motorcycle accident, complicating the situation.
Investigators swiftly grew suspicious of Marissa’s narrative. The evidence found at the crime scene contradicted her account of events. Bloodstains indicated that Dale had been assaulted while lying on his left side in the bed, alone, making it impossible for Marissa to have been beneath him as she claimed. Moreover, the blood spatter on Marissa’s clothing was consistent with someone swinging an object repeatedly over their head. Adding to the intrigue, during her initial police interview, there were moments when Marissa chuckled while reenacting her alleged witness of Stanley striking Dale with the hammer.
Faced with the incongruity of the evidence presented by investigators, Marissa eventually broke down and confessed to repeatedly striking Dale over the head with a hammer as he slept alone in their bed. She claimed that her motivation stemmed from enduring years of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse inflicted by Dale.
Marissa faced an indictment on a count of attempted second-degree murder but managed to post bail.
Tragically, on February 9th, Dale’s body succumbed to his injuries, and he was pronounced dead at the hospital. Despite surviving the surgery, he had been weakened by a stroke and two heart attacks, never regaining consciousness. Blunt head trauma was listed as his cause of death.
A mere eight hours after Dale’s passing, Marissa made a distressing 911 call, reporting that she was stranded in a field, unable to move. She recounted being attacked while out jogging near her home around 3AM, with Stanley once again identified as the assailant. During Stanley’s questioning regarding the assault on Marissa, investigators noted mud on his jacket and blood on his pants. Stanley explained that the mud came from his SUV, and the blood resulted from his bitten-off fingernails.
Forensic experts seized his pants, shirt, socks, and shoes as evidence.
Marissa was subsequently arrested at the hospital and charged with first-degree murder, marking Gilbert’s first homicide case since 2007. The case, to say the least, was profoundly perplexing. By this point in the investigation, authorities believed that Marissa had killed Dale and that Stanley was not implicated in any way. Stanley, deeply distressed by the situation, expressed his frustration, stating to the Arizona Republic: “I kill someone, try to confess for my crime, and no one believes me. If that’s not a sign of complete failure, I don’t know what is.” At this point, Marissa had already admitted to the assault on her husband.
During her interrogation, she expressed her exhaustion at having to explain the multitude of bruises and fractured bones she had endured at Dale’s hands. She conveyed her weariness with the screaming matches that occurred beyond the children’s hearing and sight, concealed behind closed bedroom doors. In her account to investigators, she revealed that the first instance of Dale’s violence occurred one month and three days into their marriage, triggered by his displeasure at her refusal to take his last name.
According to Marissa, that altercation resulted in a fractured skull and a hospitalization. During her hospital stay, she alleged that medical professionals treated her injuries and provided her with literature on domestic violence. Marissa asserted that she initially left Dale but returned after he agreed to attend counseling. However, she recounted that the cycle of abuse resumed within three months. She disclosed to investigators that she had been hospitalized multiple times due to physical abuse.
On the day of the attack, she claimed to have handed Dale divorce papers. Later that evening, she said she declined Dale’s sexual advances, leading to an argument. During the night, she woke to find Dale pinning her down and choking her. According to her account, Dale raped her, and after the assault, she retreated to the bathroom. There, she said that she decided that she would put an end to the abuse once and for all. Marissa said that when she emerged from the bathroom, Dale was asleep.
Fueled by a surge of emotions, she grabbed a hammer and, in her words, lost control. She explained to investigators: “I said ‘You don’t own me,’ and I just hit and hit with both hands, and I just kept hitting him.” Marissa maintained that her intention was not to kill Dale but that she had become carried away. She also claimed that Stanley had offered to take responsibility for the attack to prevent their children – ages 13, 6, and 6 – from losing both of their parents. As the interrogation concluded, Marissa emphasized her desire to avoid spending the rest of her life in prison and leaving her daughters without a mother.
As investigators delved into the history of the couple, they encountered a troubling absence of any records corroborating Marissa’s claims. No police or hospital records substantiated the incidents she described, and there were no documented reports of domestic violence. However, court records did reveal a lawsuit filed against Marissa, Dale, and Stanley in November, alleging breach of contract, theft, and fraud.
The lawsuit detailed how Marissa and Dale had been renting a home with an option to buy it but had ceased making lease payments. Stanley, despite having his claims discredited and Marissa’s comprehensive confession, repeatedly confessed to killing Dale. He even presented a notarized written confession to the Gilbert Police Department.
However, when investigators declined to arrest him, citing evidence pointing towards Marissa as the assailant, Stanley revealed that the letter had initially been intended as a suicide note. He claimed to have had Marissa’s permission to end his own life. Later, he confessed that he was unaware of any plan to kill Dale but indicated that, following the attack, Marissa had devised plans to raise funds for legal fees and secure their daughters’ welfare.
At this juncture, investigators suspected that the alleged attack on Marissa had been staged to facilitate insurance fraud.
They uncovered that the original plan had involved Stanley inflicting a spinal cord injury on Marissa, but they ultimately abandoned this idea due to its severity. This led to the decision for Stanley to assault Marissa instead. Upon being confronted with this theory, Stanley readily confessed. He admitted that after learning of Dale’s death from his injuries, Marissa had taken pain medication, and he subsequently assaulted her, striking her face with his fists and shattering her ankle with a sledgehammer. He then transported Marissa to a field near their home and left her in the mud before departing. No charges were filed against Stanley in connection with the beating.
Despite efforts to investigate the allegations of abuse, investigators struggled to uncover any supporting evidence. Neighbours attested that Marissa and Dale appeared to be an ordinary couple, displaying no signs of abuse. Moreover, investigators discovered that Marissa had been involved in an affair with a man she introduced to friends as her stepfather’s former lover. This individual was Allen Flores, a wealthy businessman twenty years Marissa’s senior.
Following Marissa’s arrest, she provided the names of several individuals who she claimed had witnessed the abuse she suffered at Dale’s hands. However, her assertions could not be substantiated by any of these supposed witnesses. In fact, a woman who was both a friend of the couple and a nanny for their children categorically refuted Marissa’s claims. Amy Dewey, the nanny, expressed her strong belief that Marissa had murdered Dale for financial gain.
During her time living with the couple as a nanny, Amy observed Dale’s extremely caring nature not only toward Marissa and their children but also toward her. In an interview with 3TV, she recounted: “I was a stranger, essentially to him. But he was good enough to let me live there when I needed a place to go and took care of us all.” Amy disclosed that the only abusive behavior she witnessed within the household came from Marissa, who constantly provoked arguments with Dale, while he consistently tried to defuse the situations. Amy severed all ties with Marissa due to Marissa’s verbal abuse directed at her.
On one occasion, Marissa approached Amy and shared a disturbing claim that Dale had been having dreams of engaging in sexual acts with her and then murdering her with a hammer. Amy harbored profound skepticism about Marissa’s allegations.
In another interview, Jeffrey and Kelly Kerschen, former friends of the couple, characterized Marissa as dishonest and attributed the deterioration of the relationship between the two pairs to Marissa’s behavior. Marissa had asserted to investigators that Jeffrey and Kelly had witnessed Dale abusing her, but when questioned, the Kerschens vehemently denied this accusation. Instead, they asserted that Marissa lived in a fantasy world.
During early March, Dale’s parents, Danny Kaye Harrell and Marlene Harrell, initiated a wrongful death lawsuit against Marissa. They further petitioned the Maricopa County Superior Court to compel Marissa to surrender Dale’s remains to them. In their legal action, attorney William Udall stated: “In spite of her actions causing his death, defendant refuses to release Dale’s remains to his parents.” At that time, Dale’s remains remained at a Mesa mortuary. Additionally, his parents sought punitive damages from Marissa for her role in causing Dale’s death.
Subsequently, it was disclosed that the prosecution would pursue the death penalty against Marissa. In mid-April, Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Eric Basta submitted a notice to the court outlining three of the 14 criteria established by state law that made Marissa eligible for capital punishment. This notice marked the first indication of a motive from the prosecution. It alleged that Marissa had killed Dale with the intent of financial gain in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner, carried out in a cold and calculated fashion devoid of moral or legal justification. Prosecutors posited that Marissa had murdered her husband to secure an insurance settlement that would alleviate her dire financial circumstances.
Marissa was subsequently deemed competent to stand trial on charges of first-degree murder. The judge ruled that she possessed sufficient comprehension of the court proceedings to contribute to her defense. As both sides prepared for trial, Marissa initiated a medical malpractice lawsuit against Maricopa County jail officials, contending that following her ankle injury prior to her arrest, a doctor had failed to accurately diagnose an infection in her leg.
As the case progressed through the justice system, a significant revelation emerged. Marissa, who had initially asserted that she attacked Dale in retribution for abuse, later altered her account, claiming that the assault was an act of self-defense.
The trial commenced in February of 2014, with both the prosecution and defense presenting starkly contrasting portrayals of the woman facing trial for her husband’s murder.
The prosecution contended that Marissa had murdered Dale to secure an insurance settlement, arguing that the act was premeditated. They highlighted inconsistencies in Marissa’s accounts of the attack on Dale and emphasized that the individuals she claimed were witnesses to years of abuse had not corroborated her allegations.
Conversely, Marissa’s defense attorney, Alan Tavassoli, stood by her assertion that she had endured abuse and maintained that the murder was an act of self-defense.
Early in the courtroom proceedings, graphic photographs depicting Dale lying unconscious in a hospital bed following the attack were presented. In these distressing images, Dale exhibited two black eyes, a partially shaved head, and a surgical scar bisecting his temple. His right cheek and temple bore the marks of the claw hammer blows. Dr. Joseph Zabramski described the efforts made to save Dale’s life, including the removal of blood clots, extraction of bone fragments, and irrigation of brain tissue to repair microscopic tears sustained by Dale.
A somber silence enveloped the courtroom as the doctor recounted how Dale had succumbed to a pulmonary embolism. Following this grim testimony, Judge Roland Steinle called for a recess. Once the jury exited the courtroom, Marissa broke down in tears. She was escorted out of the courtroom, with Judge Steinle warning her defense team that unless she could maintain composure, she would be removed from the proceedings.
The jury heard testimony from Allen Flores, with whom Marissa had been having an affair. He revealed to the jury that a few weeks prior to the murder, Marissa had confided in him about her desire to hire a hitman to kill Dale. According to Allen, Marissa disclosed that Dale had subjected her to physical abuse and expressed her desire to remove him from her life.
Allegedly, she mentioned either paying someone to kill Dale at a casino or planning to kill him herself in a casino hotel room. She purportedly intended to claim self-defense after he allegedly attempted to rape her following a night of heavy drinking. Allen recounted to the jury: “I kind of chalked it up to an odd flight of sarcastic fancy.”
It came to light that Marissa had owed Allen nearly $300,000 in loans, and he was two decades her senior, working as a business management consultant. Their connection had originated on a website catering to arrangements between sugar daddies and younger women facing financial hardships. Despite knowing that Marissa was married, Allen decided to involve himself with her. He extended financial assistance when Marissa and Dale encountered financial difficulties. Marissa had repeatedly assured Allen that she was expecting substantial sums from a $1.8 million insurance settlement following her father’s purported death and a $7 million trust fund her father had established.
However, it eventually became evident that Marissa had deceived Allen. Her father was, in fact, alive. Nevertheless, it was Allen who had posted her bail after her arrest and subsequently loaned her an additional $50,000 upon her release. Allen testified that he deeply cared for her and recognized that she was in grave trouble. He also admitted to harboring fears that Marissa might harm him during their involvement.
Under cross-examination, it was revealed that investigators had searched Allen’s residence following Marissa’s arrest and discovered evidence of child sex abuse images. Attorney Tavassoli insinuated that Allen may have made incriminating statements regarding the hitman in exchange for immunity from prosecution on the child sex abuse allegations. County Attorney Bill Montgomery clarified that Allen could still face prosecution for child sex abuse images.
Testimony during the trial revealed that Marissa had indeed taken out two life insurance policies on Dale, amounting to nearly $300,000—almost equal to her debt to Allen. However, her defense contended that she would not have received any of the insurance money because the policies covered accidental deaths.
During the trial, it emerged that after Marissa had admitted Stanley’s non-involvement in the murder, she informed investigators that Stanley had entered the bedroom upon hearing the commotion after she had struck Dale several times with the hammer. She claimed that Stanley had taken the hammer from her to prevent her from continuing the attack.
Stanley was expected to be a pivotal witness during the trial, as he had witnessed part of the assault. However, when called to testify from the witness stand, Stanley professed an inability to recall that night, citing the passage of five years and memory impairment due to organic brain damage. Despite his memory loss, Stanley did recall that, to his knowledge, Dale had never been abusive to Marissa, even though he had lived with the couple. He also stated that he had never witnessed Dale being abusive toward the children.
There was only one individual who corroborated Marissa’s claims of abuse—Rhiannon, the couple’s daughter. She testified that the household had been fraught with turmoil, and she had frequently witnessed her father abusing her mother. However, during cross-examination by the prosecution, Rhiannon conceded that Marissa had also been abusive toward Dale.
Additional photographic evidence was introduced, including images of Marissa’s manicured nails and minor bruising. Prosecutors argued that this evidence suggested no struggle had occurred.
During the closing arguments, Prosecutor Eric Basta asserted: The cold hard truth is the defendant planned to kill Dale, and she did it. The motive was money.” He emphasized that the severity of Dale’s injuries and the extensive blood spatter in the bedroom indicated Marissa’s intent to kill her husband that night, supporting a first-degree murder charge. The defense, on the other hand, contended that this evidence demonstrated a crime of passion, constituting second-degree murder or self-defense. The defense attorney stated: “There are a lot of things you might not like about her. This is not a popularity contest. She’s not running for cheerleader.”
After closing arguments, the jury entered deliberations. If they found the claims of abuse credible, they could reach a compromise verdict, potentially avoiding a first-degree murder conviction. The jury deliberated for five and a half days and ultimately rejected the defense’s claims of abuse, returning a verdict of guilty for first-degree murder. As the verdict was read, Marissa remained expressionless.
The same jury was now tasked with determining whether Marissa should receive the death penalty. A sentencing hearing would establish whether there were aggravating factors in the case, as required by Arizona law for a death sentence. Prosecutors argued that Dale’s murder was exceptionally cruel and driven by financial gain.
They announced that they would not call any witnesses during the sentencing phase, believing they had presented sufficient evidence during the trial. They emphasized the cruelty of the attack, pointing out the fist-sized hole in Dale’s head and the frenzied nature of the assault that left the entire bedroom covered in blood. Additionally, Dale had endured three weeks between life and death before his passing.
If the jury were to find one or both of these aggravating factors, the defense would then introduce new witnesses and mitigating evidence from Marissa’s past to persuade the jury not to impose the death penalty. During the sentencing phase, the jury found that Marissa had killed Dale in an especially cruel manner, making her eligible for the death penalty. They were unable to reach a decision on whether Marissa had killed Dale for financial gain. The trial transitioned to the next phase, where Marissa’s defense aimed to save her life.
Before presenting mitigating evidence, prosecutor Eric Basta told the jury that the case revolved around life choices and anticipated that Marissa’s defense would bring up abuse within the couple’s home. He referred to Rhiannon’s earlier testimony, in which she acknowledged that abuse occurred in both directions, not just from one party to the other.
Although Marissa did not testify during the trial, she made a statement during the sentencing phase. Tearfully, she pleaded for mercy, expressed remorse for her actions, and wished she could undo the pain she had caused. She broke down as she said: “I don’t know if I can be useful to anybody in this world or in any way… but I would like the opportunity to try.” She acknowledged the pain inflicted on her daughters, lamenting that it extended to future generations. Marissa also discussed her impending prison sentence, expressing hope that from behind bars, she could influence other inmates to make better life choices.
Marissa’s defense attorney, Alan Tavassoli, embarked on an appeal to the jury, imploring them to spare her life and portraying her as a victim of a tragic childhood. He revealed that as a child, Marissa had suffered sexual abuse from her stepfather and endured emotional abuse from her mother, with no protective adults in her life. Addressing the jury, he emphasized: “The world is not a safe place for her.”
However, skepticism arose when it was uncovered that Marissa had requested her daughters be given tp her stepfather and mother, raising doubts about the veracity of her claims. During the sentencing hearing, Dr. Janeen Demarte diagnosed Marissa with antisocial personality disorder and pointed out her lack of remorse, as evident in her jail phone calls.
Following the testimony, the jury commenced deliberations, taking three days to determine Marissa’s fate. Instead of imposing the death penalty, they sentenced her to life in prison. One of her defense attorneys, Andrew Clemency, expressed relief outside the court, stating: “We’re happy with the decision they made, thank God. They made a decision to spare a life.” A subsequent hearing was scheduled to determine whether Marissa would spend her life in prison or become eligible for parole after serving 25 years.
Marissa’s defense sought the more lenient sentence, emphasizing her lack of a criminal record, deep remorse for the murder, and her efforts to seek counseling to understand her actions. The judge also heard pleas for leniency from Marissa’s daughters. Rhiannon, the eldest daughter, asserted that even if Marissa had attacked Dale, he would still have loved her had he survived.
Dale’s family also provided impact statements. His sister, Melinda Artrup, expressed anger at Marissa’s portrayal of Dale as an abuser, asserting that she had tarnished his name and taken away the chance for him to witness his daughters’ milestones. She lamented the loss of her brother’s presence at graduations and weddings.
Ultimately, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Roland Steinle sentenced Marissa to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He rejected the claims that Marissa had killed Dale due to domestic violence and instead believed that greed had driven her actions. He noted that if not for Marissa’s daughters, she might have received a death sentence.
Arizona Republic, 22 February, 2009 – “Gilbert Woman Charged in Beating Death of Husband”
The Easy Valley Tribune, 25 February, 2009 – “Woman Accused of Killing Spouse Later Found Beaten”
Phoenix New Times, 6 March, 2009 – “Gilbert Man Frustrated He Can’t Get Cops to Believe he Killed Roommate”
Arizona Republic, 30 March, 2009 – “Details Emerge in Hammer Death”
The East Valley Tribune, 17 April, 2009 – “Prosecutors Seek Death Penalty in Hammer Killing”
Associated Press, 18 April, 2011 – “Gilbert Woman Awaiting Murder Trial Suing Jail”
Independent – 3 KTVK, 18 February, 2014 – “Body Language Expert Analyses Behaviour of Accused Killer”
Arizona Republic, 7 February, 2014 – “Trial Kicks Off in ’09 Hammer Slaying”
Associated Press, 21 February, 2014 – “Arizona Man Says Girlfriend Wanted to Hire Hit Man”
Independent – 3 KTVK, 22 February, 2014 – “Hammer Slaying Trial”
Arizona Republic, 6 March, 2010 – “Domestic Abuse Triggered Slaying of Mate”
Arizona Central, 20 February, 2014 – “DeVaul Brought to Tears During her Murder Trial”
Arizona Republic, 5 March, 2014 – “Hammer Death Witness Takes Stand”
WFIN – 1330 AM, 1 April, 2014 – “Arizona Woman’s Murder Trial Harkens Back to Jodi Arias Case”
Associated Press, 8 April, 2014 – “Arizona Woman Found Guilty in Hammer-Beating Death”
Arizona Republic, 9 April, 2014 – “DeVault Guilty of Killing Husband With Hammer”
Arizona Central, 27 March, 2014 – “Gilbert Hammer-Killing Trial Goes to Jury”
The Washington Times, 27 March, 2014 – “Closing Arguments Made at Hammer Killing Trial”
ABC World News, 11 April, 2014 – “Designing Women”
Associated Press, 15 April, 2014 – “Lawyer Pleads for Life Sentence for Arizona Woman”
Associated Press, 15 April, 2014 – “Spare Woman in Hammer Killing”
Associated Press, 17 April, 2014 – “Woman Convicted in Hammer Beating Speaks to Jury”
Associated Press, 6 June, 2014 – “Arizona Woman to be Sentenced in Hammer Killing”
Associated Press, 7 June, 2014 – “Woman Gets Life for Killing Husband With Hammer”
“Marissa Devault Begs for Life in Court Hearing”
“Marissa DeVault – Prosecution Opening Statements”
“Marissa Devault Trial. Feb 20 Part 1. Police Interrogation Tape”
“Marissa DeVault Trial. Day 1. Part 1. After Opening. Partial”
“Family speaks out about Marissa Devault’s victim”