For many from the Chicago area, Oct. 4, 2007, began with the stunning news that Rhoni Reuter, the longtime pregnant girlfriend of former Chicago Bears player Shaun Gayle, had been murdered.
Now Reuter’s convicted killer hopes she'll be granted a new trial and is speaking out about her case for the first time on television.
“I did not [kill Reuter], and I am not capable of doing anything like [that]. I'm a mother myself, that's unconscionable to me. Absolutely not,” Marni Yang, a 51-year-old mother of three, told ABC's Juju Chang in a recent interview for "20/20."
Reuter, 42, was seven months pregnant when she was found dead on the kitchen floor of her apartment in Deerfield, Illinois. There were no signs of robbery or forced entry at the crime scene. Authorities said she had been shot multiple times at point-blank range with a 9mm handgun, with two shots fired directly at her abdomen. To investigators, it suggested that the shooter was aiming not just at Reuter, but also at the unborn child.
Reuter’s killing rocked the quiet, affluent Chicago suburb. It was the first murder Deerfield had seen in 30 years and Gayle had been a safety on the celebrated Chicago Bears team that won the 1985 Super Bowl.
Gayle had been dating Reuter for 18 years while seeing a number of other women at various times over the years as well, including Yang. It was clear to authorities that someone wanted his pregnant girlfriend dead. During her trial, prosecutors argued that Yang’s motive was fueled by jealousy.
Yang, who has long maintained her innocence, was convicted in 2011 of killing Reuter and is currently serving a double life sentence.
Her new defense attorney Jed Stone filed a post-conviction relief petition in October 2019 citing new evidence that he believes will prove Yang was wrongfully convicted. Yang, who has exhausted all her requests to appeal, hired a new legal team led by Stone in this last attempt for a new trial.
The Lake County State’s Attorney's Office filed a motion to dismiss Yang’s petition, describing it as a "skillfully, lawyerly rebranding of the facts and the overwhelming evidence against Marni."
“It's not a rebranding of the facts,” Stone told “20/20.” “It's taking a look at the facts, and putting them in a light of truth.”
Who would kill Rhoni Reuter?
Although Gayle and Reuter were together for almost two decades, they never lived together.
Her family say they were surprised when they learned of Gayle’s non-monogamous relationship with Reuter.
“I wouldn't think that my sister would have put up with that sort of relationship,” her brother, Thad Reuter, told “20/20” in a 2011 interview.
Her sister-in-law, Anna Reuter, agreed, saying, “She loved Shaun with her whole heart, and I think she expected the same back. I really didn’t see any other people in the picture at all.”
On the day Rhoni Reuter’s body was discovered, Gayle called Deerfield police, saying a reporter had called him asking if he knew anything about being named a suspect in a shooting there. When the officer who took the call confirmed to Gayle that Reuter was the victim, the former NFL player broke down in hysterical sobs.
“Don’t go to her house,” the officer told him, and asked him instead to come to the police station.
When Gayle arrived, Deerfield Deputy Chief Rick Wilk said the former NFL player was “visibly upset,” but it was “a little suspicious” to Wilk that Gayle had called within hours of the murder occurring.
During questioning, Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Detective Scott Frost said Gayle became strangely composed.
"He … was very reserved, very calm.," Frost said.
Frost said he asked Gayle what he had done in the last 24 hours, and that some of his details on timing seemed to be off.
"We’re having issues with his timeline from... what he did the night before, what time did he go to bed, what time did he leave," Frost said.
On the morning of the murder, Gayle told police he slept in, worked out with a trainer and then got a haircut mid-morning at a barber about 10 minutes away from Reuter's apartment.
Frost said Gayle insisted he was innocent. Police asked him about other women with whom he had been involved recently.
“He, kindly enough, gives us a list of a list of almost 18, or 16 different women that he either went on a date with or got a phone number from or was romantically involved with… these are 18 women over a three-year period,” Frost said.
“You have several women that could have been jealous of Rhoni,” Wilk added.
When asked who he believed the killer might be, police said Gayle named Monika Kurowska, whom he had a relationship with a year prior and he said it had ended badly.
Kurowska was a Polish fitness model and personal trainer, whom Gayle said he had dated for several months in 2006.
Gayle said one night Kurowska came to his apartment complex and began ringing his neighbors’ buzzers. He found her outside of his apartment with a bloody hand, and later discovered one of his windows had been broken. Gayle eventually obtained a protective order against her.
In a statement to ABC News, Kurowska said she was upset when she got to Gayle's home and saw him with another woman. She says she wanted to speak to him, but he wouldn’t open the door. She knocked on his window, and in the heat of her frustration, she said she accidentally broke it. She said she decided to end the relationship and that she never saw Gayle again.
Gayle told police he believed Kurowska was sending harassing letters to various people in his life, including Reuter, her mother and other women he had been seeing. The anonymous letters were written in broken English and claimed Gayle was romancing a number of women at the same time.
When Rhoni Reuter's mother received one of these letters, she called Gayle. He assured her that her daughter was safe and that the letters were from “a crazed fan,” according to Thad Reuter.
When Rhoni Reuter's body was found, detectives recovered one of these letters inside her purse.
While being questioned by investigators, Kurowska denied sending the letters and said she was at a training session with a client when Rhoni Reuter was murdered, which checked out.
Police cleared Kurowska as a suspect, and eventually cleared Gayle as well. Soon, they began focusing on another woman Gayle had been casually seeing: Marni Yang.
The mysterious letters
Yang, a divorced mother of three who worked multiple jobs, including as a real estate agent, said she met Gayle at a Bears convention where she was working security. She said the two started seeing each other after he reached out to her about investing in real estate.
When police first called Yang in for questioning regarding the Reuter investigation two months after the murder, she told them she and Gayle had known each other for about six years.
As part of their investigation, the police obtained a warrant to search his house, which included seizing his computer.
After gaining access to his email, investigators told Gayle that they believed Yang had been accessing his email for years, but Yang denies this.
"There is absolutely no way that I would even have had access to anything like that," she told "20/20."
Though police said other people they interviewed within her circle told them Yang often bragged about being Gayle’s girlfriend, she denied that was the case.
“I don’t think the word ‘boyfriend’ was ever used, really,” she told “20/20.” “That was not what I referred to him as.”
Investigators suspected that Yang was the one responsible for sending harassing letters to Reuter, her mother and other women in Gayle’s life. They believed she had discovered emails from Kurowska in Gayle’s inbox and copied her pattern of broken English to make it appear as if the letters had come from Kurowska.
During a search of Yang’s house, police said they discovered mailing labels with the addresses of the women in Gayle’s life -- the same ones who had received the letters.
Yang denies she had sent the letters and claims instead that she was one of the women who received such a letter.
Police discovered that she had owned a 9mm handgun, which used bullets that matched the caliber of the ones found at the crime scene. Yang had also purchased two volumes of a book with instructions on how to make a homemade silencer and then bought the materials listed in the book at a Home Depot store, according to prosecutors.
Yang told police she didn’t have the gun at the time the murder took place; in her post-conviction relief petition, she claims that her son’s friend has admitted to stealing it from her home during a get-together months before the murder. She told “20/20” the book was part of “a gag gift” for a former police officer she had dated. “Firearms are a hobby of his,” she said.
According to prosecutors, one of the most damning pieces of evidence against Yang was a recorded conversation she had with a close friend, Christi Paschen, who calls herself a professional psychic. Yang has said Paschen was only an acquaintance.
During the conversation, Yang told Paschen, who was secretly working with investigators and wearing a recording device, that she had put on an elaborate disguise and shot Reuter. That disguise, prosecutors say, seemed to match witnesses’ description of the suspect on the day of the murder.
“[Reuter] started screaming … At that point, I realized we are now at the point of no return, OK? ... And I just started emptying the clip,” Yang is heard telling Paschen on the recording. “I took maybe one or two steps into the kitchen to finish the job.”
On March 15, 2011, Yang was found guilty of first-degree murder and intentional homicide of an unborn child. She was given a double life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Marni Yang: ‘I knew perfectly well that I was being recorded’
Sitting in Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois, Yang opened up about her case for the first time in front of a TV camera.
“I feel like prior to this, I don't think it would have mattered,” she told “20/20.” “I feel like there is a time. That time is now.”
The crux of Yang’s defense is that she now claims that she knew Paschen was wired and falsely confessed to the murder on purpose in order to protect her son, whom she believed police were investigating as the murder suspect.
“I knew perfectly well that I was being recorded,” Yang said. “I saw the wire.”
Her attorney Jed Stone claims there are recorded phone calls between Yang and her parents that took place before her conversation with Paschen, in which Yang told them she planned to make up a story about the murder and “let the attorneys sort it out with police.”
“It was a rash and ill-conceived decision to protect my children,” Yang said. “I lied.”
In its motion to dismiss Yang’s post-conviction relief petition, the state says that three months after the murder, when police interrogated Yang over a number of days, they told her repeatedly that her son was not a suspect.
During her trial, prosecutors pointed to a surveillance video from a gas station in Reuter’s neighborhood that showed a car driving near the scene around the time of the murder, which they said matched the description of the one Yang had rented that same week.
Yang’s defense team argued in its post-conviction relief petition that the prosecutors got the make and model of the car wrong.
In response, the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office says Yang’s defense team made similar arguments at trial, which the jury rejected.
Yang, an aspiring fitness model, now claims she had car trouble that day and that she had rented the car for a photoshoot. However, when asked about it during her interview with “20/20”, she couldn’t remember the name of the photographer with whom she was working.
Her defense team also claims that ballistics evidence proves the person who shot Reuter was much taller than Yang, who is only 5 feet tall.
“I think the strongest piece of evidence that we have is the scientific evidence of the bullet trajectories, showing that Marni Yang, because of her height, could not have fired the bullets that killed Rhoni Reuter,” Stone told “20/20.”
In response, the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office says that the conclusion that the shooter was someone taller than Yang is flawed. They said the defense relied on the medical examiner’s report, which stated that a particular wound was going downward. However, when the medical examiner testified at trial, he said that after examining the tissue he determined that wound was actually going upward.
The state also argues that many of the statements that Yang’s defense team filed as part of the petition were not notarized or were not sworn to, and therefore those claims should be dismissed.
The petition filed by Yang's legal team includes a number of allegations from her children about the investigation and the case against their mother, including that police forced two of her children to sign written statements they knew to be false.
Yang’s children, Emily, Andrew and Brandon Yang, were home alone when police showed up with a search warrant at their house three months after the murder. Just 16 years old at the time, Emily and Andrew said they were brought to different police stations and questioned separately without a parent or attorney present.
“The only way that I got out of that situation was to write down a statement … that my mother wasn't home the morning of the murder… but she was home that morning,” Andrew Yang said, adding that he “had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized” after the ordeal.
At trial, Emily Yang testified that her mother told her she had sent those harassing letters so that all the women Gayle was involved with could find out about each other. But she now says that police told her to write that in her statement.
“I didn't know anything and they wouldn't accept that. And ... the mental frustration, it really broke me,” Emily Yang said. “And it got to the point where I started banging my head on the table.”
The State's Attorney's Office denies the children's statements were coerced. They said when Emily Yang testified she never said her statement to the police was a lie.
Yang’s children are standing by their mother now in support of her defense.
“I would just say to her that … no matter... everything that she's been through, [she can] be proud that she's raised … a really good young man,” Andrew Yang told “20/20.”
“I'm hoping that we can all get through this together,” Emily Yang added.
Marni Yang’s father, Larry Merar, has paid around $1 million for her defense. It’s money that Stone acknowledged could have gone to help support Merar’s grandchildren while their mother is in prison, but more so, he added, “it bothers me greatly that Larry Merar can't do this for 9,000 other people… in America's prisons and jails who are innocent.”
Although a judge ruled in December 2019 that her petition can move forward, the next step in the proceedings for Marni Yang’s case has been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. A few weeks ago, she cited the health crisis in a new petition for clemency, which is scheduled to be heard in July.