When Marla Bernard got the news that her daughter was having their first grandchild, she rushed to the hospital.
Her husband, Police Sgt. Dave Bernard, couldn’t join her. As the on-call homicide unit supervisor, he had to rush to the scene of an infant’s death in Kansas City.
Later, when he arrived at the hospital to see his grandson, Marla Bernard could tell his thoughts still were consumed by the dead baby.
“That’s how it always was,” she said of how her husband’s cases pulled him away from his family and cast a dark shadow over their life events.
Marla Bernard recently self-published a book about her front row seat to his investigations that focuses mainly on two child killings well known to Kansas Citians: Angel Hart, murdered at age 5 in 1993, and Precious Doe, murdered at age 3 in 2001.
In the case of Angel, her body was missing for years. In the case of Erica Green, better known as Precious Doe, her identity was missing for years.
In Bernard’s book, “Through the Rain: A True Crime Memoir of Murder and Survival,” she describes the cases through a mother’s eyes, drilling home the tragic similarities. Child welfare systems failed both victims. So did their unprotecting mothers. And both were killed by their mothers’ boyfriends and discarded like trash.
Her book details how those cases pushed Bernard’s family over the edge. Her husband neglected his health, couldn’t sleep and developed high blood pressure and diabetes. The strain of the Precious Doe case caused the couple to separate in 2002.
She also writes about her contempt for those who criticized her husband and his detectives after it was revealed that a detective mishandled a tip in the Precious Doe investigation that could have solved the case 10 months sooner. She said the error unnecessarily overshadowed four years of grueling work.
“I don’t think people really understood how hard these men and women worked on this case,” she said, adding that she thought the investigators didn’t get the recognition they deserved from the department.
She tells her story as a homicide sergeant’s wife.
“No gloves. No varnish,” she wrote in the book. “Just the plain, painful stories the way they occurred.”
Dave Bernard retired from the department in 2011 after 21 years in homicide. Marla Bernard wanted him to leave the unit after a few years, not a few decades.
But her husband wasn’t interested in promotions or other assignments.
Being a homicide investigator “was who he is,” she said.
They fought often, she said, over his inability to balance his work with his home life, she said.
“Please leave the cases outside our house … in the garage, maybe?” she wrote. “No luck. They came home with him, the victims clinging to his clothes. His sport coat weighted down with a pager, two cellphones, handcuffs, badge case, note pad, pen and the burden of lost children heavy on his shoulders.”
Marla Bernard resented that her husband got to be the superhero while she was home washing his cape and raising their two kids alone.
She accompanied their son to Boy Scout events. She invented backup plans for countless family events and outings. She pulled off holidays by herself while he faced the worst humanity has to offer.
“The stuff they see is like nothing anyone else sees,” she said.
She felt powerless as a spouse — watching her husband’s health decline, seeing the stress on his face, not having the power to do anything about it.
And worse, she said, she didn’t think department brass appreciated his sacrifices.
She worried he would die and become “a victim of the homicide unit,” missing his children’s adulthood just like he missed much of their childhood.
The child cases seemed to find her husband, Marla Bernard said.
Dave Bernard happened to be working the night California authorities called to say a missing child named Angel Hart had been killed and last was seen at a Kansas City motel.
As it turned out, her mother’s boyfriend beat and drowned the girl in the motel bathtub because Angel couldn’t recite her ABCs properly.
The boyfriend put her body in a Rubbermaid container, poured in concrete and, months later, dumped the container in the desert when the family drove to California. The murder came to light later when the mother tried to claim welfare benefits for five children but could only produce four.
Both parents confessed, but Bernard spent years trying to find Angel’s body. The case consumed him. A tourist finally came across the remains in February 2001.
“We got the case solved,” Marla Bernard said, catching herself. “We? He solved the case. I survived it.”
But just two months later, another child case fell in Dave Bernard’s lap. He was on call when an officer found an unidentified girl’s decapitated body in a wooded area. The community dubbed her Precious Doe.
He lost interest in anything but the case. He didn’t listen to his wife or care about her job, she said.
“He lived in a world that I wasn’t given permission to enter,” she wrote.
She felt like she was competing with another woman for his attention, “but the other woman was a headless three-year-old. How do you compete with that?”
A year into the investigation, she told him to move out, thinking it would knock some sense into him. But instead he left. He rented at first, but he eventually bought another home.
In 2005, a tipster called police, identifying Precious Doe and her killers.
But the public accolades for police solving the case didn’t last long.
The tipster soon publicly revealed he had called police 50 times. Just three of his calls were documented in the case file. A detective followed the first tip and was told Erica Green was alive in Aurora, Ill. But the detective did not request that police in Illinois visually confirm the girl was alive.
That violated Dave Bernard’s rule for his squad, Marla Bernard said. He insisted that every child be visually inspected before a tip could be discarded.
The mistake embarrassed the department. Meanwhile, a community activist who solicited a newspaper ad that prompted the tipster to call for the 50th time began claiming credit for solving the case, she wrote. She thinks those things made police officials want to push the case under a rug.
“No one wanted to deal with it,” she said, adding that it was hurtful “when your own folks don’t have your back.”
With the Precious Doe case behind them, the Bernards reconciled in 2006.
She said she learned to accept her husband’s commitment to solving homicides.
“Just own it, live it and make it part of your own family,” she said. “If he wanted to go to a Parents of Murdered Children meeting, I would go with him.”
The child homicide victims already had become part of their family. They had place settings for them at holiday dinners, hung angel ornaments on their Christmas tree for each victim and visited their graves each Memorial Day.
“I don’t think people realize how personal this gets,” she said.
Dave Bernard didn’t want to read his wife’s book. He told her he lived it and didn’t want to go through it again.
But Marla Bernard said she felt compelled to document her experience.
“I just felt the stories needed to be told,” she said.