In September, a military veteran went missing and was found dead in Kentucky, his body riddled with bullets.
Months later, his estranged wife was also found dead from a gunshot wound in front of the couple’s one-time home some 25 miles away in Tennessee, a terse, cryptic, and rueful letter left by her corpse.
Friends of the dead man have speculated that the two deaths are linked, but authorities have remained tight-lipped.
Michael Harding, a 53-year-old Army and Navy veteran, was last seen alive on Sept. 20, 2022, according to the Clay County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee. A timestamped image of his black pickup truck placed him in the Bowling Green area of Kentucky on the day he vanished. Friends immediately reported his absence.
At the time of Harding’s disappearance, Clay County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Rick Lisi said in an interview with AM radio station WUCT that no foul play was suspected.
Six days later, however, Harding, was found dead with multiple gunshot wounds inside a Cumberland County, Ky. residence.
The house was not his — and it was otherwise empty.
An apparent break in the case came on Dec. 8, 2022, when Thomas Francis O’Donnell, 60, was arrested and charged with Harding’s murder. O’Donnell, who hails from Napa, Calif., was apprehended at the Sacramento International Airport just as he was about to board a flight to Tennessee. He has reportedly waived extradition to Kentucky.
That same day, Harding’s estranged wife, Julie Vernnan Harding, 49, was also arrested, but not in connection with Harding’s death. Police in Tennessee had charged her with stalking and burglary. In early October of this year, she was seen on a Ring camera from a home in Murfreesboro, Tenn., whispering to her deceased husband’s dog, Charlie, before putting a leash around his neck and walking away with him.
The TV station later reported that Netflix accounts had been hacked into at the house where the dog was stolen: profile pictures were changed, and various other accounts on the device were deleted.
The dog had been staying with the woman who had been dating Michael Harding at the time of his death. According to a report from local news station KCRA, there had been a dispute about when and where she would surrender the dog to her deceased boyfriend’s wife.
Two days after her arrest, Julie Harding apparently died by suicide. Her body was found in the front yard, near the driveway, of the Celina, Tenn. home she and her husband purchased two years ago. According to comments made by Clay County Sheriff Brian Boone and reported by Sacramento-based CBS affiliate KPIX, a letter carrier and “another man” were the first to find her. She died from a single gunshot wound, the sheriff said. No foul play is suspected.
Like O’Donnell, Julie Harding has a California connection: she was the Yuba-Sutter commander and captain of the California Highway Patrol – where she worked since 1999 – at the time of her death. She assumed her leadership role in 2018. The agency has told various media outlets that she was on leave when she died.
Police haven’t commented on whether or not there was a murder-for-hire plot behind Michael Harding’s death, or what O’Donnell’s presumed motive would have been for the alleged murder.
Michael Harding’s friends, however, appear to believe the man’s estranged wife is responsible.
At the time of his disappearance, Michael Harding was going to be a groomsman in Preston Cleary‘s upcoming wedding. On the day he went missing, he was on his way to pick up his tuxedo, but stopped to make a service call for the heating and air conditioning business he owned. He never made it to the tuxedo shop.
“Mike was a good man,” Cleary told KCRA this week. “He didn’t deserve what happened to him. He was [an] ‘integrity-through-the-roof’ guy. He couldn’t tell a lie. He would always do everyone right.”
He told the TV station that he was shocked to learn his friend was the victim of a crime like this, but that he also had a bad feeling as soon as he learned Michael Harding had gone missing.
“Deep down, I knew we weren’t going to find Mike alive,” Cleary said.
The deaths of the couple, less than four months apart, have sent shockwaves across three states that have resulted in investigations by numerous local, county, and federal law enforcement agencies. O’Donnell was arrested with the FBI’s help.
Law enforcement officials have not speculated on the cause of Julie Harding’s death, and a message left with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office was not returned in time for publication.
Sources have told KCRA, however, that authorities are working to figure out how the Hardings’ deaths are tied to one another. According to the Los Angeles Times, investigators are focusing their efforts on whether O’Donnell targeted Michael Harding in a murder-for-hire plot, citing a “source familiar with the Kentucky-based investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly.” Julie Harding is believed to be connected to the plot, this source told the paper.
Cleary has said that he believes Julie Harding had hired a hitman to kill her husband.
“I believe it was months of planning,” Cleary recently told WBKO. “He was in fear for you know his life as well, because his doors was chained up, they were propped up. So like you were trying to keep someone out. And I think he knew what she was capable of.”
Cleary said the Hardings were experiencing a variety of marriage troubles and that Michael had asked Julie Harding for a divorce.
According to a still-grieving Cleary, Julie Harding had left behind a note that read: “Mike, I guess you win.”
[images: Julie Harding via California Highway Patrol; Michael Harding via Clay County Sheriff’s Office]
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