A cold rain was falling outside when Larry Hopkins shot his 61-year-old wife, Margaret, as she slept inside their north-central Lawrence home one early November morning last year, two weeks shy of their 24th wedding anniversary.
The couple married 100 days after meeting on a blind date. Larry calls much of the time that followed “the happy years.” Toward the end, their days together became increasingly pocked with pain until Larry, 67, decided to pull the trigger. He called it his final gift to her.
Hopkins is now preparing to serve life in prison for first-degree murder after being sentenced in Douglas County District Court on Thursday. Some called the killing an act of love or mercy. At one point, prosecutors had to debate how to proceed with charges.
As he took his seat in the courtroom Thursday, Hopkins was asked by a friend sitting behind him why he rejected a plea deal in March. “Basically my final decision was I owed it to Margaret,” he said. “I expect to die wherever they send me.”
Larry Hopkins figures he raised “one of everything that could walk, crawl or fly in the state of Kansas” while growing up in Lincoln, a small town about 175 miles west of Lawrence. His father, Leon Hopkins, was a game warden. The family once raised a hawk on a diet of beef kidneys and filled tubs with water for an infant beaver’s bathroom breaks, Hopkins said during one of multiple interviews with the Journal-World at the Douglas County Jail before his sentencing.
Hopkins left home for Lawrence in 1964 to attend Kansas University, first in pursuit of his parents’ dream for him to be a doctor. But his attention drifted and he began indulging one of his greatest vices: reading, then at Watson Library. As a freshman, Hopkins spent much of his time with seniors and super-seniors, he said. Among them was his future best man and “elder brother by mutual choice,” Lewis Wood, who one day ordered Hopkins to sit down and learn to play bridge. The lesson proved invaluable one evening years later.
A mutual friend, Lauree Roper, set Larry Hopkins and Margaret Thompson up on a blind date playing bridge one night in 1989.
When Larry and Margaret met, Larry was transitioning from a 20-year Army career to work at the Spencer Research Library and Margaret, 12 years separated from her first husband, was pursuing a master’s degree in social work at KU. They clicked immediately, Hopkins said.
“We were the two least likely to click: a social worker and a retired army sergeant slightly to the right of Genghis Khan,” Hopkins said.
Margaret worked at the Douglas County Senior Center as a caregiver specialist when they dated. Larry said he would tag along while she delivered meals or, on other days, wait for Margaret to finish work so they could walk downtown to see a movie or listen to music on her patio.
They also each kept a pet “bathroom spider” at their respective homes, Hopkins said. Margaret shared Larry’s love for animals.
“I had to share the bed with an Australian shepherd, a big — and fortunately friendly — chow mix, a Benji dog and (Margaret) all in a waterbed,” Hopkins said. “And the cats would wedge in, too.”
One evening, Larry turned to Margaret and asked, “What do you think about making this official?”
“OK,” he said she replied. “I feel sort of scared.”
“Me too,” he told her.
They married at Lake Dabinawa north of Lawrence in Jefferson County. Today, Larry still remembers their chocolate wedding cake and the “six pounds of butter” in its frosting. “Ahhh. Margaret and I made that wedding cake last as long as we could,” he said.
It was Margaret, “wearing her geriatric social worker hat,” who Larry said finally convinced him that his father’s death of a heart attack at 46 wasn’t his fault. Leon Hopkins died in 1967, just two weeks after Larry told his parents he planned to join the Army.
When he tells the story now, Hopkins trembles and his eyes redden as he struggles with tears. “I come unglued sometimes,” he said. He calls these moments “memory attacks.”
Another trigger is talking about the cats the Hopkinses rescued during “the happy years” — and during the more painful days, too. They continued rescuing through July 2013, when Larry said he found a young, abandoned and pregnant Siamese on their block. “She gave us four beautiful kittens,” he said.
The couple kept at least a dozen animals in their home at various points through the years, even as they became less able to care for each other.
“I guess you could say we were in denial,” Larry said in court Thursday, “because we resisted changing our lifestyle as much as possible.”
Type 2 diabetes was Margaret’s first affliction, followed through the years by multiple strokes, twin knee replacement surgeries, a hysterectomy, a shattered femur and rotator cuff surgery. Hopkins’ younger sister, Melissa Quigley, who traveled to Lawrence from Wichita for Thursday’s sentencing, said their family had no idea how severe the couple’s health issues had become.
Larry served as Margaret’s primary caregiver, a role complicated by his own stroke in 2009 and quadruple bypass in 2010. By 2013, the couple’s conditions deteriorated in concert, a shared phrase being “our warranties had expired,” Hopkins said.
Larry said Margaret needed help into and out of bed and the shower. And though they installed a commode in their bathroom, Hopkins said his wife often failed to make it out of bed in time, instead laying on a wet mattress until Larry could get her up.
Hopkins punctuated his statement Thursday by slamming the last page on the table before him after exclaiming that Medicare killed Margaret. He said Medicare “steadfastly refused” to cover a stay for Margaret at a care facility. After a late October fall led to a two-night stay at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, Larry said a doctor there told the couple that there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of residents like them.
“Which was cold comfort as I took her home and struggled to get her wheelchair up the ramp,” Hopkins said in court.
It had been awhile since a defense attorney was appointed to a homicide case in Douglas County, said Clinton Lee, who represented Hopkins. On Nov. 5, 2013, Hopkins’ case was just the second homicide since 2008. Though six homicides have now occurred here in the last 10 months, Lee said Hopkins’ case still stands out.
“How many of them involve a husband and wife in what one might argue is a mercy-type killing?” Lee said.
District Attorney Charles Branson said prosecution of the case became a topic of much discussion among attorneys in his office. But “the thing we could not get past was that (Margaret) never had a choice.” Branson said home health care officials had visited the Hopkinses days before Margaret’s death and that Larry later told authorities he didn’t want to sell his possessions “and go someplace to die.”
In an interview Thursday, Lee said he was disappointed in the case’s outcome. The only plea deal offered reduced charges to felony murder and criminal discharge of a firearm, which still would have produced a life sentence.
“I feel like the district attorney’s office had every opportunity and could have explained justification for offering him a second-degree murder instead of first-degree,” Lee said, adding that Hopkins was treated more harshly than those in other recent cases.
Lee recalled Brittny Adams, the 20-year-old Topeka woman who killed Gary Edens, 51, outside his Lawrence home last July. Prosecutors reached a plea agreement that produced an intentional second-degree murder conviction and a roughly 13-year sentence. Adams, Lee said, will present a much more viable public safety risk when released than Hopkins ever could have.
But in prosecuting Adams, Branson said, the state hedged against a jury finding her guilty of a lesser crime given the potential for a self-defense argument. The facts of the city’s first two homicides in five years are completely different, Branson said. He said Margaret Hopkins’ death was the result of a premeditated, intentional act.
“She had no choice in the matter,” Branson said. “We can only assume that she wanted to live, and because of that filing a first-degree murder charge was the only option we had.”
Larry Hopkins briefly considered shooting himself after killing Margaret, but he instead called authorities to their home. Later that day, after being booked into jail, he said he was asked whether he was suicidal.
“I said there was a time when I had the means and opportunity,” he said.
Not long after going to jail, Hopkins said he joined a small support group that met regularly to play pinochle and spades. Early on, few knew who he was and why he was there. Those that did kept his secret until he finally opened up. He soon found an understanding audience whenever “memory attacks” washed over him.
“I could come unglued without any adverse social effects,” Hopkins said.
Once he begins his prison sentence, Hopkins said he hopes to resume volunteer proofreading for a Pennsylvania publishing company. The company’s founder, John Carr, a novelist, has kept in touch with Hopkins since his arrest. Carr empathizes with Hopkins. Carr lost family to cancer, watched his wife battle cancer and arthritis and is now himself undergoing chemotherapy for bone marrow cancer.
“I hate to see him spend the rest of his life in a cell for basically trying to help his wife,” Carr said by phone from Pennsylvania.
Closer to home, Quigley, Hopkins’ younger sister, said that their mother, 89-year-old Darlene Virginia Lancaster, still struggles with the situation. Larry and Margaret were expected in Wichita for Thanksgiving last year. They had been there a year earlier for a stay that included multiple falls by Margaret.
“I don’t know my brother’s mind,” Quigley said. “I think it was an act of love on his part.”
In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s sentencing, Larry Hopkins said his statement would be the first time he could share his side of the story with the public. About one month before reading the finished copy in court, Hopkins sat in jail and began the task of composing his statement. Two lines hit the page before any others: Larry knew the beginning of his and his wife’s story and he also authored its ending.