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The murder — and the hunt for justice

Susan Altman remembers the day — the first of March, 2015 — with crystal, and tragic, clarity. It was the day that she learned that her beloved sister, Stacy Feldman, had died in her Denver home.

Sisters Susan Altman, left, and Stacy Feldman

“My immediate reaction,” Altman told the Intermountain Jewish News during a visit to Denver last week, “was that her husband had killed her.”

“I live in the Boston area and my dad called me,” Altman says in a rapid stream of words, but with even calm. “It was a Sunday afternoon. I was getting ready to go to a sports game with one of my kids, and my daughter picked up the phone and said, ‘It’s Grandpa.’ I said, ‘Tell him I can’t talk right know, we’re getting ready to go.’ And she said, ‘No, you have to talk to him.’

“And he said, ‘Stacy’s dead.’ And I said, ‘What happened?’ expecting him to say it was a car accident. When he said, ‘We don’t know,’ I immediately knew that he had killed her.”

Feldman, who was 44 and the mother of a son and a daughter, was president of the parent-teacher organization at Denver’s Southmoor Elementary School and was active with Temple Sinai. She had supposedly been found unconscious in her bathtub, beneath a running shower, by her husband after returning home from Temple Sinai, where he had taken his kids to religious school and a Purim carnival.

He called 911 and was instructed to give his wife CPR which he did, again supposedly, before the arrival of paramedics, who pronounced her dead.

Denver Police investigated, took note of the fact that Stacy had been badly bruised all over her body, but conjectured that the injuries may have been caused during resuscitation efforts and that none of them were likely to have caused her death. There were no overt signs of a crime and the decision was made that charges would not be filed.

The Denver coroner also investigated but was unable to pinpoint a cause of Stacy’s death.

A forensic pathologist wrote that “as the position of the decedent and presence or absence of facial submersion at the scene remains unclear, a contributing component of asphyxia (drowning) cannot be completely excluded,” and that the cause of Stacy’s death “cannot be determined.”

None of this deterred Susan Altman who, in spite of her own grief and shock, embarked on a seven-year campaign to find justice for her sister, devoting much of her life to the cause.
Her starting point was the conviction that her former brother-in-law, Robert Feldman [Altman refuses to speak his name, instead referring to him as “El diablo,” Spanish for “the devil”] was the killer. She had bad feelings about him from the start, she told the IJN, when she learned that on his first date with her sister, he had used a magnet to cheat a parking meter.

Before and after his marriage to Stacy, Altman says, she had known of the financial, emotional, sexual and possible physical abuse her sister had suffered at his hands. The mysterious circumstances and suddenness of her death led her to an unshakeable conclusion.

She formed a social media group, “Justice for Stacy Now,” stayed in contact with Denver police and the DA’s office and began an intensive search for experts who were capable of more thoroughly analyzing pathological evidence from the crime scene.

She learned a great deal from the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention which specializes in countering what it calls “staged crime scenes,” which, it turned out, Stacy’s was.

Eventually, Susan Altman came into contact with Dr. Bill Smock, a police pathologist from Louisville, Ky. who had testified in the trial involving the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and whose testimony in the George Floyd case was crucial in the conviction of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin.

Armed with new and reanalyzed evidence, and fortified by testimony from Susan McBride, a Denver woman who came forward to tell police that she had been involved in a brief relationship with Feldman without knowing that he was still married to Stacy, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann finally brought murder charges against Feldman in 2018, three years after Stacy’s death.

It was still a long, arduous and complex process with a host of twists and turns. Various legal procedural delays involving Robert Feldman’s bond and freedom of movement while awaiting trial, disputes over a life insurance settlement Feldman received, restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and other factors delayed the trial until April, 2022.

After nine days of testimony — including a graphic demonstration by Dr. Smock of how Stacy was injured and murdered, using a dummy — a Denver jury convicted Feldman of first-degree murder after only three hours of deliberation.

On April 29, 2022, Denver District Judge Edward Bronfin issued a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Some five months later, Dateline NBC devoted a 90-minute episode to Stacy’s story, entitled “The Sisterhood,” with Susan Altman playing a prominent role. It was only one part of the considerable media interest in the case, including repeated coverage by 9NEWS for years.

After Feldman’s conviction, Altman has increased her work as a public advocate for crime victims, working with the non-profit Alliance for Hope International which runs various programs for victims of domestic and sexual abuse and operates the Strangulation Institute.

In addition to visiting her uncle in Denver, Dr. Michael Opatowski, she was here recently to speak at fundraisers for the organization.

She spoke to the IJN about her determination to seek justice for her sister Stacy’s killer, how she feels she is still communicating with her sister, how Stacy’s children are faring eight years after their mother’s death, and whether one can ever reach closure after the violent death of a loved one.

IJN: You have described the moment when you visited your sister’s grave and she conveyed a message to you. Was that when you realized that something was wrong?

Altman: I was just sitting there and had this overwhelming feeling, like it came up from the grave. She said, “Something’s wrong, you have to do something.” I was at the cemetery with one of my aunts and she said, “You have to call the homicide department.” So that was the first time I called them, you know, two or three weeks after we buried her. That started my relationship with Detective [Randal] Dennison.

Do you believe that this was your subconscious speaking, or perhaps that there was some sort of a spiritual connection between your sister and yourself?

I’ve thought so much about this, whether it’s my subconscious giving me these signs. But I definitely believe that I am connected to her and that she’s sending me signs.

On my first birthday after she died, I couldn’t imagine celebrating it, like, I get another year but she didn’t.

We were driving to the Cape and, I swear to G-d, there was not a cloud in the sky and I looked up and there was a heart-shaped cloud right in front of me. I knew that was her; I just did.

Even if it is just our subconscious, even if it’s just in our minds, that’s OK too, right?

Do you feel that the Denver Police and coroner’s office failed in their initial investigation into Stacy’s death, and the resulting long delay in charges being filed?

That’s a tough question. I don’t think they failed. I think they got taken, they bought the story. Stacy’s husband is a psychopath and he fooled so many people. I truly believe that he fooled the detective at the beginning.

But the reason that I don’t think they failed is because after they got more information they took me seriously. The detective always took my calls, the prosecutor always took my calls. That doesn’t always happen.

So they took you seriously, but it took you to get the investigation back on track.

It did . . . and what happens to the people that don’t have somebody like me fighting for them?

Describe your role in interacting with Denver police and the DA’s office once you became convinced that Stacy’s death was not an accident or the result of natural causes.

Very early on, after the autopsy came back, I demanded a meeting with the coroner’s office. I went with my parents, my uncle Michael Opatowski, who is a doctor, a rabbi and Detective Dennison. The coroner’s office could not answer any of our questions.

I called the detective probably once every week or two and he always took me seriously. I was watching Dateline every night and I’d text the detective and say, check out so-and-so episode, maybe it was this or maybe it was that.

But [Assistant Denver DA] Maggie Conboy told me they weren’t going to take this case to trial until they knew they could win. Most of the evidence was circumstantial and there was a lot that the police department probably didn’t do in the beginning. When we found Dr. Smock at the Strangulation Institute, everything sort of fell into place.

He was the key to taking it to trial, and I believe that his testimony was important, as well as that of Susan McBride. She came forward after four months. I am so grateful to her. I was fighting for justice in my family and I think that had she not been in touch with the detective, four months after Stacy’s death, I don’t know that the detective would have taken me seriously.

Why was it important for you to be present during the trial in Denver, and how painful was it for you to have to listen to that terrible testimony?

It was actually my dream, my vision, the whole time, from the minute I heard that Stacy was dead until the minute we got that conviction. I dreamed of that day, sitting in court, wondering what it was going to be like. So I started and I had to see it through till the end.

There were people who really didn’t want me to keep fighting this fight; they saw how it was impacting my life. People say, “Well, it’s time to move on.” You and I both know that you don’t move on, right? You have a different reality, but you don’t move on.

Nobody had a relationship with my sister the way I did. She had tons of friends, everybody loved her, but she was my younger sister and my best friend. I was always trying to protect her and there was no way that I was going to stop fighting this fight.

I just needed to see it through to the end. Sitting there in the trial, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. My younger daughter sat with me through the whole trial. She wrote down everything but I don’t think I remember much of it. I had to disconnect myself because there were strict rules from the judge that you can’t show emotion, you can’t cry, you can’t look at certain people, you have to keep your composure.

I don’t know if I would be functioning if we didn’t get this conviction. It was so validating.

How did it feel when you heard the word guilty pronounced in that courtroom?

My daughter, who was sitting next to me — rooting for me — the whole time . . . she was bawling and she said to me, with tears in her eyes, “Mom, you did this.” And knowing that I was impacting my children’s life by showing them how determination and perseverance can pay off, was unbelievable.

While I was sitting in that courtroom, day in and day out, I was looking at the wood-paneling and the door that they take prisoners through and imagining him walking through the door. They put magenta handcuffs on him. Stacy’s favorite color was pink and I wear a lot of pink because of her. So when they put those magenta handcuffs on him and he walked through that door that I was picturing the whole time, it was like I could finally breathe again.

How have Stacy’s murder and the subsequent traumatic events affected her children? How are they doing now?

They’re doing absolutely fabulous right now. My nephew is finishing his freshman year, my niece is finishing her junior year. They are thriving, they are living their best lives. They know that we love them and that we’re always going to take care of them. We don’t really talk a lot about what happened. They have therapists and we feel like they’re grounded. We are just thankful, every day, that they’re thriving.

They have been living with my older sister in Connecticut. She had temporary guardianship when [their father] got arrested and then she got permanent guardianship. I could not have done the legal piece if I had them under my roof. It worked out well that my sister Liz took the task of bringing the kids into their home and raising them and I did the legal piece.

My older sister and I are two-and-a-half hours apart and there’s a meeting place exactly an hour and 15 minutes from both of us, so we leave our houses at the same time and meet at this restaurant. I take the kids or give them back and I see them a lot.

We’re not saying that we’re surrogate mothers because we are their aunts, and we’re raising them as aunts.

There are many Jewish parts to this story — the funeral for Stacy at the synagogue, the fact that the kids were at Temple Sinai when their mother was murdered. Has your own relationship to Judaism been of any help to you as you’ve gone through all this?

I think so. I am a very spiritual, traditional, practicing Reform Jew and the thing that really stood out for me was the mourning period, the 11 months of mourning, and how you’re supposed to do your mourning and then realize your new reality. I had to figure out what my new normal was going to be going forward, so the marking of time helped me.

And there’s no question that our Jewish community embraced me and my family, the meals that were delivered, Rabbi Joe Black, here in Denver, who counseled me. He was just wonderful.

I don’t think the people at the court and in the law system had ever seen a family like ours, being there at the trial, day in, day out, the support and dedication, taking care of the kids the way we did. I think that being Jewish gives us something that’s hard to describe and that I’m forever grateful for.

You have become active in various things as a result of all these events. What is the message you’re seeking to convey?

One of the reasons I was excited that Dateline approached me to do a story is because I feel like we think this doesn’t happen in our community. I wanted to dispel the myth that it doesn’t happen here.

The reason that I want to talk to anybody and everybody is because this is happening under our noses — to our sisters, our cousins, our family. We see our loved ones in abusive relationships and we don’t do anything about it.

I don’t have guilt for Stacy’s death. I know I could not have stopped it, but I do have guilt that I didn’t ask her more questions. I didn’t try harder to get her to leave him.

My message to anybody who thinks that they are, or have a loved one, in an abusive relationship is to say something. The reason I didn’t say anything to my sister is because I was afraid that I could fracture our relationship, that she wouldn’t have anybody to go to. I feared that if she didn’t have me to talk to, what would she do?

So my message is to take a risk. You might fracture a relationship but you might also save a life.

After all this, how do you view the concepts of justice, of vengeance or anger, and of closure. Is there such a thing?

I could not rest knowing that the person who murdered my sister was still living his life, and so I do feel peace that we got justice for my sister. She deserves that. She was a wonderful, bright light in this world, and because he couldn’t have her, he wouldn’t let her live her life. So justice was very important for me.

As to vengeance, yeah, he had to go to jail. I believe the death penalty was still in place here in Colorado, and I am glad that he didn’t get the death penalty because I do want him to suffer every day. Every time I talk to my mom, she says, ‘I hope he is suffering more today than he did yesterday.’ And I do want him to suffer.

There’s no such thing as closure because every day that I am here, living my life, she’s not here with me. I used to think that there was such a thing as closure, like, I just have to get him in jail and then everything is going to be better. But it’s not, because she’s still not here. I still have memories of her; I still talk to her several times a day, and I still miss her like crazy all day, every day. And that’s been eight years.

So I don’t think that there is, for me, such a thing as closure. There’s my new normal and there is my new way of living this life, doing this advocacy work that I’m doing. My advocacy is really my passion, continuing to tell her story.

So there isn’t such a thing as closure, but I do have justice and peace.

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Assistant Editor | [email protected]

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