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Published: Wednesday, 6/21/2006

Michigan man found guilty of murder in resort death of wife

ASSOCIATED PRESS

BEULAH, Mich. A jury today convicted suburban Detroit resident Mark Unger of first-degree murder in the death of his wife at a northern Michigan resort in 2003.

Unger showed no emotion when the verdict was read.

The six-man, six-woman jury delivered its verdict in the ninth week of the trial in Benzie County Circuit Court. Overall, the deliberations lasted about 26 hours over four days.

After the verdict was read, court personnel placed handcuffs on Unger and led him out of the courtroom.

Judge James Batzer ordered Unger held without bail until sentencing. Batzer did not set a sentencing date.

Unger, 45, of Huntington Woods is accused of pushing his wife, Florence, from a boathouse rooftop deck the night in 2003. She fell 12 feet to a concrete apron and her body was found the next morning several feet away, bobbing at the shallow edge of Lower Herring Lake.

Prosecutors say Mark Unger dragged his wife, unconscious but still alive, into the water, causing her to drown. His attorneys say Florence Unger, 37, fell accidentally and died of head injuries.

Witnesses testified that she had asked Mark Unger for a divorce, which he opposed.

Jurors had their choice from three possible verdicts: guilty of first-degree murder, guilty of second-degree murder, and not guilty.

Asked about her reaction upon hearing the verdict, Claire Stern, Florence Unger s mother, said, Thank you, God!

Bette Rosenthal, Mark Unger s mother, described her initial reaction to the verdict as disbelief.

My son is innocent. He would never hurt anyone, Rosenthal said. I think the world knows that, except for those people.

Donna Pendergast, an assistant state attorney general who prosecuted Unger, said: I ve always felt that although it was a circumstantial case, it was a very strong

one.

It took nearly two years to bring Unger to trial after he was charged in May 2004. A stop-and-start preliminary examination to establish probable cause lasted until July 2005.

With no eyewitnesses to the woman s death, police and prosecutors stitched together what they acknowledged was a circumstantial case, but one they insisted proved Mark Unger s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The saga began on a cool, misty autumn night as Florence and Mark Unger stood together on a boathouse rooftop deck at the Watervale the night of Oct. 24, 2003.

Friends testified she was seeking a divorce and had been an emotional wreck the previous week after warring with her husband. Still, she agreed on a weekend getaway with him and their young sons to the resort, a favored vacation spot during happier times.

Unger, who didn t testify, told investigators that he left his wife on the deck and went to their rented cottage a short distance away to check on the children. When he returned, she was gone. Assuming she was visiting the nearby home of resort co-owners Linn and Maggie Duncan, he went to bed and became alarmed the next morning when he realized Florence Unger hadn t returned.

He phoned the Duncans, who discovered Florence Unger s bloodied corpse, clad in a dark running suit, bobbing in less than a foot of water at the edge of Lower Herring Lake.

Police testified they were suspicious from the outset. The dead woman had plunged 12 feet to a concrete apron, which was stained with blood, yet somehow had moved over a breakwall nearly three feet away and wound up in the water.

Officers theorized Mark Unger had snapped in anger, pushed her over the deck railing, then dragged her alive, but unconscious into the lake to finish her off and stage an accident.

Numerous prosecution witnesses, including Florence Unger s father, testified she

was deeply afraid of the dark, casting doubt on Mark Unger s claim she stayed alone on the deck.

Witnesses also said Mark Unger behaved strangely after his wife s body was found. Duncan, who broke the news to Unger, said he ran directly to the spot although he couldn t have seen his wife from where they stood. Police said as Unger made phone calls to notify family and friends, he sobbed one minute and was totally calm the next.

Defense attorneys offered a different scenario, insisting Mark Unger was passionately in love with his wife and could never harm her.

They noted the railing was partially rotten and at least 10 inches lower than code height, and the deck flooring was old and dotted with mossy growth. Florence Unger could have slipped on a wet spot, tumbled over the deck railing and propelled into the water by momentum from the fall or a seizure, they said.

Both sides called pathologists and other experts to support their competing views. Dr. Stephen Cohle, who performed the autopsy, stood by his conclusion that a head injury killed Florence Unger but acknowledged drowning was a possibility.

Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, the Oakland County medical examiner who examined the autopsy reports and other evidence, said drowning was the cause of death, pleasing prosecutors but drawing stinging cross-examination from defense attorneys who accused him of grandstanding for personal gain.

When a retired Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor offered animated depictions of how Florence Unger might have accidentally fallen, prosecutors dismissed them as cartoons.

Another twist was the disclosure that Florence Unger was having an affair with Glenn Stark, one of her husband s friends, with whom she had a sexual encounter a few days before her death. Defense attorneys insisted Mark Unger learned of the affair only after his wife s death.

Although Florence Unger apparently kept the affair from even her closest friends, she made no secret of her growing disillusionment with her marriage. Mark Unger, a former mortgage broker and radio sportscaster, had undergone treatment for alcohol and drug abuse and had run up gambling debts.

Still to be determined are long-term living arrangements for Unger s sons Max, 12, and Tyler, 9. They re staying with their maternal grandparents, Claire and Harold Stern, of Huntington Woods. A custody hearing is continuing in Oakland County Family Court.

Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com.



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