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Plea bargain means light sentence for SLO woman who killed her husband in 2004 

A San Luis Obispo woman who shot and killed her husband in February 2004 has pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter. Blythe Coulter-Montanaro made national news when her late husband’s mother put up a $2-million bail for her daughter-in-law after the shooting. In March, Coulter-Montanaro pleaded not guilty to a murder charge. Since then, she’s been in court several times for preliminary hearings and was diagnosed by a psychologist as having battered woman’s syndrome.

The details of Blythe Coulter-Montanaro and Richard Montanaro’s marriage erupted into the public limelight on Feb. 27, 2004. That’s the day that police arrived at their home in the shadow of Bishop Peak and found the couple’s blood-smeared Honda minivan in the driveway, with its engine revving and car stereo blasting.

Montanaro was in the driver’s seat, slumped over, vomiting pink foam and bleeding from a gunshot wound in the chest; Coulter-Montanaro was curled up in a ball on the driveway next to him, weeping; an empty revolver sat on the ground nearby.

“I killed my husband,� she told the police through her tears. She said she didn’t mean to do it but he wouldn’t stop coming at her. “Let me tell you [about it]. Then I’ll get an attorney.�

Coulter-Montanaro describes her husband as “bipolar,� difficult to live with, and sometimes a very mean person. And over years of marriage, the situation had gotten worse. To relieve his mental problems, Montanaro had been prescribed a powerful tranquilizer that’s used to treat people with anxiety neurosis. But Coulter-Montanaro said he didn’t always take his medication.

On Sunday, Feb. 22, Montanaro flew from Panama to Los Angeles. When he got to his car, he discovered he’d locked the keys inside. Coulter-Montanaro says he called her up, screamed at her to call AAA, and warned her that she’d better be out of the house when he got home. So she spent the early part of the week with her sister and at the Holiday Inn in Santa Maria.

Her son called her mid-week and said his father wanted to talk. Over the phone Montanaro told his wife that he was embarrassed for what he’d done and that he was moving out for a year. He told her he would leave her a couple of property deeds so that “she had something to live off of,� and told her he would be gone by the time she got home.

And while he loaded up their Honda minivan with personal effects, a collapsible bed, and a sleeping bag, he was still there when she got home. That’s when he started fighting with her about a boyfriend she had in high school 20 years ago. He then forced her to show him where the boyfriend lived and printed out six pages from an map web site showing how to get from an airport in Eugene, Ore., to the man’s address in a nearby town. At one point, Montanaro broke out the glass over the front of their fireplace with a poker.

By Thursday night, Coulter-Montanaro said her husband was becoming “increasingly irrational� and claimed he was going to kill her former friend. Montanaro made her get one of his three guns out of a safe — a blue-steel Astra revolver, with a six-inch long barrel and brown plastic grips — and load five rounds into it. That was the gun, he told his wife, he would use to kill her ex-boyfriend.

But when her husband wasn’t looking, she hid he gun. She was hoping that he would start taking his medication the next day and forget about the weapon.

“I was just so afraid,� she later told police. “I didn’t know what to do.�

Just before 10 a.m. the next morning, Montanaro called the Federal Aviation Administration and got a weather briefing so that he could fly his Fouga jet from San Luis Obispo to Eugene. In the coin pocket of his pants, he put a slip of paper with the ex-boyfriend’s name, phone number, and address.

At one point, he ordered Coulter-Montanaro to bring his glasses, and when she brought the wrong ones, he made her get his sap gloves — gloves with steel shot embedded in the knuckles. He started punching his hand, saying he was going to “take care� of the ex-boyfriend. He smashed a clock and flipped over a coffee table.

By now, Coulter-Montanaro was scared for her own safety. She took the gun out its hiding place and wrapped it in a blue-, white-, and pink-striped towel. It wasn’t long, she said, until Montanaro started coming at her with “that look,� and felt she was in big trouble and that he was going to do something awful.

She raised the gun at her husband and pulled the trigger five times. One bullet hit the refrigerator; another lodged in the wall. One grazed his neck; one grazed his left arm. And one bullet hit him in the chest and came out his back.

“You killed me,� he said to her.

Dripping blood, he walked through the garage to the driveway, got into the minivan, and collapsed. Coulter-Montanaro had followed him the whole way. When she got to the van, she dropped the gun in the driveway, pulled out her cell phone, and called 911. Police found her in the same spot a few minutes later, crouched down and sobbing hysterically.

Her husband was pronounced dead at Sierra Vista Hospital at 11:08 a.m.

Blythe Coulter-Montanaro will be sentenced on March 2. Because she agreed to plead to voluntary manslaughter instead of murder, her sentence could range from felony probation to three years in state prison.

—A.H.

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