"We have an intruder in the house next door.…The intruder was in the bedroom with a hammer. The woman who lives there thinks she may have strangled him. He was down when she left."
"Can you put her on the phone?"
"Does she need an ambulance?"
"No, she's a nurse. She says call an ambulance for the guy. He may be dead."
—Portland 911 call on Sept. 6, 2006
Susan Kuhnhausen took her time going home.
On the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006, the 51-year-old emergency room nurse ended her shift at Providence Portland Medical Center on Northeast Glisan Street and headed to Perfect Look hair salon on East Burnside Street.
As she waited for her turn, she picked up a copy of Oprah magazine and read a poem.
"I will not die an unlived life," it began. "I will not live in fear."
One hour later, rested and relaxed, she drove to her blue, one-story Cape Cod with a gray picket fence in the Montavilla neighborhood of Southeast Portland.
In the mudroom at the back of the house, Susan found a note by the microwave from her husband of almost 18 years, Mike. "Sue, haven't been sleeping. Had to get away—Went to the beach."
He added that he'd see her on Friday or Saturday. "Luv, ME," he signed off.
Unlocking the door to the kitchen, Susan heard the beeping of her security alarm. She disarmed it, walked through the house to the front door and then went back outside. It was clear and warm at 6:37 pm that day, and she stood for a minute or two in the front yard, flipping through her mail.
When she came back inside, she kicked off her Birkenstocks and noticed how dark it was in her bedroom on the first floor. Had she forgotten to open the curtains that morning?
Suddenly, from behind the bedroom door, a man lurched toward her.
At 5-foot-9, the 59-year-old stranger weighed 190 pounds. He wore Dockers, a blue-striped shirt and a tan baseball hat pulled down low over his eyes. His long hair was in a ponytail tucked into the cap. He wore yellow rubber gloves on his hands and carried a red and black claw hammer.
"One minute you think you're a regular person in the world," she says now, "and then you're not."
Ten years ago next month Susan was attacked inside her home, by a man she later learned had been hired to kill her. By her husband.
Her story of survival remains one of the more shocking and violent tales in the annals of Portland crime—and one of the most heroic.
It grabbed international headlines for weeks as people marveled at the middle-aged nurse who not only escaped murder but strangled the lowlife with a felony record who had been offered $50,000 for the hit.
Her horrifying encounter fits a pattern. Nearly 1 in 4 homicides in Oregon involves intimate partners.
For 10 years, Susan—who today goes by Susan Walters—has spoken occasionally about her ordeal. But she's revealing new details now, going back to how she met her husband. She's telling this story for the first time, and is working on a memoir about her experience.
She survived that day, but carries psychic wounds: from knowing that her husband wanted her dead and from having to kill another person to save herself.
The dread she feels even today isn't guilt or shame. But it weighs on her just the same.
"I didn't choose his death," she says. "I chose my life."
911 dispatcher: "What did she use on him? She strangled him. What else did she do?"
Anne Warnock, neighbor: "She put a chokehold on him."
"I've got help on the way. Stay on the line."
"She has a hammer here."
"Don't touch it. Don't touch it. Just leave it there."
"She hit him in the head several times. That's the hammer he had with him. She struck him, and she strangled him, and she thinks he's dead."
—911 call on Sept. 6, 2006
For many people, the presence of an intruder brandishing a hammer in a darkened bedroom would prompt an entirely understandable response. They'd run.
But Susan wasn't most people. An emergency room nurse for nearly 30 years, she had disarmed injured men, helped crack open people's chests to perform heart massages, and administered IVs in patients thrashing from drug withdrawal. She and all the other nurses at Providence trained regularly in self defense, learning how to slip out of headlocks and clutches.
Still, she had doubted herself: "Will I ever remember this stuff?"
Years of training steadied Susan, who was still wearing blue scrubs when she returned home that night. When her assailant came at her, Susan crowded him, knowing the swings of his weapon would have less force if she stayed close.
His first blow landed on her left temple.
"WHO ARE YOU? WHAT DO YOU WANT?" she screamed as loudly as she could. But he didn't answer. And he didn't stop.
At 5-foot-4, Susan was 5 inches shorter than the man in the baseball cap. She had two bad knees from repeated injuries and excess weight. But she outweighed her attacker significantly.
Hoping to push him over, Susan says she slammed her body up against his.
He didn't fall. Instead, he pushed Susan's back against the pink-hued walls of her bedroom. He then uttered his only words that night: "You're strong," he told her.
The phrase sent surges of adrenaline through Susan—and a terrible awakening.
"He is here to kill me," she realized at that moment. "I don't know why. I don't know who he is. But his intent was clear."
Susan responded by pushing him again. "Who sent you?" she demanded.
She managed to wrestle the hammer from him, and she swung its claw three times, maybe four, into his skull.
He snatched the hammer back. So Susan grabbed his throat.
"WHO SENT YOU HERE?" she asked again, hands squeezing his airway.
The intruder's face turned red, then purple, then darker purple with a blue tinge. Susan spooked. She let go. Then she tried to flee.
"I don't know what I thought," she says, "I just had to get out of there."
The man, whom police later identified as Edward Dalton Haffey, caught her as she ran from her bedroom into a narrow hallway.
He spun her around again, punched her, splitting her lip. He punched her again. She fell to the floor. The image she saw next haunts her.
"He was standing over me with the hammer," she says. "I looked at the floor and I thought, I'm going to die today."
To this day she's not sure how, but she managed to pull the man to the floor, too. "I gotta get the hammer," she told herself then.
She started to bite Haffey, thinking that if she was going to die, her teeth marks might tie her death to him. Wrestling on the floor, she bit his arm, his flank, his thigh.
She even bit through his zipper to his genitals. At the same time, she tried to rifle through Haffey's pockets, looking for ID she could toss under a bed or chair or dresser that police would later find. "I was like a downed power line snapping on the pavement," she says.
The fight had now lasted about 14 minutes.
They were both wedged on their sides in the hallway outside Susan's bedroom. She threw her left leg over Haffey's body, climbed up on top of him, and hooked her left arm around his neck.
"TELL ME WHO SENT YOU HERE AND I WILL CALL YOU A FUCKING AMBULANCE!" she yelled in his face.
He said nothing. Instead, he growled.
Susan leaned forward, tightening her forearm against his throat. He stopped moving. Then she grabbed the hammer and fled outside to neighbors, who called 911.
Dispatcher: "Was he by himself?"
Neighbor: "Did he have anybody with him? No.…She expressed a concern it may have been her ex-partner who sent the person."
—911 call on Sept. 6, 2006
Susan had not witnessed a lot of happy marriages growing up. Her father, an Air Force cook, and her mother, a homemaker, separated when she was in second grade. Life was chaotic as the children moved from Colorado to Arizona, California and Nevada, shuffling between schools, homes and parents.
"My parents loved me, but they couldn't teach me how to have a successful marriage any more than they could teach me how to fly," she says.
Susan became a licensed practical nurse and then a registered nurse. She moved to Oregon in the early '80s, settling first in Coos Bay and later Portland. Outgoing and vivacious, Susan unleashed loud, boisterous laughs. When she went to shows at Harvey's Comedy Club, she'd sit in the front row.
In 1988, a friend and Susan's mother paid for a personal ad for Susan in Willamette Week. "Someone different," the 65-word ad teased. "SWF, 33, overweight but not over life, seeks SM who wants more out of a relationship than just 'slender.'"
"Hi different," one of many replies read. "My name is Mike. I'm a 39 y/o DWM. I enjoy most things in nature, from wandering in the Ape Caves at Mt. St. Helens to walking on the beach at sunset."
The day she first spoke with Mike Kuhnhausen by telephone—Jan. 30, 1988—she marked in her kitten-themed daybook with a smiley face in red ballpoint pen.
Susan and Mike spoke on the phone many times before actually meeting—over 100 hours, Susan estimates. "He had a nice voice," she says. "I was impressed he wanted to talk about the deeper things."
For their first date, in February 1988, they met at the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, next to Reed College, where they fed ducks and Mike tossed unsalted peanuts to squirrels.
Within the year, they'd be driving to Reno to get married. Mike liked to play slots, and Susan figured there was no bigger gamble in life than marriage.
It soured quickly. "It wasn't very long after we got married," she says, "that there was no more hiking, no more getting out."
Mike grew up in Portland, adopted as a newborn in 1948 by a couple in their 30s. He told Susan he saw combat in Vietnam, but she doubts that now. Military records list him as a switchboard operator.
Within a few years of the wedding, Mike got a new job as a janitorial supervisor for Oregon Entertainment, the parent company of Fantasy Adult Video.
He started slowly revealing to her in the early years that he'd never really been happy. "His life philosophy was: Life is a shit sandwich, and every day you take another bite until you die," she says.
The couple never had any children, and Susan was fine with that. Mike, who chain-smoked while guzzling Diet Cokes, hounded Susan about her plans when she went out. He watched her spending and complained about minor purchases.
Seventeen years into their marriage, Susan had had enough. If she tried to kiss him, he'd burp. "I cared about him, but I didn't want to live with him anymore," she says. "I wanted to be happy again."
In September 2005, she kicked him out of the house. He moved into his father's home. But Susan never changed the locks or the alarm code—1210, their anniversary.
Dispatcher: "Have there been problems with her ex-husband or her ex-partner?"
Neighbor: "She did talk to Mike, her ex-partner, and asked him to house-sit for the cats, and he said he couldn't do it. He was on his way to the beach.…He left her a note. He knows the alarm."
"OK, that's good information to pass to the officers."
—911 call on Sept. 6, 2006
It didn't take Portland police long to identify Susan's attacker and tie him to her husband. Police found a wallet with ID in the man's back pocket. Ed Haffey was a 59-year-old Vietnam veteran with a long rap sheet.
The day after the attack, Susan's friend Helen Bulone accompanied Susan to her house to help her collect belongings.
"Susan," Helen told her, "there's a backpack in your basement that doesn't belong."
Police hadn't noticed the backpack when officers inspected Susan's cluttered basement. Inside was a container of Hershey's syrup, $200 in cash, diabetes pills, a daybook and a pay stub made out to Haffey. An entry in the daybook for Monday, Sept. 4, 2006, was marked "Call Mike." A manila envelope listed Mike's new cellphone number.
Haffey, an autopsy would show, had a near-lethal dose of cocaine in his system when he attacked Susan in her home. He had recently lived in a trailer on Northeast Killingsworth Street. Relatives and friends told police he'd been raised in an upper-middle-class home and was an avid tennis player.
Court records revealed a gruesome crime 15 years earlier.
On Feb. 28, 1991, Haffey arranged the murder of his ex-girlfriend, 39-year-old Georgia Lee Dutton. Her decomposed body was later found along the Umpqua River, near Roseburg.
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit aggravated murder on March 14, 1994, and spent the next nine years in the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution. He was released on Nov. 3, 2003.
After he got out, he moved to Portland, and he needed a job.
He found one, in July 2004, when Mike Kuhnhausen hired him to clean floors at Fantasy Adult Video.
Financial records police later reviewed show that on the day of the attack, Mike drove his gold Dodge Neon to the coast, checking into the Lincoln City Inn with a credit card that afternoon. He returned to Portland that night, then spent $339 on a Taurus .357 Magnum revolver at the Silver Lining pawn shop on Northeast Sandy Boulevard the next day.
On Sept. 8, Mike left a suicide note at his father's house: "All I ever wanted was to be loved and every time I had it—I fucked it up."
Then he bolted. Police put out a bulletin.
At 10 am on Sept. 13, a Clackamas County sheriff's deputy finally caught up with Mike, stopping him in the parking garage of Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center, where Mike claimed to be checking himself in. "I have nothing to live for anymore," he told officers.
They put him on an involuntary psychiatric hold. Eleven hours later, officers put him under arrest for conspiracy to commit murder.
Mike: "Am I under arrest?"
Detective Steve Ober: "At this point you are, so what I'd like to do is re-advise you of your Miranda rights."
"You're not going to believe my side of the story."
"Why is that? We haven't heard your side of the story."
"My side of the story is so fucking off the wall."
—Police interview with Mike on Sept. 13, 2006
Authorities didn't buy Mike's pleas of innocence or his alibi that he'd been at the beach.
He'd lost his job weeks earlier. He had no place to live. Susan had named her brother as beneficiary on her life insurance policy, and Mike knew it. But Susan and Mike had paid off the Montavilla house, and it was worth about $300,000—a house that would be his if Susan died.
By the time of Mike's arrest, detectives already had employment records from Fantasy Adult Video to prove Mike knew Haffey. But when police booked Mike into jail on Sept. 13, he initially denied any connection.
Then he changed his story. "I didn't do it," he told them. "Just because I know the guy, doesn't mean I did anything."
Other evidence pointed to a plot with Haffey.
There were no signs of forced entry at Susan's home.
But security records showed someone had disabled the alarm at the Montavilla house while Susan was at work. Mike later said he did it while dropping off the note about going to the beach, but he denied letting Haffey inside.
On Sept. 18, a former cellmate of Haffey's contacted police saying Haffey had asked him to join a burglary—an "insurance scam," the man told police.
He and Haffey met a guy at Southeast 82nd Avenue and Division Street. It was Mike Kunnhausen, who told the man he'd pay $5,000 if he helped Haffey kill his wife. He said no.
On Nov. 17, another witness told police he'd driven Haffey to meet a bald man in the parking lot of an Applebee's near Interstate 205. Days after that, he saw the man's picture in the news after Susan's attack.
It was Mike, he said.
"He could deny it all he wanted," says Brian Davidson, a prosecutor on the case, "but the weight of the evidence was overwhelming."
On Aug. 30, 2007, Mike pleaded guilty to soliciting Susan's murder.
"Although this was a terrible thing that happened, no one in this family has any bad feelings toward you. You did what you were forced to do and in doing so, you spared many from the same trauma you experienced."
—Sept. 17, 2010 letter to Susan from the hit man's aunt
Mike was supposed to be released on Sept. 14, 2014.
Susan, who'd filed for divorce the day after Mike's arrest, prepared herself. Once bubbly and adventurous, the new Susan felt like "a broken plate glued back together." She sat in restaurants where she could see the door. She switched driving routes. She circled the block if she thought someone might be following her.
"I'm doing a life sentence for picking a bad husband," she says.
By 2014, she had moved to a new Portland home on an out-of-the-way cul-de-sac. Gravel surrounded her house so she could hear footsteps. She practiced shooting at a nearby range.
"If he came here, he was not going to get close enough to hurt me," she says.
Mike wouldn't live long enough to try.
On Friday the 13th, in June 2014, cancer killed Mike, 92 days before his release.
Jailhouse letters show Mike never acknowledged his guilt. He claimed he'd pleaded to the crime only to escape a possibly longer sentence. He continued to believe he was the true victim.
Ten years later, Susan still sobs intermittently when telling her story. "When I cry, I feel better," she says.
She continued to work as a nurse until December 2014. Her job was to save lives. But having killed a man, people called her a hero.
Hero? What did it mean? And why did she of all people deserve such praise?
"They're not calling you a hero because you killed a man," her boss told her. "They're calling you a hero because they want to believe, given the same circumstances, they, too, might survive."