`We Were Closing In . . . And He Knew That' -- Death A Final Escape For Murder Suspect?

James Endorf had always told his wife, Debra, that he didn't know a thing about his first wife's disappearance 16 years ago. But in the weeks before her own murder, Debra let friends and relatives know she both suspected and feared her husband, police now say.

"If that ever happens to me," Debra, 40, told her friends, "don't believe it."

Following James Endorf's suicide, Pierce County Police have released details about Debra Ann Pew Endorf's murder Jan. 25 and about how close investigators were to arresting James Endorf when he took his own life Saturday. The portrait of escalating violence, of high-powered firearms and impending divorce emerges from what police say about the life of the two Boeing managers from Lake Tapps.

Within days of finding Debra's body in the trunk of her Cadillac, strangled with a bungee cord and her skull smashed, police say they began to suspect her husband. James, 48, refused to cooperate in even routine stages of the investigation, referring all questions to his attorney.

Seeking statements from friends and relatives, police say they learned that Debra had been involved with another man and that she was planning to divorce James. Although police say Debra never sought protection from her husband, many people that police questioned said that James initiated violent arguments and physical confrontations. Detective Richard Rice said one friend saw James throw his wife against a wall.

Based on these comments, and after learning James' first wife had disappeared under suspicious circumstances in 1976, police obtained a search warrant and spent 20 hours combing the Endorfs' home. Among other things, police removed a 16-foot garage door. Yesterday, for the first time, detectives explained why.

From a pattern of blood and hair splattered on the door, police were able to recreate what they say was Debra's murder. They know she was hit three times, and from the bloody traces, they can tell where she and her murderer had been standing.

Rice said that, despite efforts to clean up, blood remained on the garage floor and inside the master bathroom. The blood type matched Debra's, and police say they were just waiting for a lab to verify the match through a DNA test, which is a more precise method, before they arrested James.

"It was just a matter of time," said Rice. "We were closing in on him and he knew that."

But Endorf may have believed the impending arrest was closer than it actually was. Police say they planned to wait six to eight weeks for the test results before they moved in. Last Thursday, however, Endorf's attorney, Gary Clower, told Endorf that police were planning to arrest him the next day, police now say.

A secretary in Clower's office said the attorney was sick yesterday, and that he would not comment on the case.

Police had asked that Endorf meet with them on Friday to give them a sample of blood, so they could rule out the possibility that the blood found in the garage was his.

But Endorf, evidently believing he had only one more night of freedom, began planning a final escape. He wrote a suicide note, loaded a shotgun, and started driving south in his 1983 Ford van.

By the early hours of Friday, though, his plan was interrupted on Interstate 5 near Longview, when Endorf was arrested by the State Patrol for drunken driving. Police booked Endorf into a county jail and confiscated the gun. Jail officials had no authority to hold Endorf on the drunken-driving charge after he posted bail at 5 a.m.

Later that day, Pierce County Police said, Endorf bought the hose and duct tape he would use in his suicide. He also returned home to swap vehicles and get another gun, an assault rifle, which he loaded with a single round. He placed another two rounds in his pocket.

When two women riding horses on a logging road near Buckley discovered Endorf slumped across the seat of his pickup Saturday afternoon, two lengths of hose snaked from the vehicle's dual exhaust to the windows of the cab. The gun was at his side, along with a suicide note in which Endorf denied any connection to the fate of either of his wives, said Pierce County Police spokesman Curt Benson. Although the text of the note was not released, Benson said it indicated Endorf could not bear the pressure of the investigation.

An autopsy yesterday confirmed that Endorf died of carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Although Endorf's suicide officially closes the investigation of his wife's murder, it may mean the disappearance of his first wife will never be solved.

Endorf and his first wife, Linda Sue, had been married for 13 years when she vanished Dec. 8, 1976, leaving behind a 13-year-old daughter, Angela. After finishing a late shift that night as a Western Airlines ticket agent, Linda Sue was never seen again.

It wasn't until two weeks later that her husband filed a missing person's report, said King County Police spokesman Rick Chubb.

Just weeks after the disappearance, Endorf filed for a divorce on grounds that the couple had "separated" on the date of her disappearance.