I-Team: Deposition raises new questions in attorney’s death

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A Clark County grand jury is taking a fresh look at the death of a local attorney and part-time judge.

When Susan Winters died in January of last year, Henderson police decided it was a suicide. The coroner agreed. But an ongoing private investigation initiated by the Winters’ family has uncovered surprising and scandalous details which might change the suicide to a homicide.

Susan Winters parents are principal owners in the Sonic hamburger chain, so they had the resources to launch a private investigation of her death. What their team found caused the police to do an about face.

Susan’s $2 million estate went to her husband. A lawsuit has been filed against the husband, which means he had to give a videotaped deposition. The I-Team obtained the excerpts, and this will be the first time they are made public.

From the outside, all appears normal at the Boulder City Mental Health Clinic. Psychologist Dr. Brent Dennis still shows up a few days per week to counsel patients about emotional issues, marital woes, even drug use. A sworn deposition earlier this year suggests that these are subjects he knows very well.

Anthony Sgro:  “Were you using any drugs after your wife passed away in that next week?”
Dr. Brent Dennis: “I can’t say for certainty.”
Sgro: “OK, so do you engage — did you engage in the use of controlled substances at or around the time of your wife’s death?”
Dr. Dennis: “Occasionally.”
Sgro: “What is your controlled substance of choice?”
Dr. Dennis: “Not sure I have one.”

The reason for the grilling by former District Attorney David Roger and his partner Tony Sgro is a civil lawsuit filed in connection with the January 2015 death of Susan Winters, the doctor’s wife. Susan was an energetic 48-year-old attorney and part-time judge. She was also the mother of two teenage girls.

The marriage was stormy at times, and Susan had undergone counseling. Still, her parents could hardly believe it when they got the phone call from Brent Dennis.

Susan’s father Dan Winters says, “He called and said, ‘Susan had hurt herself. She tried to commit suicide,’ and I said, Brent are you sure? And he said, ‘my God, Dan, she drank anti-freeze.’” 

But Dan Winters and his wife Avis say they did not believe his story from the beginning.

“She had two daughters. She loved them more than anything. If she were going to commit suicide, she certainly wouldn’t have done it in front of those girls, and she certainly wouldn’t have done it where it took 24 hours to accomplish.”

When paramedics arrived at her Henderson home the morning of January 3, Susan had no pulse, but the EMT’s got her heart beating again. She died hours later from a deadly combination of anti-freeze and pain pills. 

Henderson police did a cursory investigation, interviewed the husband, and declared it a suicide.  But Susan’s parents say they got a weird vibe from Brent Dennis.

“He called, he was telling Julie, he said, ‘I just got interviewed by one of the police officers, and he said, I think I passed,’” describes Dan Winters.  The family reached out to former FBI agent Jim Perry.  

Perry quickly discovered dark secrets about Brent Dennis. Three to four times per week, for a period, of about a year, Dr. Dennis made trips to visit someone at the Orleans Hotel-Casino. Bank records show that he withdrew hundreds of dollars from an ATM at the hotel each time, to buy cocaine and other drugs. He admitted as much during his deposition.

Tony Sgro: “You purchased cocaine from him. Do you ingest it right there on the spot instead of taking it with you to ingest later?”
Dennis:  “It varied.”
Sgro: “So sometimes you did it on the spot?”
Dennis: “Yes.”

“It’s cocaine. It’s alcohol. It’s oxycodone. It’s methamphetamine. It’s valium. It is a whole menu of stuff. The ATM withdrawals are pretty much in line with what he made every month as a psychologist. He spent all of it,” explains Sgro. 

Why focus on the Doctor’s drug use? Because of what Sgro found once he subpoenaed the family’s phone records. Those records show that two days before Susan died, she repeatedly tried to contact her husband’s drug dealer, possibly to warn him to stop. And Sgro says, she also confronted her husband and threatened to report him to the medical board.

“When Susan says to her husband: ‘If you don’t stop using drugs, I’m going to report you to the board’, things quickly unravel from that point. They start fighting, they start arguing, and Susan would be dead within two to three days” says Sgro.

Sgro says the phone records also show that on the last night of Susan Winters’ life, as she lay unconscious and in pain, her husband called his drug dealer in the wee hours, then traveled to the Orleans. A few hours later, sometime after 5 a.m., someone used the family computer to search for information about the effects of anti-freeze poisoning. 

After Henderson police re-opened the case, the alleged drug dealer was arrested and faces trial next month.

Dr. Dennis has been notified by a grand jury that he is the focus of an ongoing inquiry. He declined to speak to the I-Team but referred us to his attorney Richard Schonfeld who told us that Henderson police and the coroner have already ruled this a suicide and that the reason this is being reviewed is because Susan’s grieving parents are unable to accept the realization that she took her own life.

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