Grandfather raises grandchildren after daughter's death

The youngest just graduated from medical school

By Justin Runquist, Columbian small cities reporter

Published:

 

Tears of pride and pain streamed down Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow's cheeks as he embraced his grandson, Mitch Onslow, last month at his graduation ceremony in Cincinnati.

It was a special moment for the two men, as Mitch had just earned his four-year medical degree from the University of Cincinnati on his way to becoming a physician.

More than 26 years after his eldest daughter, Michele Onslow, was murdered at the hand of her estranged husband, Ron was overcome with emotion as he watched her youngest child prepare to begin his career.

"I want you to know how proud I am of you and how proud your mom would be of you," Ron, 75, told his grandson. "And she's looking down and she's thinking about you."

Mitch was only 2 years old when his mother died. Now at 28 — his mother's age at the time of her death — he's at a pinnacle she never reached.

After high school, Michele attended the University of Portland with aspirations of becoming a special education teacher. Three years in, she put her degree on hold after marrying and having three children with Michael Fuller, a Vietnam War veteran whose dark past would later come to light too late for the Onslows.

In 1987, the family moved from Vancouver to Fuller's home state of Michigan, where they ran a general store and a gas station attached to their home in Lakeview, a rural village in the middle of the state's Lower Peninsula. Michele's relationship with her husband quickly deteriorated; she filed for divorce and registered to go back to school, making plans to get the kids away from Fuller. But that October, Fuller shot and killed Michele.

"She only had one semester to finish school and then she was going to teach," Ron said. "Domestic violence is a really, really evil thing."

After the murder, Ron and his ex-wife, Sally Onslow, took over for Michele, raising Mitch and his two older sisters, Micaela and Maria. In the face of his loss, Ron has taken solace over the years in watching Mitch rise to become an accomplished adult as the two have developed a strong father-son relationship. Before shipping off to Ohio, Mitch graduated from Fort Vancouver High School as the valedictorian of his class and went on to graduate cum laude with a bachelor's degree in neurology from the University of Washington. As Mitch grew up, Ron also enjoyed coaching and watching him develop as an athlete — he played three sports a year throughout high school.

And perhaps what Ron has loved most is seeing Mitch follow in his mother's footsteps with plans for a career spent helping children. Mitch went to medical school aiming to become a pediatrician, and after getting a chance to deliver a few babies in Cincinnati, he's changed his focus to obstetrics and gynecology.

"He's very bright," Ron said, "and, you know, when one life is lost, it seems like hopefully there's going to be another life (to) come to take its place."

'Dangerous' husband

Despite how many years have passed, Ron says he remembers everything about Oct. 15, 1987. That day, he was supposed to show up in court for his own divorce hearing. That wouldn't happen.

At the same time, Michele was going through a much rockier split from her husband in Michigan, where Sally had flown that day to support her daughter. The couple had separated a few months earlier, and the tension continued to build as Fuller had moved out to live with another woman, Ron said.

Michele had custody of their children. During the divorce process, Fuller was only allowed to see his kids at the courthouse in the presence of a court-appointed supervisor, Ron said.

Ron knew Fuller had verbally abused his daughter. Sally remembers hearing stories about how Fuller had threatened Michele and the kids with guns. At one point, he burned all of Michele's clothes and covered the windows of their home in white paint.

The Onslows became increasingly concerned for her safety when police warned Michele that she'd better be prepared to protect herself from Fuller.

"We got kind of frightened because the state police had come by and said, 'This Michael is dangerous,' and they showed her how to use a shotgun," Ron said.

When Sally landed in Michigan, she met Michele at the airport and they headed back to Michele's house, not realizing Fuller was hiding there, waiting for them. Before Michele could step inside, Fuller popped out from behind their garage and shot her and a 21-year-old man who worked at their store.

Sally, who was already inside, called police as Fuller fled. Mitch was asleep and his sister Maria hid under a bed. Michele crawled back inside the home, where she died with Sally and her daughter Micaela by her side.

The general store worker died from his wounds later that night in a Grand Rapids hospital.

Fuller drove about three hours before turning himself in at the psychiatric ward of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, where he told the staff he'd done something horrible but he couldn't remember what it was. Police arrested him there.

The Onslows would later learn that Fuller had voluntarily checked into a psychiatric ward once before after severely beating an ex-wife, Ron said.

Shocked at the news of his daughter's death, Ron immediately caught a flight to Michigan. He and Sally brought Micaela, Maria and Mitch to Washington to live with them, and they flew Michele's body back to be buried in Vancouver at the St. James Acres Catholic Cemetery.

Fuller convicted

The Onslows spent much of the next year in courtrooms. Ron and Sally continued working through their divorce as Fuller attempted to sue them for kidnapping his children. Everyone waited for the murder trial to end.

During the trial, the Onslows learned that Fuller had a history of domestic violence and a criminal record dating back more than a decade, including an arrest for "hindering and opposing" a police officer. Later on, he was convicted and arrested again for a probation violation.

In June 1988, Fuller was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of possessing a firearm while committing a felony. Now 66, Fuller is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole — the worst possible punishment since Michigan banned the death penalty long ago.

Mitch says he doesn't think of Fuller as his father, and he's never spoken to the man. Ron and the rest of the family decided they wanted nothing to do with Fuller.

Growing up Onslow

By the time of Michele's death, all but one of Ron and Sally's five daughters had left the nest. Soon, the newly separated Onslows found themselves with full houses again as they raised their grandchildren under joint custody.

It didn't take long for the Fuller children to become Onslows. A couple years into their new living arrangements, Ron and Sally asked which last name they preferred to use, and the kids decided to adopt the Onslow name.

In all, Ron has raised seven girls. After losing his eldest daughter, he's become more protective of the others and his grandchildren, and he's made a point to spend more time with them.

"I do have a talk with all my son-in-laws when they get married to my daughters," Ron said. "I sit down and say, 'You need to be really good to my daughter, or you'll have to deal with me.' I want to tell them how much I love my daughters and how much I don't want them to be hurt."

For a while after Michele's death, Ron lived just a few blocks from her grave. Each day, he would stop by, make sure her headstone was clean, drop off some flowers and talk to her.

"I miss Michele every day," he said.

Losing her hasn't made Ron more cynical, he said. Instead, it's given him a more realistic worldview, but he's done his best to continue seeing the bright side.

"I'm a real positive person," Ron said. "So, I try to be that positive person all the time, especially for my kids."

As his only boy, Mitch holds a special place in Ron's heart. The two spent a lot of time in Mitch's childhood playing and talking about sports and taking boat trips. Even with their hectic schedules today, the two find time to call each other from across the country just to chat about sports.

Mitch calls Ron "Grandpa" because that's what his sisters do. But with no memory of his mother and no desire to speak to Fuller, Mitch thinks of Sally and Ron as his parents, as do his sisters, Mitch said.

"I was 2 when my mother passed away, so really, my grandmother and my grandfather were more like parents to me," he said. "Both my grandmother and grandfather were amazing people in my life, and they've done a lot of good things for me."

Mitch's future

Now, Mitch is entering a four-year residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. His interest in helping children comes from growing up with Micaela, who spent a lot of her childhood in the hospital battling Crohn's disease.

"Being around that and seeing what the physicians were able to do for her, and help her, kind of made me decide, 'Wow, that's something I want to do with my life,'?" Mitch said.

Ron could not be happier for his grandson, and he hopes Mitch will move back to the Vancouver area someday. As a graduation gift, he plans to fly Mitch back to Washington for a big celebration with his family and friends whenever Mitch has the time.

"It was such a great thing to happen that he's come this far," Ron said.

A father's anguish, pride