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In victim's life, grit and grief
Slain woman tried to put turbulent past behind her
Cheryl Maher, strangled and stabbed in Weare last week, may have achieved in death what she had desperately sought in life: a triumph-over-tragedy rewrite of her episodes of addiction, mental illness, jail time and bitter custody fights.
Maher's Facebook page continues to get new adoring posts from her 1,094 "friends," many of whom say they never met her. Similarly, callers who honored Maher during a televised tribute Wednesday on Manchester Public Television said they didn't know her personally but were moved by what they'd read about her. And others said they had just met her.
"She taught me that no matter what mountain you faced in life, there was always a way to move forward," a recent acquaintance said. "The minute you met her, you knew she was an amazing person. I wish she could finish the rest of her story."
It wasn't that Maher, 41, hadn't tried.
Over the last few years, in frequent newspaper articles, blog entries, Facebook posts and court filings, Maher made public the sort of details many people desperately try to keep secret. The list included a nude hot tub incident she had at 15 with a married man, her alcohol abuse, her 1986 car crash that killed a high school friend and an Amber Alert that that landed her in jail for three weeks in March.
In those public statements, Maher claimed she'd been sexually assaulted by men in her life and mistreated by the Mormon Church, to which she once belonged. She shared that she had been diagnosed with mental illness and been hospitalized for substance abuse. She was open about having had an affair and shared in court records that she had worked as a promotional model for liquor companies and as a dancer.
The court officials overseeing Maher's divorce and custody case raised concerns about her mental health, according to court filings. So did her ex-husband, Dr. Eric Knight of Derry. He declined to be interviewed for the story but responded to questions by email.
"The Cheryl I married was equally beautiful inside and outside, full of life, amazing in so many ways," Knight wrote. "Many of us who loved her deeply watched and tried to help as she was consumed by mental illness and drug addiction over the last eleven years. In the last six years or so, she was a shadow of the person she used to be."
Maher was not only undeterred by such statements but determined to show otherwise. She told friends she was going to put her life story in a book. It would be a story of recovery, she said. Her parents believed she was going to run for state representative.
She was optimistic in a Jan. 1 blog post. "2011 is going to bring great things," she wrote.
Maher was killed early last Sunday morning in the Weare home she shared with her new boyfriend, Joseph Geiser. State authorities have said Geiser's 18-year-old son, Jacob Geiser, killed Maher, then himself. The authorities have not offered a motive, and Geiser and his family have not returned phone calls or online messages. Maher's family and friends have said Maher was fond of Jacob Geiser and cannot imagine why he would kill her.
Maher was born in Peterborough in October 1969 but moved to Utah with her family when she was about 2 so her father, Richard Maher, could study at Brigham Young University. Richard Maher had joined the Mormon Church a few years earlier, and he and his wife, Marge, raised their five children in the church.
Maher quit high school, her mother said, and went to work for her father's book publishing and sales company. From there, she took a job with Kevin Garn, her father's business partner. The families had known each other for years and attended the same congregation in Utah. The relationship crossed boundaries.
In 1985, when she was 15 and Garn was 28 and married, Garn invited Maher into a hot tub. She told him she did not have a swimsuit. He told her it didn't matter - he didn't have one either, according to news accounts.
Maher didn't tell her family and didn't speak publicly about the incident until last year, when Garn was the Utah House majority leader. Maher contacted media outlets and other lawmakers in March 2010 and told them Garn had not only been in a hot tub with her but had also paid her $150,000 to keep the matter private. She also alleged there had been physical contact but did not elaborate.
Knowing a news story was coming, Garn admitted to being in the hot tub and paying Maher the money but denied physical contact. He then resigned.
A year after the 1985 hot tub incident with Garn, Maher was driving when she collided head-on with another vehicle and killed her friend, Lisa Sickinger. Maher suffered serious injuries, including heart damage. According to news accounts, Maher had been drinking before the crash. Two years ago, Maher created a Facebook memorial page to Sickinger. The site says Sickinger died in a car accident but does not say Maher was driving or had been drinking before the accident.
About two years after the crash, Richard and Marge Maher moved their family from Utah to Londonderry. In an interview last week, Marge Maher said the family relocated because Richard Maher's business wasn't doing well. His brother worked at Raytheon in Londonderry and was able to get Richard and Cheryl Maher jobs there.
Maher married for the first time around 1989, her mother said. She and her husband, Eric Crawford, had a daughter together and later divorced. Crawford did not respond to a request for an interview. Marge Maher said he remained a good friend to Maher and the family.
Maher met her next husband, Knight, at a Mormon singles event, Marge Maher said. Knight was attending school in Boston, and Maher visited the event with friends. The two married in 1994 and had three children, twin daughters and a son. The girls were diagnosed with Asperger's disorder when they were about 3.
The marriage lasted about 12 years. Maher and Knight divorced in 2007, citing irreconcilable differences. Fights over custody, child support and alimony payments consumed the remainder of Maher's life.
The two had initially shared decision-making and custody. But within a year, Maher was found in contempt for making parental decisions without Knight's knowledge and filed repeated complaints with the court against Knight, school officials and a guardian ad litem, the court-appointed advocate assigned to look out for the children's interest in the custody dispute. She accused Knight of abusing her and their children and filed complaints against him with the Derry police, state child care officials and state medical officials.
She also sued the guardian ad litem in small claims court. When all her claims were dismissed, Maher alleged the court, the police and others favored Knight because he was a doctor, according to court records.
Increasingly concerned about Maher's stability, the court granted sole decision-making to Knight in 2010 and reduced Maher's custody privileges: She was no longer allowed to have the children overnight on school days, according to court records.
In an April 2010 order, Derry District Court Judge Paul Moore wrote, "The court is very concerned that (Maher) . . . focuses on issues that are years old and has a very difficult time accepting responsibility for her actions. The court recognizes that (Maher) is trying to actively co-parent the parties' minor children and deeply cares for the children but finds that the method which she attempts to gain (Knight's) attention/compliance (and) increase her custody time disruptive to the children's daily activities . . . (and) emotional well-being."
Bruce Wechsler, the guardian ad litem assigned to the case, raised his own concerns. "There may be some mental health issues involved, but the mother does not appear to be willing to embrace the possibility," he wrote in a court file. "She appears to be on a mission of righteousness, saying that she has made amends, but appears vindictive toward the father."
Moore, the judge, granted Knight a protective order against Maher in 2010. The state Supreme Court overturned that in April after finding that Knight had not shown a credible threat to his physical safety when he described Maher's "harassing" emails or her alleged maligning of him to people he considered unpredictable.
Before that victory, however, Maher hit a low point in her fight for custody. In March, she was arrested after failing to return the children to Knight on time. The police issued an Amber Alert, and Maher and the children were located in a Salem motel room. Maher was charged with three counts of interference with child custody.
It was the last time Maher saw her children. The court took away all unsupervised visits with her children until she agreed to a mental health evaluation, according to court records. She would see her children only in a supervised setting at a state child visitation center.
During a court hearing on that matter in late March, Maher became "boisterous" in court and told the judge she no longer intended to fight to see her children. She refused to have a mental health evaluation. "I am done," she said. "I am giving up my rights until my children are of legal age."
When the judge tried to make sure Maher understood that she still had rights to regain time visitation with her kids, Maher interrupted him, according to the court file. "I don't want my rights," she said. "What don't you understand? You are not listening, and I am not going to listen to you or the guardian ad litem anymore."
Maher spent three weeks in jail on the interference charges because she couldn't make bail. She finally accepted a loan from a friend, state Rep. Gary Hopper of Weare. Maher was due in court on the charges in September.
On the air
That is not the Maher many people saw, however. Over the last several months, especially, she amassed a number of friends who admired what they saw as bravery and courage in fighting for her beliefs.
In June, Maher started The Maher Regime, later renamed The Maher Report, a political talk show on Manchester Public Television. On June 29, she began a segment on welfare fraud with an announcement.
"A little over a year ago, I went public with my story," Maher said without going into detail. "It was a very lonely and difficult time . . . and now I am sitting here where I can be a voice. My voice can change things in this state and so can yours."
High on Maher's agenda was fighting the state's family court system, which she felt had wronged her, and exposing sexual abuse, which she claimed she had suffered. On her show, she railed against affirmative action, supported parental notification and advocated abolishing guardians ad litem from divorce cases.
Maher had connected with state lawmakers who shared her conservative political views, often via Facebook, and had testified at the State House. Most recently she was planning to get involved with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Amanda Grady, public policy director of the coalition, met Maher a few months ago at the State House. "She had a big smile on her face and she sat down next to me," Grady recalled. "She was really outgoing and said, 'I see you are a lobbyist. Who do you lobby for?' "
When Grady told her she worked for the coalition, Maher's eyes got big, Grady said. "She said, 'We must be meeting for a reason. I'm deeply involved with these issues, and I've been looking for a way to get involved,' " Grady said. Maher and Grady planned to continue that conversation at a meeting later this month."One of the things I remember her saying was that victims need to know they are not worthless and that . . . they have so much to offer society," Grady said. "She believed she was really fortunate she was in a position to be that voice and speak from experience."
Matt Connarton was Maher's co-host on The Maher Report. They didn't always agree politically, but Maher could disagree without being disagreeable, Connarton said.
"I think it was relatively recently that she had pulled it together," he said. "I think she had finally found what she believed was her purpose in this world. It was gratifying to see her take what she had been through and try to help others and make a difference."
Norm Moody, a psychic from Manchester, met Maher about five years ago when she came to him for a reading, he said. They stayed in touch, and it was Moody who introduced Maher to public-access television. He said Maher's appeal was overwhelming.
"I met her when she was down at her deepest," Moody said. "Still, she had a beautiful aura around her. Through all the adversity she had gone through, she had that, I'm going to say, angelic look. She was like an earth angel."
Knight, Maher's ex-husband, has not been surprised to see people respond to Maher this way.
"She became a dramatically different person in different settings with different people," he wrote in an email. "However, she was always sincere - she could absolutely convince herself of whatever she wanted to believe at any given moment whether it was true or not, even if it was the opposite of what she believed with equal sincerity at other times. Based on those beliefs, she acted with dogged determination, right or wrong. That conviction and sincerity drew many people to her."
Charlene Craig, founder of the Ms. New Hampshire North America pageant, met Maher about four years ago. Both lived in Derry, and they met because someone had told Craig that Maher would be a great contestant for the pageant, which gives people a platform for their personal causes.
"As soon as I met her, the connection was right there," Craig said. Maher won the 2009 title and intended to work on autism and the disabilities her children have. But Maher gave the crown back, Craig said, because she was going through the custody dispute and did not want to bring bad publicity to the pageant.
Craig did not get involved with the details of Maher's divorce and custody fight. That wasn't what Maher represented to her, she said.
"To be honest, I think some people just didn't understand her," Craig said. "She believed in a cause, and she was going to fight for it until the end. I have been able to be more aggressive since meeting her. She motivated me and a lot of people."
Hopper met Maher through his daughter and first connected with her on Facebook. They shared the same political views and, when Maher needed a place to stay, Hopper suggested she stay with his mother in Weare. Like Craig, he considered Maher's past her past. And he didn't believe she intended to give up access to her children as she had said in court. Her plan, he said, was to renew her fight in time.
"I wanted to know Cheryl as I knew Cheryl," he said. "Everybody goes through dark times. If you've gone through a lot, you realize how close you are to being that person in the gutter. That is the humility you get going through trials and tribulations, and Cheryl and I had that in common."
After Maher was killed, Hopper posted on her Facebook page a note she'd written him in March. "I know I have walked with God before I came into this earthly sphere . . . and he told me I would choose a difficult path because I would be able to help others and have more compassion and love for those who have suffered," Maher wrote. "I will be able to understand others and lift people up because of my struggles."
Maher went on to write, "I look forward to the resurrection. I will be made completely whole and so will you. This life is very short and every day we have is a blessing."
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or at email@example.com.)