Remembering a driving force in the East Bay
For 15 years, friends have been left to wonder why
Known to many as larger-than-life, Margaret Lesher left an indelible impact on the East Bay through philanthropic work and her forceful personality. Wife to newspaper magnate Dean Lesher, she and her husband were among Contra Costa County's elite as well as characters admired throughout the Times empire.
A loving wife and mother to four daughters, Margaret was well known for her generosity and vivaciousness. Former state Sen. John Nejedly told San Francisco Chronicle reporters he was originally charmed by her "fetching looks and irrepressible energy," and dated "Maggie" for several years in the early 1970s. The two remained good friends until Margaret's death, and her presence left an impression on Nejedly's family.
"She was like a mom to me. She was very kind, thoughtful and supportive to me as an adolescent young girl," said District 3 County Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho, John Nejedly's daughter. "She was beautiful and had a smile that lit up a room. She also had a keen sense of humor."
Piepho said she and Margaret were in contact over the years and "loved running into each other." Maggie, Piepho said in an e-mail, would always give her a huge hug that felt safe and warm.
Margaret's ultra-femininity was but one of her attributes that didn't quite fit into the official tale of her unexpected death in May 1997. A "girly-girl" who was always smiling, her death aroused suspicions that haven't subsided 15 years later.
On May 13, 1997, Margaret "Margee" Thorstenson drowned in her underwear in Bartlett Lake, north of Phoenix. The 65-year-old had taken an impromptu camping trip with her much younger husband, Collin "T.C." Thorstenson, when she mysteriously disappeared at 3:30 a.m., he told authorities.
Deputies from the Maricopa Sheriff's Department found the Thorstensons' 14-foot jet boat two miles from the campsite and suspected that the boat had become untied and blown by the wind. Margaret's clothes were in the boat, and her body was found later that afternoon in 8 feet of water, 25 feet from shore.
The coroner's report found no drugs or substances besides alcohol in Margaret's system, and ruled the drowning an accident that July. Although Thorstenson, 40, refused to take a polygraph test, he was cleared as a suspect in the case.
"We were stunned. She was larger than life and it was such a void," said Angie Coffee, a Walnut Creek resident who was good friends with Margaret beginning the late 1970s. "All four girls ... were heartbroken."
Michael Simons, Margaret's long-time friend, hairdresser and public relations coordinator, said she had called him a week before her death and asked him to visit her at her new ranch in Arizona. Simons was traveling at the time and heard about Margaret's death upon his return from Paris.
"I was in the salon that day and the secretary called me. She said Margaret was found dead. And as a very good friend and with the relationship we had over the years, I was speechless. I was shocked and saddened by the news. I was very curious what the outcome would be," Simons said.
Margaret's death continued to send shockwaves through the East Bay, which had long known her as a force to be reckoned with. But years before she came to the area and ended up reigning as a queen of the social scene, before a lengthy legal battle surrounding her estate and years of heartbreak among family and friends, Margaret was a small-town girl who was crowned Miss Peach.
Born in Texas, Margaret was a knockout who yearned to be a good wife and mother. When her first marriage to Bill Ryan, a telephone company middle-manager and father of her children, ended in the late 1960s, "Maggie" Ryan became a single mother of four who managed the Walnut Creek Wig Boutique and earned $78 a week.
In 1972, Margaret's marriage to Contra Costa Times Publisher Dean Lesher made her fabulously wealthy. A benefactor to Battered Women's Alternatives (a precursor to STAND! Against Domestic Violence) and, later, the driving force in persuading the city of Walnut Creek to rename its civic arts complex the Dean S. Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, Margaret was known for her sometimes outlandish comments, religious piety -- she hosted a show at a Christian television station -- and as a devoted wife to Dean until his death in May 1993.
A 1997 article in the San Francisco Chronicle likened Margaret to Evita, "a beauty, she was born poor, scarred by lost love, elevated to prominence by attaching herself to a man of great wealth and greater ambition, and ultimately vanquished in tragedy."
But Coffee, who served on the Regional Center for the Arts board with Margaret, said the Evita comparison is far from the truth.
"She was so lovely. She had a quality about her that was totally endearing," Coffee said. "She truly believed in helping those who were less fortunate than she; she was just wonderful."
Simons remembered her as ambitious and an "endless shopper."
"Margaret would come into the salon two or three times a day depending on what her schedule was. It was always something different, color, length, style," he said. "She was a fashion leader in the community."
She was a fixture in the Robert Jenson Salon in Lafayette, Simons said -- "Everyone would come in for a fix of Margaret." Fifteen years later, she still has Robert Jenson's abuzz.
Still, Margaret's often ostentatious dress, combined with candid discussions of her various plastic surgery procedures, rubbed some the wrong way. Articles from the time of her death said Margaret had acquired a reputation for being cluelessly cavalier and insensitive in the Contra Costa Times newsroom.
Those closest to Margaret told reporters that she secretly relished giving unsuspecting listeners the shock treatment. Others said Margaret was tickled by the idea of surprising people -- though her untimely death could be considered the biggest surprise of all.
Several people close to Margaret believe her death wasn't an open and shut case, while others have referred to it as "the murder." Some have spent 15 years questioning why Margaret would take a swim in the middle of the night or whether T.C. had a motive for killing his wife, and many remain confused.
"I looked at this gorgeous face (in the paper) and I literally felt like I was going to throw up," Coffee said of reading about Margaret's death in the newspaper. "This just didn't make sense to me."
Coffee noted that Margaret didn't drink much and, on more than one occasion, would nurse one glass of white wine during a fundraiser and never finish it. The alcohol levels in Margaret's blood at the time of her drowning seemed entirely uncharacteristic.
Simons referred to Margaret as a very intuitive woman who "had concerns about Arizona." Among the information that was released after her death, Simons said he was surprised that sheriffs found Margaret's clothes neatly folded on the boat. Margaret never folded her clothes neatly, he said.
It later came out that Thorstenson, a well-known buffalo performer, had a checkered past. T.C. had been subject to allegations of previous spousal abuse, was named in a paternity suit filed by a 25-year-old who gave birth to twins two months after his marriage to Margaret, and had possibly misrepresented his financial status.
"If Margaret had any idea of his history, she would not have spent any time with this man," Coffee said, pointing to Margaret's work with battered women.
Simons recalled how surprised he was to learn of the marriage since Margaret was such a frequent customer and confidante.
"I was surprised ... because it was sudden," he said. "I was dressing her hair and looked down at her finger on a Tuesday morning and I said, 'New purchase?' and she said, 'I got married over the weekend.' I asked where, she said Hawaii. I asked 'to whom?' and she said 'a buffalo trainer.' And that was basically our conversation at that point. I was totally surprised."
Simons later threw Margaret and T.C. a wedding party at her mansion in Orinda with 150 guests -- complete with a buffalo-riding demonstration in the foyer.
Some suspect that Thorstenson wanted Margaret's money -- he was willed $5 million in cash -- and that he may be culpable in his wife's death. Sources said that he still lives at the $1.7 million ranch he bought with Margaret in Scottsdale, Ariz., although the house is in a state of disrepair.
In 2002, Thorstenson told The Arizona Republic that "news stories fraught with innuendo made his life hell" and he hoped the speculation would end.
"It's not an unsolved mystery," he told reporters. "It's a tragical thing that happened to someone I loved."
Today Thorstenson's Facebook photo shows him atop a buffalo, having just jumped through a hoop of fire. He did not answer emails.
Simons, who keeps photos of Margaret on his station at the salon, said he does not speculate about the circumstances around Margaret's death.
"I was not there, I only have insight before her death and I have a bit of knowledge from what the press and people have said after her death. I am not judgmental and I cannot make that decision. I don't know what happened," he said, noting that people still come into his salon and ask if Margaret had her hair dressed there.
Margaret continues to be missed by friends and the community, Coffee said, noting that her spirit lives on through her philanthropy.
"She left a beautiful legacy with the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation and what it does for the county.... It's just that she was such a driving force and that is missed. There is no one else like her, frankly, not in our county," Coffee noted.
"The good memories stick and it gives us a platform to promote the good things that Margaret actually did for the community," Simons added. "Hopefully, she has laid the groundwork for some incentives for younger generations to follow ... to work toward a better community."
On the 15th anniversary of her death, her family will honor Margaret with a quiet, low-key remembrance. Although there is still uncertainty surrounding her death, Piepho said Margaret's family has ultimately decided that they need to move on. Emotionally, they are still hopeful for justice.
"At the end of the day we lost a very beautiful member of our community and we still miss her tremendously," Piepho said.