48 Hours: How Did Mark Willey Die?

CBS’s ’48 Hours: Broken Hearts’ examines the December 1986 murder-suicide case of Karen Ermert and Mark Willey, along with its strange and surprising aftermath. 19-year-old Karen was shot to death in her Fairfax County, Virginia, apartment by Mark, her estranged boyfriend, a little while after breaking up with him. Their tumultuous relationship, exactly what transpired on the night of the incident, and how that led to saving the life of someone completely unrelated to the matter are all highlighted in this episode. But for now, let’s find out more about Mark Willey and how he passed away, shall we?

Who Was Mark Willey?

Born on November 1, 1967, in Fairfax, Virginia, Mark Willey met Karen Ermert back when they were in high school. Their romantic relationship began soon after that. But the one thing that no one could have ever expected or imagined was that Mark would turn out to be controlling and abusive towards his girlfriend. In fact, according to reports, before Karen ultimately broke up with him in 1986, during the years that they were together, Mark had been so violent that he sent her to the hospital on at least one occasion. Mark wanted Karen to do everything that he wanted, when and where he demanded it – as if he owned her.

By the end of the year, the former couple had become estranged, and Mark, no matter what, was unable to come to terms with it. Therefore, at around 2 a.m., on December 27, he drove to Karen’s apartment with a bottle of whiskey and a .22 caliber rifle in hand, determined to confront her and maybe even win her back. What ensued was a heated argument between the two that only ended when Mark grabbed the firearm and shot his ex-girlfriend several times, killing her instantly. He then, still in a fit of uncontrollable rage, combined with grief, turned the rifle on himself and fired just once more, aiming right for his own forehead.

How Did Mark Willey Die?

Once the authorities arrived at the scene and saw the two bloody bodies, it was easy to determine that it was one of those “if I can’t have her, nobody else can either” kind of situations. Karen Ermert, having taken a total of five bullets, was immediately pronounced dead. But Mark, with his heart still beating, was rushed to the Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church. There, the 19-year-old was pronounced brain dead. However, after getting permission from his family, his organs, including his heart, were harvested by the doctors to save other people’s lives.

And in the early hours of December 28, 1986, Mark Willey made medical history by having his organ be the one used in the very first Washington D.C. area heart transplant surgery. His essential life functions were supported with the help of a ventilator during the surgery, but after it was over, his parents agreed to pull the plug on him. As for how this was possible, columnist Gene Weingarten revealed, “The bullet [in Mark] passed through both hemispheres of [his] brain. Somehow, when that happens, often – but not always – the heart keeps beating.”

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