Husband and wife found dead months apart; friend claims murder-for-hire plot

Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 12:41 AM CST
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CLAY COUNTY, Ky. (WBKO/Gray News) - A lot of questions remain unanswered after a Tennessee man was found dead in Kentucky several months ago. His estranged wife, who friends suspect had something to do with his death, is now also dead.

The last time Preston Cleary ever heard from his friend, 53-year-old Michael Harding, was back in September. Days later, the Navy and Army veteran was found shot to death in an empty home in Cumberland County, Kentucky.

“Shouldn’t have been done that way. Nothing in this world should take anybody that way,” Cleary said.

Julie Harding, 49, was found dead Dec. 10 in Tennessee months after her estranged husband,...
Julie Harding, 49, was found dead Dec. 10 in Tennessee months after her estranged husband, 53-year-old Michael Harding, was found shot to death in Kentucky.(Source: WBKO, WSMV, California Highway Patrol, Preston Cleary via CNN)

Kentucky State Police said last Wednesday that Thomas O’Donnell was arrested at the Sacramento International Airport as he was set to board a flight to Tennessee. He was charged with Michael Harding’s murder and is awaiting extradition back to Kentucky.

However, Cleary told WBKO he believes Michael’s wife, 49-year-old Julie Harding, was behind his good friend’s death. The Hardings were married for two years but had been separated for a while and were going through a bad divorce.

“We all believe that she had Mike murdered, hired a guy to have Mike murdered,” Cleary said. “He was in fear for his life as well … and I think he knew what she was capable of.”

The same day that O’Donnell was arrested, Julie Harding was charged with trespassing in Rutherford County, Tennessee. Cleary shared Ring camera footage and alleges she was trying to take Michael Harding’s dog from his girlfriend’s home.

Julie Harding was found dead two days later in Clay County, Tennessee.

“She left a note saying that, ‘Mike, I guess you win,’” Cleary said.

Julie Harding was a California Highway Patrol commander, who had been with the agency since 1999. She was on leave at the time of her death.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is investigating her death and says no foul play is suspected.

Officials have not said if they believe Julie Harding had anything to do with her husband’s death. It’s also unclear what, if any, connection there is between her and O’Donnell.

Meanwhile, Cleary says all he can do now is reflect on the good memories he had with Michael Harding and hope for the truth and justice.

“Mike was truly just a good-hearted individual. Hope to see this over with, and Mike can finally rest in peace,” Cleary said.