Island native, renowned dog trainer believed murdered | Suspect arrested, but no body found
By ELIZABETH CELMS
Mercer Island Reporter Contributor
November 18, 2009 · Updated 1:25 PM
Nationally reputed dog trainer T. Mark Stover, who was believed to have been murdered in Skagit County last month by his ex-wife’s boyfriend, Michiel Oakes, grew up on Mercer Island. Indeed, the very venture through which he made his name — a qualified psychotherapist and trainer of dogs — began on the Island.
Before his alleged murder, Stover was known as the Northwest’s dog trainer of the stars. His clients included Starbucks founder, Howard Schultz, Mariners’ player Ichiro Suzuki and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, among others.
Stover trained the dogs at the 100-acre property that he and his former wife, Linda Opdycke, shared on an island near Anacortes. Island Dog Adventures included puppy training, dog obedience school, behavior modification and protection lessons; all taught by Stover, who had more than 30 years of experience.
On Oct. 28, Stover was reported missing after he failed to show up at work. Skagit County deputies were called to Stover’s residence the next day, after an employee found his dog, Dingo, wounded and bloody in the house. Police found traces of Stover’s blood in a downstairs bedroom and hallway.
Investigators suspect that Stover, 57, was murdered by Oakes in a case that may have ties to Stover and Opdycke’s divorce a few years ago. Oakes, 41, has been arrested, and the case remains under investigation.
This is not the first time that Stover has made headlines. The media has covered his dog-training business several times over the past 30 years. But before Stover made it big in the canine business, he was a “guarded and nervous” young man with a different name — Ted Balarude — according to lifelong friend Robert Demar.
“He was a mysterious person who didn’t talk much about his past. I think his mother had been married five times or so. After high school, he changed his name back to his father’s name. He also dropped his first name, Ted, to T. Mark,” said Demar.
Demar, who now lives in the San Juan Islands, has known Stover since his teenage years on Mercer Island. Both men graduated from Mercer Island High School, although Demar was a few grades ahead of Stover. They maintained their friendship throughout the years; especially during the ’70s and ’80s, when the two would get together often. Yet Demar said he was never able to really grow close to Stover, due to his “guarded” character.
“He was very intelligent and funny, but never a really close friend — too guarded,” Demar said.
The former Islander added that he always got the sense that Stover feared something: “He seemed paranoid. There was something that caused a great deal of fear in him; I’m not sure what.”
Yet Stover also held high aspirations, Demar said. Especially when it came to his career.
“Once he was in the [dog training] business, he acted like everything would work out and he’d make a lot of money,” Demar explained.
Records of Stover’s life on Mercer Island are scarce. Yet a Nov. 28, 1979 issue of the Reporter included a feature article trumpeting Stover as the Island’s “famous dog psychotherapist.”
By this time, Stover had earned local attention for his unique talents; from stories in the Seattle Times to Psychology Today.
“He may have been something of dog whisperer,” Demar said.
It would still be more than 10 years before Stover opened Island Dog Adventures with Opdyke, but the Island resident already had a reputable list of clients.
The 1979 Reporter article also describes Stover as a somewhat eccentric character and, like Demar, picks up on his shielded personality.
“Chameleon-like, Stover changes his approach, dress, even his mode of transportation dependent upon his mood and the situation at hand,” the story read. “He is outspoken on every subject except his own closely guarded personal life, which he shares with three highly trained German shepherds, Grette, Adrianna and Gunther.”
Although little was and is known — until investigators unravel the details of the suspected murder victim’s past — about the enigmatic T. Mark Stover, one thing is clear: he had a unique affinity with dogs. It was this connection that allowed the former Islander to become one of the nation’s most revered canine trainers. It is also the reason so many mourn his loss today.