FORT DODGE, Iowa – A woman forced a 20-year-old neighbor to write a diary framing her ex-husband in a murder-for-hire scheme and then killed him because she didn't think he could keep his role a secret, a prosecutor said Wednesday at her first-degree murder trial.
Prosecutor Douglas Hammerand told jurors in an opening statement that Tracey Richter invited Dustin Wehde to her home on Dec. 13, 2001 and forced him to create a diary claiming he had been hired by her first husband, John Pitman, to kill her and her 11-year-old son Bert.
Hammerand said the writing was interrupted mid-sentence when a friend who was planning to spend the night came to a side door, and Richter had Wehde leave out the front. But Richter canceled on the friend, saying she had to pick up her son from basketball practice, when in reality she planned to set up what looked like a burglary and home invasion involving Pitman, Hammerand.
The prosecutor said as part of the plan, Richter had Wehde, a loner who had spent time hanging out with her husband, back later that night and shot him nine times from two guns. Three shots that went through the back of Wehde's head would have been instantly fatal, he said.
Richter, 45, of Omaha, is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting at her former home in Early, a small town 100 miles northwest of Des Moines. She claims she acted in self-defense and was hailed as a hero after the shooting by some gun rights advocates and TV personality Montel Williams, who applauded her story on national television.
She blew a kiss at her fiancDee, who sat in the front row, as she entered the Fort Dodge courtroom. But she appeared to fight back tears as defense attorney Scott Bandstra shared her version of events -- that Wehde and another man broke into her home and strangled her with pantyhose before she was able to break free, unlock her gun safe and shoot Wehde. When he tried to get up, she shot him the last time with the second gun, the attorney said.
"On that day, her worst nightmare occurred," Bandstra said.
He said the evidence will show Wehde had a history of mental health issues and aggressive behavior. He also said law enforcement failed to investigate a man who could have been the second intruder and then ignored evidence that backs up his Richter's story.
The first Sac County sheriff's deputy to arrive on the scene, Daniel Bruscher, testified that Richter initially told him that two intruders fled the house on foot and "the one she shot was upstairs." She said that one of those who fled had "black curly hair," and she didn't see the other one.
When her 11-year-old son, Bert, told Bruscher the dead man was Wehde, Richter corrected him and said they did not know that yet, Bruscher said. He said he found Wehde slumped over on the upstairs bedroom floor. The air was hazy from gun smoke, and a blood splatter was on the wall.
Hammerand, an assistant attorney general, started his opening statement with dramatic flair: "The pink spiral notebook contained information only someone involved in the crime would know."
The details included the name of Pitman's divorce attorney, but the plastic surgeon from Virginia will testify he never met Wehde, the prosecutor said.
Hammerand said Richter worried she would lose custody of her son and child support payments if Wehde told police that he wrote the journal. Richter and Pitman divorced in 1996 but were still fighting over custody and visitation at the time of the shooting.
The first witness, Marie Friedman, testified she was friends with Richter because their husbands worked together. She said she showed up at Richter's home Dec. 13 planning to spend the night because their husbands were travelling on business.
Friedman said Richter told her after Wehde left that he was there asking about work, and she was glad he left because he creeped her out. She said she was surprised Richter cancelled their stay-over. She left after the two had tea and chatted.
Her husband, Ray Friedman, recalled how he and Richter's husband at the time, Michael Roberts, were driving home from Minneapolis when they heard about a shooting at Roberts' home. He said he let Roberts drive his car home because he could navigate dirt roads faster.
Both Friedmans, who now live in Florida, said they saw Richter at the hospital and she was distraught over the alleged home invasion and had red marks on her neck.
"Everything Tracey told me, it appeared to be that way to me," Marie Friedman said. "There was no question in my mind that she would not be telling the truth."
A defense lawyer noted Michael Roberts, who was investigated in connection with the shooting but is not a suspect, planned the business trip and gave Ray Friedman a $5,000 bonus and a $20,000 raise afterward.
Ray Friedman bristled at the suggestion that he was paid off, saying he was bringing the company $1 million in sales and asked for a raise to match his previous job's salary. He said he later left after he grew tired of the Roberts' antics.
"You just never knew what was going on," he said. "I didn't like the rollercoaster ride there. I live a very peaceful life and I don't want to be involved in other people's issues or chaos."