Trial Begins for Mother Accused of Killing Neighbor to Frame Ex-Husband

July 27, 2011: This photo released by the Iowa Department of Public Safety shows Tracey Ann Richter-Roberts.

July 27, 2011: This photo released by the Iowa Department of Public Safety shows Tracey Ann Richter-Roberts.  (AP)

Tracey Richter was hailed as a hero after fatally shooting her neighbor, telling police she was protecting her children after he and another man broke into her Iowa home. But ten years later investigators are calling her a murderer, saying the 2001 killing was a calculated attempt to frame her first husband.

The starkly different visions of the mother of three will be laid out for jurors Wednesday during opening statements in Richter's first-degree murder trial.

Prosecutors allege she shot 20-year-old Dustin Wehde nine times with two weapons, then falsely told police she was the victim of a home invasion. They also say she'd planted a notebook in Wehde's car that implicated her first husband in an apparent murder-for-hire scheme.

Defense attorney Scott Bandstra told potential jurors Tuesday that his client used guns she was able to get from a safe to protect her home, herself and her three children after Wehde and another man broke in and assaulted her Dec. 13, 2001.

Bandstra also is expected to suggest Wednesday that investigators failed to follow leads that could have identified the alleged second intruder -- who prosecutors say doesn't exist.

Richter, 45, was introduced to jurors Tuesday wearing a black sweater and a white dress shirt, not the orange jail jumpsuit she wore at previous hearings. Six men and six women were selected to hear the case.

Wehde was found dead in the bedroom of Richter's home in Early, a small town about 100 miles northwest of Des Moines. Richter has long acknowledged she was the shooter, insisting she acted to protect her children, ages 11, 3 and 1, who were home with her while her second husband was away on business.

No second intruder was ever found, and the investigation stalled in the years after the shootings. No charges were filed.

But the Division of Criminal Investigation took a fresh look at the case in 2008 and developed new evidence, including a forensic expert who concluded the final three shots came as Wehde was face down on the ground.

Investigators said not only did the new evidence disprove Richter's claims of self-defense, it also provided a strange motive: She was trying to frame an ex-husband she had feuded with for years.

District Judge Kurt L. Wilke said the trial is expected to last more than one week at the Webster County courthouse in Fort Dodge, where the case was moved after the defense argued Richter could not get a fair trial near Early. Richter, a Chicago native, moved to Early with her second husband Michael Roberts in the late 1990s.

Michael Roberts and Richter have since divorced and feuded over child support, custody and related issues. He wrote in an email to The Associated Press that he thinks Wehde, a loner who had gone to church and played paintball with the family, was "simply a prop" used by Richter in a scheme to frame her first husband. After they filed for divorce in 2004, she later suggested Roberts also could have been involved in the home invasion.

Investigators said they found a pink notebook in the front seat of Wehde's car days after the shooting, and it's expected to be a key piece of evidence at the trial.

In it, Wehde wrote he was hired by a "mysterious fellow" named John Pitman, a Virginia plastic surgeon whose divorce with Richter was finalized in 1996, to kill her and her 11-year-old son, Bert. Investigators have said that while the entry was in Wehde's handwriting, they never believed it was credible or that Wehde was actually a hit man, and they kept the existence of the notebook and its contents a secret.

Investigators said an acquaintance of Pitman later came forward and said Richter told her shortly after the shooting that authorities had found the notebook and would soon be arresting Pitman.