Jury deciding: Was '01 shooting murder or defense?
FORT DODGE, Iowa – A prosecutor told jurors Friday that a woman killed her 20-year-old neighbor during a staged home invasion as part of a plot to frame her ex-husband, but her defense lawyer said it was prosecutors who made up evidence to cover up a failed investigation.
Jurors heard wildly different versions of what happened Dec. 13, 2001, during closing arguments at the first-degree murder trial of Tracey Richter, who is charged in the shooting death of Dustin Wehde at her home in Early, a small town in northwest Iowa.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated for more than three hours Friday in a case that could send Richter, 45, to prison for life after what prosecutors have described as two decades of fraudulent and sometimes dangerous behavior from Colorado to Chicago. When they meet again Monday, they'll have to decide which story is more believable: that she killed a man as part of an elaborate plot involving a phony home invasion or that she somehow warded off two intruders and shot one to protect her children.
Prosecutor Doug Hammerand said Richter "used and manipulated" Wehde, a troubled man who lived in his parents' basement and had been befriended by Richter's second husband. He told jurors Richter lured Wehde to her home, forced him to write in a pink spiral notebook that he'd been hired by her ex-husband to kill her and her 11-year-old son and then shot him nine times using two guns because she "could not take a chance that he would tell law enforcement that she put him up to it."
Hammerand said Richter planted the notebook in Wehde's car so police would find it and she'd get an advantage in an upcoming hearing where she risked losing physical custody of her son and $1,000 a month in child support payments.
Hammerand suggested Wehde took part in staging the home invasion while Richter's children were locked in one of the bedrooms, but "the problem is, Dustin didn't know what the final outcome was going to be." Richter fired the final shot in the back of Wehde's head after her son had called 911 and emergency responders were on the way because she wanted to be sure he did not live, Hammerand said.
Richter's defense claims Wehde and another man broke into Richter's home and choked her with pantyhose before she was able to break free, unlock her gun safe in the dark, grab two guns and shoot Wehde. Her son, Bert Pitman, now 21, gave vivid testimony about the alleged attack Thursday after his mother declined to take the witness stand.
But Hammerand urged jurors to reject what he called a "bizarre story." He said Richter's claim that Wehde was trying to get up when the ninth shot was fired wasn't possible since medical experts had testified that two earlier shots were instantly fatal.
Displaying a photo of three gunshot wounds to the back of Wehde's head as he closed his case, Hammerand said, "This is not someone trying to protect their family. This is intentionally killing someone, shooting him multiple times because you want him dead."
Defense attorney Scott Bandstra described Richter as a model stay-at-home mother who was making lamb for her husband, who was on his way home from a business trip, and watching her children when the break-in happened. He said prosecutors failed to prove Richter forced Wehde to write in the notebook and charged her after a sloppy investigation failed to find the alleged second intruder.
"They didn't want to find a second intruder," Bandstra said. "They were staging the evidence."
He urged jurors to send a message to the public that "people who protect themselves in their own house" are not guilty of murder.
Richter's and Wehde's relatives packed the courtroom in Fort Dodge, where the case was moved so Richter could get a fair trial. The audience included Early farmer Mary Higgins, who was once close friends with Richter but came forward this year with information that helped prosecutors charge her with murder.
Higgins testified that Richter told her months after the shooting that police found the pink notebook and it would prove her ex-husband was behind the attack. Police said they had not told anyone about the contents of the notebook because they believed anyone with that knowledge had committed a crime. Higgins testified Richter warned her in 2004 to forget what she was told about the notebook.
Bandstra tried to discredit Higgins by calling her "the government's best friend," pointing to Sac County Attorney Ben Smith. Higgins testified she made calls for Smith's election campaign last year at the request of her husband, who goes to Smith's church.
Jurors could find Richter guilty of first-degree or second-degree murder or acquit her. Richter, who moved to Omaha, Neb., after the shooting, has faced a long line of accusations of fraud and troubling behavior but never served time in prison.
She was convicted of unlawful discharge of a firearm after shooting a weapon during a domestic dispute with her first husband in 1992 in Colorado. Her second ex-husband, Michael Roberts, has accused her of trying to kill him at least twice, but authorities declined to file charges.
Richter has more recently been convicted of welfare fraud in Nebraska and vehicle-licensing perjury in Iowa and received probation in both cases.