FORT DODGE, Iowa – Two decades of what authorities describe as a Nebraska woman's fraudulent, bizarre and alarming behavior came to an end Monday when a jury rejected her claim of being a hero who resisted a home invasion and found her guilty of murdering a neighbor as part of a plot to frame her ex-husband.
Tracey Richter, 45, claimed she shot 20-year-old Dustin Wehde in her home in Iowa in 2001 after he and another man broke in and strangled her with pantyhose. She appeared on national television soon after the shooting, telling how she killed Wehde to protect herself and her three children.
But prosecutors said there was no home invasion and that Richter lured Wehde to her house in Early, had him write in a notebook that her ex-husband had hired him to kill her and their son and then shot him to keep him quiet. Court records and testimony showed Wehde, a depressed loner who lived in his parents' basement and liked computers, was just one of many people manipulated by Richter over the past 20 years.
Her second husband, who claims she tried to kill him, praised the verdict that carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. An oral surgeon from Chicago, who claims Richter seduced and drugged him as part of an extortion plot, rejoiced. And outside the courtroom in Fort Dodge, Wehde's mother, who saw her marriage break up and her ex-husband commit suicide after their son's death, called the trial's outcome a blessing.
"We thank everyone ... for seeing through the lies and hearing the truth. It's what we all were waiting for," said Mona Wehde, of Hutchinson, Minn.
Richter's former real estate agent, Mona Wehde had filed a wrongful death lawsuit to get answers about what happened to her son but dropped it before a trial in 2005. Despite the verdict, she said, there's "a lot of deep hurt left in there."
Richter buried her face in her arms on the table when the jury's verdict was read. Her mother, son and fiancé huddled in the courtroom, hugging and crying before quickly leaving without talking. Her attorney said she will appeal.
Prosecutors say Richter shot Wehde to death on the floor of her bedroom and then planted the notebook in his car in her driveway in an effort to gain an advantage over her ex-husband during a custody fight where she risked losing her son and $1,000-a-month child support payments.
Her husband at the time of the shooting, Michael Roberts, held her hand while she appeared on "The Montel Williams Show" in 2002, telling how she had defended herself and her children. But after he filed for divorce in 2004, she accused him of being involved in the home invasion. The two feuded for years over custody of their children, who are now living with him in California.
Roberts, who claims Richter once tried to suffocate and drug him, said in an email that he was eager to rebuild his family life and move on after her conviction.
"We pray for the health and welfare of not only my children, for Wehde's family and for Tracey's other victims," he said.
Richter, who moved to Nebraska after the shooting, also accused Roberts of breaking into her car and planting a photo of Wehde. Investigators determined that report was fabricated, but while looking into it, they discovered evidence that led to a 2009 welfare fraud conviction in Nebraska and a vehicle licensing perjury conviction last year in Iowa. Federal charges of passport fraud are pending.
"I think there are some things that caught up with her," said Sac County Attorney Ben Smith, who filed the murder charge against Richter months after taking office.
Richter, whose father was a homicide detective, has had brushes with law enforcement since 1992, when she pleaded no contest to unlawfully discharging a firearm during an argument with her first husband in Colorado. She later accused him of sexually abusing their son. A judge ruled in 1996 there was no evidence to support those claims.
"She's a very dangerous woman," her ex-husband's divorce lawyer, Chicago attorney Stephen Komie, said in September.
Prosecutors say Richter also tried to frame Komie in the Wehde case. The notebook found in Wehde's car suggested he was involved in the phony murder-for-hire scheme as Wehde's main contact. Komie didn't immediately return a message Monday.
The guilty verdict delighted Chicago oral surgeon Joseph LaSpisa, who claims Richter seduced and drugged him in 1997 and then accused him of sexual assault in a plot to extort $150,000. Both of their claims are detailed in records from a four-year legal feud that he says contributed to the loss of his private practice and temporary suspension of his dental license.
"That is excellent!" LaSpisa said when told of the verdict. "Like I said, too bad they don't have a death sentence down there."