FORT DODGE, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa mother who told police she shot a 20-year-old neighbor to death while trying to protect her family from intruders goes on trial for murder Tuesday in a case authorities say boils down to the woman's attempt to frame her first husband for a crime.
Tracey Richter fatally shot Dustin Wehde on Dec. 13, 2001, at the home where she lived with her second husband and three children in the 500-resident town of Early. Prosecutors say Richter, hailed at the time as a hero who acted in self-defense, killed Wehde and planted a notebook in his car suggesting he was a hitman hired by an ex-husband she had feuded with for years.
Richter says two men broke into her home and assaulted her before she was able to get guns from a safe and shoot Wehde nine times with two weapons, leaving him dead on her bedroom floor as the second man fled. She said she acted to protect her children, ages 11, 3 and 1 and was applauded when she shared her story on the "Montel Williams Show" in 2002.
But prosecutors who say she has repeatedly changed the details of her account charged her this year with first degree murder after the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation re-examined the case. Among the evidence cited in court records is the conclusion of a forensic expert hired by an investigator who said the final three shots came when Wehde was face down on the floor.
Richter, who was arrested in July in Omaha, where she had moved and was living with a fiancé, has pleaded not guilty. She faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if she is convicted at the trial, which gets under way Tuesday with jury selection in Fort Dodge.
The trial was moved from the county where Early is located after the defense argued Richter could not get a fair trial there in part because the Chicago native and her second husband Michael Roberts, an Australia native who she has since divorced, were viewed as outsiders after moving to the rural area in the late 1990s.
Many Early residents noted after the shooting that Wehde had been friendly with Richter's family and said they did not believe he had broken into her home. Wehde's parents divorced after his death and his father, Brett Wehde, committed suicide on Thanksgiving Day 2002 at his son's gravesite.
Michael Roberts wrote in an email to The Associated Press that he thinks Wehde was "simply a prop" used by Richter.
"Thankfully for her victims past, present and future, her make believe house of cards is about to fall," Roberts wrote in the email from California, where he has been living with their children since Richter's arrest. "I don't rejoice in her downfall, but I cannot deny the relief."
Richter's attorney, Scott Bandstra, has said he will argue investigators failed to follow leads that could have identified the alleged second intruder. He also has argued that the forensic expert's findings bolster his client's case because they show the shots could have come from the angles she described.
The notebook found in the front seat of Wehde's car after his death also will be a point of contention. In it, Wehde wrote he was hired by a "mysterious fellow" named John Pitman, a plastic surgeon who divorced Richter in 1996, to kill Richter and her 11-year-old son, Bert. At the time of the shooting, Richter and Pitman were in a custody dispute over the boy.
Investigators have said while the entry was in Wehde's handwriting, they never believed it was credible or that Wehde was actually a hitman, and they kept the existence of the notebook and its contents a secret.
An old acquaintance of Richter's later came forward and said the woman had told her about the notebook days after the shooting, and said that her ex-husband would soon be arrested in connection with the home invasion.