Iowa Hero mom or killer? Woman faces trial in 2001 shooting death of neighbor

By Ryan J. Foley

Associated Press

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 went on trial for murder Tuesday in a case that 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 Early, a town of about 500 people 100 miles northwest of Des Moines. Prosecutors say Richter, who was initially hailed as a hero who acted in self-defense, killed Wehde and planted a notebook in his car suggesting he was a hit man 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 and her second husband divorced, and she was arrested in July in Omaha, Neb., where she was living with a fiance. She pleaded not guilty to the charges, and would face a mandatory life prison sentence if convicted.

Her trial begins Tuesday with jury selection in a courtroom in Fort Dodge, where the case was moved after defense attorneys argued that Richter couldn't get a fair trial near Early because she and her second husband, Michael Roberts, were viewed as outsiders after moving to the area in the early 1990s. She grew up in Chicago and he grew up in Australia.

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 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 that 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 hit man, 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.

Published: Wed, Oct 26, 2011

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