Is Tracey Roberts heroic mom or a shrewd killer?
EARLY, Iowa (AP) - Something shocking happened one cold night a decade ago in this quiet country town of 500 people, but even now, just one fact about it all is undisputed:
Tracey Roberts, at home with her three children, fired 9 shots from two guns into her 20-year-old neighbor, leaving him dead on the floor of her bedroom.
Tall and thin with curly brown hair and blue eyes, she was 35 at the time. It wasn't long before her image appeared in newspaper coverage of the shooting and even on a national TV talk show, where she was celebrated as a heroic mother who acted in self-defense to protect herself and her young children from men who broke into her home and assaulted her.
But today, folks in Early are weighing a contradictory view and a slew of questions: Could she be a master manipulator who planned the killing and concocted an elaborate hoax that let her get away with murder? What exactly is written in the pink journal that police found, and does it show she was justified, or that she's guilty?
This is the story of a case that baffled investigators and stalled for years. Of an agent whose work resurrected the case and a rookie prosecutor who became obsessed with it. Of the quiet young man whose death ripped apart his family. Of townspeople who panicked after the shooting but soon suspected the official account did not add up.
Above all, it is the story of a woman who left a trail of deceit from Chicago to Nebraska and has a history of making sensational allegations that are never proven.
She insists she is telling the truth.
In a trial starting Tuesday, jurors will decide whom to believe.
It was a Thursday evening, Dec. 13, 2001, and Kenlee Schomaker and his wife Jane, emergency medical technicians for the volunteer fire department, were sitting in their Early home when the pager went off.
Shots had been fired a few doors down in their neighborhood. At least one person was injured and one or more suspects were on the loose. The EMT couple rushed to the blue, two-story colonial on South Avenue where
Tracey and Michael Roberts lived. It was one of the nicest houses in town.
Kenlee Schomaker remembered what they had been taught about scene safety: Do not enter a home until it is secure.
Three sheriff's deputies arrived, scoured the house, found no suspects inside and waved them in.
Climbing stairs to the bedroom, the EMTs spotted a man slumped at the bottom of the bed in a pool of blood. Shell casings scattered the room. One bullet had gone into the back of his head and out through his eye socket.
His eye was gone.
He had no pulse, and Schomaker told a deputy that rescue attempts would be futile.
As the EMTs left, they heard Tracey Roberts, in the kitchen with her three kids and deputies, screaming.
Her report that two other intruders escaped sent deputies canvassing everywhere. Fear quickly spread in a town where folks usually leave their doors unlocked. One of the Schomakers' neighbors would spend that night at their house. Another borrowed shells to load his shotgun.
The dead man was Dustin Wehde. He mowed the grass at property Schomaker owned; nice if you knew him, quiet if you didn't. He had few friends; folks remembered him as a kid who played golf and liked video games. Was he the type to break into anyone's home?
Besides, he was close to the Robertses, who took him to church and to play paintball. His mother, Mona Wehde, was a real estate agent who was among the first to welcome them to town.
Had Dustin been trying to protect Tracey from the other man and been killed in a mixup? Or was it something else entirely?
Whatever happened, Schomaker told a reporter two days after the shooting, Tracey Roberts had to go through hell to be scared like that, to have fired so many times.
Just three days after the shooting, Roberts showed up alone at the back door of Mary Cullen's home 15 miles away in Storm Lake. Cullen gave piano lessons to Roberts' 11-year-old son Bert, but the visit wasn't about that.
Cullen's husband John was publisher of the Storm Lake Times, and Roberts wanted to get her story out. John's brother Art, the paper's editor, conducted the interview.
Her retelling of the ordeal crackled with drama: With her husband on a business trip, she was home with her three children - Bert, 3-year-old Noah and 1-year-old Mason - when Wehde and another man barged through her unlocked door.
One of the men choked her with panty hose that had been hanging from the staircase. She lost her glasses and blacked out. She woke to the sound of Bert screaming; he was holding a baseball bat to protect his younger siblings.
Roberts continued: She ran to the bedroom and reached for the gun safe. Wehde tugged at her hair and yanked on her feet. When the safe opened, she grabbed a 9 mm handgun and pulled the trigger. Nothing. The safety was on. She groped, unlocked it, then fired. Most of the shots hit.
Next, she said, she grabbed a revolver from the safe. She spotted Wehde trying to get up and fired that gun at him. His movement stopped. The second man fled the house (She would later explain she was mistaken when she initially told a deputy two men had gotten away).
Bert dialed 911.
"TRACEY ROBERTS TELLS HER STORY," was the Dec. 19 headline.
Subheads added: "Strangled with panty hose, she warded off attackers to protect her children," and "'You're next,' intruder tells boy." The Times published a picture of her apparently bruised neck, which was checked out at a hospital.
TV personality Montel Williams invited Roberts to tell the story to a national audience.
Before the cameras, she and husband Michael held hands as she calmly spoke: "I did what I had to do to protect my family."
Applauding, Williams called her actions justifiable homicide.
An investigation by the Sac County Sheriff's Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation remained open but no second intruder was ever found and no charges were filed as of late 2002.
On Thanksgiving Day, Dustin's father, Brett Wehde, took a walk through the cemetery where his son was buried alongside relatives, his marble headstone emblazoned with engravings of his interests - a snowmobile, a golf cart, a computer - and inscribed, "Brett and Mona's beloved son."
After Dustin was killed, Brett and Mona broke up and filed for divorce. Brett was distraught over the crumbling of his family. At the graveside, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
The suicide of the well-known Brett hit Early hard.
Mona wanted answers. She filed a wrongful death lawsuit attempting to hold Tracey Roberts accountable for Dustin's death and to learn what happened that night. Why had Roberts really killed Dustin?
Her attorney picked up on inconsistencies in Roberts' story as she told and retold it. In one account, she knew it was Dustin pulling at her legs; in another, she did not find out the victim's identity until later. In different accounts, she fired from different positions.
In the end, Mona Wehde dropped the lawsuit just days before trial. State lawyers argued the planned testimony of a DCI agent could hamper the investigation.
But what investigation? Though never closed, it seemed to go nowhere. And years passed.
In January 2011, Sac County had a new prosecutor.
Ben Smith had left his job as a young lawyer for the attorney general's office and moved home with his parents months earlier to run for county attorney. A former running back at nearby Buena Vista University, he won handily. Now, taking office, he was inexperienced and swamped with work.
On his second day, DCI Special Agent Trent Vileta stopped by to welcome him - but added, "I want to tell you about this one case."
Vileta, a former Milwaukee police officer, had been assigned to take a fresh look at Wehde's death in 2008. He had gone through the evidence, re-interviewed those involved, re-read Tracey's statements, traded emails with her.
He'd helped bring in an expert on blood splatters who concluded the last three shots went through the back of Dustin's head while he was face down on the ground.
Smith remembered hearing reports about Wehde's death when he was in college, and thinking: "Stupid kids. That's what happens when you break into a home." He hadn't thought about the case since and told Vileta he needed time to settle into his new job before he could.
But the agent wouldn't let it go. He'd send Smith photos of the crime scene to pique his interest. After hours, they'd spend time playing "Call of Duty," the prosecutor's favorite video game. Finally, Smith promised he'd spend a weekend reviewing the case - and he was immediately hooked.
Working late nights and weekends, he went through years of files, putting together what he would later call 10 years of motive for the shooting and 10 years of twists and turns since.
The effort was exhausting. Smith's mother told him attending church would be a stress reliever. But there, a reading from Jeremiah instead gave him goosebumps. "To you I have entrusted my cause," the biblical passage began - but the reader said "case" instead. "For he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked."
Within months, Smith would file a first-degree murder charge against Tracey, who now goes by her maiden name of Richter.
The criminal complaint cited a key piece of evidence found by investigators in Dustin's car. After months of speculation in town, prosecutors revealed this month it was a pink spiral notebook that claimed to be his diary.
In Dustin's sloppy handwriting, it suggested he had been hired as a hitman by a "mysterious fellow" named John Pitman III, who was Tracey's first husband.
"J.P. wants me to get/force his ex T.R. to kill her son Burt and then commit suicide, and if that plan fails Plan B is to make it appear as though T.R. had committed the murder of her son & then committed suicide," he wrote.
While it was Dustin's writing, investigators never believed it was credible. Dustin, a special education student, did not like to write and he'd never met Pitman. They decided to keep the journal's existence and contents a secret. Anyone who had knowledge of it could be involved in setting up Dustin.
Prosecutors suspect Tracey had convinced Dustin to write the diary, perhaps on the day of his death. Mona Wehde says Tracey had asked the day before to have Dustin come over to do some "copy work" for their computer business.
An old acquaintance of Tracey Roberts later came forward and said Tracey told her about the notebook days after the shooting and that her ex-husband would soon be arrested in connection with the home invasion.
Tracey and Pitman, a plastic surgeon, had been married in Chicago in 1988 and split up four years later after having Bert. (He has not responded to AP requests for comment on his mother's case.) During a bitter divorce, child support and custody litigation, Tracey went to police claiming that Pitman had sexually abused the 3-year-old boy.
Pitman called the allegation false and spent years trying to clear his name. When the divorce was finalized in 1996, a judge ruled there was zero evidence to support the claim.
Later in 1996, Tracey married Australian businessman Michael Roberts and they would move to Iowa and have two kids together. But her feuding with Pitman continued.
In early 2001, she went to authorities with new allegations that Pitman had abused Bert, which were quickly dismissed. Pitman responded by filing legal actions claiming she was interfering with his visitation rights and alienating him from his son. Tracey worried about possibly losing custody of Bert and having to travel to Chicago for court.
A judge ordered that she be deposed days before Dustin was shot, but it was cancelled at the last minute.
At the time, another strange legal case involving Tracey was also wrapping up. She had filed a lawsuit in 1998 accusing a Chicago dentist of sexually assaulting her while she was sedated during a procedure. He called her claims bogus. In the end, she received a small settlement and dropped the suit - again, just days before Dustin was killed.
In the decade since the shooting, Tracey's life has taken more bizarre turns.
After Roberts filed for divorce from her in 2004, she tried to pin involvement in the home invasion and Dustin's death on him. She told the county sheriff that he used to talk in his sleep and would mention something about a journal that would set him free.
She started a Web site calling him a deadbeat dad and alleging that he may have been the second intruder. He told police that she tried to kill him - twice - but these and other allegations were dismissed by law enforcement as bogus he-said, she-said claims.
After she moved to Omaha, she told police in 2009 her Lexus had been broken into and Michael Roberts was likely to blame. Investigators found no evidence of a break-in but learned she had carried out an elaborate scheme to assume a fake identity.
She'd altered her divorce decree to give herself a fabricated maiden name - Sophie Edwards - which she then used to obtain a driver's license, a new Social Security number and a passport. She pleaded no contest to welfare fraud in Nebraska and was convicted of vehicle licensing perjury in Iowa, but she avoided jail. Federal passport fraud charges are pending.
For all the complexity swirling around his client, defense attorney Scott Bandstra said her defense in the murder case will actually be simple for jurors to understand.
It's about self-defense, about a mother protecting her children from intruders, and an investigation that failed to find the truth. He said he looks forward to telling "Tracey's story - and by story I mean her statement of what happened." He will present a theory about who the second intruder could be.
"Dec. 13, 2001 was a nightmare for Tracey. The nightmare is not over."
Now 45 and facing life in prison if convicted, she has been held on $1 million bail at the jail in Sac City. She's getting support from her fiancDe in Omaha and her parents, who live up the road in Rembrandt.
Her father, Bernard Richter declined comment, saying reporters write about defendants without thinking about "their poor family." He said he knows from experience: he's a retired Chicago homicide detective.
At the courtroom in Fort Dodge, Smith will be joined by an experienced prosecutor with the Iowa Attorney General's office. The county attorney said he hopes to get justice for Mona Wehde - and then quickly put the case that has consumed his life behind him.