IOWA CITY (AP) — A mother serving life in prison for murder must be allowed to see her children, who were in the rural Iowa home during the execution-style killing of their neighbor, a judge decided in a ruling that outraged the prosecutor in the case.
Judge Nancy Whittenburg’s order requires Michael Roberts to take his children from their home in California to visit Tracey Richter at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville three times while she appeals her murder conviction.
Sac County Attorney Ben Smith said Thursday it is unbelievable that Richter maintains parental rights after a jury convicted her of shooting Dustin Wehde, 20, at their home in Early in 2001 while the children — then 3 and 1 — were in the next room.
“Do you think Tracey cared about the children when she stashed them in the room 15 feet from where she fired 11 shots?” Smith said. “She should have lost any and all rights to make those kinds of decisions or to have an influence in her kids’ lives when she executed somebody.”
In the ruling issued last week, Whittenburg also said Roberts cannot move to his native Australia with the children until Richter’s appeals are exhausted, even though Roberts says his temporary visa has expired.
Whittenburg said the 14-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl have a “long, positive history with their mother,” whom she called an excellent parent.
She said the visits will help “bring closure to the sudden and traumatic events of the past year” in which Richter was arrested and convicted of killing Wehde as part of a plot to frame her first ex-husband, John Pitman, for a home invasion.
Prosecutors say Richter shot Wehde several times at close range in the back of the head in her bedroom, and concocted an elaborate hoax that she acted in self-defense to protect her children after Wehde and another man attacked her.
Richter said the men broke in and choked her with pantyhose until she broke free, unlocked a gun safe, grabbed two guns and killed Wehde as the other man fled. Three kids, including one she had with Pitman, were in the bedroom across the hall.
Roberts, on a business trip during the shooting, initially stood by his wife’s account. But the two eventually divorced and blamed each other for Wehde’s death. Richter had primary custody of their children until her arrest last year in Omaha, which came after investigators took a new look at the death.
Roberts then moved with the children to a California city he will not disclose, saying he fears for their safety. Days after her conviction, Richter was caught sending letters containing Roberts’ Social Security number and other information that could be used to find him to an incarcerated Wisconsin sex offender.
Whittenburg ruled that Richter’s contact with the inmate was “not consistent with the duties imposed on a joint legal custodian.” But she said Roberts didn’t present enough evidence to justify hiding in California, saying: “It is Michael who has created the distance and hardship that is attendant to visiting Tracey in Iowa.”
Whittenburg ordered Roberts to disclose his address so Richter can send her children mail, including tapes of her reading them books. In addition to the visits, Richter was granted 30-minute phone conversations on the children’s birthdays.
Roberts’ attorney, Eric Borseth, said he was considering appealing the decision, which he called the first of its kind in Iowa. Borseth said he was also exploring settlement options that would allow Roberts and the children to return to Australia, where he has employment opportunities and family support.
“We were disappointed in the ruling, primarily because we didn’t believe it was in the best interests of the children to be visiting her at the prison,” Borseth said. “The biggest concern we have, other than the trauma of going to a prison and seeing your mom there, is that mom and her family have continued to blame Michael for the predicament she’s in.”
Smith, the prosecutor, said he believed the decision did not consider Roberts’ rights as a father.
“It’s just mind-boggling how somebody that is convicted of murder, fraud and perjury still gets a say,” he said.
“And not only does she get a say, the spouse is ordered to travel 1,500 miles to facilitate visitation with the very person that was convicted of the murder, but yet blames him for it. Can you imagine?”