IOWA CITY, Iowa — A mother convicted of a high-profile Iowa murder wrote to a Wisconsin child sex offender in an attempt to find a witness to bolster her legal defense, but the letter was alarming because it included a photograph of children and personal information about her ex-husband, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
The prosecutor who convicted Tracey Richter said he was concerned enough that he alerted an attorney for the ex-husband, Michael Roberts, who is locked in a custody dispute over whether he can move with their two children to his native Australia. The letter included information that could be used to find Roberts, such as his Social Security number, date of birth and physical description.
"She's dangerous and everybody keeps underestimating her," Sac County Attorney Ben Smith said. "I feared for Michael and his kids."
Richter was convicted of first-degree murder in November for fatally shooting her neighbor, 20-year-old Dustin Wehde, at her home in Early, Iowa, in 2001. Richter claimed self-defense, saying Wehde and another man broke into her home while she watched her children. Prosecutors argued that Richter tricked Wehde into coming over, shot him and planted a notebook in his car to implicate him and her first husband in a murder-for-hire scheme.
Richter's attorney didn't return a message seeking comment.
Days before she was sentenced to life in prison, Richter sent the letter and photo to Wisconsin prison inmate James Landa, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. Landa had written to Richter after her trial, saying he supported her and had been following the case because a fellow inmate who hails from Iowa subscribed to a local newspaper.
In her response, Richter repeatedly asked Landa if his friend had personal knowledge of the crime. She said she included the photo of other children because it might cheer him up, and asked: "Kids are cute, huh?"
The letters have become public as Roberts seeks permanent custody of their two children, who are 12 and 13, and permission to leave the country. Richter and her relatives oppose the request. A trial is scheduled for next month.
In an affidavit supporting Roberts, Smith said the letter was one of many examples showing "that putting an ocean between them and the above-demonstrated harm is in the best interests" of the children.
Smith said it was obvious Richter was trying to solicit testimony to help her win a new trial, but that the carefully worded letter did not amount to a crime. He said it was not clear whether Landa received the letter, which was was copied by a jailer before Richter's mother left the jail with it in late November. The photo was found in Landa's prison cell, but the letter wasn't, he said.
The letter also included personal information about Wehde and another man whom Richter claims was the second intruder, along with detailed sketches of her old home and the car where the notebook was found. She told Landa it was "possible there was another lookout person."
Smith said the only reason she would include such details was to help someone come up with testimony.
"The intentions were clear. She's not stupid. This is her Doug Flutie toss in the end zone," he said. "She has to get information for a new trial."
Landa wrote Richter several letters telling she was pretty and that he wanted to be her friend, even including poems expressing his love for her. When Richter wrote back, he responded that her letter was like getting a Christmas present.
In a second letter to Landa — the one that alarmed Smith — Richter told him: "My trust must be earned over time. And actions speak louder than words."
She said if the other inmate knew something, "the statute of limitations has run out on assault and burglary, so there is nothing to lose if someone feels bad and wants to do the right thing."
Her letter said her lawyer could put his friend in touch with a television show covering the case. She included a police file that mentioned Roberts' former home, adding: "The details provided are given in case you need to confirm something."
Tracey's mother, Anna Richter, told the judge in the custody case that her daughter asked her to check out Landa's background. She said she did not remember the letter.
"No way did Tracey ask me to give a pedophile information on my grandchildren," she wrote to the judge last month. "For one thing, we have no idea where they live."
Roberts, who is living in California, moved to the U.S. after meeting Richter online and getting married in the 1990s. He said he needs to move back to Australia to escape a smear campaign by Richter's family.