LIBERTY, Mo. — The golden years were shaping up nicely for accountant William Van Note.
The 67-year-old retiree had several boats and a waterfront vacation home at central Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks. He could jet off to a winter getaway on Florida's Gulf coast, and had plenty of money in the bank after a career preparing taxes and renting out downtown office space in Liberty, a country town 15 miles north of Kansas City.
And soon, after 20 years together, he and longtime companion Sharon Dickson were going to wed, hoping that the union would be a new start after previous failed marriages.
They never got the chance. In October 2010, an intruder shot the couple in their lake home, killing Dickson and leaving Van Note critically wounded with a gunshot wound to the head. He died four days later, after his daughter told doctors that he would prefer to die rather than be kept alive by medical intervention.
What happened next set the stage for a unique legal case: Van Note's daughter, Susan, was accused by prosecutors of pulling the trigger and forging her father's signature on the document doctors relied on to end his medical treatment. The case, which essentially accuses her of "death by forgery," has captivated the small Missouri community since her September arrest. Legal experts say it's a case with little, if any, precedent.
"He died as a result of them removing life support, not as a result of the gunshot," Camden County prosecutor Brian Keedy said. "If you commit a felony, and somebody dies as a result, there is a criminal responsibility for that death."
Susan Elizabeth Van Note, who goes by Liz, is a 44-year-old attorney who specializes in end-of-life issues, and advertised herself for offering "compassionate representation of clients." She's jailed on a $1 million cash bond, facing charges of felony forgery and first-degree murder.
She has pleaded not guilty, and if convicted could face a lengthy jail sentence or the death penalty. She has not been charged in the death of her father's girlfriend; prosecutors say they are pursuing the cases separately.
Friends of both victims and the suspect describe a troubled father-daughter relationship weakened by the divorce of Susan Van Note's parents three decades ago. The couple had two children, but William Van Note's only son and namesake died as a teenager. They are now buried next to each other.
But the relationship appeared to have recovered somewhat, at least enough that Van Note felt comfortable letting his daughter handle some of his affairs. Liz Van Note, who lived with her mother and teenage son in the Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit after a 2006 divorce, helped her father manage his commercial rental properties on Liberty's historic downtown square, said floral shop owner Brenda Toates, a Van Note tenant.
Van Note built his payroll and accounting businesses from modest beginnings, said Joseph Frederick, a retired airline mechanic in Kansas City who first started getting his taxes done by Van Note more than four decades ago, when Van Note's office was in a basement. Van Note's jovial demeanor didn't fit his profession's buttoned-down stereotype, according to Frederick.
"Income tax season isn't always the happiest time of the year," he said. "But he'd always make you feel better when you walked out of his office. He was just an all-around, good-natured guy. I've never seen him down. He was always upbeat."
Van Note had sold several of his businesses years ago, but continued to work during tax season when not vacationing at the lake or his home in Port Charlotte, Fla., Toates said.
His daughter, meanwhile, was struggling to make ends meet. Records reviewed by The Associated Press show that Liz Van Note filed for bankruptcy in federal court in September 2009. She listed $254, 938 in assets and $374,072.86 in debt owed to 10 creditors, including American Express, Wells Fargo Bank and a children's hospital. She'd previously worked for Merrill Lynch before attending law school, and listed a monthly income around $3,300.
When the shooting happened, fearful friends and neighbors initially wondered whether the crime was committed by a pro. The crime scene was clean and there were no signs of forced entry into the home. Some whispered that the assailant might have gotten away by boat.
Keedy, who is prosecuting the case, declined to discuss whether Liz Van Note's alleged forgery was premeditated, or a response to her father's unexpected survival from the attack. Prosecutors have also declined to discuss specific evidence about the shooting. But they have said that Liz Van Note enlisted a high school classmate and her spouse, Stacey and Desre Dory of Shawnee, Kan., to act as witnesses to the forged documents. The Dorys were indicted on felony forgery and second-degree murder charges; they have pleaded not guilty and their attorney, Milt Harper, says they are "going to be vindicated."
The document she's accused of forging is known as a durable power of attorney. People can use a power of attorney to dictate whom they want making medical decisions for them in emergencies or if they are near death and unable to speak for themselves.
Dickson was slated to inherit Van Note's cash and several homes. But her death would have likely meant that Van Note's daughter would get most of the estate's proceeds, which were likely worth millions of dollars more than the partial estimate on file.
William Van Note's estate was valued at $1.6 million. The will leaves Van Note's personal property, such as cars, jewelry and furniture, to his daughter, along with life insurance proceeds and the three rental properties in Liberty.
Four months after her father's death, the Florida home was sold by Liz Van Note for $238,000, records show. Three days after her arrest, Dickson's adult son filed a court petition to remove Liz Van Note as the principal beneficiary and will executor, citing the criminal cases.
Toates, the tenant who knew Van Note, said that his daughter's arrest didn't come as a surprise to many in Liberty.
"It happened on a Saturday, and she unplugged him on Wednesday," Toates said. "A lot of people did not understand that."
Legal experts said the prosecution's unusual strategy could make obtaining a murder conviction more difficult.
"If this is all they have to go on, it's pretty thin," said University of Missouri law professor Rod Uphoff, a former public defender who represented accused murderer Terry Nichol after the April 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. "Maybe the prosecution's got more (evidence). But by itself, it seems they've got a lot of work ahead."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier