Farmer Mary Higgins provided critical testimony in the first-degree murder trial of Tracey Richter. Prosecutors say Richter shot 20-year-old Dustin Wehde at her home in Early, a small town in northwest Iowa, to keep him from talking about his role in a plot to frame her ex-husband. Richter says she acted in self-defense after two men broke into her home and assaulted her.
Higgins said she and Richter became close friends after Richter and her second husband moved to Early in 1998. They often spoke on the phone, had coffee together and she drove Richter's son home from school.
Richter flew to Australia for a planned family vacation days after the Dec. 13, 2001, shooting. Higgins said they got together in January or February 2002 after she returned.
"I wanted to let her know that I stand by her," Higgins recalled.
But Richter showed no emotion and acted "like she was telling me her grocery list" when she recounted her sensational version of events: that two men broke into her home and one choked her with pantyhose before she broke free, unlocked her gunsafe - without her glasses in the dark - grabbed two guns and shot Wehde while the other man fled.
At one point while Richter was retelling her story, her 11-year-old son walked in and banged his head in the table. "He said, `Why did you go back up there?"' Higgins recalled. "'You didn't have to shoot him. You didn't have to kill him."' Richter screamed her son's name, and he left the room, she said.
Higgins said Richter told her police found a pink spiral notebook in Wehde's car and "it would prove that John Pitman did this."
Law enforcement officials have testified they kept the notebook a secret until this year because anyone who knew about it would have knowledge of the crime. Prosecutors say Richter, now 45, forced Wehde to write the notebook claiming Pitman, her ex-husband, hired Wehde to kill her and their son. They say she killed Wehde to keep him quiet and then planted the notebook in his car.
Pitman, a Virginia plastic surgeon, testified earlier Friday that he had nothing to do with the notebook. Richter and Pitman were fighting at the time over custody of their son, Bert Pitman.
Higgins testified she didn't tell investigators who interviewed her in April 2002 about the notebook because she assumed they knew about it and they did not ask her. She said she was contacted in March 2011 after investigators re-examined the case and her husband had become church friends with the new Sac County prosecutor, Ben Smith.
Smith met with her at their home, and she told him, "I didn't want any part of this." But when he asked if she knew about details, she responded, "Do you mean that stupid notebook?"
"The blood drained from his face," she testified. "I'd never seen anything like that before. He just went on the ground and sat on the floor and leaned against the kitchen cupboards."
Division of Criminal Investigation agents then interviewed her, and she told them about the notebook but not share the full details.
"I was afraid. I was afraid for myself. I was afraid for my family. And I was afraid for Tracey," she said. "She was my friend and I didn't know where it was going. I didn't know what the notebook meant. I knew it wasn't good."
She said she went into more detail in a second interview with investigators. Her statements were used to draft a criminal complaint charging Richter with murder and leading to her July arrest in Omaha, where she was living.
Higgins occasionally glanced across the courtroom at Richter, who looked away during her testimony.
Prosecutor Douglas Hammerand gave jurors photocopies of the journal's five pages written in Wehde's sloppy handwriting, and they followed along as he read line by line. The journal says Wehde wanted to "make record of mysterious fellow who asked me to work for him (John Pitman)."
"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.
Pitman testified the journal described him accurately: a doctor from Virginia who wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, also a surgeon, and take over his practice one day. The diary describes him as a white male in his 40s who was in the Army, once wanted to be a psychiatrist, and is "slightly overweight and out of shape."
It named Pitman's divorce attorney, Stephen Komie of Chicago. Only Richter and his family knew that much detail about his personal life, Pitman said, although he acknowledged on cross-examination that he had conflict with Richter's second husband, who could have gotten personal information about him from her.
The doctor said that he never met Wehde, did not hire him and did not want his son dead.
"Did your ex-wife Tracey Richter despise you?" Hammerand asked.
"I think so," Pitman responded with a laugh. The two separated in 1992 and their divorce was finalized in 1996.