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Crime

10 Killer Spouses And Their Ridiculously Elaborate Plots

Steve Wynalda

Marriage is hard work. But some people work even harder to end their marriage—permanently. The following are not crimes of passion, but complex plots to rid a wife or husband of a thorn in their side.

10Major Raymond Lisenba

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Lisenba, also known as Robert “Rattlesnake” James, had the unlikely knack of taking out insurance policies on his loved ones just before they died. His nephew was the first to go, perishing in a car accident just two weeks after Lisenba became his beneficiary. Someone had tampered with his steering wheel. Lisenba and his third wife, Winona Wallace, made it all the way to their honeymoon before they got in a car wreck. But Winona’s head injury was more consistent with the bloody hammer found in the backseat than any automotive mishap. Miraculously, Winona survived with no memory of the crash, but while she was recuperating, she somehow drowned in the couple’s bathtub.

Wife number four apparently saw a pattern the police did not and refused to sign an insurance policy. Lisenba started the annulment process on the same day as their wedding. He soon remarried, this time to Mary Busch, and purchased a $10,000 policy on her life.

In 1935, Mary became pregnant and Lisenba insisted she have an abortion. Because the procedure was illegal, Lisenba convinced Mary that she had to have her eyes and mouth taped shut to protect the abortionist’s identity. He gave her a pint of whiskey as an anesthetic, tied her down on the kitchen table, and put her feet in a box with two rattlesnakes named Lethal and Lightning. Mary was bitten three times and her legs swelled but she still wasn’t dying fast enough for her husband, who took her upstairs and drowned her in the bathtub.

Initially, the police ruled Mary’s death accidental, despite the snakebites on her legs. But when the insurance company realized that two of Lisenba’s wives had drowned, they finally became suspicious. He was arrested, convicted, and in 1942 he became the last man to die by hanging in California.

9Tracey Richter

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Tracey Richter was as busy as a killer bee. Among her numerous warrants and convictions for fraud was a 1992 conviction for discharging a firearm during an argument with her husband, Dr. John Pitman. During their 1996 divorce, she accused Pitman of molesting their son, a charge that was dismissed for lack of evidence. In 1997, Richter became involved with oral surgeon Dr. Joseph LaSpisa. According to LaSpisa, she suggested that they get high on laughing gas and have sex, before trying to extort $150,000 from him for sexual assault. Again, the charges against LaSpisa were dismissed.

In 2001, Richter, now remarried, became embroiled in a custody dispute with Pitman. She stood to lose both her son and $1,000 a month in child support. That December, Richter called the police to report that she had shot an intruder. She claimed that two men broke into her home and tried to strangle her with pantyhose. She managed to escape, opened her gun safe, pulled out two guns, and shot one of her assailants nine times. The other man fled the scene and was never identified.

In Richter’s bedroom the police found the body of 20-year-old Dustin Wehde, a timid computer nerd who lived in his parents’ basement. Oddly, Wehde had parked his car in Richter’s driveway. A pink notebook was found inside the car with a confession scrawled in it—Wehde, it said, had been hired by Dr. Pitman to kill Richter.

The police didn’t buy that Wehde was a killer-for-hire and declined to arrest Pitman, but couldn’t disprove Richter’s story. Then, in 2010, a forensic specialist determined that Richter had shot Wehde three times in the back as he lay helpless on the floor. During the trial, the prosecution posited that Richter lured Wehde to her home, and forced him at gunpoint to write the confession. She was convicted and given a life sentence.

8Mark Winger

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In 1995, Mark and Donnah Winger seemed like the perfect couple, doting on their newly adopted baby. Then Roger Harrington entered their lives. When Donnah returned from a Florida trip, she was dropped at her Springfield, Illinois home in a shuttle driven by Harrington, who had a history of mental illness and allegedly drove the shuttle at high speeds, ranting about demons and taking drugs. When Mark got home, he called the shuttle company and Harrington was suspended. Mark also had a verbal altercation with Harrington.

A few days later, on August 29, 1995, Mark said he was working out on the treadmill in the basement when he heard the baby crying. He went upstairs to find Harrington standing over Donnah with a hammer in his hand. His wife’s skull had been bashed in. Mark said he then retrieved his gun and shot Harrington twice in the head. The case was deemed a justifiable homicide and Mark received $175,000 from Donnah’s life insurance.

Not satisfied, Mark sued the shuttle company. That turned out to be a mistake, since the company hired investigators who discovered that Mark had actually invited Harrington to the house that fateful day, supposedly to settle their differences. They even found a note in Harrington’s car with the Wingers’ address and an appointment time. Then, a woman named DeAnn Schultz came forward to tell police she had been having an affair with Mark before Donnah’s murder. According to Schultz, Mark had already been plotting his wife’s death when perverse luck brought a disturbed Harrington into the picture. Schulta said Mark boasted that Harrington was the perfect patsy. Mark was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

7Frederick Deeming

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Deeming was a small-time thief whose criminal activities kept him on the run, moving between England, Australia, and South Africa. Everywhere he roamed, his wife Marie and their four children followed. In the late 1880s, Deeming and his family were living in his native England when he met Emily Mather and decided he no longer wanted to be a family man. In September 1891, Deeming strangled his wife and nine-year-old daughter, then slit the throats of the three youngest children. He buried them in the fireplace, under a thick layer of cement.

On September 22, Deeming married Emily and they left for their honeymoon in Australia. By the time they arrived in Melbourne he was already planning her murder. On Christmas Day, Deeming killed Emily and buried her under the fireplace.

During the next three months, Deeming traveled Australia under several aliases. Unfortunately for him, he was an attention-seeking loudmouth and people remembered him. When Emily was found in March 1892, it took the police only eight days to find and arrest Deeming. Five days later and 10,000 miles away, Marie Deeming and the children were also discovered. After that Deeming was so reviled that 12,000 spectators turned up to cheer when he was executed by hanging on May 23, 1892.

At the time of his trial, the press concluded that since Deeming was a serial killer in London at the time of the Whitechapel murders, he must have been Jack the Ripper. But records are so sparse, no one knows for sure where Deeming was in the fall of 1888.

6Joy Davis Aylor

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On October 4, 1983, a stranger posed as a flower delivery man to gain entry into Rozanne Gailiunas’s Dallas home. The assailant forced Rozanne at gunpoint to her bedroom and told her to disrobe. He then tied her to the bed and strangled her with pantyhose. When she struggled, the attacker shot her twice in the head. The next morning, four-year-old Peter found his mother barely alive, still tied to the bed. Rozanne died two days later.

Rozanne had been having an affair with wealthy builder Larry Aylor. Both had ended their respective marriages and planned to wed once the divorces were final. The police suspected Rozanne’s estranged husband and Larry’s wife Joy, but the case remained unsolved for five years. Larry and Joy Aylor eventually reconciled, but in 1986 their marriage was again on the rocks. That’s when Larry was ambushed by two gunmen on his ranch. Larry survived and the gunmen escaped. Two years later, a woman named Carol Garland called Larry to tell him his wife was responsible for the attack and the murder of Rozanne.

Carol was Joy’s sister and was seeking the $25,000 reward. She told the police that her sister had given Carol’s husband William $5,000 to get rid of Rozanne. William and another man hired a small-time crook named George Anderson Hooper, who agreed to kill Rozanne for $1,500. Three years later, Joy hired the two men who tried to kill her husband.

Nearly a dozen people were imprisoned for the crimes and Hooper was executed in 2005. Texan prosecutors wanted the death penalty for Joy as well, but she fled the country, ultimately landing in France. The French refused extradition until Texas promised not to seek the death penalty for Joy. She was given a life sentence.

5Ruth Brown Snyder

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Ruth Snyder was the quintessential party girl. She loved dancing, drinking, and the new music that was sweeping the country in the 1920s: jazz. She liked everything that her stoic, reserved husband, Albert, did not. But in 1925, she found a lover who shared her interests. His name was Henry Judd Gray and they carried on a lengthy affair, often meeting at hotels and leaving Ruth’s daughter Lorraine to play in the lobby.

Ruth decided that her husband had to go. She took out an insurance policy with a double indemnity clause (pays double if the insured dies under certain conditions) and, with the help of an agent, forged Albert’s signature. She then tried to kill her husband several times without success. That’s when she enlisted Judd’s help.

On March 20, 1927, the pair attacked Albert in his bed, and, while Judd held him down, Ruth garroted her husband. When that failed, she smashed his skull in with a dumbbell. The conspirators staged a robbery and allowed nine-year-old Lorraine to find her mother trussed up and her father brutally murdered.

When the police arrived, Ruth told them the perpetrator was an “Italian-looking man” who had stolen her jewelry. But Lorraine ruined the scheme when she blurted out that “Uncle Judd” had been in the house the night before. The police soon learned who Judd was and brought him in for questioning. Then they found Ruth’s jewelry in the mattress under Albert’s body. Ruth and Judd soon turned on each other, each claiming the other murdered Albert. In the end, both were convicted and sentenced to death.

Among the spectators for Ruth’s 1928 execution was a reporter for the New York Daily News. The reporter had a camera strapped to his leg and snapped a famous photo of Ruth just before her death. Judd was executed a few minutes later. Ruth’s case later became the inspiration for the novel and movie Double Indemnity.

4Edward Pritchard

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Pritchard was a prominent physician in Glasgow, Scotland, who apparently had an eye for teenage girls. In 1863, a lethal fire broke out in the room of one of his servants, who perished without attempting to escape. Was she unconscious when the fire started?

Less than a year later, another teenage servant named Mary MacLeod had a miscarriage. Talk among the staff was that MacLeod had a forced abortion and that Pritchard was the father. MacLeod was also heard to claim that if something happened to the doctor’s wife, Mary Jane, MacLeod would become the mistress of the house.

In November 1864, Mary Jane caught MacLeod in a tryst with her husband. Shortly afterward, Mary Jane became deathly ill. When her mother, Jane Taylor, came to Glasgow to care for her, she too became ill. Pritchard would not let anyone else care for the women and several fellow doctors found the illnesses suspicious. When the pair died within three weeks of each other, Pritchard signed the death certificates himself, refusing autopsies.

Then, an anonymous letter, possibly from another Glasgow doctor, tipped the police off to the strange nature of the two deaths. The bodies of the two women were exhumed, and it was discovered they had died of antimony poisoning. The doctor was hung for his crimes in July 1865. Dr. Pritchard’s case was still very much in the public mind 27 years later, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes pay tribute to him: “When a doctor does go wrong he is first among criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession.”

3Kelee Davidson

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Jarrod Davidson met Kelee Jones in a chemistry class in 2000, and they soon started dating. In 2001, Kelee became pregnant and the pair married. Their daughter Malia was born six months later. Jarrod was still in school, seeking a PhD in chemistry, and between studying and working he was away from home 70 hours a week. Kelee felt abandoned and when Malia was eight months old, the couple filed for divorce. Kelee was given custody of Malia.

Problems arose when Kelee refused to allow Jarrod to see his daughter. After this happened several times, the presiding judge warned Kelee that she might lose custody of Malia if she continued to refuse visitation. A custody hearing was set for July 28, 2004.

Meanwhile, Kelee told her parents, Philip and Malinda Jones, that Jarrod was molesting Malia and that should he get custody, things would get worse.

On July 9, just 19 days before the custody hearing, Philip and Malinda drove to Jarrod’s house, while Kelee established a solid alibi. Malinda placed a potted plant on Jarrod’s doorstep and rang the doorbell. When Jarrod emerged and walked to the plant, Philip shot him with a hunting rifle from nearby bushes.

The plant proved to be the conspiracy’s undoing, after the police acquired video of Malinda purchasing it. DNA on the plant pot also matched Malinda’s, and the police tracked her phone to the area around Jarrod’s apartment at the time of the murder. From there, the dominoes fell. Philip pleaded guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence for Kelee. Malinda went to trial, where she was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Kelee was given four years in jail.

2Michael Fletcher

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On August 16, 1999, police rushed to a suburban Detroit home after they received a call from Michael Fletcher, claiming that his wife had accidentally shot herself while loading a Colt .45. In the couple’s bedroom, the police found Leann Fletcher lying on the floor, shot in the head.

The police immediately found the crime scene odd. First, Leann was naked from the waist down and it was clear that she and Michael had just had sex. Why would anyone load a gun without bothering to put their pants on? The coroner determined that Leann had been shot from 46 centimeters (18 in) away, horizontal to her face. Not only would that be an incredibly awkward way to load a gun, but nearly impossible physically. And in a closet the police found love letters written to Michael from a local judge named Susan Chrzanowski.

Michael had been Chrzanowski’s clerk after he graduated from law school in 1997. By the time he passed the bar exam, they were having an affair and the judge began appointing him public defender for most of her indigent cases, jump-starting his practice.

Michael and Leann’s marriage became rocky, and they separated several times. In January 1999, Michael filed for divorce, but Leann surprised him by getting her own lawyer, bent on getting a fair settlement. Suddenly, he was no longer interested in divorce and moved back in with Leann. Then, in mid-August, Leann found that she was pregnant with their second child. Michael knew that as soon Judge Chrzanowski found out, he’d not only lose his mistress, but the business she was throwing his way too.

On August 16, Michael sent their daughter to her grandparents and took Leann to the shooting range to practice with the pistol. On the way, he gave his wife a romantic card, one he made sure the police would later find in Leann’s purse. When they returned, Michael seduced his wife, perhaps to reinforce his story that they had a happy marriage. He then shot her in the head. Michael was convicted of second-degree murder and given a life sentence.

1Carol Hargis

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If it wasn’t for the fact that they were ultimately successful, Carol Hargis and Mary Depew could easily be considered the most hilariously inept murderers ever. In the summer of 1977, Carol was unhappy in her marriage to Marine drill instructor David Hargis, stationed in San Diego. She sought solace in the arms of a local bartender, but there was no relief from the couple’s growing money problems. Those, Carol believed, could only be squelched by David’s $20,000 life insurance policy.

Carol offered her friend Depew $1,000 to run over David with her car, but Depew would accept nothing less than half the insurance payoff. The conspirators discarded the hit-and-run plot and turned to spiders. The Hargises owned a pet tarantula and the two women plopped it into bed with David one night, only to discover that tarantulas aren’t poisonous. Undeterred, Depew researched venomous spiders, acquired one, dissected it, and cooked its poison sac into the center of a blackberry pie. She should have paid more attention to the pie’s other ingredients because David took one bite and refused to eat any more.

Next, Depew wanted to crawl under David’s truck and disconnect something vital but her lack of mechanical knowledge let her down. She decided to turn to something she did know—drugs. She mixed LSD into David’s French toast batter, hoping he’d crash his truck on the way to work. But David, who was apparently a picky eater, wasn’t hungry that morning.

Frustrated, Carol implemented her own plan, stripping the insulation from her toaster and planning to hurl it into the shower with David. She eventually chickened out, perhaps realizing that it might seem odd to the police that the toaster fell off a kitchen counter, unplugged itself, sailed all the way to the bathroom, and plugged itself back in to a socket before landing in the tub.

The conspirators considered and discarded plots to shoot, stab, and poison David with lye. They wanted to pour bullets into his carburetor—they believed the shells would explode—but couldn’t figure out how to accomplish it. They tried to inject an air bubble into David’s veins while he slept, but were so nervous that they broke the needle’s tip. On another night, they spiked David’s beer, but apparently chose a drug that did not dissolve in beer and simply settled at the bottom of the can, giving David a mild headache. He remained blissfully unaware of the plots against him.

Finally, on their 13th murder attempt, the two women simply waited until David was asleep and beat him to death with a curtain rod. Depew loaded the corpse in David’s truck and drove it 56 kilometers (35 mi) to Ramona, California, where she dumped it over the rail of a bridge that spanned the Santa Ysabel Creek. Depew believed David’s body would simply disappear into the creek’s depths. Unfortunately for her, it was the middle of a drought and there were no depths. Depew couldn’t see this in the dark, but the next morning, police had no trouble finding David’s body in the bone-dry creek.

By then, the conspirators had committed their final incredible mistake. They called the police to report David missing and were put on hold. While they waited, they discussed their cover story with the phone line open. Their entire plot was recorded. Both were given life sentences.

Steve’s biography of our 16th president is “366 Days in Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency: The Private, Political and Military Decisions of America’s Greatest President.”