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Self defense or murder? The case of Tracey Richter and Dustin Wehde

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

When you hear about murders involving spouses, it’s usually one of the spouses or a lover being killed. Today’s case involves a case like this, but takes a bit of a different turn than you might think. Let’s talk about Tracey Richter.

Tracey Ann Richter was born around 1966 and raised in Chicago. She was very smart and a good student with high test scores and, more than likely, a promising future. In 1988, Tracey married John Pitman III, a plastic surgeon she’d met in med school. About a year later, the couple welcomed their only child, a son named Bert.

But the marriage went sour quickly. John would later claim that Tracey initially seemed to be interested in all the same things he was, but later on she seemed unusually enthusiastic about them. I think the implication here is that she was pretending to have things in common with him as a manipulation tactic. John, a huge animal lover, claimed Tracey said she loved animals as well, but later neglected and even threatened his pets. There were also allegations of physical abuse on both sides. John eventually hired a private investigator, who gave him photographic evidence that Tracey was having numerous affairs. John also suspects Tracey of stealing his parents’ credit cards and racking up tens of thousands of dollars worth of charges on them. She adamantly denied this when confronted, and no charges were ever filed.

Tracey with her first husband, John Pitman III.

At some point toward the end of their marriage, Tracey pulled a gun on John and threatened to kill him. After this indent, she agreed to undergo six months of psychological counseling.

Tracey and John divorced after just four years of marriage. During the divorce proceedings, Tracey alleged that John had sexually abused their son, Bert. John denied this and, when the divorce was finalized in 1996, a judge ruled that there was no evidence of it.

Their custody battle continued to rage, but Tracey seemed to move on pretty quickly. In 1996, the same year her divorce with John was finalized, she began dating a man named Michael Roberts, who she met online. Later that year, she went to visit Michael in his native Australia and, eighteen days after meeting in person, the couple married. After marrying, the couple moved to the small town of Early, Iowa.

Tracey and her second husband, Michael Roberts.

Just a few months after getting married, Michael found out his new wife was cheating on him, but stayed with her because he didn’t want to be another statistic. The couple later welcomed two children: Noah in 1998 and Mason in 2000. They also started a business together that sold information technology training courses.

While living in Iowa, Michael — and Tracey, to an extent — befriended their young neighbor, Dustin Wehde. Dustin has been described as shy and having few friends, never having been invited to birthday parties or sleepovers as a child. But while quiet around strangers, he was said to be friendly around people he did know. He was also very smart and loved computers, golf and video games.

The couple, especially Michael, took Dustin under their wing. Dustin went to church with them, they played paintball together and he even mowed their lawn. Things seemed to be going well for everyone involved, but that wouldn’t last.

Tracey and her children

By 2001, Tracey’s custody battle with ex-husband John had reached a boiling point, with Tracey once again claiming John had abused their son, Bert. But her marriage to Michael wasn’t going so well either. One of their arguments got physical, and Michael was arrested. He would later claim Tracey was smashing holes in the floor and he was protecting her because she was about to get electrocuted.

Michael also told police Tracey had tried to kill him at least twice. A few days before one of these attempts, Tracey even took out a life insurance policy on him. But his claims largely went ignored; I believe charges were filed but later dismissed.

On the evening of December 13, 2001, 35-year-old Tracey was at home with her three children. Michael was out of town on a business trip. Tracey had a friend over that afternoon who left around 5:15 pm. Later that night, she was giving one-year-old Mason a bath when, as she claimed, two intruders broke in. One of the men was 20-year-old Dustin Wehde.

According to Tracey, Dustin and the unknown man barged through her unlocked door. One of them strangled her with a pair of pantyhose, and she blacked out.

Tracey claimed her 20-year-old neighbor, Dustin Wehde, attacked her in her home.

She woke up to 11-year-old Bert screaming. Her glasses had been knocked off during the attack, so she couldn’t see as well as she usually could. But she managed to run to the master bedroom and grab a 9 mm semi automatic handgun. Dustin attacked her, tugging at her hair and feet, but she managed to pull the trigger. The safety was on, so she unlocked it and fired. When that gun was emptied, she grabbed a revolver and shot him. That’s when he fell to the floor, unmoving. The second, unidentified man ran away and Bert called 911.

A couple who lived in the Richter’s neighborhood were both EMT’s and their pagers went off at some point after the attack. By the time they arrived at the Roberts’ house, sheriff’s deputies were already there. When the EMT’s saw Dustin’s body, they knew he was past the point of saving. He died on the scene. He’d been shot 9 times from two separate guns.

After the attack, Tracey and her children were taken to a hospital. Tracey had a bruised neck which, to hospital staff, seemed consistent with strangulation. She also had wounds on her hands that appeared to be from fighting off attackers. After the story got out, Tracey was hailed as a hero for protecting herself and her children, and Dustin’s death was assumed to be in self defense.

In 2002, Tracey and Michael Roberts appeared on the Montel Williams show to talk about the attack. During the interview, Tracey claimed “I did what I had to do to protect my family.”

The year after the shooting, Dustin’s parents divorced. On Thanksgiving Day 2002, Dustin’s father visited his son’s grave and shot himself in the heart.

After her ex-husband’s death, Dustin’s mother, Mona, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Richters, blaming them for Dustin’s death. Her lawyer found inconsistencies in Tracey’s story. She’d said once that she knew Dustin was one of the attackers, then later said she didn’t know who either of them were. She said at one point she fired from one position, then later said she fired from another. However, the lawsuit was dropped in 2005, just a few days before it was set to go to trial, apparently because investigators said it could interfere with their case.

On April 23, 2004, Michael Roberts filed for divorce from Tracey. Tracey requested temporary child support as well as an order of protection against Michael. After the divorce, Tracey tried to pin the shooting on Michael. She moved to Omaha after the divorce for a fresh start and claimed Michael was still harassing her and her children even after the move. She also claimed he broke into her car in 2009 and left photos of Dustin’s body inside. No evidence of a break-in was ever found. Michael has claimed Tracey was the one harassing him after the divorce.

In Omaha, Tracey assumed a new identity, now going by the name Sophie Edwards. She got all new documents to match — a new driver’s license, social security number and passport.

Bert Pitman with his father, John -- who he claimed at one point might be involved in the alleged home invasion

Meanwhile, investigators were working hard to piece together just what happened on the night of December 13, 2001. At first, Bert said he thought his dad had something to do with it because he hadn’t called after the attack to see if his son was okay. Investigators were also suspicious of Michael, thinking he convinced Dustin to kill Tracey so he could get her life insurance payout. Michael did fail a polygraph, though his business trip gave him a rock solid alibi. (Another source said the polygraph results were inconclusive.) Investigators wondered if he might have been the one to hire Dustin and the second man to kill Tracey.

But even though they were looking at other suspects, investigators were suspicious of Tracey’s story from the beginning. For starters, there was no evidence that there was ever a second intruder. They also thought Tracey’s “strangulation marks” looked more like simple friction marks from rubbing something across her skin.

Tracey didn't have much room to move around in the space she claims she shot Dustin Wehde from.

There were also inconsistencies in her story — more than just what was pointed out in the wrongful death suit. At one point, she told sheriff’s deputies that both men had run away when she’d previously said only one of them had. (She later said she’d made a mistake there.) She’d also given police a description of the second man’s face, but earlier had told them he was wearing a ski mask. A friend of Tracey’s, Mary Higgins, claimed she didn’t think Tracey would have had enough room to turn and fire like she said she did from the tiny space between the bed and the wall.

There is one other thing I found interesting. In most accounts, Tracey said she was strangled with pantyhose. But at one point, she also said her hands were bound with pantyhose. These both could be true — these things could have been done at different points or using different pairs of pantyhose. But I did think it was a bit strange.

And then there was the matter of Dustin. After the attack, people were shocked that someone like Dustin would commit a crime like this. A pink spiral notebook was found in Dustin’s car that supposedly belonged to him. The writing inside was in his handwriting, and claimed John Pitman had hired him to kill Tracey and Bert, making Tracey’s death look like a suicide.

Investigators believe Tracey coerced Dustin into writing a diary entry to frame him for her attempted murder.

But investigators didn’t think it was really his. Dustin didn’t like to write, didn’t keep a diary and had never even met Tracey’s first husband. There was also information in the diary about John that Dustin couldn’t have known. They began to think Tracey had coerced Dustin into writing it to incriminate him further, maybe in the few days before he died. Also found in Dustin’s car was an old computer that his mother, Mona, didn’t think he would be interested in — and why, she asked, would he go back into the house after taking it and putting it in his car? Mona also claimed Dustin held his relationship with the Roberts in high regard since he didn’t have many friends and had never been good at making them. So he would want to hold onto the ones he did have.

Tracey had some claims of her own. She says Mona once told her she was afraid to leave Dustin alone with her other children since she was afraid he might hurt them. Mona said she was never worried about leaving Dustin alone with his sisters, she just didn’t like doing it. Dustin was difficult, she said — but he was never violent.

More and more, this supposed “home invasion” was beginning to look like murder. But there still wasn’t enough evidence for an arrest. The case went cold until around 2009 (one source says 2008, another says 2010), when it was revisited by the new Sac County prosecutor Ben Smith.

Investigators believe Tracey killed Dustin in cold blood and made it look like self defense.

Ben Smith knew right away that this case was suspicious. Remember, Tracey claimed her glasses had been knocked off in the attack, so she couldn’t see very well — yet she shot at Dustin with near perfect accuracy. Ben theorized that Tracey wanted to kill Dustin to implicate her ex-husband, John, in her attempted murder and gain the upper hand in their custody battle.

At this point, investigators wanted to prove Tracey knew about the notebook found in Dustin’s car. It had never been revealed to the public, so if she knew about it, there was a good chance she’d coerced him to write it, as they’d initially suspected. When they found out her friend Mary Higgins had known about the notebook, they knew Tracey was guilty.

In 2011, 45-year-old Tracey Richter was arrested at a mall in Omaha and charged with first degree murder. She faced life in prison. She was extradited back to Iowa to stand trial.

After her arrest, Michael, who was remarried and living in California, got custody of the two children they had together. Interestingly, even John Pitman was shocked at his ex-wife’s arrest. He’d just assumed it was a home invasion and Dustin had been shot in self defense.

Tracey on trial

Her trial began in October of that year. The prosecution claimed Dustin was killed in an attempt to frame both he and John Pitman for Tracey’s attempted murder so she could gain the upper hand in her custody battle with John. An expert witness testified that the last three shots fired through Dustin’s head were fired when he was already face down on the ground.

The defense claimed Tracey’s original story was true — that there had been a home invasion and Dustin was killed in self defense. A now 21-year-old Bert took the stand in his mom’s defense, said the home invasion was real and credited his mother for saving his life. The defense also said the second intruder might be a man who Mona was having an affair with at the time, who broke up with her and left town just days after the attack. Tracey didn’t take the stand, but said in an interview that she had no need to manipulate the custody battle in her favor because she never doubted she was going to lose custody anyway.

There is one other thing I thought was worth noting. In the trial, the judge barred a psychologist from testifying to say that Tracey had acute stress syndrome and that her actions were consistent with someone who had been in a home invasion. Apparently this was done because the testimony would have “crossed the line into the realm of bolstering Richter's credibility.”

On November 7, 2011, Tracey Richter was found guilty of the murder of Dustin Wehde. She was later sentence to life in prison, where she remains today. In later interviews, jury members claimed they wanted to believe her story, but just couldn’t. They also didn’t believe Bert, saying it seemed like he had been coached. As juror Paulette Soppeland put it: “I guess one thing that stuck in my head was that she took one of the guns that still had bullets in it, she took it downstairs and unloaded it on the counter. Well, if you're protecting your children you wouldn't, you wouldn't unload a gun. You'd keep it loaded.”

After the trial there was some talk of charging Bert with perjury, but I don’t think anything ever came out of that.

In a bizarre, tragic coincidence, Tracey’s father was found dead the day after her conviction. His body was found in his home and he he was thought to have been dead between 24 and 36 hours by that time. His death was thought to be natural; an autopsy was scheduled, but I could never find results.

The day after her father’s body was found, Tracey and her lawyers filed an appeal, but not for her murder conviction. When she’d moved to Omaha and assumed a new identity, she’d done so illegally, filing for new documents under the name Sophie Edwards and claiming she’d had it legally changed when she hadn’t. When you sign documents like this, you have to sign that you know “under the penalty of perjury” that the information is true. Because of this, Tracey had been convicted of perjury, and that was what this appeal was for. However, the appeal was denied because she’d filed it too late after the conviction. So far, at least two appeals she’s filed for the murder conviction have been denied. (second appeal)

Tracey with two of her children in earlier days

In 2012, Tracey wrote to a child sex offender named James Landa to try and find a witness for her defense. James Landa was in jail in Wisconsin but heard about Tracey’s case from a local Iowa newspaper and supported her. She wrote him a letter with personal information about not only her children but about Michael Roberts.

That same year, Michael tried to get new passports for his and Tracey’s two children. Their kids had dual Australia/U.S. citizenship and Australian passports, but the passports had expired. His request for passports was rejected because he still technically had joint custody with Tracey, who hadn’t consented to the kids traveling out of the country. I believe he was eventually able to go back to Australia with his kids — or possibly did so without permission. Later that year, a search of Tracey’s hard drive that proved she really had tried to kill him back in 2004.

Tracey and Michael Roberts had a whirlwind romance that ended in disaster.

After Michael got custody of their kids, Tracey owed him child support. In 2014, those child support payments — over $200,000 at this point — were changed to be restitution payments for Dustin Wehde’s family. Tracey supposedly didn’t need the money because she was in jail, though I did find one article that said she would no longer be able to buy things like hygiene items or pay to use the phone.

Later that year, allegations came out that Tracey and her mom were harassing people who had testified for the prosecution in her trial. Tracey’s mom’s house was searched; she denied any wrongdoing and accused the investigators of corruption.

Even during their custody battle, John Pitman says he’d see fliers on cars that claimed he was a child molester. Now it seemed those allegations were coming to the surface again — though there didn’t seem to be any more evidence of them now than there was then. Several articles published on a website called Ripoff Report claimed prosecutor Ben Smith had a “conflict of interest” with one of the prosecution witnesses that he failed to disclose to the judge. He also (allegedly) became friends with Michael Roberts and testified in some of the Roberts’ child support hearings on Michael’s behalf. The website claimed Ben “knew” Michael was a child abuser (even though, again, there’s no solid evidence of that). It also claimed two other witnesses lied on the stand and Ben Smith knew but didn’t do anything. Other accusations of witnesses included things like murder, computer hacking, fraud, theft, perjury and even terrorism.

Tracey in earlier days

In 2015, Ben Smith was sued by the Ripoff Report. The lawsuit claimed Ben falsely accused the owner of criminal conduct and “used various means to publicly disclose private information in an attempt to discredit him and his website.” I have no idea how this lawsuit turned out.

Even today, there are people who still think Tracey is innocent — or at least that she didn’t get a fair trial. Her son Bert still claims the home invasion was real and Dustin’s shooting was in self defense. He started a petition around 2015 (at least it appears to be by him) but it only got 130 signatures. There’s also a Facebook page that seems to be run by him.

A petition to free Tracey Richter seemingly started by her son Bert

Another man in Tracey’s corner is a journalist named Darren Meade. In another Facebook page (again, seeming to be run by him), he claims prosecutor Ben Smith “manufactured evidence and concealed and withheld exculpatory evidence in the Tracey Richter murder trial.” A lot of those accusations have been previously discussed, and I don’t know enough to say whether they’re accurate.

So that’s all I have for you day on Tracey Richter. Most people seem to believe the prosecution’s story and think Tracey is right where she belongs, but there are still more people in her corner than I expected. There are obviously still a lot of details here that we don’t know, so I am curious to see what everyone thinks.

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