Hero or villian?

They say there are two sides to every story...

Published by: Laura Hinton and JAcki Leroux
Published on: 8 March 2012

Yellow crime scene tape littered the street. As my hubby Brett, 51, pulled our car up outside the cordoned-off house, I felt uneasy. There were bright flashing lights and officers in uniform...
Oh God, were Tracey, 35, and Michael, 34, okay? We'd sold them the house in our home town of Early, Iowa, a few years back.
We'd been invited over for dinner parties too, and Michael had recently given our son Dustin, 20, some work setting up the computers in their home.
Our daughter Brianna, 14, had babysat for their three children as well.
So when I'd heard there'd been a shooting at their home, Brett and I had come straight round to see if they were all right. Seeing the crime tape was bad enough but... Wasn't that Dustin's car on the drive? What was my son doing at Tracey and Brett's house?
‘I thought he had a dentist appointment,' Brett whispered, pulling over. I ran towards the house, but four police officers blocked my path. ‘Is Dustin here?' I panicked.
‘Is he your son?' one frowned. I nodded.
‘Dustin was shot,' he told us. ‘He's dead.'
Everything blurred. They were talking, but I couldn't make sense of it all. ‘No,' Brett argued weakly. ‘There's been a mistake.'
‘Please, let us see him,' I sobbed hysterically.
‘This is a crime scene,' one policeman said. ‘You're not allowed in. We'll send an officer round to explain everything soon.'
Numb and confused, we rushed home to our girls Brianna and Ashley, 11.
‘Maybe there's been a mistake. Why would anyone shoot him?' Brianna kept whimpering as she sobbed into me.
I was desperate to take away the pain - but had no answers.
‘Dustin liked hunting and Michael kept guns in the house... maybe there was an accident,' I said, trying to make sense of it all. Finally, exhausted and grief-stricken, the girls dozed off with their dad on the sofa.
Me? I paced the floor, praying that the police would tell me they'd got this all wrong. Only then I suddenly remembered Michael. The police had said he'd been away on business. Maybe he could tell me what happened.
He picked up on the second ring.
‘I wasn't there, but I've spoken to Tracey,' he croaked. ‘I'm so sorry. Dustin broke into our home with another masked intruder. He grabbed Tracey from behind and choked her with a pair of tights.'
‘What?!' I gasped, the shock crushing me.
‘She managed to break free,'
he continued. ‘Then shot him with the gun we keep under our bed. She's in hospital.'
My head span. What he was suggesting was ridiculous. Dustin had liked their family. He'd grown close to them all. He'd always been a bit of a loner, but Michael had taken him under his wing by offering the computer work - they'd even gone paintballing together.
‘Look at my bruises, Mum,' he'd chuckled afterwards.
‘Ouch!' I'd laughed. ‘You'll have to go again if it was fun.'
‘Maybe,' he'd replied, all bashful. He was such a shy lad, wouldn't make assumptions he'd be invited again. So Tracey was lying. He was nervous about knocking on her door, let alone invading her home.
‘Who was this second intruder?' I kept asking Michael. ‘What reason would Dustin have for doing this?'
But he had no more answers than me. I wanted to scream in pain and frustration. My son was dead, and now people were killing his reputation, too.
The following day, though, the police confirmed what Michael had said. They seemed to be making a fuss about a scrap of paper they'd found in Dustin's car, as well.
‘Is this your son's handwriting?' the detective asked. It was a scribbled note.
‘Yes,' I sighed, tired by it all.
‘Did he keep a journal?' he persisted firmly.
‘No,' I replied. Stupid, pointless questions. I kept telling them that Dustin had hated writing. He'd never liked school because he'd been bullied terribly. Poor lad had been so clever, was just misunderstood. Constantly looked up facts about the world on his computer all day, obsessed with shows like Animal Planet.
‘A tarantula can survive two years without food,' he'd told me once, as I'd served dinner. ‘And cows have four stomachs.'
‘Well, you learn something new every day,' I'd giggled, rolling my eyes. ‘Now eat your dinner before it gets cold!'
He was a harmless lad, so why was Tracey, a family friend, saying this about him? She knew what he was like, knew he'd never hurt a fly, so what possible reason was there for her to lie? Or had I never known my son at all...?
No. There was no doubt in my mind of his innocence.
A week after his death, I stared down at my son in the open casket at his funeral. ‘I'll find out what happened,' I vowed. ‘Then I can
let you go.'
Beside me, Brett nodded grimly. Poor love was in pieces, he and Dustin had been so close. They'd spent hours tinkering about in the garage together. I'd come home to a huge trail of dirty grease around the kitchen. ‘Oops, sorry Mum!' Dustin would giggle.
Those memories comforted me but, for Brett, they were too painful to think about. After the funeral he didn't want to talk - but I did. ‘Tracey's story doesn't add up,' I kept saying.
‘I don't want to hear it,' he'd say, brushing me off. ‘Dustin's dead, and nothing can change that.'
‘If we don't fight for the truth, people will believe what Tracey's saying about our son,' I argued. ‘She shot him nine times "in self defence". Nine times?! That's cold-blooded murder!'
Brett shook his head. Angry, I flicked the telly on to calm myself down. Big mistake. Tracey was on the Montel Williams Show being hailed a hero!
‘I had no choice but to fire the gun,' she told the audience. ‘It was life or death. I had to protect my kids.'
How dare she! She was destroying my son's memory, and I was helpless to stop her.
The destruction didn't end there, though. As the months dragged by, the pain of losing Dustin drove a wedge between me and Brett.
Eight months after his death, we separated. I moved out with the girls. I still tried to get him to talk to me, but he locked himself away in his grief. Four months later, I got a call from the funeral director.
‘We have Brett here. I'm terribly sorry for your loss,' he said. ‘I just wondered when you'd like to speak about funeral arrangements?'
‘What are you talking about?' I gasped, confused.
‘I'm so, so sorry,' the director apologised, realising that the police hadn't made it to me in time. He explained that Brett had gone to Dustin's grave and shot himself through the heart. The grief had been too much to bear.
I screamed until my throat was red raw. Nobody, not even the girls, could console me and, for the next five months, I barely left my bed. I sat through hours of home videos, wallowing in the past.
‘No, I won the game!' Brianna had screeched at her sister in one of them.
We'd been playing Monopoly, Dustin's favourite game.
‘You should both win,' Dustin had giggled, the peacemaker.
Other movies showed him in the garage with Brett, carving pumpkins on Halloween, pulling silly faces at the camera... I'd cry for hours.
One day, Brianna confronted me.
‘Please Mum, we need you,' she begged me.
I dragged my eyes from the TV, and looked at her with dead eyes. Took in her tear-stained face.
Suddenly, it hit me - she and her sister had lost their dad and brother, they didn't deserve to lose their mum, too. ‘Oh darling,' I gasped. ‘I'm so sorry.'
Somehow, I started taking it one day at a time. It was hard, though. I felt guilty every time I smiled.
Knowing that my son's murderer was still free killed me, too. One day I walked into Wal-Mart and saw Tracey. I froze, turned and walked away before she spotted me. We had friends in common, so I heard a few years down the line that her and Michael had separated, were feuding over custody of the kids, and she'd moved away to Omaha, Nebraska.
‘The further the better,' I mumbled.
It was to be another eight years before I got the phone call that changed everything. The police were reinvestigating Dustin's death. He'd been gone 10 years now. ‘You've never given up hope, have you, Mum?' Brianna, now 24, grinned.
A year later, we experienced another twist of fate. ‘We've arrested Tracey for the murder of your son,' a policeman told me.
‘I-I can't believe it,' I gasped. All this time I'd known she was responsible, yet I was still stunned - somebody believed me at last.
Apparently, one of Tracey's friends had spoken to an officer on the case. She'd known about a pink notebook found in Dustin's car that fateful night. Tracey had mentioned it in passing. So that's why the police had quizzed me about his handwriting.
But the police had kept the existence of the notebook a secret even from me. The only way Tracey could have known about it was if she'd planted it there herself. Still, it wasn't until the trial that everything began to
fall into place...
As I watched her walk into the dock, gone was the showy, flirtatious young thing I remembered. In her place was a greying, middle-aged woman.
‘You can't fool me,' I hissed. ‘You killed my son.'
Me and the girls sat in stunned silence as we learnt that at the time of the shooting, Tracey had been involved in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband previous to Michael, over one of their children.
The prosecution said she'd pulled a gun on Dustin and forced him to write in a pink notebook that he'd been hired by a ‘mysterious fellow'. She'd then planted the notebook in Dustin's car because it implied her ex had hired him to kill her. She'd tried to frame him, using my son.
Her plan had worked, too. At a hearing soon after Dustin had died, she'd been given full custody of her son. And the price of her getting what she wanted? My son's life. Experts claimed that blood spatters showed Dustin hadn't even fought back. She'd shot him nine times for no reason at all.
Tears stinging my eyes, I looked up to heaven. ‘I knew it,' I whispered. Dustin had always been the peacemaker, just as that home video from Christmas had shown.
‘Everything now makes sense,' I whispered to Ashley and Brianna. ‘I've always said she did this.'
Why had nobody put it together before? Dustin had been found with no weapon on him, no mask, no gloves. His car had been parked in front of the house for all to see. And as for the other intruder, it was clear he'd never even existed. No, Tracey had lured Dustin there, then killed him in cold blood.
Despite all the evidence pointing at her, Tracey still wouldn't admit what she'd done. But Ashley put Tracey and her pathetic lies in her place when reading from her victim impact statement.
‘You killed my brother's hopes and dreams,' she read. ‘He missed everything, all because of you.'
Tears spilled down my face. She'd summed it up so perfectly.
The jury rejected her self-defence plea, and Tracey Richter was convicted of first-degree murder - she got sent down for life, no chance of parole.
‘We've done it, Mum,' Brianna whooped. I just sat there speechless, completely overcome.
Of course, we still have many unanswered questions. How did Tracey lure Dustin to the house? Why did so much evidence get missed in the initial investigation?
I guess none of that really matters now we've got justice. I just wish Brett could have lived to see this day, too.
It's only now, 10 years after losing them both, that me, Brianna and Ashley can really start to move on. We have closure at last and my son's name is cleared. As they say, the truth will always out...
Mona Wehde, 49, Hutchinson, Minnesota, USA