By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
From a distance, the letter looked like it could be a high school note, a young woman's bubbly handwriting sprawled across the page. What appeared to be a heart was drawn on the envelope. The contents, however, had a much darker tone: 21-year-old Chelsea Richardson, charged with capital murder, was begging her best friend to save her life. But when Susana Toledano took the stand against Richardson in a Tarrant County courtroom last week, she may effectively have ended it.
Last Wednesday, Richardson, of Fort Worth, became the first woman in Tarrant County to be sentenced to death for her involvement in the murders of a Mansfield couple in December 2003 (see "Family Plot," by Andrea Grimes and Glenna Whitley, July 15, 2004). Her boyfriend's parents, Rick and Suzanna Wamsley, were each shot or stabbed multiple times. Out of 443 inmates awaiting execution in the state of Texas, only nine are women.
It was the "crucial" testimony of 20-year-old Toledano that prosecutor Mike Parrish believes sealed the case. Toledano described how an Arlington man helped Toledano, Richardson and her boyfriend Andrew Wamsley try to murder Wamsley's parents twice before eventually succeeding in killing the Mansfield couple. Andrew Wamsley, 20, believed he would inherit their $1.65 million estate, prosecutors alleged.
"Did you kill those two people because Chelsea Richardson wanted them dead?" Parrish asked the soft-spoken Toledano during the first day of testimony. She simply replied, "Yes."
Toledano helped the prosecution portray Richardson as a calculating young woman with her eyes on the Wamsleys' wealth. The letter Richardson sent to Toledano last summer didn't help. In it, Richardson fabricated a pregnancy and begged her friend to clear her name. But Toledano believed she was being manipulated.
Toledano pleaded guilty to the murder of Suzanna Wamsley in exchange for a life sentence after DNA evidence linked her to the crime. After a failed attempt at killing the Wamsleys by shooting at them in their vehicle in early November 2003, she said that she, Andrew Wamsley and Richardson later made another attempt at the Wamsleys' home a few weeks later but that Toledano couldn't do it. Finally, she described her version of the events of the early morning of December 11, 2003.
The trio entered the Wamsleys' home in the upper-class neighborhood of Walnut Estates through the garage door. Toledano said Richardson "coached" her while they hid in the formal dining room. Then, Toledano shot Suzanna Wamsley where she lay on the living room couch. The gunshot awakened Rick Wamsley, who wrestled Toledano to the ground.
Andrew Wamsley then fought with his father into the foyer. Toledano said she witnessed Rick Wamsley look up at his son and ask him "Why?" while on his knees, bleeding from a gunshot wound to his head.
Toledano testified that during the struggle, Richardson distributed knives from the kitchen and helped kill Rick Wamsley while Toledano went into the living room to stab Suzanna Wamsley to make sure she was dead.
Toledano said that after the murders, Richardson told her to act "as normal as possible and to make it seem like nothing had happened."
Richardson's court-appointed attorneys frequently reminded the jury that there was no physical evidence linking Richardson to the scene. They also noted that Toledano changed her story several times while recalling the murders on different occasions to a grand jury, Texas Rangers and private investigators.
"It's hard to memorize a lie," said Warren St. John, one of Richardson's attorneys, in a phone interview. "It's real tough."
St. John and co-counsel Terry Barlow tried to shift the blame from Richardson onto Wamsley, Toledano and Hilario Cardenas, the Arlington man who provided the gun. They called to the stand a former friend of Toledano's imprisoned on prostitution charges.
"Darissa Humphries actually knew Susana Toledano from the free world," said St. John. "She had seen Susana smoke crack and saw her at a crack house and with Hilario Cardenas where she was practicing shooting a gun."
A key element in the defense was a letter received by Richardson's mother, Celia Richardson, about a month after Toledano was arrested in April 2004. In it, the defense said, Susana Toledano wrote of accompanying Cardenas to the Wamsley home while they were "high" and killing the Wamsleys. They say that Toledano expressly said in the letter that Chelsea Richardson was not involved.
"She was writing to Chelsea's mom because she felt bad," St. John said. "She's apologizing to her mom and saying that [Chelsea] will be free soon."
A handwriting expert for the defense said that the letter was "overwhelmingly" written by Susana Toledano, who later testified that she never wrote the letter.
Prosecutors also brought forth two former cellmates of Richardson at the Tarrant County jail who testified that she couldn't stop talking about the crime.
Phanessa Hydrick and Kathryn Norton, both imprisoned on drug charges on separate occasions with Richardson in April 2004, said that Richardson first claimed innocence and then admitted to shooting Rick Wamsley.
Prosecutors also displayed more pleading letters written by Richardson to Hydrick's and Norton's families, in which Richardson claimed lifelong friendship with her former cellmates and asked for money.