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.
Richardson's defense noted that both witnesses made deals to lessen their own sentences in exchange for their testimony. "We put on four or five [former cellmates] who said that Chelsea never talked about her case," St. John said.
St. John also said that Celia Richardson and Chelsea's brother James testified that they didn't hear anyone enter or exit their home the night the murders occurred.
"Her mom's a 19-year employee of the U.S. government. Her brother's a hard worker," said St. John of the Richardson family. "They're not people that get in trouble."
Prosecuting attorney Parrish said that because of her age and sex, the Wamsley family did not expect the death penalty for Richardson but that the nature of the crime pushed the jury toward the punishment.
"They try to kill them at least twice before, and the motive was strictly greed and money," said Parrish in a phone interview. "Those two things are what the jury indicated to us really pushed them that way."
Parrish said that the Wamsley family was relieved by the outcome of the trial. Richardson and her family, however, are devastated, their lawyer said.
"She was beyond upset," said St. John of his client, who collapsed in her seat and cried when Judge Everett Young read the sentence aloud. "She's 21 years old, and she's never been arrested in her life, and now she's sentenced to death."
Andrew Wamsley is scheduled to go to trial for murder in late September. Hilario Cardenas faces a charge of conspiracy to commit capital murder. --Andrea Grimes
Off the List, Maybe
Go ahead, call the bill's passing a victory--in some ways it is. House Bill 867, which made it through the state Senate last week and is awaiting action by Governor Rick Perry, will toughen the sex offender registry while allowing certain low-risk sex offenders to ask a judge to take them off it. But there's a lot the bill won't do and much confusion over what it will.
Let's start with what it won't do. It won't allow guys like Frank Rodriguez and Mike Brandhuber the option to deregister (see "Jailbait," May 26). Their crimes were too heinous, according to the bill. Their crimes were "sexual assault of a minor"--the "minor" in both cases their girlfriends, and the "sexual assault" an act of consensual sex, consented to by the girls' parents, in fact.
But none of that mattered in court. So Rodriguez and Brandhuber pleaded guilty and must now register for life as sex offenders.
It's unfair, says Marsha McLane, policy director for state Representative Ray Allen, who wrote HB 867, but if Rodriguez and Brandhuber want to deregister, "they're going to have to work over the federal guidelines," McLane says.
The federal guidelines are the Jacob Wetterling Act, which gives states grant money in exchange for stringent sex offender laws. Texas' sex offender laws exceed that of the Wetterling Act, and loosening standards for guys like Rodriguez could still, in theory, mean complying with the federal law, but there's no legislator in Austin willing to take that chance. Texas, after all, could stand to lose $3.2 million a year in Wetterling money.
So if not Rodriguez and Brandhuber, who, according to the bill, can petition a court to take him- or herself off the sex offender registry? "It's depending on the charge and depending on the Wetterling Act," McLane says. Beyond that, she couldn't provide details.
Neither could state Senator Florence Shapiro, except to say the person "has to be defined as low-risk." The Plano Republican wrote the 1995 and 1997 "Ashley's Laws," which made Texas' sex offender registry among the toughest in the nation. Last week, she carried HB 867 in the Senate, curbing some of the standards she made law 10 years ago. There are certain categories of sexual offenses, she says, "that if someone was to actually look at the heinous crime...it doesn't reach the level of the sexual predator."
Achieving a "low-risk" status now means subjecting oneself to a battery of tests overseen by the Council on Sex Offender Treatment. Then there's the "preponderance" of evidence the bill says a sex offender treatment provider must give the court, assuring the judge the sex offender poses no risk to the public.
Allison Taylor, the executive director of the Council on Sex Offender Treatment, says finally, tax dollars will go where they're needed. "Five to 10 percent [of sex offenders] are predatory in nature," she says. --Paul Kix