“Phelps is the Harlan Coben of real-life thrillers.” —Allison Brennan
Iowa housewife Tracey Pittman Roberts seemed to have it all: natural beauty, three loving children, and a fairy tale second marriage to a wealthy businessman. But beneath the happy façade was a woman who used lies, manipulation, sex, ugly allegations, blackmail—and even murder—to serve her own selfish ends.
On December 13, 2001, police rushed to Tracey’s home after a shooting left her vulnerable young neighbor dead. Tracey claimed it was an act of self-defense. Nine gunshot wounds—and a decades-long trail of extortion, fabrication, fraud, and intimidation—said otherwise. Ten years after the crime, Tracey’s case finally went to trial in an explosive courtroom showdown. In a searing exploration of the criminal mind, bestselling investigative journalist M. William Phelps traces the saga of a psychopath who hid in plain sight—until her wicked ways caught up with her.
“Phelps dares to tread where few others will: into the mind of a killer.” —TV Rage
“Phelps is the king of true crime.” Lynda Hirsch, Creators Syndicate columnist
“One of our most engaging crime journalists.” —Dr. Katherine Ramsland
“Phelps treads dangerous ground like an Amazon jungle guide—fearless, compassionate, insightful.”
—Geoff Fitzpatrick, Executive Producer of Dark Minds
“Anything by Phelps is an eye-opening experience.” —Suspense Magazine
INCLUDES 16 PAGES OF DRAMATIC PHOTOS
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About the Author
New York Times bestselling investigative journalist and serial crime expert M. William Phelps is the author of over thirty nonfiction books. Winner of the 2013 Excellence in Journalism Award, with over one million books in print, Phelps has appeared on over 100 television shows, including CBS’s Early Show, ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC’s Today Show, The View, and many others. Phelps also created, produced and starred in the series Dark Minds; and is one of the stars of Deadly Women and Oxygen’s Snapped. Radio America calls him “the nation’s leading authority on the mind of the female murderer.”
Profiled in Writer's Digest, Connecticut Magazine, NY Daily News, NY Post, Newsday, Suspense Magazine, and the Hartford Courant, Phelps also consulted on the first season of the Showtime cable television series Dexter; he has written for Connecticut Magazine, Huffington Post, the Providence Journal, and other major publications. Touched by tragedy himself, due to the unsolved murder of his sister-in-law, Phelps is able to enter the hearts and minds of his subjects like no one else. He lives in a small Connecticut farming community and can be reached at his author website, www.mwilliamphelps.com.
Read an Excerpt
BEN SMITH HAD ALWAYS CONSIDERED himself a pragmatic, reasonable man. He viewed the world realistically. Ben knew very little about murder, other than what he had seen on television, maybe read about in the papers or a book. He knew even less about prosecuting murderers or other major crimes, though Ben Smith was the newly elected prosecutor for Sac County, Iowa. Thus, when Sac County sheriff Ken McClure stood inside Ben's office and turned to the man standing next to him, state detective Trent Vileta, Ben welcomed the opportunity to say hello to two men he would likely be working with at some point down the road.
"Ben," McClure introduced, "this is Trent. Trent, Ben Smith."
Prosecutor Ben Smith stuck out his hand. "Pleased to meet you."
"Trent here is assigned as the state detective for this area," the sheriff explained.
"We're just going around and introducing ourselves to the newly elected county attorneys," Trent said.
Ben offered the men a chair. "Sit down, please."
It was the second week of November 2010, days after the election. Ben Smith, just thirty-two years old, had unseated an eight-year man. Ben, admittedly, had no idea what he was doing sitting in the prosecutor's chair. The last year or so of his life had been a whirlwind of disappointment and letdown. Ben felt isolated and depressed. He was trying to deal with the fact that he had moved from Omaha, Nebraska, back to his hometown in Sac County, Iowa, after the girl he was dating suggested they settle down. However, she had left and Ben was now alone. He had joined the Iowa Army National Guard a few years back, had gone through training that summer (2010) and was hoping, he said, to be deployed. He just wanted to get away from everything. A tour overseas sounded like a good idea at the time. Yet here he was, sitting inside his office in Sac City, taking over as prosecutor of this rather small community of about 10,500 residents. How life could change within the blink of an eye.
The three men chatted for about five minutes, getting to know one another. Before walking out of the office after the meet and greet, Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) state detective Trent Vileta stopped, turned to Ben, and said, "When you get some time, there's a case I want to run by you."
Trent had a mild manner about him: medium build, bald, glasses, talked with a slight Midwestern tongue. He was far from intimidating or overbearing.
"What's that?" Ben asked.
"A shooting in Early," Trent said.
Early? Ben thought. Early, Iowa, is a town (in the county) of about five hundred souls on a good day. Shooting? Ben kept asking himself, trying to remember.
Then it clicked.
As Trent walked away, Ben closed the door and sat back at his desk. He recalled which shooting Trent was referring to.
"I had heard about the shooting," Ben said later. "But nearly ten years had gone by. I thought it was a done deal."
Everyone had. It was thought to be a case of home invasion in 2001, where a woman was seemingly brutally attacked inside her Early home while her husband was away on business. According to the woman, somewhere near 7:00 p.m., a local man, just twenty, along with an accomplice (or two), broke in and came after her. After a scuffle between the men and the woman (the second man took off out the back door at some point), she shot and killed one of them with two different weapons. The woman, known then as Tracey Roberts, had been promoted by the media as a "hero" for protecting her three kids and saving herself.
"I had no idea it was an open case. No idea it was even a case," Ben recalled.
Trent had been kind of "flippant" about planting the seed, Ben said. "He wasn't browbeating me."
Good detectives never do. They have a plan and set out to get it done.
Ben sat at his desk and thought, I don't even know how to prosecute speeding tickets and this guy is talking about murder?
Admittedly, Ben noted, he had no idea what DCI did during the course of a normal day. It was Ben's first week on the job. He thought he was walking into an office where his days were going to be consumed by traffic infractions and domestic abuse allegations, maybe a sexual assault case once a year. Murder — the basis for Trent's comment — was something nobody even thought about in Sac County. There had not been a murder in the county for, Ben was certain, at least thirty years. Sac County was known for its "desirable" landscape for growing grain or raising stock, some farms doing both. You hear Iowa and think Hawkeyes, caucuses, oats and hay, rye wheat and red clover.
Ben went about his day not giving too much thought to what DCI Special Agent (SA) Trent Vileta had said. The weekend came. It was a strange time in his life, Ben recalled. He was rebuilding after that breakup and wasn't where he wanted to be. It had been his ex's idea to move from Omaha back to his hometown, outside Early. A Drake University Law School graduate, Ben had been a first-team all-American running back for Buena Vista University and had worked for the Iowa Attorney General's Office (IAGO) just out of law school, from 2007 to 2010. He didn't see himself at this point in his life back home, running the county prosecutor's office, single, with no future life plan. He understood Omaha wasn't New York or L.A., but there was far more action there than Sac County could offer a guy his age.
All throughout that weekend after meeting Trent and the sheriff, the comment kept popping up in Ben's mind. That seed Trent had planted was growing.
What was Trent talking about? What was his concern? What interest did a detective have in a ten-year-old cold case that had been investigated already by DCI (before Trent had even moved back into the state and taken a DCI job!) and the sheriff's department? It was thought to be a home invasion, a homicide committed in self-defense. What was Trent up to?
A week or so after their meeting, Trent e-mailed Ben. He included an attachment with the e-mail. It was a photo. Ben was getting ready to head home for the night. It was Friday. After reading the brief e-mail, Ben opened the attachment.
Disturbing couldn't really describe what Ben was staring at. The back of a man's head, bloodied, obviously riddled with bullet wounds. It shocked Ben. The graphic nature of the photos was jarring to a guy who had just stepped into office. Ben had never seen anything like it.
She claims she did this under [stressful] circumstances — think about that this weekend, Trent wrote. She — Tracey Roberts — was the shooter. The victim (alleged intruder) was Dustin Wehde (pronounced WEED-EE), a twenty-year-old so-called "special needs" kid, who had been shot nine times by a woman who lived on the other side of town from where Dustin lived with his mother, father, and siblings. So much had happened since Dustin was killed. If this case had been a murder, why hadn't it been prosecuted as such inside the past decade?
Ben sat back in his chair. Took a deep breath.
What is Trent not telling me?
He stared at the photos.
What am I missing here?
IT WAS A SUMMER CONCERT. He was walking by a booth, saw an advertisement for police recruiting and decided to fill out the card and put it in the box, never thinking for one minute he would get a call. After all, Trent Vileta was about six hours, or nearly four hundred miles, from home. He'd known some people in Milwaukee and was there to have some fun. A year later, he was applying to the police force; fifteen months after that, Trent had his run-down Jeep Wrangler loaded up with his belongings — a mattress, a few plastic garbage bags full of clothes, and his wallet — and was hauling ass from eastern Iowa, where he lived, to Milwaukee, to head into the police academy. It was 1996. And from then until 2001, running into a crossroads, you could say, Trent did his duty as a Milwaukee Police Department patrol cop before he and his wife decided to hightail it back to Iowa.
"I was getting shot at a lot," Trent said of his days on patrol for the Milwaukee Police Department. "That last year I was also hit by a drunk driver and was almost killed on duty." But the real kicker, he added, was that he and his partner had been shot at two times inside two weeks. Trent went home that night of the second shooting, frustrated and disillusioned, and approached his pregnant wife.
"You know," she said, "maybe your career path should be with another department back in Iowa, where you might survive."
Trent was ready to live closer to home and he felt that he was facing that five-year burnout period a lot of cops working in a busy city beat talk about.
Back in Iowa, Trent got a job at the Coralville Police Department and went to work as a patrol officer. The job lasted about five years. He was investigating gang activity, served search warrants, developed confidential informants (CIs), testified in state and federal cases. Trent was learning the ropes of becoming an investigator, and he liked it.
The problem he ran into was that he had come from a city of about eight hundred thousand to a city of about twenty-five to thirty thousand, where things were done differently.
"Coralville Police was a great department, but I just didn't fit in all that well," Trent explained. "I was doing things the department had never done before."
The obvious next step for Trent was the state police, the Division of Criminal Investigation, where he could utilize all of the skills he'd mastered thus far.
His first job in DCI was in the gaming unit focusing on crime at the local casino. Pulling prostitutes out of the casino and busting them for solicitation, Trent explained, was like "shooting fish in a barrel." All they did was watch the girls early in the day working the streets and make note of what they were wearing. Then spot those same girls on closed-circuit television (CCTV) in the casino, watch them break laws and haul them in.
So now, Trent was a special agent in DCI and he was investigating major crimes. One day his boss approached him. "Listen, the legislature wants us to work on a certain amount of cold cases every year. Why don't you grab one when you have time and have a look."
Trent walked over to where the cold cases in the office were sitting in files. "There were two," he remembered. One of them was the death of Dustin Wehde.
Trent was the kind of investigator, he said, who felt the crime scene (CS) photos were the first thing you looked at when cracking the ice on a cold case. CS photos could explain a lot if you knew what you were looking at.
He reached into the box and found the photos. The second photo Trent looked at, he said, was an image he would never forget: A photo of the back of Dustin's head.
What the hell? Trent said to himself, staring at it.
He could not believe what he was looking at. What Trent thought immediately was that it could not be, based on the CS photos alone, a home invasion gone wrong. The accuracy of the shots and the amount of shots fired were two of the most telling details, in Trent's view.
Trent darted off an e-mail to his old partners in Milwaukee, Phil Hanyard and Dave Larson, explaining several of the crime scene photos he was looking at. Phil and Dave were cops whose opinions Trent relied on. Guys who had seen it all. They could help.
Trent encouraged them to have a look and get back to him. He gave them no details about the case. Just look at the photos and tell me what you think.
Sometime later, Trent heard back.
What's going on in Iowa? one of his old partners e-mailed. What do you have, some dude executed here or what?
A FEW WEEKS INTO HIS reign as prosecutor, two years after Trent Vileta first saw the photos himself and had questions, now Ben Smith couldn't shake the same images: the back of a man's skull with several bullet entrance wounds. It was on Ben's mind as he went about his days as Sac County prosecutor.
To put it into perspective, Ben was not some hayseed lawyer who could be cajoled into taking on some cop's career case — a case, incidentally, police and the former prosecutor had taken a look at and come to the conclusion, for whatever reason, that Dustin Wehde's death was justifiable homicide — a rare, albeit deadly, home invasion gone wrong. But while sitting at his computer inside his office, Ben clicked on several additional photos Trent had sent since that first lot a few Fridays back. It was now January 2011. Christmas had come to pass. Ben was in his office and had work to do, traffic tickets to prosecute. He needed to familiarize himself with the county and focus on his job of trying to keep everyone honest. Those photos, however, were beginning to preoccupy Ben's days and even keep him awake at night. He couldn't stop thinking about the images and Trent's comments: Think about that this weekend.
Staring at a new batch of photos, Ben asked himself what he believed at the time was one of the most important questions about the crime scene: Why nine shots? And how could a housewife, struggling, supposedly panicking, land such deadly, accurate shots into the guy's head and body? How had she gotten her weapons out of a locked gun safe in the dark? These weren't willy-nilly shots fired in the chaotic moments of a struggle; they felt perfectly directed, perfectly targeted, and perfectly intended — all from the finger of a housewife with three kids, a husband away on business. You look at it in that manner of speaking and it smelled.
Ben got up and searched for the Dustin Wehde file in his office. He decided to take it home — without telling anyone — and have a serious look. Trent was a decorated cop. He was a certified emergency medical technician (EMT) and graduated from the U.S. Army Policy School. He had years of investigatory experience in murder cases. He knew his way around serious investigations, having been with DCI now since 2008. He was a cop's cop, whatever the hell that meant these days. Trent deserved Ben's attention, if only to take a thoughtful look at the file and come to a conclusion. Cops rely on their gut. They don't target individuals. They try to answer nagging questions that keep popping up. Maybe a new set of eyes on the case could offer an understanding nobody else had come to.
Over the course of the next several days, Ben immersed himself in the Wehde file. He studied everything he could about the case. It was three small binders then: police and autopsy reports, interviews, and other documents. As homicide cases go, not that big of a paper trail. But there was enough information, nonetheless, to get an idea of the case and the initial investigation.
Ben picked up an interview a sheriff had done with the shooter, Tracey Roberts. It felt fairly thorough, about ten pages long, done on the night of the incident, around 10:00 p.m., at Loring Hospital, after she had been brought there from her West South Avenue home in Early. The neighborhood Tracey and her former husband, Michael Roberts, an Australian Tracey had met online, lived in could not have been any more suburban. Farmhouses lined the street next to Victorians, ranches, and red barns. The favorite vehicle was a truck. West South is a two-lane back road. The entire neighborhood and surrounding acreage is flat as a desktop. People out here worry about droughts, floods, and tornadoes. Murder is nowhere on the list of community concerns.
Settled into his chair, Ben read through that first interview with Tracey Roberts. Here was a woman who, merely three hours before, had pumped a total of eleven rounds from two weapons, many of them hitting the young man, killing him, leaving a large pool of his blood on the wooden floor of her bedroom, with some spatter on the wall nearby. She claimed he had walked into her home with another man, who had booked out the back door once the shooting started. A guess was they were on a mission to rape and kill her. She had used a .40-caliber Beretta semiautomatic handgun, which holds ten rounds, and a six-shot Sturm, Ruger & Co. .357 revolver.
Two guns? Ben asked himself. Eleven rounds?
In addition, these weren't the guns of a novice. These were killing machines. You put one of these weapons next to your nightstand when you knew what the hell you were doing.
How does a woman, scared for her life, with three small children in the house, get off eleven rounds from two weapons without the two men who had broken in getting control of the situation? It was not a large house by any means. There was no indication that Tracey Roberts hid or locked herself in a room, got the weapons into her hands and under control, and fired at the victim as he came barging into the room. To the contrary, reports indicated she had fired at will.
Excerpted from "Beautifully Cruel"
Copyright © 2017 M. William Phelps.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What a book! Tracey Richter Pittman Roberts can't seem to tell the truth and/or keep her lies straight about the "home invasion" murder of Dustin Wehde. After 10 years, the cold case is brought back to life by a new prosecutor and a detective who was taking another look at the case. There are lots of twists and turns in this very interesting book and Author Phelps' thorough research of this case makes it a page turner.