Reporter: Michael Usher
Producers: Danny Keens, Hannah Boocock
When Michael Roberts fell madly in love with a beautiful American woman, he never imagined his life would end up as strange and as chilling as any crime thriller.
Theirs was a whirlwind online romance.
Within weeks of meeting, Michael had packed his bags and moved halfway across the world.
It proved a fatal mistake. You see, Michael's new wife, the mother of his two young children, turned out to be a cold blooded killer.
And just when you think it can't get more sinister, more unbelievable, there's another twist to the tale.
INTRODUCTION – MICHAEL USHER: When Michael Roberts fell madly in love with a beautiful American woman, he never imagined his life would end up as strange and as chilling as any crime thriller. Theirs was a whirlwind online romance. Within weeks of meeting, Michael had packed his bags and moved halfway across the world. It proved a fatal mistake. You see, Michael's new wife, the mother of his two young children, would become a cold-blooded killer. And just when you think this story can't get more sinister, more unbelievable, there's another twist to the tale.
STORY – MICHAEL USHER: Iowa is a patchwork of flat, windy farms, and towns that have seen better times. ‘Early’ is one of them – unremarkable until one terrible night before Christmas in 2001.
OPERATOR: Michael Roberts’ residence. I’m not really sure what is going on. There may be a possible shooting.
MONA: And I just looked at them and I go, “is my son here?” And they go, “yes”, and I go “is he dead?” And they go “yes.”
MICHAEL USHER: What happened in this small town is so sinister and chilling, it is almost too hard to believe. It’s a story of love, betrayal and murder, and at the centre of it all are two confused young children and their Australian father, who are just desperate to leave America behind and start a new life back home. Do you feel like you are on the run?
MICHAEL: I am on the run. I am on the run. The sand at the Gold Coast is pure white.
MICHAEL USHER: Michael Roberts is stranded in America, and his two children are essentially trapped here by their murdering mother, Tracey Roberts.
JUROR: The jury find the Defendant, Tracey Ann Richter, guilty of murder in the first degree.
MICHAEL USHER: She is serving a life sentence, but her grip and manipulation extends far beyond the razor wire.
BEN: I mean, if she is not evil I don’t what evil is. If that’s not evil, I don’t know what evil is.
MICHAEL USHER: Tonight, an Australian father fights for his kids, a fresh start, and even his own life.
MICHAEL: When I woke up, I had a plastic bag over my head.
MICHAEL USHER: This twisted tale began with a whirlwind romance. How did you get to know her in the first place?
MICHAEL: Tracey contacted me. We were one of the first Internet marriages.
MICHAEL USHER: You married pretty quickly, didn’t you?
MICHAEL: When Tracey came to visit in Australia, we actually got married about 18 days later.
MICHAEL USHER: They posed like the perfect couple. Michael is smitten. He packs his bags and follows Tracey to America.
MICHAEL USHER: When did it start to wash over you that things weren’t right?
MICHAEL: Two months after I landed in America, I knew she was having an affair, so I didn’t want to be another statistic. So I made a conscious decision to attempt to love her until she loved me back.
MICHAEL USHER: Michael’s perseverance seemed to work, and soon they had two children. But the marriage deteriorated, and there was a major source of tension. It turned out Tracey also had an 11-year-old son by a previous marriage, and she was locked in a bitter custody battle with her first husband. That battle would lead to murder. What happened in this house?
MICHAEL: This corner bedroom upstairs, there was a body on the floor. There was nine empty cartridges and the smell of a butcher’s shop.
NOAH: My mum - somebody came in our house, and they tied her up, and they were choking her. My mum got the gun and shot the other one, the other one ran off.
MICHAEL USHER: It was two weeks before Christmas, 2001. Tracey had shot and killed a man in her bedroom. The terrified children are hiding in the house, Michael is interstate on business. Tracey’s story was that this was a home invasion - that she was threatened, and she killed him in self-defence.
MICHAEL: That was her story, yes.
MICHAEL USHER: The victim is 20-year-old Dustin Wehde – a neighbour with learning difficulties. Tracey claimed Dustin broke in and attacked her, so she shot him nine times, including three bullets to the back of the head. Tracey was hailed as a hero for killing the alleged home invader – but it was all a lie. Why would Tracey make out that he would break into your home that night?
MICHAEL: She had constructed a story that her first husband had hired a hit man to kill her, or hit men to kill her, and in order to support that allegation, she needed a body.
MICHAEL USHER: The way you even describe that –
MICHAEL: It’s absolute cold-blooded – I mean, it’s horrific.
MICHAEL USHER: It was premeditated murder. As outrageous as it sounds, Tracey even coaxed the impressionable Dustin into writing a journal, saying he was a hired hit man – all of it an elaborate plot by Tracey to frame her first husband in order to win full custody of their son.
BEN: She hated her first husband so much that she executed somebody to make it look like he did it.
MICHAEL USHER: Amazingly, Tracey got away with it for nearly a decade, and might still to this day if not for County Prosecutor Ben Smith. He dusted off the Wedhe cold case when he took office in 2010. But these original files had been sitting around for pretty much 10 years?
BEN: Pretty much 10 years without much change.
MICHAEL USHER: He started reading, and then began questioning Tracey’s story.
BEN: Dustin Wehde was the perfect person for this, you know. He is not the most popular kid in class, he didn’t have a lot of friends, but she couldn’t have gotten anyone else to do that, or go along with that, you know.
MICHAEL USHER: You spent a lot of time in the courtroom trying to get inside her head. How would you describe Tracey?
BEN: I mean, she is a liar, she only cares about herself. There is not one thing that comes out of her mouth that isn’t either A) just a flat out lie; or B) a statement made for the purposes of getting something.
MICHAEL USHER: How did you fall in love with someone who would turn out to be a sociopathic murderer?
MICHAEL: I’m not sure if I ever fell in love, and I didn’t know what she was. It was a gradual revelation I guess.
MONA: Finding out the true reason of why Tracey took my son’s life – to this day haunts me.
MICHAEL USHER: Mona Wehde is Dustin’s mother.
MONA: Because in her process of trying to save her own son from her husband, she chose to take my son away. And that’s just so hard.
MICHAEL USHER: How do you describe the sort of person that does that?
MONA: A very evil, evil person.
MICHAEL USHER: Once a friend of the Roberts, Mona’s suffering is hard to imagine. She lost her son to Tracey’s gun, only for her husband Brett to then commit suicide, believing his son was the villain.
MONA: You know, in my opinion she killed my husband too. It’s not – he didn’t just go to our son’s gravesite and put a bullet in his heart because he had no pain. You know, she did that to him, she drove him to that.
MICHAEL USHER: And Michael Roberts only compounded Mona’s grief because, in the years following the murder, he went along with his wife’s version of Dustin’s death.
MICHAEL: I chose to believe her, and I convinced myself that her story was the truth.
MICHAEL USHER: That’s an incredible lie to live with.
MICHAEL: I was lying, but it was subconscious. It was just a choice I made.
MICHAEL USHER: Were you protecting her?
MICHAEL: I don’t know what I was protecting, but I was wrong.
MICHAEL USHER: Whatever Michael was telling himself, he got caught in the web of lies – so much so that he would come under suspicion for involvement in the murder when a police polygraph he took was inconclusive. But then, three years after Tracey shot Dustin Wehde dead, Michael would finally see his wife for who she really was. On the fifth of March, 2004, Tracey takes out a life insurance policy on you for a million dollars. Did you know about that?
MICHAEL: Only when it arrived in the mail.
MICHAEL USHER: Why would she want that policy?
MICHAEL: Because of what she did a few days later.
MICHAEL USHER: What did she do a few days later?
MICHAEL: She attempted to murder me. She had drugged me, and I went to sleep on the bed and she had rolled me up in king-size cotton sheets, and when I woke up I was in like a cocoon state, and she was sitting on top of me, and I had a plastic bag over my head.
MICHAEL USHER: She’s trying to kill you.
MICHAEL: Yeah, yeah. She did a good job too, and it would have been the perfect crime. There would have been no evidence.
MICHAEL USHER: Michael Roberts is fighting for his life. His wife Tracey had convinced him to play a bizarre game – what she called a trust-building exercise.
MICHAEL: She asked me to take deep breaths until I pass out, and that I would – she would then take the bag off my head, I would wake up, and I would trust her forever because I would now know that she could have killed and yet she didn’t.
MICHAEL USHER: That is just extraordinary.
MICHAEL: It is, it’s crazy.
MICHAEL USHER: Three years earlier, Tracey had shot a man dead – an act of cold, calculated murder. Now, Michael’s in her sights, having recently taken out multiple insurance policies on his life. Was it just about the money, or was she trying to kill you?
MICHAEL: When she tries to kill me, there are three $1 million life insurance policies on me, plus another one that had come into effect for I think $30,000 or $60,000. I was stacked.
MICHAEL USHER: These are two of the letters from the insurance policy companies saying that – and this is quite extraordinary to read – it’s recently come to our attention that Mr Roberts’ life – you – may be in jeopardy due to the existence of this policy. Consequently, we are terminating the policy.
MICHAEL: She insured the house for four times what it was worth, took out life insurance policies on the children, stacked my insurance policy.
MICHAEL USHER: Michael says he fought free, fled the home and the marriage. Needless to say, the ensuing divorce and custody battle was vitriolic. But a mother’s rights won out. Tracey got most of the assets, and principal custody of the children. How hard has this been on them?
MICHAEL: I don’t even know where to begin trying to measure that. I’ve held them tearfully until they’ve sleep, on several – more than several occasions.
TRACEY: I’ve gone through every “what if” in my head and every possible scenario on how things maybe could have ended up differently, and I don’t think I would want to take the risk of losing one of them.
MICHAEL USHER: Justice was catching up with Tracey Roberts. Prosecutor Ben Smith had quietly gathered enough evidence to charge her with the murder of Dustin Wehde.
JUROR: The jury find the Defendant, Tracey Ann Richter, guilty of murder in the first degree.
MICHAEL: I was relieved. I thought it was over. I thought within a couple of weeks, maybe couple of months maximum, we’d be back in Australia with my children.
MICHAEL USHER: Tracey was sentenced to life in prison with no parole. According to the sentence, she will die here in this Iowa jail. Now, the very day she entered here should have been a fresh start for Michael and the kids, but there was no chance of that. Tracey wasn’t about to let go, and from behind bars continued to make life a nightmare for Michael and her children.
MICHAEL: I guess that’s the prison over there, so –
MICHAEL USHER: Today, Noah Roberts and his sister are about to be reunited with their mum.
MICHAEL: If you want to leave, you can leave. Whenever you want.
MICHAEL USHER: They haven’t seen her in over a year.
MICHAEL: So Mummy would sign there: “Full name, applicant’s mother”, is what she would do.
MICHAEL USHER: The kids need desperately need their mother to sign Australian passport applications. Without it, they can’t live in Australia with their dad, and Noah is going inside to plead with Tracey to sign the papers for him and his sister. Your ex-wife is just behind that barbed-wire there.
MICHAEL: It’s an emptiness, it’s a disenchantment with the way things work.
MICHAEL USHER: And now his son Noah is feeling the same. The meeting didn’t go well. Tracey won’t sign the passport forms. It’s been a heartbreaking visit.
NOAH: When things about this happen, I get the same feeling in my gut and throat that I get when I’m angry, but it’s not anger. It’s kind of like disappointment I guess, but I don’t know really.
MICHAEL USHER: Confusion?
MICHAEL USHER: Noah is just 14, but dealing with very adult emotions, and his conflict is obvious.
NOAH: I don’t want my mum to feel like I’m just leaving her behind. No matter what she did, she is the one that raised me. Just a war going on in my mind. What should I do, what shouldn’t I do?
MICHAEL USHER: Have you ever asked her why she murdered someone?
MICHAEL USHER: Do you ever want to know why?
NOAH: No. I do not.
MICHAEL USHER: What dreams or hope do you have about how this is all going to turn out?
NOAH: Just leave. That’s it. Get on the aeroplane and go.
MICHAEL USHER: While Noah is understandably confused about all of this, his grandmother Anna Richter, Tracey’s mum, is crystal clear about her daughter’s innocence.
ANNA: There is no doubt in my mind she will get out when it is reinvestigated, the evidence is gone over. I really, truly believe that she will get out.
MICHAEL USHER: You believe, categorically, that your daughter is innocent?
MICHAEL USHER: Will she sign the passports, would she sign the paperwork?
ANNA: Would you sign passports if you were in her position?
MICHAEL USHER: But don’t they deserve a chance to be with their father, wherever that is?
ANNA: Under the normal circumstances I would say yes, under these circumstances I would say no. They are better off, in my personal opinion, they are better off without him.
MICHAEL USHER: But how can you say that? How can you think that? She is serving life in jail for murder.
ANNA: It doesn’t make any difference. Even in jail she is a better parent, in my opinion, than Michael is.
MICHAEL USHER: She has been described as evil.
ANNA: By Michael.
MICHAEL USHER: How do you describe Michael?
ANNA: I have never known evil until I met Michael. I had no idea what evil was.
MICHAEL USHER: Then, as we filmed, Tracey called Michael for the first time in eight years, and offered some hope of approving the passports.
MICHAEL: All the money I have available in the world is $28,000. Would you accept that?
MICHAEL USHER: But in yet another twist, Tracey’s grip on Michael has tightened. She’s won a court order, forcing Michael to pay owed child support even though he now has custody. But let me get this straight. She’s behind bars for life, locked up, you still owe her child support money and you have full custody of your children?
MICHAEL: I have to pay her $40,000 plus, or go to jail at the end of this month.
MICHAEL USHER: Do you think Tracey will see the kids again?
ANNA: Noah’s said that he probably won’t be seeing her for a long, long, long time, is the way he put it, so I doubt it.
MICHAEL USHER: The children do seem to want to be with their dad. They do seem to want to move to become a family – and leave America and go to Australia.
ANNA: I don’t find that to be true.
MICHAEL USHER: However, Michael does have an unlikely ally in Mona Wehde, Dustin’s mum. She knows what it is like to have a family torn apart.
MONA: I personally believe those children need to go home with their father, and hopefully have a good rest of their life. Tracey is not getting out of prison, she is not coming back out. She has no rights to her children. She gave up her rights when she pulled the trigger on my son, as far as I’m concerned.
MICHAEL USHER: But this whole story is far from over. Tracey has launched an appeal against her life sentence, and that could take up to two years. So, while she clings to the hope of acquittal, Michael and the children feel like they’re the ones who are being denied freedom.
MICHAEL: I’m hoping she’s going to realise it’s not about her and me. The fact is this is about the kids. I don’t want to fight her, I don’t want to fight anymore. I just want to go home, and the kids want to go home.
MICHAEL USHER: A happy, quiet –
MICHAEL USHER: Normal family life?
MICHAEL: Yeah. The new normal, as we call it. We’re looking forward to the new normal because the old normal isn’t much fun.