By Janie Jones
When Elliott’s ex-wife, Lark, was kidnapped by her eccentric second ex-husband, Dr. Richard Conte, he became suspect number one in the murders. In December 2002, he began serving a 15-year sentence in the Nevada State Prison for Lark’s abduction. In a town that doesn’t see many murders, Elliott’s prominence and wealth put his murder on par with that of a celebrity. Such high-profile cases bring pressure to bear on authorities to solve them quickly.
Members of the Conway Police Department, as well as Elliott’s friends and relatives, thought Arkansas officials should have charged Conte with the murders, but in May 2003, Twentieth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney H.G. Foster said, “We don’t have enough [evidence] for an arrest.” Foster’s successor, Marcus Vaden, reviewed the case but was also of the opinion there wasn’t enough evidence to go to trial.
Then in August 2011, the Twentieth Judicial District’s new prosecutor, Cody Hiland, who had made the unsolved case an issue in his campaign against Vaden, charged Conte with two counts of capital felony murder just two days before the doctor was to be released on parole. Nevada authorities extradited him to Arkansas, and on a cold day in January 2013, his trial began in Conway. By then, Conte was in his early sixties and suffering from multiple sclerosis.
Throughout the trial, Conte sat slumped in a wheelchair. He had thinning gray hair and was dressed in dark slacks, a striped shirt and a maroon vest. He often rested his head on his right hand and wore a pinched expression on his face. Spectators never heard him speak except during a break when a guard asked if he was doing OK. He replied with a barely audible, “Yes.”
The first day of the trial was devoted to voir dire, or jury selection. It was the first chance for spectators to see and hear opposing counsels. Troy Braswell and Joan Shipley were attorneys for the prosecution. Co-counsels for the defense were Jack Lassiter and his law partner, Erin Cassinelli. Braswell had the eagerness of youth, while Lassiter had the experience of a long, distinguished career.
In the opening statement to the jury, Shipley admitted the prosecution had only circumstantial evidence — no forensics, prints, blood or eyewitnesses — but went on to say they would connect the dots that would lead any reasonable person to conclude Conte was guilty, even though his motive, obsessive jealousy, might be murky.
Lassiter stressed the lack of any evidence directly linking his client to the crime. Ballistics experts said none of the guns confiscated from the defendant was the murder weapon. Lassiter also said an eyewitness placed Conte at his Utah home on the weekend of the murders.
READ MORE: Murder Mystery: Murder in a Quiet Place, Part 1
Early in the trial, Lark Gathright Elliott and her brother-in-law, Dr. Kevin Clark, painted Conte as a delusional man living in an imaginary world where he engaged in daring exploits as a government agent and assassin. Clark and Conte had been friends since medical school. Conte once called Clark and said he had been shot several times while on a mission in Afghanistan and a few hours later he showed up at his friend’s office in battle fatigues and a Kevlar vest, asking Clark to remove bullets from his arms and legs. Clark immediately knew the wounds were fake and that Conte had inserted bullets under his skin through slits he had cut himself.
After hearing about the Elliott/Robertson murders, Clark thought, “I wonder where Dick was,” and he tried calling Conte’s cell phone. Failing that, he tried the landline at Conte’s cabin in Duck Creek, Utah. No answer there, either. Telephone records, however, showed that Conte placed a call from the cabin landline to Lark at 9:59 p.m. on Sunday, May 19, 2002, and another call a few minutes afterward to Lark’s brother, Richard Gathright, in Pompano Beach, Florida.
Elliott and Robertson had hosted an informal pool party at Elliott’s home on Saturday. Erica Sorrells was Elliott’s secretary at his chemical production company, Detco, and she was also cleaning his house for him that day. According to Sorrells, among the pool party revelers were Elliott’s friend Danny Cook and his son, another man and a woman Sorrells didn’t know and Dr. Kevin Clark. Most of the guests went in and out without knocking. Sorrells told detectives that Robertson had been drinking all day. She said Elliott was taking a nap when she left at 3:15 p.m.
The time of death for the victims could not be determined precisely, but Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Erickson testified they probably ate about 90 minutes before they died. He based this opinion on the condition of the stomach contents, which consisted of cheese and ground beef. Police had found a Taco Bell receipt, dated and time-stamped 8:51 p.m., May 18, 2002. Emily Canada and Brandi Watkins, who found the victims’ bodies on Sunday, told the court they had talked to Elliott by phone later Saturday night, when he and Robertson were watching TV. This information, along with the Taco Bell receipt, led authorities to believe the murders occurred around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 18.
Besides his cabin in Utah, Conte had a house in Clear Creek, Nevada. Braswell presented photos of two trucks at Conte’s Nevada home: a diesel-fueled silver Dodge truck and a smaller gasoline-powered red truck. During a videotaped interrogation, Conte maintained he was in Duck City, Utah, from May 16 to May 21. He discovered the clutch on his silver Dodge wasn’t working on Friday, May 17 and had the truck towed to Lunt Motors in Cedar City, Utah, the following Monday morning. A receipt was dated and time-stamped May 20, 2002 at 6:02 p.m. He also said his eyewitness saw him in Utah on May 19. The defense produced service records showing Conte took the Dodge in for routine maintenance on April 25, and the mileage was 40,211. When Lunt Motors replaced the clutch, the mileage was 42,961. Lassiter said Conte had done other traveling during that time and couldn’t have made the 2,730-mile round-trip from Duck City to Conway and back because the odometer didn’t have enough mileage on it. Even if Conte had killed Elliott and Robertson at 10:30 p.m. and made the trip back to Duck Creek in time to call Lark and her brother 24 hours later, the mileage wouldn’t have changed.
In case the jury had problems with the arithmetic on the Dodge, the prosecution had a backup argument: Perhaps Conte didn’t drive the Dodge. After all, it was diesel-fueled and would have made a loud noise if he had driven up to the house in the middle of the night, so maybe he opted for the quieter red truck. Unfortunately, no one kept track of that vehicle. By the time the murder trial took place, nobody knew where the red truck was.
The argument over vehicles would seem to have favored the defense. Conte couldn’t be guilty if he was in Utah when the crime occurred. All he needed was that eyewitness to confirm his alibi.
To Be Continued.
By Janie Jones