By Janie Jones
The Shady Valley subdivision is a peaceful, well-to-do neighborhood in western Conway. It’s not the type of place one would expect to be visited by violence, and yet on a sweetly fragrant weekend in the spring of 2002, it became the site of a double homicide.
Carter Elliott, 48, was a prominent businessman in Conway, the founder of Detco Industries, a chemical products company. Just past 6:30 p.m. on May 19, 2002, Elliott’s girlfriend Brandi Watkins, and another young lady, Emily Canada, went to Elliott’s house. They had just arrived back in Conway after a weekend in Memphis. Watkins had last spoken to Elliott by phone Saturday night but couldn’t reach him on Sunday, despite several tries. They pulled into the driveway and attempted to enter through the back door, but it was locked, so they walked around to the front door and opened it. Watkins almost stepped on Elliott’s body, which lay face-down in the foyer. To the left, in the formal living room, was the body of Timmy Robertson, 25, also face-down on the floor. Watkins and Canada ran to a neighbor’s house for help, and officers with the Conway Police Department (CPD) responded within minutes.
In describing the relationship between the victims, the media most often referred to Elliott as Robertson’s mentor. From the beginning of the investigation, authorities assumed Elliott was the killer’s intended target, and Robertson was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
By morning, the news had been spread across town by almost anyone without an oath of confidentiality to uphold. Rumors ran rampant, and the truth, filtered through many retellings, became shredded. One scenario alluded to Mafia and/or drug connections. According to one oft-repeated story, money had been spread around Elliott’s body. Another version had playing cards fanned out around him. Both stories construed that the killer or killers were leaving a message that a gambling debt had been collected … with fatal interest.
Photos of the crime scene show Elliott’s feet toward the front door and his arms by his sides, the right arm slightly akimbo. Five folded white cotton towels were on the back of his head. One 9mm bullet had gone through the towels and through Elliott’s head, entering the base of his skull near his left ear and exiting his right cheek. An unused condom was on the floor near his left hand. The back pockets of his pants were cut away, one exposing part of his buttock.
A 9mm bullet had also torn through Robertson’s head, left to right, but an unfired .45 Colt pistol cartridge lay in his camouflage cap beside him. A copious amount of blood had spilled from the victim and had already turned black except for a small center dot of red.
Police gathered items they thought might be evidence, including a partially eaten candy bar and an open, empty clear plastic bag. In other parts of the house, investigators discovered Elliott’s wallet, glasses and cell phone and a Taco Bell cup. From a trash can, they retrieved a Taco Bell receipt, dated and time-stamped 8:51 p.m., May 18, 2002. They found money in the wallet and more cash in a bathroom and Elliott’s bedroom. Robertson’s belongings were in an upstairs bedroom. A drinking glass was in the bushes outside the residence, and a clear plastic shower cap and a glove were in a neighbor’s yard.
Satisfied that they had collected all pertinent evidence, authorities released the house to the Elliott family on Monday morning, May 20, 2002, and they called a cleaning company around noon that day. Elliott’s children found his 9mm black Beretta and turned it over to police.
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On June 20, 2002, another crime occurred more than 1,500 miles away from Conway that interested the detectives working on the Elliott/Robertson murders. A few years after her divorce from Elliott, Lark Gathright Elliott had moved to Salt Lake City and re-entered the dating scene. One of her beaus was Richard “Dick” Conte, a physician and gun collector. They met through her brother-in-law, Dr. Kevin Clark. The two men had attended medical school together. Lark and Conte started seeing each other in January 2001. They broke off the relationship, then got back together, got engaged and married on the island nation of Grenada.
Conte told Lark that he had been recruited out of high school by the United States government and trained to be an assassin. His code name was Paladin, and he sometimes went by the alias of Richard Boone, after the actor who had played a character named Paladin in the old TV series Have Gun, Will Travel. The character, a gun-for-hire, had the emblem of a chess knight on his holster and calling card. Conte had the same catchphrase and symbol embossed on his business cards and dubbed his house in Nevada “The Paladin Arms.”
He also had a cabin in Duck Creek, Utah. While Lark maintained a condominium apartment in Salt Lake City, Conte commuted to his job as an emergency room physician in Carson City, Nevada, where he was on a rotation schedule of two weeks on and two weeks off. This supposedly allowed him to continue work as a Special Ops “mercenary.” He once gave Lark a yellow rose that he claimed was from the Royal Palace in Cambodia. He told her his cabin in Duck Creek was also a safe house, and surveillance devices were evident throughout the home. Lark hadn’t seen his place in Nevada until after they were married, and then she was shocked to discover a meat hook hanging in the bedroom and silver rings embedded in the bedposts.
Their relationship deteriorated quickly, and she filed for divorce on May 8, 2002, but Conte continued to profess his love for her. After Lark attended Elliott’s funeral, she talked to Conte, and referencing the .45 cartridge at the crime scene, he told her a bullet placed near a dead person’s head was a warning to others to “stay quiet.”
Conte still had access to Lark’s Utah apartment, and she would come home to find flowers, jewelry and perfumed love notes that he had left for her. One time when she got a phone call from him, she could hear sounds of gunfire in the background. He told her he was in the Afghan war zone, pinned down behind a Humvee. Saying he was wounded and might die, he just wanted her to know how much he loved her.
Finally, Conte couldn’t take no for an answer anymore. He drugged and handcuffed Lark and took her to his place in Duck Creek, Nevada, where he held her prisoner until the next afternoon when he released her and surrendered. In December 2002, he pled guilty to charges stemming from the abduction and received a 15-year sentence in the Nevada State Prison.
Detectives with the CPD and the Arkansas State Police traveled to Nevada to interview Conte, thinking there might be a connection between the kidnapping and the double homicide.
Most people would probably agree that Conte was an odd duck, but was his Walter Mitty/Rambo alter ego capable of killing two men in cold blood?
TO BE CONTINUED
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By Janie Jones