By Janie Jones
Just before Richard Conte was to be released from the Nevada State Prison, where he had served time for the 2002 kidnapping of his ex-wife, Lark Gathright Elliott, he was extradited to Arkansas and charged with the murders of Timmy Robertson and Conway businessman Carter Elliott. Carter and Lark had been married for 18 years until their divorce in 1992.
Former prosecuting attorneys H.G. Foster and his successor Marcus Vaden had declined to charge Conte, primarily because an eyewitness, William Pringle, had told investigators that Conte was at his cabin in Utah when the murders occurred. Pringle, however, died in 2008. Two years later, Cody Hiland was elected the 20th Judicial District’s new prosecutor, and in 2012, he formally charged Conte, even though no new evidence had been gathered.
It’s often difficult to pursue a case when so much time has passed, but in this instance, the long wait was a benefit for the prosecution. Conte’s defense lawyer, Jack Lassiter, cited prosecutorial delay in filing a motion to dismiss charges against his client. “I’d be less than honest if I didn’t tell you I was concerned about the delay and the loss of Mr. Pringle,” Judge Charles Clawson said, but he allowed the trial to proceed.
Timmy Robertson was only a few days shy of his 26th birthday at the time of his death. He had worked at Elliott’s company, Detco, and did odd jobs for his boss and friend. Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Troy Braswell depicted Conte as a man consumed with jealousy, thinking of Carter Elliott as a romantic rival. Robertson was collateral damage.
Elliott, a frequent customer at the Conway Supper Club, was described as a gregarious man who spent money freely. His friend, Danny Cook, testified Elliott enjoyed gambling but that it wasn’t a problem.
Investigators had no fingerprints nor DNA to link Conte to the murders. The most damaging evidence against him was revealed during testimony by Sgt. Rick Brown, who was working for the sheriff’s office in Douglas County, Nevada in 2002. He mentioned several items found in Conte’s Carson City home. These included a map of Faulkner County, Elliott’s address, the call letters for the Conway Police Department, names of other men Lark had dated and a note that read, “Conway, HO JO’s room 204.” Supposedly, “HO JO’s” meant Howard Johnson’s, but if anyone followed up on this, it wasn’t presented in court. Investigators had taken photos of other items during their search of Conte’s possessions but lost the pictures.
The defense returned to the subject of Conte’s alibi while Sgt. Brown was still on the witness stand. The lawman had interviewed William Pringle on July 3, 2002, and Pringle told him Conte was in Utah on May 19th and 20th, the weekend of the slayings. Pringle was Conte’s landlord in Duck Creek, Utah, and the two men had known each other for a long time. Cross-examined by the prosecution, Brown said Pringle thought Conte had acted strangely and wouldn’t look his old friend in the eye. On redirect, Brown became testy with Lassiter but admitted that Pringle specifically said he had seen Conte that weekend.
Though Pringle was dead, the prosecution’s star witness was very much alive. Rusty Glover, a Faulkner County Jail inmate, testified that he got to know Conte when they were both in the jail’s medical unit. Glover asked Conte if he had committed the murders and Conte allegedly replied, “Hell, yeah, but they don’t have any evidence.”
READ MORE: Murder in a Quiet Place: Part 1
For his courtroom appearance, Glover was dressed in jail clothes and manacles. He seemed like a compulsive talker, answering questions in rapid-fire succession. Glover was in jail for domestic battery against his mother. He had 11 prior felony convictions, mostly for theft and burglary but also for drugs and terroristic threatening. As a habitual offender and parole violator, he was facing the possibility of 30 years in prison if he didn’t get a break. Ironically, it was his mother who sent him a newspaper clipping about Conte in 2011 when Glover was jailed in Calico Rock.
Glover was a prolific letter writer and had sent letters to Hiland and Braswell and anybody else who might have the power to improve his situation. “Dear Mr. Hiland, I hope this letter reaches you in good spirits and health. As for me, I am troubled.” A letter to Circuit Clerk Rhonda Wharton began with the same salutation. Speaking of the charges against him, he wrote to Braswell, “I want these things to go away.” With the eagerness of a professional gossip columnist, Glover offered information about fellow inmates. He ratted on a child molester, an entire statewide drug operation and Richard Conte. He told the prosecutor what he wanted in return for his testimony. The list included making the charges go away, releasing him on his own recognizance, assigning him to rehab instead of prison or better yet, giving him probation.
Former Faulkner County Jail inmate Charles Reeves corroborated Glover’s testimony about Conte. Compared to Glover, he was a more sympathetic witness. Speaking in a soft voice, Reeves appeared to be a reluctant participant in the proceedings but confirmed overhearing Conte say the authorities didn’t have anything on him.
The prosecution brought out box after box of firearms seized from Conte’s homes in Nevada and Utah. The defense reiterated that Conte was a gun collector and that ballistics tests proved none of those exhibited was the murder weapon.
Gary Rogers, with ServiceMaster Fire and Disaster Restoration, was sent to clean up the crime scene around noon on May 20th. Yellow police tape was still up, which was unusual. Rogers said it was the first time he had ever been called to do his job while police were still on the scene, bagging evidence.
During closing arguments, Lassiter stressed reasonable doubt and the fact that a jury shouldn’t convict the accused based on speculation and conjecture. The items and notes found in Conte’s possessions couldn’t be put in context because the prosecution took what they wanted and left the rest. Lassiter asked rhetorical questions. Why were Elliott’s pockets cut? Was the killer looking for something, such as the key to a safe deposit box? What motive did Conte have? Was there one killer or a team?
That last afternoon of the trial, the courtroom was packed with people unrelated to the case. Law enforcement personnel lined the walls.
During a break after the prosecution rested their case, an elderly gentleman who was present every day of the trial spoke to reporters in idle conversation. He said he was retired and attended trials as a hobby.
“Do you think Conte did it?” one reporter asked.
“I haven’t heard any evidence yet,” he replied.
Too bad for the defendant that the spectator hadn’t been on the jury; it took less than 30 minutes for the chosen seven women and five men to declare Conte guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison, and he died there in 2018.
Postscript: In January 2004, a chemical explosion rocked Carter Elliott’s Detco Industries, causing a spectacular fire. Two days later, a fire destroyed much of Advanced Products International, a company belonging to the former owner of the Detco building.
READ MORE: Murder in a Quiet Place: Part 2
By Janie Jones