"He is the single most blatant, arrogant, yet curiously effective liar and manipulator of the truth.”
- Deputy District Attorney Christopher Evans
It was the 24th of January 1988. A Sunday. Forty six year old Janet Overton had breakfast at her home in Dana Point, California, United States before packing up the car on the driveway with help from her eighteen year old son Eric. They had plans that day. They had arranged to spend time with friends on a boat to go whale watching. But before Janet could even get into the car, she collapsed on the driveway.
Eric asked his father, Richard Overton, who was inside the house at the time to call 911. He did and Janet was rushed to hospital but she was pronounced dead before she made it to the hospital.
Janet's death came as a great shock to her family, friends and colleagues. She worked as a school board leader and lived with her husband of nineteen years Richard and their son Eric. Janet was a much loved and popular woman in the community so her death devastated many people and everyone wanted to know what happened to her. She had been ill in the years leading up to that day but despite going to see a number of different doctors, nobody could tell her what was wrong.
The Autopsy didn't provide any explanation as to what caused Janet's death either. The result was inconclusive and her death certificate listed the cause of death as unknown. Even though there was no satisfactory explanation for Janet's death, there was also no evidence found of any foul play. Richard told police that he loved his wife dearly and she would be greatly missed. Her death seemed to be a complete mystery.
While investigators didn't believe there was anything sinister involved in relation to Janet's death, there was one woman who wasn't so sure and she notified police of her suspicions six months after Janet's death. That woman, Dorothy Boyer, told them that they should take a closer look at Janet's case as she knew exactly what Richard was capable of. Dorothy told police that Richard had tried to murder her through a process of slow poisoning.
According to Dorothy, she was married to Richard twenty years earlier and she thought they had a happy marriage until she discovered that he was living a double life. Despite the fact that Richard lived with Dorothy and their four children at the time, he also had a second home. He spent some of his time living with another woman named Caroline Hutcheson. Unbeknown to Dorothy, Richard had also married Caroline and they had a child together. When Dorothy found out about Caroline, she filed for divorce. As part of the divorce settlement, Dorothy kept the family home and she continued to live there after the divorce was finalized in 1969. Richard was furious that Dorothy divorced him and remained in the family home. Around the same time that the divorce was finalized, Janet became ill. She suffered from nausea all the time and had sore lesions on her body. One day, when Richard was at the house, she noticed there was a strange odor from her milk and believed Richard had spiked her drink.
Dorothy took the milk to the police and asked them to test it and they discovered there was a large amount of selenium in it. Selenium can be fatal in large doses. The police confronted Richard and he confessed that he had been putting it in her food and drink after they divorced. He agreed to seek psychological counseling to get help and as such, Dorothy opted not to press charges. But when she heard about Janet's death, she was worried that Richard had poisoned Janet so she told police everything she knew and everything that had happened to her. Dorothy was also able to provide physical evidence. According to Dorothy, she called over to the Overton's house after Janet's death so that her daughter could see Richard and when she was there, she found a woman’s eyeliner, rubber gloves, an electronic device containing selenium and a syringe in Richard's desk drawer. She gave them to the police and they carried out tests and confirmed that the eyeliner contained selenium.
Based on that new information, police looked at the circumstances surrounding Janet's death again. They were aware she had been ill in the period leading up to her death and that her symptoms included nausea, difficulty walking, she had painful sores and rashes all over her body and had peeling and discolored feet. Police discovered that they were the same symptoms that Dorothy had after she divorced Richard.
Police believed Dorothy's version of events but they are also aware that the circumstances were different. Richard poisoned Dorothy after she divorced him and he was furious at the time. But, according to Richard, he was happily married to Janet and there were no problems. So police had to establish firstly if Janet was poisoned or not and secondly, if Richard was the person who poisoned her.
Police couldn't seek to exhume Janet's body as she had been cremated so they had to rely on evidence that had already been stored. Tests were carried out on samples of Janet's tissue but no trace of selenium was found. Police asked Paul Sedgwick, a retired coroner’s toxicologist for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, to examine Janet’s stomach contents to see if there was any evidence of foul play. Paul immediately smelled cyanide and determined the amount of cyanide found in Janet's stomach meant that she ingested it shortly before her death. Traces of it was also found in her brain tissue and that indicated she had ingested it on a previous occasion.
The chief forensic toxicologist for the coroner’s office, Robert H. Cravey, said that it was missed during the initial Autopsy as cyanide or selenium are not routinely tested for and would only be tested for if an investigator was suspicious and requested it or if the person conducting the Autopsy knew the smell of cyanide, like Paul did, and tested for it. The smell of cyanide has a bitter almond smell but not everyone can detect it. Robert explained that it is easy to miss it as:
“It’s genetic. All people can’t smell cyanide.”
Police now believed they knew exactly what caused Janet's death but they had to establish how Janet could have ingested the cyanide that killed her. They discovered that Richard had a friend who was involved in gold mining and Richard had access to cyanide and other metallurgy material that were stored at his friend's house. They obtained a search warrant for Richard’s house to look for cyanide and selenium.
During the course of that search, they obtained Richard's journals and his computer. Some of the files on his computer had been deleted. They retrieved some of the deleted files and Richard's journal entries showed that, despite what Richard said, Richard and Janet were not in a happy marriage. Even though they lived together, they lived almost entirely separate lives. They didn't sleep together or even eat together. In fact, some of the journal entries revealed, that Richard hated Janet and that his love had turned to pure hate and that he would "deal with that soon." He was angry and resented her.
Richard recorded all of Janet’s activities and what she did day to day in his journal, including his belief that she was having affairs with a number of men. He was particularly annoyed about one man named Bill Dawson. Janet was due to go whale watching with Bill and her son Eric the day she died. The journal entry for the 24th of January, the day Janet died, had been ripped out of his journal. The police investigation revealed that Richard put a note about Janet’s involvement in an extramarital affair with a school official on all the cars in the parking lot at the district office where Janet was a board member. That incident had caused her great distress at the time as she initially didn't know who put the note on all the cars.
Police spoke to some of Janet's friends and they told them that Janet and Richard were complete opposites. He was a college lecturer and a mathematician with a doctorate in psychology and a business consultant and was concerned only about status whereas Janet was a fun loving, popular woman who enjoyed being around people and helping them and she was fiercely independent. They initially bonded over their love of computers but nineteen years later, the cracks in the marriage were clear to see due to Richard's journal entries and it was evident they were heading for a divorce. But police discovered that Janet was reluctant to divorce Richard as she didn't want to have to give him a share of the $100,000 inheritance she had received from her mother's estate.
Richard was arrested and charged with first degree murder. He pleaded not guilty. At the time of his Trial, he was married to his fourth wife Carol Townsend.
The Trial began and seven weeks into the Trial, Richard testified. He was cross examined for two days. It was a difficult time for him on the stand as he was asked questions by the Prosecutor about his ex wife Dorothy. On the stand,Richard admitted that he put prescription drugs in Dorothy's coffee in the past but said that he thought it was just a "neat joke" to play on her as he believed she was mistreating their children. But he claimed that he did not do the same to Janet. On the third day that he was due to be cross examined, he complained of chest pains and dizziness in Court. The Trial had to be stopped and Richard was taken out of Court on a gurney and a recess was ordered. The Trial was postponed for a couple of months.
After two months, the Defense could not proceed with the case and they requested a further postponement which was granted. That postponement was due to the health of Richard's lawyer. The Court heard that his lawyer, Robert D. Chatterton, was clinically depressed. That raised questions about the adequacy of his Defense and after a few months, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana declared a mistrial in the case and said that there was the strong likelihood that jurors’ attitudes had become set during the unprecedented recess. The mistrial was declared based on the extraordinary delay of more than six months between the presentation of the Prosecution case and the Defense case.
A new Trial began with a new Jury sworn in.
It was the Prosecution case that Richard murdered Janet and did so by poisoning her over a period of time with toxic levels of selenium and cyanide and they believed that on the day she died, he put cyanide into her orange juice before she left the house that morning. The Jury heard that the cause of death was changed from natural causes to acute cyanide intoxication after further tests were carried out and cyanide was found following the report Dorothy gave to police.
The Prosecution told the Jury that they believed that Richard had the means, motive and opportunity to kill Janet. The Court heard that Richard had access to the cyanide and that his journal entries showed that he was furious at Janet and hated her and that their marriage had deteriorated. It was the Prosecution case that that hatred led to him poisoning Janet with selenium and cyanide and he put it on her eyeliner and in her food and drink over a period of time and that caused her to become ill.
The Court heard that in the years leading up to her death, the evidence that she was being poisoned was clear in hindsight from the symptoms she had. Janet's symptoms were similar to the ones Dorothy had experienced. Janet also suffered from dehydration and lesions that were so painful that the friction of her clothes became almost unbearable. The Jury heard that she also found it hard to walk and needed the assistance of crutches.
The Court heard that Janet tried to get help and went to her physician and several doctors but they could not explain what was happening to her. She even checked herself into the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla on two occasions but the doctors there were unable to give a diagnosis. No explanation was ever given to Janet as to why or how her health was rapidly deteriorating.
It was the Prosecution case that her symptoms were consistent with selenium poisoning.
The Jury heard about the contents of the journals that Richard kept that police found in his house. His journals outlined details such as his wife’s whereabouts, listed the men that he believed she was having affairs with, and even alluded to a slow poisoning campaign using selenium. They were written in Russian and Spanish.
The Prosecution asked the Jury to find Richard guilty of murder as there was no other explanation as to how Janet could have died as a result of cyanide poisoning. Her friends were all clear that there was no way Janet would take her own life and the thing she looked forward to most was being able to give her son his diploma at school, something that she never got to do.
The Defense disagreed. It was their case that Richard was innocent and that the level of cyanide found in Janet's system was too low to kill and in some cases, it can develop in tissue after death. It was their case that it could have been a byproduct of ulcer medication that she was taking at the time of her death and traces of cyanide was found in her prescription medication. The Prosecution disagreed that the level of cyanide found in her system was too low to kill and they called experts to explain why. The experts testified that the low levels of cyanide detected in her body were caused by the natural dissipation of the chemical over time.
The Defense told the Jury that that was irrelevant as there was no actual evidence that she died of cyanide poisoning and they believed that Janet died of heart failure. Defense lawyer, George A. Peters, said that Janet was in poor health and had a damaged heart and that that was the most likely cause of her death.
The Court heard that Richard admitted that he was angry when he found out about the affairs but that he was more concerned about Janet's health as she was getting worse as time went on.
Richard was found guilty of murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole due to the special circumstance in the case, namely that he killed Janet by poisoning her. Richard told the Court that he was an innocent man:
“The truth is: I am innocent. The truth is, I never poisoned Jan Overton with anything, at any time, in any manner. Ever. I don’t know what I can do. I’ll pray and I’ll do what I can to help the truth shine through the clouds.”
Richard continued to maintain his innocence until his death in 2009. He died at the age of 81 due to advanced dementia and complications of diabetes. He died at a hospice in Northern California after he had been transferred from Folsom State Prison where he was still incarcerated. His fourth wife, Carol Townsend, believed that he was an innocent man:
“He was a wonderful man, he was a brilliant man. He did not kill his wife. She died of natural causes. The Prosecution was overly aggressive and put out a lot of innuendo, and the Defense swallowed it up.”
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