Richard Overton

On January 24, 1988 Janet Overton collapsed in her driveway in Santa Ana California and died.  She had not been feeling good in a long time but doctors could find nothing wrong with her.  On this particular day she was going to go whale watching with her teenage son but she obviously would not make it.

Janet was a well known and popular member of her community and a member of the local school board.  Her husband, Richard, was part owner in a mining business but was a well educated business consultant.  He had a doctorate in psychology and a mathematician and often lectured at local colleges. Janet and Richard had been married nineteen years at the time of her death.  

Upon her death a medical examination could find no determination for her death.  She was quickly cremated although apparently her ashes were not spread anywhere. 

After Janet's obituary was placed in the local newspaper the police received a call from a woman named Dorothy Boyer.  She would tell them what would seem to be an unbelievable story, but one that intrigued them.  It would cause them to do something I had never heard of, examine the ashes of Janet Overton, determine her cause of death, and bring murder charges against her husband.

Dorothy Boyer had been married to Richard Overton.  They had four children together and had divorced in 1969 after Dorothy found out that he had secretly married another woman.  That woman, Caroline Draper, also had a child with Richard but their marriage would end in an annulment because in the court of law it was not a legal marriage.  The interesting thing is that my research states that Janet and Richard were married 19 years at the time of her death which means they had married sometime around 1969 too it seems.  

Dorothy would tell investigators that in their divorce she had received custody of the children and the home they shared and Richard had not been happy.  For a few days in 1973 she had started feeling sick.  She was having bouts of vomiting and extreme pain.  She had spent a few days in bed and then the following morning she had felt better and returned to her routine and to work. By mid-day she was feeling sick again.  When she returned home she thought she noticed that her coffee canister had been moved from where she had left it. But, as we all often do, she just thought maybe she was being absent minded. The following day she did not drink coffee before work and felt fine.  But on the next day she again drank coffee but was mindful as to where the canister was left.  Once again she became sick and upon her return was convinced the canister was moved.  She had contacted authorities.  

Officers came into Boyers home and they took fingerprints from the coffee canister and tested the contents.  They would find the fingerprints of Richard Overton on the canister and inside the coffee was laced with selenium.  I did a search on selenium and learned that it does have several health benefits (although unsure they knew this in 1973) but large doses can cause all of the issues that Dorothy Boyer was experiencing and ultimately can cause death.

Investigators of course went to talk to Richard, who apparently readily admitted to altering Dorothy's coffee and food but charges were not filed.  For whatever her reasons were Dorothy chose not to testify against him so there was little for investigators to do.

Now, officers in 1988 are hearing that the husband of a woman who had just died mysteriously had attempted to poison a previous wife.  The fact that they no longer had a body to examine did not deter them from looking further. Investigators were able to get an order to have the cremated ashes of Janet Overton tested.  They now knew what they were looking for.  The ashes came back positive for cyanide and selenium.  

Investigators had also searched the Overton home, as well as talked to family and friends.  Inside the home they found what they called a very detailed diary from Richard Overton.  It appeared to be "coded" in Spanish and Russian but it listed several men that Richard suspected Janet was having affairs with, detailed her coming and going and even alluded to the fact that he was slowly poisoning his wife.

Over the last few months leading up to her death Janet had suffered from dehydration and had developed lesions on her body.  These lesions had caused so much pain that even fabric from clothing irritated them.  No one could apparently find an answer to what was wrong with her.

It took them a while but Richard Overton, who had now remarried, was charged with his wife's murder and awaited trial.  His first trial would begin in 1992.  It appears that it was nearing the end when Richard had a health issue. Prosecutors claim that he faked a heart attack while leaving the stand but it stopped the trial at least for a bit.  Then, while he was supposedly recovering his lawyer had a mental breakdown of sorts brought on by severe depression.  The judge in the case decided that the break was too long and declared a mistrial.

A retrial began in March of 1995.  While the prosecution argued that this was a planned murder by Overton because he believed his wife had been unfaithful, the defense of course took a different attitude. First they would maintain that the amount of cyanide found in the testing of the ashes could have come from ulcer medication Janet was taking.  They would also put a man on the stand who did admit to having an affair with Janet, although other than to show that he had initially lied to the police I am unsure why they had him in court.  Richard Overton would testify maintaining that he and Janet had a happy, problem free marriage.  That testimony alone should have sent up red flags even if the prosecution did not have the diaries as proof.  

After a six week jury apparently agreed with the prosecution that the murder of Janet Overton had occurred if for no other reason than to "satisfy his hostiliites" towards his wife and found him guilty in May of 1995 after six hours of deliberation.  That following September Richard Overton was sentenced to life without parole.  He died in prison in June of 2009 at the age of eighty-one from complications due to diabetes and dementia.  He maintained his innocence until the end.

For those interested in 1999 there was a television movie called "Lethal Vows" starring John Ritter and Marg Helgenberger.  While the names were changed in the movie, and I am sure things taken away or added for dramatic effect it is said to be based on this story, including the information from Dorothy Boyer.

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