Jurors convict Robert Ortloff in Kathleen Smith's murder
Prosecutor Noel Levy expressed a quiet confidence in the outcome moments before the jury returned its guilty verdicts in the quarter-century-old Kathleen Marie Smith murder case.
"I think we proved that [defendant Robert Ortloff] did exactly what we charged him with, even though this wasn't an easy one by any means," said Levy, who had been working the case since 2002.
It was that year that then-Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley gave him the go-ahead to move forward with one of Tempe's most infamous unsolved murder mysteries (see "If The Shoe Don't Fit...You Must Acquit" and "Bombshell," February 7 and 14).
Ortloff's defense attorney, Dan Patterson, seemed equally certain that the panel would find "reasonable doubt" about his client's guilt in the 1984 murder of the 20-year-old Tempe woman (she was hit in the head with a blunt object and, perhaps, suffocated before the killer torched her body after pouring gasoline on and around her).
"Strongest case I've had in 30 years of doing this," Patterson said, before adding the prophetic tag line, "but you never know."
Ortloff harbored no such hopes of winning acquittal as the weeks-long trial progressed in the courtroom of Judge Warren Granville.
Now 47, the former Tempe resident has spent almost half of his life behind bars for the unrelated 1986 Texas mail-bombing of a U.S. Army soldier with romantic designs on a girl Ortloff was dating. The soldier wasn't seriously injured, but the attempted-murder conviction in a federal courtroom earned Ortloff a 50-year prison term.
After hearing testimony from key prosecution witnesses Fred Tokars (a notorious Atlanta attorney turned wife murderer) and Tokars' longtime lawyer pal Alan Bell, Ortloff jotted a note to a New Times reporter attending the trial.
"I'm going to get convicted by the orchestrated testimony of two lying psychopaths," he wrote.
But in the end, the panel concluded that Ortloff himself was the psychopath and convicted him after a relatively short deliberation of about five hours.
"We didn't believe everything Tokars said — he really is a creepy-crawler — but we thought that Robert is a psychopath," commented one juror, a woman who recently moved to the Valley, registered to vote, and wound up on one of the longer criminal cases in recent memory.
"We had questions about so many things, but when we weighed it all up, it fits that Robert was the killer and that he confessed to Tokars inside the prison because he thought the Smith case never would be prosecuted because it was so old. But there's still a list of things we'd like to know."
That list includes knowing the truth about the footprint that the probable killer left in a wet flowerbed after fleeing from Smith's condo, a mile west of the Arizona State University campus.
Interestingly, that print had been the linchpin of the prosecution's case for years, as Tempe police detectives were certain that it would prove to fit Ortloff's foot. But it didn't. The print was about four sizes smaller than the defendant's foot, which forced prosecutor Levy to negate its import.
"There were a lot of people around there," he told jurors during his opening statement, as if to suggest that anyone — not necessarily the killer — could have made the print.
And that was before the unexpected and radically altered testimony of a woman who (with her late grandmother) had seen a man flee Smith's condo moments before it erupted into flames.
Lisa Pickett Steedman (who was 14 at the time of the murder), testified that the man hadn't stepped into the flowerbed just outside the condo. But she earlier had told police, prosecutors, a civil attorney, and defense attorney Patterson that the man had stepped into the flowerbed ("Key Witness Recants," March 13).
Steedman and her grandmother, Ina Weisbaum, consistently had said that the fleeing man almost knocked Weisbaum over atthe time.
"His foot was in the mud here, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, what big feet,'" Weisbaum told an attorney on tape in 1989, a few years before she died. (The jurors at Ortloff's trial never knew what Weisbaum said).
However, three jurors told New Times that Steedman's flip-flop did not have nearly the effect on their verdict as the testimony of Ortloff's former fiancée, Jennifer Spies Wade.
Prosecution witness Wade testified that she had lied to police back in 1984 when asked to account for Ortloff's whereabouts in the hours before Smith was murdered.
"I believe that he wanted me to cover for him in case people wanted to know where he was," Wade testified. "Then he kept me from other people, other sources of information."
The jurors said she sounded believable and that she didn't seem to have a grudge against Ortloff, as did Kathleen Smith's family members (her two brothers attended the entire trial).
The Smiths became convinced soon after the murder that Ortloff was the killer, and remained steadfast, even after the Maricopa County Attorney's Office turned down a chance to prosecute the former flower-shop manager in 1986.
Wade also testified against Ortloff in his 1986 mail-bombing trials in Waco. The first of those two trials ended in a hung jury with a near-acquittal of Ortloff which, in hindsight, might have rendered a prosecution of him in the Smith case highly unlikely.
Ortloff did not testify.
Noel Levy claimed that the motive for murder was financial, as Ortloff stood to collect $125,000 in life insurance proceeds (he never did get the money). The prosecutor also noted that Kathleen Smith was about to have Ortloff busted for ripping off more than $7,000 from a joint business account they had taken out to open a Subway franchise in Mesa.
Patterson countered that his client "certainly had no reason to kill his childhood friend," something that Kathleen's brother Kevin agreed with after the verdict.
"Kathleen would have forgiven Robert for taking that money out of the account," Kevin Smith said. "I think he just overreacted to everything. What he did was so stupid and evil."
Smith expressed regret that his mother, Carol, a onetime Tempe city councilwoman wasn't in the courtroom for the trial and conviction. Mrs. Smith died last summer.
Ortloff will receive a life sentence when he returns to court May 23. Until his conviction, he'd been anticipating winning parole on the mail-bombing case in about six years.
Federal marshals returned Fred Tokars, after his crucial testimony, to an unspecified location inside the federal penal system, where he is serving five life sentences, including orchestrating his wife's 1992 murder in front of their two children.
The government snitch (prosecutors prefer the term "cooperating witness") is in the Witness Protection Program.
"I wanted to take a shower after watching Tokars for day after day on the stand," one juror told New Times after the verdict.
"But when you think about it, it isn't all that often, thank God, that you're in the same room with two psychopaths, one on the witness stand and the other sitting with his lawyers at the defense table."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.