Bombshell: The explosive backstory in the Robert Ortloff murder trial may be more fascinating than the case itself

In Part One of this series last week, Paul Rubin described how Tempe police focused on two suspects in the aftermath of the murder of 20-year-old Kathleen Smith inside her condominium on October 5, 1984 ("If the Shoe Don't Fit . . . You Must Acquit").

One of the suspects was a restaurant executive with whom Smith had both a business and personal relationship, though it remains unclear how personal it ever was. The other suspect — who quickly became the prime suspect — was Robert Ortloff, then 24 and the manager of his parents' flower store at 48th Street and Southern Avenue.

Ortloff and Smith had recently entered into a business partnership, with designs on opening one of the first Subway restaurant franchises in Arizona. But financial troubles plagued the project from early on, and were exacerbated shortly before Kathleen's murder when Ortloff withdrew $7,500 from the pair's business account (with or without her knowledge, depending on whom you ask) to repay money he'd recently stolen from his paternal grandfather.

Less than a week later, Smith was bludgeoned with a blunt object inside her condo, Unit 110. Her killer then poured gasoline on and around her body, ignited it and fled, shortly before the residence burst into flames. Two eyewitnesses saw the man police believe was the killer moments after he left Unit 110. The pair — a woman and her 14-year-old granddaughter — showed authorities a pristine footprint that the fleeing man had left in a wet flowerbed just a few yards from the front door of Unit 110.

In conclusion, Part One revealed that Ortloff wears a size-13 shoe, but the print in the flowerbed was a 9 1/2 or 10.

This week, Part Two describes how Ortloff found himself sentenced to 50 years in prison in 1986 for another crime, and how infamous Georgia criminal Fred Tokars came forward in 1999, claiming that Ortloff had confessed to him about killing Kathleen Smith.

Rubin contacted Robert Ortloff by mail shortly after a Maricopa County grand jury indicted the former Tempe resident for first-degree murder in May 2003. Ortloff responded with the first of literally hundreds of letters — most of them pages long — about the various permutations of his legal saga, now almost a quarter-century old.

Before writing this two-part story about Ortloff and the Kathleen Smith murder case, Rubin reviewed thousands of pages of court files, police reports generated by several agencies, documents obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act and other materials. He read the entire transcripts of Ortloff's two Texas trials on the Fort Hood mail-bombing case that is a centerpiece of Part Two, as well as transcripts of testimonies given by Fred Tokars at one of his own criminal trials in Georgia and as a government witness in an Iowa murder case in 2004.

Testimony in Ortloff's murder trial was expected to start on Thursday, February 14, in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Guilty or innocent, Ortloff himself put it best in a letter to Rubin.

"If you analyze everything about my cases, and I mean everything, you'll have yourself one amazing story, whether you end up liking me or not."

Thad Gulczynski, a 20-year-old soldier from Mesa, walked from his barracks to fetch his mail.

It was a Saturday morning — January 11, 1986 — at Fort Hood, Texas.

Gulczynski was known as "Rambo" to his friends. But he didn't seem like such a tough guy to Anna Carpenter, who was working at Fiesta Flowers, a Tempe store managed by Robert Ortloff.

Carpenter had been dating Ortloff as well as working for him, but she had taken a fancy to Gulczynski during the soldier's recent Christmas leave back home.

Carpenter later would say she'd told Ortloff around New Year's Day that she wanted to slow down her relationship with him.

Then she had put together a care package for Gulczynski at Fiesta Flowers that included a bottle of rum, a teddy bear, and three letters. Carpenter stuffed the box with newspaper and other wrapping material from the flower shop, and sent it via UPS from Mesa.

A second package also awaited Specialist Gulczynski that morning at the mail pickup. It was a cardboard box addressed to him in handwritten block lettering. The return address on the box was Gulczynski's.

He returned to his room with both boxes, sat on his bed, and opened the second one first.

It exploded, as two pipe bombs inside propelled hundreds of nails in every direction. Some stuck in Gulczynski's legs, and he suffered cuts and minor burns but somehow escaped serious or permanent injury.

Other soldiers came to his aid, soon followed by military police and agents from the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID).

As medical personnel attended to the injured soldier, CID agents blew up the second package — the one from Carpenter — inside a shower stall at a nearby latrine in the event that it, too, contained a bomb.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin