News Articles from the Houston Chronicle



FRI 11/11/1994

Man quizzed in estranged wife's death
Woman is slain in Atascocita

Investigation into the shooting death of an Atascocita woman centered Thursday on her estranged husband -- a law enforcement officer who detectives say refuses to cooperate with them.

Farah Fratta, 33, was found in the garage of her home in the 19600 block of Forest Fern about 9 p.m. on Wednesday, after neighbors who heard gunshots called for help. Fratta was taken by Life Flight helicopter to Hermann Hospital, where she died about 11:30 p.m. from at least one gunshot wound to the head, officials said.

Witnesses told detectives they saw a silver or gray car with a hatchback leaving Fratta's house shortly after the gunshots were heard. The car had one headlight and carried two men who appeared to be dressed in black, they said.

Fratta and her husband, 37-year-old Robert Alan Fratta, are estranged, and detectives said the couple's three children were with their father when the shooting occurred. Fratta said he was taking the children to church at the time. Detectives questioned him at length Thursday about the shooting, and about $1,050 in an envelope in the glove box of his car. Fratta, a public service officer in Missouri City, said the money was for some repairs he was having made to his own home on Deer Timbers.

"It's extremely rough," Fratta said of his ordeal Thursday. "I mean, I fully understand why I'm their main suspect, but this makes a tough time a lot tougher. "All I can do right now is hope they find who did it," Fratta said. "Then this part of my ordeal will be over. "I haven't even had a chance to talk to my kids yet," he said Thursday evening. "I was there (at the sheriff's department homicide headquarters) all day."

Sheriff's department Sgt. John Denholm said Thursday Fratta had an apparent motive for killing his wife and refused to cooperate with detectives in the case. Denholm admits to being frustrated by Fratta's uncooperative stance. "He's just been real amused by this whole thing," the officer told reporters. Fratta was released Thursday but remains the focal point of the investigation, said Denholm.


WED 11/16/1994

Officer suspended

Missouri City public safety Officer Robert Alan Fratta, 37, being questioned in his estranged wife's murder, has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. Farah Fratta, 33, was found shot in the head in the garage of her Atascocita home Nov. 9.


WED 11/23/1994
Section: A
Page: 16
Edition: 2 STAR

Parents of slain woman offer reward for leads on her killer

The parents of a slain Atascocita mother of three young children offered a $5,000 reward Tuesday for information about her killer or killers. Farah Fratta, 33, was found shot in the head in the garage of her home in the 19600 block of Forest Fern in north Harris County about 9 p.m. Nov. 9. She died three hours later at Hermann Hospital.

"We have come here to ask through the media to find the person who took the life away of my daughter," said Lex Baquer, Fratta's father. "Whoever killed my daughter not only took my daughter away but also took away the mother of three innocent children."

Fratta's parents, brother and sister-in-law talked to the media from behind a table on which sat two framed pictures: one of Fratta and one of her children, ages 8, 6 and 4. Breaking into tears, Baquer pleaded for help in finding his daughter's killer or killers, hoping the reward will help. "My family will do just about everything to find the killer," he said.

Harris County Sheriff's detectives say they know who is responsible. Fratta's estranged husband, Robert Alan Fratta, a firefighter and public service officer in Missouri City, is suspected of hiring killers to murder his wife, Sgt. Danny Billingsley has said. Billingsley said Fratta has refused to cooperate with detectives. Robert Alan Fratta has said he was taking the children to church at the time of the shooting.

Witnesses told detectives they saw a silver or gray car with a hatchback leaving Fratta's house shortly after gunshots were heard. The car reportedly had one headlight and carried two men who appeared to be dressed in black.

In addition to the family's $5,000 reward, another $1,000 reward is being offered by Crime Stoppers of Houston. Anyone with information should call Crime Stoppers at 222-TIPS or the Harris County homicide division at 967-5810.


FRI 12/02/1994

Custody hearing today

A court hearing will be held today regarding custody of the three children of Farah Fratta, 33, found shot to death in the garage of her Atascocita home Nov. 9. A joint temporary conservatorship of the children, 9, 6 and 4, was granted to her estranged husband, Robert, and to her parents, Lex and Betty Baquer. Fratta has daily visitation rights to see the children while they are staying at their grandparents, said his attorney, Ray Epps. Today, state District Judge A. Robert Hinojosa is expected to grant a continuance until later this month in hopes the slaying investigation, which has included questioning of Fratta, will soon end.


SAT 12/03/1994

Lawyers in custody case link man to wife's death

Attorneys for the parents of a murdered Atascocita mother told a judge Friday in a child custody hearing that there is evidence that links the killing to the father, a Missouri City firefighter and public safety officer. Ray Epps -- attorney for the father, Robert Alan Fratta -- sharply denied the accusation made in a custody case involving the family's three children.

State District Judge A. Robert Hinojosa delayed further court action until Dec. 15. He said he hopes the Harris County Sheriff's Department investigation into the Nov. 9 killing of Farah Fratta, 33, will be concluded. 

Robert Fratta, 37, has been seeking custody of the three children, ranging from 4 to 9 years of old. They now are staying with his in-laws, Lex and Betty Baquer of Humble, who are fighting for permanent custody. "I know that, whichever way I go in this case, I am in error," Hinojosa said at the hearing. "But I would rather err on the side of the children." The judge conceded that he may "be committing a serious injustice" to the father, but he was keeping the children with the grandparents "out of an abundance of caution" until the conclusion of the criminal investigation.

Farah Fratta, 33, an airline ticket agent, was shot in the garage of her home and died three hours later at a hospital. Robert Fratta was taking the children to church at the time. Investigators have said they suspect a murder-for-hire plot. The parents of the slain woman have offered a $5,000 reward for information in the case.

At the custody hearing, Epps emphasized that the children themselves say Fratta has been a good father who never harmed or threatened them. "Police officials say if Fratta proves his innocence, they will back off," Epps said. "But that's not according to the laws governing our country. He shouldn't have to prove his innocence. This so-called "investigation' could go on for years, and the damage will continue being done to the children. Your honor, he has every right to his children," Epps said.

Christine Jonte, attorney for the Baquers, said she believes that -- regardless of the outcome of the investigation -- there is evidence to implicate the father to the killing. Criminal cases require proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction. But for one side to prevail in civil cases, such as custody trials, they only need to show a preponderence of evidence. Jonte did not elaborate on what evidence has been gathered.


THU 12/15/1994

Witnesses say husband asked them to kill wife

Five witnesses in a child custody hearing testified Wednesday that Missouri City public service officer Robert Fratta asked them if they or others would take money to kill his estranged wife. Most of those associates said they thought Fratta was only kidding -- until they learned that Farah Fratta, 33, was found murdered in her Atascocita home on Nov. 9.

The killing triggered a custody fight over the three Fratta children, ages 4 to 8 years. Fratta, 37, who has not been charged with any crime, wants custody of the children. They now live with his wife's parents, Lex and Betty Baquer.

Testimony in the hearing, which resumes today, covered Fratta's alleged search in posh body-building spas for contract killers for $3,000. It also delved into accusations that the law officer lusted for bizarre sexual activity -- both at the Fratta home and in gay, lesbian, and transvestite haunts of Houston. "He said he'd be better off if his wife was dead," said John Ruiz, who said he had worked out with Fratta in gyms for eight months. "He asked me if I would kill her, or if I knew anyone else who would knock her off."

Jason Terry, manager of a southwest Houston tanning salon, had known Fratta for more than four years when he said Fratta approached him about committing the killing for $3,000. "He felt because he was a police officer, I don't have to worry about anything. He said we could set it up and handle it so nobody would get caught," Terry said. Terry refused and said he never saw Fratta again. "I won't tell you anything, because when it happens you can't know anything about it."

Fratta began invoking the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination within minutes after the hearing started before Family Court Judge Robert Hinojosa. Fratta attorney Ray Epps objected strongly to his client's questioning by the Baquers' attorney Elizabeth Jonte, saying the hearing was not a criminal proceeding and that the allegations had no bearing on his fitness as a father.

Fratta said his children want to be with him. "I am a loving father," he said. The murder plots were just products of his sense of humor, his attorney argued. That was supported by roofer James Ray Thomas of Kingwood, one of those approached by Fratta about a murder contract. "We just always joke a lot together at the gym, so I took it jokingly," Thomas said. "We were always laughing and cutting up."

Fratta has been on paid leave from his job as a Missouri City police officer and firefighter. He was said to be with the children at church during the time of the killings. His alleged motive for the murder, witnesses said, was to end the 2-year-old custody battle with his estranged wife and his accompanying child support payments. "Her parents were rich, and they kept putting money in to make the case go forward," said one-time Fratta associate Alicia Barren, now of Santa Fe. "He didn't think he had the finances to stay with it any longer and win." Barren said Fratta was on a first-name basis with transvestite prostitutes she knew and that he tried to get her into a sexual encounter with him and another man.

Witnesses also told of Fratta allowing the children to play with live ammunition. "It's no different than any other little toy," he said.

Lex Baquer said he has tried to shield the children from publicity. They only use the television now to play video games or watch videotaped movies, he said.  Baquer said he has done nothing to drive the children away from their father. "We've just said that their Daddy's helping catch the bad guys," the grandfather said. "We've left it at that . . . They burn candles and pray for their mother every night."


FRI 12/16/1994

Judge rules Fratta not fit to keep children
Conduct, judgment called "impaired'


A judge Thursday awarded custody of three children to their grandparents, finding that their father -- Missouri City public service officer Robert Fratta -- had involvement in the killing of their mother. Family Court Judge Robert Hinojosa lashed out at Fratta's character in ruling that evidence implicated him as the murderer of his estranged wife, Farah Fratta. She was killed in her Atascocita home on Nov. 9. "I cannot imagine a more grievous harm to the children than for their father to induce the death of their mother, who was raising them," Hinojosa said. "Your conduct and judgment is seriously impaired."

Immediately after Hinojosa's order, Fratta left quickly and declined comment. The hearing has no criminal impact on Fratta, 37, who has not been charged in the death of his 33-year-old wife, who was an airline ticket sales agent.

One woman and four former body-building associates of Fratta testified that he asked them -- usually in a joking manner -- if they or others would kill his estranged wife. Some were offered $3,000. More witnesses said Fratta had sought unusual sex acts or made strange, lewd remarks to them. He has a prior suspension for sexual harassment from his job as a Missouri City police officer and firefighter, testimony showed. Fratta currently is on paid leave from his job.

None of the ruling was based on the testimony about Fratta's lust for lurid sexual encounters, including three-way trysts, Hinojosa said. But the judge said that, in 23 years of family oriented legal work, he had "never heard this degree of depravity . . . and bizarre sexual behavior." He had primarily invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination in questioning about his activities or motives in the killing of his wife.

While the criminal case remains under investigation, Fratta moved to regain custody and parental rights over his children, ages 4 to 8 years. Since the mother's death, the children have been staying with the victim's parents, Betty and Lex Baquer. Originally from the Middle East, the Baquers are British citizens who live in Houston.

The ruling sent the courtroom erupting into tears of happiness for the couple and their many friends, all wearing yellow ribbons in memory of Farah Fratta. The grandparents hugged and wept. Betty Baquer cried and was comforted by her husband. "He is a monster," she said of her former son-in-law. "It was so very hard hearing how my daughter had to suffer and endure her pain from this man."

Lex Baquer said: "It was a good decision. We will do our very best to raise them as they should be raised -- as good, honorable citizens of the U.S. They are in good hands."

Fratta was reported to be at church with the children at the time his wife was gunned down in her garage. He has refused to respond about alleged contract killers or his phone calls or movements that night. Hinojosa also cited other factors about Fratta's behavior that he found disturbing. The officer had let the small children play with live ammunition, dismissing it as no more harmful "than any other small toy," according to testimony. When his son was bitten on the back by Fratta's three-foot python, Fratta said he took the snake back to the pet shop and returned with a more docile python, testimony showed. The children also had access to Fratta's explicit sexual material, witnesses said. As for nurturing love and care, "I don't think you understand what that means," the judge said.

Fratta's attorney, Ray Epps, said there is no avenue of appeal because the ruling is on temporary custody. That can be challenged in a full trial on permanent custody, which is not expected for more than a year. At requests of Christine Jonte, Baquer's attorney, and Dennis Kelly, a court-appointed attorney for the children, Fratta was ordered to pay $488 monthly in child support to the Baquers. His gross monthly salary as a public safety officer is about $2,000, his attorney said.

Health insurance also is to be maintained by Fratta for the children. Mental evaluation tests showed the youngsters remain fond of their father, although they have been shielded from news of the criminal investigation. Hinojosa said that shielding was to continue, with his ban on any comment to them about the alleged complicity of their father. Supervised visitation will continue every other Saturday, and daily 15-minute phone calls are allowed.


WED 12/21/1994

Firing in Missouri City

Missouri City public safety Officer Robert Alan Fratta, 37, was fired from his job in this Fort Bend County city. Fire Chief Danny Jan said the city had suspended the officer with pay Nov. 15 after Fratta was questioned in connection with the Nov. 9 murder of his estranged wife at her Atascocita home. Last week, a judge granted custody of the couple's children to the parents of his wife, 33-year-old Farah Fratta.

Jan would not comment further on the reasons for Fratta's firing Monday. A two-sentence statement on the dismissal said only that Missouri City officials "determined it was no longer appropriate for Mr. Fratta to continue working as a public safety officer with the city at this time." Missouri City's public safety officers perform both police and firefighting duties.


SAT 12/24/1994

Fratta was hit target, police say/Man is charged in planning death

A Huffman man was charged Friday with trying to arrange the murder of Robert Fratta, a former Missouri City public safety officer suspected of planning his wife's death. William Edward Planter, was being held in Harris County Jail Friday night in lieu of $20,000 bond. Planter, 47, is accused of trying to enlist Fratta's father-in-law, Lex Baquer, Thursday in killing Fratta. Robert Alan Fratta, 37, has been named as the prime suspect in the death of his estranged wife, Farah Fratta.

Details of the alleged incident involving Planter were unavailable Friday. Baquer could not be reached and his attorney did not return calls. Fratta also did not return calls. Fratta's attorney Richard Frankoff said late Friday that he was concerned about authorities' failure to tell him or Fratta about Planter's alleged attempt to arrange the slaying. "If this was an effort to solicit someone to kill Bob Fratta . . . why didn't they say, "Hey, Bob, there's somebody out there trying to kill you'?" the lawyer asked.

Planter's arrest came two days after Baquer, his wife and their grandchildren were relocated at the behest of law enforcement officials who are investigating an alleged threat against Lex Baquer. A family friend said the Baquers left their home as a precaution out of fear Fratta was behind the threat reported by Lex Baquer's secretary. The friend, who asked to remain unidentified, said other thinly veiled threats had been received by the couple since their daughter's death.

Robert Fratta "told people he wanted custody of the children, because if somebody had killed their mother, they might do something like that to her parents as well," the friend said. Sources involved in the probe of Farah Fratta's death said the threats to the secretary are under investigation, but there is no indication that incident is connected to the slaying.

Farah Fratta, 33, was shot to death Nov. 9 in her Atascocita home. Harris County Sheriff's Department detectives have said Farah Fratta's killer was hired. Fratta had taken his three children to church at the time of his estranged wife's death. Farah Fratta and her estranged husband had been involved in a heated custody battle over their three children, ages 4 to 8 years. Lex and Betty Baquer took up the custody fight after their daughter was slain, and a family court judge awarded them custody of the children on Dec. 15.

During the hearing earlier this month, acquaintances testified regarding Robert Fratta's search for someone to kill his wife; on his apparent penchant for unusual sexual activity; and on his allowing his children to play with live ammunition and a three-foot python, which bit his son. Fratta himself took the stand but answered few questions, instead invoking his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination in questioning about his activities or motives in the slaying of his wife.

The judge eventually awarded the three children to their grandparents, finding that their father had been involved in the killing of their mother. At the same time, the judge agreed the children could have supervised visits every other Saturday with their father. The judge's finding had no criminal impact on Fratta, who is not charged in connection with the death. Fratta was fired Tuesday from his job as a public safety officer in Missouri City, where he had been on paid leave since Nov. 15, when he was named as a suspect in the death.


THU 12/29/1994

Former deputy's motives unknown/Offer to kill suspect probed

A former law enforcement officer charged with offering to kill the prime suspect in a murder investigation apparently did not know the people involved, and the motive for the alleged offer still is unknown, detectives said Wednesday. William Edward Planter, 47, was charged last week with trying to enlist the aid of Lex Baquer in killing Robert Alan Fratta, the former husband of Baquer's daughter and prime suspect in her death. Planter, who posted a $20,000 bond in the case, did not return calls to his Spring home Wednesday.

Harris County Sheriff's Department Sgt. John Denholm said no apparent connection between Planter and either the Fratta or Baquer families had been found, and it was unknown why Planter allegedly approached Baquer a week ago and asked the man to help him kill Fratta.

Fratta has been named as a suspect in the Nov. 9 death of his estranged wife, Farah Fratta, at her home in Atascosita. Fratta and the couple's three children were at church at the time of the murder, which sheriff's detectives say was a hired killing. The estranged couple had been involved in a heated custody battle regarding the children and after their daughter's death, Lex and Betty Baquer took up that battle in court. On Dec. 21, a judge awarded custody of the children to the Baquers, finding that Fratta was involved in his wife's death. That ruling had no criminal impact on Fratta, who is not charged in the killing.

Fratta, himself a former law officer, was fired Dec. 21 by the Missouri City Police Department. Planter was a Harris County sheriff's deputy from 1973 to 1975. He was chief of police in Splendora from 1978 to 1979, and chief of police in Roman Forest from 1979 to 1982. In 1984, Planter made an unsuccessful bid for Precinct 4 constable's against current Constable Dick Moore. Planter also operated Planter's Safes, a safe manufacturing company.

Planter, who is charged with contacting Lex Baquer Dec. 22 and offering to help him arrange Robert Fratta's death, was arrested Friday. Details of the encounter between Baquer and Planter were not available Wednesday. Sources said Planter has operated for years on the "fringes" of law enforcement, and may have made the offer out of some misguided sense of justice or public service.


TUE 03/14/1995

2 charged in murder-for-hire scheme

Two men were charged with capital murder Monday in what investigators say was a murder-for-hire scheme to kill Farah Fratta, the wife of a former Missouri City law enforcement officer. One of the accused, Joseph Andrew Prystash, is a former workout partner of Robert Alan Fratta, who authorities suspect arranged the Nov. 9 shooting death of his estranged wife. "He (Robert Fratta) is still a suspect and he has not been eliminated from this investigation whatsoever," said Harris County Homicide Lt. A.R. Diaz. "We have reason to believe it is in fact a murder for hire."

Charged along with Prystash, 38, 15469 Songwood in Conroe, was Howard Paul Guidry, 18, 20430 Imperial Valley in Houston. They were being held without bond in the Harris County Jail. Robert Fratta, 37, was fired from his job as a Missouri City law enforcement officer shortly after the slaying. Other suspects may be charged in the case, Diaz said. "Our work is not done," Diaz said. "Until this investigation is completely resolved . . . we're not going to all be happy."

Farah Fratta, 33, was shot to death Nov. 9 in her Atascocita home after returning from a workout at a local health club. Robert Fratta, who had been involved in a heated custody battle with his wife over their three children, ages 4 to 8 years, had taken them to church that night. "Bob Fratta has always professed his innocence," said his attorney Richard Frankoff. "He is not running. He is not hiding." Frankoff said Fratta continues to live in southwest Harris County near Missouri City.

Diaz said detectives have been conducting an intense investigation since the murder and recently were able to persuade friends of Prystash and Guidry to talk to detectives. Witnesses have told detectives Prystash had been bragging about the slaying. Diaz described Fratta and Prystash as friends who used to lift weights together.

Frankoff, Robert Fratta's attorney, said the Frattas and Prystash all worked out at the same gym but he said he did not think they ever socialized with one another. Diaz said Prystash was hired to do the killing and enlisted the help of Guidry. Prystash was arrested Monday as he was driving in the 8300 block of the North Belt. He has not confessed or given a statement to authorities. Guidry has been in jail for the past two weeks on a bank robbery charge. He is accused of robbing the Klein Bank in the 18300 block of Kuykendahl on March 1. Diaz said Guidry has been "semi-cooperative" in the Fratta murder investigation.

Although Prystash and Guidry have criminal histories, neither has ever been accused in an assault-type crime, Diaz said. Detectives have what they believe is the murder weapon, a .357-caliber revolver, but Diaz would not comment on who they believe the trigger man was. Diaz said money was offered to the men for the killing. "It was more than $1,000 but less than $10,000," Diaz said. "But I am not going to comment on who got paid."

In December a judge awarded custody of the children to Farah Fratta's parents, Lex and Betty Baquer, finding that Robert Fratta was involved in his wife's death. That ruling had no criminal impact on Fratta, who is not charged in the killing. During the custody hearing, acquaintances testified that Robert Fratta had searched for someone to kill his wife. They also testified that he had a penchant for unusual sexual activity and had allowed his children to play with live ammunition and a three-foot python.

After the December hearing, Lex Baquer was approached by a former law enforcement officer who offerred to arrange the slaying of Robert Fratta. Charged with solicitation of murder was Edward Planter, 47, a Harris County sheriff's deputy from 1973 to 1975, chief of police in Splendora from 1978 to 1979, and chief of police in Roman Forest from 1979 to 1982.


WED 03/15/1995

Gun discovery tied to victim's husband

A gun found in the home of one of two suspects in the alleged hired killing of Farah Fratta was traced back to her estranged husband, Robert, sources said Tuesday. A girlfriend of suspect Joseph Andrew Prystash, 38, of 15469 Songwood in Conroe apparently obtained information about that weapon for detectives. Prystash and Howard Paul Guidry, 18, of 20430 Imperial Valley are charged with capital murder in the Nov. 9 shooting of Farah Fratta, 39, at her Atascocita home. Prystash, on parole from an Alabama burglary conviction, was a friend of Robert Fratta, a former Missouri City public service officer, and they worked out at the same gym, detectives said.

Fratta, who has maintained his innocence, has complained of the way the Sheriff's Department has handled the case. Detectives say Fratta remains a suspect. "It will be over when it is over," Lex Baquer, father of Farah Fratta, said Tuesday. He said he and wife, Betty, who won custody of their two grandchildren after their daughter's death, are happy with the arrests, but are waiting. "Justice will be done," Baquer said. "The Sheriff's Department has done their job very well, and it was a very complicated case."

Detectives have speculated a heated custody dispute sparked Farah Fratta's death. "The biggest losers in this game are the innocent children," her father said Tuesday. "They are going through this pain for the rest of their lives."

Prystash, who listed his occupation as a student at Universal Technical Institute, was questioned shortly after the shooting, and complained to the FBI that sheriff's officers had roughed him up. The U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division investigated the complaint and wrote Sheriff's Department internal affairs division Capt. Juan Jorge that it found no basis for it.

Guidry, jailed two weeks ago on charges of robbing the Klein Bank in the 18300 block of Kuykendahl on March 1, has cooperated in the murder investigation to a degree, said detectives. They said he is a possible suspect in the Feb. 8 robbery of an Omnibank in the 4600 block of South Wayside in which an off-duty Houston police officer was attacked with an electronic stun gun and disarmed. Guidry, who moved here from Louisiana last year, had no criminal record prior to the Klein bank robbery, authorities said.

Prystash, arrested Monday, has not given a statement. His record also includes a theft charge and auto theft charge. 


THU 03/16/1995

Fratta set to face contempt charges

Robert Fratta, suspected of hiring two hit men to kill his estranged wife, is to return to court today to face charges of contempt of court for allegedly failing to support his three children. Fratta was engaged in a custody dispute with his wife, Farah, 33, when she was gunned down at her Atascocita home Nov. 9.

Her parents, Lex and Betty Baquer, won temporary custody of their grandchildren in December after testimony convinced Family Court Judge Robert Hinojosa that Fratta was involved in the death. There was also testimony about what Hinojosa called Fratta's "depravity . . . and bizarre sexual behavior," as well as his letting his children play with bullets and a python that bit his son.

Two men have been charged with capital murder in Farah Fratta's death, but Robert Fratta has not been charged. Hinojosa had ordered him to pay $488 monthly in child support to the Baquers and to maintain health insurance for his children.

Lex Baquer said Wednesday that Fratta has done neither for three months, although the children are still making 15-minute phone calls to their father daily as ordered by the court. Fratta earned about $2,000 a month as a Missouri City public safety officer but was fired shortly after the custody hearing and apparently is not working now.


FRI 03/17/1995

Fratta ordered to pay $3,000 in child support

A judge found Robert Fratta in contempt Thursday for refusing to pay child support while he held $23,000 for attorney fees for his defense against expected charges of having his estranged wife murdered. State District Judge Georgia Dempster said she would have the fired Missouri City police officer jailed if he did not pay $3,000 in fees related to court-ordered child support. Dempster ordered payment by 5 p.m. today.

Fratta, 37, told the judge he expected to be indicted for the Nov. 9 killing of Farah Fratta in the garage of her Atascocita home. "I've had a lot of death threats," Fratta said. "I didn't know what was going to happen to me."

Two men were charged Monday with what Harris County Sheriff's Department investigators said was the murder-for-hire plot. Arrested were Howard Paul Guidry, 18, of Houston, and Joseph Andrew Prystash, 38, of Conroe. Prystash was a former body-building workout partner of Fratta. In a hearing last December involving custody of the three Fratta children, four other former iron-pumping associates of Fratta testified he asked if they knew anyone who could kill his wife. Most of them said they thought he was joking.

Betty and Lex Baquer, parents of the dead woman, were awarded custody of the children, two boys and one girl ranging from 4 to 8 years old. The youngsters had been living with their mother when she was killed. Then-Judge Robert Hinojosa said the evidence -- applicable in the custody proceeding -- implicated Fratta in the killing. Fratta was to pay $488 monthly in child support to the grandparents, beginning Jan. 1. "Instead, he didn't pay one penny toward their support," said Baquer attorney Christine Jonte.

Dennis Kelly, court-appointed attorney for the children, said the continuing investigation has made it difficult for the Baquers to comply with another Hinojosa edict -- keeping publicity of the case from the children. "They have done their best to comply, but it is getting harder on them," Kelly said after the session. "They've been attempting to say he was one of the good guys, trying to catch those who did that to their mother. But now they are facing tough questions from the kids -- "Is Daddy one of the bad guys?' "

The ruling Thursday requires Fratta to pay $1,464 in owed support payments -- $1,000 to the Baquers for their legal fees, $517 in required insurance for the children, plus court costs for the contempt action. He began the hearing pleading poverty. Fratta said his only gross weekly income is about $250 in unemployment compensation, and that he lives in a house owned by his sister and mother.

Kelly and Jonte, however, noted that he still has two automobiles -- a Volkswagen and Jeep -- which Fratta says are driven by his relatives. He argued that the sale of the couple's former home should satisfy his support debts, but Jonte said he holds none of the equity. His estranged wife had made all the payments on the mortgage, up to her death. About $700 was tied up in Fratta's mail-order cosmetics business, he said. Four credit card companies have turned down his applications, he said. However, Kelly and Jonte brought up the $23,600 he received after his dismissal from the Missouri City Police Department. That came from cashing in his retirement plan, and unused vacation and sick-leave time.

Fratta attorney Ray Epps argued that the current legal limbo for Fratta makes him an unlikely candidate for employment. However, Lex Baquer scoffed at that. "He said in the last hearing that he loved the children and would do anything for them," their grandfather said. "If that's how he truly felt, he would be washing cars or dishes, or even scrubbing floors for them. I wanted to see him go to jail for what he has done."


SAT 03/18/1995

Fratta pays court-ordered support for his 3 children

Robert Fratta paid court-ordered support for his three children after facing contempt charges for refusing to pay the amount while he held $23,000 for his defense on expected murder charges. State District Judge Georgia Dempster had told Fratta on Thursday he would be jailed if he did not pay $3,000 in child support and related fees by 5 p.m. Friday. He paid the amount Thursday afternoon.

Fratta, 37, a former Missouri City public safety officer, told the judge he expects to be indicted for the Nov. 9 killing of his wife, Farah. Two men were charged Monday with what investigators said was a murder-for-hire plot.

Betty and Lex Baquer, parents of the dead woman, were awarded custody of the children. Fratta had been ordered to pay $488 monthly in child support to the grandparents, beginning Jan. 1. Dempster ordered him Thursday to pay $1,464 in owed support, $1,000 to the Baquers for their legal fees, $517 in required insurance for the children, plus court costs. Fratta received $23,600 after his firing. That came from cashing in his retirement plan and unused vacation and sick leave time.


TUE 03/21/1995

Contempt charges lifted

Robert Fratta, the former Missouri City safety officer under investigation in the killing of his estranged wife, has been cleared of contempt after paying $3,000 in back child support and legal fees. State District Judge Georgia Dempster had threatened to jail Fratta on Monday.


SAT 04/22/1995

Fratta charged with arranging wife's death

Former Missouri City public safety officer Robert Fratta was arrested Friday and charged with arranging the murder of his estranged wife. Fratta was being held without bond on a solicitation of murder charge stemming from the Nov. 9 shooting death of Farah Fratta, who was seeking a divorce and custody of their three children.

Last month, Joseph Andrew Prystash, a 38-year-old Alabama parolee and work-out buddy of Robert Fratta, and Howard Paul Guidry, 18, also an accused bank robber, were arrested and charged in the killing.

About 5:30 p.m. Friday, Fratta, 38, was taken into custody without incident at his northeast Harris County home, 5330 Deer Timbers Trail. "I didn't do it," Fratta said, his hands cuffed and ankles chained as he was led from the Sheriff's Department homicide offices to a car for the ride to jail. "I'm praying for justice."

Homicide investigators secured the arrest warrant for Fratta after their month-long effort to strike a deal with Prystash apparently failed to secure his promise to testify against Fratta. Detectives said they have an abundance of evidence showing that Fratta hired Prystash to kill his wife, and that Guidry was recruited by Prystash to help. Officials close to the investigation said the case was broken in mid-March when Prystash's girlfriend obtained information about a pistol in Prystash's house. Detectives traced the weapon back to Robert Fratta.

The delay in arresting Fratta came while prosecutors and investigators tried to make a deal with Prystash, obtaining his testimony against Fratta in return for leniency in his own case. The most recent of many meetings among Prystash, prosecutors and investigators took place Thursday, but sources said authorities were unwilling to give Prystash the amount of leniency he wanted in return for his testimony.

Those sources said also that as the investigation, and the dealings with Prystash, wore on, evidence against Fratta grew to the point where they believed they no longer needed Prystash's testimony. They said also that, as evidence in the case continues to accumulate, there is a good possibility the charges against Fratta will be upgraded to capital murder, which carries the death penalty.

Farah Fratta, an airline ticket agent, was shot to death in the garage of her Atascocita home on Forest Fern by two men who evidently were waiting to ambush her. Fratta, who was fired by Missouri City shortly after his ex-wife's death, had taken their three children to church on the night their mother was killed -- an event acquaintances said was out of character. Robert and Farah Fratta had been involved for some time in a bitter custody battle over the children. Farah Fratta's parents, Lex and Betty Baquer, now have custody of their grandchildren. "He is truly psychotic," said Lex Baquer, expressing relief that Fratta was in custody. "I just want him off the streets, so I can sleep and talk and breathe freely again."

Even after the death of his children's mother, Robert Fratta fought for custody of the children. Testimony at a custody hearing in December centered around Robert Fratta's penchant for strange sexual liaisons and exotic pets, like a large snake that bit his son. Early this week, Fratta took the Baquers back to court seeking to have the court-ordered child-support payments reduced. Fratta complained that publicity surrounding his wife's murder had ruined his reputation and made it impossible for him to work. He failed to sway a judge.

Friday, dressed in a muscle shirt and beige shorts, Fratta seemed subdued compared to earlier days in the lengthy investigation when he acted with disdain at suspicions of his involvement in the slaying. "He's not quite so cocky now," one detective said as Fratta was led away to the Harris County Jail.


TUE 04/25/1995

Fratta denied bond

A judge Monday refused to grant bond to a former Missouri City public safety officer charged with soliciting the Nov. 9 capital slaying of his estranged wife at her Atascocita home. Visiting state District Judge Woody Densen ordered Robert Alan Fratta, 38, returned to Harris County Jail without bond. Fratta was arrested Friday on charges of offering $3,000 to an acquaintance to kill his wife, Farah, an airline ticket agent. Two other men have been charged in her shooting.


FRI 05/05/1995

Bond set for ex-official

A judge Thursday set a $100,000 bond for a former Missouri City public safety officer charged with soliciting the Nov. 9 capital slaying of the mother of his three children. Robert Alan Fratta, 38, would have to pay $10,000 to $15,000 to put up the bond set by visiting state District Judge Woody Densen. It would last only until month's end, when Harris County grand jurors are expected to indict Fratta. If he is, Densen said, Fratta will likely return to a no-bond status.


SAT 06/03/1995

Ex-officer indicted in plot to kill wife/2 others charged in fulfilling murder

Former Missouri City public safety officer Robert Fratta was indicted Friday on capital charges for soliciting the murder of his wife. Jurors also indicted Joseph Andrew Prystash and Howard Paul Guidry for capital murder for killing Farah Fratta at her husband's bidding.

Fratta, 38, has been jailed since April 21 when authorities secured enough evidence to charge him with arranging the shooting of his estranged wife, who was seeking a divorce and wanted custody of their three children. The evidence against Fratta has mounted steadily since Farah Fratta, 33, was found shot to death Nov. 9 in the garage of the couple's Atascosita home, investigators said. Fratta said he was taking his children to church at the time of the shooting and has repeatedly denied being involved in his wife's death.

After her death, Farah Fratta's parents, Lex and Betty Bacquer, resumed the custody fight.

Testimony in subsequent hearings provided detectives with the grist to build a criminal case against Fratta. Witnesses characterized Fratta as someone who frequently indulged in deviant sexual activity and was careless with reptiles and live ammunition around his children. Fratta's body-building and tanning salon friends testified they were offered $3,000 to kill his wife.

Fratta lost custody and shortly afterward authorities began leaning on Prystash, a 38-year-old Alabama parolee, and his out-of-work buddy, Guidry, an 18-year-old accused bank robber. A series of anonymous tips led authorities to Prystash and Guidry. A .38-caliber pistol believed to be the murder weapon was recovered from Prystash's house and traced back to Fratta.


THU 06/29/1995

Fratta hit with murder indictment

Former Missouri City public safety officer Robert Fratta, charged nine weeks ago with conspiring to kill his estranged wife, was indicted Wednesday on a charge of capital murder in her Nov. 9 shooting death. The indictment, which Fratta's attorney said is based on grand jury testimony from a so-called "jailhouse snitch," accuses Fratta with hiring two men to kill Farah Fratta.

Robert Fratta, 38, has been in jail without bond since April 21 on a solicitation of murder charge. "He is indicted specifically for hiring those that did the killing," prosecutor Casey O'Brien said. "The difference is that he is now appropriately charged. He was charged (in April) with soliciting someone other than the killer . . . and was indicted (Wednesday) again for succeeding." O'Brien said the additional indictment does not mean that Fratta was present for the slaying, only that he allegedly instigated the fatal shooting which allegedly was carried out by Joseph Andrew Prystash and Howard Paul Guidry. Prystash, a 38-year-old Alabama parolee, and Howard Paul Guidry, 18, an accused bank robber, were indicted on charges of killing Farah Fratta. They are in the Harris County jail.

Defense attorney Richard Frankoff said he believes Fratta is in a well-planned set-up. "We think it is a very weak case based upon some very flaky witnesses," Frankoff said. The original solicitation charge is based on information from a less than credible witness, Frankoff said, adding that the capital murder charge resulted from sending a "snitch" to get close to Fratta in jail. "A jailhouse snitch, the trash of the trash," Frankoff said. "These guys are unbelievable. They make up stories as they go."

O'Brien declined to respond to Frankoff's allegation. "I am not going to make any comments about what my evidence is," O'Brien said.


FRI 07/14/1995

Fratta granted $350,000 bond in shooting death

Former Missouri City public safety officer Robert Fratta was granted a $350,000 bond Thursday on charges involving the Nov. 9 contract killing of his wife. The negotiated bond set by state District Judge Joe Kegans aborted an hour's-long hearing during which defense attorneys had hoped to question state witnesses against their client Fratta, who has been in Harris County Jail since April 21. Previously Fratta, 38, had been jailed without bond in the shooting death of Farah Fratta, 33, killed in the garage of her home by two men allegedly hired by her estranged husband.

Even though Kegans set a $250,000 bond on the capital charge and a $100,000 bond on the solicitation of capital murder case, Fratta's lawyers and relatives said there is only a "slim" chance of him being released. "We'll try, but I don't know at this point," his sister, Jill Fratta, said. Defense attorney Richard Frankoff said one reason Fratta cannot post bond is because he was ordered in a domestic relations court to pay $9,800 in child support for his three children just before his arrest on the solicitation case. "We think it was done that way because they wanted to drain him of all his resources so he couldn't raise a proper defense," Frankoff said.

Not so, prosecutor Casey O'Brien responded. "The sheriff's office waited until I told them to arrest him," O'Brien said. "They'd have arrested him at the drop of a hat." Fratta never appeared in court while the bond amount was being negotiated by O'Brien and defense lawyers Frankoff and Mike Charlton. Had the hearing gone its full course, O'Brien would have had to parade a series of crucial prosecution witnesses, including a jailhouse informant, into court to testify.


TUE 04/09/1996

Testimony to begin in capital murder trial
Fratta allegedly arranged wife's slaying


Prosecutors will begin presenting the first of 40 witnesses today in the capital murder trial of former Missouri City public service officer Robert Fratta, accused of arranging the killing of his estranged wife. If the 10 men and two women of the jury agree that it was Robert Fratta who hired two men to shoot Farah Fratta to death, the state will seek the maximum punishment - death by injection.

The body of Farah Fratta, 33 and the mother of three children, was found in the garage of her Atascocita home Nov. 9, 1993. Witnesses saw a small car leaving the scene and two men dressed in black inside. Fratta, who says he is innocent, said he was at church with the couple's children at the time. Detectives said they believed Fratta was behind the killing, motivated by his desire to end a two-year custody battle with his estranged wife and the accompanying child support payments. It took more than two years for charges to be filed against him, but Fratta continued his fight for the children.

His self-indulgent, vanity-driven lifestyle was dissected in December 1994 in a civil court, where he went to fight his former in-laws over custody of the children. Family Court Judge Robert Hinojosa heard testimony from a number of witnesses, mostly former body-building partners of Fratta's who said he solicited their help in killing his wife when he was not seeking to satisfy strange sexual pursuits. Others said Fratta allowed his children to play with large, biting snakes and with ammunition. Hinojosa denied Robert Fratta custody of the children and declared he believed Fratta had his wife killed.

Within weeks, Fratta found himself on the receiving end of a murder-for-hire scheme. Huffman resident William Planter allegedly approached Farah Fratta's parents, Lex and Betty Baquer, with an offer to kill Fratta. That case is pending.

In March 1995, authorities announced the arrests of two men they say killed Farah Fratta. Joseph Andrew Prystash, a former workout partner of Fratta's, is alleged to have enlisted the help of Howard Paul Guidry in the killing. Authorities said they were promised an undisclosed sum of money for their services. Prystash and Guidry also have been charged with capital murder. Their cases have not come to trial.

Defense attorney Mike Charlton was reluctant to discuss the Fratta case Monday, as was prosecutor Kelly Siegler. Both will make opening statements to a jury that convenes in state District Judge Joe Kegan's court.

Lex Baquer said he and his wife are "letting the case take its natural course." "Obviously, we do have a lot of pain for the wrong that was done," he said. "There is not a moment that I don't think of her. I cry for her every day. I can't bring her back, but I hope justice will prevail."


WED 04/10/1996

Fratta trial turns lurid on first day
Deviant sexual acts reportedly sought


Farah Fratta gave her husband Robert almost everything he wanted: Three kids, her devotion and a body sculpted by surgeons to please him. But when she chose divorce rather than bend to her husband's pressure to engage in deviant sex acts, or to accept an "open" marriage, he had her killed, according to testimony on the first day of Fratta's capital murder trial Tuesday.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Kelly Siegler promised that the 40 witnesses the state intends to call would show them "what Bob Fratta is all about." "He wanted an open marriage, meaning he could date other women," she said. "He made disgusting, revolting sexual demands she could not meet."

The defense did not make an opening statement Tuesday. Fratta, a former Missouri City public safety officer, apparently insisted years ago that his wife undergo cosmetic surgery to alter her breasts and nose, according to testimony. In March 1992, after almost 10 years of marriage, Farah Fratta decided she had had enough and sought a divorce. In response, her husband declared, "She'll never divorce me. She's mine and I'm not going to let someone else have what I paid for," Siegler said.

This was when Fratta, 33, began planning the slaying of his wife, Siegler said. The prosecutor said evidence against Fratta will include phone records linking him to Joseph Prystash and Howard Paul Guidry, the alleged go-between and accused triggerman, respectively. They are still awaiting trial.

Other witnesses will testify that the gun used to kill Farah Fratta was purchased by her husband years ago and was used by Guidry in a bank robbery after the killing, she said. As one witness after the next took the stand Tuesday to portray Robert Fratta as an arrogant, cold and sexually deviant husband, he kept a serious, but sometimes quizzical, look on his face.

The jury of 10 men and two women heard how the couple met while working as ticket agents for American Airlines and were married in 1983. At the time of her death on Nov. 9, 1994, her sons Bradley and Daniel were 7 and 5, and daughter Amber was 3.

James Beeler, an attorney who had represented Farah Fratta, said her husband spoke openly about his boredom with traditional marital sex and was explicit in his desires to see his wife in lesbian or three-way affairs. He said Farah Fratta's main reason for wanting a divorce was his relentless effort to get her to perform disgusting sexual acts, said Beeler. Beeler conceded to defense attorney Mike Charlton that wild accusations are commonplace in bitter divorces.

A Humble hairdresser recounted how, on the day she was killed, Farah Fratta dashed in for a quick trim and raced home with wet hair to meet her kids by 8 p.m.

Bradley Robert Fratta, 9, took the stand and offered a stoic but wrenching account of what happened next. He said he and his father pulled up to the house and saw that it was surrounded by yellow crime scene tape. Bradley, who resembles his father, said he and his siblings had gone to their father's house that day and fed their pets - Todd the iguana, Cleopatra the python, Nikki the dog and Prissy the cat - while their dad made some phone calls. He recalled his father being paged while they ate dinner. The calls are significant because they are believed to have been between Fratta and Prystash. The children went to a church class, Bradley testified, before returning home and finding that their mother had been killed.

Several jurors dabbed away tears.

When defense attorney Charlton took over the questioning, Bradley smiled and waved to his father. When testimony resumes today, jurors will be led down the investigative path that ended in Robert Fratta's arrest.


FRI 04/12/1996

Gun tied Fratta to slaying, police say
Officers say husband was always a suspect


Officers suspected public service officer Robert Fratta in his wife's killing, but had little to link him until a bank robber was found carrying Fratta's gun, witnesses said. Farah Fratta's accused hired killers, Joseph Prystash and Howard Guidry, had little in common but an apartment complex, criminal minds and a smoking habit, according to testimony in Robert Fratta's capital murder trial.

Harris County sheriff's deputies testified they suspected her husband in her slaying but had little to link him until Guidry was captured after a March 1, 1995, bank robbery. Detective Danny Billingsly said that shortly after Guidry was told the gun he was caught with was registered to Robert Fratta, he began recounting the events leading up to the Nov. 9, 1994, slaying.

Testimony indicated Farah Fratta, 33, a mother of three small children, was being driven from her marriage by her husband's insatiable sexual perversions. He was determined not to have to pay child support and fought her for custody, witnesses said.

Though testimony indicated Fratta had talked for months about killing his wife, the catalyst to carry it out seemed to be an upcoming court appearance in which a judge was expected to rule against him. Prystash, a former workout partner of Fratta's, was apparently one of a number of people solicited to kill Farah Fratta, according to testimony.

Officers gave this testimony Wednesday and Thursday: Guidry said Prystash, his neighbor, offered him $1,000 to be the triggerman. Armed with pagers, cellular phones and a gun provided by Fratta, they set out in the hours before the killing to test the equipment. The two used a pay phone to make sure their phones were working, then Prystash drove Guidry to the Frattas' nearby home. He left Guidry there in the dark, then left to await word the murder had been carried out. Guidry scaled the back fence and lay in wait in a child's playhouse.

About 8 p.m., Farah Fratta pulled into the driveway. As Fratta left her car, Guidry closed in and shot her once, then shot her again at close range after she screamed. Prystash then got a call. "It's done," Guidry said. The two men pulled away before officers arrived. They were arrested four months later. Fratta was charged shortly thereafter. Guidry and Prystash are awaiting trial.


SAT 04/13/1996

Fratta planned to shoot wife himself, witness says

After searching for someone to kill his wife, Robert Fratta said he planned to shoot her himself and fake it to look like a carjacking, one of Fratta's former workout partners testified Friday. The remark reportedly came before Farah Fratta, 33, was gunned down Nov. 9, 1994, at her Atascocita home, while her husband was at a Catholic church in Humble. Afterward, Robert Fratta claimed ignorance of why she was slain, even though it had become widely known that he wanted her shot, witness Jimmy Podhorsky said.

Podhorsky, a tree-service worker who knew Fratta from health spa workout sessions, said his friend began telling "all sorts of far-fetched stories" about who was responsible for Farah Fratta's killing. Fratta, a former Missouri City public safety officer, even claimed that one of her relatives did it to collect insurance money. But the moment he heard Fratta's wife was dead, Podhorsky said outside the courtroom, he knew her estranged husband was responsible.

Fratta sounded out many people while seeking an assassin, testimony suggested, including another body-builder, Mike Edens, 33, a Continental Airlines worker who bought a nonsteroid protein drink from Fratta. Edens indicated that Fratta hounded him to find someone to "knock my wife off." "I told him I couldn't find anybody," Edens testified, adding that he said it to "get him off my back."

Testimony in the trial has indicated that Fratta wanted his wife killed because of a bitter child-custody dispute that he was on the verge of losing, and because he didn't want to have to pay child support. "I didn't take him too serious," Edens said of Frattah's comments. "When you heard Farah Fratta had been shot, how did you feel?" prosecutor Kelly Siegler asked. "Shocked," Edens replied.

Fratta faces a possible death penalty if convicted of capital murder. Witnesses have detailed how Farah Fratta complied with her husband's demands to alter her body with surgery and listened to his repeated requests that she engage in bizarre sexual acts.

Prosecutors devoted much of their efforts Friday to witnesses describing how Fratta was at a Catholic church in Humble when his wife was slain at her home, and how he was constantly on the phone during the service. Evidence was introduced of more than a dozen calls Fratta made between 4:26 p.m. and 8:28 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1994, many of them checking for messages left for him and allegedly to the gunmen.

Farah Fratta's accused hired killers, Joseph Prystash and Howard Guidry, await prosecution on parallel capital murder charges in the case.


TUE 04/16/1996

Witness in Fratta trial tells about shell casings

The girlfriend of the man accused of helping arrange the killing of Farah Fratta told a jury Monday that she watched him return home after the shooting and unload spent shell casings from his revolver. In often hesitant testimony, Mary Gipp, an office manager, said she asked her housemate, Joseph Andrew Prystash, if Fratta, 33, was dead. He replied that she was. "He said that Howard (Guidry) was waiting for her at the garage and that he (Guidry) shot her once in the head and then he drew back and shot her again," she testified.

She was the prosecution's final witness against Robert Fratta, who faces a possible death penalty if convicted of hiring Prystash and Guidry to kill his estranged wife on Nov. 9, 1994. Guidry and Prystash also are charged with capital murder and await prosecution.

Even though she said she had heard talk for weeks of Fratta trying to get Prystash to kill Farah Fratta and was told afterward that it had happened, Gipp said she allowed Prystash to keep living in her home and never informed the police or the intended victim. But Gipp said she did take some precautions. She retrieved from her trash the two spent hulls Prystash removed from his Charter Arms revolver, and she later located the pistol and jotted down its serial number. "Why did you write it down, Mary?" prosecutor Casey O'Brien asked her. "Because I knew he'd done wrong," she answered, suggesting she sensed the information might be useful in the future.

In return for killing Farah Fratta, Gipp said, Fratta was to have given Guidry and Prystash $1,000 and a Jeep. Gipp was never charged with a crime, but she clearly came under considerable police scrutiny afterward, especially since her phone was used a lot in the alleged plot to kill Fratta.

The revolver used in the crime later was recovered by police after Guidry used it in a bank robbery in March 1994, prosecutors said. Defense lawyers John Ackerman and Mike Charlton began the defense case with eight witnesses, and much of the questioning revolved around evidence that Fratta enjoyed and was known for excremental sexual activities - preferences that previous witnesses said caused his marriage to collapse.

Two Houston women, legal secretary Marianne Word and artist Rebecca Hand, said they had brief affairs with Fratta after he separated from his wife. They said he was courteous toward them and that he never asked them to do anything sexually bizarre.


WED 04/17/1996

Fratta holds dim view of women, expert says

Capital murder defendant Robert Fratta has scant appreciation of other people's feelings and views women as "little girls" who can easily be dominated, a psychologist testified Tuesday. Clinical psychologist Laurence Abrams, testifying as a prosecution witness, said Fratta, a former Missouri City firefighter, wanted an "open marriage" with wife Farah and scouted around bars for a woman to have sex with the couple. Abrams told jurors in visiting state District Judge Bob Burdette's court about the findings in his 1994 examination of Fratta during a custody struggle with his estranged wife over their three children.

Testimony showed it was Fratta's sexual demands on his wife that prompted her to seek a divorce. Prosecutors contend this led Fratta to hire someone to kill her. Farah Fratta was shot outside her Atascocita home on Nov. 9, 1994, allegedly by Howard Guidry, one of two men the prosecution said was offered $1,000 and a Jeep to kill her. Guidry and Joseph Prystash, who allegedly made the arrangements with Guidry on Fratta's behalf, await capital murder trials.

Abrams was called in response to the testimony of a defense witness, psychologist Edward Friedman, who said he examined Fratta and found no signs of sexual deviancy. The judge scheduled closing arguments in the guilt-innocence phase of the trial for 9:15 a.m. today.



THU 04/18/1996

Jury finds Fratta guilty of plotting wife's murder

A jury took less than an hour Wednesday to convict Robert Fratta of arranging his wife's murder when their marriage disintegrated in a bitter child-custody fight. The panel in visiting state District Judge Bob Burdette's court was ordered to return to court today to hear evidence in the punishment phase of the trial. Fratta, convicted of capital murder, could be sentenced to death by injection or a life prison term with at least 40 years before parole eligibility.

Fratta, 39, a former Missouri City public safety officer who steadfastly maintained his innocence before the trial, refused to comment as he left the courtroom. His conviction was welcome news for Lex and Betty Baquer, the parents of Farah Fratta, 33. She was shot to death Nov. 9, 1994, outside her Atascocita home. "He's a menace to society," Lex Baquer said. "He's a menace to women. He doesn't deserve to live."

Defense lawyer Mike Charlton said the verdict was unfair because Fratta's two co-defendants, Howard Guidry and Joseph Prystash, never testified at the trial but were quoted extensively as the state presented its evidence. "It's unfair because we weren't able to cross-examine people who weren't there," Charlton said, echoing remarks he made in his closing statement.

Testimony showed that Fratta approached several people, many of them body-builders at the spa he frequented, before getting his workout partner, Prystash, to agree to find someone to kill Mrs. Fratta. Prystash allegedly found Guidry, who, according to testimony, used Fratta's .38-caliber revolver to shoot Mrs. Fratta. The gun was recovered after Guidry allegedly used it in a bank robbery. Attorneys for Prystash and Guidry, both awaiting prosecution on capital murder charges, refused to allow them to testify.

Prosecutor Kelly Siegler referred to Prystash and Guidry in her closing statement, pointing at the empty witness stand. "You wouldn't have been able to stomach the deal we'd have had to cut to put 'em in that chair," she told the jury.

Through the testimony of Prystash's girlfriend, Mary Gipp, the prosecution was able to introduce considerable information connecting the defendants to the slaying. The jury even heard a description of Prystash removing spent shells from the weapon after the shooting. Gipp said Fratta promised the pair $1,000 and a Jeep for shooting Mrs. Fratta.

The jury took 50 minutes to return a conviction.

The focal point of the trial was evidence, detailed earlier in a legal dispute over child custody, about the collapse of the Frattas' nine-year marriage. Siegler told jurors that Fratta once had it all: good looks, a fine physique, a steady job in law enforcement and firefighting, a pretty wife and three children. "But he's missing something all of you have," she told the jury. "He's missing a conscience."

Fratta once described his marriage as perfect, since he had a wife to satisfy his every need. But Siegler said Fratta's strange sexual demands eventually caused her to quit meeting his needs and, beyond that, to seek a divorce and custody of their children. The divorce action was still pending when Farah Fratta was killed.

Several witnesses testified about the oddities of Fratta's sexual preferences and how they disturbed his wife. Defense lawyers, however, called two women to testify about affairs they had with him after he separated. Both women said Fratta treated them courteously and said Fratta never placed odd demands on them.

Fratta's attempt to collect on his wife's life insurance policy just two days after her death was telling, Siegler said. A total of $235,000 in benefits was due on her death, Siegler said, but to Fratta's dismay he discovered that his wife had made her children the sole beneficiaries.


SAT 04/20/1996

In punishment phase, mother of victim labels Fratta a `monster'

Robert Fratta, convicted of arranging the slaying of his estranged wife, was denounced Friday as a "monster" by the victim's mother as testimony closed in Fratta's two-week capital murder trial. Betty Baquer, 59, whose daughter, Farah Fratta, was slain by a man allegedly hired by Robert Fratta, was the trial's last witness. Prosecutor Kelly Siegler asked Baquer how the responsibility for raising her daughter's three children has affected her life. "We don't have a life any more thanks to that monster right there," Baquer said, pointing across the courtroom at her 39-year-old former son-in-law. Visiting state District Judge Bob Burdette instructed jurors to disregard the outburst.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday morning. The jury will then decide whether to sentence Fratta, a former Missouri City public safety officer, to death by injection or a life sentence that cannot end in parole before 2035.

Farah Fratta, 33, was shot to death outside her Atascocita home Nov. 9, 1994. Testimony in the trial indicated that Joseph Prystash, a friend of Robert Fratta, hired Howard Guidry, who fired the fatal shots. Prystash and Guidry await trial on capital murder charges. Prystash's girlfriend, Mary Gipp, said Fratta offered $1,000 and a Jeep to the pair for killing Farah Fratta, whose two-year divorce action against her husband included allegations that he demanded she engage in bizarre sexual acts with him.

Prosecutors presented little new evidence after the guilty verdict, but Fratta's lawyers, Mike Charlton and John Ackerman, called a series of New Yorkers to testify that their client - at least when they knew him - was polite, kind, caring, respectful, friendly and a good neighbor. They were called in an effort to convince jurors that Fratta does not pose a continuing threat - one of the key questions jurors have to answer to determine if he is sentenced to death. But under questioning by prosecutors, only one of these witnesses said they had spent much time with the defendant in decades.

Robin Kazmaroff, 40, who bagged groceries with Fratta 20 years ago, said he came to Houston once a couple of years ago and was given a tour of the city. He recalled that Fratta's young son fell off a dock and his old friend jumped into 10-feet-deep water to rescue the child. Kazmaroff was the sole defense character witness to have met Farah Fratta.


TUE 04/23/1996

Deliberations to resume in Fratta sentencing

A jury was sequestered late Monday after failing to decide whether Robert Fratta deserved life in prison or the death penalty for arranging to have his wife murdered. Deliberations will resume this morning. The 10 men and two women were told that life in this case would mean that Robert Fratta, 39, would be 79 before being considered for parole. To impose the death penalty, the jury must find that there were no mitigating circumstances that would temper the defendant's culpability and that he presents a continuing threat to society.

Fratta, a former Missouri City public safety officer, was convicted of capital murder Wednesday for soliciting the execution of his wife, Farah Fratta, 33. Before visiting state District Judge Bob Burdette sent jurors out to deliberate Monday, defense attorney John Ackerman argued that Fratta was not a future danger. Ackerman blamed the Nov. 9, 1994, murder on a divorce battle, which had grown increasingly ugly with disclosures by Farah Fratta about her husband's deviant sexual demands, and her effort to get custody of their three small children. "It'll never happen again," Ackerman said of this combination of circumstances. "He'll never be put back in that corner he felt himself in."

Prosecutors Kelly Siegler and Casey O'Brien, who argued that Robert Fratta provided a profile of a death penalty candidate, could offer no pattern of criminal behavior by Fratta. Still, "Bob Fratta is not going to change," Siegler said. "He's only going to get worse. He is constantly pushing the boundaries, whether sexually or legally. The defendant is consumed by greed and hate for his wife. Do you think that has gone away?"

Testimony showed that Farah Fratta had been forced to undergo plastic surgery to please her husband. She finally balked at his insistence that she perform certain sex acts, and she sought a divorce.

Joseph Prystash and Howard Guidry, the alleged go-between and the accused killer, are awaiting trial. Testimony showed Guidry was dropped off by Prystash at the Frattas' home and that he hid in a playhouse in the back yard until Farah Fratta arrived. She was shot twice as she got out of her car. Robert Fratta was a suspect from the minute he tried to cash in on his wife's $235,000 insurance policy two days after her death.

Ackerman had asked the jury to consider sparing Robert Fratta's life for the sake of his children. "We should never make them (the children) wonder, `Is today the day they are going to kill my dad?' " Ackerman said. "We should spare them that."

But prosecutors maintained their stance. O'Brien read aloud the police and fireman's oath Robert Fratta had sworn to uphold. Among the vows were to protect the innocent, to keep one's personal life unsullied and to be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. "He has disgraced the badge," O'Brien said.


WED 04/24/1996

Fratta receives ultimate penalty

Jurors could have given Robert Fratta life in prison, but instead they decided he should die for setting up his wife's murder. The panel rejected the defense's "mitigating circumstance" argument. The defense said the couple's messy divorce, including disclosures of his bizarre sexual desires, explained his actions. One juror hung his head and cried as the judge read the replies to the questions jurors answered in reaching a decision.


WED 04/24/1996

Jury sentences Fratta to die for wife's killing

A jury's answers to three questions Tuesday added up to a death sentence for Robert Fratta, who chose to have his wife murdered rather than allow her to win custody of their children. The jury could have chosen a life prison term after convicting Fratta, 39, a former Missouri City public safety officer, of capital murder. He would have had to serve 40 years before parole could be considered.

But after deliberating for about eight hours over two days and spending Monday night in a hotel, the haggard 10 men and two women agreed Fratta should die for arranging the Nov. 9, 1994, killing of Farah Fratta, 33. One juror hung his head and cried as visiting state District Judge Bob Burdette read the jury's answers aloud. Others shifted uneasily in their chairs.

In answering the questions that determined whether Fratta would be sentenced to death or to life in prison, jurors found that Fratta was likely to commit violent crimes in the future and that he was guilty of murdering his wife even though someone else pulled the trigger. The panel also rejected a defense argument of "mitigating circumstance," which would have spared Fratta from execution. The defense contended that the couple's messy divorce, including disclosures of Robert Fratta's bizarre sexual desires, explained his actions.

With each answer, Gloria Fratta crouched deeper in her seat behind her son and caught her tears in a tattered tissue. Robert Fratta stood with his head bowed but did not appear to cry.

For Lex and Betty Baquer, the parents of Farah Fratta, the verdict was bittersweet. They said death was the only fitting punishment for their former son-in-law, but the execution would cause still more pain for their grandchildren. "No punishment could justify our grief," Lex Baquer said with tears in his eyes. "The least he can do now is apologize to his children."

Appeal of a death penalty verdict is automatic. Defense lawyer Mike Charlton said he did not believe the trial was conducted in accordance with the law - he did not elaborate - and that the jury had been worked into a "frenzy" by prosecutors. Charlton also referred to a contagious "blood lust" in Harris County as a factor in the sentence.

Prosecutors Kelly Siegler and Casey O'Brien had brought in about 40 witnesses who painted a sinister picture of Robert Fratta: a vain and deviant oppressor who, early in his marriage, had pressured his wife to have her nose and breasts surgically reconstructed. By 1992, it was his boredom with marital sex and his desire for strange sexual experiments that drove her to seek a divorce. Fratta was said to have vowed to get even with his wife, in part because it appeared she would win custody of the children, then ages 7, 5 and 3.

Witnesses testified that Fratta had tried to enlist the help of one of his fellow weight lifters to kill his wife. Evidence was provided - including the murder weapon and phone records - to tie Fratta to accused middleman Joseph Prystash before the murder, and to Prystash and accused gunman Howard Paul Guidry on the night of the murder. Guidry was arrested after a bank robbery in which the murder weapon was used. The gun was found to have belonged to Robert Fratta, who knew Prystash from his gym. Guidry was a neighbor of Prystash.

Prystash apparently drove Guidry to the couple's home on the night of the killing and stayed in contact by phone and pager with Robert Fratta, who had taken his children to dinner and to church. Guidry hid in the children's playhouse until Farah Fratta came home and shot her twice as she got out of her car. Prystash and Guidry are awaiting trial on capital murder charges.

Detectives were convinced from the start that Robert Fratta was behind his wife's murder. He had tried to collect on her $235,000 insurance policy days after her murder. But officers could not get close enough to Fratta to make an arrest until they caught the alleged accomplices, who provided details.

Bradley Fratta, 9, was a key witness for the prosecution. A blond version of his father, Bradley took the stand and provided the information that placed his father at a cafeteria, and also getting paged and using a phone there. His testimony was significant to substantiating testimony from detectives who related details given them by the accused killers.

Before sending the jury out to deliberate Monday, defense attorney John Ackerman suggested that choosing death for Robert Fratta might burden Bradley with guilt by association. But Lex Baquer said later that Bradley has made his peace with what has happened thus far. Baquer said he expects the youngster to process news of the death sentence with the same hard earned maturity. He said his grandson shared these comments with him the night before: "I don't care if my daddy stays in jail forever. Daddy lied to me. He paid the bad guys to kill mommy."


FRI 04/26/1996

CONFLICT IN EMOTION
For Fratta children, healing will hurt


Robert Fratta's murder trial has ended but the healing process for his children - who lost their mother to violence and now their father to prison - has just begun. Child psychology experts say the youngsters - ages 9, 7 and 5 - probably have conflicting emotions about their father, who was sentenced to death Tuesday for arranging the 1994 killing of his estranged wife, Farah Fratta.

For instance, Bradley Fratta, the oldest child, said he didn't care "if my daddy stays in jail forever," just days after he smiled and waved at his father in the courtroom. "Children may feel betrayed, but it doesn't mean they stop loving the person who brought the hurt," said Joan Anderson, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children. "In this case, the children are going to permanently love their father."

Testimony from the trial showed Robert Fratta hired two men - who also face capital murder charges - to carry out the killing of his wife amid a custody dispute. The children have lived with maternal grandparents since Farah Fratta died. Lex and Betty Baquer are seeking permanent custody and are expanding their Humble home to accommodate the children.

Amber Fratta, who was 3 when her mother was slain, has some difficulty fully understanding what has happened, Lex Baquer said. "She thinks mom has gone to heaven and is coming back," he said, adding that the girl once begged him to bring her mother back so she could give her "one more hug." Amber Fratta, who is in kindergarten, falls asleep each night embracing a framed photo of her with her mother, Baquer said. "She used to talk to that picture. It was heart-breaking."

Baquer said Daniel, 7, and Bradley stoically share memories of their mother, such as recalling her favorite songs when they're played on the radio. None of the children mention their father, except to occasionally ask about the criminal case, their grandfather said.

Dr. Bruce Perry, who heads a Baylor College of Medicine program dealing with trauma-exposed youth, said it's not surprising that the youngsters do not talk about Robert Fratta, considering they are living with the victim's parents. "Children are very good at reading the adult world and complying with it," said Perry, who led a trauma-assessment team that treated and studied children of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. "If they see distress in adults, they're going to avoid anything that might cause more distress."

Photos of the children with their mother are prominently displayed in the Baquer home. Mementos of their father are noticeably missing. Anderson and Perry warned that children in such situations cannot - and should not - shut off affection abruptly. "They need a neutral third party to help them understand that it's OK to have good memories of their father, as well as exactly what has happened in the (criminal) case," Anderson said. "Because even though some terrible things have happened, not all of the memories of the father are negative." Added Perry: "It's wrong for them to pretend their father didn't exist because that was a sizable chunk of their lives that would be erased."

Baquer said the children underwent counseling immediately after their mother died. For at least six months, they wouldn't sleep alone. Now they seem happier, their grandfather said. They make good grades in school, he said, and the boys enjoy playing sports and Amber likes playing dress-up. 

But Bradley, who testified in his father's trial about his father's whereabouts the day Farah Fratta was found slain, has occasional moments of moodiness when television news begins. "It's as if he knows something is going to happen," Baquer said. Perry said it can take years for youngsters to come to terms with such emotions. "There has been an incredible rupture in their lives and they need help to move forward without storing that emotional pain," Perry said. "If it's not dealt with moderately and gradually, the child can become depressed or even violent."


THU 05/09/1996

Man faces life term in solicitation

A man who offered to avenge one murder-for-hire with another was convicted Wednesday of soliciting capital murder. A jury in state District Judge Brian Rains' court will return today to hear closing arguments and determine punishment for Bill Planter. Planter faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. The person he offered to kill, Robert Fratta, was sentenced to death last month for arranging the shooting death of his wife, Farah Fratta, in the garage of her Atascocita home on Nov. 9.

Robert Fratta was on the brink of losing custody of his three young children to his wife, who had filed for divorce. Lex and Betty Baquer, the dead woman's parents, took up the custody fight on their daughter's behalf and a civil court judge found Robert Fratta was an unfit parent. It was about this time that Lex Baquer first heard from Planter. In a series of meetings and phone calls with Baquer, which were recorded by investigators, Planter laid out a plan to punish Fratta for his wife's death. Planter, a former police officer from Huffman, set a price of $10,000 for the killing and promised Fratta's body would never be found.


FRI 05/10/1996

Man who said he'd kill Fratta is sent to prison

A jury sentenced a man to 17 years in prison Thursday for offering to kill Robert Fratta, who was himself convicted of arranging the murder of his wife. The jury in state District Judge Brian Rains' court on Wednesday convicted Bill Planter of soliciting capital murder for offering to kill Robert Fratta, 33. Fratta, a former Missouri City public safety officer, is on death row for arranging the killing of his estranged wife, Farah Fratta. She was shot in the garage of her Atascocita home on Nov. 9, 1994. The range of punishment for Planter was probation to life in prison.

Jurors heard from Lex Baquer, the dead woman's father, who was instrumental in developing evidence against Planter. Planter contacted Baquer before Robert Fratta was arrested in his wife's death, according to testimony. At the time, Robert and Farah Fratta were engaged in a bitter dispute over custody of their three children. Investigators hid a recording device on Baquer and taped his conversations with Planter.

Planter tried to convince Baquer that police would never be able to catch Robert Fratta. For $10,000, he said, he would see that no body was ever found. When Planter was arrested, a search of his car revealed guns, a knife and explosives. Planter had served with the sheriff's department and a constable's office, and briefly was police chief in Splendora. Rocket Rosen, Planter's attorney, argued that Planter would be a good candidate for probation. He cited Planter's years as a policeman and an unblemished past. But prosecutor Ted Wilson called Planter "a time bomb."


TUE 07/02/1996

Murder plans known, witness says
Woman testifies in Fratta slaying


A woman who might have been able to save Farah Fratta's life testified Monday that she knew about her boyfriend's plans to have Fratta killed days before she was shot to death. Mary Gipp, speaking in somber tones and sobbing at times, told the jury that her boyfriend, Joseph Prystash, helped arrange Fratta's murder. In return, he was promised a Jeep, she said. Prystash's capital murder trial began Monday in visiting state District Judge Bob Burdette's court. Prosecutor Casey O'Brien said he will seek the death penalty if Prystash is convicted.

Fratta's estranged husband, Robert Fratta, was sentenced to death in April for arranging the murder. The man accused of firing the fatal shots, Howard Guidry, is scheduled to be tried next month.

Gipp testified that Prystash had told her a few days before Fratta was slain that the killing was to take place on Nov. 9, 1994. But she didn't notify the police, she said. She said she wanted to call Fratta and warn her, but couldn't find her phone number. "I was scared. I knew it was wrong," she said.

Gipp was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony, which often left an awkward silence in the courtroom. Fratta's parents were among those in attendance. Gipp admitted during her hour-long testimony that she was home when Prystash and Guidry prepared to leave on the night of the murder - dressed all in black. "I knew where he (Prystash) was going," she said.

When he returned two hours later, Gipp said, she watched him unload his gun and throw two empty shells into a garbage can. "I asked him if he killed her," she said. "He said, `yes.' " Gipp said Prystash told her that Guidry shot Fratta after she pulled into the garage and got out of her car. She said Prystash, who drove the two to the scene, waited in the car. Prystash told her that Robert Fratta was in church with his three children, who were at the center of a custody battle between the couple.

Gipp testified that after Prystash left her apartment, she retrieved the shells from the trash can and hid them. Later, she threw them away again, confused about her loyalties to her boyfriend, she said. "I still love him," Gipp said.

Gipp had met Farah Fratta a couple of times and knew Robert Fratta from a gym where they worked out. During the day's testimony, four men who work out at the same gym testified that Robert Fratta had approached each of them about finding a hit man. None called the police.

Defense attorney Gerald Bourque said he will try to show that the police gathered evidence and testimony illegally. On Monday, Bourque tried to discredit the testimony of the men from the gym by implying that they should have called the police, and might have been involved themselves.


TUE 07/09/1996

Jury quickly convicts murder middleman in plot with Fratta

In 17 minutes, a jury convicted Joseph Prystash of capital murder Monday for arranging the killing of Farah Fratta in a plot hatched by Fratta's estranged husband. Sentencing testimony begins today, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. During the three-day trial, testimony showed that the victim's husband, Robert Fratta, offered Prystash a Jeep as payment for being the middleman in the murder-for-hire.

Robert Fratta, a former Missouri City peace officer, was convicted of capital murder in April and is on death row. The accused killer, Howard Guidry, should go to trial next month. Farah Fratta's father, Lex Baquer, was relieved and emotional after the verdict was read Monday afternoon. "This man could have stopped it," he said. ""They are not fit to live. "

Upset over his pending divorce and a custody battle, Robert Fratta asked Prystash, 39, to arrange the killing, testimony showed. The jury was told that Prystash hired his girlfriend's neighbor to kill Fratta on Nov. 9, 1994, for $1,000. Guidry is accused of shooting Fratta in the head as she got out of her car in her garage, while Prystash waited in his car. Prystash's girlfriend, Mary Gipp, testified during the trial that she knew about the plot a few days before Fratta was killed. Gipp, who was given immunity for her testimony, said Prystash told her that he was involved in the killing. She watched him unload a pistol on the night of the killing, she said.

In their closing statements, defense attorneys tried to convince the jury that the evidence in the case was obtained illegally. Prystash was not given access to an attorney while giving his statement, as he desired, and police searched his car and home without warrants, said Gerald Bourque, Prystash's attorney. But Prosecutor Casey O'Brien argued that the police officers followed the letter of the law and the defense was simply grabbing at straws.


WED 07/10/1996

Girlfriend tells how Prystash scared victim

Five months before Farah Fratta was killed, a masked Joseph Prystash broke into her home and tried to frighten her into dropping her fight for custody of her three children, Prystash's girlfriend testified Tuesday. Mary Gipp's testimony came in the punishment phase of Prystash's capital murder trial. He was convicted of capital murder on Monday, and prosecutors are asking the jury to give him the death penalty.

Gipp said that after breaking into the house through a window, Prystash confronted Fratta while she was in bed with the three young children. Gipp, who was promised immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony, said Prystash told her that he and Fratta's husband, Robert Fratta, had discussed ways to frighten Fratta's estranged wife.

Robert Fratta was convicted in April of hiring the killer and is on death row. Farah Fratta had filed for divorce, and authorities said their dispute over child custody was a key factor in the plot to kill her.

Gipp testified Tuesday that Prystash had told her he had drilled a small hole in a rear window to get into the house. Prystash recounted that upon entering the home, he found Fratta in her bedroom with her children, Gipp testified. ""He said the children started screaming," she said.

Fratta told her children to go to their rooms, Gipp said she was told. Although prosecutors pressed her, Gipp said Prystash did not tell her what happened during the confrontation. ""Bob (Fratta) wanted Joe (Prystash) to rape her. Joe would not," Gipp said.

Previously, she testified that she knew her boyfriend had arranged the slaying of Fratta and knew where he was going on the night he drove the alleged killer, Howard Guidry, to Fratta's house. Guidry, who allegedly shot Fratta as she got out of her car in her garage on Nov. 9, goes to trial next month.

Gipp testified that she did not know whether Prystash had a weapon on the night he broke into Fratta's home. She told prosecutors that her stun gun was missing. She said she had not seen it in years, however. A stun gun was used on Fratta that night, testified Harris County constable Sgt. Robert Johnson, whose testimony followed Gipp's.

Fratta called 911 after the intrusion, and police officers saw two burn marks on her throat and shoulder consistent with stun gun injuries, Johnson said. From the witness stand, he demonstrated how a stun gun works. When he pressed the trigger, the device crackled loudly, startling the jury.

The 911 call also was replayed, but it was hard to understand what Fratta was saying because she was crying. Fratta's mother, who was in the courtroom listening to her daughter's voice on tape, also wept. 

When he got to Fratta's home on that June morning, Johnson said, the victim was terrified. He said the only thing missing from the Fratta home was the handset from a portable telephone, which he guessed was taken to keep Fratta from calling the police. No one was arrested for the break-in.

Prosecutors continued Tuesday to try to show that Prystash engaged in a pattern of violence and anti-social behavior. Two ex-wives testified that Prystash had no conscience and could easily lose his temper. Florida police officers testified that Prystash had been convicted of seven felonies there in the 1970s, and evidence was introduced of attempted murder charges filed against Prystash in 1991 and later dropped.

The jury is expected to determine Prystash's punishment today after defense witnesses testify.


THU 07/11/1996

Murder middleman gets death sentence/Prystash set up slaying of Fratta's wife

A jury sentenced Joseph Prystash on Wednesday to death by injection for arranging the murder of Farah Fratta, a mother of three young children. In two hours, the seven-woman, five-man jury decided that Prystash, 39, would be a continued threat to society and should die for his crime. The jury could have sentenced Prystash to life in prison with a mandatory 40 years before parole eligibility.

After the sentence was read, jurors grimly filed past Fratta's parents, embracing them tightly and shaking their hands. Several jurors cried as the victim's parents thanked them. Prystash retained the same stoic demeanor that he had displayed throughout the nine-day trial. ""We are pleased. Very pleased," said Lex Baquer, Fratta's father. ""It will never bring Farah back, but it will help to console."

Prystash was convicted of capital murder Monday for helping to plot the fatal shooting of Fratta, 33. The victim's husband, Robert Fratta, 39, a former Missouri City peace officer, was convicted and sentenced to death in April for hatching the scheme. Authorities say Fratta decided to have his wife killed because she was filing for divorce and fighting for custody of their three children. Prystash was promised a Jeep for arranging the murder.

Howard Guidry, who allegedly fired the shots that killed Fratta as she got out of her car in her garage last Nov. 9, goes to trial next month.

Defense attorneys Wednesday tried to persuade the jury to consider Prystash's interest in religion since his arrest last year. Jail preachers testified that Prystash has been a good Bible study student in the weekly jail sessions. They said he is quiet and attentive and seems sincere. In his closing remarks, defense attorney Gerald Bourque waved a Bible in front of jurors, pleading with them to give his client a life sentence, rather than death. He read passages from the Bible and talked about repentance and forgiveness.

But prosecutor Kelly Siegler told the jury to ignore Bourque's ""guilt trip," reminding jurors that they were not in church and that the defense attorney is not a preacher. She portrayed Prystash as an evil man who has been in and out of jail since he was 20. Prystash's record includes seven felony convictions in Florida, two theft convictions here and involvement in an assault case in Montgomery County. Siegler told the jury that Prystash would even be a threat to the prison population.

Five months before Fratta was murdered, Prystash allegedly broke into her home to try to frighten her into dropping the custody battle, Prystash's girlfriend testified. Mary Gipp, the girlfriend, said Prystash told her that he broke in through a window and confronted Farah Fratta in her bedroom, where she was asleep with her children. Police say Fratta was burned three times with a stun gun by the intruder.


THU 03/20/1997

Trial begins for third defendant in Fratta murder-for-hire case

An accused assassin shot his victim in the head, then shot her again after she collapsed to be sure she was dead, a prosecutor said Wednesday. "It's done," Howard Paul Guidry told a co-defendant after killing Farah Fratta, said prosecutor Kelly Siegler.

The comments were part of the prosecutor's opening statement as the capital murder trial of Guidry, 20, got under way. Defense attorneys said they would present their opening statement after the prosecution completes its case.

Two other defendants in the murder-for-hire case are on death row, and prosecutors are seeking the same punishment for Guidry. Fratta, 33, was shot to death on Nov. 9, 1994. Her estranged husband, Robert "Bob" Fratta, who was to pay for the murder, and middleman Joe Prystash already have been convicted of capital murder. Guidry has pleaded not guilty.

The slaying grew out of a bitter divorce and child custody dispute between the Frattas that began in 1993. Robert Fratta is a former Missouri City public safety officer. The couple were patrons of a health club where Prystash also worked out regularly. When Robert Fratta decided to end his fight over custody of his three children by having his wife killed, Siegler said, he sought help from Prystash, who in turn enlisted Guidry.

In one written and one videotaped confession, Guidry told of hiding in a child's playhouse at Farah Fratta's Atascocita home to ambush her when she got home. In all three trials, a key witness has been Prystash's girlfriend, Mary Gipp. Siegler said jurors may find Gipp "despicable." "Although she didn't do anything to help kill Farah Fratta," Siegler said, "she didn't do one damn thing to stop it."

Gipp acknowledged on the witness stand that she knew for six months that her boyfriend was plotting with Robert Fratta to murder Farah Fratta. She said she knew the murder weapon was to be a revolver Prystash owned and, in the month before the shooting, she knew her boyfriend had gotten her neighbor, Guidry, involved. Gipp said she considered trying to warn Farah Fratta about the plot, but she said she couldn't because she only knew the victim as "Farah" and was unable to find the phone number. In addition, Gipp said, "I was in love with (Prystash)."

Guidry also awaits prosecution for a bank robbery allegedly committed with Prystash's .38-caliber revolver after the Fratta killing.


THU 03/27/1997

Third death sentence given in Fratta case

The gunman who killed a mother of three for $1,000 was sentenced to die Wednesday, joining his two co-defendants on death row. In separate trials, each of the three men who planned and executed the murder-for-hire of Farah Fratta has been convicted and sentenced to die by injection. Howard Paul Guidry, who fired the fatal shots, was the last to go to trial. Guidry, 20, was convicted of capital murder for shooting Fratta in exchange for cash from the victim's estranged husband, Robert Fratta.

The Frattas had been engaged in a custody battle, and evidence in the trials showed that Robert Fratta, a former Missouri City peace officer, searched for weeks for someone to kill his wife.  On Nov. 9, 1994, Guidry was driven to the victim's home by the middleman in the scheme, Joseph Prystash. Guidry waited for more than an hour in a child's playhouse for Fratta to return. When she drove into the garage, Guidry ambushed her and shot her in the head. As she lay dying on the garage floor, he leaned over and shot her point-blank in the head, Guidry told police.

Jim Hoffman, a Harris County Sheriff's Department homicide detective, said he believes this is the first local capital murder case in which multiple defendants have all been sentenced to death.

Fratta's parents, who have watched each of the three trials, said Guidry's put them through the most wrenching emotions. "He was the last person to see my child," said Lex Baquer, the victim's father. "He knew she was a mother of three." Baquer said he is relieved that the trials are over. It has been difficult to explain the proceedings to the three grandchildren he is raising, he said.

The trial also was emotional for Guidry's family, who sat together in one row throughout the proceedings. Moments after the death sentence was read, Guidry's mother collapsed in grief. The defendant tried to go to her, but deputies restrained him and removed him from the room. An ambulance was called and she was taken to a hospital, still conscious.

During the trial's punishment phase, prosecutor Kelly Siegler argued that Guidry deserved a death sentence because of his history of violence and the heinous nature of the Fratta murder. After he killed Fratta, Guidry was implicated in the robbery of an auto parts store and in a Klein bank robbery. An inmate testified that Guidry was involved in both crimes, and a bank teller testified that she feared for her life when the robbers pointed their guns at her face. The gun Guidry reportedly used in the bank robbery was the same weapon he used to kill Fratta. Also, deputies from the Harris County Jail testified that Guidry punched one of them in jail a few months ago.

Guidry's defense attorneys asked jurors to consider Guidry's age, his drug use and his lack of education and spare his life. The other possible sentence was life in prison with no parole eligibility for 40 years. "Forty years in prison is not a gift, it is a penalty," said Loretta Muldrow, his attorney. "I don't know anyone who has survived 40 years. Even if he goes for life, he's still a dead man." On Tuesday, the jury indicated it was deadlocked, and the panel was sequestered at a hotel for the evening. Two hours after resuming deliberations Wednesday morning, the panel reached a verdict.


WED 05/27/1998

Appeals court reverses '96 conviction of former lawman

A state appeals court reversed a trial decision and entered a judgment of acquittal in the case of a 50-year-old former lawman convicted in 1996 of offering to avenge one murder-for-hire with another. The 11th Court of Appeals in Eastland issued the opinion in the case of Bill Planter late last week.

Planter is accused of trying to persuade the father of a dead woman to pay him to kill Robert Fratta. Fratta is on death row for arranging the slaying of his estranged wife, Farah Fratta, who was shot in the garage of her Atascocita home on Nov. 9, 1994.

Robert Fratta was about to lose custody of his three children to his wife, who had filed for divorce.

A jury in state District Judge Brian Rains' court convicted Planter of offering to kill Robert Fratta. The appeals court reversed the trial court and found the evidence used to convict Planter in May 1996 was insufficient to support the verdict, according to the court's opinion. "I felt so hopeless," said Planter's attorney, Rocket Rosen, who learned about the ruling Tuesday. "No one was listening to me. This was a bogus charge. My arguments to the judge and jurors fell on deaf ears, but thank God not to the appeals court." Planter already served about two years of a 17-year prison sentence for soliciting capital murder and Rosen said he filed a motion for bail with the appeals court.

Lex Baquer and his wife, Betty, took up the custody fight and a civil court judge found Fratta was an unfit parent. It was then that Lex Baquer first heard from Planter and later contacted police, according to trial testimony. In meetings and phone calls with Baquer, which were recorded by police, Planter laid out a plan to punish Fratta for his wife's death. Testimony showed Planter, a former police officer from Huffman who once worked for the Harris County Sheriff's Department and did a short stint as Splendora's police chief, set a price of $10,000 for the killing and vowed Fratta's body would never be found.

But the appeals court's opinion says the jury's finding that Planter attempted to get Baquer to kill Fratta was incorrect. Instead, the evidence shows that Planter only asked Baquer to pay him to kill Fratta. It may seem like a subtle point, Rosen said, but the facts of the case didn't fit the charges against Planter as they were worded in the indictment and jury charge. Rosen said his client approached Baquer because he was angered by the pace of the high-profile case against Fratta.

Prosecutors hadn't seen the court's opinion Tuesday and declined comment. The state can ask for a rehearing before the court in Eastland or ask the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to review the case.


SAT 11/28/1998

Six death row inmates surrender after escape attempt

HUNTSVILLE - Six death row inmates, including three from the Houston area, surrendered Friday during an escape attempt in which only Martin Gurule, 29, of Corpus Christi broke through the perimeter of the Ellis I Unit.

The six others were identified as:

  • Eric Dewayne Cathey, 27, came to death row on April 29, 1997, from Harris County. Cathey was convicted of capital murder in the 1996 kidnapping and shooting of Christina O. Castillo, 20, in the 1300 block of West. Testimony showed that Cathey and five friends planned to rob Castillo and her boyfriend of drugs and money. But after abducting and blindfolding her, prosecutors said Cathey decided not to free Castillo because she could identify him. She was shot three times in the head.
  • Howard Guidry, 22, who was convicted in a November 1994 murder for hire. Former Missouri City police Officer Robert Fratta was convicted of hiring Guidry to kill his wife, Farah Fratta, outside her Atascocita home. Guidry waited in the victim's home for more than an hour in a child's playhouse waiting for Farah Fratta to return. When she drove into the garage, Guidry ambushed her and shot her in the head. As she lay dying on the floor he leaned over and shot her point-blank in the head, Guidry told police. According to testimony, Guidry used Fratta's .38-caliber revolver in the hit. The Frattas had been engaged in a custody battle. Guidry came to death row on April 16, 1997, from Harris County.
  • Ponchai Wilkerson, 27, was sentenced to die for the Nov. 28, 1990, robbery-shooting of Chung Myong Yi in a Houston jewelry store. He shot him in the head from less than a foot away and stole a box of jewelry. Wilkerson never denied shooting Yi during the robbery, but he contended he fired the shot after becoming alarmed by the jeweler's movements behind the counter. Before November 1990, Wilkerson, the son of a retired deputy sheriff, had run afoul of the law only once, for auto theft. He is believed to have committed a string of felonies then before shooting Yi. Wilkerson came to death row on Nov. 22, 1991, from Harris County.
  • Henry Dunn, 24, who was convicted in a November 1993 hate crime against a gay man in Tyler. Dunn and another man were convicted of abducting Nicholas West from a park, taking him outside the city, shooting him nine times and leaving him in a gravel pit. Dunn was sent to death row on Oct. 11, 1995, from Smith County.
  • Gustavo Garcia, 26, was sentenced to death in the 1990 murder of a Plano liquor store clerk during a robbery. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial for Garcia in 1994 but reversed itself in March 1996 and upheld his conviction. Garcia came to death row on Jan. 8, 1992, from Collin County.
  • James Clayton, 32, was sentenced to die for the 1987 abduction and slaying of an Abilene woman. He came to death row on Nov. 14, 1988, from Taylor County.

THU 02/18/1999

Appeals court denies 4 death row claims

The Criminal Court of Appeals on Wednesday rejected appeals from four death row inmates, including former law enforcement officer Hilton Crawford, who abducted 12-year-old McKay Everett from the boy's Conroe home and killed him. Crawford, a former Beaumont police officer and sheriff's deputy, raised 27 issues on appeal, including whether the evidence in the trial was sufficient to convict, errors in jury selection and whether an emotional courtroom outburst by the boy's mother was calculated by prosecutors to inflame the jury against him. The appeals court denied all of Crawford's claims. Crawford has maintained his innocence in the 1995 murder.

The court also affirmed convictions and death sentences for:

Former Missouri City police officer Robert Fratta, who paid to have his wife killed amid a nasty divorce battle. Farah Fratta, 33, was shot to death as she got out of her car in 1994. Robert Fratta became a suspect when he tried to cash in his wife's $235,000 insurance policy just two days after she was killed.

Charles Tuttle, who robbed and beat to death Catherine Harris of Tyler in 1995.

Gayland Bradford, who shot and killed a Dallas County supermarket security guard in 1988.


THU 12/16/1999

6 appeals rejected / Death chamber draws near for killers

AUSTIN - Ten days before Christmas, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals made the holy season even bleaker than normal for six convicted killers, moving them a step closer to the death chamber by rejecting their appeals. Among those whose cases were rejected is Larry Keith Robison, a 42-year-old Fort Worth man with a long history of mental illness. Robison was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1982 slaying of 33-year-old Bruce Gardner, the boyfriend of Robison's neighbor. Robison, a paranoid schizophrenic, also confessed to slaying four other people in the same episode, including his former roommate, whom he decapitated and sexually mutilated. His case has been championed by groups calling attention to the plight of the mentally ill in Texas' criminal justice system. Earlier this year, they appealed unsuccessfully to Gov. George W. Bush to grant Robison clemency. In August, the criminal appeals court spared Robison's life just four hours before his execution. The appeals court ordered a trial court to determine if Robison is mentally competent to understand his punishment. Last month, a Fort Worth judge ruled Robison mentally competent to be killed after he testified that he is "ready to accept responsibility" for the slayings. In light of Wednesday's ruling by the appeals court, Robison's case now goes back to the trial judge for a new execution date. Tarrant County prosecutor John Stride said he would ask for a Jan. 21 execution date.

Other death-sentenced prisoners whose cases were turned down Wednesday:

  • Howard Paul Guidry, sentenced to death in the 1994 murder-for-hire slaying of Farah Fratta in Houston. Guidry was one of seven death row prisoners who tried to escape in 1998 by scaling a 10-foot fence on Thanksgiving night. Guidry was convicted of fatally shooting Fratta, 33, the mother of three, in her Atascocita home in a deal with her estranged husband, Paul Fratta. Then, weeks after Farah Fratta's murder, a second murder-for-hire scheme was hatched to avenge the woman's death by killing Paul Fratta. That plot was never carried out, but William Planter, a former Harris County Sheriff's deputy, was convicted of solicitation of capital murder. Coincidentally, Planter got good news Wednesday from the criminal appeals court. On a 6-3 vote, the judges ordered the trial court to issue an acquittal in his solicitation case.
  •  Jermarr Arnold, a poetry-writing violent prisoner convicted in the 1983 robbery-slaying of Christine Marie Sanchez in Corpus Christi. Arnold claims, by his own tally, to have raped at least 30 women in his long criminal history. Like Robison, Arnold is a former mental patient, hospitalized for a time in Colorado. But those who have championed the cause of Robison have not spoken out on Arnold's behalf. In 1991, Arnold claimed in a death row interview that he wanted to be executed - and soon. "I've prayed to be executed right this moment if it's possible," he said more than eight years ago. "I feel I owe society a debt. I've committed about the worst crime a person can commit. I've taken a young lady's life. If someone would stick a knife in my chest, I wouldn't feel any regret." A year later, Arnold stabbed two fellow death row inmates when he argued with them.
  • Carl Edward Napier, condemned for the 1986 shooting deaths of Jack Carlin, 63; his wife, Martha, 63; and their son, Andrew, 31, aboard a houseboat in Channelview.
  • Peter J. Miniel, an Illinois man sentenced to die for the 1987 robbery-stabbing death of Paul Manier in Galveston.
  • Robert Charles Ladd, a parolee sentenced to die for the 1996 rape-slaying of a mentally handicapped Tyler woman. The victim was bound, strangled and bludgeoned and her body set afire.

FRI 02/11/2000

Court orders acquittal for ex-law officer
Convicted in '96, man was accused of offering to set up death-for-hire


The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Wednesday the acquittal of an ex-lawman convicted in 1996 of offering to avenge one murder-for-hire with another. The decision by the state's highest criminal appeals court means that Bill Planter, 52, will soon be released from prison and have no conviction on his record, said defense attorneys Steven Rocket Rosen and Brian Wice. "This is a major victory," said Rosen, who represented Planter at trial and on appeal.

Wice, who argued Planter's case before the high court, agreed: "Your typical criminal defendant in Texas has a better chance of winning the `Pick Six' than basically going free because the appellate court has found the evidence legally insufficient to support a conviction."

Planter was accused of trying to persuade the father of a murdered woman to pay him to kill Robert Fratta. Fratta is on death row for arranging the murder of his estranged wife, Farah, who was shot in the garage of her Atascocita home on Nov. 9, 1994. He was about to lose custody of his three children to his wife, who had filed for divorce.

A jury in state District Judge Brian Rains' court convicted Planter of solicitation of capital murder. He was sentenced to 17 years behind bars. The 11th Court of Appeals in Eastland initially reversed the trial court, finding that the evidence used to convict Planter in May 1996 was insufficient to support the verdict.

After prosecutors obtained a rehearing, the lower court reversed itself and affirmed the conviction. The case then went to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, which reversed the trial court again and entered the judgment of acquittal. Prosecutors asked for a rehearing, but it was denied Wednesday. The court also ordered Rains to sign the acquittal order, a technicality which must be met before Planter can be freed.

Farah Fratta's father, Lex Baquer and his wife, Betty, took up the custody fight after her death, and a civil court judge found Fratta to be an unfit parent. It was then that Planter contacted Lex Baquer, who later contacted police, according to trial testimony. In meetings and phone calls with Baquer, which were recorded by police, Planter laid out a plan to kill Fratta. Testimony showed that Planter, an ex-police officer from Huffman who once worked for the Harris County Sheriff's Department and did a short stint as Splendora's police chief, asked for $10,000 and vowed Fratta's body would never be found. 

But appeals courts have said the jury's finding that Planter tried to get Baquer to let him kill Fratta was incorrect. Instead, the evidence shows that Planter only "asked" Baquer to pay him to kill Fratta. It may seem like a subtle point, Rosen and Wice said, but the facts of the case didn't fit the charges against Planter as they were worded in the indictment and jury charge. Rosen said his client only approached Baquer because he was angered by the creeping pace of the high-profile case against Fratta.

The prosecutor who handled the appeal, Alan Curry, was unavailable for comment Thursday. His boss, prosecutor Bill Delmore, said he was not sure whether Planter could be retried, but said it would be unlikely because of double-jeopardy concerns. Wice and Rosen agreed. "I think the facts have been litigated, and they can't re-litigate the facts," Rosen said. "They get one bite at the apple."


TUE 02/22/2000

Hostage seized on death row
Two convicted killers hold guard as captive


LIVINGSTON - Two death row inmates convicted of murders in Harris County were holding a 57-year-old female correctional officer hostage Monday night. "All we can do is hope, but we are not overly optimistic," said Larry Todd, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. However, another prison spokesman, Larry Fitzgerald, said at a later 9 p.m. news conference near the Terrell Unit here, "I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing." Fitzgerald said negotiators were talking with the inmates, both of whom were involved in a 1998 botched escape, from a distance of about 30 feet inside the Terrell Unit, near here. He said prison guards, normally unarmed, had canisters with 37 mm rubberized ammunition and "chemical agents" that could be used if necessary.

The inmates, Ponchai Wilkerson, 28, and Howard Guidry, 23, had two weapons, one of which was a sharpened metal rod and the other is a metal bar used to pry open food slots in cells. Fitzgerald said Wilkerson was standing over the handcuffed officer, Jeannette Bledsoe, whose son is also a guard at the Terrell Unit. "They're facing the death penalty; I'd assume they're very dangerous," he said. But he added that the inmates had not threatened Bledsoe's life. Fitzgerald said Bledsoe was apparently walking Guidry back to his cell from a recreational area inside the unit when they passed Wilkerson's cell. Wilkerson somehow jimmied his door open, and he and Guidry jumped the officer.

Fitzgerald said the two inmates were demanding better conditions, such as increased visitation and less time in isolation cells, where they currently spend 23 hours a day. Ironically, Wilkerson and Guidry are among 112 death row inmates who have been moved to the Terrell Unit from the Ellis Unit near Huntsville because it is said to be more secure. The other 340 death row inmates are scheduled to move to Terrell in the future. 

Part of the reason to move here from Huntsville, about 40 miles away, was a November 1998 escape attempt by seven inmates, including Wilkerson and Guidry. On Thanksgiving weekend in 1998, Martin Gurule, 29, became the first Texas death row inmate to escape in 64 years when he and six others carried out a daring plan that included placing stuffed dummies under bed covers and hiding on top of a roof for hours at night.

Six of the inmates, including Wilkerson and Guidry, surrendered under a hail of gunfire as they approached a perimeter fence. Gurule used bed covers to successfully crawl over the concertina wire on top of the fence. His body was found Dec. 3, 1998, in the creek where he had drowned, about a mile from the prison. Wilkerson, the son of a retired sheriff's deputy, is scheduled for execution March 14. Harris County state District Judge Jan Krocker set the date during a Feb. 8 hearing in which Wilkerson threw a fit. "I will not walk away pretending this is justice and fairness in this court," said Wilkerson. "I've been wronged by these courts. This case is not a capital murder case."

Wilkerson added that one of every three black males in the United States is either in prison, on probation or under some kind of judicial supervision. Wilkerson and Guidry are black. After making his statement, Wilkerson dropped to the floor and appeared to grab a table and other furniture. Though he didn't lash out at deputies, he fought attempts to handcuff him and carry him out of the room. The two deputies in Krocker's court could not move him, so deputies working in nearby courts came to help.

Wilkerson has an extensive history of disciplinary problems behind bars, prison authorities said. He was sentenced to die for the Nov. 28, 1990, robbery-shooting of Chung Myong Yi in a Houston jewelry store. He shot him in the head from less than a foot away and stole a box of jewelry. Wilkerson never denied shooting Yi during the robbery, but he contended he fired the shot after becoming alarmed by the jeweler's movements behind the counter. Wilkerson, who is believed to have committed a string of felonies before shooting Yi, came to death row on Nov. 22, 1991.

Guidry was convicted in a November 1994 murder-for-hire case. Former Missouri City police Officer Robert Fratta was convicted of hiring Guidry to kill his wife, Farah Fratta, outside her Atascocita home. Guidry waited in the victim's home for more than an hour. When Farah Fratta drove into the garage, Guidry shot her in the head. As she lay dying on the floor he leaned over and shot her point-blank in the head, Guidry told police.

Beginning Dec. 31, up to 48 of the more than 100 death row inmates housed at Terrell went on what they said was a hunger strike to protest conditions. But prison officials said none had gone three days without eating. The death row prisoners are isolated from other inmates, locked in their cells 23 hours a day and brought out only to exercise and shower by themselves. At Ellis, death row inmates had more contact with each other and with guards because the cells had bars on the front, instead of the solid steel door used at Terrell. Also in Ellis, the prisoners were allowed to watch television, a perk unavailable to segregated inmates at other Texas prisons, including Terrell, Fitzgerald said.


WED 02/23/2000

Finding a link with two killers
Guard's ordeal lasts 13 hours


The correctional officer held hostage for 13 hours by two death row inmates stayed out of harm's way by seeking common ground with her captors and vowed after her release Tuesday to return to her job. Although shaken, Jeanette Bledsoe, 57, is "a very strong lady," said her former husband, Robert Bledsoe. "Everything has come into focus now. She's breaking down into sobbing, but she'll be all right."

Bledsoe was overpowered by convicted killers Ponchai Wilkerson, 28, and Howard Guidry, 23, about 4 p.m. Monday at the Terrell Unit southwest of here. The two had nearly escaped from the Ellis Unit in 1998 and were among the 112 prisoners recently moved to Terrell, which is supposed to be more secure. Meanwhile, prison officials are trying to figure out if a design flaw made it possible for Wilkerson to jimmy the lock on his cell. He opened the door and jumped on Bledsoe as she escorted Guidry down the hall, and the two overpowered her. 

Another prison guard witnessed the attack but was powerless to intervene, Robert Bledsoe said. Fearful of endangering his co-worker, on the job for a little over three years, he went for help. Armed with two metal bars, the prisoners took Bledsoe to a recreation room, where they handcuffed her, shackled her, then made demands to prison authorities for better conditions.

The tense hostage situation marks at least the third incident in recent months in which convicts at maximum security lockups have apparently jammed their cell door locks. One guard was stabbed to death and another was raped in the two earlier incidents. "There may be a design flaw that allows inmates to violate the locks," said Mac Stringfellow, chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. Stringfellow said prison investigators also are looking at several other factors that led to the Terrell hostage situation, including where Wilkerson and Guidry got the weapons. One prisoner was armed with a 15-inch steel cylinder filed to a point at one end and the other with a tool that guards use to open a narrow food slot on cell doors.

Prison officials said Bledsoe was following proper procedures when the incident occurred and that staffing levels played no role in the incident. Those closest to Bledsoe describe her as a gregarious, matronly figure who is strong with death-row inmates when necessary but also treats them with dignity. "She's a very caring correctional officer," Robert Bledsoe said. "She tries to treat everybody with respect. She feels she is a protector up there more than a guard."

Bledsoe told her family members that she believed if she could get the two inmates to view her as a human being rather than an object of authority, it would be more difficult for them to kill her. Wilkerson has an 8-year-old son. After raising five boys - one of whom is also a prison guard - Bledsoe is now raising a 9-year-old grandson. She and Wilkerson shared stories of parenthood. "He needs me very much. If something were to happen to me, I don't know what would happen to him," Robert Bledsoe quoted his ex-wife as saying to Wilkerson. They talked about childhoods and their common experiences in the Houston area.

The plan apparently worked. Only once did Bledsoe fear death was imminent. About five hours into the standoff, Guidry and Wilkerson became concerned that a squad of five guards was preparing to storm the day room. Wilkerson jabbed Bledsoe with the sharpened metal bar as he ordered the guards to back off, Robert Bledsoe said. "She felt like (he) was going to stick her," he said.

The hostage situation was resolved peacefully about 5 a.m. after three anti-execution activists from Houston were invited to the Terrell Unit by the Texas Department of Public Safety. For about an hour, the community activists negotiated with prison officials about how to end the standoff. A deal was made that the inmates would get to speak with the community activists, led by Deloyd Parker, executive director and founder of the SHAPE Community Center. When the group went to the area where Bledsoe was being held, they said they saw hundreds of police and guards dressed in riot gear. Bledsoe, they said, was sitting on a mattress.

Kofi Taharka, chairman of the Houston chapter of the National Black United Front, said that when the inmates saw him and his colleagues, they exchanged the raised fist of the black power movement. Then they removed Bledsoe's handcuffs, helped her up and released her to authorities. The inmates turned their weapons over to the officers and surrendered. "They told us they wanted to call attention to the inhumane conditions," Taharka said. "They were crying out. They had been on a hunger strike that received very little attention." He added, "They feel some level of remorse that things had to get to this point."

A spokesman for Gov. George W. Bush said the governor, campaigning for president in Michigan, was "pleased this crisis was resolved without any serious bodily harm." However, Bush spokesman Mike Jones added that the governor would not reconsider his decision not to call a special session of the Legislature to address critical guard shortages or their low pay. "We're always going to have problems, even if we had all the money and staff we needed," Stringfellow said. "It's inherent with the nature of prisons. Any time you lock up bad people in bad places, you're going to have bad things happen."

Guidry earned his cell on death row after he was convicted in the November 1994 slaying of Farah Fratta, the wife of a former Missouri City police officer. Wilkerson, the son of a retired sheriff's deputy, is scheduled to die March 14 for the Nov. 28, 1990, murder of Chung Myong Yi, a clerk in a Houston jewelry store. The fact that Wilkerson is so close to his execution date terrified the Bledsoe family. "Desperate people do desperate things," Robert Bledsoe said. "I think she was very lucky to get out of this alive." Although she is shaken, Jeanette Bledsoe is resolute about returning to the job. "Her last words when she left there were, `They may think they have scared me away, but I'll be back,' " Robert Bledsoe said.


FRI 02/25/2000

Former lawman freed after winning acquittal

A judge Thursday signed an acquittal order freeing former law officer Bill Planter, whose conviction for soliciting a murder was overturned. Planter, 52, appeared before state District Judge Brian Rains while his wife and children sat in the courtroom. "He seemed dazed," said Planter's attorney, Brian Wice. "His family and friends were ecstatic. They thought he was coming home several years ago. "The first thing he wants to do is hug his wife and then have a home-cooked meal."

Planter was convicted in May 1996 of trying to persuade a murdered woman's father to pay him to kill Robert Fratta, a former Missouri City police officer, for revenge. Fratta is on death row for arranging the murder of his estranged wife, Farah, who was shot in the garage of her Atascocita home Nov. 9, 1994. Fratta was about to lose custody of his three children to his wife, who had filed for divorce.

A jury in Rains' court convicted Planter of solicitation of capital murder, and he was sentenced to 17 years in prison. An appeals court reversed the conviction, saying the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict. After prosecutors obtained a rehearing, the appeals court reversed itself and affirmed the conviction. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals then reversed the trial court again and entered the judgment of acquittal Feb. 9. Prosecutors were denied a rehearing, and Rains was ordered to sign the acquittal order.

"I don't recall this (the state losing an appeal) ever happening here except once in the early 1970s," said District Attorney John B. Holmes Jr. "We were convinced he was engaged in the conduct (of soliciting murder). "But the decision appears to be that we did not have sufficient evidence." Wice said, "As an appellate lawyer, I see more rejection than an out-of-work actor. But in this case, the indictment alleged one thing and the state proved another."

Farah Fratta's father, Lex Baquer, and his wife, Betty, took up the custody fight after her killing, and a civil court judge found Robert Fratta an unfit parent. Planter, of Huffman, then contacted Lex Baquer and laid out a plan to kill Fratta. Baquer notified officers, who recorded his meetings and phone calls with Planter. Testimony showed that Planter, who once worked for the Harris County Sheriff's Department and was briefly Splendora's police chief, asked Baquer for $10,000 and vowed that Fratta's body would never be found. But appeals courts said the jury's finding that Planter tried to get Baquer to let him kill Fratta was incorrect. Instead, they said, the evidence showed that Planter only "asked" Baquer to pay him to kill Fratta.


SAT 02/26/2000

Ex-officer out of prison, telling Texas goodbye

After spending four years in a state prison for a crime he says he did not commit, former law enforcement officer Bill Planter savored his new-found freedom Friday but said the experience would drive him from Texas, his home for 37 years. Planter, a former Harris County sheriff's deputy and one-time police chief of Splendora, was released from prison Thursday after his May 1996 conviction for soliciting capital murder was overturned by an appeals court.

A jury found that in December 1994, Planter approached Lex Baquer, the father of Farah Fratta, who was slain in her Atascocita home. According to testimony, Planter offered to kill Fratta's husband, a former Missouri City public safety officer, who Planter said had ordered her death. Fratta was shot twice in the head at her home in November 1994. Robert Fratta, her estranged husband who was battling for custody of their three young children, is on Texas' death row for arranging the slaying.

Sitting in his lawyer's downtown Houston office, sporting a brand new pair of cowboy boots and clutching the hand of his wife, Kathy, Planter vehemently denied he ever offered to kill Fratta, claiming instead that it was Baquer who brought up the subject. He had contacted Baquer before Fratta was arrested, Planter said, because "I felt sorry for the man" and had information that Fratta was involved in the crime. The men met on two occasions and on one of them Baquer raised the possibility of killing Fratta. "He approached me with wanting to kill him and I said `Uh, Uh, Uh Whoa!,' " Planter said. "It caught me off guard. I didn't say yes and I didn't say no. I said I would make some phone calls. I was going to go straight to the sheriff."

Baquer said Friday he met twice with Planter in December 1994, once at a Mexican restaurant near Greenspoint Mall and once at a pizza restaurant in Humble. At both meetings, Baquer said, he was carrying a cellular telephone with a microphone in it that had been supplied by police and that they were taping the conversations. At the second meeting, Baquer said, Planter offered to kill Fratta. "I said `How much is it going to cost?' and he said `$10,000'," Baquer said. "I said `How are you going to do it?' and he said he would cut his throat and cut open his stomach and that he would then fill it and every hole in Fratta's body with dynamite and blow it to smithereens. There would be nothing left."

Planter was arrested after that conversation. Trial testimony showed that at the time of his arrest, explosives, guns and a knife were found in his car. A jury in state District Judge Brian Rains' court convicted Planter of solicitation of capital murder and sentenced him to 17 years in prison, but the conviction was reversed by an appeals court that found there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict.

The conviction was then reaffirmed after prosecutors won a rehearing by the appeals court, but it was reversed again by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which entered a judgment of acquittal Feb. 9. On Thursday Rains signed the order releasing Planter. The appeals court found the jury erred in finding that Planter had tried to get Baquer to allow him to kill Fratta, when the evidence showed that Planter had only "asked" Baquer to pay him to kill Fratta.

"Some people will probably says that a guilty man walked on a technicality," said Brian Wice, Planter's attorney. "I can say that is absolutely not the case. The appeals court found quite simply that no rational juror could have determined beyond a reasonable doubt that Bill Planter was guilty. Period. Paragraph."

Planter said Friday he was "framed" and set up by Harris County deputies and detectives who took umbrage at comments he made to Baquer about the job they were doing in trying to solve the case. He said he knew, at the second meeting with Baquer, that he was being set up, but he went ahead with it because "I wasn't doing anything illegal." The entire experience, he said, has forced him and his wife to decide to leave Texas. "I've been an election judge for both the Republicans and the Democrats," he said. "I was chairman of my civic club. I worked for police departments. I helped kids in the neighborhood. Then I go to help this fellow and I wake up and I'm sitting in a prison cell. I'm going to sell what I own in Texas and I'm moving out of the state."

For his part, Baquer said he is disappointed that Planter did not serve more time, but he never expected him to serve the full 17 years. "For his sake, I hope that he has learned his lesson," Baquer said. "I just want him to leave me alone. We have gone through a lot of trauma and we just want to be left alone."


TUE 03/21/2000

Supreme Court rejects appeals by ex-officer

The U.S. Supreme Court turned down the appeal of former Missouri City police Officer Robert Fratta, who is on death row for arranging the murder of his estranged wife. The court turned back Fratta's appeal without comment. He promised $3,000 to Howard Guidry, who was then 17, to kill Farah Fratta, 34, with whom he was locked in a custody battle over their three children. Guidry shot her twice in the head at her Atascocita home on Nov. 9, 1994.


TUE 10/03/2000

Jurists reject appeals

The appeals of eight condemned Texas inmates, including two from Harris County, were rejected without comment Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the Harris County cases involves Howard Paul Guidry, 24, convicted as the triggerman in the November 1994 murder for hire of 34-year-old Farah Fratta. Fratta was shot twice in the head in the garage of her home. Her husband, a former police officer, was convicted of masterminding the plot to kill her and also is on death row.


SAT 09/27/2003

New trial ordered in '94 murder case / Convicted hit man says he was tricked

A federal judge ordered a new trial Friday for the man convicted of the 1994 murder-for-hire of Farah Fratta after determining that police tricked him into making a confession and that hearsay testimony contributed to his conviction. U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore ordered that Howard Paul Guidry be released from death row if the state failed to conduct a new trial within 180 days. Guidry, 27, was convicted March 21, 1997, as the triggerman in the murder of Fratta, 34, in a plot masterminded by her husband, former Missouri City public safety officer Robert Fratta. Her body was found in the garage of her home with two bullet wounds in the head.

"It's extremely rare, especially in Texas," Guidry's lawyer, Kenneth Williams, said about the decision. "I'm ecstatic." He said Guidry had not been informed of the decision and would probably learn about it through the news media. Evidence at trial showed that Fratta's husband hired Joseph Andrew Prystash to carry out the killing. Prystash's girlfriend testified during the trial that Prystash told her that he had agreed to pay Guidry $1,000 to assist him and that Guidry had fired the fatal shots. Robert Fratta and Prystash were both convicted of capital murder and are on death row.

In her order, Gilmore found that sheriff's deputies refused to allow Guidry to see his attorney during interrogation, even after he demanded that he be allowed to do so. At one point, Harris County sheriff's Deputy Jim Hoffman left the room, then returned saying he had spoken with Guidry's lawyer. Hoffman told Guidry that his lawyer had given him permission to speak to police, and Guidry confessed.

Hoffman repeated the story in the trial judge's chambers, but Guidry's lawyer later said he had not been contacted by deputies and had not given them permission to speak to his client. "This testimony suggested that the police feigned a conversation with counsel in order to trick Guidry into confessing," Gilmore wrote. She also found that testimony by Prystash's girlfriend should not have been allowed because she was merely repeating statement's made to her by Prystash. Guidry's attorneys therefore had no chance to cross-examine him. Her testimony was the primary evidence linking Guidry to the slaying, Williams said.

Williams said prosecutors will have little evidence against Guidry without the confession and the testimony from Prystash's girlfriend. He said it was likely that prosecutors would appeal the decision. A spokesman for the Harris County district attorney's office could not be reached late Friday.

Guidry's victory comes in his second round of appeals. His first round went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case in 2000. His attorney had raised 25 issues, including prosecutorial misconduct, Williams said. Williams then began a second round of appeals on the confession and hearsay issues.


TUE 09/30/2003

DAs move to appeal killer's retrial
Judge ruled Guidry was tricked into confessing murder-for-hire


Harris County prosecutors have asked the state attorney general's office to appeal a federal judge's order of a new trial for a death row inmate convicted in the 1994 murder-for-hire of a Missouri City policeman's wife. "I have spoken to the head of the division that handles the case, and we will send a written request," Assistant District Attorney Roe Wilson said Monday.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore on Friday ordered Howard Paul Guidry retried within 180 days or released from prison. Attorney general spokesman Jerry Strickland said his office received the appeal request and would decide before the 30-day deadline for appealing to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Guidry, 27, was convicted of being the triggerman in the shooting of Farah Fratta, 34, in a plot masterminded by her husband, former Missouri City police officer Robert Fratta. Robert Fratta and Joseph Andrew Prystash, whom Fratta hired to carry out the killing, were convicted of capital murder and are on death row.

"I am surprised at what has happened," said the victim's father, Lex Baquer, 70, of Humble. He said he couldn't form an opinion about Gilmore's order until he speaks with prosecutors and investigators. Gilmore ruled that a Harris County sheriff's investigator tricked Guidry into confessing and that hearsay testimony from Prystash's girlfriend should not have been admitted. Wilson said the trial court had found that Guidry had been informed at least five times of his right to counsel but never asked for an attorney.

Gilmore found that Guidry had asked more than once to see his attorney but was denied the opportunity. She also said a sheriff's official told Guidry during his interrogation that his attorney advised that he speak with the deputies. Guidry began doing so and eventually confessed, Gilmore's order said. She also said the trial court should have disallowed hearsay testimony by Mary Gipp, Prystash's girlfriend, that Prystash paid Guidry $1,000 to assist in the killing and that he shot Fratta twice in the head. Normally, witnesses may not testify about things they did not see.

Wilson said the state 9th Court of Appeals had found that allowing the testimony might have been an error but could be allowed because it was backed up by other testimony.


FRI 10/03/2003

State appeals order for hit man's retrial
DA office had asked for help keeping Guidry on death row


In an effort to keep Howard Paul Guidry on death row, the state attorney general's office on Thursday sought to overturn a federal judge's order granting Guidry a new trial. The office appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in response to a request Monday by the Harris County district attorney's office, which convinced a jury to convict Guidry on March 21, 1997. "I'm glad that the attorney general appealed, and I think it's an opinion that needs to be appealed," said Assistant District Attorney Roe Wilson.

Guidry's attorney, Kenneth Anthony Williams, said he expected the appeal. The attorney general's office declined to comment. Guidry, 27, was sentenced to death for killing 34-year-old Farah Fratta, who was found in her garage with two bullet wounds in her head. The 1994 killing was plotted by her husband, former Missouri City police officer Robert Fratta, who hired Joseph Andrew Prystash to carry it out. Prystash hired Guidry. Fratta and Prystash also were convicted of capital murder and are on death row.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore ordered on Sept. 26 that Guidry be freed from prison if the state fails to give him a new trial within 180 days. She concluded that he had been tricked into confessing and that hearsay evidence had been used to convict him. "The judge found that the detectives were liars," said another of Guidry's attorneys, Robert Rosenberg. Williams said Guidry was "overjoyed" to hear of Gilmore's order. No execution date had been set for Guidry. Williams added that he believes Guidry's chances are good. "Judge Gilmore wrote a very strong opinion, and her reasoning was very much justified," he said. Unfavorable to Guidry, however, is the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' reputation for being unfriendly to death penalty appeals, he said.

Each side will submit a series of briefs to a three-judge panel in a process that may take from a year to a year and a half before a decision is issued, Williams said. The losing side can ask to be heard by all 19 members of the 5th Circuit, then can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Williams said he doubts the Supreme Court would hear an appeal because the case has no constitutional questions to be settled. "Essentially, there's not much recourse if he were to lose this," he said.

Gilmore concluded that a Harris County sheriff's investigator had ignored Guidry's request to see his attorney, then lied to him, telling him that his lawyer had given him permission to speak with police. Guidry eventually confessed. The judge also found that the trial court should not have allowed the hearsay testimony of Prystash's girlfriend, Mary Gipp, who testified that Prystash had told her he paid Guidry $1,000 to assist in the killing and that Guidry fired the fatal bullets. Wilson disagreed, saying testimony showed that Guidry was asked five times if he wanted to see his lawyer. She also said the state Court of Criminal Appeals found that Gipp's testimony was allowable.


TUE 01/18/2005

Appeals court supports retrial order
Houston judge ruled that a man on death row for a '94 killing didn't get a fair trial


A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling granting a new trial to a man sentenced to death in a murder-for-hire plot. Howard Paul Guidry, 28, was put on death row in 1997 for killing Farah Fratta, 34. She was found Nov. 9, 1994, in her garage in north Harris County with two bullet wounds in the head. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, on Friday upheld a ruling made Sept. 26, 2003, by U.S District Judge Vanessa Gilmore that Guidry was denied access to an attorney and that inadmissible evidence was allowed to be used against him during his trial.

"I am very happy with the ruling. I am happy that the federal courts have upheld his constitutional rights and realize he did not receive a fair trial," Guidry's attorney, Kenneth Anthony Williams, said Monday. Assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler declined to comment on the ruling.

The killing was plotted by the victim's husband, former Missouri City police Officer Robert Fratta, 47, who hired Joseph Andrew Prystash to carry it out. Prystash, 48, hired Guidry. Fratta and Prystash also were convicted of capital murder and are on death row. 

Gilmore ruled that a Harris County sheriff's investigator had ignored Guidry's request to see his attorney, then lied to him, telling him that his lawyer had given him permission to speak with police. Guidry eventually confessed. The judge also found that the trial court should not have allowed the hearsay testimony of Prystash's girlfriend, Mary Gipp, who testified that Prystash had told her he paid Guidry $1,000 to assist in the killing and that Guidry fired the fatal bullets.

Harris County prosecutors appealed Gilmore's ruling. Williams said the state can ask for a rehearing on the matter with the full 5th Circuit, can appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, can retry Guidry or drop the charges. Williams said he has not yet been able to contact Guidry to tell him about the decision


WED 10/26/2005

Appeals court urges trial for inmate on death row
Judges uphold ruling that found man was tricked into confessing


A sharply divided federal appeals court let stand Tuesday a lower court's order that death row inmate Howard Paul Guidry be given a new trial because he was tricked into giving a confession. The majority on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals took the unusual step of writing an opinion accusing the seven dissenting members, the most conservative and most often at odds with the U.S. Supreme Court on death penalty cases, of mischaracterizing the evidence and the law. A three-judge appeals panel in January affirmed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore that Guidry deserved a new trial because he was deceived into making a confession and hearsay testimony contributed to the conviction.

Guidry, 29, was convicted March 21, 1997, in Harris County state court as the triggerman in the murder of Farah Fratta, 34, in a plot masterminded by her husband, former Missouri City public safety officer Robert Fratta. Fratta was accused of hiring Joseph Prystash to carry out the killing. Prosecutors said Prystash hired Guidry. Fratta and Prystash were convicted of capital murder and are on death row.

Gilmore found that sheriff's deputies refused to allow Guidry to see his attorney, then lied, saying his attorney had given him permission to talk.

After the ruling by the appeals panel, the Texas Attorney General's Office, which represents Harris County prosecutors in federal appeals, asked for an "en banc" hearing, or a hearing by the entire appeals court. The court voted nine to seven to deny the hearing. The opinion was issued Tuesday. Reached in the evening, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office said attorneys associated with the case were unavailable.

Kenneth Williams, one of Guidry's attorneys, said his client would get a new trial unless prosecutors persuaded the Supreme Court to hear an appeal. "I would be very shocked if that happened," he said, because the case has neither national importance nor involves a disagreement between appeals courts.

U.S. Circuit Judge Rhesa Barksdale, writing for the majority, said the majority rarely writes an opinion in denying an en banc review, but an opinion was needed because the dissent "is wide of the mark."

The dissent, written by U.S. Circuit Judge Edith Jones, accused the majority of creating "legal mischief" by failing to abide by the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which said federal courts should defer to state courts.

Barksdale pointed out that the Supreme Court, in a ruling that was widely seen as a rebuke to the 5th Circuit, ruled earlier this year that the law does not require federal courts to defer to state courts in cases of obvious injustice. Along with Jones, the dissent was joined by Judges Edith Clement, Emilio Garza, Priscilla Owen, E. Grady Jolly, Jerry Smith and Harold DeMoss. Garza was the dissenting member of the three-judge panel that agreed with Gilmore. The other two were Barksdale and James Dennis.


Tue 03/21/2006

New trial likely for condemned
Justices refuse to hear DA's appeals of federal ruling


Two death-row inmates were virtually ensured new trials Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear appeals by the state. The refusal means the Harris County District Attorney's Office must retry Howard Paul Guidry, 29, and Martin Allen Draughon, 42, or set them free.

"I feel gratified by that," said Kenneth Williams, one of Guidry's attorneys. "It's been a long battle."

Assistant Harris County District Attorney Roe Wilson said her office had not decided whether to retry the two. Guidry was sentenced to death in the 1994 murder-for-hire slaying of Farah Fratta, 34, in a plot masterminded by her husband, former Missouri City public safety officer Robert Fratta. Fratta hired Joseph Prystash to carry out the killing. Prystash's girlfriend testified during the trial that Prystash told her that he paid Guidry $1,000 to assist him.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore ruled Sept. 26, 2003, that a sheriff's deputy refused to allow Guidry to see his attorney. The deputy left the room and came back and lied, saying he had spoken with Guidry's attorney and received permission to question him, the judge found. Guidry confessed after about five hours of questioning. Gilmore also threw out the testimony by Prystash's girlfriend as hearsay evidence. The confession and the testimony, key to Guidry's conviction, would not be allowed as evidence in a new trial, Williams said.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Gilmore's decision. A rehearing by the full court was denied. Prosecutors have 180 days to try Guidry or must set him free, according to Gilmore's order.


Tue 01/30/2007

Jury selection starts in new trial for Guidry

Jury selection begins today in the retrial of a 30-year-old man whose 1997 capital murder conviction in the death of Farah Fratta was overturned by a federal judge. Testimony in Howard Paul Guidry's trial is expected to start Feb. 19.

In a hearing Monday, visiting state District Judge Doug Shaver ruled against Guidry's defense team, which had asked for a continuance to investigate the claims of a jail inmate scheduled to testify that Guidry confessed to him. In 1997, Guidry was convicted as the triggerman and sentenced to death in the 1994 murder-for-hire plot.

Robert Fratta, a former Missouri City public safety officer, hired Joseph Prystash to carry out the killing of his wife. Prystash's girlfriend testified during the trial that Prystash told her that he paid Guidry $1,000 to assist him. Fratta and Prystash, both convicted of capital murder, are on death row.

In 2004, a federal judge ruled that Guidry deserved a new trial because he was tricked into confessing. The judge also said hearsay testimony contributed to the conviction. Guidry has been in custody since his arrest in 1995.


Tue 02/20/2007

Victim's children witness retrial of slaying suspect
Grandfather says they haven't had contact with father since he was put on death row in plot


Thirteen years after Farah Fratta was gunned down, her three children are watching the death penalty trial of the man accused of being hired to shoot her. The trial of Howard Paul Guidry continues today, as prosecutors work to piece together the lives of Robert Fratta and his wife, Farah, and her last days.

This is Guidry's second trial. In 1997, Guidry was convicted as the man who shot Farah Fratta twice in the head. He was sentenced to death in the 1994 murder-for-hire plot concocted by Robert Fratta, a former Missouri City public safety officer. Robert Fratta hired Joseph Prystash, who hired Guidry, prosecutors said Monday. Fratta and Prystash have been convicted and sentenced to death. In 2004, a federal judge ruled that Guidry deserved a new trial because he was tricked into confessing. The judge also said hearsay testimony contributed to his conviction.

Because some of the 1997 trial's evidence has been excluded, this trial will have different evidence, including tapes of jail phone calls Guidry made and testimony by a prison informer.

A more striking difference is the presence of the Fratta children, who are planning to watch segments of the trial. The couple's three children, now 16, 18 and 20, sat with Farah Fratta's parents, who raised them after her death. They were 3, 6 and 8 when their mother was killed. "This is the opportunity for them to find out," Lex Baquer said of his grandchildren's attendance. "They asked us many times (what happened)."

Baquer said the children haven't had any contact with their father since he was put on death row. He said a family law judge determined that it wouldn't be in the children's best interest. Baquer said the children were particularly interested in seeing Guidry's trial, because he is accused of being the gunman.

Prosecutors quietly asked the children and their grandparents to leave the courtroom before graphic photos of Fratta's body were shown. The children declined to comment on the case, except to say they were curious about the details.

And although this is the first time the children have heard evidence that their father hired someone to kill their mother rather than face a custody hearing in a messy divorce, this is the fourth trial Baquer has watched. Monday morning, tears welled in his eyes as he talked about his daughter. "Their mother was a beautiful lady. She loved the children," he said. "When she walked into a room, it just lit up."

Testimony Monday included three men from Robert Fratta's gym and tanning salon who said Fratta asked them if they knew anyone who could kill his wife. Police who responded to the scene and processed the evidence and witnesses to the gunshots also testified. Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler told jurors in opening statements that Guidry killed Farah Fratta for the love of money. "Today, all these years later," Siegler said, "he's as guilty now as he was back then." Siegler said Fratta's offer for the shooting was $1,010, a Jeep and the murder weapon.


Wed 02/21/2007

Witness: `I just turned my back'
Killer's girlfriend at the time says she did nothing to stop the contract hit on Atascocita woman


A woman who says she knew her boyfriend and another man planned to harm Farah Fratta wept Tuesday as she admitted doing nothing to prevent Fratta's murder. "I just didn't want any part of it," Mary Gipp McNeil told jurors. "I just turned my back." McNeil, of The Woodlands, testified in the capital murder trial of Howard Paul Guidry, a former neighbor who is accused of being the trigger man in the 1994 slaying of Fratta.

Guidry, 30, was sentenced to death in 1997. A federal judge overturned the conviction in 2004, ruling that Guidry had been tricked into confessing and that hearsay testimony had contributed to the conviction. Harris County prosecutors are again seeking a death sentence against Guidry, who has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Tyrone Moncriffe, and prosecutors said they expect testimony in the trial's guilt/innocence phase to be completed today in the court of visiting Judge Doug Shaver.

The victim's husband, Robert Fratta, and another man are on death row for their roles in the hired killing. Prosecutors said Fratta, who was a Missouri City public safety officer, hired Joseph Prystash to kill his wife and that Prystash hired Guidry to help him. Farah Fratta was found shot to death at her Atascocita home on Nov. 9, 1994.

McNeil, who was Prystash's girlfriend at the time, testified that she knew about the plot but didn't tell police or try to stop Prystash from going through with it. She later told her brother that the pair had killed Farah Fratta, she testified. McNeil said Prystash emptied spent shell casings from a pistol in her bedroom the night of the shooting, hid the gun among his clothes in her bedroom and then threw the casings in her kitchen garbage can. She said she retrieved the casings and later threw them in a garbage can at a shopping mall.

She also wrote down the serial number of the .38-caliber pistol because, she said, she knew police would need the evidence. She gave them that information later and was granted immunity from prosecution on condition that she tell police all she knew about the killing. Prosecutors said Guidry was arrested with the gun that was used to kill Farah Fratta.


Thu 02/22/2007

'She was my baby,' victim's father says
Dad apologizes for tears in retrial of alleged hit man in contract killing


Lex Baquer apologized to jurors Wednesday for shedding tears as he testified in the trial of the man accused of murdering his daughter. "She was my baby," Baquer said, wiping his eyes as he recounted the 1994 hired killing of Farah Fratta.

The woman's husband and another man remain on death row for their roles in the slaying, but Howard Paul Guidry, accused of being the triggerman, is on trial a second time. His original capital murder conviction was overturned. The defense and prosecution rested their cases Wednesday and jurors are expected to begin deliberating today after hearing closing arguments. Guidry, 30, has pleaded not guilty. He received a death sentence in his first trial and could return to death row if convicted again.

In his brief testimony, Baquer recounted going to his daughter's home in Atascocita, in northeast Harris County, after she was shot twice in the head Nov. 9, 1994. He said paramedics were trying to help her as she lay on the garage floor. "I could see she was having convulsions," said Baquer, 73. "She was shaking."

Fratta, 33, died a short time later. She had been in the midst of a bitter divorce and child custody battle with her husband, Robert Fratta, a Missouri City public safety officer. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for hiring Joseph Prystash to commit the murder. Prosecutors say Prystash, who also was condemned to death, hired Guidry.

A federal judge overturned Guidry's 1997 conviction in 2004, ruling that Guidry had been tricked into confessing and that hearsay testimony had contributed to the conviction.

Also on Wednesday, Scott Basinger, associate dean of graduate studies at the Baylor College of Medicine, testified that Guidry told him in 1997 that he had shot Farah Fratta. Basinger said Guidry made the statement during an interview before his original trial. Two men who are serving sentences in Texas prisons also testified that they knew Guidry. Neandre Perry, 33, who is scheduled for release soon after serving more than 12 years for aggravated robbery, said Guidry gave him a .38-caliber pistol. Prosecutors say that pistol had been used to kill Farah Fratta. Kenno Deshawn Henderson, 30, serving a 25-year sentence for aggravated robbery, testified he heard Guidry say that a man owed him $1,000. Prosecutors maintain that Prystash and Guidry expected to receive about $1,000, a Jeep and the pistol for carrying out the killing.


Fri 02/23/2007

Man convicted second time in murder-for-hire

A man was convicted of capital murder a second time in the murder-for-hire killing of the estranged wife of a former Missouri City public safety officer. Howard Paul Guidry, 30, showed no emotion as visiting Judge Doug Shaver announced the verdict Thursday.

The penalty phase of the trial begins Monday morning. Guidry faces the death penalty in connection with the 1994 killing of Farah Fratta, 33. The 10-man, two-woman jury deliberated for about two hours.

"We're very happy that he got what he deserved," Lex Baquer, Fratta's father, said after the verdict was announced. He hugged prosecutor Kelly Siegler. Defense attorneys declined to comment.


Fri 03/02/2007

Second jury chooses death in 1994 killing
Defense hoping for one more reversal in case of slaying for hire


After seeing her mother's killer condemned to death for a second time, a 16-year-old girl hugged her grandmother Thursday in a Houston courtroom. "I feel better," said Amber Baquer. "It's just a relief. It's over."

Howard Paul Guidry, 30, showed no emotion as visiting Judge Doug Shaver read the sentence. Jurors had convicted him Feb. 22 of capital murder in the 1994 shooting of Farah Fratta. The jury of 10 men and two women deliberated about two hours Thursday before deciding on the sentence.

Guidry was convicted and sentenced to death in 1997, but a federal judge tossed out the conviction, saying Guidry had been tricked into confessing and that hearsay evidence in his first trial may have contributed to his conviction. As is automatic in death-penalty cases, the verdict will be appealed. "It got reversed once," said defense attorney Loretta Muldrow. "It'll be reversed again."

Prosecutor Kelly Siegler said Guidry belongs on death row. He nearly escaped from prison in 1998, she said, and he and another condemned killer held a guard hostage for 13 hours in 2000 before surrendering. Defense attorney Tyrone Moncriffe pleaded for a life sentence, saying Guidry would suffer plenty because of the guilt he would feel over the years. "I'm going to ask that you not be a killer," Moncriffe told jurors. "You don't have to kill anyone, folks."

Investigators said the victim's husband, Robert Fratta, a public safety officer in Missouri City, arranged his 33-year-old wife's murder. The couple was going through a bitter divorce and custody battle for their three children. Fratta hired Joseph Prystash, who hired Guidry. Prosecutors say Guidry attacked Farah Fratta in the garage of her northeast Harris County home and shot her with a .38-caliber pistol. Robert Fratta and Prystash are on death row for their roles in the killing.

After their mother's death, the Frattas' children were raised by their maternal grandparents, Lex and Betty Baquer. The family sat together in the courtroom during Guidry's retrial. Although it was emotionally draining to again hear details of the killing, they said, they were happy with the trial's outcome. "It's the end, as far we're concerned," Lex Baquer said.


Tue 10/02/2007

New trial ordered in wife-killing case
Judge says trial was tainted by actions of DA in '96 contract slaying conviction


Citing what she describes as "constitutionally inadequate testimony," a federal judge has ordered a new trial for Robert Fratta, the former Missouri City public safety officer sentenced to death for masterminding the 1994 fatal shooting of his wife. Laying fault with the practices of Harris County prosecutors and detectives, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon stated prosecutors "misused" hearsay evidence and investigators "blatantly violated" the suspected triggerman's civil rights in order to obtain a confession.

In 1996, Fratta was convicted of arranging the contract murder of his wife, Farah, then 33. Prosecutors contend that Fratta had his wife killed after she filed for divorce and demanded he pay child support for their three children. Fratta also told several people that he wanted to have his wife murdered. Additionally, he tried to collect on his wife's $235,000 life insurance policy days after her death. Fratta and his two alleged accomplices were all sentenced to death.

On Monday, Farah's father, Lex Baquer, said he and his wife were "shocked" by Harmon's ruling. "This has brought a lot of pain to our family."

The evidence against Fratta included a confession from Howard Guidry, whom prosecutors said was the shooter. Guidry had been arrested following a bank robbery and was discovered to have a pistol that was traced back to Fratta. Guidry's lawyers claimed that during the interrogation investigators falsely told him they received permission from his attorney to question him. Guidry then confessed to shooting Farah Fratta - a job for which he had been promised $1,000 but had never received.

Harris County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Danny Billingsley, the lead investigator in the Fratta case, on Monday denied any wrongdoing by detectives. "That is blatantly untrue," Billingsley said. "The man was (advised) of his rights no less than five times."

In her tersely worded 49-page opinion, Harmon stated that "police deception alone secured Guidry's cooperation." Harmon was also skeptical of the circumstances of the confession of Joseph Prystash, who was convicted of being the middleman in the murder-for-hire scheme. While in custody, Prystash confessed to being the getaway driver, after being confronted with Guidry's confession linking him to the killing.

In her opinion, Harmon wrote that both Prystash's and Guidry's confessions "laid heavy blame on Fratta and strongly implicated him in the capital murder while minimizing (their own) involvement and intent. The content of the statements ... does not lead to a high level of confidence," Harmon stated.

Nor, in the judge's estimation, did the testimony of Prystash's girlfriend, Mary Gipp, concerning statements Prystash made to her about the killing, including that he had gone to get $1,000 from Fratta. The judge described as "hearsay-laden" and "inadmissible" the testimony given by Gipp - testimony that the prosecution had labeled as crucial during the opening arguments of Fratta's trial. "The improperly admitted testimony more than superficially impacted the jury's consideration of whether the alleged Fratta-Prystash-Guidry plot involved a murder for remuneration," wrote the judge. In other words, that evidence was so critical to the trial, "it tainted it," said Phillip Hilder, one of Fratta's attorneys.

Harmon's ruling is the second time the federal courts have found that elements of the Fratta case did not pass constitutional muster. In 2005, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Guidry's conviction. The court, like Harmon, cited questionable investigative tactics and hearsay evidence.

In February, Guidry was convicted a second time and again sentenced to death. Fratta's attorneys say prosecutors had other evidence linking Guidry to the slaying. "The prosecution only had to show at trial that Guidry was the triggerman, and he was found with the murder weapon on him," said James Rytting, another of Fratta's appellate attorneys. If there is a retrial of Fratta, Harmon's ruling will make it much more difficult to prove that there was a murder-for-hire, his attorneys said.

The Fratta trial was originally prosecuted by assistant district attorneys Casey O'Brien and Kelly Siegler. O'Brien has since retired. Siegler declined to comment, saying that she had not yet reviewed Harmon's opinion. While Harmon was critical of the methods of both prosecutor and investigators, she also called Fratta "far from sympathetic. The trial evidence showed Fratta to be egotistical, misogynistic, and vile, with a callous desire to kill his wife," Harmon wrote. "The evidence strongly suggested that Fratta was somehow involved in his wife's death. Nevertheless, the Constitution places high demands on a state's ability to carry out the ultimate punishment - and those standards have not been met in this case."


Wed 07/23/2008

Court rules ex-officer can be retried

Upholding a lower court's ruling that inadmissible testimony put him on death row, a former police officer convicted for his part in a scheme to kill his wife 14 years ago may get a retrial, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday. Robert Fratta, a former Missouri City public safety officer, was convicted in 1996 of persuading Joseph Prystash to hire Howard Guidry to kill Farah Fratta, then 33.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon who said prosecutors "misused" hearsay evidence and investigators "blatantly violated" civil rights to get a confession. "What happened at trial was a classic case of prosecutorial overreaching," said James Rytting, one of Robert Fratta's appellate attorneys.

Kelly Siegler, who prosecuted the three men, defended her actions. She said the trial judge approved of her actions and juries convicted the three in separate trials - then sentenced them to death. 

This is the second time prosecutors and police have been admonished for their actions in the Farah Fratta case. In 2005, Guidry was granted a new trial. Siegler reconvicted Guidry last year on new evidence. Although he was sentenced to death again, his attorneys said the second conviction would also be thrown out. Siegler said she would return to the Harris County District Attorney's office to prosecute Fratta again, if asked. "There are many, many qualified people in that office who could do it, but I've tried this case four times now and would do it again," Siegler said. "It just makes me sick."

A 21-year-veteran of the DA's office, Siegler quit after her bid for the top job ended when she lost the Republican nomination to Pat Lycos. Ken Magidson, the interim district attorney, declined to comment on the Fratta decision or Siegler's offer because the case remains in the federal court system.

Procedurally, the Texas attorney general's office defends the conviction in federal court. Next, the attorney general can ask the Fifth Circuit for a rehearing or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the arguments.


Sun 03/29/2009

RETRIAL For slaying suspect, an unlikely 2nd chance Appeal leaves prosecutors with no confessions for husband's new murder trial fratta: Previous testimony ‘hearsay'

Major events in the fratta case

Nov. 9, 1994: Farah Fratta is found shot to death in her driveway in Atascocita. Her estranged husband, Robert, a public safety officer in Missouri City, is publicly named as a suspect shortly after the murder.

April 21, 1995: Robert Fratta is charged with capital murder. He is accused of hiring two men, Howard Guidry and Joseph Prystash.

April 17, 1996: A jury finds Fratta guilty of capital mur-der. He is sentenced to die.

July 10, 1996: Joseph Prystash is charged with hiring Howard Guidry to kill Farah, and with driving Guidry to the home.

March 26, 1997: Trigger-man Guidry is sentenced to death for shooting Farah.

Sept. 26, 2003: A federal court overturns the conviction of Guidry. An appeals court upholds the reversal in January 2005.

Feb. 22, 2007: Guidry is again convicted of killing Farah and sent back to death row.

Oct. 1, 2007: Robert Fratta's conviction is overturned. A judge says the confessions of Guidry and Prystash should not have been allowed into evidence.

July 22, 2008: The 5th Circuit affirms the ruling, similarly assailing the evidence against Fratta.

From the moment Farah Fratta fell mortally wounded to the driveway outside her Atascocita home, detectives had little doubt about the person most likely responsible for her death. Her estranged husband, Robert, all but arrived at the sheriff's office for questioning with "prime suspect" stamped on his shirt. He frequently had spoken to others about wanting his wife dead, police say. He behaved suspiciously on the night of her death - Nov. 9, 1994 - and in the days immediately after. He seemed so blasé and uncooperative that detectives concluded he was behind her death long before they had enough evidence to prove it.

In time, that evidence arrived, mostly in the form of confessions from two supposed co-conspirators, Howard Guidry and Joseph Prystash, and a corroborating statement from Prystash's girlfriend. To no one's surprise, Fratta was convicted and sentenced to death, as were the two co-defendants. But the case against him fell apart on appeal, and suddenly a slam-dunk conviction began to look like a challenge. On Monday, jury selection will begin in Fratta's new trial. This time prosecutors will have to make do without the confessions or key portions of girlfriend Mary Gipp's testimony.

Retrials seldom pan out much better for capital murder defendants than the first ones, but Fratta's case could prove different. The judge who reversed his conviction, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon, was emphatic about the poor quality of the state's case against him absent the confessions: "The trial evidence showed Fratta to be egotistical, misogynistic and vile, with a callous desire to kill his wife," Harmon wrote in her 2007 opinion. "The evidence strongly suggested that Fratta was somehow involved in his wife's death ... Only the inadmissible statements by Guidry and Prystash and Ms. Gipp's hearsay-laden testimony neatly tied that circumstantial evidence into a coherent prosecutorial theory of capital murder as alleged in the indictment."

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with her, which means prosecutors this time around must produce more evidence if they want to get a conviction that will stand up on appeal. Or perhaps if they want a conviction at all. "A reasonable jury could very well acquit Mr. Fratta of capital murder," said James Rytting, who represented Fratta on appeal. "The state's case is particularly weak when it comes to proving Mr. Fratta paid anybody to commit murder."

‘Circumstantial evidence'

One of his new trial lawyers, Vivian King, is similarly unimpressed by what she has seen since being appointed to the case last year. She said she would not be shocked if prosecutors tried to find a way to get the confessions and Gipp's statement into evidence despite the appellate opinions because of the dearth of solid evidence. "It's all circumstantial evidence, and I don't see a lot of it," King said.

Prosecutors Mia Magness and Denise Bradley declined to speak about the case.

The notion that Fratta could go free is troubling to many who are familiar with the circumstances of his wife's death or the publicity surrounding it. Testimony at his trial and in proceedings related to the divorce painted a sordid picture of sexual deviance, physical abuse and calculated murder. He had no qualms about expressing his desire to see her dead or reservations about showing a friend an account of her daily activities for use by a potential assassin. He calmly mentioned to another that there was no way he would let any other man "play with" the breast implants he had insisted she get as a condition of continued marriage.

Fratta's appeal, however, highlighted a prosecution that was troubled in its own way. It relied on the statements of Guidry and Prystash and the testimony of Gipp, but the first two were not available for cross-examination after invoking their Fifth Amendment rights.

What evidence is left

Harmon ruled that the conglomeration of hearsay testimony - including an illegally obtained confession from Guidry - should not have been admitted, and that Fratta was denied the right to confront his accusers.

The original lead prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, said she tried to cut a deal with Prystash, the middleman and getaway driver, to secure his testimony in the trials of Fratta and Guidry. Prystash refused, and because his conviction has not been overturned, there is no incentive for him to testify against Fratta this time around and no ethical way to induce his cooperation. "There's no legal way to offer a deal, even if he would take it," Siegler said.

That leaves a modest assortment of circumstantial evidence, including $1,050 in cash found in Fratta's car on the night of the slaying, which the prosecution will claim to be part of the payoff, and a gun once belonging to Fratta that was found in the possession of the triggerman when he was arrested four months later. Whether it is the murder weapon could be the subject of a battle of expert witnesses. King said she did not know if investigators had come up with anything new. A former prosecutor, she expects "big surprises" from Magness and Bradley. "They'll approach it differently," she said. "They'll have to."


News stories from NBC affiliate:

Fratta Retrial in 2009

Death row inmate gets new trial
Fratta's second trial begins
Retrial opening statements
Best friend testifies in Fratta trial
Victim's friends describe relationship
2nd woman testifies about hit man
Friends testify in Fratta's trial
Friends: Fratta tried to hire them as hit men
Woman: Boyfriend admitted to killing Fratta
Detectives: Fratta's gun found after bank robbery
Son testifies about mother's last day
Fratta jury hears about phone calls 
Both sides rest
Closing arguments delivered in Fratta trial
Excerpts from closing arguments
Jury deliberates in Fratta trial
Fratta jury in day 2 of deliberations
Robert Fratta found guilty again
Jury hears from witnesses in Fratta punishment
Daughter testifies in Fratta trial
Defense puts on witnesses in Fratta punishment
Fratta described as narcissistic, paranoid
Psychiatrist testifies for Fratta

Fratta trial nears end with nude photo testimony
Nude photos allegedly sent to Fratta
Jury to decide if Fratta lives, dies
 
Fratta waits for life, death decision
Jury sends Fratta back to death row
Fratta formally sentenced to death

Guidry Retrial in 2007

Man Faces Retrial For 1994 Murder-For-Hire
Murder Victim's Father Testifies in Retrial
Triggerman In Murder-For-Hire Trial Found Guilty, Again
Guidry Defense Attempts To Avoid Death Penalty

Murder-For-Hire Triggerman Sent Back To Death Row
 


Second Trial Begins for Robert Fratta


Murder for Hire Retrial Begins

 



Witness: Fratta 'Angry' After Divorce


 Accused Wife Killer's Fate at Jury's Mercy

 


Fratta's Fate Determined in Murder Case

 





Page visited  Hit Counter  times since February 20, 2007

 

 


The above verse is an excerpt from the poem, "The Fragrant Rose" by Allison Chambers Coxsey.
This poem can be read in it's entirety by visiting Allison's site, Allison's Heart.
 
Artwork showcased is from the collection of Anastasia Czerniakiewicz and used with permission.


Graphic Sets & Designs by Thelma & Louise!!!  Come Visit!


Copyright © "Thelma & Louise"
* All Rights Reserved
8/13/2000

0