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
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.
Custody hearing today
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
Lawyers in custody case link man to wife's
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.
Witnesses say husband asked them to kill
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
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."
Judge rules Fratta not fit to keep
children Conduct, judgment called "impaired'
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
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.
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.
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
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
Former deputy's motives unknown/Offer to kill
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
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.
2 charged in murder-for-hire scheme
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Fratta pays court-ordered support for his 3
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
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
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.
Contempt charges lifted
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.
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
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.
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.
Bond set for ex-official
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.
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.
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.
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
Testimony to begin in capital murder trial
Fratta allegedly arranged wife's slaying
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
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
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
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."
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
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
Gun tied Fratta to slaying, police say
Officers say husband was always a suspect
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.
Fratta planned to shoot wife himself, witness
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
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
Witness in Fratta trial tells about shell
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
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.
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
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.
Jury finds Fratta guilty of plotting
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Jury sentences Fratta to die for wife's
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Man who said he'd kill Fratta is sent to
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."
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
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
Jury quickly convicts murder middleman in plot
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.
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
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
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
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,"
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.
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
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
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
Trial begins for third defendant in Fratta
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
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
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,
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.
Appeals court reverses '96 conviction of
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
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
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
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
Six death row inmates surrender after escape
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
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.
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.
6 appeals rejected / Death chamber draws near
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Ex-officer out of prison, telling Texas
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
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
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."
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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.
New trial likely for condemned Justices
refuse to hear DA's appeals of federal ruling
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
New trial ordered in wife-killing case
Judge says trial was tainted by actions of DA in '96 contract slaying
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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 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
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
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."