A Strangled Wife - And A Tangled Case Grips A Town

Posted: November 19, 1989

WILKES-BARRE — It could be a made-for-TV movie: A young dentist's wife is found twisted in bloody sheets at the foot of her bed, strangled. Her handsome, athletic husband calls for help from a phone in the kitchen downstairs. He says he was knocked out by an intruder.

The dentist is taken to a hospital with minor injuries.

Police investigate, but the clues don't add up. Then, the dentist's brother, who arrived at the house before police, dies mysteriously after missing an appointment with investigators.

The dentist becomes the prime - and only - suspect in the violent slaying of his wife. Word gets out that he had been having simultaneous affairs with two women, and had slept with one - his former dental assistant - the day before his wife's death.

No arrests are made, and the dentist and his young daughter move to Arlington, Va. One of his lovers joins them.

The unsolved killing grips the town - so strongly that it becomes a factor in a local election. The dentist calls one of the town's newspaper columnists and theorizes that his wife might have been killed by "druggies."

Three years after the slaying, the dentist returns to his home town - in handcuffs and shackles.

He is charged with the cold-blooded murder of his wife.

No, this isn't Fatal Vision 2. And despite similarities to that well-known story, in which a military doctor was convicted of killing his family after

blaming a drug-crazed gang, the outcome of this drama is far from certain.

For this is a story still unfolding, day by day, before the watchful eyes of this conservative northeastern Pennsylvania community.

Its cast of characters is real, starting with the victim, Elizabeth ''Betty" Wolsieffer, who was strangled between 2:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Aug. 30, 1986. She was 32.

Last week, her husband, E. Glen Wolsieffer, 36, sat calmly and expressionless during a preliminary hearing as prosecutors laid out the circumstantial evidence that they hope eventually will convict him.

The hearing will continue next week, after a judge decides whether to compel two women, including Wolsieffer's live-in lover, to testify. A district justice will determine whether there is enough evidence for a trial.

The case is fraught with so much intrigue that it is easy to forget that there is no script - and that real lives lie in the balance.

*

Glen Wolsieffer and Betty Tasker grew up six blocks apart in a middle-class neighborhood in Wilkes-Barre. They became high school sweethearts. He played on the baseball and football teams; she was an honor student and marched with the drill team.

Betty's parents, John and Marian Tasker, remember their only daughter as an active child who took voice and piano lessons, entertained hospital patients as a member of the Junior Mozart Club and sang in church.

She and Glen attended the senior prom together and graduated in 1971, her parents said. Betty stayed home and attended Wilkes College while Glen went to the nearby University of Scranton. They were married Nov. 27, 1976.

"I always thought he was a nice fellow," John Tasker, 62, an insurance- company claims adjuster, said of his son-in-law.

The couple moved to Arlington, Va., so Glen could attend dental school at Georgetown University in Washington, the Taskers said. Betty, who had degrees in sociology and education, was a case worker for Blue Cross, and later collected accounts for the Xerox Corp.

In 1981, their daughter, Danielle, was born, and the Wolsieffers moved back to Wilkes-Barre to be closer to their families.

They looked every bit the all-American couple. They moved into a tall, white house on a peaceful, two-block street. Glen set up his dental practice, played on softball teams and joined the Rotary Club, his in-laws said. Betty stayed home with Danielle.

Betty turned her talents to cross-stitching and transforming pieces of wood into objects of art, her mother recalled.

"She was a happy-go-lucky person," said Marguerite Delaney, 75, who lived two doors down from the Wolsieffers. "He was quiet. He worked all the time."

Their narrow, one-way street was the kind of place where the residents all knew each other. Everyone liked the Wolsieffers, neighbors said.

"She was a beautiful person and I always thought Glen was a wonderful man," said Marilyn O'Connor, 58, who lives down the street. "They looked like a happy couple."

Everything appeared normal until mid-1985, when Betty found her husband crying inexplicably one day, said Marian Tasker, 63, a hospital communications supervisor. Betty took Glen to a clinic, where he stayed for a week, the Taskers said.

"It came out there that he was having an affair," Marian Tasker said last week. "But that was going to be the end of it. We all forgave. Betty didn't want us to bring it up to him. It was over."

But it wasn't. Wolsieffer continued to see his dental assistant, Deborah Ann Shipp. Shipp said that she and Wolsieffer had a "close, loving relationship," according to the police affidavit of probable cause that was used to arrest him. She said that Wolsieffer had told her he was going to leave his wife the weekend before the slaying, but then changed his mind.

Shipp, who now lives in Delaware, told police that she and Wolsieffer occasionally stayed at motels. She said they had made love at lunchtime on the two days before Betty Wolsieffer's death.

Meanwhile, Wolsieffer was having an affair with another woman, Carol Ann Kopicki, according to the police affidavit. She said that Wolsieffer told her he loved her.

A friend of Betty Wolsieffer's, Barbara Wende, told police that, three days before she died, Betty said she was upset that her husband frequently went out without her on Friday nights and that she was "going to take a stand."

She died early the next Saturday morning.

After the slaying, police had difficulty substantiating Glen Wolsieffer's account. The dentist said he had been sleeping in bed alongside his wife when he heard a "bang like metal crashing" in the rear of the second floor, according to the police affidavit. He said he grabbed a gun from the bedside dresser, went to the bedroom door and spotted a masked man at the top of the steps. His wife, he said, was asleep.

Wolsieffer said he crawled out of the bedroom and followed the man downstairs. But he lost sight of him. Then, Wolsieffer said, he felt "a chain or rope or something" around his neck. The intruder, he said, was behind him, and Wolsieffer kicked him in the groin.

Before he could get loose, Wolsieffer said, he was hit on the head and he blacked out. When he awoke, he called his brother, Neil, who lived across the street.

To investigators, the pieces just didn't fit.

First, there were no signs of forced entry. The obvious theory was that a burglar had climbed a ladder that police found propped against the wood-frame house, removed a screen from a second-story window and let himself into an extra bedroom.

But the wooden ladder, which went from the ground to a second-story window, appeared to be unused. It was facing the wrong direction, and the soft ground beneath it carried none of the indentations that would be expected under the weight of a body, the affidavit said.

The steps of the red ladder were covered with moss, which was undisturbed, and there was no dirt or grass on the roof to indicate that anyone had climbed up there to remove the screen, police said. Next-door neighbors said they had seen the ladder there five or six times before, and had seen Glen Wolsieffer climb it once.

And, although a jewelry box was opened, there was still jewelry in it when police arrived, a detective testified in the preliminary hearing.

Furthermore, the only marks on Wolsieffer's neck were on the back and side, the affidavit said. Police said someone strangled from behind would have marks on the front of the neck.

The affidavit noted that Wolsieffer did not ask about his wife before he was taken from his house to the hospital.

An FBI violent-crime specialist concluded that the crime scene was ''staged."

Police found that after the struggle that ended in Betty Wolsieffer's death, her face had been washed.

The FBI reported that dark brown hairs found on the blanket beside Betty Wolsieffer's body were similar to Glen Wolsieffer's hair. Two of the hairs had been forcibly removed from the scalp. Similar hairs were found on the window sill above the ladder.

Blue cotton fibers found beneath Betty Wolsieffer's fingernails were microscopically similar to the blue jeans and denim jacket that Glen Wolsieffer had worn the night of the slaying, the FBI concluded. There also was blood beneath one of her nails.

Wolsieffer's injuries included some scratches to his body.

Carol Ann Kopicki told police that she and her husband had seen Wolsieffer at a Wilkes-Barre area bar called the Crackerbox in the early morning hours before his wife's slaying. Wolsieffer told officials that he went to the Crackerbox after leaving another bar, and that he went home shortly before 2 a.m.

Kopicki, who currently lives with Wolsieffer in Falls Church, Va., refused to testify at his preliminary hearing.

Deborah Ann Shipp, however, testified that she and Wolsieffer were lovers

from October 1981 until November 1988, when he ended the relationship.

Under questioning from a prosecutor, she said Wolsieffer stopped seeing her ''because I was the motive for everything that's been going on."

Throughout the ordeal, Glen Wolsieffer's family has stood by his side. None of his relatives would consent to an interview last week.

Betty Wolsieffer's brother, Jack Tasker, 38, said he suspected his brother- in-law from the beginning, and told him as much. Tasker and his parents said Betty had been afraid of losing her husband.

"She didn't want to do anything that would upset him," Marian Tasker said.

"She loved him," said Jack Tasker, who owns an insurance agency. "She died for what she believed in - loving him."

Less than two months after Betty died, Neil Wolsieffer, Glen's brother, drove his Honda into the path of a truck and was killed. The crash occurred just minutes after he failed to show up for an appointment with investigators. The coroner ruled it a suicide.

The case lacks hard evidence, and it is far from over. As Wolsieffer's attorney noted during the preliminary hearing, police failed to perform some tests that might have cleared Wolsieffer, including an examination of whether any of Betty Wolsieffer's blood was on her husband's body. The attorney, Anthony Cardinale, said there was no blood on his client's clothing.

Cardinale, a Boston lawyer who said he has defended everyone from reputed mobsters to judges, made clear during the preliminary hearing that he didn't think police ever sought out the intruder Glen Wolsieffer had described.

"The arrest was totally for political reasons," Cardinale said in an interview. "The district attorney ran his campaign on the 'I'll-get-Wolsieffer' ticket."

Luzerne County District Attorney Correale Stevens said last week that he didn't consider the case a "real" campaign issue. However, local newspaper accounts said that Stevens pledged during his successful 1987 run for office that he would solve the case.

Last spring, Stevens persuaded the state's new attorney general, Ernie Preate Jr., to help him form a task force to investigate. Stevens said last week that there was no new evidence, just a compilation of old facts.

"There was mounds and mounds of material," said Anthony Sarcione, who heads the attorney general's criminal law division and is leading the prosecution team. "We were able to put it together."

Now, Cardinale will try to tear it apart.

"The case is in a very speculative, circumstantial state," he said, "and it's no more likely today that my client is involved in murder than it was 3 1/2 years ago."

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