The trial for a man accused in the decade-old double homicide of two men in West Conway began Tuesday morning in Faulkner County Circuit Court, with Judge Charles E. Clawson III presiding.
Richard Conte, 63, was charged with two counts of capital murder in 2011 in the 2002 shooting deaths of Carter Elliott, 49 and Timothy Wayne Robertson, 25.
The charges were filed shortly before Conte was released from a Nevada prison where he served a sentence for kidnapping his ex-wife, Lark Swartz, who was also married to Elliott for 18 years and with whom she shared two children.
In opening statements to the jury, prosecutors painted Conte as a man who considered Elliott “... a stumbling block to happiness, or competition,” in his relationship with Swartz, who appeared in court Tuesday as the prosecution’s third witness.
Swartz was still on the stand recounting the events of her marriage to Conte when court recessed for lunch. She told the jury she met Conte in Salt Lake City in 2000 and married him on Oct. 19, 2001 following a short courtship, but filed for divorce on May 8, 2002 when things “didn’t work out.”
The two were introduced by her sister and brother-in-law, who attended medical school with Conte and had known him for a decade. In 2000, the friends went sailing, and Swartz and Conte eventually fell in love.
Swartz and Conte maintained separate homes throughout the marriage, with Swartz staying in a condo in Salt Lake City, Utah and Conte in his secluded home in Carson City, Nev.
Conte, an ER doctor, relayed to Swartz throughout their relationship “amazing” tales of a second job as a special operations mercenary for the United States government. Conte allegedly said he was recruited straight out of high school in Milwaukee, where he had been a champion wrestler; and throughout their marriage, she said, he traveled to foreign lands, sending back letters and trinkets from his travels.
Things began to unravel after Swartz first went to his residence in Carson City. She’d seen a cabin he owned in Duck Creek, Utah, she testified, that he maintained as a weekend retreat and as a safe house for other special-ops employs.
Swartz told the jury the cabin was outfitted with cameras, guns, phone-tapping devices and tape recorders.
The first time she saw Conte’s home was at the beginning of the marriage, and Swartz testified she noted similarities to the cabin at Duck Creek — the guns, cameras and phone-tapping devices — but it was “what looked like a meat hook” hanging in a bedroom that unnerved her most, and metal rings fixed to Conte’s bed.
She testified that Conte stashed guns throughout the home and kept a knife “in every pocket of every jacket,” with mercenary magazines and a selection of war movies strewn about the home.
The pair separated some time after Valentine’s Day. Conte, she testified, did not take the ending of the marriage well and a series of odd events leading up to her kidnapping on June 20, 2002 transpired.
Swartz described a phone call from Conte on April 17, 2002, when she answered the phone to hear rapid gunfire and “machine guns” in the background.
“It sounded like he was in the middle of a war zone,” she testified.
Conte was pinned beneath an SUV in Afghanistan and had called to tell her he loved her and it may be the last time they talk, she said. Then he arrived at her condo on May 24 to show her “where he had been shot.”
Throughout their separation, Conte also entered her home while she was gone and placed “over 100 ... romantic cards” all over her condo, including in books, lingerie drawers, and on the refrigerator, gaining access to the home by way of a combination lock at the front door.
Following a day of work in June, Swartz said she was kidnapped by Conte at gunpoint, drugged and transported from her condo to Conte’s home in Carson City. When she woke up, she was handcuffed to the metal rings on Conte’s bed.
Her family became concerned when she didn’t show up for work the next day. Someone had also accessed her personal e-mail, sending messages to her daughter indicating that she “did a terrible thing” and was in hiding.
Swartz was found and freed two days after being kidnapped. Conte served nine years of a 15-year sentence for the kidnapping before he was extradited to Arkansas on murder charges.
Other witnesses Tuesday included two of Elliott’s friends — his then-girlfriend and another female friend — who testified they discovered the murdered pair upon returning from a weekend trip to Memphis.
Defense attorney Jack Lassiter said in opening statements that evidence will prove that Conte spent the weekend in question at his cabin in Duck Creek.
Lassiter told the jury Conte’s truck had been serviced for an oil change in April and was serviced again for clutch problems in Cedar City, Utah on the Monday following the murders. Evidence from those odometer readings will prove there was not enough mileage on Conte’s vehicle to account for his driving from Carson City to Conway, Lassiter said.
Conte has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He arrived to court in a wheelchair because he suffers from multiple sclerosis. Defense attorneys also told the court that Conte currently suffers from poor eyesight.
Prosecutor Cody Hiland is not seeking the death penalty in the case.
Conte could face life in prison without parole if convicted.
The trial was delayed Tuesday after lunch due to worsening weather conditions. It is set to resume 10 a.m. Wednesday, when Swartz will continue her testimony.