It was a bright Saturday afternoon in February, the sun suspended over a glassy sea, when Coast Guard searchers spotted two tiny points of white bobbing in the water off the coast of San Diego.
The cutter moved in closer, and the two spots became the toes of Karen Waltz Roston's tennis shoes, floating in the still Pacific above her bruised and bloodied face--the first concrete indication that Roston's honeymoon cruise to Mexico might not have ended as her new husband had said.
Scott Roston had told the cruise ship's captain that his 26-year-old wife had tumbled overboard the night before in a stiff wind. The bruises on her forehead and neck belied that explanation even at first glance. So did the puncture wound in her abdomen. Coast Guard Lt. Jeff Lee said even his seasoned rescue team was disturbed by its cargo as they headed back for port.
"I directed the chief to say a prayer on the Bible, to kind of calm everybody down," Lee testified Wednesday on the opening day of Scott Roston's trial on charges of second-degree murder on the high seas.
Roston's lawyer, David Kenner, told a federal court jury in Los Angeles that Roston was afraid to tell investigators initially that his wife had apparently been murdered by Israeli agents--agents who had first drugged him into unconsciousness--in retribution for a book he had written about Israeli human rights abuses.
"There was no motive or reason or rationale for Dr. Roston to take the life of the woman he had wanted so long to marry," Kenner said in his opening statement.
But Assistant U.S. Atty. Kendra McNally sketched a picture of a honeymoon gone awry, of a bridegroom annoyed by his wife's lack of social sophistication and her propensity for sweets and of a bride constantly afraid of annoying her new husband.
McNally said that after "a fight" about an hour earlier, Roston accompanied his wife to a jogging track on the upper-level deck of the ship and began strangling her.
"The force of his hands on her throat was enough to cause bleeding in all the muscles of her neck, but it did not kill her so he lifted her, still breathing, still alive, over a 3 1/2-foot wall and dropped her into the dark, quiet sea where she drowned," the prosecutor said.
Santa Monica Chiropractor
Roston, a 27-year-old Santa Monica chiropractor, walked to the table tennis room two decks below and told a trio of musicians that his wife had just been blown overboard by strong winds. He explained the scratches on his face by saying he had run into a piece of equipment when he had turned in response to her cries for help.
But McNally said the ship's captain will testify that Roston asked to use a bathroom immediately after being asked about the scratches, then was seen to examine his face in a mirror, wash it and leave the bathroom without ever using the other facilities.
After he was arrested, Roston asserted that Israeli agents had been following him and harassing him since he wrote a book about "atrocities" in Israel, "Nightmare in Israel," and had drugged him and apparently murdered his wife.
Kenner said there is evidence, in fact, that two Israeli nationals were aboard the Stardancer during the cruise, but both have since returned to Israel and cannot be subpoenaed to testify at the trial.
"Because of what happened to him in Israel, he was afraid, in fact, for his own life while still on that ship, to discuss and to reveal his recollection of what occurred on that ship and his belief as to why," Kenner said, admitting the allegations may appear "unbelievable."
"But these kinds of events do happen in the world of international intrigue," he told jurors.
Witnesses Shared Table
Among the first witnesses were two passengers who were assigned to the Rostons' table in the ship's dining room, an Oregon homemaker and her daughter from Seattle, who testified that Roston frequently seemed irritated when his wife would show up late for dinner or, on another occasion, expressed confusion at the array of silverware on the table for a formal dinner.
"He seemed embarrassed and more or less perturbed that she would admit she didn't know all these different silverware," Carol Abramson testified. "At times his eyes would flash at her, and right away she would drop her eyes and then hardly say anything."
Abramson's daughter, Peggy Thompson, said Roston once made a "startling" statement during dinner about his work as a chiropractor.
"He mentioned that one of the things he liked about being a chiropractor was the sense of power it gave you," she said. "When he had the person in a position that he could either cure them or he could do great harm to them."
Roston, if convicted on the second-degree murder charge, could face up to life in prison. The trial before U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman is expected to last three weeks.