From dreams to disappointments, the marriage of Wayne and Roberta Pearce had run its course. To their attorneys, it seemed a boilerplate divorce, free of the belligerence that can soil even the most precious marital memories.
But then Wayne Pearce was brutally slain. As the stocky construction supervisor marched to his pickup truck early one morning in January, two assailants wielding a kitchen knife and a hatchet attacked him in the parking lot outside his Cardiff apartment.
Shock gripped friends and relatives of the couple. The horror, however, didn't end there.
Just days after the death, Roberta Pearce was arrested and charged with hatching a bizarre plot to murder her estranged husband. Prosecutors allege that Pearce, a popular teacher's aide for students with learning disabilities at an Escondido high school, hired two 15-year-old boys to carry out the grisly crime, promising each a used car as payment.
Pearce's defense attorney argues that the 41-year-old woman had nothing to do with the slaying. But law enforcement officers contend she solicited the murder of her husband of 14 years in an attempt to reap $200,000 in life insurance money and hold onto her Valley Center home, which the divorce threatened to steal away.
Wherever the truth lies, news of the murder and subsequent arrest of Pearce and the two teen-agers, who face a pretrial hearing Wednesday in San Diego Juvenile Court, rocked both the faculty and student body at Orange Glen High School, an institution that has received acclaim for its academic achievements.
Pearce was well liked by the students in her classroom. But the accusations against her have raised the specter that the fragile relationship between instructor and pupil could somehow deteriorate from efforts to educate to plotting a murder.
In the weeks before her husband's death, Pearce played host at her rural home to a cadre of teen-agers, among them the two boys accused of the slaying. The homicide investigation has yielded allegations of drug and alcohol abuse by the half dozen or so adolescents, of a sexual liaison between Pearce and a youth not charged in the crime.
Could that milieu have turned children into killers?
Roberta met Wayne Pearce in Colorado. He seemed everything she wanted--a good-looking farm boy from Illinois, a college graduate working for a construction firm sinking air shafts for coal mines.
She, on the other hand, was a young woman with a past. A previous marriage had ended in a messy divorce, with the former husband taking custody of two children.
Her past didn't stand in the way. Wayne and Roberta got married on Valentine's Day, 1974, and settled in the Midwest, not far from his family's farm.
But, when a friend in California offered Wayne a job with his construction company in northern San Diego County, the couple came out for a look. Like so many dreamers of the golden dream, they were hooked, and moved west.
Both quickly settled into the California life style.
Roberta, a blonde with long, dramatic fingernails, was a housewife for the first years, but later got a job as a teacher's aide, garnering solid reviews and the respect of her peers. Wayne prospered in his new role as a construction supervisor, earning about $50,000 annually and never hurting for buddies.
His fat paycheck allowed the couple to eventually acquire all the trappings of the good life. They moved into a sprawling, tile-roofed house amid the fragrant orange groves of Valley Center, a home complete with satellite dish, neatly tended garden and a stunning view looking east to snow-capped mountains in winter.
$15,000 in Debts
The couple enjoyed tooling around in their vintage 1972 Corvette or hitching their travel trailer to Wayne's truck and heading out to the desert to ride three-wheel cycles. Wayne purchased golf clubs and guns, Roberta bought fine clothes and pampered herself with manicures.
All that energetic consumption, of course, had its price. By the time they parted, the pair had more than $15,000 in debts on a dozen department store and bank credit cards, according to divorce documents. The monthly payments alone totalled $815.
Marital difficulties, meanwhile, began to crop up several years ago, friends and family say.
On Christmas eve 1986, Wayne was arrested after Roberta called sheriff's deputies to report that her husband had come home drunk and slapped her. When a deputy arrived, a sobbing Roberta changed her mind, pleading with the law officer not to arrest her husband, a sheriff's report said.
If Wayne goes to jail, Roberta told the deputy, he'll be madder than ever when he gets out, and he'll kill me. Leave him here. He'll beat me, but he probably won't kill me, she said.
The deputy took Wayne Pearce in, but he was later released without being charged.
As Wayne's relatives tell it, however, Roberta caused many of the couple's problems. They describe her as distant, a woman more intent on spending Wayne's paycheck than cooking dinner, more centered on her small pet dog than her husband.