SANTA ANA — Even though the cause of Janet L. Overton's death in 1988 remained a mystery to coroner's investigators, Dorothy Boyer had her suspicions.
Six months after Overton's death on Jan. 24, 1988, Boyer called sheriff's investigators. She reminded them that she had once been married to the dead woman's husband, Richard K. Overton, and that he had once tried to poison her, she testified Tuesday.
"He does these devious things like poisoning people secretly," Boyer told an Orange County Superior Court jury.
Boyer's phone call to the Sheriff's Department sparked one of the longest homicide investigations ever in Orange County, and as a result, Overton is now being tried on charges that he killed his 46-year-old wife with cyanide.
During Boyer's testimony, Overton, who has maintained his innocence, listened at the defense table, occasionally jotting down notes or whispering to his attorney.
Boyer, the prosecution's star witness, told the jury in a steady voice that the 64-year-old defendant began surreptitiously spiking her beverages with poison shortly after the breakup of their marriage in 1969. They had been married 17 years and had raised four children, she said.
The marriage ended, Boyer said, after she discovered that Overton, using a co-worker's name, had married another woman and fathered a child.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," she said.
As part of the divorce settlement, Boyer received the family's house in Capistrano Beach.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans has alleged that Overton was furious over losing his "dream home" and started poisoning Boyer, much like he did to Janet Overton, "to satisfy his hostilities." But in Janet Overton's case, Evans has contended, it was her sexual affairs with other men that spurred Overton's hatred.
Boyer told jurors that shortly after her divorce became final she began to suffer unexplained illnesses, which made her "violently nauseated" and caused her to "violently throw up."
She said that the illnesses would occur only after she had drunk wine, coffee or tea, and that on some occasions men she was dating would also become sick at her house after drinking the same beverages.
Her illnesses continued sporadically during the early 1970s and her symptoms worsened, Boyer said. In additional to abdominal discomfort, she started having "severe pain" in her feet, which became swollen and blistered and took on a reddish-orange color, she said. She added that she also noticed a strange reddish color in her shoes, bedsheets, carpet and shampoo.
The prosecution has alleged that Boyer's illnesses were eerily similar to those suffered by Janet Overton for several years before she died. Evans has contended that Janet Overton was chronically poison with an unidentified substance before she was given the fatal dose of cyanide.
Boyer's testimony, Evans said in his opening statements to the jury last week, is an attempt to show that Overton has a history of poisoning the women in his life.
In Boyer's ordeal, "the light bulb went off in my mind and I thought that Richard might be coming into the house" to poison her after she discovered that her milk was apparently contaminated, she said.
On that day, she testified, Overton had entered her home uninvited while she was at work and taken their children for an overnight stay. "Suddenly, it was all laid out in my head," she said.
Boyer then went to the Sheriff's Department to lodge a complaint. With the help of Sheriff's Detective Cliff Miller, "a trap was set" for Overton, she said.
The trap was sprung when Boyer found that a coffee can had been moved from its place on her kitchen counter, she testified. The can was analyzed by the Sheriff's Department and Overton's fingerprints were found on it, prosecutors have said.
According to a written report by Miller, which has not yet been introduced as evidence in the trial, Overton confessed to putting Drano and prescription drugs in Boyer's coffee and shampoo.
Boyer told jurors that she decided not to press charges against Overton because Miller had told her that her ex-husband agreed never to do it again and to seek counseling.
Boyer's testimony and character were sharply attacked by Overton's attorney, Robert D. Chatterton, during an extensive cross-examination.
Chatterton started out his questioning by getting Boyer to admit that she had had financial problems with the Internal Revenue Service because she belonged to a tax-reform group and refused to pay income tax for about seven years.
He also produced a document that showed Boyer's house being deeded over to the United Freedom Fellowship Church, of which she was identified as Reverend D. Boyer.
"I was minister of the church," Boyer said, explaining that there were about 20 to 25 members, mostly people from her tax reform group.
Boyer said the real reason she deeded the house to the church was not to avoid paying taxes, but to "get Richard off my case" because he kept pressuring her to put the house back in his name.