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Woman Disguised Murder as Suicide, Prosecutor Says

A toxicologist accused of poisoning her husband and making death look self-inflicted starts trial.

October 16, 2002|Beth Silver | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO — A young toxicologist accused of poisoning her husband staged a crime scene to make his murder appear a suicide, complete with fake entries in her diary, rose petals strewn across his body and a shredded love note from her boss, prosecutors alleged Tuesday in the trial's opening arguments.

Kristin Rossum, 25, who worked at the San Diego County medical examiner's office at the time of her husband's death, was determined to continue having an affair with her boss, conceal her drug habit and make sure she and her lover both kept their jobs, prosecutor Dan Goldstein argued.

All three priorities were in jeopardy, he said, because Rossum's husband, Greg de Villers, 26, had recently discovered the affair and her renewed drug use, Goldstein said.

Rossum told detectives that De Villers made an ultimatum shortly before his death that she either quit her job or he would tell her supervisors of her drug use, Goldstein said.

At the time, Rossum was obsessed with the popular movie "American Beauty," in which rose petals were a central theme. She complained that De Villers rarely gave her roses. She and her boss, Michael Robertson, often exchanged them, along with passionate e-mails expressing their desire to be lifelong partners, Goldstein said.

In the final minutes of a nearly four-hour presentation, Goldstein held up a single red rose in front of the jury, just like the one he said Rossum bought in order to sprinkle its petals across De Villers' body hours after she administered a fatal dose of Fentanyl, a drug considered 100 times more powerful than heroin. Grocery store records prove she bought the flower the day her husband died -- Nov. 6, 2000, Goldstein said.

"She was out of control," Goldstein said. "The numerous lies and the staged crime scene the defendant went through in this case are tantamount to a confession."

As he described the scene, Rossum quietly wept and scribbled quick notes to her lawyer. She often shook her head at what she was hearing.

Her attorney, Alex Loebig, spoke for just 45 minutes, saying Rossum herself will refute much of what prosecutors presented Tuesday when she testifies during what is expected to be a four-week trial.

Loebig said De Villers' death was a suicide. He was despondent over his crumbling marriage and had begun drinking heavily shortly before he took his life, Loebig said.

Rossum was the woman he intended to be with for the rest of his life, Loebig said. The two had met five years earlier in Tijuana. It was "love at first sight on Greg's part," Loebig said. De Villers helped Rossum kick a drug habit and was intent on getting married from early in their relationship. Rossum, however, had doubts, Loebig said.

"There was a desire that never waned in Greg to get married and to show everyone what he had, a beautiful young wife," Loebig said. "It wasn't too long after the wedding that Kristin determined that maybe Greg wasn't the soul mate for her."

Robertson has returned to his native Australia and will not testify in the trial, Goldstein said. But according to the prosecution theory, he played a key role in Rossum's crime.

Robertson, the former chief toxicologist at the medical examiner's office, not only helped Rossum conceal their affair, he helped her cover up the murder and her addiction to methamphetamine, Goldstein said. Robertson has not been charged with a crime.

Rossum and De Villers had been married less than a year when she began the affair with Robertson, Goldstein said. Before their affair, she also had brief affairs with at least two other co-workers, he added.

She had also started using drugs again, he said, including methamphetamine that she obtained from her office. A pipe used to smoke meth, with saliva that tested positive for Rossum's DNA, was found in her desk drawer, Goldstein said. She stole the meth and other drugs, including the one that killed De Villers, from the lab, he said.

But she worked hard to keep anyone from learning of her drug use, he said. Rossum, an "affable, affluent, articulate" daughter of two college professors, wanted to conceal her true identity, he said.

Loebig argued that Rossum's drug use has been exaggerated.

A month after De Villers' death, Rossum was fired from her job when her drug use became public. Robertson also was fired because he did not notify anyone of her drug problem.

Rossum was arrested in June 2001. She was released on a $1.25-million bond last January. She faces a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole, after prosecutors opted not to seek the death penalty.

Superior Court Judge John M. Thompson has imposed a gag order on the participants and has banned cameras from the courtroom.

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