A judge Wednesday ordered a locksmith to stand trial on a murder charge for his wife’s death at the couple’s home in Oakland’s Montclair district last July after he told police that she died in an accidental fall.
At the end of a two-day preliminary hearing for 54-year-old Joseph Bontempo, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Gloria Rhynes said prosecutors proved that the death of his wife, 57-year-old Laurie Wolfe, at their home in the 6700 block of Saroni Drive last July 6 “was not an accident” and that a crime occurred.
Rhynes said “everyone” who talked to Bontempo after Wolfe was found dead at the bottom of a stairway, including paramedics, police officers and neighbors, “didn’t think he was truthful” about what happened. Bontempo and Wolfe were partners for 20 years and were married for 12 years before her death.
Oakland police Officer Leo Sanchez testified at the hearing that Bontempo made a medical call to a 911 dispatcher at about 6:30 p.m. on July 6, uttering an expletive and saying, “My wife fell down the stairs.”
Sanchez said Bontempo told police that he had warned Wolfe not to go down the stairs in her socks because he had oiled the stairs earlier in the day. But Sanchez said when he examined the stairs shortly after Wolfe was found dead he noticed a layer of dust on them and didn’t think they looked freshly-oiled and slippery.
Prosecutor Laura Passaglia said veteran pathologist Dr. Thomas Rogers, who has 46 years of experience and has conducted 15,000 autopsies, ruled that Wolfe’s death wasn’t an accident and instead was caused by blunt force trauma and injuries to her central nervous system.
Passaglia said Wolfe had seven lacerations to the back of her head and bruises to her back as well as defensive wounds on her hands. Passaglia said the quantity and pattern of Wolfe’s blood that was found on the bottom five steps of the stairway indicates that she died as the result of an intentional assault, not a fall, because it would have required a large amount of force to generate that much blood.
The prosecutor said what she described as Bontempo’s “odd and suspicious behavior” should also be taken into account, such as changing his story about how long it had been since he last saw Wolfe before he found her dead.
Passaglia said Bontempo initially told a paramedic that he had last seen Wolfe an hour before he found her dead but after the paramedic expressed suspicion about Bontempo’s story he then told police that it had been two hours since he had seen Wolfe in an attempt “to cover himself” and provide a more believable account.
Passaglia also said Bontempo “interfered with the evidence” by washing Wolfe’s hands and face before he called 911. But Bontempo’s lawyer, Ed Swanson, said the prosecution didn’t meet its burden of proof in the hearing because he believes Wolfe’s fatal injuries “are consistent with a fall” and he doesn’t think the prosecution proved that Bontempo assaulted her.
“There is no evidence of any struggle taking place at the house and there were no wounds on Mr. Bontempo” to indicate that he’s been in a fight, Swanson said.
Rhynes said she found it odd that Bontempo told police that he took a long time to call 911 after he found Wolfe and first cleaned her up and finished his drink. But Swanson said, “There was no confusion in his mind that she was dead” so there was no reason for Bontempo to call authorities right away.
Swanson also said the prosecution didn’t establish a motive for Bontempo to kill Wolfe, saying there is no evidence of any issues between Bontempo and Wolfe or about “what led up to this supposedly brutal act.”
Rhynes agreed that a motive hasn’t been established but said it isn’t legally necessary for the prosecution to prove one. However, Rhynes said a factor might have been the fact that Wolfe had a $5 million estate and didn’t have a will, although she admitted she doesn’t know if that’s why Wolfe was killed.
Bontempo, who’s been held in custody without bail, is scheduled to return to court on Feb. 27 to have a trial date set.