Mar 28, 2002
Mar 26, 2003
February 22, 2000
A Virginia Tale of Love and Death, Suspicions and Doubt
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
RICHMOND, Va. -- If Roger Zygmunt Comte de la Burdé had been found dead in his Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz downtown on Broad Street, David M. Riley, a senior special agent of the Virginia State Police, said "the whole world would have been a suspect."
There were the victims of his shady art and real estate deals as detailed in court records. There were his enemies, whether real or perceived, at his former employer, Philip Morris. There were his many women, including an ex-wife, a lover and a married biochemist who was carrying his baby, not to mention the woman's disapproving husband.
But Mr. de la Burdé, a 60-year-old Polish émigré, tobacco research scientist and collector of African art whose pedigree was as suspect as the paintings he aged in the rain on his roof, did not die on the streets of Richmond. He died at Windsor, his 220-acre estate, under circumstances that greatly narrowed the list of possible suspects. He died on a couch in his library with a bullet in the head from his own revolver.
Although the case is under judicial review, the violent end of
the enigmatic Mr. de la Burdé seems as much a riddle as ever.
Was it murder? Or was it suicide?
Now, years after the 1992 shooting and trial, a judicial ruling on an appeal by Mrs. Monroe's family has renewed interest in the case. Last April, a federal judge in Richmond, Richard L. Williams, questioned whether her conviction had been justified and he has given the defense an opportunity to present evidence questioning whether prosecutors had established her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and whether her constitutional rights to counsel had been violated. The findings could come sometime this year.
From the beginning, Mrs. Monroe put herself at the setting of her lover's death. She said they had dinner, worked on an art book manuscript and kissed goodbye shortly before he took his life in despair over failing health and other problems.
Mr. Riley focused quickly on Mrs. Monroe in what he believed was a murder and, after she failed a polygraph examination, presented her with his idea of what happened: that she had been present at the shooting but had blocked it from her mind. Eventually, she agreed with him, and prosecutors then charged her with murder, although no forensic evidence tied her to the shooting and although she had an alibi.
"I did not kill Roger," Mrs. Monroe, 62, said in a recent prison interview, restating an innocence she has maintained over the years. "I loved Roger."
Her supporters, led by a daughter who has devoted her legal career to vindicating her mother, include Richard A. Leo, a professor of criminology and psychology at the University of California at Irvine and a specialist in police interrogations, confessions and wrongful convictions.
"It's one of the most outrageous cases I've ever seen," said Mr. Leo, accusing Mr. Riley of crossing the line from permissible police deception into illegal intimidation.
Mr. Leo characterized Mrs. Monroe as someone who begins "to imagine they could have done it."
Mr. Riley said he was precluded from discussing the case but offered no apologies for the conviction of a defendant he has portrayed as a clever actress who, when shortchanged in Mr. de la Burdé's will and spurned for a pregnant rival, turned to murder.
Much of the testimony concerned the convoluted doings of Mr. de la Burdé, a man consumed by art, music, science, business and romance.
He had boasted that he was the descendant of a royal overseer of tradesmen in 14th-century Paris, but The Richmond Times-Dispatch uncovered discrepancies in his claim. He also said that he had fled Poland in the 1950's and married a West German pediatrician and that they had two daughters. He eventually settled in Richmond where a background in organic chemistry landed him a research job with Philip Morris in 1961. He would stay with the company until 1987.
From 1968 to 1969, Mr. de la Burdé also served as a United Nations technical adviser to Nigeria, where he acquired tribal sculpture which he later claimed to a writer for the journal "African Arts" had been collected by his father before World War I. A curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Susan Vogel, later found evidence contradicting the claim.
All the while, witnesses testified, he was trading in suspect art. A stone carver, Frank Vegas, said he was employed to produce fakes of well-known sculptures which Mr. de la Burdé then donated as originals to Radford University, the alma mater of a daughter, Corinna. The Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed there had been an investigation but said it was dropped after Mr. de la Burdé's death.
Beverly Monroe, meanwhile, had grown up on a farm in South Carolina and obtained a degree in organic chemistry. She married a scientist and had two daughters and a son.
In late 1979, Mrs. Monroe was hired by Philip Morris to work in the patents department. She soon met Mr. de la Burdé, and they began an affair. She and her husband, Stuart, separated in 1981, and Mr. de la Burdé and his wife, Brigette, split up not long after.
At Philip Morris, Mr. de la Burdé had developed a carbon dioxide process to expand tobacco which the company acknowledged saved about $300 million from 1979 and 1985.
Saying he was cheated out of promised rewards, Mr. de la Burdé sued, and Philip Morris countersued, accusing him with threatening to disclose "certain confidential information and documents." The lawsuit was settled with a payment to his estate and a return of documents after his death.
In his last years, meanwhile, court testimony established, Mr. de la Burdé had affairs with co-workers and a married biochemist, Krystyna Drewnowska. Consumed by a desire for a male heir, he contracted with Mrs. Drewnowska for a child. Mrs. Monroe, learning of the arrangement, informed Mr. Drewnowska's husband, Wojtek. Mrs. Drewnowska gave birth to a daughter.
Prosecutors seeking to show that Mrs. Monroe was angry enough to kill later produced a letter, written in 1990, in which she berated Mr. de la Burdé for his unfaithfulness.
On the evening of March 4, 1992, as Mrs. Monroe told it, she left Windsor about 9:30 p.m. and drove home, stopping for gas. Arriving about 10 p.m., she said, she talked to her son, Gavin, and then drove to a Safeway store. She said she tried to call Mr. de la Burdé but he did not answer.
The next morning, she said, she stopped by Windsor, where she and the caretaker found Mr. de la Burdé on a couch, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson gun in his right hand and a bullet wound above his right eye. In checking for a pulse, the caretaker later recalled, he may have dislodged the gun.
The death scene compromised in other ways, police witnesses conceded.
Mrs. Monroe told investigators that Mr. de la Burdé had been depressed. But other witnesses insisted that he had been making plans -- including a sexual threesome for later that week -- and that jealousy had unhinged Mrs. Monroe.
Mr. Riley quickly focused on Mrs. Monroe, suspecting that although no fingerprints or other forensic evidence tied her to the shooting, she had wielded the gun and then planted it in Mr. de la Burdé's hand.
Mr. Riley remained skeptical of her claim -- which was supported by a Safeway receipt stamped 10:40 p.m., around the time Mr. de la Burdé was first believed to have died, and a canceled check to the store -- that she had left Mr. de la Burdé alive, since, he made a telephone call around 10 p.m. Later an eyewitness from the store came forward. Prosecutors countered that Mrs. Monroe could have returned to Windsor.
Three weeks after the death, Mr. Riley asked Mrs. Monroe to take a polygraph examination.
Mrs. Monroe waived her right to a lawyer.
"I know it was naïve and stupid," she said in an interview. But she said she had been taught to cooperate with the police and felt she had nothing to hide.
Mrs. Monroe was told that her responses had indicated that she was not telling the truth. Then Mr. Riley pressed her to acknowledge that she might have been present when Mr. de la Burdé shot himself.
Because, as Mr. Riley later testified, he had forgotten to restart the tape recorder, most of Mrs. Monroe's responses were not recorded.
Police witnesses later testified that Mrs. Monroe acknowledged being present, but Mr. Riley was unable to get her to say that on tape after restarting the machine.
Amid prosecution pressure to solve the case, Mr. Riley testified that he arranged to meet Mrs. Monroe again on June 3, 1992.
Again, the exchange was not taped. But at the end, after an encounter Mrs. Monroe later portrayed as intimidating and Mr. Riley as congenial, he wrote a series of statements to which Mrs. Monroe put her signature. They began: "I was on the sofa. Roger was on the other sofa. A noise made me jump. I don't recall getting up. I recall standing over Roger who was on the sofa and seeing the gun."
But then the statements veered into the hypothetical: "The above I remember clearly but I don't remember exactly what happened next, but I do know that having seen Roger in that circumstance my natural reaction would be (not knowing whether he was alive or dead at that instant) to try to stop him and that reaction would have been to try to take the gun away from him.
"My next reaction would be (upon realizing he was dead) to put back the gun. It would be natural to have put the gun back where I thought it had been or where it would appear it should have been considering the position of his body. It would have been natural for anyone realizing they shouldn't have touched the gun to have wiped it off before putting it back."
The jury took only two hours and 55 minutes to find Mrs. Monroe guilty. She posted bail to remain free during appeal but in March 1996 began serving her 22-year sentence.
Last April, Judge Williams granted defense depositions on six issues, including whether prosecutors relied on statements by Mrs. Monroe that were involuntary and in violation of her constitutional rights and whether prosecutors erred in failing to disclose a witness who saw a black Bronco speeding out of Windsor's driveway the night of the death.
"In general the court is impressed with the substance of many of Monroe's claims," Judge Williams wrote.