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Monday, August 2, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Two New Books Profile Randy Roth

The true-crime genre is so glutted that the story of Randy Roth, whose compelling murder trial last year played like a daily soap opera of greed, cunning and cold-heartedness, has spurred not one but two summertime paperbacks.

Roth's life and first-degree murder conviction for drowning his fourth wife in Lake Sammamish were well-chronicled, and his sensational two-month trial was covered gavel-to-gavel by local media.

He had been married to Cynthia Baumgartner Roth less than a year before she drowned July 23, 1992, leaving him $385,000 in life insurance and more in other assets.

His second wife, Janis Miranda Roth, died in 1981 after falling off a cliff. He had been married to her less than a year and received an insurance payoff.

In each case, he was the only witness, he asserted the outing wasn't his idea, and the bodies were cremated.

In each case, he reacted with odd detachment.

Veteran local author Ann Rule has written "A Rose for her Grave," which focuses on Roth, but also includes much shorter accounts of notorious Northwest cases.

Former Seattle Times reporter Carlton Smith, who previously co-wrote "The Search for the Green River Killer," has titled his book about Roth "Fatal Charm."

Both works ultimately tell the same story and come to the same conclusion a King County Superior Court jury did last spring: that Roth was a woman-hater, a liar, an insurance fraud, a bully, a schemer and devoid of emotion or caring.

By the time prosecutors - and the authors - finish with Roth he is also something of a child abuser.

Rule likens Roth, now serving a 55-year prison sentence, to Bluebeard, the fictional character who collected wives only to kill them and stow them away in a room.

Roth, she writes, was a woman's dream during courtship only to become controlling and cruel shortly after marriage.

Rule, who attended most of the trial, closely follows the testimony and tells a largely chronological story of Roth's relationships with his various wives, girlfriends and neighbors.

All four of Roth's wives were single mothers and married him after whirlwind romances. Two other women who testified he was courting them were also single mothers.

Prosecutors speculated that Roth chose women with children because they might be more apt to quickly marry a man who projected a desire to be a father, friend and provider.

`WHY AM I SO FASCINATED?'

"My readers are quiet, gentle people," said Rule. "When I'm out signing books, every time two or three women will ask me, `What's wrong with me? Why am I so fascinated by this?' "

"It's not so hard to understand why we're so interested in understanding what makes a person commit such a terrible crime. There will always be a place for true-crime work that explains the killer and warns potential victims."

Smith's book starts faster, with the drama at the lake, and ventures far deeper into Roth's background and how the layered investigation and case against him took shape.

The book also examines Roth's family roots in North Dakota, his unhappy and brief stint in the Marines, and the murder conviction of his only brother.

"Fatal Charm" describes in greater detail how:

-- Shortly after the drowning, women who knew Roth called King County detectives Sue Peters and Randy Mullinax with disturbing details that snowballed into a massive circumstantial but compelling case.

The case unfolded quickly through breaks, persistence, a number of unsolicited phone calls to detectives, and Roth's own lies.

-- King County prosecutors initially balked at bringing a murder case against Roth because it was too circumstantial. They feared a judge would not allow evidence about his second wife's suspicious death.

Detectives then went to senior deputy Marilyn Brenneman in the prosecutor's fraud unit. She found the signals unmistakable, and took on and won the case.

-- Roth's upbringing in a poor and dysfunctional family may have played a major role in his apparent makeup of valuing money and control over all else.

-- The case was largely won during pre-trial motions when prosecutors were allowed to introduce evidence about Janis Miranda Roth's similar death and other "prior bad acts."

"I think Roth had a great ability to project what he wanted a particular person to see in him," said Smith. "He was a very good manipulator. He could be intimidating, experienced and wise, a romantic, a war veteran, the handy mechanic.

"And he needed control."

MODERN-DAY MORALITY PLAY

Smith said Roth's story, and good true-crime work in general, serves as a modern-day morality play where there is a resolution and right usually wins.

Both books make considerable note of Roth's utter lack of emotion, while viewing his dead wives or fighting for his freedom in court. He testified for five days and consistently spoke in flat, expressionless tones.

When asked what it was like to view the body of his second wife who had fallen off a cliff he remarked simply that she didn't look as "badly damaged" as he thought she would.

Roth did not cooperate with either author.

The books also make much of the battle between Roth, an apparent woman-hater, and the lead detective and two prosecutors, all women.

Although Roth's sparring with prosecutor Brenneman was the highlight of the trial, she downplays gender.

"I've prosecuted many woman just as vigorously as Randy Roth," said Brenneman. "I'm a woman and a feminist, but I'm also a prosecutor."

CONVICTION BEING APPEALED

Roth's attorney George Cody has appealed the conviction on several grounds, most notably whether Superior Court Judge Frank Sullivan erred in allowing evidence about Janis Miranda Roth's 1981 death to be used in the 1992 trial involving the drowning.

Roth, 38, was never charged by Skamania County officials, but Sullivan said he felt it showed significant parallels to the drowning and tended to establish a pattern. Cody said it tainted the jury.

"When you have the last 15 years of a guy's life examined through testimony of almost everyone who doesn't like him you're in trouble," said Cody.

Best-selling true-crime author Jack Olsen praised Smith's book as "very responsible," but said the fact both were released immediately in paperback is a telling signal to a field invaded by pretenders that the public is becoming sated.

Stories of violent, strange and sensational crimes bombard people through television, newspapers and movies, said Olsen. The days of attracting readers by simply shoving a gruesome case in front of them is over.

"The people who are going to buy true-crime books are people who want to read good writing and are looking for serious work on the serious problem of crime in our society," said Olsen.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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