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Tuesday, September 8, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Estranged Wife's Slaying Defense Will Claim Abuses -- Trial To Begin In School Counselor's Death

Seattle Times Snohomish County Bureau

EVERETT - In the 18 months since Chuck Leonard was found shot to death, the suspect in his slaying has allegedly tried to hide evidence, turned herself in, posted $500,000 bail in cash from a rich lover, skipped to Puerto Rico, been recaptured, tried to kill herself twice and undergone mental evaluations.

Her lawyer is preparing to mount an insanity and diminished-capacity defense, citing, among other things, his client's alleged abuse as a child and her belief that her daughter was being abused by Leonard.

Leonard, 53, a popular counselor at Everett's North Middle School, was found early last year in the front yard of his Stanwood-area home, shot three times with a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun.

The defendant in the murder trial, scheduled to begin this week in Snohomish County Superior Court, is the victim's estranged wife, 35-year-old Teresa Gaethe-Leonard. Prosecutors have charged her with first-degree murder and bail-jumping. If convicted, Gaethe-Leonard, former owner of a Marysville consignment shop, will spend a minimum of 25 years in prison.

The tale of the slaying and its aftermath will unfold before jurors in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Gerald Knight. Prominent Seattle defense attorney John Henry Browne is representing Gaethe-Leonard.

Snohomish County prosecutors allege that in the early morning of Feb. 20, 1997, Gaethe-Leonard went to her husband's Lake Goodwin home and shot him as he slept. The couple, who had separated in 1994 and were getting a divorce, had been embroiled in a custody dispute over their 5-year-old daughter. Prosecutors allege Gaethe-Leonard killed her husband because he opposed her plan to move to Hawaii to join her rich, married boyfriend, taking the child with her.

After being shot, prosecutors allege, Leonard awoke and chased Gaethe-Leonard from his downstairs bedroom to his front yard, where he collapsed. His body was found later that day by a co-worker.

The defense won't dispute that Gaethe-Leonard shot Leonard but will paint a different picture for jurors. In a trial brief obtained Friday, Browne wrote that he would argue Gaethe-Leonard had been abused as a child and had been emotionally abused by Leonard, who had had affairs during their marriage.

Browne expects to show that before the shooting, Gaethe-Leonard learned Leonard was allegedly abusing the couple's daughter.

The defense contends Gaethe-Leonard was distraught when she drove to the home to confront Leonard about the allegation and that he was awake and sitting up in bed when he was shot.

Browne expects the evidence to show Gaethe-Leonard has no clear memory of the shooting and that she never planned it. Defense attorneys plan to call mental-health experts to testify that Gaethe-Leonard's state of mind met the criteria for legal insanity and diminished capacity.

An insanity defense must show the defendant didn't know the difference between right and wrong or was unable to understand the nature and consequence of his or her actions while committing the crime. A diminished-capacity defense must show a defendant's mental condition made him or her unable to form the intent to commit the crime.

If jurors determine Gaethe-Leonard wasn't insane but didn't plan or didn't intend to shoot Leonard, they would likely be asked to consider lesser convictions, such as second-degree murder or manslaughter.

If jurors determine she was legally insane at the time of the shooting, Gaethe-Leonard would likely be sent to Western State Hospital for an indeterminate amount of time.

Prosecutors have said in court papers that Gaethe-Leonard's claim to a mental defense is inconsistent with her original statements to police that she didn't kill her estranged husband. They are expected to argue that on the day of the slaying, Gaethe-Leonard enlisted the help of a friend to hide the gun and other evidence.

On March 1, 1997, Gaethe-Leonard - accompanied by her previous lawyer - surrendered to Snohomish County sheriff's officials. Nine days later, murder charges were filed against her and she was ordered held in jail in lieu of $500,000 "cash only" bail.

The next month, she was released after her multimillionaire boyfriend John Skenderian, a Maui real-estate owner, paid the $500,000.

But that August, after permission to contact her daughter had been cut off, Gaethe-Leonard overdosed on prescription drugs, ending up in a hospital. Then, in early December, she fled to Puerto Rico, where she again attempted suicide.

She was traced to Puerto Rico through calls made to Skenderian, who by then had separated from his wife. Gaethe-Leonard was arrested in mid-December after Browne, alerted by one of her relatives, told authorities Gaethe-Leonard was in a San Juan hospital.

In recent months, Browne said, Gaethe-Leonard's state of mind has deteriorated. Just last month, Knight ordered Gaethe-Leonard to Western State for an evaluation. Afterward, he found her competent to stand trial but determined her mental state was fragile enough to warrant her spending the remaining days before trial at the hospital.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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