The husband of a Kennewick woman kidnapped and shot to death earlier this month believes the woman accused of murdering her acted alone.
“I feel that Theresa Wiltse acted independently in this hideous crime against my lovely wife of 30 years, who I loved very dearly, and is the most horrible loss anyone could imagine,” Randy Harris told reporters after a court hearing Wednesday.
The Kennewick pawn shop owner said it was chilling to sit with family and friends just feet from the Connell woman in court, still believing her to be a stranger with no connection to his wife, Sandra.
“I’ve got to be strong,” he said. “My wife would want me to be strong, and I’ve got to go on.”
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Wiltse, 49, pleaded innocent to aggravated first-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping and her trial for the potential death penalty case was tentatively set for Jan. 30.
In the meantime, the Connell Police Department has reopened an investigation into an assault six months ago in which Wiltse was questioned as a possible suspect.
After Wednesday’s brief hearing in Benton County Superior Court, Randy Harris said he is going to leave everything in the hands of Prosecutor Andy Miller and his deputy prosecutors to get justice.
The couple celebrated their wedding anniversary on Nov. 16, two days before Sandra called to say she’d been kidnapped and the suspects wanted $250,000.
The 69-year-old grandmother’s body was found Nov. 20 along a rural Benton County road. She’d been shot several times.
“I have to rebuild my life,” said Randy Harris, who owns Ace Jewelry & Loan. “This has been horrible. I’ve lost lots of sleep ... but I’ve got to move forward.”
The murder includes the aggravating circumstance that it happened “in furtherance of, or in immediate flight from” the kidnapping. Both charges also include allegations that a gun was used.
A conviction for aggravated murder carries only two possible sentences: life in prison or death.
Prosecutors now have 30 days to decide whether to file notice of a special sentencing proceeding if she’s convicted as charged.
The court can grant an extension or the defendant can waive the time requirement for the decision.
Miller did not raise the issue of capital punishment Wednesday, but a death-penalty qualified attorney, Michael Iaria of Seattle, was appointed to assist defense attorney Sam Swanberg.
The defense attorneys will work on a mitigation package in which they attempt to sway prosecutors to show leniency for their client.
Also Wednesday, in an unusual move, Judge Vic VanderSchoor agreed with Swanberg’s request to ban the media from photographing Wiltse’s face. The judge said he’ll schedule a hearing for arguments on allowing photos in a public courtroom of the murder suspect.
Wiltse — who formerly worked as a corrections officer in Walla Walla’s Washington State Penitentiary for two years — is being held in the Benton County jail without bail.
She was arrested late Nov. 18 after allegedly trying to collect the ransom. A gun, ammunition and blood were discovered in her rental car, court documents show. The ammunition reportedly was consistent with the bullets that killed Harris.
Court documents do not give a motive or show how Harris and Wiltse may have known each other. Randy Harris said his wife “would not have recognized this lady, no way, no how.”
Sandra Harris was a caring, loving, private person who worked for 40 years as head accountant with Boise Cascade, said her husband. She retired eight years ago, and enjoyed spending her free time with her “little animals” and grandchildren and messing with her garden.
Wiltse has claimed she had accomplices in the kidnapping and slaying of Harris, but has not identified anyone.
Under state law, the death penalty can’t be applied to an aggravated murder suspect if there is another person who is more culpable in the crime.
There has been a moratorium on the death penalty in Washington since February 2014. The order by Gov. Jay Inslee was for as long as he’s in office, which is through 2020.
Miller has told the Herald that he won’t take the death penalty off the table from consideration if the circumstances warrant it, because another governor may assume office while the case is still working through the judicial system.
Miller is the only active prosecutor in the state who has seen a death penalty case all the way through to execution. Jeremy Sagastegui died by lethal injection for the 1995 killing of a child and two women in Finley.
Wiltse’s alleged involvement in the Kennewick death has Connell police reopening the assault case.
In May, a grocery store clerk said a masked woman pointed a gun and threatened to kill her when she arrived at work at 5:50 a.m.
Connell Police Chief Chris Turner said the 34-year-old victim was able to get away and the suspect ran off.
“We had the victim think about the different people that frequent the store and she specifically mentioned Theresa,” he told the Tri-City Herald. “She could only see (the suspect’s) eyes. It could be her, the victim wasn’t for sure.”
Wiltse was the only person questioned by police, and she denied any involvement.
Turner said it has been an inactive case because they didn’t have enough evidence. Now, he said, the department is looking at it again to see if they missed anything and may try to re-interview her in jail.