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NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 9/18/2009 4:08:52 PM ET 2009-09-18T20:08:52
transcript

This report aired on Dateline NBC on Friday, Sept. 18, 2009. The full video will not be available online, but you can watch a web-exclusive clip here.

His name was Tim Schuster, and he was having a bad day. Not that he'd say so himself.

Mary Solis: Well, Tim was pretty quiet. 

Still, bad day, bad week.

Tami Belshay: He was despondent after being laid off from Saint Agnes. 

That was on top of the daughter trouble.

Tami Belshay: Enough to want to have her re-located to-- Missouri to get her straightened up.

And of course, the divorce.  Last thing Tim would ever have wanted.

Mary Solis: The sad part of it is he really, really wanted his marriage to work.

Awful how things can pile up on a person.  And so, when, on that particularly difficult morning…

Bob Solis: Tim didn't make his appointment. 

It wouldn't be the first time a man had left a life not going so well, now would it? And there had been such chemistry once. He was a young nurse, she still a college student. And she was exciting, ambitious.

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And after graduation they came here to the heart of the California breadbasket, a little town - a suburb, really - called Clovis.

Bob Solis: Clovis is a really nice community. You find the newer houses there, the wealthier families live there. 

Theresa Freed is a TV reporter in  bigger Fresno, next door.

Theresa Freed: Fresno's nice as well, but-- a lot of-- a lot of wealthy people do live in Clovis, and it has very low crime.

And here was where they made their life, a somewhat unusual arrangement by traditional American standards. She was an entrepreneur, rose to become the president of her own agricultural chemicals company. A double a type - a smart, demanding boss who succeeded by becoming a workaholic.

He employed soft-spoken empathy as a nurse-administrator at Fresno's St. Agnes hospital. And, at home in Clovis, was Mr. Mom to their daughter Kristen, and younger son, Tyler.  He liked that, said these friends and fellow nurses, Mary and Bob Solis. But he was also supporting his wife's ambitious career.

Mary Solis: He allowed her to do what she needed to do by getting off work, coming home, taking care of the kids, making sure they got to their doctor's appointments.  Making sure they had their meals.  Making sure they did their homework.

And for a long time, it worked. 

At the hospital where he helped run the nursing department, Tim was a popular leader. The other nurses liked him and looked up to him.

Mary Solis: He was certainly someone that was open to listening-- to different ideas.  If he made a decision he took responsibility and accountability for the decisions he made.

But at home, he remained his quiet, undemonstrative self.

Mary Solis: She was probably the one that pretty much drove what was going on. 

Keith Morrison: So he was always-- as soon as you saw him with her you-- at the beginning, you realized he was whipped, as they say?

Mary Solis: Yeah.

Balance of power, as long as no one rocked the boat. There was peace in the Schuster home, its normal discontents unspoken, unexpressed. But you can't keep trouble at bay forever by pretending it doesn't exist. When Larissa laid down the law, Tim went along.  But her now teen-aged daughter Kristin defied her. Kristin stood up to her mother's powerful personality in ways Tim wouldn't dream of doing. She'd sneak out of the house with boys, stay out too late, talk back.

This is Larissa's friend, Tami Belshay.

Tami Belshay: She had a very tough relationship with Kristin. I know that they were really-- at it for quite some time.

It got so bad eventually that Larissa sent Kristin away; packed her off to live with her grandparents back in Missouri, a decision Tim did not necessarily agree with. Around then might have been the time when resentments started to boil under the placid surface of Tim's demeanor. In public, however, he suffered in silence, even when Larissa spat out her belittling insults.

Bob and Mary Solis: It was obvious that-- she didn't-- she didn't mind embarrassing him in front of his friends.  She didn't mind that at all.  In fact, she took relish in that at times. And then the friends that we hung with-- also noticed it.  And they made the same comment.  You know, "Is there something going on with-- with Tim and Larissa?"  "We don't know.  Tim never said anything."

What was going on?  Increasingly, Larissa told her friends she was fed up with Tim, that he was not a real man. She'd even had an affair and she hated his passive/aggressive response. She even let it get around that he wouldn't have sex with her. She wanted out.  Tim seemed despairing.

Mary Solis: I mean they went to counseling.  And his thought was that, "Okay, you know, we're both agreeing to go to counseling so there must be a chance that, you know, we can work this out."  And that was never gonna happen 'cause that wasn't her plan.  Her plan was, you know, you could use the counselor as the opportunity to say to Tim, "This marriage is over with."  You know, "We're done."

So, divorce it was, but about as messy as a divorce can be: a process which, for Larissa, was extremely frustrating.

Tami Belshay: Oh, she told me all the nuts and bolts.  She told me-- about the frustrations, about the small successes.  And then, the retreating to-- losing you know, the small battles with Tim.  So, it got to be really acrimonious. 

Once, after the split, Larissa sent a young male employee to break into Tim's house and take back items she claimed belonged to her. But somewhere in the painful process, Tim Schuster seemed to grow a backbone. After that break-in, he even bought a gun.

Bob Solis: Tim was changing.  He was evolving.  And he was changing to a point where he was starting to get some stones.  Although he was reluctant at first to do it, he was slowly progressing to a point where he was starting to say, "No."

But the marriage he cared so much about was over. His beloved daughter was gone, the son he adored bounced back and forth through the poisoned air between him and his estranged wife. And then one day he got a pink slip; lost his job in a round of lay-offs at St. Agnes hospital. Had Tim hit bottom? He arranged to meet the hospital's human resources person the next morning.

Bob Solis: Tim didn't make his appointment.  And she looked really, really concerned.  Well, I also got real concerned, because we knew how Tim was in regards to keeping appointments.

Keith Morrison: Which was what?

Mary Solis: Very meticulous.  Always on time.  Never missed anything, or he called if he was running late.

What happened to Tim Schuster? What had he done?

Bob Solis: And I says, please, "call-- the police-- we have a friend. He's not answering his phones.  And he's registered to carry a handgun."

Something was amiss in Clovis, Calif. Bad enough that nurse Tim Schuster was laid off, on top of all his other troubles. But now this impeccably reliable man had skipped a crucial meeting with the hospital's human resources officer.

Mary Solis: He didn't just blow things off like that, so.  And this was important.

Bob Solis: If he said he was going to be there he was there

So Bob and Mary Solis called another of Tim's friends, Victor Uribe. Could Victor check Tim's house? Make sure he's okay?

Victor Uribe: I walked through all the house-- and then when I went into his bedroom, I saw his cell phone and his watch.  The phone told me somethin's really wrong because he never went anywhere without that phone.

Victor went to the garage, opened Tim's pickup truck.

Victor Uribe: And I went through-- the glove box and his console-- his wallet was there.  There was money in it.  Credit cards were there.  I mean, this was real-- it was really strange.

So it was.  Mary and Bob Solis called the police.  Told them Tim wouldn't go missing without a bad reason.  Told them about Tim's handgun. But when Detective Vince Weibert heard about Tim's recent troubles.

Vince Weibert: I mean, that right there is a big red flag for us to look at and say something happened here.

Not that Tim had gone postal on anyone -  except, perhaps, himself.

Vince Weibert: He-- possibly committed suicide. A man who's going through a divorce-- who's having child custody issues, who may be having financial issues, and now he's laid off from his job and he goes missing that day?

Tim Schuster's disappearance sent tremors through quiet, prosperous Clovis.  This just isn't the sort of place where educated, middle-class people simply vanish without a trace.

Vince Weibert: We've kind of got that small town kind of old school thing going on there.  Now, one of the things that Clovis has always prided itself on is-- and part of its unique identity has been a very low crime rate.

So suicide seemed the most plausible answer. But Tim's friends didn't buy it.  And they certainly didn't believe that the loss of his marriage or his job would have been the reason. 

Keith Morrison: He wasn't broken up about it.

Mary Solis: Nope.

Bob Solis: No.  He saw-- he saw it as an opportunity, number one, to be with his son.  To get some-- some clarity of what's going on in his life. 

Mary Solis: He had such a great concern for his kids.  Not so much for himself, but for his kids.  He would not have left them without a father.

Although, the police put two and two together and figured the timing of all this was probably pretty important.

Vince Weibert: We didn't rule out the possibility of him just saying, you know what, I've been laid off from my job, I'm in the middle of a bad divorce and I'm having problems, I'm going to go disappear for a while.  Take off with a friend, go to the mountains, go to Vegas, do something like that.

In which case, it couldn't be that hard to find him. Could it?

Vince Weibert: We talked to any family member that we could find.  We went through Tim's-- notebooks.  We went through his-- his phone records. We even looked into having the helicopter fly over head in the field to the north of their home to FLIR it to see if there were any heat sources out there.

Keith Morrison: What'd they find?

Vince Weibert: Nothing.  Nothing out there.

They even went as far as asking Larissa for information, even though because of the divorce the two hadn't seen each other for months. Still, they asked, would she come in for a chat? Of course, she agreed. And they recorded the conversation.

Detective:  Is Timothy capable of--if he wanted to go away start a new life somewhere, first of all, and this is all your opinion, do you think he would do that?  And my having a son myself, I wouldn't leave my son, is he capable of just packing up, cashing up a bunch of money and going somewhere else thinking I need maybe would he just snap and do that?  Is he capable of doing that?

Larissa Schuster: Uh--I don't know that, I don't know.

Detective: Do you think he would leave your son and not see him?

Larissa Schuster: My gut tells me that no, that he probably wouldn't do that.

So - was it foul play?  Had somebody caused Tim to disappear? Of course, in situations like this, police generally like to eliminate the possibility that a spouse - current or ex - might have had something to do with a disappearance.  They have to ask.  So they did.

Detective:  Larissa, let me ask you this, are you the type of person that could have anything to do with him missing?

Larissa Schuster: No. Not at all, no I don't-- I couldn't do --I can't-- I mean, I'd--we've had our problems and I dislike him and you know--and, and we haven't been able to get along but I couldn't do that to my son.

And then Larissa - not terribly useful so far - went home. And 48 hours into the search for Tim, police still had no solid leads. But then - it's funny the little things that make a big difference - one of the investigators was going through Tim's papers, and stumbled on a familiar name: 

Vince Weibert: Detective Kirkhart had received Fagone's name by going through the-- by Tim's ledger.

James Fagone. The name was familiar because this was the very young man suspected of breaking into Tim's new house and stealing back some of the items Tim had taken from his marriage.  Fagone, police knew, was a sort of errand boy for Larissa. What was his name doing in Tim's personal ledger?

Vince Weibert: So-- Detective Kirkhart and Detective Daley actually sat down on Monday—and interviewed—James.

Keith Morrison: This person might actually be involved in whatever happened?

Vince Weibert: We thought that he may have some inside information.

Inside information?  Theft the year before?  Who was this Fagone person, and what did he know? Could he find Tim Schuster?

Tim Schuster was gone.  Two decades of Mr. Meek to his wife's domination, and now he'd lost his marriage, his job, and - at least his friends feared - he'd lost his life. But not, they were determined, to suicide.

Mary Solis: He wouldn't do that to his kids.  He wouldn't do that to his mom. 

So had someone done something to him? Why not ask James Fagone?

Vince Weibert: This is the home that James Fagone would babysit at.

Fagone, it turned out, was 21 years old. And a babysitter before and after the breakup for young Tyler, the Schusters' son.

He was a personal assistant of sorts for Larissa.  Fagone was a good kid, by all accounts - good family.

Here's his attorney, Peter Jones.

Peter Jones: Mr. Fagone? Well-- this is a young man who had a-- over a 4.0 grade point average.  Straight As in high school.  He was in an Annapolis candidate. He-- he was-- really a gentle spirit.

Gentle or not, police believed Fagone might know something about the disappearance of Tim Schuster. So they found young Fagone, and took him in for questioning.

Detective: ...and that we believe that you may have some information that—uh, will help us.

James Fagone: I don't know about too much.

Fagone was very nervous, that was obvious.  Maybe because right off the bat the cops dragged up that old accusation that Fagone - along with Larissa - broke into Tim's house, took some things.

James Fagone: Uh, she was--she was just kinda like going around and I was just kinda trying to get a TV and some stuff.  So I wasn't' really paying attention and  I didn't really wanna know too much, I think that was a problem.

Detective: ...and who's house were you in?

James Fagone : I--I  believe  it was Tim's, well I--it was Tim's house.

Detective: Tim who?

James Fagone: Tim Schuster.

By now, a few minutes into the warmup questions, Fagone seemed visibly frightened. He half-admitted, he'd helped Larissa take some things from Tim's house the year before. But he knew nothing at all about the man's recent disappearance. So detectives kept pressing him, telling Fagone they knew he had to be involved. And suddenly, his resolve not to tell, if that's what it was, imploded. James Fagone cracked.  Yes, he confessed, he was there the night Tim vanished. Was there at Tim's house.  And he went there.. with a weapon.

Detective: You mentioned a stun gun.  Did you--did you use that at all?

James Fagone: Yeah.

Here in the interrogation room, Fagone's resolve simply collapsed.  As detectives asked their questions, he blurted out the whole story.

Detective:  How many times did you use it on him?

James Fagone: Couple times.

Detective: Where did you zap him first at?

James Fagone: Just kinda like on the arm or whatever--you know and then he was just like uh—uh, and then he fell like in--in that--that small area.

It happened, said Fagone, at Tim's front door, the night before he missed that morning meeting with his hospital's HR director.  After Fagone fired the stun gun, Tim collapsed and fell in the entrance of his house.  And then?  Well.  Then the dismal work of that dreadful night began in earnest. And as Fagone told his awful story, his audience, seasoned detectives remember could scarcely believe their ears.

Keith Morrison: Good God.  (laughs) What a story.

Vince Weibert: Yeah.  (clears throat) And this is what-- this is what James is telling me-- while I'm sittin' there-- sittin' there talkin' to him.  And he is-- he is telling me most of the aspects of this and-- and in-- in fairly good detail.

Keith Morrison: Laying out the whole crime?

Vince Weibert: Laying out the whole crime.

But why would a normal 21-year-old kid, a fine student, a good kid, harm Tim? What motive did he have? And the answer was, maybe he didn't.  Maybe someone else did. In fact, when he heard the story himself, Fagone's lawyer was convinced someone must have put him up to it.

PeterJones: He would have never done this in a million years on his own.. 

What did young James Fagone tell his lawyer, and those policemen?  Was he telling the truth? There was more investigating to be done - more to the story than anyone guessed. The real horror hadn't been discovered yet.

The interview rooms in the Clovis Police Department are like any other; which is to say, a very uncomfortable place to be. When the 21-year-old named James Fagone was brought in for questioning, he soon caved under the pressure. This was the rest of his story.

James Fagone: I was kind of messed up and it was kind of scaring me, kinda, you know, worried that she would do something like that.

She?  By she, he meant Larissa. He was with her that night, he said.  He was frightened, he said; he knew she wanted him to do something. He was going to be her helper, she told him.  Or so he said.  Larissa paid him for it – $2,000. What did they do? Here's what Fagone told police: on the very night Tim was laid off from his job at the hospital, Larissa directed  Fagone to accompany her to Tim's house. He was to purchase and bring a stun gun. They sneaked up the walk to his front door.

Vince Weibert: James said that he waited in the shadows-- near the door while Larissa went up to the front door of the home. He then heard Larissa talking-- saying-- "Tyler's not feeling well.  I need you to come to the door."

A few moments later-- Tim came and opened the front door.  And at that point James lunged from the shadows-- at Tim, tackled him to the ground.  And Larissa jumped on top of them also there inside the foyer of his home.  James was stunning him with the stun gun that Larissa had given him the money to purchase.  And Tim was struggling.  But after a few moments Tim stopped struggling.

That wasn't the end of Fagone's story, there was more to tell.  But to believe what he had told them so far, the investigators needed some kind of proof, physical evidence.

Vince Weibert: I asked him, "What had happened to the stun gun?"  And he told me that he had thrown it into a port-a-potty somewhere on the outskirts of town in the country. And we actually recovered that stun gun inside that port-a-potty.

Keith Morrison: Wait a minute.  You had to go inside the port-a-potty?

Vince Weibert: Yeah.  We had to go fishing inside the port-a-potty to go ahead and recover the stun gun.

Something else happened just as the detectives were interviewing the young man: A woman contacted the Clovis Police Department. Her boss had asked her to do something that now seemed suspicious, she said. Her boss, Larissa, who, said the employee,  directed her to rent a truck with her own - not Larissa's - credit card.  She had already been a little a suspicious when Larissa asked her rent a storage locker the year before, again in her own name... Not far from Larissa's bio-chemical company.

Detective Jim Koch drew the assignment to check it out.  He drove to the storage facility, walked down a hallway toward Larissa's locker.  He had been told to look for a blue plastic barrel. As he opened the door of the locker, he was hit with something powerful.

Jim Koch: And it was very, very strong odor. 

Keith Morrison: Wearing protective gear?

Jim Koch: I had on a breathing apparatus and gloves.

There was the barrel.  He opened the lid.

Jim Koch: And when I opened the barrel I-- I saw something that was very, very shocking to me and I recognized immediately as human remains. There was a barrel that's over 3/4 of the way full of fluid and portions of-- of-- body protruding from the fluid.  And the body was obviously decaying. It was placed in acid.  And the acid was basically eating away at the body.

Had Larissa sealed her ex-husband's body in a vat of acid? Yes, said Fagone, telling the rest of his story back at police headquarters, that's what she did. After he obeyed Larissa's directive to shoot Tim with that stun gun, he said, he helped her drag the body to a big blue barrel.

James Fagone: I helped her prop up the barrel and then she put him in and, uh, she poured some solution in there.

Detective: What kind of solution?

James Fagone: It was really caustic--it was--it was fuming and uh and--and you know honestly she was like you know--I was messed up...she was like --it was too, uh-- it was too, uh, burning my lungs.

Then, said Fagone, he helped Larissa transport the body first to her house and then, the next day, to her chemical lab, where he watched her pour even more acid over Tim's remains. Oh, and something else.  Something he could not stop thinking about:

Vince Weibert: The fact that he was potentially alive when the acid was poured on him.

Jim Koch: That's not something that you forget right away.

By the time they heard and checked out Fagone's story, detectives had also found evidence of Larissa's true feelings for her ex-husband.  Tim, it turned out, had saved phone messages from Larissa: messages filled with loathing.

Here's one of them:

"I hope to God you burn in hell one of these days, because you will," "I'll tell you what, this is going to come back to haunt you,"  "You talk about me alienating your kids, you're doing a damn good job yourself. And you just wait, it's coming, sweetheart."

Obviously, detectives wanted to talk to Larissa as quickly as possible, but discovered she was gone. Larissa was 2000 miles away.  She'd taken their little boy Tyler on a trip - she was at that moment on her way to visit family in Missouri.  No time to waste now.

Vince Weibert: And we had this arrest warrant in hand.  Detectives from Clovis Police Department go to Missouri and meet her getting off the plane.  And she's arrested for Tim's murder.  And the interesting thing is, is that when they tell her she's arrested for Tim's murder, at no point does she ask, "What happened to Tim?"  At no point does she ask, "How did he die?"  I believe it's because she already knew.  Because she was involved in it.

Keith Morrison: She said nothing?

Vince Weibert: She said nothing.  She didn't really even, according to the detectives that were out there, seem to be terribly surprised.

They brought her back to Clovis then, and charged her with first degree murder.  Charged  young fagone, too, also first degree murder. Tim's friends thought about the awful story, and their former social relationship with larissa as bossy wife of tim.

Bob Solis: What kind of person was that in my house?  In our home that we-- we opened up--

Keith Morrison: Fed her.

Bob Solis: Oh my God.

Keith Morrison: And gave her your wine.

Bob Solis: Gave our friendship. 

And after the shock of the story had settled over Clovis and nearby Fresno, people began to wonder about that odd duo, Larissa Schuster and James Fagone.  Just what was their relationship? Was young Fagone in thrall with Larissa?  Or was there more than meets the eye? Surely it wasn't a romance, was it?

Theresa Freed: It was so unlikely.  She was twice his age, she was his boss.

Detectives looked into that relationship, too, and concluded it was likely more hero-worship than romance. And the implications of that? Well, listen to Larissa's attorney, a man named Roger Nuttall. He says it was Fagone alone who killed Tim in some misguided act of loyalty to the powerful Larissa.

Roger Nuttall: He talked with his friends about his dislike for Tim Schuster, based upon the way in which Tim Schuster treated Larissa and-- and Tyler, as well.

Could it be Larissa's rants about Tim were just talk, and her young acolyte took it all more seriously than she would ever have wanted? After all, said attorney Nuttal, there was no physical evidence at all to say that Larissa was the instigator of the murder. It all rested on Fagone's word. In fact, said Nuttal, she didn't do it.

And maybe a jury would agree.

You might think that James Fagone and Larissa Schuster would be tried together for the horrifically gruesome murder of Larissa's husband Tim. But the law has its ways. The trials were separated.  And that promised the possibility of a profound consequence. Why?  Call it the blame game. Fagone's trial came first.

The prosecutor, Dennis Peterson, spared no detail of the awful incident, the stun gun, the barrel, the acid, and the active role played by James Fagone. 

Prosecutor:  When he choked out the victim, when he stunned him, when he held him as Larissa binded him. And he did all of these things for future promises of some benefits.

Her idea, in other words, but with his willing participation, as he had conceded in his long and detailed confession. How could he defend himself against that? Two words:  Blame Larissa.

Pete Jones, in court: The road to perdition for James Fagone began and ended with a sick sadistic sociopath named Larissa Schuster.

Defense attorney Peter Jones set out to persuade jurors that Fagone hadn't intended to murder Tim.  He thought Larissa just wanted to rob him, as they had done, after all, once before!  He wouldn't kill a spider. He wouldn't tell you that, but the people who knew him best would tell you that.

With nothing to lose, Fagone testified in his own defense. And though the judge would not allow his testimony to be taped, we can tell you that he portrayed himself as an impressionable boy manipulated by a powerful older woman.

KeithMorrison: Why didn't he just run away?

Pete Jones: Well, you know, I asked him that when he was on the stand. And he said he was genuinely afraid of this woman and what she was capable of.  And-- what she was capable of doing to anybody who double-crossed her.

As she covered the trial, reporter Theresa Freed even encountered some sympathy for Fagone.  One trial watcher called him a "sweet kid". 

Theresa Freed: He seemed like a very credible witness.  Like, a kid down the street you might be friends with.

But it was a tough sell, and the verdict came down quickly.

“We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant James Fagone guilty of violation of section 187 of the penal code. First degree murder of Timothy Schuster.”

"One down," thought the Prosecutor Dennis Peterson, "one more to go." but things were getting complicated by then; Larissa's case had become so famous in Clovis and Fresno that her lawyer asked for and won a change of venue here, to a courthouse in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, a three and a half hour drive away. Was the case famous here?  Hardly.  Besides, just then everybody's attention was diverted by wildfires raging in the hills not far away. The prosecution's case seemed to be burning too because the prime witness against Larissa - James Fagone - was suddenly not available.

Why?  By this time Fagone had launched an appeal of his own conviction, and that action preserved his fifth amendment right against self incrimination, meaning the prosecutor could not compel him to testify. And worse, since you can't cross examine a video, Fagone's confession couldn't be played in court either.

Dennis Peterson: James Fagone was intended to be our star witness. When we le-- lose our lead man out in front-- it just left us that background picture of all of these circumstantial facts.

So, what was left, without Fagone? Well, of course there were those nasty messages Larissa left on Tim's telephone message machine.

“You pathetic bastard a------ I tell you what, I am so glad I'm getting divorced from you because I can't stand your f------ guts!”

Sgt. Koch: Tim had saved all the audio tapes that she had left messages for him that were rude, vulgar, and disgusting.

“You a------, I hate your f------ guts so bad I can't even stand you,  I hope you burn in hell.”

Sgt. Koch: She said things to him that just actually shocked the jurors.  You could see it in their faces.  They were absolutely amazed that a lady would talk to a person like that.

And one of Larissa's former employees testified that Larissa seemed to have some evil intent toward her ex-husband.

Witness: Once, I was auditing in the lab and there was a news on the TV that a woman ran over her husband and then Larissa she said that she'll do the same thing if she can get away with it.

There was the storage locker too. The curious business of Larissa paying for it, but asking an employee to put it under her name, not Larissa's. But if there was a star among the bits of circumstantial evidence it would have been ... The acid. Before Tim's murder, the prosecutor revealed that Larissa bought a big supply of hydrochloric acid, rar more than her chemical company normally used.

There could only have been one purpose, said the prosecutor.

Dennis Peterson: The-- the idea of using sulphuric acid or hydrochloric acid to-- to get rid of the remains of a body.  All of this, you know, shocks the conscience.

Keith Morrison:

Just diabolical.

Dennis Peterson: Diabolical.  It was.

But was that going to be enough to convict?  Without James Fagone's detailed confession?   Reporter Theresa Freed wasn't so sure.  

Theresa Freed: I thought, "How in the world are they going to convict her based on all of the circumstantial evidence?"

And the defense was just getting started. It would turn out to have a secret weapon, a most persuasive element:  Larissa herself.

Mary Solis: When you listen to her--I mean she-- looked at the jury.  She didn't look out at the audience there. She seemed very calm.  Very clear.  She knew exactly what to say. I told Bobby afterwards, "They could believe her."

Still, the jury had also heard a dreadful allegation: that Larissa Schuster killed her husband and put him in a vat of acid.  How would she talk her way out of that?

Larissa Schuster had always been in control.  But now, her fate lay in the hands of twelve strangers, and the gruesome, bizarre details about her husband's murder were truly shocking to hear. A woman who hated her husband so much she drowned him in a barrel of acid. Or so the state claimed. But Larissa's defense attorney, Roger Nuttall, said his client had been misjudged.

Roger Nutall: She-- she's-- she's a very devoted Christian woman.  She-- she headed up the Bible studies within the jail during the time that she was awaiting trial.

And as for the evidence against her?

Roger Nutall: All of that is circumstantial evidence but none of it places her at the scene

Remember, her acolyte, James Fagone, had been tried separately, and prosecutors were not allowed to use his confession against Larissa, allowing defense attorney Nuttall to pin the blame on him alone. So, what did Larissa do? She discovered said her attorney that her young friend had killed her ex-husband, and had put him in that acid. She knew police would focus on her because of all those terrible things she had said to and about her husband. So, she helped Fagone take the blue barrel to the storage unit.  And that's all she did.

Roger Nuttall in trial: She knows that she's in a horrible situation. The day from hell, so to speak. What do I do now? 

At her trial, what she did was talk.  A lot.

Clerk: Would you please state your name...

Larissa: Larissa LeAyn Schuster.

This was risky, certainly.  But she'd always spoken for herself, liked to be in control and she wasn't about to change now.

Larissa: Behind sights 20/20, I know that I've made some bad decisions that day. I was simply overwhelmed with what was going on in my life on that day.

When did she say she first learned about the murder?  James Fagone arrived at her house and told her he killed Tim... But that it was an accident.

Larissa: I had learned that he had put the body in a barrel and it was in- at my laboratory in the warehouse.

But!  What about all that extra acid she'd ordered to be sent to her lab just before the murder?

Roger Nuttall: Did you purchase that acid so that you could dump your husband's body in a barrel and pour the acid on it?

Larissa: No, I did not purchase it for that reason.

It was perfectly innocent, she said.  She needed the acid to give the lab's glassware a thorough cleaning. The prosecutor tried to counter Larissa, tried to show, for example, that nobody used acid to clean lab glass anymore. But after five days on the stand, Larissa had made a powerful impression.

Theresa Freed: If I hadn't heard the testimony from James Fagone's trial, I would've bought it.

But remember, the jury didn't hear Fagone's testimony. They heard Larissa's version  of the story.  And...

Tami Belshay: She was unflappable.  I thought that-- she handled herself really well.  But I also realized, she's very, very intelligent.

Even so, no one expected the amazing effect of Larissa's testimony.  As she stepped down from the witness stand, a member of the jury gave her a thumbs-up!

Theresa Freed: And as soon as it happened, everyone else was out of the room, all the other jurors.  And the judge talked to her about it and asked her, why did she do that? And she pretty much told the court that she did it because she wanted Larissa Schuster to know that she did a good job on the stand.  We're talking about a person who was accused of killing her husband and putting his body in a vat of acid.

Of course, her lawyer didn't mind, especially when the judge allowed the juror to stay on the panel.

Roger Nuttall: I thought th-- "That's fantastic."  Because it came at a point where Larissa was being cross-examined

And then, as defense and prosecution prepared for closing arguments, a different juror was dismissed for being disruptive and failing to pay attention.

Theresa Freed: Right after she was kicked off, we kind of hunted her down to find out exactly what she was thinking. And she said that she thought that Larissa Schuster was not guilty at that point.

It only takes one, of course. And so, here in this unfamiliar courthouse in suburban Los Angeles, Larissa and her accusers waited for four men and eight women to make up their minds. They waited for one day... And then two. And on day three, hours ticked by, the restless tension built all morning. Until finally, the news: a verdict. 

"We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant Larissa Schuster guilty - first degree murder of Timothy Schuster."

Guilty.  Even thumbs-up juror turned on Larissa. And just like that, the bubble of suspense burst; it was over. Save for the tears and recriminations, and the appeal still to come. And the sentence, of course.

Judge Ellison: And I'm ordering you committed, Ms. Schuster, to the Department of Corrections to serve the rest of your life.

She still had a friend, who sobbed openly here in the courtroom. And her young son Tyler, who'd always believed in her, and now knew she'd never be coming home. So, tears. But remember, Larissa had a daughter, too, Kristin, the one she couldn't control, the one she sent away. Here in court, Kristin was seeing her mother for the first time since the murder of her father. She wanted to tell the judge that for Larissa, life in prison wasn't punishment enough.

Kristin Schuster: If it were up to me, the justice system would be an eye for an eye. But it's not.

Chemistry. What passion it arouses.

Kristin Schuster: I pray you are continually haunted at night by the sight and sound of my father fighting for his last breathing moments on this earth.

There's a balance to the elements of a marriage, a happy formula, a chemistry of love. And when the elements were unstable?  Chemistry ended a marriage. And then a life as well. Though even among newlyweds, there's no telling what surprises may emerge behind closed doors.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

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