Orchard murder solved long ago

Many times while driving on North Phoenix Road past Campbell Road, I remember the old orchard that has since been bulldozed over. If my memory is correct, it seems that in the 1980s, a waitress from the Pear Tree Truck Stop restaurant (now Iron Skillet) was found murdered in this orchard. Was the case solved? If so, what was the motive?

— S.K.C., Medford

Police investigators didn't have to look far from home to find the men responsible for the Nov. 3, 1988, murder of 54-year-old Donna Mae Richards.

Her husband of more than 20 years, Charles William Richards, 55, hired two men to have her killed for a payment of old car parts and $5,000 to $10,000.

Police arrested Charles Richards, Delbert Kurt Rothermel, 20, a homeless drifter and part-time worker for the Richardses, and Alton Edward Hazel, 41, of Medford, a nephew of Charles', on Nov. 6 of that year on charges of aggravated murder. Police said several unusual actions taken by the men following the recovery of Donna Richards' body led them to suspect the trio.

On the evening of Nov. 3, Charles Richards called police and reported his wife missing, saying she had gone to jump-start a friend's car earlier that evening and never returned home. Her body was found by a hunter the next day, in a parked van about four miles from Highway 140 near Lake Creek.

Shortly after his arrest, Rothermel confessed to the crime on a tape recording, describing the murder step-by-step for investigators and implicating Hazel and Charles Richards. Rothermel and Hazel had tricked Donna Richards into coming to Campbell Road to give their truck a jump-start. When Richards arrived, the two men began to beat her with a hammer and saucepan while she sat in her van.

Rothermel drove the van over an hour away, with Hazel following in the truck, looking for a place to leave the van and the body. In his confession, Rothermel said Richards regained consciousness on the drive, and he beat her several more times with the hammer and saucepan before leaving her dead body with the van.

Although each of the men responsible for her murder faced the possibility of the death penalty, prosecutors chose not to pursue it. Instead, Charles Richards was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole. Rothermel was sentenced to life in prison with a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years before parole, and Hazel was sentenced to life in prison with a mandatory minimum sentence of 13 years.

In a confession Hazel gave to Colorado police on Nov. 6, 1988, to which he fled and was arrested after the murder, he said he believed Charles Richards wanted his wife killed because he was afraid she was going to leave him and take many of the couple's valuables with her.

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