F￼red Auston Wortman was the picture of success.
Tall, smart and handsome, the attorney had it all.
Marrying his girlfriend Staci straight out of college, he built a career at a reputable law firm.
He also dabbled in local politics and campaigned for people with special needs.
When the couple went on to welcome three children, Ella Elizabeth, now 10, Auston, eight, and Ansley, six, their life looked picture perfect.
But the reality was far from it.
After 14 years of marriage, Staci, now 39, discovered Wortman had been unfaithful and cheated several times throughout their marriage.
She filed for divorce in April 2014.
Returning to work as an assistant teacher and juggling parenting duties, Staci was heartbroken.
But it appeared Fred was coping well.
He never missed visits and kept things amicable for the sake of the kids. But under the surface, he was planning the most sinister revenge...
By February 2015, Staci was starting to move on with her life when she got a call from the police.
They’d been tipped off that her husband was using his work computer to try and hire a hitman using internet currency, Bitcoin.
He’d also been researching the best poisons to kill someone.
After police seized his computer, they concluded Staci was the target.
When they contacted her she found it hard to believe.
‘It was a shock to get the phone call,’ Staci said.
But as she tried to digest the news, Staci remembered an odd incident from a few weeks earlier.
When she’d brushed her teeth one morning, she felt a burning sensation.
Ella Elizabeth had the same reaction.
While they both quickly spat it out and rinsed their mouths, they experienced terrible headaches.
‘I just thought it was a bad tube of toothpaste,’ Staci said.
But instead of throwing it out, Staci had a strange feeling she should keep it.
While they both spat it out and rinsed their mouths, they experienced terrible headaches
Now, fearing it might be linked, she handed it to the police.
But she never imagined the shocking results.
It tested positive for Aconitum, a highly toxic plant-based poison.
Taken in large doses, it could cause death from paralysis of the heart.
Fearing for her life, Staci requested an order of protection for herself and the kids.
Meanwhile, police set up a sting operation to put Wortman in contact with an undercover agent posing as a hitman.
It was the day of Ansley’s birthday when Wortman met with the agent, believing he was ordering a hit on his wife.
He gave the man a down payment, a picture of Staci and a rundown of her daily routine.
He said it didn’t matter if the children witnessed the murder.
Wortman was so cold and cunning that just hours before the meeting, he spoke to his kids on the phone as if nothing was wrong.
‘He FaceTimed them,’ Staci said. ‘I’ll never forget it, because that was the last time they saw him.
He told them to have a great day, while he was sitting in a car trying to plan my death.’
He said it didn’t matter if the children witnessed the murder
He was soon arrested and charged with two counts of attempted murder.
But Wortman still thought he was above the law.
While awaiting trial in prison, he befriended an inmate scheduled for release, who recorded him offering US$10,000 to murder Staci.
But he was caught and charged with another count of attempted murder.
Meanwhile, a devastated Staci tried to pick up the pieces of her shattered life.
She couldn’t understand how the warm and friendly man she’d fallen for could do this.
They had dreams of a long life together and he had never been violent towards her during their relationship.
Six months after his arrest, Wortman entered a best interest plea to one count of attempted first degree murder for trying to poison his wife and one count of soliciting an undercover agent to commit murder.
Under US law, it means he accepts his punishment without formally admitting guilt.
Appearing before Fayette County Court in Tennessee in November 2015, the court heard how Fred Auston Wortman III, then 39, snuck into his former home and spiked his wife’s toothpaste
He was sentenced to 30 years in prison with the possibility of parole after nine years.
The next day, this time in Shelby County Criminal Court, Wortman entered a best interest plea to one count of attempted murder for trying to hire the inmate to kill Staci.
The 30-year sentence runs concurrently for all charges.
Staci sat in court and stared at her husband in disbelief as he said he was sorry for what he’d done.
Fighting back tears, Staci then read a victim’s impact statement.
‘My children and I pray for you daily that your heart will change,’ she told him.
Staci thinks her husband resorted to murder because he felt a loss of control when she filed for divorce.
‘He wanted to have this picture perfect life, but he also wanted to do stuff on the side,’ she said.
Staci is now focusing on her children and is getting counselling to overcome the ordeal.
‘I still struggle, but my children are the greatest victims. They know he wanted me not to be alive anymore,’ she says sadly.
‘It gets a little better every day. And I have my children – for that I’m grateful.’
Originally published in that's life! issue 16, April 21 2016