“Alright. What’s the person look like that was in your back yard?” the dispatcher asked.
“I didn’t see it but there were shots,” Jane answered. “I heard lots.”
When Oxnard, Calif., police arrived to the beige and white stucco house, they found Dave riddled with bullets, including one to the back of his head.
Dave Laut was a popular athletic director at a nearby high school. At 52, he still retained the hulking physique that had powered him to a bronze medal in the shot put at the 1984 Olympics.
“Olympic shot-putter killed at Oxnard home,” ran the headline the next day in the Los Angeles Times. “Medalist David Laut was shot dead while confronting prowlers.”
The article called the 6-foot-3-inch Laut a “gentle giant” and noted that he and Jane were high school sweethearts.
There were no suspects, police said.
It took almost six months for authorities to make an arrest.
When they did, it was of Jane.
On Tuesday, nearly seven years after the fatal shooting, Jane Laut, 59, was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison for murdering her husband.
Although her attorneys have said they will appeal, the sentencing provided some semblance of closure to a case that has torn apart a family, stirred debate about domestic violence and called into question an Olympian’s character.
At trial, Jane testified that her husband had beaten and raped her for years. She claimed she shot Dave in self-defense, fearing that he was going to kill her, their 10-year-old son and their two dogs.
A jury didn’t believe her. And in Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, Dave’s family members said they were “disgusted” by her depiction of him as an abusive husband.
“I would like the court to know that if at any time I thought that Jane was being abused, I would have been the first person to her rescue,” Dave’s sister-in-law, Rebecca Laut, told the court, according to the Ventura County Star. “But as the jury saw and as we have known all along, she lied and continues to lie even now.”
‘Superman’ or serial abuser?
Don Laut called his older brother Superman. Outwardly, there was no argument. Dave Laut was a massive shot-putting machine. To this day, almost 30 years after he retired, he remains on many all-time leader boards. When preparing to throw, he even held his arms up like the superhero in flight. All that was missing was the cape.
Inwardly, however, is another question — one that took center stage in his wife’s trial.
Dave and Jane had met at Santa Clara High School. He was a standout in football, basketball, and track and field, according to the Star. She was a top volleyball player and the homecoming queen.
They got married in 1980, just as Dave’s athletic career was taking off. A year earlier, he had won the gold medal at the 1979 Pan American Games. He was the top shot-putter in the country.
His greatest moment was also a disappointment, however. In 1984, the Olympics were held in Los Angeles, practically Laut’s back yard. He was favored to win gold but came in third.
He vowed to win gold four years later but blew out his knees in training. Instead, he turned to teaching, working his way up from track and field coach to athletic director. He and Jane adopted a son, Michael, from South Korea.
“We had happy times,” she told “48 Hours.” “Right up ’til Michael was probably 5 was the best time of our marriage. And it just — it just started going downhill. And it — got worse and worse every year.”
Dave had raped and beaten her for years, with the abuse accelerating in the months before the shooting, her defense attorneys claimed in court. Lying about the incident, they said, was a classic symptom of battered woman syndrome.
“She acted like a battered woman,” Gail Pincus of Los Angeles County’s Domestic Abuse Center told “48 Hours” after testifying on behalf of the defense.
“That guy sexually, physically, and verbally abused her for years, did things to her that are just awful, just awful,” her attorney, Ron Bamieh, told the CBS News program. “There’s no dispute that she wanted him dead that night. Yeah. It was gonna be him or her.”
Dave had been drinking on Aug. 27, 2009, and threatened to use his Ruger revolver to kill her, their son, Michael, and their dogs, Jane claimed in court.
“He pushed me up against the doorjamb,” Jane told “48 Hours” in an interview before her trial. “And it was just like yelling in my face, telling me how much he’s sick of this and that he was gonna blow Michael’s f—-n’ little head off.”
Worried for her son, she tried to divert her husband outside.
“We stumbled,” she told the CBS News program. “I don’t know if we were falling or just, like, moving. But I felt one gunshot go off, and then we did fall. And I was, like, straddling him and I honestly don’t remember after that.”
Prosecutors said her story was bogus.
There was no evidence of abuse, they argued in court: no recent scratches or bruises on her at the time of the shooting; no signs of struggle inside or outside the house; no neighbors overhearing screams or fights; no stories of violence conveyed to friends or relatives. Prosecutors also pointed to a police interview shortly after the shooting in which Jane said she had not been abused.
Instead, prosecutors said, there was a chain reaction of debt, deceit and desperation on her part.
Long after knee injuries had robbed Dave Laut of his chance to win gold in 1988, forcing him to retire and become a teacher, his wife had allegedly still been spending at Olympic levels. She had racked up debt, stopped paying their taxes and even borrowed $60,000 from Dave’s mother, possibly without him knowing, “48 Hours” reported.
“Several weeks before the murder, Dave Laut was researching divorce on his laptop,” Ventura County Senior Deputy District Attorney Rameen Minoui argued, according to the TV program.
“They were having problems that last year and she told me Dave wanted to leave the marriage,” Rebecca Laut, Dave’s sister-in-law, told the Star. “Jane said, ‘He says he’s going to leave and take Michael, but that’s not going to happen. I’m not going to let him take Michael.'”
Prosecutors also pointed to another motive: $300,000 in life insurance benefits Jane would have inherited after her husband’s death.
According to police, Jane followed Dave into the back yard that night and shot him from behind, then she hid the gun in the family’s grandfather clock and called 911 with the story of the intruder.
The Ruger wasn’t easy to fire. It would have taken effort to shoot her husband six times, in the shoulder, head and face.
“She had to physically, manually, cock that firearm each time she shot him,” the lead detective, Mike Young, told “48 Hours.”
One way or another, a case of domestic violence
Jane Laut’s freedom wasn’t the only thing at stake at trial. Her late husband’s character — Olympian or abuser, mentor or monster — was also on the line.
After four days of deliberation, a jury of six men and six women delivered its verdict.
Jane Laut was guilty of murder.
“We’re just having a hard time understanding,” Emily Penza, Jane’s niece, told the Star. “We thought they understood the domestic abuse part. She’s been through enough.”
Jane’s attorney also said the verdict was unfair.
“Everybody thought Dave Laut was a hero, but the honest truth is the only hero in the Laut household was Jane,” Bamieh told the newspaper. “She knows if she didn’t do what she did, her son would be dead.”
Her conviction was “tragic” not only for Jane but also for other victims “who end up ultimately paying for the consequences of the abuse that was inflicted upon them,” he added.
Rebecca Laut, Dave’s sister-in-law, also said she was worried what the trial had done for victims of domestic abuse.
“This was horrible for the real victims of abuse and she painted an ugly picture that were just lies,” she told the Star. “I would like to apologize to all the real victims of abuse because now it just makes it difficult for them to walk away from abuse when they have to. Jane was a desperate woman … who was willing to say anything to try to get off. She lied so easily to everybody, and now she’s tainted what other women are really going through.”
Before the trial, Jane and her defense attorneys had turned down five plea deals, according to “48 Hours.”
The last deal: plead guilty to manslaughter and agree to a six-year prison term, which could be cut in half with good behavior.
“I felt if I took the plea nobody would know what really happened,” she told “48 Hours.” “It would be like accepting what the prosecution said happened that night. It would be like accepting that they said there was no abuse with Michael or me.”
Tuesday’s sentencing hearing was a mere formality. Jane Laut was facing 50 years to life in prison: 25 years for first-degree murder and another 25 for using a gun.
For Dave Laut’s relatives, however, the hearing was one more chance to counter the damage to Dave’s reputation.
“The defense went on the attack, bashing Dave’s character and saying hateful, hurtful, despicable lies to the media,” Don Laut told the court, according to the Star. “Their desperate attempt to sway the jury became a hindrance to our desire to allow Dave to rest in peace. The stress of this at times became unbearable because I wanted so badly to be his voice and to stand up for him because he couldn’t defend himself.”
He and his wife said they had forgiven Jane.
Then, in what was perhaps a final attempt to restore his image, they asked for his bronze medal back.