Feb. 6, 2007 — It was a marriage that seemed sure to blossom in the golden California sun.
Richard Hamlin was a savvyprosecutor. His wife, Susan Hamlin, had been a law student at the top of her class.
"I met her at law school," Richard said. "I was knocked out of my shoes by her. We then, you know, really had a very … a very blessed life."
"He was my Prince Charming," Susan said. "I married at 27, and had always looked forward to falling in love and getting married and having a family."
Richard became a high-profile defense lawyer, and Susan put her law career on hold to be a hands-on mom to their four children.
"On the surface, yes, life did seem to be good," she said.
It was a life drawn into the core of the A-listsociety. As time wore on, though, their sparkling surface concealed a marriage that was coming unpinned. And Richard and Susan have very different explanations about what went wrong and how their storybook marriage turned into a nightmare.
Richard says that his wife put on "a very good front."
"She started dealing with severe bouts of depression," he said. "For as successful as she was, she had major self-esteem issues. And there was … this, um, real change of personalities."
Susan puts the blame for their troubles elsewhere.
"He was experimenting with drugs, and he had always been unfaithful," she said. "Nothing would ever be enough, whatever it was, success, money, drugs, alcohol, partying, sex, anything. Uh, he was insatiable."
The Hamlins' marriage was headed for divorce, but the couple wound up in court for something far more serious and disturbing.
The darkness surfaced after Susan went to authorities to make a confession, one so shocking police wanted to be sure they'd heard her correctly.
"I knew that she was an attorney at one time," said Sgt. Tom Hoagland, who handled the case. "And I explained to her, 'Now, Susan, you had just admitted to being involved in a conspiracy to murder your husband.'"
It was a bombshell in the couple's social circle, a murder plot hatched in a home and family that was picture-perfect.
Richard says his wife's plans to kill him grew out of some disturbing discoveries about her secret past: buried memories of rape and abuse at the hands of her father.
"This was a father that took her puppy and gutted it, and said, 'If you speak about what goes on, this is what's gonna happen to you,'" Richard said.
Richard said that his wife had talked about "her father being involved in a satanic cult" and about a "lifetime of being raped by her father."
Richard says that night after night, he encouraged his wife to let out the pain and the secrets, which he says led to a startling revelation.
As a brainwashed follower of her father's satanic cult, Richard says, his wife had been in on a plan to murder him in order to protect her family secrets.
Richard says their love and dedication foiled the murder plot. He says Susan got the courage to expose the conspiracy, first to him, then to police.
Richard accompanied his wife as she went to make a shocking string of confessions at the sheriff's office, but the detectives handling the case weren't entirely convinced.
"[The murder] was supposedly gonna make her the 'high priestess' of this satanic cult," Hoagland said. "It was bizarre. It was the most bizarre thing I had ever heard."
And the bizarre story was just beginning. Susan had another surprise admission for the authorities: She said that she had molested her own children, both her sons and her daughters.
Hoagland says that kind of confession is highly unusual.
"It's even more rare that you have a mother molest male and female children. So, things weren't adding up. She was afraid of something else. When I told her she wasn't going to be arrested, she seemed shocked. … She appeared terrified," Hoagland said.
Susan now says she lied to the authorities. She says that neither she nor her father ever abused anyone, and that there was never a satanic cult in their lives.
The evil in her home, Susan says, came from a husband who had grown manically controlling and violently abusive.
Richard maintains that Susan was raped by her father and, in turn, abused her children. But Susan says that she was in fear "every moment of the day and night," and that the story she shared with authorities was one that Richard had literally beaten into her.
If she tried to say she wasn't molested by her father, Susan says that Richard would "explode."
"[He'd] punch me in the head and … beat me just bloody. He'd hold a gun in my mouth. He would put a gun to my head and ask if I was ready to die. He would tell me what to tell him happened when I was a kid, and I would just have to make anything up. … Anything outrageous to fill the gaps," she said.
Susan says she thought of grabbing the kids and running away, but was paralyzed by fear, sure that if she left, her husband would find her and kill her.
She also felt that to stay alive at home, she had to go along with the stories about her past that he'd created. "I became totally controlled," she said.
When her husband demanded she tell authorities she planned to murder him and had molested their children, she pictured really going to prison, safely away from her husband.
Police doubted Susan's confessions, and began to suspect Richard, but without her pressing charges, they had no reason to hold him. And because her confession didn't add up, she too was free to go home.
Police knew that there were four witnesses to what really happened in the Hamlin household: the couple's children.
Claire, Jenn, Ryan and Alec Hamlin all say they witnessed abuse.
"My father would make my mom cry, call her names, and I always heard like some punching noises," 11-year-old Claire said.
Jenn, 9, says she'd see her mom "all sad and crying, and she looked like she got hurt or something."
Ryan, 19, adds that on one occasion, "We could hear my mom screaming, and after a while of this, my dad came out. And my mom came out, and she was all bruised and bleeding and stuff."
The Hamlin children say their father told them he was helping their mother, trying to shake her free of the evil put upon her by her father.
"He would drag me out in front of them, and I was just crying and a wreck, and he would tell them that I had done all of these things," Susan said.
"They were so confused. And they didn't have any memories of me doing anything to them, but he'd so been brainwashing them, too."
When asked about his children's stories, Richard said they were "unfortunately" unreliable.
"I think they have been told what they've been told by their mother after the fact. And they were led extensively by Detective Strasser," he said.
Detective Richard Strasser investigated the case along with Hoagland, and the pair upset Richard right away.
The night Richard brought his wife to confess to abusing their children, the officers, over Richard's objections, had the kids moved to protective custody. The next day, with the children in the safety of a state facility, they told detectives enough to have their father arrested for spousal abuse.
For their part, Strasser says he has "no doubt" that Richard beat his wife, and Hoagland says he does not believe there was ever any satanic cult.
When the case went to trial, Richard defended himself. He prepared his case from the county jail where he was held for more than a year and a half without bail.
The center of his defense: that Susan had first told police that her father had abused her, that only after Richard was in custody did she flip her story and accuse him.
Richard called an expert witness in psychiatry to back up that theory for the jury.
Colin Ross said, "It's psychologically realistic -- before you get into the case -- that in fact she could've been abused by her father and this could be a loyalty conflict and she could've flipped to protect her relationship with her father. That's perfectly plausible and possible."
The prosecution says that Richard's accusations against Susan's father were investigated and dismissed, and that the case before the jury was very simple.
Prosecutor Vicki Ashworth says she "laid it out as a very severe domestic violence case."
Some of the trial's most emotional testimony came from the Hamlin children. By the time of the trial, the children were in total sympathy with their mother.
Susan was on the stand at her husband's torture trial for seven days.
"It was very hard with your abuser and brainwasher sitting five feet in front of you," she said. "He was sitting there, feeding questions to his attorney. He was rolling his eyes. He was throwing his pen down."
When the case went to the jury, Susan says she knew that the possibility of her having a life not ruled by fear rested on the outcome.
After deliberating for eight days, on Jan. 10, 2006, the jury found Richard guilty of torture. The guilty verdict did not put a dent in Richard's proclamation of innocence.
"I hope you're not of the belief that innocent people don't get convicted in this country, because it happens all the time," he said.
Even as he awaited his sentence, which could range from probation to life, Richard said that he was going to appeal. At the sentencing, among those giving the court opinions on what his punishment should be were the Hamlin children.
Ryan said, "I haven't an ounce of doubt within me that were my father to be released on probation he would only cause more pain and suffering and this time it could be worse than before. … He is extremely dangerous and possesses a grave threat to innocent lives. I believe that the only rational option is to sentence him to life in prison."
And Claire said, "I think my father should be in prison for life because he was such a bad parent. … He was a terrible father and husband."
The final decision rested with the judge, who read it before the court: "You brutalized your wife continually. You kept her under your control. You made your children endure this ordeal along with your wife. … You lack remorse and if you were not in prison you would continue to be a danger to your family and others. … I will sentence you to a life term with a possibility of parole in state prison."
The once-prominent defense lawyer had lost his most important case.
He says he plans to appeal because, in reality, he's the victim.
"I'm in here for crimes that I did not commit. Yeah, I'm a victim. But you know what, that's all secondary to one thing, my children. I love my kids. … I can do time all day long. I can't be without my kids. I miss 'em. And I know that it's hurting them."
Susan and her children are in a new home with a new start and some old memories.
"My kids and I will be dealing with issues from this abusive situation for the rest of our lives. So in that sense, no, we're never free from it. But I'm no longer under his control. His brainwashing no longer has any effect. My thoughts are my own now. So, in that sense, I feel free," she said.