Originally created 10/17/96

After 14 years, woman confessed to killing her husband



After five months of vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Verle Lee Hartley died in 1982, fatally poisoned by arsenic.

Investigators eyed a suspect in the slaying of the Mayport lieutenant, but they never gathered enough evidence to make an arrest.

The 14-year-old case was finally closed Wednesday. Mr. Hartley's widow, Augusta resident Pamela Hartley, 39, pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of her husband and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

"She was always a suspect, but the case had just sort of stalled," said prosecutor Laura Starrett.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service's cold case squad revved up the investigation last year as part of its review of unsolved slayings of Navy personnel. With the help of the State Attorney's Office and the Medical Examiner's Office, Mrs. Hartley was arrested in March.

Investigators visited her in Augusta, where she was unemployed and living with her mother. They questioned her for about 25 minutes before she said she was sorry she poisoned her husband, said David Early, a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

"She told us she still loved him," Mr. Early said. "She simply didn't want to be married. He was thinking of getting out of the military, and she loved being a naval officer's wife. Her words were she didn't want to hurt him with a divorce."

Mrs. Hartley's mother had been through seven divorces, which devastated her daughter, said Assistant Public Defender Pat McGuinness, Mrs. Hartley's attorney.

The Hartleys had been married for about a year when Mr. Hartley's health began to fail. He died Nov. 18, 1982, during his second hospital stay.

An autopsy showed arsenic poisoning, but the condition is so rare that doctors did not diagnose it while he was ill, Ms. Starrett said. Mrs. Hartley was questioned but denied involvement.

While the case languished for lack of evidence, she received psychiatric counseling and treatment for alcohol abuse. But she did not confess to the crime until the cold case squad confronted her, Mr. McGuinness said.

"It probably had been troubling her greatly," he said.

Because the murder was committed before Oct. 1, 1995, Mrs. Hartley is not bound by state requirements that inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Ms. Starrett said she is not sure how long Mrs. Hartley will be imprisoned but said she will serve "substantial time."

Mr. Hartley's family approved the 40-year sentence because they wanted closure and wanted Mrs. Hartley punished.

"We really didn't want her to die, to get the electric chair," said Arlington resident Lynda Patel, who was married to Mr. Hartley for 17« years. Their only child is 27.

The family also did not want Mr. Hartley's body exhumed for further tests, which would have been necessary had the case gone to trial, Ms. Patel said.