Life Marked With Cruelty, Greed -- Early On, Wife-Killer Roth Stole, Lied For Cash

During Randy Roth's transition from teenager to adult, he idolized "Billy Jack," the fictional karate-kicking loner who spoke little and fought hard.

Roth sometimes would wear the character's black hat and jeans jacket, carried a knife, and never shied away from a scrap, say those who knew him well at the time. He was wiry and strong. He worked out and practiced martial arts, religiously staying away from alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. When he partied, he drank pop.

He had little money then and gave much of it to his mother to help pay the family bills. But he had a fast car and a girlfriend and jealously protected both.

When he wasn't tinkering with the engine, it seemed he was drag racing down Highway 99, says Terri Hitchcock, who dated him for more than two years at Meadowdale High School in the Edmonds School District. She was engaged briefly to him in the mid-'70s.

"He was always a little insecure," says Hitchcock. "He was obsessed with his physique and felt at times he was being followed. He said if he got into a fight, he wanted to make sure he came out winning."

Despite his machismo, or perhaps because of it, Hitchcock was charmed by Roth, forgiving him for occasionally dating other women, telling lies and leaving for a brief stint in the U.S. Marines.

Roth had a way of portraying strength and caring, she and other women say.

But the relationship ended abruptly when she caught him involved with another woman. Three months later, he burglarized her home.

These would be patterns that seemed to follow Roth, now 37, as he moved from hanging around Highway 99 to coaching Little League to living in a $275,000 Woodinville home to yesterday's first-degree murder conviction for drowning his fourth wife in Lake Sammamish last summer.

King County senior deputy prosecutors Marilyn Brenneman and Susan Storey not only persuaded the jury that Roth drowned Cynthia Baumgartner Roth and orphaned her two boys so he could collect on $385,000 of insurance, they also provided a rare and magnified examination of greed, manipulation and heartlessness.

The largely circumstantial case focused on Roth's four wives, his alleged affairs, his muted emotions and his pursuit of money. The prosecution portrayed Roth as a man who dominated wives and acquaintances, cast an inflated view of himself, and betrayed the trust of others.

He is not just a man who murdered for money, the jury believed, but one who would tell a 10-year-old boy who just learned his mother was dead to stop crying.

Roth can be charming - at least he was when whisking four women, all single mothers, off their feet and into rushed marriages. Another woman who wanted to marry him in 1986 said that during their courtship he was the "man every woman dreams about."

His first wife was not called to testify, but says he was the perfect husband who made her feel safe. A fellow mechanic says he was unfailingly giving of his time and knowledge at work.

And his mother, who called his trial "a bad play with the ending already decided," said he has been a role model and father figure to his sisters' children.

But Roth showed no more than a glimpse of feeling during the trial. The charisma he exhibited for prospective brides was replaced by rigid posture and impersonal, stilted language. He was no more animated describing the sight of his second spouse lying dead in an ambulance than when listing his various tools.


The Roth family came to Western Washington in the late 1950s. Randy and his parents, Lizabeth and Gordon Roth, moved from Bismarck, N.D., to the Lynnwood area then, when Randy was about 5 and the oldest of four children.

In addition to two sisters, Roth has a younger brother, David, who is serving time at the Washington state penitentiary in Walla Walla for slaying a woman hitchhiker he picked up near Everett.

Contacted at the prison, David would not discuss Randy unless he was paid. He was neither paid nor interviewed.

Roth's parents divorced in 1971 and his father moved out. Gordon was ordered by a court to pay $375 a month in child support and Lizabeth qualified for welfare. Randy was 16 and worked at a feed and grain store and elsewhere to help his mother.

In an interview, Lizabeth Roth said her former husband discouraged the children from expressing emotion. David Roth told a psychiatrist appointed by Snohomish County Superior Court that he depended greatly on his mother and said his father would beat him.

Gordon Roth, a former plumber now married for the third time and living on an Eastern Washington ranch, declined several requests for an interview.

"Whenever he (Gordon) wanted to do something to me or the other kids, my mom would stand up to him," David Roth testified during his trial.

Randy Roth told probation officer James Stroklund, who interviewed him after a 1975 burglary conviction, that his mother was overprotective and he got along better with Gordon.

In 1985, Roth took out an insurance policy on himself and listed his father as beneficiary.


Roth was an average student at Meadowdale, says Jesse Akers, who grew up with him. Roth occasionally would demonstrate gymnastics in physical education classes.

He didn't participate in school activities, but attended his 10-year reunion and told former classmates he was involved with a large cattle ranch and private martial-arts instruction and had led reconnaissance missions in Vietnam.

None of this was true.

Recently, Roth told a Woodinville neighbor, himself a Vietnam veteran, that he led missions behind enemy lines and was mentioned in a book on the conflict. He told a fellow mechanic at Bill Pierre Ford in Seattle that he was a sniper and he would come to the garage on Veterans Day in military dress.

Roth never served in Vietnam. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve during the last term of his senior year and entered active duty September 1973. But he was a file clerk stationed in Okinawa and was released early after his mother wrote a hardship letter, saying she needed him to help the family.

Hitchcock said she helped his mother write the letter, and it was Roth's idea.

"He felt wasted pushing papers," Hitchcock said. "He felt he should be on the line or an assistant drill sergeant, something like that."

He became engaged to Hitchcock almost immediately after being discharged in August 1974. He didn't want to move back in with his mother, so Hitchcock's family allowed him to live in a house they were preparing to sell.

One day, Hitchcock found a purse in the house that belonged to Donna Sanchez, a single mother who less than a year later would become Roth's first wife.

Hitchcock broke off the engagement and the family evicted him. Three months later, Roth broke into her parents' home and stole television sets, a stereo, tools and her stepfather's Purple Heart. Police found the merchandise, but not the medal, at a home where Roth was living.

He told a probation and parole officer he needed money and blamed her stepfather for scuttling the engagement.

"He was the only person I could think of who would have goods that I could use to sell and I would not feel so bad about having taken them," the officer quoted Roth as saying.

Hitchcock also told police about a robbery Roth told her he committed about a year earlier at a gas station where he used to work. He needed the money, she said, to pay for termination of her pregnancy.


Roth worked at the Tire Mart service station in Lynnwood for part of his senior year. His friend Akers was working there one August night in 1973 when a robber wearing a ski mask and gripping a knife threw him to the floor and stole $240 and some eight-track tapes.

Akers, left tied up in the back room, says he is sure it was Roth.

"I knew who it was right away," Akers said. "I thought it was a joke and almost said `Hi, Randy.' . . . I knew it was Randy. He has the most recognizable, sort of bow-legged walk I've ever seen."

Roth was not arrested in connection with the robbery until 1975, when he also was charged with the break-in at his former fiancee's house.

Roth, then 20, pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary for the break-in. The armed robbery charge was dropped.

His probation officer, Stroklund, was upset with Roth because Roth gave him false employment dates and school grade-point averages. When Stroklund confronted him about the conflicting dates, Roth laughed it off.

Stroklund was not amused and wrote that Roth was "somewhat irresponsible, rebellious, obnoxious and immature . . . By being exposed to incarceration, Mr. Roth would begin to feel what lays forth for him if he continues to be involved in crime," he wrote.

Roth received a 14-year sentence, with all but two weeks suspended. He was released on June 10, 1975.


He married Sanchez the next month. Sanchez, a bank teller and single parent, met Roth when she took her car in for a tune-up at a gas station near Martha Lake where Roth worked as a mechanic.

The couple moved to Mountlake Terrace and began what Sanchez called a good marriage.

"He was very romantic," Sanchez said. "I always felt safe with him. He had that strong, protective type of personality."

Friends would say Roth's house had several Bruce Lee posters and karate trophies.

He moved from job to job and the couple spent a lot of time outdoors, particularly dirt-bike riding. They also traveled often to Washougal, Clark County, to visit Roth's father.

"He was trying to develop that relationship again," Sanchez said.

Sanchez says she and Roth just fell apart, separating in 1979 and divorcing in May 1980. Roth gained custody of their son, Greg.

David Roth, meanwhile, began serving a 25-year prison sentence in February 1980 for killing a young woman authorities have yet to identify.

The woman had been strangled and shot seven times. David Roth could be eligible for release in March 1997.


Randy Roth would meet Janis Miranda, a single mother working two jobs, on Halloween 1980 when they attended a Parents Without Partners party. She would marry him a few months later and fall to her death off a cliff in November 1981, on a hiking trip with Roth.

This is the point where prosecutors picked up the thread of Randy Roth's life. With painstaking detail, they described three of Roth's marriages, two ending in death, and other relationships that bore striking similarities.

Each woman he became involved with already had a child. His defense attorneys said Roth was looking to create a family; prosecutors say he was looking for vulnerable victims.

Each courtship was short and intense. There were flowers, candy, love notes and promises of protection and security. After marriage, the couple immediately turned their attention to buying a house and life insurance.

But in a very short time, the relationships that burned so intensely seemed to flicker.

Second wife Janis Miranda, third wife Donna Clift and fourth wife Cynthia Baumgartner all complained to family or friends that he was as distant after marriage as he was fawning in pursuit of it.

Often, the marital problems involved money.

Two weeks after their marriage, he and Janis filed a car-theft insurance claim. A day after she died, he awoke their life-insurance agent at home on a Saturday morning. Weeks after Janis' daughter left to live with her natural father in Texas, Roth filed for Social Security benefits claiming he was caring for her.

Jalina never saw much of her mother's property or money. Roth said he allowed her to take everything she wanted. She was 8 years old at the time.

A decade later, Cynthia Baumgartner's two young sons would be unable to find their Ken Griffey Jr. rookie baseball cards after her death.


Donna Clift had just moved from Arizona to the Puget Sound area in 1985 and was working as a convenience store clerk when Roth walked in and struck up a conversation. Soon they were dating and he showered her with gifts, flowers and attention.

She soon moved in with him and they married a few months later, in May of 1985.

Clift's father helped Roth get a job at Cascade Prestige Ford in Bellevue, but Roth was later fired. Clift's stepmother, Judith, said Roth once took off for a whole week in the summer after he wasn't able to get the vacation dates he wanted.

"When he came back to work," Clift said, "he told them he was gone because his mother and sister were driving to see his brother in prison in Walla Walla when they had an accident. He said his mother was killed and his sister was so distraught she pulled out a gun and shot herself in the hospital room."

Those events never happened, but the story is strikingly similar to the message he left a prospective employer to explain his absence a month before Cynthia drowned in 1991. Roth told a supervisor his wife was critically hurt in an accident in Idaho.

Donna Clift told jurors about the near-sinking of the couple's raft on the Skykomish River in 1985. She claims he appeared to be aiming for rocks and tree snags and the raft eventually was punctured and began to sink before they made it to shore.

But Clift claims that during their three-month marriage, Roth also scared her while they were riding an all-terrain vehicle, or ATV, up a steep hillside. Near the top, she says, he jumped off.

As the ATV stalled, it rolled over, sending her tumbling backward down the hill. It landed on top of her, smashing the bottom part of her leg, she said.

"I couldn't even get up and he was just standing there laughing," Clift said. "To this day, I still don't have any feeling in the bottom part of my right leg."

She said Roth was obsessed with being in control and, at times, was abusive. He once used a belt to whip his son, who was naked under a cold shower, she claims.

Roth denied exacting extreme punishment on his son, but acknowledged he forbid his son or his wives' children to enter each other's rooms for "security" reasons.

Clift said she became suspicious of Roth because he wouldn't even tell her his age, and she began snooping.

"I found some receipts from his honeymoon with Janis and found out he took her to the same hotel he took me on my honeymoon. He also bought me a Ford Pinto exactly like the one he bought her. It was all too weird," Clift said.

Roth filed for divorce after just three months, claiming he could not put up with her lifestyle, which he said included smoking, drinking and even a purchase of marijuana. The divorce became final December 1985.

In the summer of 1986, Roth saw Mary Jo Phillips while shopping in a Mill Creek grocery store.

Phillips says she was swept off her feet. He would coordinate his clothes to what she was wearing, would brush her hair, and once took a photograph of her entering his car saying, she claims, "I just want proof I was with such a beautiful woman."

She moved in with him within six weeks of their first date and the pair discussed marriage and life insurance. When she told him she had cancer and was not likely to get life insurance, the "cold spots" in their relationship began, she says.

Roth testified the relationship ended because Phillips had five children, a collection of exotic birds and two jealous ex-boyfriends.

Roth was living alone and unemployed when in 1988 he filed a $57,000 insurance claim for what he said was a burglary of his home. After much wrangling, Pioneer Insurance Company paid him half of his claim, but the case has since been reopened in U.S. District Court.


Roth always took great interest in his son's athletics and either coached or helped with several of his baseball teams. One coach called him a "super dad," who pitched in whenever needed. Another complained he yelled at umpires and degraded players.

Once, when a parent failed to show up for a turn in the concession stand, Roth accepted the assignment and volunteered for the next night. He met Cynthia Baumgartner, a young and attractive widow who managed it.

Her two sons played in the league. Her first husband, who went to Meadowdale High School when Roth did, had died of cancer in 1985.

The problems appeared to start almost immediately after their marriage. Her manicurist and hairdresser said she concealed the amount of money she was spending on her appearance. After her death, police found a note she wrote listing more than 40 things she felt Roth hated about her, ranging from her "ugly toes" to her spending habits.

Cynthia died July 23, 1991, while on an outing with Roth on Lake Sammamish. When Roth rowed to shore, she lay unconscious and effectively dead on the bottom of the raft.

He never waved for help and although he said he hurried to shore, witnesses said he appeared to be taking his time.

His cool demeanor amid the chaos of life-saving efforts and the crowd of gawkers on that 99-degree day was jolting to a number of witnesses who testified in court.

Roth's manner in court was cool, almost serene - the way witnesses described him at Beacon Rock, where his second wife died, and at Lake Sammamish. When he talked in court of seeing Janis lying dead in an ambulance, he dryly talked about her face not being as "badly damaged" as he expected.

She died of massive head wounds.

For a brief period while describing Cynthia Roth's death, Roth's monotone speech caved in, seemingly from the weight of what had happened and what was happening to him.

He looked and sounded at that point to be what he claimed - a tragically unlucky man who searched desperately to build a family, only to meet the wrong women or to have tragedy pluck it from him.

But the jury ultimately saw a different picture: a man who treated wives, feelings, and truth as opportunities or inconveniences.