Wealthy Robert Bashara, accused of hiring handyman to kill his wife, was a pillar of lakeside community that had not seen a homicide this century
Mark Guarino in Chicago
Tuesday 9 December 2014 07.00 EST
Jurors in Detroit were to hear closing arguments on Tuesday in a murder-for-hire trial with details seemingly drawn from a tawdry Hollywood thriller: a wealthy and respected businessman accused of hiring the handyman to kill his wife, cocaine use on the golf course, a basement sex dungeon and botched police work.
The eight-week trial of Robert Bashara, once a church usher and Rotary Club president, has roiled the wealthy lakeside community of Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, which has not registered a single homicide since last century.
“This is not normal for anywhere. But once you put the Grosse Pointe label on it, it takes on a life of its own,” said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. “This was not a random killing.”
The case started on 25 January 2012, when Jane Bashara was found dead by strangulation in her Mercedes-Benz SUV. Wayne County prosecutors say Robert Bashara, her husband, hired Joseph Gentz, their handyman, to kill her.
Gentz pleaded guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence from first- to second-degree murder and is currently serving a 17- to 28-year prison sentence. He has said Robert Bashara forced him at gunpoint to kill Jane Bashara. In exchange, Gentz said, he was promised $2,000 and a used Cadillac.
Bashara says he is not guilty of his wife’s murder. But in October 2012, a jury found him guilty of soliciting the jailhouse murder of Gentz, and he is currently serving a six- to 20-year prison sentence himself. Bashara faces five charges in his current trial: first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, solicitation of murder, obstruction of justice and witness intimidation.
The son of a respected state appellate court judge, Bashara, 56, grew up in Grosse Point and became a successful real estate developer and philanthropist in the area. He married Jane Bashara 26 years ago. A senior marketing manager for a Detroit energy consulting company, she was president of a local high school mother’s club.
“She was an amazing person. She was a leader. She was a mentor to everyone. Those same qualities [her friends] speak of, she showed when she was young,” her sister, Julie Rowe, told a neighbourhood newspaper in 2012.
The couple’s life together took a turn, prosecutors said, after Robert Bashara became active on alt.com, a fetish hookup site for bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM) enthusiasts. There, prosecutors say, he met Rachel Gillett and began a three-year relationship.
Gillett testified in the trial that Bashara told her he was divorcing his wife. The pair shopped for houses, attended weddings, and engaged in sex games at a dungeon Bashara maintained in the basement of the Hard Luck Lounge, a Vegas-themed cocktail bar located in a building he owned.
Gillett’s testimony, and that of others, portrayed a man who relished leading a double life. In 2009, Gillett said Bashara solicited a second woman to join them in bed. He blindfolded both, drove them in a van and led them into a house and into a bedroom that, with her blindfold off, Gillett realised was his home. “I pretty much freaked out because I didn’t want to be there,” she said.
Gillett testified that she feared Bashara had no plans to leave his marriage and he appeared to become more aggressive. In January 2012, only weeks before his wife’s murder, he flew to Bend, Oregon, to meet another woman he met on alt.com. The woman, Janet Leehmann, testified that she became fearful of “Master Bob” because he showed few limits. He choked her, causing her to pass out, she said. “I got a really good beating that left marks for three months,” she said. “I got thrashed.”
After news broke of Jane Bashara’s death, Leehmann said, Robert Bashara called her to demand she help hide Gillett at a relative’s ranch in remote Oregon. She refused and, when he kept calling back, she changed her number and called police.
Seventy-four people testified and 460 exhibits were examined during the eight-week trial in Wayne County circuit court in Detroit. But the case presented difficulties for the prosecution. Forensic science evidence is minimal. Last week local police admitted they botched several key steps in the investigation, including failing to collect clothing Jane Bashara was wearing the night of the murder that was later destroyed by the funeral home and waiting a week to collect surveillance video from a local bar where Bashara claimed he was the night of the killing. That too was later destroyed.
Captain David Loch of Grosse Pointe Park police admitted to the blunders in his testimony and blamed his inexperience with homicides, saying he had never worked such a case in his 28 years in the department. “I’ve never even investigated a shooting,” he testified.
Prosecutors lined up witnesses who testified that Bashara enjoyed a litany of fetishes with relative strangers, indulged in cocaine on the golf course, and even confessed while in prison to plotting to kill his wife.
Henning, the law professor, said the case was unusual because while the accused murderer is already in prison, convicting him on the new charges would be difficult.
“We have all of the basic elements – she was clearly murdered, we know who the killer is, so it’s going beyond that step which will be a challenge,” Henning said. “Bashara is an unseemly person but does that make him into a killer? Since this case started I’ve had my doubts whether the government can prove it.”