true crime

What We Know About the Florida Sisters Accused of Murdering Their Dad

It wouldn't be the first time children turned on their parents as things got messy in old age. But this one involved a bizarre love triangle.

by Alex Norcia
Mar 7 2019, 9:04pm

Mary-Beth Tomaselli, left, and Linda Roberts, right, after their arrests. Photos courtesy of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office

Two sisters were going to get away with murdering their father. Then one of them met a guy at a bar.

That's what Bob Gualtieri, the sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida, told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday, when he revealed that siblings Mary-Beth Tomaselli and Linda Roberts, now both in their early 60s, were charged with killing their ailing 85-year-old father in March 2015. Their dad had cancer and dementia, and likely didn't have much life left to live. It would have been the "perfect crime," Gualtieri added, had a man the sisters were (both) romantically involved with not relayed their accounts of what happened to the authorities. The man, who has not been named, agreed to record some of their conversations, which essentially turned into detailed confessions, police said. And on the tapes made by their lover, the siblings allegedly used words like "premeditated" and "euthanized," as BuzzFeed News reported.

From the jump, it's not hard to imagine this sordid saga as a future Netflix true-crime series—it squarely fits into America's true-crime obsession, and has the hallmarks of a Lynchian slaying, a trope found in myths and classical literature dropped into the most domestic situations. It's a particularly ripe case for the tabloids, and it certainly brings about more salacious questions than answers. Did Linda and Mary-Beth each, separately, have a sort of Raskolnikov moment with their partner? Which is to say: Were they characters in their own Crime and Punishment who reached the point of just having to voice their guilt? (It should be noted that even though court records suggested there had been at least one confession, neither woman had pleaded nor even been assigned an attorney as of Wednesday.)

First, police said, the conspiring siblings had to be sure Mary-Beth's adult daughter, who was in her grandfather's house the night of his death, wouldn't be a witness. They allegedly solved this problem by dousing her with sleeping pills. Then, they got to work. Initially, cops said, the women tried to give their father alcohol spiked with additional sleeping pills, but apparently put too much liquid into the cocktail, diluting the drugs' effect. With their dad passed out on the sofa (the sleeping pills apparently did serve that function), they allegedly tried to remedy the failure by suffocating him with a pillow, the Washington Post reported. That, too, didn't get the job done, at which point they shoved a cloth down his throat before squeezing his nostrils shut, according to the sheriff.

The next morning, Linda and Mary-Beth phoned the police and told them they had found their father deceased on the sofa. Nobody thought anything of it—just another old person in Florida, sick and losing his cognitive functions, gone to the grave. No autopsy was performed.

It's not that blatant of an oversight. After all, parricide—the murder of a parent by a child—doesn't happen very often. According to CBS News, "killings of mothers and fathers each constitute about 1 percent of all homicides in the United States in which the victim-offender relationship is known."

But what seemed to get lost in initial coverage of the case was the sisters' alleged motivation.

When a journalist asked if they had talked about the "financial gain" (they had divided up, between them and their apparently uninvolved brother, $120,000, money they received from selling their father's house), Gualtieri said, "That wasn't it at all. It was really just about the fact that he wouldn't go to the ALF [assisted living facility], and they knew he was going to die."

Even assuming a conviction, we can't know for certain if the sisters really were so burdened with caring for him, or if that was merely some form of justification—ending someone's existence for a little more than $100,000 split three ways seems much worse than succumbing to exhaustion. People sometimes forget that most of Dostoevsky's novel is the protagonist freaking out about murdering a pawnbroker. (It should be called A Crime in the First 100 Pages and Close to 1,000 Pages of Punishment.) This always turns into the most fascinating part. Why?

"There have been individuals who have killed their elderly parents because they couldn't take care of them," Kathleen Heide, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, and the author of Understanding Parricide: When Sons and Daughters Kill Their Parents, told me over the phone. "However, those people tend to be people who are devoted to the parent, and then become worn down by the caregiver role—and there are individuals who may be appropriately diagnosed with having a major depressive disorder, often with psychotic features. So, in other words, over time, the burden of caring for the older parent is such that they, basically, can't take it anymore."

That is, cases like this are not always or even often necessarily the product of sought inheritance or an explicit desire for freedom. Instead, Heide said, the reality of elder care simply becomes overwhelming—and, over time, children essentially may snap.

Heide explained, too, that there are typically "four pathways" to parricide. In no particular order: the severely abused child, who kills because of excessive abuse and/or neglect; the dangerously antisocial offender, who does so for selfish reasons, like money; the enraged, sometimes those addicted to drugs and alcohol, who lash out, perhaps, because a parent has stopped bankrolling them; and the severely mentally ill, who might be delusional and might think, say, the devil is demanding their mother or father as a sacrifice. (The same day as the Florida news conference, the AP reported that a 19-year-old in Oklahoma City was said to have shot his parents because he believed they were worshipping Satan and telepathically communicating with him.)

"To have a parricide by a female is especially rare," Heide told me. "To have what I would refer to as multiple offenders is very, very rare, and then the fact that these are siblings is equally as rare.

"We're talking about an event that is so isolated," she continued.

So isolated, perhaps, that the siblings behind it couldn't resist talking.

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