Leonard Joseph Richards seemed to do it all.
Not only was he a man of the cloth as an ordained priest, but Richards was also an accountant, real estate agent, management consultant, and secretary of a company that published a gay magazine, according to the Charities Division of the Minnesota Attorney General. He even ran for office numerous times, as a Libertarian, Republican, and later in his life under the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Party.
Joseph Richards also ran multiple charities and trusts. His charities were not well-known, but strangely, his very ill and disabled Air Force veteran half-sister listed his charities and trusts as beneficiaries for her life insurance company.
Richards’s reputation unraveled relatively quickly. By 1994, Richards was convicted of not only killing his half-sister, but for killing his lawyer after his lawyer threatened to report Richards’s financial wrongdoing to the IRS. The double murderer orchestrated the death of his sister in an attempt to exploit her for millions of dollars in life insurance payouts.
This is the case of the brazen crimes of Leonard Richards, a story of what happens when greed has no limits.
Using his sister for life insurance money
According to the Eighth Circuit, May Wilson was a decorated and honored veteran whose health, unfortunately, deteriorated substantially after leaving the military. The Eighth Circuit notes that Wilson was a major in the Air Force who trained nurses as the chief nurse of the hospital. She served at the Clark Air Force Base Hospital in the Philippines.
In 1968, however, Wilson was honorably discharged and put on total disability. In the 14 years between her honorable discharge and death, she was hospitalized numerous times for both physical health and mental health problems, including suicide attempts. She would be diagnosed with “depressive psychosis, cyclical depression, severe anxiety, hysterical personality disorder, and drug dependency.”
As Wilson’s health got worse, Richards managed her finances, and he profited in doing so. Richards had numerous charities and trusts that were the beneficiaries of Wilson’s life insurance policies. One of those charities was an Iowa charity named Cerro Gordo, which was the defendant in a case where the life insurance company sued for fraud.
In a four year span from 1975 to 1979, Wilson had as many as 46 hospital income protection (HIP) insurance plans through her membership in various organizations, including the National Rife Association. HIP plans give money to the beneficiary for every day the insured is in the hospital, and Wilson was in the hospital a lot. In the winter months, she was hospitalized in Mexico and Costa Rica.
Richards and his attorneys collected almost $700,000 under these policies, but then insurance companies started to contest the payments. In this four-year period, Wilson’s will was formulated, making Richards and his charities beneficiaries.
During Richards’s criminal trial in 1994, the Court introduced evidence of Richards being mean and abusive to Wilson. Wilson was reluctant to cut him off because he managed her finances.
In March 1982, the smoke alarm in Richards’s home went off. Firefighters responded to the alert and found Wilson in the back seat of Richards’s car. While she was being given medical attention, she asked: “you don’t think he’s trying to kill me, do you?”
On May 12, 1982, Wilson was found dead in the basement of one of Richards’s companies in Minneapolis. She was stabbed twice in the neck, and she had flattened cardboard boxes covering her body. Although two unopened condoms were found near her body and a key was found in her vagina, the medical examiner thought it was not a sexual assault and that the scene may have been altered to make it look like one. Wilson’s body had been moved and there were blood stains in the upstairs part of the building, and she also had no defense wounds.
At the time of Wilson’s death, Cerro Gordo’s only voting members were Wilson and his attorney. The only charitable donation made by Cerro Gordo was a grant — to another one of Wilson’s companies. Two days before Wilson’s death, she was supposed to have visited relatives in Arizona and meet with her lawyer. She never made it to her flight, and her suitcase was found in Richards’s house. Her purse, which had her driver’s license and checkbook, was in his closet. Richards started to act strangely, visiting relatives he rarely visited (to “create an alibi for himself”) and telling police she was visiting relatives even after her body was discovered.
In the case, Cerro Gordo v. Fireman’s Fund American Life Insurance, the court affirmed a trial court decision that the life insurance company did not need to pay Richards the millions of dollars in life insurance money because Richard had Wilson killed for the life insurance money. Richards previously told his psychiatrist, who testified under oath, about his plans to kill Wilson.
Since this was a civil case, Richards wasn’t going to jail after being found liable for Wilson’s death, but he would have to be retried in a criminal proceeding, where there is a higher standard of proof. He was still a free man who simply wasn’t entitled to the life insurance money he schemed to get.
Murder convictions for his sister and his lawyer
In 1989, Richards was convicted of first-degree murder — but not for the death of his sister. First, he was convicted for the 1987 death of his lawyer, Robert Stratton.
According to the Supreme Court of Minnesota, the highest state court in Minnesota, Stratton, and Richards were scheduled to meet on the afternoon of February 23, 1987. Stratton told his receptionist he and Richards were going to lunch and left the office at 1:15 p.m., but the receptionist never saw Stratton again.
At the time, Richards was living with his girlfriend, Linda Winbush. Winbush testified that Richards told her to clear out the basement of her home in advance for their meeting.
Richards shielded the basement from view and access, covering the windows with paint and contact paper, and installing new latches. Before the meeting with Stratton, Winbush said Richards drove her to a relative’s home where her children were staying, and had her stay there for the day.
When he picked her up at 11 p.m. she noticed dark spots all over his jeans. Richards said the spots were paint. He also warned her not to go to the basement because someone had been working downstairs. The next morning, she also noticed blood spots all over her children’s bedroom. While Richards wasn’t looking, Winbush blotted some of the blood with tissue and hid the tissue in her jacket.
On February 24th, Richards gave Winbush and one of her kids $100 and told them to spend the day shopping. While shopping, Winbush contacted the police and said she thought “something horrible” happened in her house. Winbush gave the sample of tissue to police and gave consent for police to search her home.
When police went to search Winbush’s home, they found Stratton’s naked body covered with sheets in the basement. Richards was home and restrained.
After they got a warrant, the police found “a maul, an axe, a pair of sidecutters, and garbage bags filled with bloody paper towels and clothing” in Winbush’s basement. Officers also found blood-splattered jeans, which Richards was wearing the night he picked her up.
The autopsy revealed Stratton died of a gunshot wound to his skull, and that his body had been moved before his death. A ballistics expert said the bullet was fired from one of the pistols police found in the house.
Two days after Stratton was killed, he was scheduled to meet with IRS an IRS investigator. The prosecutor said that Stratton was going to implicate Richards in tax fraud and turn over documents regarding Richards’s alleged fraud.
Richards was found guilty of first-degree murder, then he successfully appealed the conviction to the appeals court, saying he was denied his right to self-representation. Richards had a public defender, then wanted to change his public defender, then wanted to fire his public defender and represent himself. The judge refused. The appeals court reversed and granted a new trial,
Ultimately, Richards would be convicted of first-degree murder in 1992, and the appeals court affirmed the verdict, calling the evidence “exceptionally strong.” He was sentenced to a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 17 and a half years.
While his trial was ongoing, Richards ran for state treasurer in 1990. He then ran for the U.S. Representative for the 8th District of Minnesota in 1992, while incarcerated. The Charities Division of the Minnesota Attorney General states there were suspicions of Richards using money provided by the state for his murder defenses for his political campaigns.
On the same day Richards was arrested as the primary suspect for killing Stratton, he was also indicted for killing May Wilson. During the trial, Richards, of course, represented himself. The Court appointed an attorney from the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office to be standby counsel. Richards successfully petitioned the court for $500,000 for his defense.
Midway through the trial, however, Richards said he was too sick to represent himself due to “high blood sugar levels.” He asked the standby attorney to represent him, but the attorney declined because the attorney was not very familiar with the evidence and believed Richards only made the request to get a mistrial. The court also denied his motion to relinquish his right to self-representation.
In 1994, Richards was found guilty for first-degree murder, and sentenced again to life in prison, with the jury only deliberating for less than five hours. He was also ordered by the court to pay $50,000 to Hennepin County in exchange for funding his legal defense.
“In ordering the reimbursement, the court noted that Richards had wasted at least that sum on disbursements unnecessary to his defense,” the appeals court said about the trial court’s rationale.
Richards, of course, appealed the decision, citing among many complaints his denial of a right to counsel. However, the appeals court denied this appeal, saying Richards waived his right to counsel when he elected to self-represent.
Running for office and legacy
Today, Richards is alive and still in jail, serving his life sentences at Stillwater, a Minnesota Correctional Facility.
Even almost three decades after his initial incarceration, Richards was still making headlines. In 2018, Richards ran for office again — for the Senate seat of Democrat Amy Klobuchar. As a convicted double murderer, many were outraged, including Stratton’s sister. She said she contacted the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office and was told there was nothing the office could do to prevent Richards from running — Richards only needed to live in the state and be of a certain age.
Somehow, Richards won 3,552 votes in the 2018 Democratic Primary, finishing in last place with 0.6% of the vote.
Leonard Joseph Richards is clearly a man who has done some awful things by, well, killing two people, including his half-sister. But the primary motive for Richards seems to have been greed, and having no boundaries in satiating that greed. Not only that, but he wasted a lot of public money representing himself and may have used that money for his political campaigns.
At the end of the day, I do wonder how Richards won over 3,500 votes.