Killer dermatologist found dead in cell
Prison hanging ends
life of cross-dressing doctor turned murderer
By Gail McCarthy -
Gloucester Daily Times
January 06, 2009
One of the most tragic and bizarre
murder stories ever to jar Cape Ann came to an abrupt end Monday night,
when Dr. Richard Sharpe was found dead, hanging from a bed sheet in his
cell at the state prison in Norfolk.
News of the death of the cross-dressing
Gloucester dermatologist, serving a life sentence for the murder of his
wife, spread quickly here yesterday.
Sharpe, 54, was found hanged in his
cell with a bedsheet tied to his bunk bed at Norfolk state prison just
before 7:30 p.m. Monday, prison officials said. He was reportedly found
by his cellmate.
Yesterday afternoon, a spokesman for
the Norfolk District Attorney's office said an autopsy was completed,
but the medical examiner has left the cause and manner of Sharpe's death
listed as undetermined, pending toxicology reports. Prison officials had
not, as of last night, declared the death a suicide.
Sharpe, formerly of 8 Great Ledge Road,
West Gloucester, shot his estranged wife, Karen Sharpe, 44, on July 14,
2000, with a high-powered rifle. The couple's two younger children,
Karen Sharpe's brother and a baby sitter were in Karen Sharpe's Wenham
home at the time of the shooting. Karen Sharpe had a restraining order
against her husband at the time of the incident.
The weapon was never found. A jury
convicted him in 2001, but he would appear in criminal court again years
later when, in 2007, he was acquitted of charges that he plotted to kill
the prosecutor in his murder trial.
Richard and Karen Sharpe, who were
childhood sweethearts, were going through a divorce after nearly 27
years of marriage. They had three children, including two who were 7 and
5 when their mother was killed, and a 26-year-daughter, Shannon.
A manhunt ensued as police searched for
Sharpe, who was found in New Hampshire 30 hours later after a motel
clerk recognized Sharpe's face from a television news report. Police
tracked him to Pine View Lodge in Tuftonborough, N.H., where he had
registered for a motel room under his own name.
Gloucester police Lt. Michael McLeod,
along with Sgt. William Leanos, remembers being there at the time of his
McLeod, now retired after serving as
police chief, received a call from a fellow police officer yesterday
morning about Sharpe's death.
"I remember that night in New Hampshire.
He was strange that night. He showed no remorse," McLeod said. "It was
pouring buckets of rain that night. It was torrential. They evacuated as
many people as they could from the motel and threw in the biggest can of
tear gas I ever saw in my life. He came right out. They put him to the
ground and took him away."
McLeod sat with Sharpe at the
Tuftonborough Police Department after the arrest.
"He said just a few syllables. He
wasn't upset. He wasn't screaming or crying. It was like 'OK, you got
me,'" recalled McLeod.
During the manhunt, a Gloucester police
dispatcher informed officers who were searching for Sharpe in Gloucester
that the suspect may be dressed as a woman. When Sharpe was being placed
under arrest in New Hampshire, McLeod said he was shocked at the
doctor's appearance, because he looked like he was developing breasts.
Sharpe's case drew national attention
when photographs of him wearing slinky dresses and fishnet stockings
were widely published after his arrest. His wife had said in earlier
affidavits that he stole her birth control pills in an effort to enlarge
Sharpe, who was affiliated with both
Addison Gilbert and Beverly hospitals, also was an instructor of
dermatology at Harvard Medical School. Over the years, he had hundreds
of patients on Cape Ann. When he first came to Gloucester, he had his
office at Cape Ann Medical Center at Blackburn Industrial Park. He later
moved to an office near O'Maley Middle School and, lastly, had an office
at the Shaw's plaza on Eastern Avenue.
He is remembered as a smart doctor who
helped patients, but also as a doctor who often unnerved patients who
would go for an office visit for a specific mole or skin lesion, then be
asked to remove all their clothes with no bedside manner.
He was a successful doctor, who
branched off into other businesses including laser hair removal, and
made millions of dollars. But those who knew him also saw his decline
and saw the volatile relationship between the couple grow worse.
Alan Estes, a Gloucester musician, knew
Sharpe because his wife at the time worked at Sharpe's medical office
for many years, and he also did work on the doctor's house. He later
wrote about the tragic incident in a song titled "The Ballad of Dr.
Estes said his ex-wife had left
Sharpe's practice before the shooting.
"Everybody was watching him go down
hill," he said. "He was a successful businessman and doctor and he was
always walking a fine line of lunacy. People saw him losing more and
more touch with reality as time went on."
Estes heard the news of Sharpe's death
yesterday from a fellow musician friend, Sal Baglio of Swampscott, who
left him a message and sang part of Estes' song yesterday morning.
"I couldn't believe it," said Estes,
who recalled that Sharpe often came to the Rhumb Line, accompanied by
his wife, after the office closed to hear Estes play.
"How tragically it all went down,"
Estes said. "He showed up at the door while the two kids are in the
house, and took their mother's life. I saw a very messed-up person from
day one and the song I wrote is one of desperation."
Estes said so many residents knew him
from being a patient and because he lived in Gloucester.
"For a while he was a fairly social guy,"
Fred Shrigley, owner of the Rhumb Line
on Railroad Avenue, remembers Sharpe because he frequented the nightspot
to hear Estes, a regular performer there.
"He would come in with Estes' wife and
listen to the music. She was a beautiful woman and I think he liked to
be seen with her," recalled Shrigley. "But he started to get weirder and
Shrigley said Sharpe was eventually
barred from the bar after an incident when the doctor was acting
erratically, under the influence of some unknown substance, and harassed
the bar's doorman.
Some residents are unable to talk about
Sharpe and what happened.
Suzanne Crossen of Manchester, a former
employee of Sharpe, testified at the trial. When contacted yesterday,
she said she had no comment at this point. According to the Court TV Web
site, she resigned from her job after she learned that his wife left him
and was hiding from him.
Other Cape Ann residents who testified
at the trial included Dr. Cynthia Bjorlie, who worked in the same office
building at Cape Ann Medical Center, and Paula Hiltz, a former employee.
Sally Loring of Manchester, a former
patient, echoed the words of Estes and many others, and was not
surprised at the news, given the tragic situation of the incident on all
"What does someone do with himself
serving a life sentence? I just don't know. I thought of sending him
some books at first, but decided I just didn't want to do that," said
the 80-year-old Loring. "His wife is gone and someone is raising their
children. The whole thing is terribly sad."
Not long after Sharpe was arrested, he
was transferred to Bridgewater State Hospital because officials feared
he might attempt suicide. Sharpe, then 45, was moved from the Essex
County jail to the Bridgewater psychiatric hospital.
After his conviction, Sharpe also tried
to hang himself in his cell in March 2002. His death yesterday remains
under investigation by the state Department of Correction and Norfolk
District Attorney William Keating.
A TIME LINE OF EVENTS IN THE CASE
July 14, 2000: Karen Sharpe shot and
July 16, 2000: Richard Sharpe
July 20, 2000: Karen Sharpe's family
files wrongful death suit against Richard Sharpe.
July 2001: Fellow inmate accuses
Sharpe of offering him $1 million to help Sharpe escape.
July 21, 2000: Richard Sharpe charged
with murder and held without bail.
Nov. 29, 2001: Sharpe convicted of
first-degree murder, sentenced to life in prison.
December 2001: Wrongful death suit
settled for $5 million.
March 2002: Sharpe tries to kill
himself in prison.
August 2007: Fellow inmate says he
and Sharpe plotted to kill Sharpe's prosecutor, Sharpe found not guilty.
Jan. 5, 2009: Sharpe found hanged by
a bed sheet in his cell.
Sharpe convicted of first-degree murder
November 27, 2001
LAWRENCE, Mass. (Court TV) — Rejecting Richard
Sharpe's claims of insanity, a jury Tuesday convicted the transvestite
dermatologist of first-degree murder in the shooting of his estranged
The jury of six women and six men deliberated for
nearly 12 hours before returning the verdict. The conviction means
Sharpe will receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole
when he is sentenced Thursday morning.
The 47-year-old defendant, dressed in a white shirt
and navy tie, kept his eyes closed as the verdict was read. When the
jury foreman announced the first-degree finding, a cry of "Yes!" rose up
from the family and friends of Karen Sharpe, seated in the front row of
the courtroom. Sharpe, who had two outbursts during the trial, said
nothing but scowled as bailiffs immediately placed him in handcuffs.
Judge Christine McEvoy's court was packed for the
reading of the verdict. The case has attracted intense media coverage on
Massachusetts' north shore, where Sharpe had a successful practice and
several medical businesses that made him a millionaire. After the murder,
surprised locals learned that Sharpe had a penchant for cross-dressing,
and photographs of him in a wig and fishnet stockings accompanied
newspaper articles about the couple's rocky marriage.
Several months before the shooting, Karen Sharpe, a
mother of three, had left the 26-year marriage and obtained a
restraining order against Sharpe, who, she claimed in divorce papers,
had abused her physically and verbally throughout their relationship. On
July 14, 2000, Sharpe confronted his wife in the foyer of the home where
she was staying with their two youngest children. With three witnesses
looking on, he fired a single rifle shot to her chest, killing her.
During the two-week trial, Sharpe never disputed
shooting his wife, but he claimed he was insane at the time. Taking the
stand in his own defense, he told jurors that a vague "compulsion" to
reunite his family led him to her house with a loaded gun. Jurors,
however, apparently did not believe his testimony that mental illness
and a toxic combination of red wine and prescription medicine left him
unable to remember much of the shooting or remember why he had taken her
They also apparently discarded the testimony of a
defense psychiatric expert, Dr. Kenneth Ablow, who diagnosed Sharpe with
several mental problems, including major depression, borderline
personality disorder and intermittent explosive disorder, and said he
was not criminally responsible for the shooting. Ablow traced Sharpe's
problems back to his abusive childhood and told jurors the doctor began
dressing as a woman as a young teen to avoid his father's insults.
Jurors seemed to agree with prosecutor Robert Weiner
who urged them during closing arguments to "put aside the psychobabble."
"Child abuse is not an excuse," he told them. Weiner
painted Sharpe as a calculating murderer who had planned the insanity
defense as part of the "perfect crime" of killing his wife.
"He's fakin' it," he shouted at the panel during
closings. Weiner contended that Sharpe wasn't crazy, but furious because
he believed his wife had stolen $3 million from him. The prosecution
called a series of business associates and acquaintances of Sharpe who
testified the doctor was alert and rational on the day of the shooting.
Others testified that he was interested in buying a gun weeks before the
crime and tried to hire someone to ransack his wife's belongings. And
Sharpe himself admitted quickly disposing of the murder weapon and
fleeing to New Hampshire, behavior prosecutor Weiner told jurors showed
a guilty conscience.
After the verdict, Karen Sharpe's sister, Kathleen
Lembo, now the guardian of her two minor children, Alexandra and
Michael, stood on the courthouse steps and described her sister.
"Karen Sharpe was a loving mother, the best sister
anybody could have. She was a wonderful daughter and a friend," said
Lembo, who was surrounded by her brothers, father and husband. Referring
to Richard Sharpe's claim that his wife cheated on him and was having an
affair with a contractor at the time of her murder, Lembo added, "You
got a sense of a lot of things that weren't Karen Sharpe in the
courtroom, but [Weiner] and his people were able to convey to the jury
that she was not that person."
She noted that her sister never told her nor their
two brothers about Sharpe's abuse.
"She didn't share it with any of us because she
didn't want us to feel her pain," said Lembo.
Karen Sharpe's survivors are expected to speak at the