In hindsight, those finish-line whispers were right, something was off about the Luch family, those little kids -- as young as 8 -- who competed with adults in local running races and placed. Something was dark about how the parents took the children to train for hours on Anchorage trails. Once in a while someone would catch one crying. Once in a while someone would see them all running, not having fun, just running really hard. How do you get a little kid to run like that?
A decade later, as Robert Luch sits before a jury facing charges he shot and killed his wife, we see how off things really were. The dynamics in the Luch family seem like a made-for-TV movie about domestic violence. But somehow, like so many cases where a woman is a victim, Robert Luch isn't the only one on trial. It's Jocelyn too. Through the trial, Luch and his defense attorney, Andrew Lambert, have worked to show how she wasn't a good wife and mother. Her children have turned against her on the stand. The idea, it appears, is to introduce the notion that she did things women aren't supposed to do, and because of that, her husband is less guilty. That she brought some of this on herself.
The Luches lived an isolated life. The children didn't go to public school. They didn't watch television. Robert Luch told the jury he ran his family like a board of directors, but testimony showed it was more like a dictatorship. Robert Luch could get really angry and he liked control, especially of his wife, Jocelyn. She was a native of the Philippines, about 20 years younger than him. He sometimes treated her like one of their children.
In the summer of 2010, prosecutors say, Jocelyn, then 40, had no access to the family finances. She couldn't drive the family car. She had to depend on the children, all in their late teens or early 20s at the time, and friends for rides. Sometimes Luch locked the phones away. He asked the children to accompany her places. They called it "babysitting."
Their marriage was falling apart. Jocelyn had an affair. Luch suspected it was still going on. The parents used the children as their messengers. Robert taunted his wife, shaming her. The children were caught in a confusing game of telephone. Their loyalties shifted all the time.
Prosecutors say Jocelyn wanted free of her husband. She wanted a divorce. In mid-September, she opened her own bank account and deposited money from her job as a waitress. The same day Robert Luch bought the gun.
One day in late September, after explosive fights with his children and a paranoid drive to try to look for Jocelyn at the Tuesday Night Race Series, prosecutors say Robert took the gun and shot Jocelyn. Police found her bleeding on the bathroom floor. She told them he shot her because they were getting a divorce. Prosecutors played this for the jury.
The prosecution's case is strong, right down to the voice of a dead woman identifying her killer. But the defense worked from the beginning to blame the victim for what happened. She slept with someone other than her husband. She wasn't acting like the perfect mother. Her husband had a right to be mad.
"Jocelyn started to act like a single woman while she was still married," Lambert, the defence attorney, said as the trial opened. "Even some of the kids thought that she wanted to start a new life without the children. Some of them maybe even wondered if she still loved them anymore."
You could understand Luch's rage, his meanness, Lambert told jurors. Look how his wife misbehaved, he argued. She drove him to madness with her infidelity.
Robert Luch told jurors that the shooting was partly his wife's fault. He meant only to scare her with the gun. The shooting was an accident, not first-degree murder. She brought it on by struggling with him. He didn't know exactly what he was doing when he pulled that trigger. Twice.
"It takes two to melee," he testified.
Will eroding Jocelyn's character work with jurors? I don't think so, but you can never tell. It's best not to underestimate the impulse some people have to punish women. Clearly, it has worked inside the family.
The ugliest part of the trial may be how the children abandoned her. Marcelyn, the youngest daughter, told police after the murder her father said he was going to kill Joceyln. Prosecutors played her recorded interviews. Her voice was rushed. She sounded scared. On the stand, she contradicted all this in careful tones. Her siblings gave conflicting answers as well. The children claimed, out of nowhere, that their mother threatened them weekly with a knife for 20 years. Robert Luch told the jury his gun was an answer to her knife. It was Joceyln who set the violent tone.
Wednesday, the children sat behind him at the defense table. As I watched them, I thought about those little kids out on their training runs. Whatever was chasing them down the trail back then hasn't gone away.