Murder victim's friends say PA woman made good on her vow to kill

Maria Spencer repeatedly threatened to kill her ex-husband and enlisted her father to help make good on her promise — why couldn't anyone stop her?

Maria Spencer's Vow to Kill
Maria Spencer's Vow to Kill 42:01

Produced by Sarah Prior

[This story first aired on November 16, 2019. It was updated on June 20, 2020.]

Frank Spencer, a beloved businessman, was found dead at the front door of his Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, home in July 2012. He was shot twice. Spencer's dog and truck were missing on the day his body was found.

Most of Frank's friends immediately suspected his ex-wife, Maria Spencer. They knew Maria had been threatening Frank for years.

"We knew it was Maria. We didn't know who else might have been involved. But we knew it was her," friend Deanna Reed told "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant.

After a contentious divorce, a break-in and fires at the homes of his mother and girlfriend, Frank Spencer knew he was a dead man walking. "Frank told me where it was going to happen, it was going to be at his house," Derk Reed said of his friend's murder.

He even knew how it would happen. "She said, 'you're gonna get shot in the head.'  She told him that," said friend Paul Siciliano of Maria's threats to Frank.

But no one was able to stop it. Police and the district attorney say they did all they could before the murder within the limits of the law. Investigators say Maria Spencer, and her father, Anthony "Rocco" Franklin, who according to police had a reputation for having ties to the mob, planned his death. The Spencers' divorce had been finalized just three weeks earlier.

"Maria Spencer to me is a classic femme fatale," says Pennsylvania Senior Deputy Attorney General Tony Forray. "An attractive woman, a seductress who, when a man becomes involved with her — this is going to end poorly."

Added Forray, "How could this all happen? If you made this into a movie tomorrow, nobody would believe it actually happened."

A VOLATILE RELATIONSHIP

It was Tuesday, July 3, 2012, in the once easygoing town of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Joe Yodock, Frank Spencer's lifelong friend, hadn't heard from him since Saturday.

Joe Yodock: I was working on go-karts. We were right in the middle of a big series. We're trying to win.  And I'd been texting him ... because we had issues we had to work on with the go-karts.

Joe and Frank raced go-karts together for years with their kids.  And so that morning, Yodock went looking went to find his missing buddy.

Joe Yodock: I'll never forget it. I was pulling down the driveway. And I thought, "I hope I don't find him dead."

When Yodock found Frank, lying on the floor, it took him a moment to process what he was seeing.

Joe Yodock: He had this look of peace, calmness that he hadn't had in a long time. … I stepped over his legs. And I noticed what looked like dried blood in his ear. Now I realized what happened and that he wasn't alive.

Peter Van Sant: This loss, of somebody you knew from the time you were in kindergarten, can you put that in words?

Joe Yodock [emotional]: No. Nope.

It was a tragedy, but not a mystery for Frank's loved ones. Most suspected Maria Spencer, Frank's former wife, who had officially become his ex-wife just three weeks before the murder. Maria did not want the divorce, and the proceedings had been drawn out and very contentious.

Joe Yodock: You could tell there was just venom. It was very — didn't matter who was there. She'd fly in screaming, slamming car doors.

Ironically, Maria's passion was one of the things that had attracted Frank to her in the first place.

Paul Sicilano | Frank's friend: He liked the crazy. You know, in the beginning when they were together, it was fun for him, you know, because he did have that kind of wild side to him.

Frank and Maria eloped in 1997. Soon they had a son, Cyrus, and then a daughter, Frankie.

Joe Yodock: The kids were … were his biggest priority. … Everything he did was about the kids.

When Frank's father retired, he took over the family business — a junkyard, located behind Frank's childhood home.

Katie Yodock | Frank's friend: He knew everybody. I mean everybody in the town knew Frank Spencer.

Frank's friends say Maria didn't seem to warm to family life the way Frank had.

Joe Yodock: Frank was disappointed that she wasn't taking that much of an interest in the kids.

spencer-maria-frank.jpg
Maria and Frank Spencer Pennsylvania State Police/Ron Romig

The marriage eventually began to crumble, and Frank filed for divorce in 2006. Police were called several times for domestic disputes. Despite this, Frank wanted to keep the kids in one home.

Ron Romig | Frank's friend: Frank said that kids shouldn't be punished by having to go to their mother's house or their father's house. "This is your house." So, this week I live here. Then that week I'll leave. ... And that the kids should try to have as stable a life as they possibly can.

But friends say Maria was anything but stable. In 2008, she was arrested after a scuffle with Frank's mother at her daughter's school. She was charged with disorderly conduct, harassment, and child endangerment for allegedly not buckling her daughter into the car.

Tom Leipold prosecuted the case when he was an assistant D.A. but didn't feel he could prove child endangerment.

Tom Leipold: So, I agreed to dismiss that charge in exchange for the plea to the two other offenses.

Maria pleaded guilty and had to pay a $600 fine. But the judgment only seemed to fuel Maria's rage. She repeatedly threatened to kill Frank — sometimes in front of other people. Frank had been reporting those threats to local police for years.

Sgt. Scott Traugh: The issue is – is that Frank and Maria['s] relationship was volatile.

Hemlock Township police officer Scott Traugh says Frank and Maria would fight, but often reconcile. He says he wrote up Maria's threats, but says Frank didn't want them pursued.

Sgt. Scott Traugh: He just wanted things documented for his sake in case something happened to him.

By 2009, the Spencer's divorce battle was three years along and still far from over. But emotionally, Frank was moving on.

Peter Van Sant:  Did the two of you hit it off right away?

Julie Dent | Frank's girlfriend: We did. We did. … Frank and I both admit that we were both smitten at the same time when meeting each other.

spencer-franks-julie.jpg
Frank Spencer and Julie Dent Ron Romig

Julie Dent met Frank through mutual friends, and things soon turned serious. Maria did not take this news well — especially when she heard Julie had spent time with the children:

MARIA SPENCER VOICEMAIL TO JULIE DENT | FEBRUARY 2010:  Hey Julie, it's Maria Spencer. … You can go out with Frank but do not, make no mistake about it, watch my children.

The situation escalated further. That summer, Maria's father, Rocco Franklin, who had a reputation as a tough guy, was released from prison after serving five years on fraud charges. This was not good news to Frank.

Joe Yodock: He started changing his habits … when her father was out of jail … because he was very concerned about something happening to him. 

Peter Van Sant: Did he feel like he was being hunted?

Joe Yodock: Yes.

A few months after Rocco's release there was a break-in at Frank's junkyard. Nothing of value was taken, but a pile of business records was stolen — documents that could potentially help Maria prove Frank's income in the divorce.

Tom Leipold: The day after the apparent break-in, I received a phone call from Maria Spencer … saying that she had found a trash bag on the front porch of her mother's house with all these business records in it.

Remember Tom Leipold — the man who once prosecuted Maria?  He was now serving as Maria's divorce attorney — even though he was still an assistant DA. It may sound bizarre, but it is allowed in Pennsylvania for part-time prosecutors

Peter Van Sant: In terms of appearances, do you understand why, for some, it's troubling that you took on Maria Spencer because she'd had all these run-ins with the law? … Doesn't that compromise you?

Tom Leipold: It did not compromise me. … I had no contact and no involvement with … any criminal matter involving Frank Spencer or Maria Spencer after I undertook to represent her in the divorce. None.

Many in town suspected Maria and Rocco had been involved in the burglary. Sergeant Traugh interviewed Maria and gathered evidence which he took to the DA — Tom Leipold's boss.

Sgt. Scott Traugh: I consulted with the district attorney at that time … and then I reviewed the entire case with him … And he determined that there was not enough to pursue criminal charges against Maria Spencer.

Maria gave the documents to her lawyer and they were ultimately returned to Frank, but the burglary was left unsolved.

Paul Siciliano: And to this day I don't understand it. … it's like we're in some weird universe.

Frank's friends were beginning to wonder if Maria would ever be stopped — especially when they saw what happened next.

Katie Yodock: I guess when the house burned down, I was like … this is this isn't a game anymore.

A CAMPAIGN OF TERROR

By the winter of 2010, the "War of the Spencers" continued, and so did the threats from Maria.

MARIA SPENCER VOICEMAIL: Hey Julie, it's Maria Spencer … do me a favor. Don't watch my children. Do not get between me and Frank by doing my children. You understand me?

Julie Dent: I've never … been threatened. So, I really chalked it up to just a bully that she was just running her mouth, as she so often did.

Maria continued to harass Frank, too — often making veiled threats about her father:

MARIA SPENCER VOICEMAIL: Hey Frank, it's Maria … He's an old man. He's got funny ways. … I thought I'd let you know cause I care about you … not because I want to frighten you.

Maria Spencer's voicemails: Angry words or pr... 01:34

Despite the threats, Julie and Frank tried to live a normal life. That January, they planned a romantic trip to the Caribbean.

Peter Van Sant: And was Maria aware that you were about to take a vacation?

Julie Dent: Unfortunately, yes.

Maria started texting Julie about Frank:

he says he loves me and he didn't want to disappoint u on ur only vacation this year

Do u want to know if he loves u, or me?

Then, the night before they were supposed to leave, she asked Frank to dinner to talk about custody, and dinner turned into a room for the night at a hotel.

Julie Dent: She lured him away.

That night, Frank's mother's home — where he lived off and on — went up in flames. Frank's friends rushed to the scene, including his divorce attorney, Joel Wiest.

Joel Wiest: Nobody could find Frank … We were all very upset thinking Frank was in the fire.

Fortunately, the house was empty that night — except for the kids' dog, who died in the fire. Frank's friend Derk Reed says as they were standing by the smoldering ruins, Maria drove up, smiling.

Derk Reed: Drives up the driveway. Smirk on her face … Turned around left. And that was that.

Frank arrived soon after Maria left and told the state police fire marshal that he was certain Maria and her father had set the fire. But the fire marshal said there was no way to find evidence of arson, because the structure was destroyed. The fire was designated undetermined.

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A fire destroyed the home of Frank Spencer's mother the night Frank was to leave on a vacation with Julie Dent. PA Office of Attorney General

Joel Wiest: Frank was extremely angry … that they could not figure out why or how the fire started.

Frank was done with just wanting things documented. He wanted an arrest.

Joel Wiest: Frank and I, approached everybody we could think of in the law enforcement community … I still to this day do not know if there was ever an investigation.

Sergeant Traugh from the Hemlock Township Police started a case file and spoke to Maria, but says because of the fire marshal's conclusion, there was little else he could do.

Sgt. Scott Traugh:  I did have a strong suspicion that it was arson. … I'm not an expert. So, when he determined that, that's what I have to go with.

After the fire, Maria seemed to taunt Frank in a text:

Karma is a wonderful thing … You destroyed my life. I feel allott [sic] better … since your whole life went up in the fire.. makes it fair

Julie Dent: I can hear her saying it. That was just a text. I can hear it.

Maria followed up with another menacing text about Julie:

I will make her loose [sic] her job her home and u…

Peter Van Sant: Did Frank read that to you?

Julie Dent: He did. He was very distraught by it.

As time went on, Maria's threats grew more bold and more public.  At a kids soccer game, Maria screamed in Julie's face that her house was next. A few months later, Julie was home alone, asleep.

Julie Dent: It was when I heard the breaking of glass. …  As I … came around to the top of stairs as I was about to round the corner I was greeted by a fireball — literally a fireball coming up the stairs.

Peter Van Sant: What do you do?

Julie Dent: Nothing else I could do but to open a window and go out on to the porch roof.

Julie jumped from her second story porch roof and survived. She was shaken, but uninjured.

Julie Dent: I lost everything.

Peter Van Sant: And do you believe that the sole intent of this was to burn a house down. Or was it to … to kill you?

Julie Dent: I do believe it also had the component of ridding me from the life, yes, of Frank Spencer 

Julie lived in a different county and she and Frank were hoping for a better outcome this time. But another state police fire marshal at the scene that night said he couldn't find evidence of what started the fire.

Joel Wiest: At this point even I wasn't accepting it, let alone Frank.

spencer-juliedentfire.jpg
"It was when I heard the breaking of glass. …  As I … came around to the top of stairs as I was about to round the corner I was greeted by a fireball — literally a fireball coming up the stairs," said Julie Dent of the fire that destroyed her home. The fire was ruled an arson. PA Office of Attorney General

Julie's home insurance sent a fire inspector out the next morning — and Joel Wiest says he showed him what they'd found by a side window.

Joel Wiest: There was a carjack right here laying on the ground. It was a scissor jacket that would lift the car.

Peter Van Sant: What would a jack be doing here?

Joel Wiest: It's heavy. It's steel. It was used to break that window in.

And the investigator noticed a path through the weeds by the house.

Joel Wiest: There was a milk jug, a gallon container. … And there was an unused road flare lying next to it.

Peter Van Sant: An igniter.

Joel Wiest: An igniter, which said to the investigator … these are the makings of a firebomb.

A firebomb. The state police fire marshal came back out to the scene.

Joel Wiest: They used their apparatus to determine accelerants. And there was gasoline all over those steps.

This time the fire was ruled an arson. Frank and Julie told the fire marshal they were certain Maria was involved and shared her prior threats. But once again no one was charged. In the fall of 2010, Frank and Julie tried separating briefly, and in desperation, told their story to a local paper.

A year-and-a-half later, on June 30, 2010, there was something else in the newspaper:  an announcement that Frank and Maria were finally divorced.

Peter Van Sant: Had the two of you talked about spending the rest of your lives together perhaps?

Julie Dent: We did, yes.

But that would never happen. The day after that divorce notice was published, Frank Spencer was dead.

FOLLOWING THE EVIDENCE

Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Shawn Williams was assigned to lead the murder investigation the day Frank Spencer's body was found. He is now with the Luzerne County, PA, DA's Office.

Peter Van Sant: And on that July morning as you approached the front door, what did you see?

Det. Shawn Williams: There was a lot of blood right here in front of the doorway. The blood had striations in it like it'd been pushed with a push broom, an attempt at clean up.

Frank's house has been frozen in time in the years since his murder in 2012.

Det. Shawn Williams: You can still see some of our chemical testing. Frank Spencer's blood spattered against this frame and this door.

Peter Van Sant: Right here?

Det. Shawn Williams: Yes.

Peter Van Sant: Can you get us inside?

Det. Shawn Williams: Sure. … This door was actually closed the entire time … and Frank's body was right here on these tiles … Frank's head was behind this doorway. And his arms were outstretched above his head. … He was laying on his back.

Investigators found their next clue in the blood around Frank's body, where a section of the floor was removed.

Det. Shawn Williams: The forensic service unit did their collection of evidence and … they found there were footwear impressions on this tile in blood.

Peter Van Sant: Footprints.

Det. Shawn Williams: Yes. … We sent it to the FBI for analysis and it came back it was a Dr. Scholl's model Escape brand size 11 sneaker.

spencer-footprint.jpg
FBI analysis of the bloody footprint found at the front door of Frank Spencer's home came back as a Dr. Scholl's model Escape brand size 11 sneaker -- the same style and size as Rocco Franklin wore PA Office of Attorney General

The same size and brand of shoe that Maria's father, Rocco, was known to wear.

Peter Van Sant: What other evidence did you find here in the house?

Det. Shawn Williams: I can show you if you come on in. This is the main living room … So, we come back into the kitchen here. What stuck out to us the forensic services unit they found a glove — a yellow cleaning glove right about this position right here.

Det. Shawn Williams: You expect to see a cleaning glove in the kitchen, but not laying right in the middle of the floor. … And the mate for the glove was actually inside the sink.

When the gloves were tested, Maria's DNA was found inside. Frank's friends say she hadn't lived in that house in over a year.

Det. Shawn Williams: It wasn't a door slam, close the file and make an arrest, but it definitely helped us along the way.

Detective Williams had now apparently linked Maria and her father Rocco to the murder scene. But that could only take Williams so far.

Det. Shawn Williams: We work in our business with fact. … So just because everybody in town was saying, "I think Maria did this, I think her father did this," we couldn't just assume that.

But soon, investigators uncovered more evidence of two suspects. Frank had been shot by two different guns. And forensic analysis determined that the first bullet struck Frank when he was outside the front door and it came from a rifle.

Det. Shawn Williams: A bullet passed through his bicep and went into his chest cavity.

Peter Van Sant:  Was that a fatal shot, do you believe?

Det. Shawn Williams: Yes.

Since a rifle is typically a long-distance weapon, police expanded their search into the woods.

Det. Shawn Williams: Right up here on this ridge across from the house you'll see a Y in a tree and there's a big base.

Peter Van Sant: Right up here?

spencer-tree.jpg
Investigators believe the Y in this tree was the shooter's location when Frank Spencer was shot the first time with a rifle. He was standing by his front door. CBS News

Det. Shawn Williams: Yes. … that is the location where we found a spent casing, a live casing, both .36 rounds and to the right of there, there was a soft gun case for a long rifle located as well.

Peter Van Sant: Now, this killing took place in July, height of summer, so I take it this whole hillside would be covered with leaves and bushes … would Frank have seen an attacker up there?

Det. Shawn Williams: I wouldn't think so.

Peter Van Sant: So, this was a classic ambush?

Det. Shawn Williams: Yes.

After that first shot, Williams says Frank was dragged inside and shot again — this time with a handgun at close range.

Peter Van Sant: Why a second bullet?

Det. Shawn Williams: It could be a motivation of hatred. It could be a message sent to Frank Spencer. … That shot meant something to someone that put it there.

Detective Williams had another mystery to solve: where was Frank's pickup truck? 

Det. Shawn Williams: We have a victim inside the house, but there was no vehicle there for the victim.

Investigators checked security cameras along the roads near Frank's house. And they found images of Frank's truck driving away from his home, just minutes after they calculated he had been murdered. But who was inside the truck?

Det. Shawn Williams: We … sent it to the United States Secret Service, and … it was … just too far away. It wasn't like they could zoom in, look through the window, and see who was there.

Frank's truck was eventually found in Sunbury, Pennsylvania — 27 miles from Frank's house and just 5 miles from where Maria was living at the time.

Frank's missing truck had led police toward Maria's home, but there was something else missing from Frank's that day that would lead them toward Rocco's.

THE WEDDING CRASHER

Frank and Barbara Pinto run a wedding venue in Dauphin, Pennsylvania — 72 miles from where Frank Spencer was killed. On the day of the murder, they were setting up for a wedding when an uninvited guest wandered in. 

Frank Pinto: And then all of a sudden –

Barbara Pinto: There was a dog appeared.

Frank Pinto: Right over here, there's a Weimaranian [sic]!

Frank Pinto: A beautiful dog just come sashaying in. And … I said, "Well whose dog is this?" And nobody knew whose dog it was.

It was Frank's dog, Mutley — adopted after his kids' dog was killed in that fire.

Mutley the Weimaraner
Mutley PA Office of Attorney General

Peter Van Sant: So, did Mutley look … Exhausted like it had taken some 70-mile journey to get here?

Barbara Pinto: No, you could tell he was somebody's dog and was very well taken care of.

Frank Pinto: — somebody's dog. And was very well taken care of.

Detective Williams realized that someone had driven Mutley to Dauphin, and that person must have been at Frank's house at the time of the murder.

Peter Van Sant: How many killers would take a dog with them unless they knew that dog?

Det. Shawn Williams:  I wouldn't think too many.

Williams learned that Rocco lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And the wedding venue is right along the road from Frank's house to Rocco's.

Det. Shawn Williams: Rocco's cell phone is on that direct route that same day.

Williams theorizes that Maria had asked Rocco to take Mutley — for the kids' sake, and that Mutley had run off accidentally when Rocco stopped along the way. It was now two months after Frank's murder, and Williams wanted to talk to his two main suspects. Maria refused, but to Williams' surprise, Rocco agreed.

Det. Shawn Williams: Which still blows my mind why he decided to talk to us. … However, I think Rocco likes that cat and mouse part of an investigation.

Rocco did give Williams an alibi.

Peter Van Sant: What did he say?

Det. Shawn Williams: Said, "I never left Harrisburg." … I couldn't believe it … because I know from his cell phone that he had traveled twice.

spencer-rocco-franklin.jpg
Rocco Franklin told police that while he had never liked Frank Spencer, he was actually at Frank's house the day before the murder — without his daughter Maria — helping tidy up.   

Rocco told police a preposterous story, saying that while he had never liked Frank, he was actually at Frank's house the day before the murder — without Maria — helping tidy up.   

Det. Shawn Williams: And I said, well, "What kind of cleaning were you doing?" And he said well … "I was … folding laundry, cleaning up with the push broom."

That's the same push broom that was used to clean Frank's blood off the porch. Even more far-fetched, Rocco said Frank had let him test drive his truck that day and that when he offered to buy it, Frank suggested they wrestle for it.

Det. Shawn Williams: Basically, what he's saying is — I touched Frank Spencer. I touched the truck, and I touched that push broom.

Peter Van Sant:  It sounds like he's trying to create a scenario — if you find my DNA in any of these places, this is why.

Det. Shawn Williams:  Absolutely.

Around the same time Rocco was talking to Williams, Frank's friend, Derk Reed, saw Maria in the stands at a high school football game.

Derk Reed: So, I just sat down beside her. And I said, "I just want to let you know, don't worry about me … around your kids." I said, "I'm never gonna say anything to disrespect you or Frank around your kids."  And she looked at me and goes, "that's why you're still alive, Reed." I just looked at her and said, "tell your dad I said hi." … and she went off.

Like many of Frank's friends, Reed suspected Rocco had helped Maria murder Frank.

Derk Reed: We were basically almost nose to nose. And I'm going, "why?" … I said, "you took him away from not just your kids — from everybody."

Peter Van Sant: What did she say to that, though? I mean, did she say, "I didn't kill him?"

Derk Reed: Oh no. No. What she said was, "the last thing he saw before he died was me."

It was a wretched moment for Reed, but a huge piece of evidence for the case.

Det. Shawn Williams: She's putting herself at a homicide scene. … If she saw someone take their last breath … she's saying she was there.

By that autumn, Williams was working with prosecutor Tony Forray, the senior deputy attorney general for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Prosecutor Tony Forray: I think it was horrible what Frank went through.

Forray was handling the prosecution because the county DA was now Tom Leipold, Maria's former divorce attorney, and he had recused himself from the case. Forray was aghast when he learned Frank had been reporting death threats for years — both before and after the fires in 2010.

Peter Van Sant: In the state of Pennsylvania is making a death threat to someone is that a crime?

Prosecutor Tony Forray: Yes, that would be a terroristic threat.

Even when Frank did ask police to investigate some of the threats he reported, Maria was never brought in for an interview or charged with making terroristic threats.

Prosecutor Tony Forray: If you get away with terroristic threats and then if you get away with a burglary … and … you get away with a fire … and … you get away with a blatant attempt to murder a girlfriend in a fire … the only thing left is murder.

Peter Van Sant: People in this town who believe that you and other members of the Hemlock Township Police Department were just not doing your job, you were not properly investigating these threats and complaints, you say what?

Sgt. Scott Traugh:  That's not true. Every incident … was thoroughly investigated. If they were serious in nature, the Columbia County district attorney was consulted. And he would determine at that time … if somebody would get arrested or not arrested.

The county district attorney during most of the time leading up to Frank's murder was Gary Norton. He says he never knew about Maria's threatening voicemails and texts.

Gary Norton: As district attorney I only know what police tell me.

And Norton says it was usually up to police to make arrests, not the DA.

Gary Norton: When I was DA, 95 to 99% of the arrests that were made were made without consultation with the DA. The police had that power and exercised that power.

Julie Dent's fire was not in Traugh or Norton's district. And Norton says he didn't ignore Frank's mother's fire or the theft of Frank's business records. He says he was following the law.

Gary Norton: Is there an arson and can we prove an arson? No. … Is there a burglary? No. Because … Frank Spencer had no proof that it was Maria who entered the premises.

Gary Norton: Before a prosecutor can ethically bring a charge … there has to be evidence or proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

But prosecutor Tony Forray felt he could prove the earlier crimes and Frank's murder. It took time to gather evidence, and in 2013 Forray convened a grand jury. This time both suspects agreed to talk.

Prosecutor Tony Forray: There was no interrupting Maria … as soon as she took a breath, I would ask a question. … "Did you ever threaten to kill Frank Spencer?" Her answer would be "Absolutely not." Check, one count of perjury … "Did you ever threaten Julie Dent?" "Absolutely not." Check.

And so Forray charged Maria with 12 counts of perjury, more than a dozen other charges and, most importantly, Frank Spencer's murder. In July 2014, Williams went to arrest her.

Det. Shawn Williams: And that's when I told her she was under arrest for the murder of Frank Spencer. She immediately … began to say, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God."

The warrant for Rocco's arrest was issued the same day, but Rocco was nowhere to be found.

JUSTICE AT LAST?

It had been two years since Frank Spencer's murder and Maria Spencer was finally under arrest.

Derk Reed: It was like you lifted a, you know, a weight, like, there's thousand pounds off your back.

But her father Rocco had skipped town the year before, fleeing right after he finished his grand jury testimony.

Det. Shawn Williams: Within like 36 hours Rocco Franklin had boarded a plane … to the country of Colombia, South America.

Peter Van Sant: And are you hot on his trail?

Det. Shawn Williams: Not at that point.

That's because Rocco had an 11-month head start. But once Williams had an arrest warrant, and a little help from the state department, he found him.

Det. Shawn Williams: He was only four blocks away from the United States Embassy in Buenos Aries, Argentina. I couldn't believe that it was sort of that easy 

"Sort of" was the operative term. Within weeks Rocco was arrested by Argentinian police — but he fought extradition, and so in the fall of 2015 Maria Spencer went on trial for Frank's murder alone.

Prosecutor Tony Forray: The totality of what went on is I think both the strength of the case and also the horror of the case.

Forray had Maria's DNA at the crime scene, the truck found close to her home, and her history of death threats. Maria's defense was to blame her own father.

Prosecutor Tony Forray: The defense strategy was … this was all Rocco. Rocco. Rocco. He's the bad guy … It was all him.

Cameras were not allowed inside the trial. One by one, Frank's friends took the stand. They told the jury about the fires, Maria's admission that she was at the crime scene, and the years of harassment. Julie Dent testified about an especially disturbing threat.

Peter Van Sant: What would she say to Frank?

Julie Dent: One specific that I remember plain as day is … That she would cut off both his hands and dip them into hot tar and cauterize them so that she would never — he would never be able to hold his children again.

The trial lasted nine days. As jury began its deliberation, Frank's friends were worried.

Katie Yodock:  You were just thinking.

Ron Romig: Oh, my God. Could something stupid happen?

Katie Yodock: Yeah. Like things never seem to go our way, you know?

Ron Romig: I was scared.

Eight hours later, the jury had reached a verdict.

Prosecutor Tony Forray: I look down. I never look at the jury. … I don't want to react … I'm waiting, which seems like an eternity. … And then it's "guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty. "

Maria was found guilty on all counts: for murdering Frank Spencer and for the two arsons, the burglary, 12 counts of perjury, conspiracy and terroristic threats. She was sentenced to life without parole plus 50 years.

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Frank Spencer's friends discuss the case with "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant. CBS News

Paul Siciliano: That was it.

Ron Romig: That was it.

Katie Yodok: Yeah.

Ron Romig: That was it for all of us. Oh, thank you.

Katie Yodock: Oh. my gosh. Thank God.

It took another year-and-a-half, but in 2017, Williams was finally able to bring Rocco back to stand trial.

ROCCO FRANKLIN [in cuffs, with a coat over his head]:  I never done anything.

REPORTER: Did you kill Mr. Spencer?

ROCCO FRANKLIN: Of course not. Don't talk ridiculous! 

Maria had argued Rocco killed Frank alone, but Rocco wasn't following that script.

Rocco Franklin: I got no beef with Frank Spencer.  If I had a beef with Frank Spencer, I'd have broke his face a long time ago.

But Rocco, who spoke to "48 Hours" from the county jail, doesn't appear to be holding a grudge against Maria for trying to blame it all on him.

Rocco Franklin: Maria never hurt nobody. What they did to that girl is outrageous!

Rocco says he's innocent of murder and the rest of it.

Rocco Franklin: They've got no proof. What proof do they have? Show me one piece of evidence. One fingerprint! One eyewitness! One anything!

Rocco Franklin says he’s “not a violent g... 01:44

Prosecutor Forray says he has plenty of evidence—from the shoeprint in Frank's blood, to Rocco's ridiculous story putting himself at Frank's before the murder, and of course the arrival of Mutley at that wedding.

Rocco Franklin: Like I'm that dumb that I'm gonna steal from a guy I'm supposed to whack? Take his dog, and leave it 10 miles from my house? … Come on!

In the autumn of 2018, after a four-day trial, Rocco Franklin was convicted of Frank's murder and for the burglary, and the arson at Frank's mother's house. He was sentenced to life plus 45 years.

Derk Reed: This has been a long drawn out affair. And it never needed to be what we're going through

Deanna Reed: After the first fire, she should have been in prison. Frank should still be here.

Sergeant Traugh says he did what he could.

Sgt. Scott Traugh: I mean, Frank's dead. And I understand that. But I wouldn't do anything, and our department wouldn't do anything differently than we did.

Tony Forray has called what Frank experienced an epic failure of law enforcement.

Prosecutor Tony Forray: Did anyone stop and look at the totality of everything that was going on and do something significant in terms of arresting either Maria or her father Rocco? The answer is no.

Gary Norton | Former DA: There's not a crime in the Pennsylvania crimes code that's called the totality of the circumstances make you look really guilty. … You have to analyze these things case by case and ask yourself, can an arrest be made and can I — in good faith — secure a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt? And the answer was yes where we prosecuted her and no when we did not prosecute her.

Gary Norton: I reacted as best I could in the situation and my conscience is clear. ... I don't have any regrets as to what I did.

Out in front of the courthouse where Gary Norton now serves as a judge and Maria's former divorce lawyer Tom Leipold serves as the county D.A., is a fundraising brick Frank Spencer purchased years ago. He dedicated it to his children.

Joe Yodock: There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him. … and I still can't figure out why. Why it happened.

After Maria's arrest, Frankie and Cyrus Spencer were raised by Maria's sister.

Frank's dog Mutley is alive and well. He lives with Frank's mother. 

  • Peter Van Sant
    Peter Van Sant

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"