Fatal Attraction: Illicit Affair Allegedly Behind 2006 SF Infanticide

Categories: Crime, Law & Order

Three years ago Linda Woo, then 40, woke her two children, wrapped them in blankets, and placed them inside a Subaru Outback owned by a man who had recently broken off a six-year-affair with her. Also in the car had been placed a lit barbecue grill -- which Woo had bought along with a carbon monoxide meter -- after she'd researched how to commit suicide by breathing charcoal fumes. When the trio were found a short time later, Olive Woo Murphy, age 3, petite with dark wavy hair, was dead. Linda Woo, and her four-year-old son, were groggy, but still alive.

At the time of the death I wrote a column in which I noted that Olive had been my daughter's preschool playmate. I interviewed psychologists and child abuse experts to make the speculative case that ordinary parenting stress might have driven Linda Woo over the edge. I urged readers to reach out to parents they perceived might be in need of help.

According to closing arguments Friday in the guilt phase of Linda Woo's murder trial -- in which she's pleaded not guilty by way of insanity -- reality appears to have been even more troubling than the horror of a stressed-out mother killing her child. According to testimony and closing arguments at her trial, Woo had become so obsessed with a years-long, illicit love affair with young photographer and musician, that his decision to break it off threw her into a suicidal depression. In concluding that she couldn't stand life without her lover, Linda Woo also decided her children would be better off dead than without her, psychological experts testified at her trial.

While married to Olive Woo Murphy's father, Woo became romantically obsessed with Eric Embry, a photographer and country musician who'd moved from Tennessee to San Francisco. When Embry decided to break off the affair not long before Olive's death, Woo became so distraught she began calling Embry as many as 70 time per day. When Embry didn't respond, she found his car, drove it back to her Ingleside home, and parked it in her garage in order to use it as a gas chamber for herself and her children. To protect Embry's upholstery, she laid down a towel before placing the barbecue grill in the car, said Assistant District Attorney Marshall Khine.

"Clearly, she was sending him a message," says Stuart Hanlon, Linda Woo's defense
attorney. "She tells her doctors that dying would have brought them back together after death. That's a pretty nutty view."

Before lighting the grill, Woo wrote Embry a suicide note complaining that he had not called her. After she and her son were rescued, and Woo was arrested and hospitalized, Woo complained to a visitor that "Eric hadn't called yet."

Embry did not respond to telephone messages left Thursday and Friday.

"She planned that this would be a statement to get Eric's attention," Khine said during his closing statement Thursday. "Wasn't it enough to know she'd killed her daughter?  Wasn't that enough of a wake-up call?"

Woo is charged with murder and assault. In California, trials involving an insanity plea consist of two parts, one in which a jury decides whether or not the accused committed the crime --  irrespective of mental illness --  and a second phase in which the jury determines whether the suspect was legally insane at the time of the crime, and thus innocent. In many cases, an innocent by dint of insanity verdict can be followed by significant time confined to a medical institution instead of prison. In Woo's case, the jury
will be asked to determine if Woo's mental illness impaired her from understanding that her acts were morally wrong.

"Linda has always maintained to people, and in her suicide notes, that she felt that what she was doing was morally right to protect the children from a life of pain, sorrow and shame," Hanlon says.

In Khine's stated view, however, Olive Woo Murphy's murder was an attempt by her mother to manipulate Eric Embry. "With her family, her brand of love involves cheating, deceit, betrayal. With Eric Embry, her brand of love involved obsession, manipulation and
control," Khine said.

A jury will hear closing arguments in the guilt phase of Linda Woo's trial Monday, with deliberations, a partial verdict, and the trial's second phase to follow.

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