Billion Dollar Wreck: Martin Bayerle manslaughter charges explained

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In the latest Billion Dollar Wreck update, we take a closer look at the Martin Bayerle manslaughter charges stemming from his 1991 arrest for murder. The case involved Bayerle; his then-wife Susan, a former beauty queen; and Susan’s lover Stefano Robotti, who Martin Bayerle shot while trying, as Martin put it, to protect his family. Read on for more about what happened between the three, and why a jury convicted on the Martin Bayerle manslaughter charges, rather than murder.

First off, though, a quick preface to put the later legal battle into context. As we reported earlier this month, Martin’s first try at raising the RMS Republic’s treasure from the ocean floor ended in disaster. The “1987 effort” as Martin called it, was widely publicized and highly anticipated, given that it came six years after Martin discovered the wreck of the Republic. The effort was also prolonged: Martin and his crew took a painstaking 74 days to search as much of the ship as they could reach, but, ultimately, came away with nothing more than a few bottles from the ship’s wine cellar. Instead of a grand treasure, Bayerle found himself in possession of tremendous debt, and he forsook the ocean for a life back with Susan and her parents on their West Virginia farm.

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At the time of the 1991 trial, the Martin Bayerle manslaughter charges didn’t yet exist, as a Reading (PA) Eagle article from December of that year attests. Instead, the case was best-known (to the extent that it was known at all )for an agreement between Martin and Susan which stated that he agreed to divorce her–as was her wish–provided that Susan gave Martin “one night of unrestricted sexual pleasure” on September 15, 1990. The Eagle reported that the document went on to dictate terms: Susan would fulfill “Any reasonable, normal requests…without restriction or reservation” on that night; and, following the pair’s tryst, Martin would leave his wife within two no more than two days.

However, things didn’t work out that smoothly, as Martin stayed long past the terms of he and Susan’s agreement. (It’s worth pointing out that Susan’s attorney later testified that the document was never legally binding.) A 1993 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette feature on the Martin Bayerle manslaughter charges and trial pointed out that, though the agreement between Martin and Susan fell apart, the couple were not able to repair their marriage: Susan Bayerle and Stefano Robotti began seeing each other in January of 1991, and were unofficially together for three months before Martin shot Stefano on April 6, 1991.

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The Post-Gazette feature also goes into extensive detail about the jury’s deliberations in Martin’s case, which seems to have come down to three factors:

1) Whether or not Martin Bayerle, who shot Stefano Robotti six times with a gun he had concealed on his person, was suffering from a “diminished capacity”  at the time of the shooting. (Martin’s defense argued that the stress of seeing his children playing on the floor with Robotti at Susan’s parents’ house helped push him over the edge.)

2) Whether or not Susan Bayerle’s affair–an open secret among the three of them and known to Susan’s parents–was just cause for Martin’s actions, and to some extent negated the murder charge. (Martin’s attorneys also got Susan Bayerle to reveal that she was involved in a separate lawsuit with her lover’s family, over the disbursement of life insurance money she claimed he’d intended to leave her.)

3) The extent to which Robotti himself had been, in the newspaper’s words, “manipulative and obsessive.” Bayerle’s attorneys argued that Robotti had hired private attorneys to dig up dirt on their client and “aggressively pressured Susan to get rid of him.”

And there was one other factor that might have worked in the captain’s favor: the three-week trial took most of December, and the deadlocked jury was arguing almost to the Christmas holiday. At one point, when the judge offered to have pizza sent in to the jury room, he received the following note: “SORRY YOUR HONOR. WE ARE HOT, TIRED AND NEED MORE THAN PIZZA OR EVEN AN HOUR OR TWO BREAK.”

So, after going home for the weekend, the jury reconvened and agreed on a compromise charge of voluntary manslaughter, which carried a five-year sentence. Thanks to a “good time” statute in West Virginia, Martin was released in two-and-a-half.

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The entirety of the Post-Gazette article is worth a read, if you’re interested in the intricacies of the jury deliberation and the wrangling that turned a first-degree murder charge into the Martin Bayerle manslaughter charge for which he served time.

Either way, you can catch new episodes of Billion Dollar Wreck Monday nights at 10 PM on History.


(Photo credits: Martin Bayerle manslaughter via Facebook)

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