Prosecutors say the killer came through the front door in broad daylight.
No sneaking, no slinking in the shadows. She walked into the bright lobby of University Hospital in Columbia and down busy corridors toward the victim, a 67-year-old millionaire who had survived a late-night attack in his lakefront home. He lay still after surgery, a tube in his throat, a machine doing his breathing.
When the woman entered the hospital's trauma ward that day in October 2010, prosecutors say, she raised the murder weapon.
Nobody screamed. Nobody ran for cover.
It was a piece of paper. The Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care gave the woman, a Lee's Summit lawyer, the authority to make decisions on the man's behalf if he became incapacitated. William Van Note would not want to be kept alive by life support. His signature was at the bottom.
So after discussion -- it's unclear how long -- doctors shut off the ventilator and pulled the tube from their patient's throat. Over several hours, Bill Van Note, who had been a prominent Liberty businessman, died, slowly.
His longtime girlfriend, Sharon Dickson, 59, had died four days earlier, on Oct. 2, 2010, in the same attack in the three-story Sunrise Beach, Mo., house at the Lake of the Ozarks. Deputies responding to Van Note's 911 call found a grisly scene: Van Note, a bullet wound in his forehead, frantically and futilely trying to save Sharon, who had been shot three times in the head and slashed with a knife.
Now, in a case two years in the making and one that has caught the eye of legal experts, prosecutors say Van Note didn't sign the power of attorney document. A grand jury indictment Sept. 7 accused the woman who came to the hospital that day, the victim's 44-year-old daughter, Susan Elizabeth "Liz" Van Note, of forging his signature -- after shooting him didn't get the job done. She is charged with first-degree murder and felony forgery.
Also charged in the case, with forgery and second-degree murder, are one of Liz's high school classmates and the classmate's husband, for allegedly signing the power of attorney as witnesses to William Van Note's signature.
Camden County Prosecutor Brian Keedy says Liz Van Note's preparation of the document shows the premeditation required for first-degree murder. What killed her father, Keedy alleges, was being removed from life support.
"It really does come down to murder by legal form," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. "A fascinating case. I've never seen one like it."
Liz Van Note's attorney, Tom Bath, won't deny that her father didn't sign the document.
Bath acknowledged Thursday that his client "produced (the document) without his signature" -- but only because she couldn't find one her father had actually signed.
And he said nothing gathered at the scene -- hair, fiber, DNA and fingernail scrapings -- puts her there when her father was shot and his girlfriend was murdered.
"It's hard for me to believe that a 44-year-old, middle-aged woman could have carried this out by herself," Bath said.
Prosecutors haven't said she acted alone.
At an arraignment in Columbia, Van Note, a divorced mother of one and a lawyer who specializes in end-of-life matters, pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and forgery. The couple accused of signing the document as witnesses -- Stacey Dory, 43, and Desre Dory, 42, of Shawnee -- also have pleaded not guilty.
No one has been charged in Dickson's murder; authorities say they'll file charges in due time.
If the allegations are true, they bear out a tale of a family done in by money and greed. William Van Note and Dickson planned to marry soon, friends say. Such a union could change who got what from his extensive estate, which some put at nearing $10 million.
"This doesn't happen to people -- it's what you see on TV," said David Ayers, a lake friend who had known the couple since the late 1980s. "This doesn't really happen.
"But it did. It's so sad."
'A perfect match'
If left up to Match.com, Bill and Sharon might never have met.
He was often loud and brash; she was sweet and tender.
But after meeting through friends, Bill and Sharon clicked from the beginning. By the early 1990s, she was running a flower shop in one of several buildings he owned on the Liberty Square.
"They just gelled," said Brenda Toates, who used to work for Sharon and now owns the shop, D'Agee & Co. Florist.
For years, Bill was Toates' landlord. "I think he was ornery and she made him laugh. It almost seemed like a high school romance all the time when they were together."
But Bill doesn't evoke cuddly recollections from everyone in Liberty. While close friends there describe him as caring and generous, his business style hit many associates wrong. Some thought him stingy, gruff and abrasive. In fact, when he was killed, some wondered if he had finally angered someone enough to actually do him in.
His Liberty persona was not the same fun-loving man whom friends at the lake and other close friends remember.
As one Liberty resident put it: "They saw something that some of us here -- who knew him when he was building the millions -- didn't."
But nearly everyone says Sharon was the best thing that ever happened to him. She calmed him. Smoothed the roughness, cooled his temper.
"They were totally opposite personalities, but they complemented each other," said longtime friend Muriel Daniels. "That's why they were a perfect match. If they both had been like Bill, they would have been horrible."
They were together at least 20 years. He had given her a ring several years ago, and they had begun talking seriously about marriage in the year before they died, friends said. Bill had been married twice before, Sharon once.
"Bill told me one time it wasn't important" that he and Sharon marry, said Ayers, who repaired and winterized Van Note's boats and helped him build the lake house where they were shot. "He told me he would make sure she was taken care of, both before and after."
At the lake, Bill and Sharon had many friends, Linda and Ed Tober among the closest. The Tobers had retired to the Lake of the Ozarks from the St. Louis area. The two couples often traveled together, boated and hung out with other friends at the lake.
The last time the Tobers took a boat ride with Bill and Sharon, on a late summer afternoon a couple of weeks before their deaths, Bill played a tape of an old Ink Spots song, "I'll Get By (As Long As I Have You)." In his deep singing voice, he serenaded Sharon as friends soaked in the moment.
"Sharon just sat there with a big smile on her face," Linda Tober remembered.
By early October 2010, with cold weather coming to the lake, Bill and Sharon were preparing to leave for their Florida home in Port Charlotte after stopping in Liberty for a family dinner.
The last day at the lake, however, would be spent with the Tobers. They drove north that day, a Saturday, to Versailles for the Old Tyme Apple Festival. By 5, after the four shared some liqueur to toast Bill and Sharon leaving for Florida, Ed and Linda headed home.
"It was just a nice day together," Linda said. "Next thing we know, we got a call."
Oct. 2, 2010
As usual, Sharon had gone upstairs to bed before Bill. He later fell asleep downstairs.
Sometime in the night, a noise awakened him. A dog barked. Bill got up to investigate. Somebody hit him on the back of the head.
When he came to, he had been shot, the small-caliber bullet entering the right side of his forehead.
He immediately went up to check on Sharon in the master bedroom. She was likely already dead from three gunshots to the back of her head. Also, she had been badly cut with a knife.
Bill called a friend's house, but no one answered. "We need some help over here," he said in a message left on the answering machine.
At 11:22 p.m., he called 911. He asked the dispatcher to tell him how to save Sharon's life. He said he was doing CPR. He said he thought someone might still be in the house.
When the first deputies arrived, Bill was still conscious and alert. He told them what had happened, the best he could.
He didn't know who had attacked them.
The blow to his head? Like a light bulb exploding, he said.
Mike Schmidt, at the time a sergeant with the Camden County sheriff's office, remembered the next day being a beautiful, cool fall morning at a beautiful lake home.
"Then I went inside," Schmidt said.
Schmidt, who has since retired from the sheriff's office and now runs Mid-Missouri Investigations, declined to speak about specific evidence other than to say some of it was "unique."
Early on, investigators wondered if the killings were professional hits.
Neighbors hadn't heard anything. No strange cars had been seen on the four-mile road leading out of the cove. A boat, running little more than idle, could approach by stealth.
A major case squad was mobilized to track leads. That first day, Schmidt would make notifications to family members, including Bill's daughter in Lee's Summit.
He first called Lee's Summit police so they could send an officer to her home in case she took the news too badly.
Then he called Liz Van Note and told her that her father had been badly injured and his significant other was deceased.
"She tried to be distraught," Schmidt said. "She tried to play the role."
Friends say Liz and her father had long had an acrimonious relationship. She went long periods without talking to him, they said.
When she was angry at her father, Liz wouldn't let him see her son -- his grandson.
A longtime friend of Bill's said she once asked him about his relationship with his daughter.
"She hates me because I left her mother," Daniels remembers Bill answering.
While Bill stayed in the Northland after the marriage ended, his ex-wife, Barbara, moved to Overland Park with Liz and her brother, William Jr. The brother, known as Brad, died in 1983 at age 16 after a lifetime of health issues.
Liz graduated from Shawnee Mission South in 1986. She used her summary in the yearbook to lavish praise and love on her mother without mentioning her father.
In 2005, Barbara Van Note went to prison for theft and was ordered to pay restitution of more than $108,000 to her own mother's estate. Her crime? Forging her mother's name to a financial power of attorney document, enabling her to get money from a trust fund.
In recent years, she has worked with Liz in her law office.
At this point, Bath says he has seen nothing that would convince a jury to convict his client. He said Bill called Liz earlier that evening to get her advice on a legal matter.
"I'm not saying they didn't have ups and downs," Bath said. "But she told me she loved her father and would never do anything to hurt him."
Within 48 hours of the attack, Liz Van Note showed up at University Hospital in Columbia with the power of attorney.
Privacy laws prohibit University Hospital officials from discussing a patient's care.
"I can tell you that we have to deal with the legal documents that are presented to us, so if a durable power of attorney appears valid, we rely on it," spokeswoman Mary Jenkins said.
Investigators back in Camden County quickly subpoenaed the document in October 2010.
Yet nearly two years passed before Liz Van Note would be indicted.
Why so long?
"People want to know what finally happened to get the indictment," said Keedy, the Camden County prosecutor. "I can't say yet. It will come out."
The charges came out of Boone County, where Bill Van Note died, but Keedy is leading the prosecution because Sunrise Beach, where the attack occurred, is in Camden County.
He describes an investigation that involved hundreds of leads and multiple jurisdictions, including Jackson County and Johnson County in Kansas. The Missouri Highway Patrol assisted, as did the Missouri attorney general's office. At one time, the FBI joined in.
It's unknown whether investigators found the gun. Neighbors at the lake say divers searched waters off their docks.
Turley, the Georgetown law professor, thinks expert medical witnesses could prove pivotal in a trial.
Would Bill Van Note have survived? If a jury believes he would have, that raises the importance of a forged document terminating his care, Turley said last week.
"Even if he would have died the next day, it's still murder," Turley said.
That's fine with Keedy. He says Van Note "was improving."
As for the Dorys, saying they witnessed Bill Van Note's signature could be seen as merely helping a friend trying to help her father, Turley theorized.
Milt Harper, a Columbia attorney representing the couple, said Thursday: "As time unfolds, a complete investigation will show that the Dorys had no legal culpability in the murder of Mr. Van Note and the other person."
Where will money go?
As for Van Note's estate, a legal battle is already well under way, although the criminal proceedings will likely halt any action in probate court.
One point that is clear: Whoever ends up claiming the inheritance should benefit substantially from the fact that Van Note died in 2010.
Under a quirk in tax law that year, and that year alone, there was an opportunity for his estate to pay no federal tax.
The next year, the estate tax returned -- and could reduce a $10 million inheritance by millions.
Van Note had a will, prepared in late 2003, that named Dickson as executor. If she couldn't serve, the job would fall to a longtime friend of Van Note's. But because the will was filed in Florida, the friend had to step aside because he did not meet requirements of being either a Florida resident or a family member.
So Liz Van Note, her father's only surviving child, was named executor.
According to the will, he bequeathed three rental properties in Liberty to his daughter, along with assets including his jewelry, cars and life insurance proceeds.
All his cash, his retirement accounts and three pieces of real estate, including the lake home and Florida residence, would go to Dickson, but only if she survived him.
She didn't. By four days.
The will didn't specifically say what should happen to the many other properties that Van Note owned.
It did say he would like to be buried next to his son in Liberty. He was.
Recently, Liz and Dickson's son, Andrew Dickson, faced off in court over $40,000 cash found in a safe deposit box registered to her father and his mother.
After Liz Van Note was indicted, Andrew Dickson asked a Clay County judge to remove her as executor of the will. On Sept. 12, Clay County Circuit Judge Larry Harman suspended her authority until the criminal case is resolved.
Dickson told The Star last week that he didn't know Liz well despite his mother's 20-year relationship with her father.
He acknowledged that his mother planned to marry Bill, and that the nearly two years since the murders have been filled with anguish.
"I have been really troubled in trying to figure out who would want to kill my mother," he said. "She was a person who was liked by almost everyone she met, so this is particularly difficult for me to understand.
"My wish is that my mother's killer is promptly brought to justice."
For now, Liz Van Note sits in a jail in Boone County. Her bond is $1 million, cash only.
The phone still rings at her law practice on Red Bridge Road. The phone greeting says:
"Due to a family emergency, the office is temporarily closed."
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