In 1993, anyone who met Ruben and Diane Borchardt could be forgiven for thinking they were the perfect couple. They and their three children — Brook, Chuck, and Regen — lived in a beautiful home Ruben built himself. Ruben was a self-employed carpenter and avid outdoorsman; Diane was a teacher’s aide at the local high school with a screen-printing business on the side. The whole family was active in their local church as well.
But like most “perfect” marriages, if you scratched just below the surface, the wholesome facade crumbles.
The Borchardts’ relationship was riddled with red flags from the beginning. Ruben had met Diane just weeks after his first wife and mother of his two older children, Susan, had died in a car accident. He was heartbroken and left to raise 1-year-old Chuck and 3-year-old Brook on his own.
Diane worked at a furniture manufacturing plant that Ruben frequented through his work. Upon hearing of Ruben’s tragic loss, Diane stepped up to comfort him. She would bring him cakes and casseroles, offer to watch his two small kids, and help him out around the house.
It didn’t take long for their relationship to turn into a sexual one, and Diane moved into Ruben’s home to watch the kids full time. Unsurprisingly, Diane soon got pregnant. Ruben was delighted, and the two married right away, in October of 1979 — only eight months after Susan’s death.
Ruben’s friends tried to urge him to slow down, pointing out how quickly the relationship had moved. But Ruben was desperately lonely and felt like he needed a mother for his two toddlers. And Diane could be very persuasive.
After the wedding, Diane insisted that every trace of Susan be erased from the home — all pictures and keepsakes were taken down and either thrown away or hidden. No one was allowed to speak of her, and the kids were to call Diane “mom.” She demanded Ruben — and everyone else — act as though she were their biological mother. Friends and family thought it was odd that Diane would be so jealous of a dead woman.
Diane gave birth to Regen eight months later. Almost as soon as Regen was born, the relationship began to sour. She was jealous and possessive of Ruben, but no longer wanted to have sex with him. She was verbally and emotionally abusive to Ruben and the two older children — but not to Regen. Regen was “her” child, and treated as the obvious favorite.
Diane returned to work once Regen was in school, and eventually got a job as a teacher’s aide at the local high school. There, as a study-hall monitor, she was especially popular with the students — particularly the boys. “Mrs. B,” as she was called, was known as a good listener and friend, and would often hire students to work at her screenprinting shop.
Meanwhile, at home, Diane’s behavior worsened. She progressed from verbal abuse to physical abuse. She would become enraged when he didn’t follow her orders or do things in the way she thought they should be done. During their screaming matches, she began throwing things at him — sometimes hitting him with these objects and leaving bruises. Like almost all abusers, she then escalated to slapping and hitting him. Ruben, much larger and stronger than her, would do his best to block her or restrain her without hitting her. But Diane would still call the police and claim Ruben had hit her. Police were called to the house with increasing frequency.
In 1993, Ruben was hired to do some kitchen cabinetry work for a young, attractive woman named Judy*. She was married to the city manager, but, as she confided in Ruben, the marriage wasn’t a happy one.
The two began commiserating about their respective marriages, and before long, they fell in love and began having an affair.
Over a family dinner that year, Ruben announced that he had fallen in love with Judy, and he wanted a divorce so he and Judy could be together. Diane went ballistic. Her attacks on him grew more frequent and violent — at one point she threatened to “Bobbit” him. Ruben confided to his sister-in-law that he was starting to truly fear Diane. He began sleeping in the basement and placing jars on the steps as a kind of “alarm system.” It got so bad that Brook, now 18 but still in high school, moved out of the home to go live with a friend.
But perhaps more disturbingly, Diane recruited students in her class to help her regain the upper hand in her marriage. She would often cry in class and “confide” in her students that Ruben treated her badly, cheated on her, and even abused her. In particular, she cultivated a close relationship with Doug Vest, 17, who had been voted the “sweetest boy” in his class. She also “confided” in Shannon Johnson, 19, who worked at the screenprinting shop with her and looked up to her as a sort of big sister.
Diane solicited another one of her students to follow Ruben around and take pictures of him with Judy, so that Diane could use these as evidence at trial. Diane wanted everything — not just the house, but custody of Chuck and Regen, even though she never considered Chuck “her” son.
But it didn’t work. In the divorce, she was granted custody of Regen and allowed to keep two of the family’s three vehicles, as well as her screenprinting shop. Ruben was granted custody of Chuck and allowed to keep his work truck, as well as the house and shop he had built long before he met Diane. The judge ordered Diane to vacate Ruben’s house by April 15, 1994.
Now Diane was furious. Their fights got even louder and more violent — on April 1, they got into a shouting match in the screenprinting shop, where Diane called him “scum” and shoved him. Later that evening, she attempted to take Susan’s sewing machine to sell it, prompting another fight. She called the cops again, claiming Ruben hit her. The police told her to find somewhere else to stay for the night. So she took Regen and the family dog — whom she’d never taken on a trip before — and left to go visit Susan’s parents 200 miles away. It was a move that puzzled everyone, considering how she had always felt about Susan.
Early in the morning of April 4, a panicked call came in to 911. Chuck told the operator that his father had been shot. The ambulance arrived to find Ruben, covered in blood, lying across a chair at the foot of the basement stairs. He was still alive, barely; he managed to say “two men” before falling out of consciousness. Despite their best efforts, Ruben died while in flight to the hospital.
Back at the scene, the phone was unplugged and various items strewn around upstairs, but nothing of value had been stolen. There was no sign of forced entry. At the head of the basement stairs, police found two spent shells from a .410 shotgun.
Suspicion immediately fell on Chuck, the only person who was at home at the time of the murder. He also owned a .410 shotgun. Chuck told police he hadn’t heard any gunshots, only that he had been awakened by the sound of his father’s moans — a story they had a hard time believing.
So police staged an experiment, firing a .410 in the basement while another officer sat in Chuck’s bedroom with the door closed. The sound was indeed very quiet inside Chuck’s room, confirming his story. Ballistics tests would later prove the shells hadn’t come from Chuck’s shotgun.
But who else could it be? Suspicions swirled around Diane, but she had been 200 miles away at the time of the murder. Police couldn’t find any evidence of her involvement. A reward was offered for any information on the case, but nothing was forthcoming. The case was beginning to go cold.
Then, five months after Ruben’s murder, an anonymous tipster called the police. The person said that Diane had tried recruiting them to kill Ruben, and had offered them $20,000, two cars, and her wedding rings as payment. The caller said they didn’t take her up on it, but that maybe Doug Vest might have.
So police brought Doug in for questioning. At first he denied everything. But when police asked about the wedding rings, he replied, “How did you know about the rings?” giving himself away.
After more questioning, Doug revealed the entire, sordid arrangement. Mrs. B, he said, had approached him multiple times about killing her husband. Doug said he felt sorry for her, since her husband treated her so badly, but tried to ignore her. Then, Diane offered him $20,000, two cars, and her wedding rings if he would kill Ruben.
While they were at the screenprinting shop, with Shannon present, she gave him $600 cash as an advance and drew a map of her house, explaining that she would leave the shop door unlocked for him and pointing out where the guns were stored.
Afterwards, Shannon approached Doug and threatened him that he better not rip Mrs. B off, or something would happen to him or his family.
The offer of money was what finally convinced him. But he didn’t know how to go about killing someone, so he recruited his friend, Joshua Yanke, 16, and offered to split the proceeds with him.
But Josh was no master criminal either — he was known as a good student, never in any trouble. So Doug turned to the one person he knew who had some experience in criminal matters: his cousin Mike Maldonado, 15. He was a junior-high-school dropout who was already known to law enforcement. Mike said he knew exactly what to do.
The trio caught a ride into Milwaukee, where Mike bought a sawed-off .410 shotgun from one of his gang connections.
Then, in the early morning hours of April 4, the three teens went to the Borchardt home. When they arrived, Mike grabbed the shotgun and said, “Let’s do this,” and led the way.
At first, they couldn’t find the shop door Diane promised would be unlocked, so they tried breaking into another door, but couldn’t succeed. Finally they were able to find an unlocked garage door and entered the home. Josh’s “job” was to unplug the phone and deal with Chuck, if he woke up. But after unplugging the phone, Josh left the house “in a panic” and waited in the car.
Doug was also on the verge of quitting, he said, but Mike wouldn’t let him. When they got to the basement stairs, Ruben was already awake and starting up the stairs.
Doug said Mike pulled the trigger, sending Ruben falling down the stairs. That didn’t kill him, so Mike shot him a second time. The two ran out of the house and sped away. As they drove, they tossed out the gloves they were wearing, along with the shotgun. They went to Milwaukee, where Doug and Mike ate dinner at a restaurant; Josh was too upset to eat.
But as the weeks and months went on, the payment wasn’t forthcoming. Ruben’s sister had filed a wrongful death civil suit against Diane, thereby freezing his life-insurance payout. Tensions were high and tongues were loosened, and now someone had tipped off the police.
After Doug’s confession, on Sept. 28, 1994, police went into the high school and arrested Diane and Josh. They couldn’t find Mike right away; he had fled to Texas and was arrested shortly afterwards.
The teens went to trial first. Josh attempted a plea deal, pleading no contest to second-degree intentional homicide and providing testimony against the other conspirators, in exchange for the recommended sentence of 13 years. But the judge rejected the plea deal and, because of the heinousness of the crime, sentenced him to 18 years. He was granted parole in 2006.
Doug was offered the same deal, but seeing what happened to Josh, he opted to take his chances in court. It did not go well; he was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 25 years.
Shannon, who witnessed the negotiations and threatened Doug, was convicted of perjury and sentenced to 80 days in jail and two years probation.
Mike, as the trigger man, wasn’t offered a plea deal. He went to court, where his defense was that he had been at home asleep during the time of the murders. The jury didn’t buy it; he was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 50 years.
Diane’s trial was much more extensively covered. Many in Lincoln still couldn’t believe she was guilty of conspiring with teens to have Ruben killed. Her defense was that the only evidence against her was the testimony of the teens who actually killed him, and that they had concocted the story to pin the blame on her, essentially copying the recent Pamela Smart case.
But that defense made no sense; if it were just a robbery gone bad, the boys would have gotten far shorter sentences than they got for intentional homicide. And since nothing had been stolen, there was no discernable motive.
The three boys’ testimony remained consistent, and Shannon testified to witnessing the negotiations and the exchange of the $600 cash.
Even more damning, Doug’s cousin Tim Quintero testified against Diane. Tim told the court that she had tried to solicit him to commit the murder, offering him the same payment. He testified that she had also drawn him a map of her home, like the one she drew for Doug. He still had the map, which was analyzed by a handwriting expert. The expert concluded the map was most likely drawn by Diane.
In the end, she was found guilty of conspiracy to commit first-degree intentional homicide and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 45 years. That means she won’t be eligible for parole until 2035, when she would be 86 years old.
While in prison she has changed her name back to Diane Pfister. She maintains her innocence to this day.