Astarte Rice-Davis (lived in Contra Costa) on the lam again

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Hermit of the Glen

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Aug 9, 1999, 3:00:00 AM8/9/99
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Posted at 11:41 p.m. PDT Saturday, August 7, 1999

Former Danville woman lives on the lam

Former Contra Costan, accused of embezzlement and
suspected
of killing her husband, walked away from a Dublin
prison a year
ago

By David Holbrook
CONTRA COSTA TIMES STAFF WRITER


She might be working as a bookkeeper, an
innocent-looking 66-year-old
woman with large, green eyes and enough charisma "to
charm the birds
out of a tree," as one detective described her.

But Astarte Rice-Davis is no innocent grandmother. For
the second time
in a decade, the former Contra Costa County resident is
on the run from
federal authorities, who suspect her of plotting the
death of her husband,
former Danville contractor James Rice, and embezzling
from his estate.

"It is very frustrating to know she's still out there,"
said Rice's daughter,
Kathy Clements of Danville. "I know she's in the middle
of some senior
citizen man's life. Terrorizing him. Ripping him off.
Putting someone's life
in jeopardy."

One year ago Saturday, Rice-Davis was serving a 15-year
sentence for
embezzling from Rice's estate when she walked away from
the Federal
Prison Camp in Dublin. Despite an 1989 escape while she
was awaiting
trial under house arrest, prison officials determined
she was a suitable
inmate for the camp, which has no fences or other
security barriers.

Prison officials refused to comment on Rice-Davis'
case.

The U.S. Marshal's Serviceremains tight-lipped about
its investigation. In
July, the case appeared once again on "America's Most
Wanted," the
sixth time Rice-Davis has been featured on national
television since
Rice's disappearance in 1986 from his home in the U.S.
Virgin Islands.

Federal authorities say they believe Rice-Davis, who
began a relationship
with Rice while working as his bookkeeper, arranged his
death to take
over an estimated $1.5 million in assets. Rice's body
has never been
found.

When Rice-Davis escaped in 1989, she eluded authorities
for 16 months
while living in Santa Barbara under an alias. After her
arrest in 1991, she
pleaded guilty to eight charges accusing her of
embezzling from Rice's
estate.

That plea came after her son, Noble Davis, admitted to
being his
mother's accomplice and agreed to testify against her.
This summer,
Noble Davis was arrested on a Hawaii warrant for drug
and burglary
charges, raising hopes he might lead authorities to his
mother if he
knows where she's hiding.

But Rice-Davis' sister, Shira Triplett of Washington,
said she doubts if
any relative, particularly any of her three sons from
another marriage,
knows where she fled.

"If she was going to walk away from the prison like
that, I don't think
she'd involve her kids," Triplett said. "She must have
acted alone."

Life on her own terms

Born to a poor family in a Monterey County farming
town, Rice-Davis first
showed her independent streak when she left home at the
age of 13,
Triplett said.

"There was abuse in the family," she said. "She's had
an extreme life.
When she left home, I don't know if she ran away or got
married or what.
She just left."

Rice-Davis settled in the Bay Area in the 1960s. She
changed her first
name from Estebell to Astarte, the Phoenician goddess
of love and
fertility. She had three sons, Noble, Loyal and Regal,
with a man believed
to be her third husband.

Evidence of her criminal history emerges in 1969, when
she was placed
on probation after being convicted on a charge of
embezzling from a San
Rafael company where she was a bookkeeper. Marin County
court
records also reveal attempts to claim ownership of
property that wasn't
hers and to pass checks in her estranged husband's
name.

Moved to Contra Costa

In 1970, Astarte Davis arrived in Contra Costa County
and began working
for James Rice, a general contractor who had recently
separated from his
wife. A burly, driven man, Rice was a World War II
bomber pilot,
All-American football player and former engineer for
Bechtel Corp.

"His only weakness was Astarte," Clements said.

That year, the two were married in a ceremony at the
Silver Bells
Wedding Chapel in Reno. The marriage was not legal
because Rice's
divorce from his first wife was still pending.

It was unusually careless behavior for Rice, Clements
said.

"He was shook up about it," she said. "It was a rash
decision. He never
drank, but apparently he'd had three drinks or so
before the wedding."

His relationship with Rice-Davis was a turbulent one,
Clements said.
They separated often during their 16 years together.

"She always managed to slither back into his life,"
Clements said. "She
always talked about how she was abused, and he told me
he felt sorry
for her."

Rice-Davis tried to live the high life in Contra Costa.
During shopping trips
in Walnut Creek, she would spend tens of thousands on
jewelry and
clothes, according to court records.

By 1982, her spending habits caught up with her. She
was arrested after
writing bad checks for nearly $15,000 for jewelry at
Shreve & Co in
Walnut Creek, and later that year she was charged with
lying about her
assets during bankruptcy proceedings.

She admitted to the charges in a plea agreement and
served 10 months
in federal prison in Dublin. When she was released in
1983, she and Rice
agreed to renew their relationship.

"They moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands for her,"
Clements said. "Dad
wanted to get her away where she could make a new
start."

The couple appeared to have it all at their island
getaway. James Rice
built an oceanfront home, bought a boat and hoped to
retire comfortably
after building houses on five other lots he owned.

But by 1986, Rice told his daughter he had suspicions
about Rice-Davis.

"He said that he felt something was going on, but he
couldn't figure out
what it was," Clements said. "He told me to come
looking for him if he
ever disappeared."

In July 1986, Rice was scheduled for shoulder surgery
in the Bay Area.
He never showed up. Clements called Rice-Davis, and she
told her Rice
had sailed away to Australia with another woman.

"She changed her story several times as to what
happened to Jim," said
Duke Diedrich, a retired FBI agent who worked on the
case. "The whole
thing from the beginning smelled bad."

Despite the suspicions of authorities, Clements spent
two years and
$800,000 on attorneys and investigators before
Rice-Davis was indicted
on a charge of embezzling from Rice's estate.
Authorities believe she
arranged his death as well, but they say they don't
have the evidence to
charge her.

After she was indicted in December 1988, Rice-Davis was
put under
house arrest pending trial. On Sept. 1, 1989, she
failed to appear at a
court hearing.

In a letter she sent to the Times while she was at
large, Rice-Davis said
she fled because she was being framed for Rice's
murder. She denied
any wrongdoing.

"I know they will find me one of these days and the
U.S. government ...
will go very hard on me," she wrote.

Caught embezzling

Rice-Davis was caught 16 months after she fled. Her
employer, a general
contractor in Santa Barbara, caught her embezzling.

"She was a nice, little gray-haired lady," said Santa
Barbara contractor
William Dalziel. "When they found out who she really
was, they told me
I'd just turned in a wanted criminal. I was shocked."

Rice-Davis spent much of her time in Santa Barbara
going to the
symphony, museums and the opera, apparently looking for
a wealthy
suitor, Dalziel said.

"She was mad at one elderly gentleman because he
refused to marry
her," Dalziel said.

After several drinks at a company party, Rice-Davis
began rambling
about a place in the Virgin Islands that would be a
"good place to hide a
body," Dalziel said.

After that, he began having nightmares about his
employee.

"I had these weird feelings about her, premonitions,
but I didn't believe
them until I saw the evidence she was stealing from
me," he said.

Ken Gorman, Clements' attorney, spent several years
investigating
Rice-Davis. She has a talent for disguising her
identity and living an
apparently normal life, he said, but eventually she
"goes back to her
criminal ways."

"The last time she escaped she was gone a year and a
half before she
messed up," Gorman said. "We're hoping that she'll be
unable to change
and she'll do something stupid, hopefully without
victimizing someone
else."


Chronology
1969: Astarte Davis is convicted on a charge of
embezzling from her
San Rafael employer. She serves five weekends in jail
and two years on
probation.
1970: Davis and James Rice marry at a Reno wedding
chapel. The
marriage was not legal because James Rice had not
divorced his first
wife.
1982: Astarte Rice-Davis admits to bankruptcy fraud
and is sentenced
to 10 months in federal prison in Dublin.
1984: Rice-Davis and James Rice move to the U.S.
Virgin Islands.
1986: James Rice disappears. Rice-Davis tells his
daughter, Kathy
Clements of Danville, he sailed away to Australia with
another woman.
1988: Federal authorities accuse Rice-Davis and her
son, Noble Davis,
of trying to embezzle from James Rice's estate. The FBI
and U.S.
attorney's office claim she murdered Rice, but said
they don't have the
evidence to charge her.
1989: Rice-Davis, under house arrest in the U.S.
Virgin Islands, fails to
make a Sept. 1 court hearing and disappears.
1991: Rice-Davis, living under another woman's name,
is arrested in
Santa Barbara and convicted of embezzling from her
employer and
sentenced to three years in state prison. Later that
year, she enters a
plea agreement in the Rice embezzlement case and is
sentenced to 15
years in prison.
1998: Rice-Davis walks away from the Federal Prison
Camp in Dublin.
Prison officials assigned her to the camp, which has no
fences or other
security barriers, despite her history of escapes.


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