Werner Lippe knows a lot about fire.
The 68-year-old jeweler, on trial on charges of killing and incinerating his wife, used a propane-and-oxygen torch to melt platinum and gold in his home workshop. He kept a 55-gallon oil drum as a burn barrel to get rid of trash, tomato plants, even the carcass of a deer he shot to protect his vegetable garden. When his mother died and her body was being prepared for cremation, Lippe testified that he asked a mortician, "By the way, how do you burn people?"
Prosecutors believe Lippe mastered that skill, using the barrel in 2008 to burn up the body of his 49-year-old wife, Faith Lippe, who was divorcing him. The drum disappeared soon after Faith Lippe did; her body hasn't been found.
Westchester County jurors have heard more than two weeks of testimony at Lippe's murder trial. They are expected to hear closing arguments and begin deliberating Tuesday. He faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors presented jurors with multiple confessions. The jury has repeatedly heard a recording of him saying, "I hit her with a piece of wood. ... I dumped her in the barrel and burned her" and details like the color of the ash that Faith Lippe's body was reduced to.
Lippe now insists the confessions were made-up stories concocted to get dogged investigators off his back until he could make his case to a judge.
During two days of testimony last week, he spoke coolly and confidently about the intricacies of jewelry making, dangerous acids and high-temperature flames. He said it was just his curiosity that prompted him to talk to the mortician and to ask a friend, after his wife disappeared, how deep a body would have to be buried to fool cadaver dogs.
Defense lawyer Andrew Rubin says Lippe was neither strong enough nor clever enough to pull off the murder.
Born in Poland, Lippe grew up in Austria and went to Germany to study jewelry-making. He came to New York in 1979 and became a topflight craftsman and goldsmith, with his own business in Manhattan's diamond district 40 miles from his Cortlandt home.
He considers his client list confidential, but grudgingly admitted on the stand that he made pieces for Donald Trump and Yoko Ono. An employee said some of Lippe's pieces sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Lippe was married twice in Europe. The first marriage lasted two years, the second eight weeks, he said.
He met his third wife, Faith, in New York. About 17 years younger than him, she had been in the fashion business but concentrated on home and children after they married in 1990, he said. At the time of her death at age 49, she was a part-time nutrition consultant to the Ossining schools.
In recent years, the marriage became contentious. Lippe told prosecutor Christine O'Connor that the couple argued constantly.
He had his son Andrew, now 15, secretly tape arguments for ammunition in the divorce.
"Your control-freakness has to stop. I will stop this. I guarantee it," Lippe told his wife in one recording played at trial.
Both spouses wanted out
It seemed both spouses wanted out. Werner Lippe, an accomplished skier, said he wanted to move to a log cabin near the slopes in Utah. His wife wanted no part of it, he said.
She served divorce papers, and he was fighting her claims for child support and maintenance. He envisioned that Andrew would go off with him, while their daughter Stephanie, now 13, would stay with her mother.
A meeting about the divorce between the Lippes, their lawyers, their children and their law guardians was scheduled for Oct. 7, 2008.
On Oct. 3, Faith Lippe missed several appointments. Her husband said he saw her being driven away in an SUV but could not see who was at the wheel. Her handbag was still at home.
Lippe said he became concerned when she did not return that night, but he did not call her cell phone.
The next day, he said, he drove an hour to ask a friend in Connecticut about the rules for filing a missing-person report. He had lunch and checked on his boat at a marina before coming home and calling 911.
Within a few days, state police with dogs searched the grounds of Lippe's home looking for his wife. They noticed, but did not confiscate, the burn barrel.
‘She doesn't exist anymore’
Later that month, Lippe confessed to a friend, James Learnihan, that he burned his wife's body. Learnihan was wearing a wire at the behest of investigators.
"She doesn't exist anymore," Lippe said in one taped conversation. "They cannot find her. It's impossible. ... I burned her in a barrel."
He said he hit his wife in the head with a piece of wood to knock her out, then shoved her into the barrel. "She burned for close to 24 hours," he said.
State police surprised Lippe with Learnihan's recording and he confessed again, describing to them the silver-gray color of the ash.
But he recanted his confessions after he was arrested. He said he made up the story because he was afraid of Learnihan and feared he was being framed. He said he repeated the story to police because they weren't listening to his claims of innocence.
Lippe testified that he thought he would eventually be able to explain to a prosecutor or judge and be let off. They would have more education and a "higher IQ" than police officers, he testified.
When police went to find the burn barrel, it was gone. Lippe said he had innocently thrown it out.
Prosecutors displayed photos that showed the barrel would have fit into Lippe's Audi.