By Patrick Rogers
January 29, 2001 12:00 PM

Five months after separating from her husband, Karen Sharpe was determined to put aside the rancor of her ongoing divorce proceedings for a night of fun with friends and family. As the 44-year-old mother of three stepped aboard a boat chartered for a moonlight cruise in Gloucester, Mass., last July 14, Sharpe was smiling and relaxed. “I had never seen her happier,” says Carol Figurido, 48, who for years lived next door to Karen and her husband, millionaire dermatologist Richard J. Sharpe, 46, in one of Gloucester’s best neighborhoods. “For once in her life, she didn’t have to worry about him.”

But Karen’s respite didn’t last long. At 11:45 that night, shortly after she returned home from the harbor cruise to her new $600,000 house in upscale Wenham, Richard Sharpe walked up to the front door unannounced. “What are you doing here?” Karen asked, according to police. To which Richard, her high school sweetheart and husband of 27 years, responded by leveling a rifle at his wife and shooting her in the chest. With Karen’s brother, his girlfriend, a babysitter and the Sharpes’ 7-year-old son, Michael, looking on in horror, she was rushed to a nearby hospital, where she died the next morning.

As shocking as the shooting was to friends and associates of the Harvard-educated physician and his wife, there were even more stunning revelations to come. Richard, who was arrested two days later at a lake side motel in Tuftonboro, N.H., pleaded not guilty at the Ipswich, Mass., district court July 18 when charged with his wife’s murder. But following his indictment, family members made public a barrage of potentially devastating information about the once prominent dermatologist. Included in two separate suits filed against him are allegations that he was arrested for assaulting Karen (though the charges were later dropped) and that he had tried in the past to strangle her and poison their older daughter, Shannon, 27.

What’s more, according to Shannon, who worked with her father as a laser technician, Richard had a bizarre propensity for dressing in women’s clothes and at times would steal his wife’s birth control pills to supplement female hormones he was taking in order to grow breasts. He had also allegedly had a nose job and plastic surgery on his eyes in an attempt to appear more feminine. “Richard Sharpe didn’t just snap,” says Boston attorney Jacob Atwood, 67, who was representing Karen in the divorce and has since filed a $100 million wrongful-death suit against Richard on behalf of their children. “He brutalized Karen for 27 years.”

Even Karen’s closest confidantes are baffled by the news of Richard’s supposed secret life—and the self-control she must have exercised to conceal it from them. “There were little things, signs that things weren’t right [at home], but then a few days later everything would be fine,” says Figurido, who, like others, describes Karen as nearly always cheerful and considerate, a former nurse who was quick to help other families during medical crises. Most of all, says Figurido, she was a doting mother to Shannon, Michael and the Sharpes’ younger daughter, Alexandra, now 5: “You’d think, ‘There they are again, the perfect family.’ ”

Certainly that is what the Sharpes seemed to be. Born in Mount Clemens, Mich., Karen, one of four children of an electronics manufacturing executive and his wife, a homemaker, met her future husband while attending Shelton High School in Connecticut. They were married in 1973, three months after graduation. Richard, the third of four children of a machinist and a home-maker, earned a medical degree at the University of Connecticut; Karen, meanwhile, studied nursing at Norwalk Community College. In 1985 they moved to the Boston area, where Richard completed postgraduate work at Harvard before opening a dermatology practice at the Cape Ann Medical Center in Gloucester.

As a doctor and entrepreneur, Richard Sharpe seemed to have brains and ambition to spare. At-wood says the couple had more than $2 million in savings, much of it from LaseHair, the chain of laser hair-removal clinics Richard began opening in the ’90s, and Alpha Hydroxy Gold, a line of skin products that he helped develop and marketed over the Internet. Kalena Chan, a physical therapist with an office next to Sharpe’s now-shuttered practice in Gloucester, says that apart from the fact that Sharpe plucked his eyebrows and looked odd, there was nothing out of the ordinary about him. Yet Cynthia Bjorlie, an internist at the medical center where Richard kept an office until 1996 and where Karen worked as his part-time office manager, recalls a darker side to the doctor. “Sharpe would yell at his wife until people were extremely uncomfortable about it,” she says.

The office tirades, however, only hinted at the acrimony that Karen claimed existed at the Sharpes’ two-story Colonial-style house in West Gloucester. “Our household was riddled with tension,” Karen wrote in a June 12 affidavit filed in her divorce case. She went on to describe a pattern of physical and psychological torment that began during the first week of the couple’s marriage. Once, after a New Year’s Eve party during the ’80s, Karen alleged that her drunk husband bloodied her so badly that the check-in clerk at a hotel where they had planned to stay refused to let them rent a room.

So why didn’t Karen Sharpe leave her husband? Joseph Balliro Sr., Richard’s lawyer, maintains the abuse allegations are false and points out that it was his client, not Karen, who eventually initiated divorce proceedings. “Richard is getting a bad rap,” says Balliro, 72, of Sharpe, who is being held at a Massachusetts psychiatric hospital and could face life in prison if convicted at his trial, expected to begin this spring. But Shannon, in documents filed as part of a legal action seeking to block her father’s access to his two younger children, claims that Richard threatened to kill Karen if she left him. Karen, meanwhile, according to Shannon’s affidavit, lived in fear that Michael would discover that his father liked to dress as a woman. (Balliro says his client dressed as a woman as a stunt to publicize his hair-removal clinics.)

In late 1999 Karen became suspicious when Richard brought home duct tape and rubber hoses. Stating in her affidavit that she feared for her life, she moved out with Michael and Alexandra in February of last year and requested a restraining order against her husband. Though granted, it did her little good. Looking back, Karen’s friends say she spent most of her energy trying to protect her children and give them the kind of supportive environment she thought they deserved. “She wanted that picture-perfect life and tried to have it at any cost,” says Figurido. “She tried so hard but it just couldn’t be.”

Patrick Rogers

Tom Duffy in Gloucester