They seemed unlikely protagonists for a tragedy. Sterling Rault, an outgoing and likable accountant for a New Orleans gas pipeline company, was married to his high school sweetheart and was the father of two children. Jane (Janie) Francioni, a slight, happy-go-lucky girl who delighted in lunching on Saturdays with her grandparents and aunts, was a 21-year-old clerk in the same office.
Both had joined the Louisiana Energy & Development Corp. in 1981. Francioni arrived in April; she got the job on a tip from a friend after dropping out of Louisiana State University. She took to the work. "I think I've found something I really enjoy doing," she told her mother. She talked of returning to college, perhaps to study accounting.
Rault came to LEDCO in August as a $28,000-a-year assistant comptroller. He was returning to his native New Orleans after eight years with the Masonite Corp. in Laurel, Miss. Friends there remember him as an exemplary family man and something of a civic figure: he had served as vice president of the / Jaycees and ran the club's Christmas parade.
But something had gone wrong with Rault. In 1981 he was caught embezzling money from Masonite. With the $166,000 he stole, Rault bought a larger house, built a swimming pool and took his parents on vacations to Disney World and San Francisco. "He flipped out," remembers a former associate. "He wanted the image of success, especially to impress his family."
Rault repaid the entire sum and was never prosecuted -- even though he was also suspected of trying to kill a co-worker who he thought had turned him in. The brakes on the man's car were cut while he and his family were attending church. Nevertheless, Rault managed to keep news of the embezzlement from his family when he returned to New Orleans and was hired at LEDCO.
At the gas pipeline company, things quickly went awry again. Within a few months, Rault was forging the company president's name on checks and depositing them in a bogus bank account he set up. He was one of Jane Francioni's supervisors, and he apparently duped her into withdrawing cash from the account on his behalf.
It was Francioni's discovery of the embezzlement and her threat to turn him in, prosecutors believe, that prompted Rault to kill her. On the afternoon of March 1, 1982, he asked the young woman for a ride to his C.P.A. night class at L.S.U.'s local campus. Once in Francioni's white Mustang, Rault produced a .25-cal. pistol and shot her in the abdomen. He raped her, beat her and slit her throat with a knife. The two hours of viciousness ended when he dumped her body on the city's east side and set the body afire to cover his crime. But an off-duty state trooper spotted the blaze, and minutes later Rault, reeking of gasoline, was arrested running from beneath a highway overpass.
New Orleans was outraged by the brutality of the murder, and at a trial in October 1982 a New Orleans jury needed less than three hours to recommend a death sentence against Rault. "Crimes don't come any more hideous," said the prosecutor, David Paddison. "The death penalty was eminently justified."