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Judge questions competence of woman in murder-for-hire case

A federal judge raised questions Tuesday about the competency of Debra Arno, the former Amherst woman accused in a murder-for-hire plot targeting her ex-husband, his wife and their daughter.

U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder ordered Arno detained but only after questioning her lawyer about her mental health and, more specifically, an accident years ago that might have affected her “cognitive functions.”

Arno’s defense lawyer did not request a mental health exam and argued instead that she should be released.

“She is not capable of doing what she is charged with,” defense attorney Patrick McDonnell said. “When I found out about the charges, I was shocked.”

Schroeder rejected Arno’s request for bail and, after deciding she is a potential danger to the community, ordered her jailed while she faces the federal murder-for-hire charge.

The judge ruled after the federal prosecutor in the case outlined some of the evidence against Arno, including 25 pages of text messages between her and an alleged co-conspirator in the case.

“I think this is a very real threat,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John M. Alsup said of her possible release. “If Mrs. Arno is out, that threat will always exist.”

Arno, 56, is charged with paying a Kenmore woman to kill her former husband, his new wife and their young daughter. The criminal complaint against her says a “cooperating witness” identified the woman as Lauren Frye, of Elmwood Avenue, Kenmore.

Frye, according to court documents, acknowledged having a relationship with Arno and is currently in jail facing state charges of conspiracy and harassment.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Alsup made it clear the investigation is ongoing and mentioned the possibility of a third person being charged in the case.

Investigators say a search warrant of Frye’s home turned up photos of the intended victims, a diagram of their home and a schedule of their comings and goings. They claim Arno was prepared to pay Frye $20,000 to commit the murders.

Before ordering Arno detained, Schroeder asked McDonnell several questions about his client’s mental health and indicated he had information about an accident she was involved in years ago that may have resulted in an injury that affected her ability to understand the charges against her and assist in her own defense.

“I’m still concerned about whether we should consider an examination,” he told McDonnell.

Schroeder stopped short of ordering an exam but left the door open to that possibility down the road.