OAKLAND -- A man who told police that his wife died after she fell down a staircase in their Oakland hills home last month has been charged with her murder.

Joseph Bontempo Jr., 53, a locksmith, is charged in the death of Laurie Wolfe, 57, an Oakland businesswoman and property owner he married 12 years ago. Police said he killed her in a brutal physical assault but a motive was not released Wednesday.

Bontempo's attorney said his client is innocent but does not want to talk from Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, where he remains without bail.

"This is not a homicide. It's a tragic, accidental death, and Joe is devastated by the loss of his wife," said attorney Ed Swanson of San Francisco.

Bontempo was arrested Tuesday while driving away from a friend's home in Montclair. When investigators tried to interview him later Tuesday, he declined to talk, police said.

Wolfe was found dead about 6:30 p.m. July 6 at the bottom of a staircase inside their split-level hillside house in the 6700 block of Saroni Drive by firefighters and paramedics responding to a 911 call made by Bontempo. Police did not release information about the attack until Wednesday.

Bontempo had told police she slipped and fell and he found her at the bottom of the staircase. He said he did not witness the fall, according to lead investigator Officer Leo Sanchez. Police said they had not been called to the home before for any domestic disturbance calls or fights.


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After Wolfe's death, Bontempo went to live with a friend, police said.

Sanchez and Sgt. Cesar Basa had been investigating the case as a "suspicious circumstance death." Investigators questioned Bontempo at the time but he was released pending further investigation, as authorities waited for the results of her autopsy.

The coroner's office determined last week that Wolfe's injuries were from blunt force trauma inconsistent with a fall and the case was classified as a homicide. Police would not say how Wolfe was assaulted. Sanchez said there were also inconsistencies in Bontempo's explanation of what happened that are inconsistent with the physical evidence police have.

Police are not commenting about a motive. Bontempo and Wolfe had known each other 20 years after meeting in a photography class. They have no children together. Attempts to locate her family or friends Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Wolfe was the owner of Ace Machine Co. in East Oakland, having taken over leadership of the company three years ago after the death of her father, who had founded the business in 1956. Police said that since her death, the business has closed. Police said she also owned several pieces of property in Oakland, including the Saroni Drive house.

After being told of Bontempo's arrest, John Sol, the owner of Columbia Machine Works in Oakland, who had known the Wolfe family for decades, said "this is as shocking as her death."

Sol, who has hired some of Wolfe's employees and is contacting their clients, said she had worked at Ace -- which was mainly a repair facility for businesses associated with the food industry -- since the 1980s and he thought she was very competent and "stellar," someone with whom he always enjoyed talking. He had never met Bontempo but said he and Wolfe talked frequently and "I never heard anything negative from her about him."

Bontempo is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday. A memorial service was scheduled for Wolfe this coming weekend, a friend said.

Follow Kristin J. Bender at Twitter.com/kjbender. Follow Harry Harris at Twitter.com/harryharris15.