NEIGHBORS SAID they were inseparable in life.

But after 53 years of marriage, Louis Hartdegen separated himself from wife Judith in the most vicious and devious of ways Monday morning when he beat and suffocated her in bed - and then called 9-1-1 to falsely report that a neighbor broke in to rape and kill her, homicide Capt. James Clark said yesterday.

Louis Hartdegen, 75, confessed his crime after detectives discovered "discrepancies" in his account of the supposed home invasion, Clark said.

"He tried very hard to set up a crime scene to make it appear someone else did this," Clark said. "He tried to outslick us and he did not . . . We saw through everything he tried to do."

Hartdegen called police to the couple's second-floor apartment, located in a retail strip on Castor Avenue near Knorr, about 2:30 a.m.

He told officers a 26-year-old neighbor broke in through a window, beat him and his wife and sexually assaulted her, Clark said. Police held and questioned the neighbor for several hours yesterday but released him.

But Judith Hartdegen, 74, had not been sexually assaulted, Clark added. He declined to detail other discrepancies that led detectives to discount her husband's story of an intruder.

Louis Hartdegen remained in a hospital yesterday with bruises and scratches on his face that investigators believe his wife inflicted as she fought for her life.

"He intended to kill her," Clark said. "It is very troubling that he did pick out the wrong person to cover his own tracks."

Clark declined to discuss a possible motive, such as whether medical, financial or criminal troubles might have driven Hartdegen to murder.

Neighbors said age had slowed both down in recent years, and Judith Hartdegen suffered from epilepsy. Further, Louis Hartdegen, who collected rents and recruited tenants as property manager for an out-of-town owner, and his wife filed for bankruptcy in March, claiming more than $42,000 in owed debts, according to court records.

Louis Hartdegen also has convictions for incest in 1990 and burglary, larceny and receiving stolen goods in 1971, court records show.

Clark said he didn't know if the couple had any previous domestic difficulties, nor whether the police had ever been called to their home for such disputes.

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