DALLAS (AP) — A funeral director in small-town East Texas befriends a widow 40 years his senior at her husband’s funeral, spends her money freely, then in 1996 shoots her and hides her body in a freezer for nine months.
Bernie Tiede’s case could have been written for Hollywood. And when a movie did get made about it, the resulting attention got him out of a life prison sentence.
For three weeks, the real-life case featured in the 2011 dark comedy “Bernie” has been in a courtroom for an unusual trial to determine a new sentence. A jury from a neighboring county began hearing closing arguments Friday and must decide whether to send Tiede back to prison or let him remain free.
The movie’s director has portrayed Tiede as a gentle baby sitter who made one huge mistake. But prosecutors say he was a two-faced thief who stole millions of dollars from an unsuspecting 81-year-old widow before shooting her in cold blood.
Here’s a rundown of the case:
Tiede was a mortician at the Hawthorn Funeral Home in Carthage, Texas, a town of about 7,000 about 150 miles east of Dallas.
Marjorie Nugent was more than 40 years Tiede’s senior. The two met at her husband’s funeral in 1990 and became close friends. They took lavish vacations abroad, and Tiede became known around town for the gifts he gave himself and local residents — using Nugent’s money.
In 1996, Tiede shot Nugent four times in the back with a .22-caliber rifle, then hid her body in a freezer next to packages of frozen meat, pecans and corn. He carried on for nine months as if Nugent was still alive before authorities searched her home and found her body.
After an initial mistrial, jurors in 1999 took less than an hour to convict him of murder. He received a life sentence.
THE MOVIE AND HIS RELEASE
The movie “Bernie” helped Tiede win his release more than a decade later. Adapted from a Texas Monthly story, “Bernie” portrays Tiede as a quirky, friendly man who sings in the church choir, helps local residents start businesses and is beloved by a small, insular community.
The movie is less charitable toward his victim, Nugent. Played by Shirley MacLaine, Nugent comes off as a crotchety, withdrawn scold disliked by most of the townspeople, some of whom appear in the film.
Nugent’s family has long protested how the widow is presented in the movie.
“My grandmother was a real person,” her granddaughter, Shanna Nugent, said in a 2014 interview. “She can’t defend herself, and the reason she can’t is Bernie Tiede killed her.”
Austin attorney Jodi Cole saw “Bernie” and began investigating the case. She argued Tiede had been sexually abused as a child and felt trapped in a mentally abusive relationship with Nugent, leading him to experience a “dissociative episode” when he shot her in the back.
Danny Buck Davidson, the prosecutor who won Tiede’s original conviction, agreed with her arguments that Tiede’s case merited a maximum 20-year sentence instead of the life sentence he received. A judge let Tiede out of prison in 2014.
THE NEW TRIAL
Two prosecutors from the Texas attorney general’s office have taken over for Davidson. Their witnesses have included Nugent’s granddaughter, who helped discover Nugent’s body. According to Tyler television station KLTV, the actual freezer was wheeled into the courtroom briefly.
A financial expert testified that Tiede took a total of $3.8 million from Nugent during the course of their friendship, including after her death. And a forensics expert testified that he believed Nugent had been shot at least once while she was face down on the ground.
The defense called a psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Pesikoff, who said the shooting was “a strange, unpredictable event brought on by intense emotional experiences,” according to The Dallas Morning News.
Among those experiences, Pesikoff said, were claims that Nugent berated Tiede, made him shave her legs, and had him massage her back.
The defense also called an uncle who Tiede has accused of sexually abusing him. The uncle denied those allegations on the witness stand, according to The Dallas Morning News and KLTV.
Also testifying was Richard Linklater, the Texas native who made the movie. Linklater has let Tiede live with him in Austin since he was released from his sentence on bond, and said Tiede baby-sits his children and watches his pets.
“I think he’s an incredibly nice, generous man who did a horrible thing 17-plus years ago,” Linklater said, according to KLTV. “I consider him a friend and so does my family.”
Tiede did not testify.