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‘Bernie’ victim’s family wants killer back in prison

Dallas Morning News

By Michael E. Young

October 30, 2014

The family of a well-off East Texas widow is demanding that the man who confessed to her murder be returned to prison to serve his full life term.

Bernhardt Tiede II was convicted in 1999 in the death of 80-year-old Marjorie Nugent, a case that inspired the 2011 film Bernie.

On May 6, Tiede was released on bond while an appeals court considers reducing his sentence. Tiede disclosed he had been sexually abused by a relative from the time he was 12 until he was 18. The detail hadn’t been mentioned in his murder trial. But it’s one that psychiatrists say could have enabled Tiede to dissociate from reality, potentially to the point of killing someone.

But to Nugent’s family, Tiede’s case has always been about money and a ruthless con man willing to do anything necessary to steal everything he could.

It was only when the money was mostly gone and bank officials demanded an accounting that Tiede shot Nugent four times in the back. He wrapped her in a sheet and stuffed her in the deep freeze beneath frozen vegetables and chicken pot pie.

After her body was found nine months later, Tiede confessed.

“He murdered her on that day because if he hadn’t murdered her, [officials] would have found out how much money he’d been stealing and he would have been in jail,” said Rod Nugent Jr., her only child.

According to the family’s accounting, Tiede took more than $3.5 million from them — almost $2.5 million from Marjorie Nugent’s accounts and more than $1 million from a trust her husband, Rod Nugent Sr., had set up for their four grandchildren.

But now, pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is a post-conviction writ of habeas corpus filed on Tiede’s behalf. It asks for a new punishment phase in his murder trial because of the new information. In the meantime, a Panola County judge freed him on bond, placing him in the custody of Richard Linklater, the director and co-writer of Bernie.

The prosecutor did not object.

When the film debuted in 2011, an Austin lawyer named Jodi Cole attended a showing where Linklater appeared. Afterward, she told Linklater there had to be something more to the murder. She later found in case documents a mention that Tiede had owned several self-help books for victims of childhood sexual abuse.

After meeting with Cole and a therapist, Tiede told them of his abuse history.

A psychiatrist who examined Tiede diagnosed him with a dissociative disorder, which can impair normal awareness or alter the sense of identity or memory. The psychiatrist who had worked for the prosecution in Tiede’s original trial read the report and agreed that Tiede’s abuse could have made him vulnerable to toxic relationships — the sort depicted in Bernie.

In the film, Tiede, portrayed by Jack Black, rolled into Carthage with a smile on his face, singing along to the radio. An assistant funeral director, Tiede soon found a job where he’d sing at services, speak kindly to the bereaved and cozy up to affluent widows.

Marjorie Nugent, whose husband made most of their money in oil and gas, met Tiede when Rod Nugent Sr. died in March 1990. In the chill at the cemetery, Tiede offered Marjorie Nugent his jacket.

“From what we’ve heard since — and a lot of this is testimony from the trial — he began showing up within two or three days, staying at my mother’s house,” Rod Nugent said last week. “He was leaving her flowers all over the house, writing her notes. The housekeeper quit. She said she couldn’t be around all that inappropriate behavior. He was deep-kissing my mother within two weeks of the funeral.”

In the film, Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine, was a difficult woman: demanding, belittling, controlling and short-tempered. Many in Carthage seemed to share that view.

But family disagreed.

“It’s so funny — you have this Shirley MacLaine figure who’s loud, obnoxious, kind of a caricature of a person,” said Shanna Nugent, the youngest grandchild. “My grandmother was quiet. She didn’t wear loud clothes. … She was a very shy woman; she didn’t have a lot of friends. She was very much introverted.

“That movie to me is not my grandmother. She was just such a different person.”

Tiede, on the other hand, was a popular figure in town. People saw him as kind and generous, always willing to help. He was such a faithful member of a church that he occasionally filled in as preacher when the pastor was out of town. Even Marjorie Nugent’s death — she was shot as she bent to pet her dog, her son said, and then shot again, again and again at point-blank range — didn’t seem to change people’s minds. Tiede proved so popular in Carthage, where he used Nugent’s money to lavish gifts on many people, that his trial had to be moved to San Augustine, two counties to the south.

In his confession, Tiede described Nugent as “a friend of mine and a traveling companion” but said “she had become very hateful. She had become very possessive over my life. She was now evil and wicked.” For “a couple of months,” he said, he’d considered clubbing her with a bat but “did not want her to suffer.”

So he moved a rifle from its usual spot into the garage, called the bank to cancel that day’s meeting on account discrepancies because Nugent was sick, and killed her.

Over the months that followed, he offered various explanations of her whereabouts, including a hospital stay under an assumed name. But according to the Nugent family, Tiede spent the months after her death forging her signature and plundering what remained in her accounts. He withdrew $62,000 in the six weeks after she died in 1996, and $496,810 before his arrest in August 1997.

Rod Nugent wanted Tiede to be tried for capital murder because he had both robbed and killed his mother. But a judge decided against allowing the financial evidence in the murder trial.

“It’s irrelevant,” Tiede’s attorney, Clifton “Scrappy” Holmes, said at the time.

But it was never irrelevant to the family. They said Tiede persuaded Marjorie Nugent to invest her money with him.

“She started writing checks to Bernie in December 1990. These checks were designated to the Bernie Tiede Investment Fund,” Rod Nugent said. “Starting in 1991, she was writing checks pretty much monthly to Bernie, and he was giving her a return back.”

“What he was doing basically was keeping two sets of books,” Shanna Nugent said.

They compared it to “a Bernie Madoff-type investment scheme, but it only involved one person.”

In all, Tiede gave her $197,211 in “income” from the investments, they said, and spent the rest. In 1994, 1995 and 1996, he gave her bogus deposit slips for more than $581,000.

“She was very proud of the income she was getting from this investment,” Rod Nugent said, “a higher return from Bernie T. than from any other investment account.”

“We lived in Amarillo, and friends of the family would call and say something’s not right,” Shanna Nugent said. “My family was struck with the ‘What do you do when you have an independent woman who’s probably being snookered by this guy?’

“We filed for an accounting of my grandfather’s trust, and she and Bernie refused to give it to us,” she said. “We got in a lawsuit over that.”

Eventually, Marjorie Nugent decided she would no longer be the trustee, and the Texas Bank and Trust in Longview assumed that role. The bank found significant discrepancies almost immediately and began sending letters to both Marjorie Nugent and Tiede. The trust officer set up a meeting with them on Nov. 19, 1996.

“Shockingly, this is the date that Bernie kills her,” Shanna Nugent said. “So it’s always been our firm conviction that that’s the reason for the murder.”

On the day Tiede was convicted and sentenced, Rod Nugent and his family climbed in their car and drove to the cemetery to tell Marjorie Nugent the news.

“It was pouring down rain,” Shanna Nugent said, “and we drove out to DeBarry and sat in front of my grandmother’s grave. And my dad said, ‘Mom, we got him.’”

“We let [Mom and Dad] know we got the guy sentenced to life in prison,” Rod Nugent said.

Now they’re not so sure.

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