By Ryan C. Perry
April 17, 2014
NEW BOSTON — When he was arrested in 1997 for the murder of his elderly companion, Bernie Tiede was 39 years old, had a head of thick, dark hair and was physically imposing.
Now he’s 54, his hair is silver, his bifocals are thick and he’s battling Type 2 diabetes. His demeanor, however, remains upbeat. And he remains convinced his victim shares some blame for the crime that landed him in prison — and that the small-town courtroom where he was tried is to blame for the length of his sentence.
“If it had been in a big town,” he said in a recent interview, “it would have been swept under the rug.”
Years of model behavior have earned him a spot in minimum custody at the state prison that holds him, and he said he’s resigned to a life behind bars.
“It’s just like going to church camp — if you will — with a whole bunch of strangers that you really don’t want to be there with,” Tiede said. “Once you realize what everyone is there for, it’s really OK.”
It hasn’t always been so. He was attacked by his fellow inmates when he entered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1999, but Tiede said his current situation is much less violent.
“Most people think of ‘Shawshank Redemption’ because that’s all you see,” he said of the 1994 movie.
This month, Hollywood is releasing a movie that might seem more familiar to Tiede. Titled “Bernie,” it’s a dark comedy based on the facts surrounding the murder of Carthage widow Marjorie Nugent, the crime for which Tiede is likely to live out his years behind bars.
Since November 2010, he’s been held here, in the Telford Unit state prison. He was transferred from the McConnell Unit in Beeville.
“If you were to come and live in this prison, you’d see it’s boring, really, because it’s just like your house. For that, I’m grateful,” he said. “It took me a little while to get used to this place. If I have to be here another 25-30 years, I’ll be all right.”
In prison, he does many of the same things he did on the outside, but on a scaled-down basis. He teaches health classes, sings in the choir and shares devotionals.
As he did on the outside, he said he tries to help people — as much as the law and his finances will allow. While he doesn’t have access to the same wealth he did when he was with his wealthy victim in the 1990s, Tiede said he is able to help fellow inmates with some basics, such as providing personal hygiene products.
“We can donate things — like if someone needs a deodorant stick, we can see to it someone has some shampoo, some toothpaste, you know, that kind of stuff,” he said. “Some of these people are indigent.”
There are people in East Texas who maintain ties with him, he said, though prison life does not allow them to be close ties. He can receive, but not send, email. Visitation is restricted to two hours on weekends, and only to people who are on his contact list.
“I have people from Longview and Carthage who write, who send money, who put money on my books,” Tiede said. “I’m very grateful for that because it makes things easier.”
A social man on the outside, Tiede said he has struggled with the isolation of prison.
“I miss my friends, a lot, because I had a lot of friends there — just being with them and spending time with them,” he said. “If prison has done something to me, it has separated me from a lot of that interactivity. However, I write copious letters. I try to explain things to these people what it’s like to live in prison. Kind of boring, really.
“I have friends in here that I have developed over the last few years,” Tiede said. “Some of them I wouldn’t have invited into my living room, but some of them are very dear friends. When we establish friendships in here, it’s just really nice. I am easily adaptable, and I have made the best of my surroundings.”
Tiede said he has continued to work with funeral homes, as he did while living in Carthage. When he is not teaching, he spends his days in the craft shop.
“They send me names of people who have died, and I create a little memorial,” Tiede said. “It says ‘In loving memory of,’ and it has a little pot of flowers. I put the deceased’s name and the year they were born and the year they died. Then I package it up real nice, put a frame around it, put it on an easel and send it to the funeral home.”
And while Tiede’s attitude is mostly upbeat, he points out the difference between the sentence he got from a court in San Augustine, where he was convicted, and what he thinks the sentence for a murder conviction might have been in a larger town.
Tiede argues he was driven to kill Nugent, his employer and traveling companion, by her own controlling actions. Prosecutors, however, say Tiede shot the wealthy widow after she learned he had been stealing from her.
“It was just amazing to me because it just blew up everywhere, and it was so public,” he said. “My life was suddenly ripped open because it was in a small town. But going to San Augustine — come on, man — there was no way, no way I could win anything. The whole trial was just insane.”
The crimes committed in cities such as Houston and Dallas — especially when there are questions about evidence or pre-meditation — often lead to shockingly short sentences, he said.
“There are people in here who have created and committed much more heinous crimes than I can even imagine, and they’ll be going home very quickly,” Tiede said. “That’s the problem. I’m glad Lady Justice has some blindfolds on, because if she saw what’s going on, she’d be flipping her wig. There’s such a disparity in the justice system.”
While he has met some great people who have made horrendous mistakes, he said many prisoners need to remain institutionalized.
“Some of these people should never, ever, ever go home,” he said. “It’s sad to say that some of those people will be released.”
And so the man once known as one of the nicest residents of Carthage is left in prison to deal with the consequences of his “great sin.” According to the sentence he received in 1999, Tiede has a possibility of parole in 2027.
“I know I need to do some time,” he said. “I’m going to ask for some time cut, I hope, one of these days. I’ve got 15 years under my belt.”
As his voice begins to crack, he adds, “I want to go home ... I want to go home.”
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