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Editorial: ‘Bernie’ and real-life murder

Dallas Morning News
June 20, 2014

Bernhardt Tiede II, left, was portrayed sympathetically by Jack Black in the film Bernie, but in real life, he was the cold-blooded murderer of his elderly companion, Marjorie Nugent, who was shot multiple times. Her body was found wrapped in a white sheet in the deep freeze at her home near Carthage, Texas, in August 1997.

A travesty of justice has unfolded in East Texas regarding the murder of an elderly widow by her one-time companion, Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede II. Moviegoers might recall the 2011 film Bernie, a dramatized dark comedy based on the shooting death of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent on Nov. 19, 1996, in Carthage.

Film director Richard Linklater portrayed Tiede sympathetically as a gentle, likable mortician badgered by the grouchy, domineering old woman whom he killed. Actor Jack Black played Bernie, Shirley MacLaine played Nugent and Matthew McConaughey played Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson.

Glitzy Hollywood fiction cannot disguise the premeditated, cold-blooded murder that occurred in real life. In his signed confession, Tiede stated that, for two months before the murder, “I had thoughts of hitting Marjorie in the head with a bat.”

Instead of fighting these urges and walking away, he positioned Nugent’s rifle near her garage, grabbed it while following her to her car, and shot her in the back. She collapsed, clinging to life. He blasted her again. He stuffed her body into a deep freezer, piled frozen items on top to conceal what he had done, then hosed blood off the garage floor.

When law enforcement arrested him nine months later, they found among his possessions five Visa cards, four MasterCards, four American Express cards, Nugent’s passport and checkbooks for various bank and brokerage accounts belonging to Nugent and her deceased husband. An investigator said Tiede “had spent a large sum of money in previous months” before his arrest.

Tiede told investigators that Nugent had “given” him more than $3 million. Officials at her bank said he had forged Nugent’s signature on trust-account documents. Nugent’s family long suspected he had embezzled money and were pressing Nugent to demand an accounting when Tiede killed her.

A jury convicted Tiede in 1999 and sentenced him to life in prison. But in May, a judge released Tiede on bond into director Linklater’s custody while his lawyers prepare new arguments that his motivation wasn’t from panic over embezzlement exposure but from Tiede’s sexual abuse as a child.

The Nugent family is justifiably outraged. Last week, they filed a court challenge to Tiede’s release, noting that he had already tried to make this sexual-abuse argument at his original trial. They want to know why prosecutor Davidson did not strenuously fight Tiede’s release and why Davidson told a judge that the Nugent family had been informed of the hearing in May when that wasn’t the truth.

If there are new arguments for a court to weigh regarding Tiede’s motives, the judge should hear not just Tiede’s version but also the family’s. Walking free under a film director’s care is no place for a convicted murderer.

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