By Ryan C. Perry
NEW BOSTON — In a prison in this East Texas town lives an inmate people once called the nicest man in Carthage. He preached at his church, helped students through college and volunteered around the community. He sang at weddings and funerals, and was a regular performer and director in the Panola College Theatre Department.
He also, admittedly, shot his friend and traveling companion four times in the back and stuffed her body into a Deepfreeze for nine months — all the while continuing his community involvement.
Bernhardt Tiede II, or Bernie, says he snapped Nov. 19, 1996, because of the abuse he suffered from 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, a widow and the richest woman in town. Tiede says he shot Nugent with the .22-caliber rifle she taught him to use to get rid of armadillos in her yard.
He also says, as he serves his life sentence, the crime still haunts him.
“I did something horrible, and I regret that every day for the rest of my life,” Tiede said recently in a tiny interview room in the Telford Unit state prison in Bowie County. “If they gave me 3,000 years in here, they could never take that away from me. Margie comes and talks to me all the time at night when I’m asleep, and I’m telling you, I have to live with this for the rest of my life.”
The man who prosecuted Tiede for murder doesn’t buy it. Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson paints a more sinister picture.
“The case, I would say, is about greed and betrayal,” Davidson said. “And we all know the love of money is the root of all evil.”
The case, now the subject of a Hollywood movie out later this month, was national news. It was featured in People and Texas Monthly magazines, on A&E and C-SPAN.
People wanted to know if after years of abuse, the nicest man in town had snapped and killed the richest woman in town — or if the whole scenario had been part of a long con to bilk the wealthy widow out of millions.
East Texas was neck-deep in a case of truth being stranger than fiction.
Tiede moved to Carthage in 1985 and took a job as assistant funeral director at Hawthorn Funeral Home. He was a natural fit. He was compassionate, had a fantastic singing voice and was at ease delivering a eulogy.
Tiede became friends with the Nugents, Marjorie and Rod.
Rod balanced his wife’s behavior, Tiede said, which people described as difficult.
“Rod was just a wonderful man,” he said. “He kind of could keep his finger on her, keep his thumb on her, and things were OK.
“But she was a corker. She really was.”
After Rod died, Marjorie and Tiede grew closer. He provided her companionship, and the wealthy widow offered him a first-class view of the world.
“When he died in 1990, she wanted to travel, so we went traveling,” Tiede said.
Marjorie apparently found some happiness with travel — and her traveling companion. She asked Tiede to leave the funeral home and work full time for her, to manage her affairs and accompany her wherever she wanted to go. She took her family, from whom she was estranged, out of her will and named Tiede her sole beneficiary.
According to Davidson, some of Rod’s old friends tried to warn Marjorie about Tiede.
“(The friends said) that he was too young, and he wasn’t up to any good,” Davidson said. “But she enjoyed his company. He was tall, dark and handsome and smooth. She had the time of her life.”
Tiede said his boss, Don Lipsey, asked if he was sure about what he was doing with the widow, but he chose to scale back his funeral home duties and take the pay raise that came with working for Nugent. The pair continued to travel, and Tiede continued his work around the community.
‘My only friend!’
Then, Tiede said, Nugent’s behavior got progressively worse.
“She had her quirks and her ways and her attitudes, but when we were around other people, it was a berating kind of thing,” he said. “She really let loose on some things that were not appropriate. She would be very demanding of my life as time went on from ... until 1996. It was really bad — it got worse and worse and worse.”
Said Davidson: “She probably thought she had him bought and paid for.”
Tiede said his part-time work at the funeral home, his volunteer work and his friendships aggravated Nugent, and she made it difficult to have time away from her.
“I couldn’t have any friends,” Tiede said. “I had to go from my house to her house in the morning to fix her coffee, talk about her clothes, do everything. I couldn’t have a life ... that’s why she wanted me to leave the funeral home. Sometimes during the day, she would page me 40 or 50 times if I didn’t answer her page, and I would be in the middle of a funeral or something like that. It was really bad.”
For several nights, Nugent had Tiede clear out the armadillos from her garden and flower beds, he said. The late night hunts were where the widow, ironically, taught Tiede how to shoot.
“She made me sit on the porch one night until about 4 o’clock in the morning and kill armadillos, and I had never shot a gun in my life,” he said. “We sat on the porch several nights to corral these animals, and she made me shoot them. It made me just sick because I couldn’t stand that. That’s what kind of woman she was. She had a lot of power over me.”
One evening, Tiede said, he’d had enough and tried to end his relationship with Nugent.
“I brought her back everything she had given to me,” Tiede said. “I gave her garage door opener back, and I said, ‘Here, I can’t handle this anymore.’ She was crying and I got in the car. … It was midnight, and I drove to the gate. By the time I got to the gate, she had locked that gate on me. She wouldn’t let me out. So I had to go back down to the house and talk to her again ... She was crying ‘Don’t leave me! You can’t leave me! You’re my only friend!’”
Speculation abounds and accounts differ on what led Tiede to shoot Nugent in the back. In his written confession, he said she had become “evil” and “wicked.”
“She was very possessive of my life — so much of my life — for the last few years. And it got worse,” Tiede said. “I guess that’s what made me just snap.”
Tiede describes the murder in vague terms, and with a sense of curiosity. Though he’s admitted it, he says he still can’t believe he would kill someone.
“It was like I stepped out of myself for just a minute — I don’t know if that makes any sense to anybody,” Tiede said. “Thinking about how I thought in that moment, I can’t even go back to it. I don’t know what even caused that. It’s hard to describe because it was just so weird.”
Davidson, the district attorney, said he believes Nugent found out Tiede had been ripping her off and confronted him.
The speculation is she had called for a meeting at the bank to figure out what exactly was going on, and he shot her on the way to her car to cover his tracks.
“I think Mrs. Nugent may have found out that scheme was going on,” Davidson said. “He killed her, and he thought ‘My gosh, what can I do? I’ll just put her in the freezer and deal with it later.’ ”
Tiede’s attorney, Clifton “Scrappy” Holmes of Longview, doesn’t believe Davidson’s theory.
“There was not a malicious bone in his body, I don’t believe,” Holmes said. “I really believe what our expert told us, having examined and tested him, that it was a matter of disassociation. I can’t really explain what this is because I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist; it is a mental situation that allows people to do things absolutely contrary to their own personality and their own bent.”
Tiede said he clearly remembers his reactions to the murder and how he felt as he realized what he had done.
“I panicked. I saw her lying on the floor, and I thought ‘Oh my goodness, what am I going to do?’ ” Tiede said. “I thought ‘I’ve got to put her up for some time.’ ”
Then, Tiede’s mortuary experience took over.
“Being in the funeral business, you keep a body cool,” Tiede said. “You keep it cold; you tend to it later on. And that’s what I did. I took out some food from that freezer room — right off the door that goes into the house. I took her in there and laid her in the freezer and thought ‘I’ll tend to this later.’ I ... didn’t know what to do. I thought, ‘I’ll just leave her here for awhile, and then I’ll think of something.’ ”
Hiding in plain sight
That night, Tiede rehearsed for an upcoming production with the theatre department at Panola College. And for the next nine months, he returned to his routine, blocked out the crime and continued with his life.
“I guess I have that capability,” Tiede said of mentally blocking. “I never thought about how I reacted to what happened, and how I kept acting. I’m sure I thought it through, but I don’t know what I was doing.”
Tiede no longer needed to answer to Nugent about how he spent his time — or her money. Some estimates indicate he spent as much as $3 million of her estimated $10 million.
“He paid for scholarships,” Davidson said. “He sent people to college. He donated to musicals, plays and bought instruments at the college. That was all done with Mrs. Nugent’s money. After she was in the freezer, he really jumped out there as a benefactor.”
Tiede said people’s lack of interest in Nugent’s whereabouts made it easier for him to forget about the murder.
“Nobody asked about her,” Tiede said. “She really didn’t have any friends constantly ask about her.”
Davidson agreed Nugent did not have a personality that drew people to her.
“Friendly? Probably not,” he said. “But she didn’t want to be friendly. She didn’t need to be friendly. She wasn’t running for office.”
Davidson said Tiede isolated the widow from people for the last few years of her life, and that’s why there were fewer questions.
“That’s what you do when you’re a con guy and you move in,” Davidson said. “He had her cut all ties, so ultimately the only person she had to rely on was him. Mrs. Nugent was a human being. She didn’t deserve her fate at the hands of Bernie. There are people in Panola County who liked Mrs. Nugent. There are people in Carthage, Longview and Shreveport who I know liked Mrs. Nugent.”
Time runs out
Eventually, though, people began realizing they had not seen her in months. When asked about it, Tiede gave varying accounts of where Nugent was or said she was too ill to see people. As the questions mounted, the walls began to close in.
“I had to tell some lies, and I couldn’t remember who I had told what to,” Tiede said. “It was very difficult. It was causing a lot of stress in my life, and I was having tremendous headaches. It was getting to be very burdensome.”
David Jeter, lead investigator in the case, said a confidential informant made him aware Nugent might be missing. When talking to Tiede, the informant claimed, he tripped up when explaining Nugent’s whereabouts.
Jeter, who is now chief deputy in the Panola County Sheriff’s Office, said he questioned Tiede about Nugent’s whereabouts and was told she was sick in a hospital under the name “Jane Doe.” The story did not match up with what a confidential source told Jeter. Nugent’s family filed a missing person’s report and came to Carthage to look for her.
“We were able to get a search warrant on the house,” Jeter said. “They called me and told me that they had found Mrs. Nugent’s body in the freezer. I sent officers to find Mr. Tiede and bring him in to the office.”
They caught him sitting down to eat with a Little League team. “The sheriff said, ‘Bernie’s eating with us tonight,’” Davidson recalled.
During the interrogation, Jeter called out Tiede on apparent lies involving kidnappings, threats and conspiracies.
Then, Tiede came clean.
“He finally came out with the truth,” Jeter said. “He just said ‘I shot her.’ To tell you the truth, I did not believe that because the man was someone who you never thought would harm somebody.”
Jeter said he needed more convincing the confession was not a lie.
“I said, ‘Come on, man. Just tell me what happened,’ ” Jeter said. “He said, ‘I couldn’t take it anymore, so I shot her. The gun’s in there in the pantry.’ ”
Though Tiede convinced Jeter he killed her, the investigator still doesn’t fully believe Tiede’s account of the murder.
“Truth is, they were getting ready to go to the bank because she had been contacted by bank officials saying large amounts of money had been taken out, and I think they were going to confront him,” Jeter said. “That’s when he decided he couldn’t take it and shot her ... four times ... in the back.
“When he finally told the truth, he was completely honest about it,” Jeter said. “But as far as her driving him insane — come on — all he had to do was walk away. But he couldn’t do that because he had come to enjoy that lifestyle from all that money.”
Today, Tiede recalls his confession as a release from the charade he was living.
“I was so relieved,” he recalled. “It was like this weight being lifted off my shoulders. It was wonderful. ‘Oh my goodness; it’s over with.’ ””
But it was far from over.
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