Of all the murders that have taken place in Texas, it is hard to imagine one stranger and more macabre than the November 1996 shooting of Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy 81-year-old widow in Carthage, Texas, by Bernie Tiede, the 39-year-old former assistant director of a Carthage funeral home. A few years earlier, Bernie had quit his job at the funeral home to work as Mrs. Nugent’s business manager and traveling companion. She also had named him the sole heir to her estate, which was worth millions (her husband had been a prominent Carthage oilman and banker). Bernie was on his way to becoming a very rich man. But one afternoon, right around lunch time, he shot Mrs. Nugent four times in the back and then buried her in her own deep freeze in her garage, where she remained for nine months before anyone started looking for her.
When her body was finally discovered by police, Bernie quickly confessed to the crime, explaining to the county sheriff that Mrs. Nugent had become so “mean and demanding” that he felt he had no choice but to shoot her. But he added that the reason he kept her in the freezer was because everyone deserved a nice funeral and he hoped she would someday have one, too.
The story made statewide headlines, largely because many citizens in Carthage rallied around Bernie after his arrest, claiming he was a gentle, loving person and that Mrs. Nugent was the meanest woman in town. They begged District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson to give Bernie probation—or even go so far as drop all the charges against him—because they could not imagine he really meant to shoot Mrs. Nugent. Several people told Davidson that if they were picked to be jurors at Bernie’s trial, they would vote to acquit him. Davidson, in turn, successfully filed for a change of venue and had the trial held in San Augustine County. He portrayed Bernie as a monstrous, cold-blooded killer. The jury quickly found Bernie guilty and gave him a life sentence. His appeal was denied.
The Austin-based film director Richard Linklater used a Texas Monthly article I wrote about the case as the basis for the 2011 comic movie Bernie, starring Jack Black as Bernie, Shirley MacLaine