On Sunday morning, October 17, 2010, Kay Baby Epperson packed three large suitcases full of clothes and a smaller one containing her best makeup. The seventy-year-old retired hairdresser then asked her husband, Gary, to carry her luggage to her Lincoln Continental, which was parked in the carport next to their home in the small East Texas town of Rusk.
“Goodbye, honey,” Kay Baby said as she climbed behind the wheel. “I’m off to do my movie.”
She was dressed in her favorite red blouse with sparkly red rhinestones, a pair of pressed blue jeans, and boots. She wore diamond rings on six of her fingers, and a piece of crystal from a bathroom chandelier at Elvis’s Graceland mansion hung from her neck.
Gary, a lanky man who wore a rebel flag gimme cap, looked suspiciously at his wife. “Now, Kay Baby, you sure you’re not going to Las Vegas?” he asked. “To gamble away all our money?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Kay Baby said, giving herself a quick once-over in the rearview mirror and fluffing up her blond hair, which she had been bleaching for forty years. She lit a Kent cigarette and leaned her head out the window. “And Gary, please feed the cats while I’m gone.”
Kay Baby was headed to Bastrop, thirty miles east of Austin, where filming was about to begin for Bernie, a movie based on the peculiar story of Bernie Tiede. A beloved former assistant director of a funeral home in the East Texas town of Carthage, the 39-year-old was arrested in 1997 for the murder of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, the sour-tempered widow of a rich local oilman. Bernie had become Mrs. Nugent’s ever-present companion and the sole heir to her estate, but he freely admitted to police that he had shot her four times in the back and stuffed her in a deep freeze in her home, where she had remained for nine months before police discovered her. He explained that he felt he had to shoot Mrs. Nugent because she had become “very hateful and very possessive.”
Almost from the moment he had heard about the case, Richard Linklater had wanted to make a movie about the story. Finally, after years of delays, he had secured funding and persuaded three of Hollywood’s biggest names to star in the film: Jack Black to play Bernie, Shirley MacLaine to take on the role of Mrs. Nugent, and Matthew McConaughey to portray Danny Buck Davidson, the criminal district attorney who prosecuted the case. Linklater also hired a number of small-town East Texans, only a couple of whom had any acting experience, to play the townspeople of Carthage. In addition to Kay Baby, he had picked real-life housewives, oil field workers, a waitress at a cafe, a part-time country music singer, and a pest exterminator. And he told all of them to be in Bastrop by October 17, where his production team—technicians, caterers, stylists, wardrobe artists, and crew members—was already gathered, preparing to re-create the series of events that led to Mrs. Nugent’s murder.
Kay Baby was so excited she was already practicing her lines in her rearview mirror as she pulled out of her driveway, making sure her facial expressions were just right. About five minutes outside of Rusk, however, she crested a hill and slammed her Lincoln into a car driven by, she later told me, “an illegal Spanish boy with no insurance talking on his cellphone.”
When paramedics arrived, she was dazed, her breathing labored, her hands clutching her chest in pain. But she refused to go to the hospital. She called Gary, who called his sister, who said she had no errands to run that day and would be happy to drive Kay Baby to Bastrop.
“Honey, this is my moment, and at my age, I don’t get too many moments,” Kay Baby told me after she arrived at Bastrop’s Hampton Inn, where all the East Texans were staying. She lit a Kent and waved it in the air. “Do you really think I’d miss this? As far as I’m concerned, Bernie could be the next Gone With the Wind .”
One day after the news broke in August 1997 about Bernie’s arrest, I threw my reporter’s notebook into my car and dashed off to Carthage. It seemed impossible to me that any of this had actually happened. Bernie stood to inherit millions from Mrs. Nugent, but he went ahead and shot her anyway. Then, instead of getting rid of Mrs. Nugent’s body, the mortician placed her in her own deep freeze because, he later said, he eventually wanted to give her a proper burial. And what was most mind-boggling was that no one, not even Mrs. Nugent’s relatives, noticed that she had dropped out of sight. During those nine months, Bernie became a kind of Robin Hood, using her money to give to people in need throughout Carthage.
I could not imagine the story getting any stranger, until I visited Daddy Sam’s BBQ and Catfish (“You Kill It, I’ll Cook It”), one of Carthage’s most popular restaurants. There, I watched a group of people walk right up to the bulldog-faced Danny Buck and beg him to drop charges against Bernie—or at least give the poor man probation. “Ol’ Bernie’s a back shooter!” he told me between bites of slaw. “But people here just want the whole thing to go away.”
In fact, everywhere I went, I listened to residents describe Bernie as the kindest, most generous person they had ever known. I drove over to the county jail, where some of Bernie’s supporters had written “Free Bernie” with shoe polish on the windows of their cars and driven back and forth in front of the building to let him know they cared. When I went to the funeral home where Bernie had worked, just a block away from the jail, his boss went on and on about the beautiful funerals Bernie staged, sending off everyone in Carthage, including the town’s