A Deadly Dance
Two prominent doctors. One beautiful woman looking for romance. And a likable misfit who spun tall tales. Their lives intersected after an intense relationship turned sour, but no one guessed that the path to love would lead to murder.
EDITORS’ NOTE: This story has been updated. For an explanation of the changes, please see the note at the end of the article.
People in Amarillo liked to say that Mike Dixon, a prominent plastic surgeon, and David Shepard, a failed pharmaceutical salesman, had a bromance going on. They had drinks at Butler’s Martini Bar, they watched football at Hummer’s Sports Cafe, and they popped over to Buffalo Wild Wings, where Dixon competed in trivia contests while Shepard flirted with the waitresses.
They were Amarillo’s version of the Odd Couple. Dixon, who was five feet eleven inches tall and 185 pounds, was a hardworking doctor—“very caring, very compassionate,” one nurse said—who performed as many as three surgeries a day. Shepard, who was six feet five inches tall and 380 pounds, was known around town as Big Dave. He enjoyed playing poker, and he especially loved telling tall tales. He bragged that he had once worked as a bodyguard for billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens and that he had served in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, trained to go on secret missions.
The two men had met just after Dixon opened his medical practice, in 2003. They began running into each other at a local tobacco shop, where they sat in the smoking room and puffed on cigars. They didn’t become close friends, however, until the spring of 2010, when Shepard, who was 50 years old at the time, called Dixon, who was then 46, and mentioned that his wife had informed him that she had been unhappy for the past three or four years and wanted a divorce.
“You’re kidding,” said Dixon. He told Shepard that his wife had just served him with divorce papers. She had caught him having an affair with a 47-year-old woman named Richelle Shetina, who had been coming to Sensei Med Spa, a small day spa that Dixon owned.
Dixon didn’t seem very upset that he was getting a divorce. He said that he had never before been with a woman as beautiful as Shetina. She appreciated him in ways that his wife didn’t. He told his friend that he was convinced they had a promising future together, and they were even talking about marriage.
But it wasn’t long before Dixon was telling Shepard a much different story. The couple broke up, and Shetina eventually began seeing another doctor: Joseph Sonnier, the chief of pathology at a hospital in Lubbock, a two-hour drive away. Dixon seemed to know all about Sonnier. He was tall and lean, with a thousand-watt smile. He wore tailored clothes, took ballroom dancing lessons, and went on European vacations. With a sigh, Dixon told Shepard that Shetina was now telling everyone she knew that she had finally found the man of her dreams.
One night, while the two men were talking, Dixon said he wished there was something he could do to make Shetina regret her decision—to make her realize she should have stayed with him.
Shepard gave Dixon a knowing nod and said he knew exactly what to do. He offered to follow Sonnier around Lubbock and see what he was up to. He said that he could play a few pranks on Sonnier to embarrass him in front of Shetina. Hell, said Shepard, it wouldn’t take any time at all to get her running back into Dixon’s arms. All he would need was a little money for gas, some food, and a few cigars.
Dixon asked Shepard if he was serious.
Of course, Shepard replied. He’d do anything for a friend.
Shetina and Dixon during their relationship.
Big Dave did not have to be told that Shetina was the kind of woman who could make any man a little crazy. When he first met her, he thought she was “smoking hot” and couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Almost every man of a certain age who met Shetina had a similar reaction. They tended to use such phrases as “the complete package” and “drop-dead gorgeous” when they described her. “She’s very blond and very leggy,” said one man who knew her. “You would look at her and think, ‘She’s the kind of woman who would definitely look good on your arm at a party.’ ”
Born in Salt Lake City, Shetina was raised, among other places, in Southern California. In the late seventies, her family moved to Kansas City, where she performed on the dance squad for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. She married a man who later worked for a financial trading company, and they had two sons. When the marriage ended in divorce, she married a man who eventually went to work in the oil business, and they had two sons as well. At some point after 2002, her second husband accepted a position as an executive with a company that operated a refinery outside Dumas, about 45 miles north of Amarillo, and the family moved to Texas.1
After her second divorce, Shetina periodically drove into Amarillo to get treatments at Sensei Med Spa. Dixon made a point of being around whenever she showed up. He was not a particularly handsome man—“not exactly a lady-killer,” one of his friends said. He had a square sort of head with thinning hair, and he wore unfashionable glasses. Raised in the small Panhandle town of Spearman, he had spent much of his life as a student, studying chemistry at West Texas State University; microbiology at Clemson University, in South Carolina; and business at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, before enrolling at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, in Lubbock. After completing his residency in plastic surgery at the University of Oklahoma, he returned to Amarillo and worked hard to build his practice.
Dixon advertised in the newspaper and on a highway billboard. He ran a commercial on Amarillo television stations in which he appeared in his white lab coat, smiling amiably and letting viewers know that he was a member of the American Board of Plastic Surgery and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. “He looked a little nerdish,” said his friend. “He definitely didn’t look like someone who would get into any kind of trouble.”
According to Dan Hurley, one of Dixon’s lawyers, women over the years had made passes at Dixon. But Shetina was “the first really attractive, outgoing woman to charm Mike.” He sent her a friend request on Facebook, and soon they were swapping stories about their lives, their marriages, and their children. Dixon was not just charmed; he was mesmerized. In early 2010, he decided to make a play for her and took Shetina to Wolf Creek, a ski resort in Colorado.2
Shetina would later say that the reason she decided to have an affair with Dixon was simple: “I didn’t feel like I was stepping into a marriage.” She said he had told her many times that he no longer loved his wife, Shannon, whom he had married in 1988. He claimed that she was always either yelling at him or ignoring him. Shetina said that she truly liked Dixon. He was “a very charismatic, intelligent person.” When they were together, they had a good time.3 She sensed that he was someone she could fall in love with.
After her divorce, Shetina bought a home in Lubbock, right next to the Lubbock Country Club. (She would later say she moved there to be near two close friends and to enroll her sons in the local schools.)4 She and Dixon didn’t see each other every day, but they called and texted constantly. In May 2010 Dixon’s wife, who worked as his office manager, confronted her husband after noticing all of the phone activity. When he admitted he was involved with another woman, she was devastated and quickly filed for divorce. She had raised their three children and devoted her entire adult life to helping Dixon build his career, only to be betrayed at the moment in their lives when they could truly begin to enjoy their success.
Dixon moved into a home outside Amarillo near Palo Duro Canyon, where, according to Shetina, he wanted to install a stripper pole in the bedroom. He sent her gushy texts. “God sent his sweetest angel to rescue me,” he wrote one day. She replied, “You’re my soulmate. What else would I do?” Marriage definitely seemed to be on the horizon. “I loved, loved, loved that woman,” Dixon would later say. “I really had fallen head over heels and back.”
In May 2011, after his divorce was finalized, he had two of his children over to the house for dinner to meet Shetina for the first time. But the evening didn’t go as planned. Horrified to see their father with a new woman, they told him they would never come back to his house again.
According to Dixon’s version of events, his children’s reaction chastened him. He told Shetina that they needed to slow down. He said he would see her whenever she was available, except on Tuesdays and every other weekend, when he would be with his children. Shetina was not happy. She had children from her previous marriages as well, and she told him, “I don’t want your children running my life.”
Then Dixon made a big mistake. In June he sent Shetina a teapot along with a membership to a tea-of-the-month club for her birthday. She was so insulted that she ended the relationship.5 “I was just like, ‘Really? You couldn’t hand me something?’ ” she recalled. “ ‘You had it mailed to me?’ ” When he begged her for a chance to make things right, she texted, “I would never agree to work out such details unless an engagement accompanied by a gigantic diamond ring were imminent.”
Shetina would later say that she was only joking about the engagement ring and that the only time she talked about marriage with Dixon was to let him know she would not marry him. Nevertheless, Dixon continued to pursue her. Toward the end of the summer they met a few times to engage in what Shetina later described as “small talk.” Dixon thought there was hope. There wasn’t. By September, Shetina was already falling for someone else.6
Shetina with Sonnier after she had broken up with Dixon.
Joseph Sonnier III was one of Lubbock’s most eligible middle-aged bachelors. Raised in Louisiana and a graduate of the LSU School of Medicine, he had spent most of his career in Dallas and in West Palm Beach, Florida, as an executive with companies that operated pathology laboratories. In 2006 he had moved to Lubbock to become the chief pathologist for Covenant Health System.
Richard Parks, Covenant’s chief executive officer, described Sonnier as “a physician’s physician,” diligent and exact. When he wasn’t working, however, the divorced six-foot-five-inch doctor was the life of the party. At the group classes on Monday and Thursday nights at D’Venue dance studio, Sonnier danced with all the women. And they loved dancing with him. Debra Hollowell, the owner of D’Venue, called Sonnier “one of the best men I had ever met in my life—warm, open, and friendly.” But the women weren’t just attracted to his charm and his dance moves. He was also wealthy, with an estimated worth of more than $12 million, thanks largely to his stock holdings and investments in commercial real estate. One particularly juicy bit of D’Venue gossip involved a married woman who had driven over to his house, offering to have sex.
Shetina, who had also been taking classes at D’Venue, was smitten the first time she saw Sonnier, who was 56 years old at the time. At their classes, she couldn’t wait until it was her turn to dance with him. He asked for her phone number, and soon Sonnier was picking her up in his white Mercedes and taking her to dinner. On other dates, he took her back to his luxurious 5,600-square-foot home in Lubbock’s upscale Tanglewood neighborhood, where he showed her his wine cellar, his spacious bedroom with a fireplace, and an area in the laundry room where, as a hobby, he concocted perfumes made of ingredients that he had shipped in from France. He introduced her to his closest friends, all of whom were impressed—an anesthesiologist at Covenant described Shetina as “well traveled, beautiful, and well educated”—and he invited her to meet his two grown sons when they came to Lubbock, taking them all to a Texas Tech football game.
On her Facebook page, Shetina began posting photos of herself kissing Sonnier on the cheek. Underneath a couple of photos, she wrote, “I love this man” and “Joseph, my man.” She also posted photos of flowers that he had sent her. The relationship was magical, Shetina later recalled. “He would look at me and he would say, ‘How did I ever find you in Lubbock, Texas?’ He would take my face in his hands and he would just say, over and over again, ‘I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.’ . . . We just kind of folded into each other, and it was perfect.”
Women from D’Venue who followed Shetina on Facebook were stunned at how quickly the relationship blossomed, but they weren’t the only ones. Dixon was also following Shetina’s new romance online and was becoming increasingly distraught over her pictures and posts. He kept thinking about the time Shetina had asked him to go to D’Venue to take dance lessons with her and he had said no. He now realized that if only he had agreed, Sonnier would have never gotten to her.
Dixon asked Shetina to meet him for coffee in Lubbock and told her that his children were now okay with his having a girlfriend. “Give me a chance,” he begged. But Shetina refused to see him and said she would never betray Sonnier.
Throughout that fall, Dixon continued to text her. Some of the messages were despondent. (“I love you so very much that I sold my family down the river to have you,” “You threw me away,” “I don’t know why you play games with my heart.”) He ridiculed her relationship with Sonnier. (“From where I sit, it’s a total rebound thing. You’re willing to hook up with the first person that will give you attention. In my book that’s pathetic.”) In one text, he told her Lubbock was a terrible place to live, pointing out that Forbes had listed it as the sixth-most-dangerous city in the United States.
Shetina responded with her own volley of texts, in which she claimed that Sonnier was the better man. “I love the way he makes me feel,” she wrote. Dixon replied, “I want to feel loved, appreciated, respected, too. . . . Then you salt the wound with a tale of being in love with someone else.”
On at least one occasion, Shetina did appear to deliberately salt the wound. In late September 2011, she let him know that she had a free weekend coming up without her sons. “If you’re interested in trying to salvage anything we might have left, let me know,” she texted. Thrilled, Dixon quickly made plans to take her to Ojo Caliente, a resort and spa outside Santa Fe. But just before the trip, Shetina fired off another text. “I’m in love. Enjoy your get-a-way.” She ended the note with a smiley face. She then sent one more. “Ha ha, my life is better than yours. I am on top of the world.”
Dixon replied, “Who’s the lucky guy?” Shetina sent another smiley face. Then Dixon pathetically texted, “Does that mean we’re not going to NM?”
Dixon tried to move on. By early 2012 he had begun dating a 24-year-old Texas Tech medical student named Ashley Woolbert, who was working in Amarillo as part of her surgery rotation. As a way of getting to know her, he had asked her to scrub in on one of his surgeries. In order to “close the door” on his relationship with Shetina, as he put it, he flew to Dallas to participate in a weekend counseling program called Pathways, which had been co-founded by Dr. Phil, the self-help guru. But the memories of Shetina were too overwhelming. While in Dallas, he had dinner with one of Shetina’s friends, Shana Tally. During the meal, Tally later recalled, Dixon said over and over again that he was still in love with Shetina and that although she had hurt him badly, he simply could not get over her. Tally was so alarmed by Dixon’s tone that she called Shetina and warned her to be careful. She said she thought that Dixon was obsessed with her.
If Dixon was obsessed with Shetina, he didn’t tell his longtime friends or his colleagues. He’d just say with a shrug that the relationship was over. But he did begin talking more and more about Shetina to David Shepard.
Shepard, a father of three girls, wasn’t exactly Amarillo’s greatest success story. After graduating from Amarillo High School in 1979, he joined the Army (though he was never in the Special Forces, as he liked to brag) and eventually returned to Amarillo. He worked as a manager at Domino’s Pizza, as a mortgage broker, and as an insurance salesman. He bought a Hot Tubs to Go franchise, which quickly went out of business. Shepard was hired by a construction company, but he didn’t last long there either: he was arrested for embezzling $29,362.50 from the company and was put on probation for ten years. Shepard then got into pharmaceutical sales, hawking medications for toenail fungus and Alzheimer’s disease. He was laid off in March 2010, not long before his wife filed for divorce.
Still, despite his professional setbacks, he was a likable lug with a loud personality. Whenever he showed up at Butler’s Martini Bar, always well dressed, with a massive watch on his wrist, the regulars called out, “Hey, Big Dave!” Shepard often sat at the bar with a private pilot named Michael Procter and talked about how he needed to buy an airplane. After he lost his job in pharmaceutical sales, he told a poker-playing friend about his idea to open allergy clinics around the Panhandle. His friend was so impressed that he agreed to become an investor, giving Shepard $1,500 a month to get the venture off the ground.
Because Dixon didn’t have many single male friends when he was going through his divorce, he was always appreciative when Shepard would text and ask to meet him for an after-work “toddy.” At one point, Shepard asked Dixon if he was interested in being the medical director of his allergy clinics, telling him his duties would be so minimal that they would not take away from his own practice. Dixon said he’d be happy to.
For his part, Shepard loved dropping Dixon’s name around town. He’d go to Sensei Med Spa to get a manicure, letting the technicians know that he was one of Dixon’s “VIPs.” He’d tell waitresses that if they ever needed a “breast aug,” he could personally set them up with his friend. Once, at Amarillo’s Smoke Shop, he pulled out an expensive cigar and proudly told other customers that it was a gift from Dixon, the medical director of his allergy clinics.
According to Shepard, not long after their conversation about how to get Shetina back, Dixon asked if he’d like to go on a little drive. They climbed into Shepard’s black Dodge Durango and headed for Lubbock. Driving around town, Dixon pointed out Shetina’s home, Sonnier’s home, and D’Venue. While they were in the parking lot of the dance studio, Shetina and Sonnier happened to arrive in his Mercedes and head inside. Dixon pulled out a pair of binoculars and, in silence, watched them dance.
Later, while nursing drinks at Buffalo Wild Wings, Dixon again asked Shepard if he could find a way to get Shetina to leave Sonnier. Shepard told Dixon that he had worked as a private investigator (which was untrue) and that he had worked as a Potter County sheriff’s deputy (which wasn’t true either). He said his plan would be like one of those Hollywood buddy comedies: two guys pulling off some harmless pranks to get a little payback on a selfish ex-girlfriend and her wealthy new boyfriend. Trust me, Shepard said, nothing can go wrong.
Soon enough, Shepard started showing up at a Lubbock tobacco shop and some of the city’s better bars, asking about Sonnier. After a few nights on the town, he told Dixon that he had learned that Sonnier had a reputation for having a woman or two on the side, even when he was in a relationship. Dixon was delighted. He asked Shepard to get a photo of Sonnier with one of his other girlfriends. He couldn’t wait to personally show Shetina the photograph and see her face when she realized her perfect man was nothing more than a two-timer.
Shepard, however, was not the best private eye. For one thing, he wasn’t a particularly good driver: he’d often lose Sonnier when the pathologist was leaving his home or his office. Some nights, Shepard would end up at the tobacco shop, playing poker and texting Dixon that Sonnier was nowhere to be found.
Shepard pitched Dixon on another idea, which he had picked up in a book he had ordered titled Getting Even: The Complete Book of Dirty Tricks. He wanted to go to an adult bookstore, buy a subscription to a gay pornography magazine, and have it mailed to Sonnier’s home. If Shetina ever noticed the magazine and suspected that Sonnier was gay, she would never get over it.
But Dixon said there was no guarantee that Shetina would ever see the magazine. Instead, he came up with a plan of his own: what if Shepard hired a woman to act as Sonnier’s “sugar baby” and confront him when he was at a restaurant with Shetina? Dixon said that if the sugar baby put on a good enough show to cause Shetina to leave Sonnier, he would pay her $1,000. Shepard texted a dancer he knew at Cassidy’s Polo Club, a topless bar in Amarillo. She said she’d never do anything so dangerous. Shepard then made the same pitch to a waitress at Butler’s Martini Bar. She turned him down cold.
Shetina did receive a handwritten letter from someone named “Tina.” In the letter, Tina claimed to be a single mother who had met Sonnier online and had agreed to have sex with him in return for money for her rent and other bills. Tina also wrote that she had been keeping up her end of the bargain but that he had stopped paying her. Tina lamented that her phone had just been shut off and that she and her child could very well end up homeless. She called Sonnier a “liar” and a “horrible person.”
When Shetina showed the letter to Sonnier, he insisted he didn’t know anyone named Tina. Shetina later said that she thought the letter had been written by one of Sonnier’s ex-girlfriends, a former dance instructor in West Palm Beach who had seen Sonnier on and off since 2005 and who had been devastated when Sonnier ended their relationship. It never occurred to her, she said, that Dixon could have written it. As far as she knew, he had moved on. “I honestly thought he left, and I wished him well,” she said.
The letter was soon forgotten. Sonnier and Shetina made plans to go to Paris in June to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. When Dixon read about the Paris trip on Facebook, he felt sick to his stomach. A year earlier, he had come up with the idea of taking Shetina to Paris, but the timing hadn’t worked. Dixon suspected that Sonnier would propose to Shetina in Paris, and he begged Shepard to get a photo of his rival in a compromising situation.
Then, on May 18, Dixon and Shepard exchanged an interesting pair of texts. Dixon wrote, “Give plan B any thought?” To which Shepard replied, “Absolutely, haven’t stopped thinking. Good possibilities.”
The texts never said exactly what plan B was. But it seemed to have something to do with Shepard’s going to Sonnier’s home. Over the next three weeks, Shepard wrote texts about such details as the windows of Sonnier’s house being locked. He wrote that he was going to need “booties” to cover his footprints. One day he wrote, “My ball is all tee’d up, and there is a vehicle in the driveway, as well as [a] fence crew working 75 feet away. Can’t get the green. . . . I guess I’ll have to play a round later this week.” It seemed from the text that Shepard was preparing to do something, found himself interrupted by construction workers, and let Dixon know he would soon try again.
Dixon sent texts that exhorted Shepard to move forward: “You have to stay close. Watch him in the a.m.” He seemed to be pushing Shepard to take action, using such phrases as “Go get ’em” and “Whip and spur.” On June 12, a few days before Sonnier and Shetina were scheduled to leave for Paris, Dixon texted, “It’s got to happen tomorrow, because the trip is imminent.”
Whatever was supposed to “happen,” however, never did. Sonnier and Shetina left for Paris and returned a week later. They still weren’t engaged, but she told her friends that they were already planning a trip to Santa Fe with all of their children. “We talked about being together forever,” she said. “He was really the most extraordinary man I’d ever met.”
On the very day that Sonnier and Shetina returned to Lubbock, the texting between Dixon and Shepard resumed. Dixon wrote, “I need you to make this happen asap. . . . Get r done.” The next day, Shepard texted Dixon, “Today is the day.” But then he later wrote, “I’m blocked. . . . Pickup, workers in alley by gate.”
In early July, the two friends took a few days off from their surveillance of Sonnier. On Independence Day, Shepard watched fireworks in Amarillo from the balcony of his apartment, and on July 6, he and Dixon took their kids to the Range Rider Rodeo. A day or two later, Shepard brought his girls over to swim in Dixon’s pool. Then, on July 9, Dixon texted Shepard, “Need it done ASAP.” Shepard wrote back that he would be in Lubbock the next day. “Yay,” Dixon replied. He spent most of July 10 in surgery, but he had time to send Shepard a final text during the lunch hour that read, “Put it on em.”
“On target,” Shepard texted back at 4:53 p.m.
On the morning of July 11, Sonnier’s colleagues began to wonder why he had not shown up for work. They tried to reach him by phone, and finally they grew so concerned that one of them drove to his house. His body was discovered in the garage, and it was a grisly scene. He had been shot five times and stabbed eleven. Two of the stab wounds had struck his heart, and two others had punctured his lungs. An official with the police department called it “the most gruesome, high-profile murder Lubbock has ever seen.”
When detectives saw that a large window in the back of Sonnier’s house had been pushed in and knocked to the floor, they speculated that the pathologist had walked in on a burglar. But it didn’t appear as if anything had been stolen. Besides, random burglars usually don’t take the time to shoot and stab a homeowner repeatedly.
After Shetina was notified of Sonnier’s death, she came to the house immediately. When detectives asked if she knew anyone who might want to kill Sonnier, she mentioned Dixon, saying that she had had a “volatile” relationship with him. But she also talked at length about the possibility that one of Sonnier’s ex-girlfriends had murdered him: either the former dance instructor from Florida, who Shetina said was “very self-centered and did not treat Joseph well during their relationship,” or a Lubbock nurse who had gotten so upset when Sonnier broke up with her that she had sent him texts calling him a “prick” and a “f—ing asshole.”
That evening, Lubbock homicide detective Zach Johnson paid a visit to Dixon, who said he knew nothing about Sonnier’s death. Johnson nodded and asked Dixon about his relationship with Shetina. Dixon couldn’t help himself. He began to gush about her like a lovestruck teenage boy. He called Shetina “a beautiful woman who appreciated me.” He said that he had “made a lot of life changes” for her. He even told Johnson details about their breakup. “She said, ‘I’m in love with my dance partner,’ ” Dixon lamented. But, he insisted, he was finally over her. “With time, it just wasn’t going to be something that worked,” he said.
While Dixon was talking with Johnson, his girlfriend was being interviewed by a second detective in another part of the house. She mentioned that Dixon’s friend David Shepard had dropped by the night of the murder. When Johnson heard that piece of news, he asked Dixon why he hadn’t said anything about his friend when questioned about his activities that night. According to Johnson, Dixon “immediately became still and gathered himself.” He finally said Shepard was a friend who had come over to get a couple of cigars.
Johnson was suspicious, but he had nothing more to go on. He continued to investigate other leads. When an impromptu memorial service was held for Sonnier at D’Venue, a couple of undercover officers showed up to see if any of Sonnier’s old girlfriends would do anything peculiar, but nothing appeared out of place.
Then, on July 15, Lubbock’s Crime Line received a phone call. Paul Reynolds, who had been friends with Shepard since high school, offered some new information. Reynolds had recently returned to Amarillo after years of being away and had been sleeping on Shepard’s couch for a few weeks. He said that Shepard had been “behaving kind of erratically” for the past several days and had tried to kill himself twice, first by taking “like, a hundred and some sleeping pills” and then by cutting his wrist with a knife. Reynolds said Shepard had finally told him a bizarre story about having murdered a Lubbock doctor at the request of “this doctor friend of his” in Amarillo and said that the friend had paid him in silver bars.
Johnson was convinced Dixon and Shepard were working together, and early on the morning of July 16, he had the two men arrested in their pajamas. Each of them was jailed on a $10 million bond. The media firestorm, of course, was instantaneous. “Bombshell tonight!” exclaimed CNN’s Nancy Grace. “The famous plastic surgeon Dr. Thomas Michael Dixon hires a hit man to murder his ex-girlfriend’s lover!” The National Enquirer ran Dixon’s mug shot under the headline “Paging Dr. Death!” Even a website dedicated mostly to drab health reports, Medic Bag, devoted space to the case, breathlessly describing Dixon’s alleged silver payment to Shepard as “reminiscent of the Wild Wild West and the days of desperadoes.”
Amarillo residents were simply dumbfounded. Dixon was so well regarded in the local medical community that he had been asked by his fellow doctors to serve for a year as president of the Potter-Randall County Medical Society. He had never before been arrested for anything. “The Mike Dixon everybody knows is a kind, considerate, intelligent, level-headed man,” said Jeff Kennedy, Dixon’s college roommate. “He’s a devoted, loving father. This is not the kind of man who would have spiraled off into some sort of middle-aged craziness just to get some payback on an ex-girlfriend.”
Although the police were able to recover numerous texts from the phones of Dixon and Shepard, none of them explicitly mentioned murder. Prosecutors from the Lubbock County district attorney’s office sensed that if they were going to get convictions, they were going to need a confession from either Dixon or Shepard. Because Dixon refused to speak to them, they put the squeeze on Shepard, telling him that they would not try him for the death penalty if he would confess. Shepard’s own court-appointed lawyers pushed him to talk. If he was put on death row, they said, his three daughters would be scarred for life.
Shepard at his sentencing hearing in Lubbock in 2013.
By October, Shepard was ready to talk, agreeing to tell the whole story in return for a life sentence without parole. He said he had wanted to help break up Sonnier and Shetina because he felt a loyalty to Dixon—the man, after all, was going to be the medical director of his allergy clinics. But as it became clear that his plan to pull pranks was not working and that the surveillance on Sonnier was coming up empty, Dixon began to talk about other scenarios, including one in which Shepard would confront Sonnier, give him a menacing look, and tell the pathologist that for his own good he should stop seeing Shetina.
One night at Butler’s Martini Bar, Shepard continued, he and Dixon got into a conversation with other regulars about the best way to intimidate someone. According to Shepard, “Somebody volunteered, ‘Well, just go behind him when he’s not paying attention and hit him on the head—hit him with a board.’ And I said, ‘You could probably kill him.’ ” Dixon leaned over to him, quietly saying, “We’ll talk about that later.”
Shepard said Dixon initially asked him if he could make it look as though Sonnier had died accidentally during a sex act. He wanted Shepard to slip into Sonnier’s home, choke him to death, and then wrap a noose around Sonnier’s neck and pull down his pants so that police would think he had strangled himself while attempting what Shepard called “auto-erotica.” Dixon believed that would definitely humiliate Shetina. After news reports came out detailing the manner of Sonnier’s death, she would be too embarrassed to ever mention his name again.
In his confession, Shepard said that he and Dixon eventually decided that too many things could go wrong with such a scenario. Dixon then gave Shepard a .25-caliber pistol and asked him to shoot Sonnier. At first, Shepard said, he thought Dixon was “blowing smoke.” “I asked him, ‘Are you sure you want to do this, Mike?’ I said, ‘When you kill somebody, that will affect you for the rest of your life. You’ll have nightmares. It will bother you.’ And he goes, ‘It doesn’t bother me.’ ”
Shepard continued. “I would think, ‘It’s crazy, it’s wild. People don’t think this way.’ ” He assumed that as time passed, Dixon would come to his senses. But “it got to be more and more—just kind of like a tornado. It just kind of sucks you in.”
Shepard said Dixon offered to give him three 10-ounce silver bars, each worth around $3,000, to murder Sonnier. As a down payment, Dixon gave him one bar in June, which Shepard, who was nearly broke, cashed in at a pawnshop to catch up on his child support, buy groceries and gifts for his daughters, and make his monthly truck payment.
For several days, Shepard said, he hid in Sonnier’s backyard, waiting for him to come home. On July 10, Shepard sneaked into the backyard wearing a black T-shirt, shorts, and a bandanna around his head. He carried a bag that contained Dixon’s pistol, a knife, an empty sixteen-ounce plastic Gatorade bottle, and a big canvas belt that was sixty inches in length. He grabbed a chair from Sonnier’s outdoor dining table and dragged it to a shady spot under a tree, about five feet from the house, and he placed the empty bottle over the barrel of the pistol to act as a silencer.
In the heat, he lost track of time and began to feel slightly ill—“I don’t stay outside two and half hours unless I’m in water,” he said later—and at some point after seven o’clock, he was startled by Sonnier, who had come home, opened a back window, and demanded to know what Shepard was doing in his yard. Shepard rose, walked toward Sonnier, gave him a friendly wave with one hand, and with the other raised the pistol, barely able to get his meaty finger around the trigger. Then he started firing.
Suddenly, the Hollywood buddy comedy turned into a bloody Coen brothers film. Shot in the chest and arms, Sonnier staggered away. Shepard pushed in the partially open window and climbed through. When he entered the house, his glasses immediately fogged up because of the air-conditioning, and while he was trying to wipe the sweat from his face, he accidentally knocked them onto the floor. Shepard stumbled down a hall, finally finding Sonnier collapsed in the garage. His heart was still beating, so to finish the job, Shepard pulled out his knife and stabbed him repeatedly.
He walked back to the window, found his glasses, lumbered to his car a block away, and drove straight to Dixon’s home to pick up his two other silver bars. As a bonus, Dixon also presented Shepard with a box of five Cuban cigars. Shepard changed clothes and headed for Butler’s Martini Bar, where he smoked one of the cigars and ordered several drinks.
Shepard did say in his confession that when Dixon called the next night and told him about his visit with the police, the enormity of what he had done began to sink in. Believing that he was going to be arrested, he wrote a note to his ex-wife, saying goodbye, and tried to overdose on sleeping pills. When those didn’t have much of an effect on his sizable body except to make him sick, he cut his wrist. When he survived that as well, he decided he wanted to live and drove over to Dixon’s office to have the surgeon sew him up. He said Dixon begged him to remain calm, saying that the police had no evidence. But Dixon also promised Shepard that if he did kill himself, “he would take care of my kids and pray for me every day.”
The detectives stared at Shepard. He had taken three bars of silver, worth less than $10,000 total, to commit a murder? All out of loyalty to a friend? Shepard shook his head. He said he felt a deep sense of guilt that he had been unable to help Dixon pull one decent prank on Sonnier that would have caused Shetina to leave him. Obviously, if the original plan had worked, there would have been no murder. “You just don’t know how much I wish I would have put things together and done better,” Shepard said somberly, and then for several seconds he was quiet.
At Dixon’s trial, which began this past October, the courtroom was packed with spectators. Sitting toward the front were Sonnier’s two sons, who looked shell-shocked. In 2010 their mother had been murdered by the man she had married after she had divorced their father. After an argument, he had pulled out a pistol and shot her twice in the chest before turning the gun on himself. It was hard to believe, said one of the sons, wiping tears from his eyes, that they were having to endure another tragedy so soon after the first.
In her opening arguments, prosecutor Sunshine Stanek pointed at Dixon and told the jury, “He wanted Richelle Shetina. And when he couldn’t have her, he went to the very, very worst evil extreme.” But Dixon’s team of attorneys—Dan Hurley, Frank Sellers, and Selden Hale—diverted all the blame to Shepard. Hurley described Shepard as a “disturbed person” who, unknown to Dixon, was suffering from a variety of “mental diseases and defects,” including what Hurley called “a soldier-of-fortune psychosis.” According to Hurley’s scenario, Shepard had stolen Dixon’s gun and decided, completely on his own, to kill Sonnier because “he had to prove himself somehow in his bent, disturbed way of thinking. He had to show his worth.”
Dressed in a lime-green pantsuit, Shetina walked to the witness stand, nervously folded her hands, and took deep breaths as she testified about her difficulties with Dixon and her deep love for Sonnier. At the defense table, wearing a dark-blue suit jacket, a navy dress shirt, a yellow tie, and khakis, Dixon never took his eyes off her. According to Shepard, Dixon hadn’t seen her since that night in early 2012 when he’d used binoculars to watch her dance at D’Venue with Sonnier. But if he was overcome with emotion at the sight of the woman of his dreams, he gave nothing away.
In fact, when it was his turn to testify, Dixon said bluntly, “I never wanted Richelle back, and I wasn’t obsessed with her.” Nor, he insisted, was there “any plan to hurt or kill Dr. Sonnier. Never on my part did I want anybody murdered, or killed, or hurt at all.”
Dixon claimed that he’d always assumed that Shepard had been hiding in Sonnier’s backyard in the summer of 2012 to take photos of Sonnier with another woman. He said he and Shepard had texted each other about installing hidden cameras on the fence to get photographic evidence. Dixon admitted he was obsessed with making sure Shetina realized how mistaken she was for saying that he was “horrible” and that Sonnier was not: “I wanted to win. I wanted to be right. . . . I don’t know why I had that ego to really have to be right about that issue, but I did.”
As for the gun used to kill Sonnier, Dixon admitted that it belonged to him, but he claimed that Shepard must have stolen it from his home. And what about those three bars of silver? Dixon calmly explained that he had given them to Shepard as an investment in Shepard’s allergy clinics. The only reason he could imagine that Shepard had sold one of them just before Sonnier’s murder was that his unemployment insurance had run out. He simply had no idea why Shepard had sold two of them the day after the murder.
Then Shepard entered the courtroom in an ill-fitting dark suit and tie, with shackles around his wrists and ankles. He nodded at Dixon. And that’s when the trial took an unexpected turn.
Under questioning from Lubbock County district attorney Matthew Powell, Shepard said he had “outright lied” when he had given police detectives his confession. He said Dixon had never once talked to him about “physically hurting or killing anyone.” He had murdered Sonnier entirely on his own.
Powell, who hadn’t spoken to Shepard in the months leading up to trial, listened in disbelief as Shepard said he had lied to police because his attorneys had told him to sell a story painting himself as a patsy in Dixon’s scheme in order to avoid the death penalty. Citing his Fifth Amendment rights, Shepard would not discuss the details of Sonnier’s murder, except to briefly admit that he had done it.
In their closing arguments, the prosecutors begged the jurors to think logically: it was ridiculous to imagine that the texts between Dixon and Shepard were about taking photos. Dixon was pushing his friend to commit murder. Dixon’s attorneys, in turn, admitted to the jury that the plastic surgeon had certainly exercised poor judgment in getting involved with Shepard. But there was no evidence indicating that he’d had anything to do with Sonnier’s murder. They also pointed out that according to the law, when a witness like Shepard makes an out-of-court statement about a crime, even if it is a police confession, that statement cannot be presented to a jury to prove or disprove guilt (it can be used only to impeach the credibility of that witness).
After eight hours of deliberation, the jury was split: at least two jurors and possibly as many as six said there was no way they would ever be convinced that Dixon was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Without a unanimous verdict, the judge declared a mistrial and Dixon was returned to jail, on the same $10 million bond, to await his retrial, which will reportedly take place later this year.
Because the judge has issued a gag order preventing all parties in the case from talking to the media, prosecutors are not saying how they plan to convict Dixon at the next trial. Their best hope, of course, is to persuade Shepard to testify that his original confession to police was true. But will he? Rumors are flying that Dixon somehow got word to Shepard promising to take care of his children financially if Shepard did not finger him at the original trial. Or maybe no deal was made at all. Maybe Shepard feels genuine remorse for confessing to police and dragging Dixon down with him. After all, as he said at trial, Dixon was his close friend, and he wants them to remain close. “I mean, we haven’t been able to communicate in twenty-seven months,” he testified, “but I still hold him in fondness and affection.”
Shetina has stayed out of the spotlight while she waits to return to court to testify again. (Among other things, she has deactivated her Facebook page.) But she has been able to move on with her life: she has started dating a man who owns a custom-graphics and screen-printing business in Abilene.7 When people ask her about Dixon, she says she rues the day she ever met him.
Dixon tells those who visit him in jail that he is certain he will be acquitted at the next trial and will soon be able to reconnect with his children. He says that he does not think about Shetina—that she is part of his past.
But one can only wonder what Dixon is really thinking. During the trial, a couple of Sonnier’s ex-girlfriends were called to the witness stand. Each testified that she had received calls from Sonnier in the weeks before his death, asking if she would be willing to meet for a romantic rendezvous. Apparently, Sonnier had grown weary of Shetina. He enjoyed dating her, but he preferred his freedom.8
During the testimony of Sonnier’s ex-girlfriends, Dixon had listened intently. At that moment, he must have been thinking to himself that if he had simply let Sonnier’s relationship with Shetina run its course, he might have had another chance to win her over. This time around, he would have been able to give her an engagement ring rather than a membership to a tea-of-the-month club. He would have been able to take her to Paris.
They could have had a beautiful life together—the kind of life he had always wanted. If only he had waited.
Editors’ note: This story contained multiple passages that Richelle Shetina claimed to be misleading or incorrect. In a letter, her lawyer writes that she was portrayed as a “gold-digging-marriage and relationship-wrecking divorcée.” We did not intend for our story to communicate that meaning or assert its truth. Shetina’s lawyer writes that she “had ended her relationship for entirely non-financial reasons with Dr. [Mike] Dixon months before she ever met Dr. Sonnier, and when she fell in love with Dr. Sonnier, it was for reasons unrelated to his wealth and status.” We also did not intend to suggest that she would have resumed a romantic relationship with Dixon, whom she had dated prior to meeting Sonnier. Dixon now stands accused of his murder.
1 A previous version of this story stated that Shetina was born in Salt Lake City and raised in Southern California. Shetina says she was “actually raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Texas, Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, and both Northern and Southern California.” We also stated that Shetina had once been a “cheerleader” for the Kansas City Chiefs. To clarify, she was a member of the Chiefettes, a dance team that performed at halftime, when she was a teenager living at home in the late seventies. In describing her previous husbands’ occupations, we referred to them as having worked for a “financial trading company” and in “the oil business,” respectively, but we did not intend to suggest that she had married either man for his money. According to Shetina, both men obtained those positions later in their careers, years after she had married them.
2 In reporting the time frame of when Shetina first met Dixon, we wrote that she was a patient at one of Dixon’s spas while she was still married. She says that they met only after her divorce from her second husband and that “it was Dr. Dixon who sought her out, found her on Facebook, and sent her a friend request.”
3 After describing Dixon’s qualities, we wrote, “And, of course, the fact that he had money didn’t hurt.” Shetina denies this and says that she was “only interested in having a potentially peaceful, kind, loving, caring, and happy relationship with Dr. Dixon at that time, and she never considered ‘the fact that he had money’ as a factor in her relationship.” We did not intend to convey any impression that Shetina dated Dixon for his money.
4 We wrote that, after her divorce, she moved to Lubbock because “she wanted to put some distance between herself and Dumas [where she had lived with her husband].” Shetina says that she moved “because it was an easy move for her as a single mother, and she had two close friends who lived in Lubbock.” She also wanted her sons to enroll in the Lubbock school district.
5 In describing a teapot and a tea-of-the-month-club membership she had received from Dixon as a birthday present, we wrote, in part, that she was insulted because “she was no doubt accustomed to receiving expensive gifts from the men in her life.” Shetina says that she was “upset” because Dixon had mailed her the gift “instead of personally bringing [it] to her, regardless of value.” We regret the error.
6 In reporting an exchange between Dixon and Shetina, we printed a text from her in which she wrote she would consider seeing him again only “unless an engagement accompanied by a gigantic diamond ring were imminent.” Shetina says that her text was in the “context of prior communication with Dr. Dixon” and that she was joking. Though Dixon claimed that they discussed marriage, Shetina says the topic never came up “except eventually to tell him that she would not marry him.” We reported that Shetina had dated other men after the breakup with Dixon. She says that is false and that “the only man she dated after Dr. Dixon was Dr. Sonnier until he was murdered.” We also reported that toward the end of the summer of 2011 Shetina and Dixon went on a few dates together. Shetina says these were not “dates” but rather “meetings” involving small talk.
Shetina also says that she did not pursue a relationship with Sonnier and that she gave him her number only after he asked her for it. Her lawyer also writes, “When Shetina and Dr. Sonnier became involved in a romantic relationship, she did so because she considered him to be a very intelligent, loving, gentle, and unselfish man with whom she fell in love, and she did not become involved with him because of his wealth and status.”
According to court documents, Dixon said that he had told Shetina that he had wanted to take her to Paris. Shetina says she “did not have any such conversation with Dr. Dixon about any proposed trip to Paris, France.”
We reported that Dixon attended a Pathways program session in Dallas “to close the door” on his relationship with Shetina. Shetina says that he went hoping to see her.
We reported that “as far as she knew, Dixon was happy with his new girlfriend.” Shetina says that “she did not know anything about Dr. Dixon’s personal life . . . at that time.”
7 We wrote that Shetina was “chagrined” by all of the attention surrounding the case. We did not intend to suggest that in a negative way. Shetina says she has “no reason to be ‘chagrined’ in such context.” We also reported that, “according to Lubbock gossip,” Shetina was dating “a wealthy West Texas oilman.” In fact, she is dating a small-business owner in Abilene and the only oil he owns “is the oil he puts in his pickup truck.” We regret the error.
8 We reported that Sonnier and Shetina discussed marriage but that he had “grown weary” of her insistence on a proposal. Shetina says this is false and that the couple “never had any conversations about getting married.” Shetina says the article also implied that she “wrecked Dr. Sonnier’s relationship with one of his ex-girlfriends.” We did not intend to convey that meaning, only to report that the ex-girlfriend was devastated when Sonnier became involved with Shetina.