It has become the most talked-about crime story in Houston: the well-known Houston personal injury lawyer Jeffrey Stern has been accused by police of conspiring with his mistress, Michelle Gaiser, to hire hit men to murder his beautiful wife, Yvonne. Stern allegedly gave money to Michelle to hire the hit men, and she in turn hired what turned out to be a variety of bumbling amateurs who kept missing whenever they fired their guns at Stern’s wife.
The story, as told by Skip Hollandsworth in the February issue of TEXAS MONTHLY, is a classic tale of upscale domestic life gone unexpectedly awry. It’s in turns utterly terrifying and darkly comic. And what makes the story most astonishing is that Yvonne, after initially filing for divorce when the news broke about the murder plot, has now withdrawn her divorce petition and is adamantly defending her husband. The couple says that Michelle devised the entire scheme to murder Yvonne completely on her own, that she has deep psychological problems, and that Jeffrey is completely innocent of anything except having an affair.
Hollandsworth dives deep into the detailed accounts of both sides, from both Gaiser and the Sterns. And after carefully sculpting the different dimensions of the case, he leaves it up for us to decide for ourselves what really happened and who we think is telling the truth. Here’s the story behind the story.
You decided to write about the Sterns and Michelle Gaiser in spite of the massive local media coverage in Houston. Why?
Well, outside of a couple of brief court appearances, Yvonne had never before talked to anyone in the news media about the allegations regarding her husband. What’s more, Michelle had never laid out her version of the events. So, there was a lot of the story that had not been told. And, as I think you’ll realize when you get to the end of the piece, there’s still so much of the story to tell.
Was there any information or people you wish you would have had access to while reporting on this story?
I think everyone would love to hear what Jeffrey Stern has to say about his arrest. (As I mentioned in the story, I got a chance to meet him briefly, but I never did an interview with him because his defense attorneys don’t want him to talk before trial.) And although I read Michelle’s seventy-page letter, I never got a chance to speak to her face to face, so I don’t have a complete sense of what she’s like or why she would go to such lengths to knock off Yvonne.
But even without those two, I was inundated with information that had never before been published. The problem with the story, at least for me, was that I didn’t have enough room due to space limitations to include everything I knew.
What was your first impression of Jeffrey Stern when you saw him briefly at his law firm?
He was a completely normal guy—funny, charming, and very down to earth.
And did that surprise you?
Yes. I figured he would be defensive with a reporter he knew was asking a lot of questions. But this is what makes this whole saga so riveting. It’s all about images and reality. If what Michelle Gaiser is saying is true, then Jeffrey, beneath his affability, was a monstrous husband, absolutely determined to have his wife shot dead. On the other hand, if what Jeffrey and Yvonne are saying is true, then Michelle was one of the most disturbed, delusional, murderous female villains we’ve had in this state.
And then you’ve got the so-called hit men.
Oh, the hit men, the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. It’s like this story starts off as one of those James M. Cain–like noir novels from the thirties, full of murky, malicious intrigue, and then here come the hit men. And suddenly, the story veers into a Fargo-like movie directed by the Coen Brothers, in which (thank God) you’ve got this cast of hilariously amateurish hit men who can’t—or won’t—shoot straight. You don’t know whether to gasp in horror or laugh out loud.
One of the biggest question marks in the story, of course, is Yvonne Stern. Why did she decide to defend her husband?
Let me say at the start that Yvonne is delightful, funny, and very intelligent. A lot of people assume she’s some kind of wallflower who let her husband persuade her to act as his beard, playing along with his story just to keep him out of prison. But she is a persuasive, formidable woman. The way she tells the story, she never once has suspected her husband of being involved in the plot to murder her. She says she told the police from the very moment that they came to inform her about Michelle and Jeffrey that he would never try to hurt her. She filed for divorce, she says, only because she was so distraught that he was having an affair with Michelle—nothing else—and that when she calmed down over the summer, she realized she had decided she could forgive him.
And let’s be honest, if she testifies in Jeffrey’s defense, she will be a powerful witness, telling the jurors that if she doesn’t believe her husband was involved, then why should they? In other words, no harm, no foul.
What do you think? Did Jeffrey Stern plot to have his wife murdered?
I don’t have an opinion—and the reason I don’t is because I have tried to write this story straight down the middle, presenting the best arguments on both sides, and letting the chips fall where they may.
Why, besides the sensationalistic details, does this story have such an effect on people?
There are, for instance, plenty of people who think that Jeffrey simply experienced a standard male midlife crisis that spiraled out of control: he had begun to despise his wife, but because he loved his children and his money too much to undergo the drudgery of divorce, he found himself contemplating murder. Others theorize that Jeffrey was always in love with Yvonne, but he just picked the wrong mistress. It was Michelle Gaiser who took Jeffrey’s sexual interest in her—“his desire only to have a little dirty-legged sex on the side,” says one of his supporters—as a sign of true love, which in turn led her down the path of murder.
And will you be at the trial to find out whether Jeffrey is guilty or innocent?
I’ll be right there. Wouldn’t miss it.