At seven o’clock in the morning on February 11, 2010, a man drove to the well-heeled community of Bellaire, in the heart of Houston. He turned onto South Third, a quiet street dotted with million-dollar homes built on small lots, and stopped in front of a two-story, five-bedroom stucco house with a swimming pool in the backyard. It was the residence of Jeffrey Stern, a successful personal injury lawyer; his wife, Yvonne; and their fourteen-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old son. The driver paused for a moment and studied the house. Then he pulled out a handgun; fired two shots, one of which went through the living room window; and drove off.
Jeffrey was out of town, but Yvonne and the children were sleeping upstairs. She was wearing earplugs and didn’t hear a sound. Her daughter, who was awakened briefly, thought a painting had fallen from a wall. But a neighbor who did hear the gunshots called the police. The Sterns were completely bewildered when officers arrived at the house. All they could imagine, they said, was that some teenagers from another neighborhood had shot at the house as part of a prank drive-by. Two months later, at ten-thirty at night, another man with a gun drove to Bellaire. He got out of his van, walked up to the Sterns’ home, and rang the doorbell. Yvonne went to the door and her son followed behind. She was 52 years old, a beautiful woman with flawless skin, gleaming dark eyes, and glossy brunet hair cut to a shoulder-length bob. The man saw her through a glass pane, smiled, and fired at her. Yvonne pressed herself against a wall, and the bullet missed her and her son by inches. The man sprinted to his van and sped away.
Once again, the police were unable to find any leads. Jeffrey, a slim, bespectacled 54-year-old with carefully groomed silver hair, hired a security company to install bulletproof glass in all the windows, erect iron gates around the front door, set up surveillance cameras, and place floodlights on the roof. He bought a German shepherd to patrol the house, and he purchased a Toyota Sequoia and arranged to have armored plates installed. He even hired a former Navy SEAL to teach the family how to respond if another gunman came around, and he asked a private investigator to help the police find out who might have had a reason to come to the Sterns’ home and start shooting.
Because the police and Jeffrey’s private investigator believed that Yvonne was the target of the last shooting, the couple decided that it would be safer if she secretly moved into a luxury apartment a few miles away called the Meritage. But Yvonne made it clear that she wasn’t going to become a recluse. On the morning of May 5, wearing chic black workout clothes, Yvonne took the elevator from her apartment down to the Meritage’s parking garage. She was headed to the home of a friend who had invited her to meet a California jewelry designer who had flown to Houston to show off his latest collection. A man wearing silver aviator glasses, a black jacket, and a black turtleneck was waiting for her. He aimed a gun at Yvonne and shouted, “Give me your f—ing money or I’ll kill you.” Frantic, she held up her purse and turned it upside down. Then the man shot her in the abdomen.
The bullet clipped her liver and colon and lodged in her right hip. She drove to a nearby Citgo station, stumbled inside, and collapsed. But while lying on the floor, she found the strength to text her husband. “I’ve been shot,” she typed. Jeffrey ran out of his office, leaped into his black Maserati, and raced to the gas station, arriving just in time to see his wife being loaded into an ambulance.
For the third time, with no suspects or solid leads, the investigation hit a dead end. Then, on May 27, detectives received a phone call from a man who was awaiting deportation in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility. He said he had seen a photo of Yvonne on the news, and it just so happened that he knew all about the plot to murder her, which he’d be happy to talk about if he could stay in the United States. In fact, he later told detectives, a childhood friend named Richard Gutierrez had approached him weeks earlier and asked if he would be the assassin.
When detectives tracked down Gutierrez, a tattooed driver for a Houston wrecker service, he nervously started talking about a woman named Michelle Gaiser, who worked as the office manager of a small law firm in Houston. Since January, he said, she had been asking him to recruit hit men to kill Yvonne Stern. She never once gave any indication how she knew this particular woman or why she wanted her dead. But she was so determined to have her killed, Gutierrez said, that she told him she would pay $20,000 for a successful hit.
Armed with an arrest warrant, the detectives paid a visit to Michelle’s office. They arrived just as she was walking out of a meeting. She was a pretty Filipino woman in her late thirties, dressed in a dark business suit, with thick, curly hair pulled back from her face. For a moment they stared at her. Then they stared at the man who was standing behind her. It was none other than Jeffrey Stern.
A year and a half later, on a blustery December afternoon, Yvonne Stern strolled into Vietopia, a popular Houston restaurant on Buffalo Speedway. She was wearing a black blouse, black pants, black boots that came to just below her knees, and a snappy black fedora, the brim pulled over her forehead. Wrapped around her neck was a leopard-print scarf. As she headed for her table, some of the diners could not help but do double takes.
It wasn’t just her appearance that set off the wide-eyed stares. People were looking at her because she was . . . Yvonne Stern. Since June 2010, when police saw her husband with Michelle Gaiser, it had been hard to find anyone in Houston who hadn’t followed all the jaw-dropping twists and turns in what one observer called “The Great Stern Shoot ’Em Up.” The first twist came within hours of Michelle’s arrest, when she gave a videotaped confession claiming that she and Jeffrey were lovers and that he had given her the money to find someone to kill his wife. A shocked Yvonne promptly filed for divorce and took the children to the Sterns’ luxurious vacation home in Aspen, Colorado. Many people who knew her assumed she was preparing to begin a new life. Maybe, they speculated, she was planning to stay in Aspen, where she and the kids could live in relative anonymity.
But then came the biggest twist of all. At the end of the summer, Yvonne returned to Houston, dropped her divorce petition, and defiantly declared that she was standing by her man. Yes, she said, she was devastated by the affair. But she had decided to forgive him. What’s more, she insisted that the murder plot had been devised and carried out solely by Michelle, who was obviously an emotionally disturbed woman who had wanted Jeffrey for herself. Even after a grand jury listened to a presentation by the Harris County district attorney’s office and indicted Jeffrey on charges of solicitation of capital murder, Yvonne did not waver. She walked hand in hand with him to the police station when he turned himself in.
“Oh, sure, I know what everyone is saying,” Yvonne told me in a matter-of-fact voice after we sat at a table in the middle of Vietopia. “That I didn’t divorce Jeffrey because there was a prenup. That he secretly paid me a small fortune to pretend that he’s innocent.”
“And don’t forget the rumor that he’s brainwashed you,” I said.
She chuckled and shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I’m not in a trance, I’ve not been bribed, and there was certainly no prenup. Believe me, if we had divorced, I’d be far richer than I am now.”
More people arrived for lunch, and more looks came her way. She seemed utterly unperturbed. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why didn’t you wait and see what the real truth is about Jeffrey before you took back the divorce?’ Look, it broke my heart when Jeffrey had that affair. But let’s be honest, it was all about sex. He never once talked to me about feeling unhappy in our marriage. And if he was unhappy, he’s the type of man who would have come straight to me and asked for a divorce. He wouldn’t have come up with some crazy murder plot. Please. As I told the police from day one, my husband is incapable of murder.” She chuckled again. “I actually told the detectives that my husband is Jewish, and Jewish husbands don’t kill their wives. They buy them jewelry.”
Yvonne is hardly alone in her defense of Jeffrey. The Sterns have a long list of friends and relatives who also believe that the couple were the victims of a lonely, troubled woman who mistook Jeffrey’s desire to have sex as a sign of true love. “If I thought there was a chance the size of a billionth of the mass of the point of a pencil that he was involved in the shootings, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you,” said Gregg Rosenberg, an employment lawyer who lives in Bellaire and whose family attends the same synagogue as the Sterns. “I’d tell the police, ‘Put him away.’ But you should have seen his desperation during those months when he was trying to protect Yvonne and do everything in his power to help the police. You just can’t fake that.”
“And let me tell you something else,” added Rosenberg’s wife, Melanie. “Jeffrey’s a smart man who doesn’t do anything half-assed. If he had wanted to kill Yvonne, he wouldn’t have depended on some whacked-out mistress who could later blackmail him for the rest of his life. He would have gotten a professional and done it in one hit.”
Yet with the same passion that Yvonne and their friends stand by Jeffrey, the prosecutor who will be trying his case, assistant district attorney Kari Allen, is firmly standing by Michelle. Although Allen isn’t publicly discussing her trial strategy, Michelle, who has already agreed to a maximum prison sentence of 25 years in exchange for her testimony, is obviously going to be her star witness. And Michelle’s attorneys, the husband-wife team of James Stafford and Deborah Keyser, are convinced that Michelle will be able to withstand a blistering cross-examination from Jeffrey’s team of star lawyers, Paul Nugent and Heather Peterson. “I know they’re going to do everything possible to make Michelle look like the second coming of the bunny-boiling Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction,” said Keyser. “But at the end of this trial, I think the jury is going to realize that this is a different movie altogether, directed by and starring Jeffrey Stern.”
Jeffrey, however, is confident that his version of the truth will come out. He has barely changed his daily routine as he awaits his trial, which is scheduled to begin later this spring. He drives his kids to school; goes to work every day at his firm, Stern, Miller and Higdon; and takes Yvonne and their friends to dinner at restaurants like the Palm and Del Frisco’s. Although his lawyers wouldn’t allow me to interview Jeffrey, he shook my hand when I showed up at his law firm to talk to one of his partners. He invited me briefly into his office, where I counted 61 photos of him and his family on the walls, on his desk, on a table, and on a credenza. “Amazing,” I said, giving him a look. “There’s room for more, plenty of room,” he replied with a gentle smile. “I love my family, and I’ll do anything for them.”
Jeffrey was raised in a strict Jewish household in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his father owned a chain of liquor stores. After college he arrived in Houston to attend the South Texas College of Law, and in 1982 a friend set him up on a blind date with Yvonne Flores, who then worked as a paralegal for a patent law firm. It didn’t seem like much of a match. Raised Catholic on Houston’s north side, Yvonne was a single mother who had recently divorced her high school sweetheart. But with Jeffrey, Yvonne told me, “it was love at first sight.” To please him and his parents, she decided to convert to Judaism. In 1991 Jeffrey proposed to her over dinner at the Rainbow Room, in New York City, and they were married in Milwaukee four months later.
By then Jeffrey’s law practice had taken off. He wasn’t as famous as such high-profile Houston plaintiff’s attorneys as John O’Quinn, who made their reputations filing multimillion-dollar lawsuits. But he was making a small fortune working mostly with clients who had been in automobile accidents. To build his clientele, he took out full-page ads in phone books, and he ran local television commercials in which celebrity athletes—including former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, former Houston Rocket Robert Horry, and Mexican soccer star Cuauhtémoc Blanco—promoted his firm with the tagline “Want a good lawyer? Go with the champions.”
“Jeffrey was our rainmaker, in charge of running the business and managing the marketing and the staff,” said his partner Adam Miller. “He used his talents to bring most of our clients into the firm.” Although the State Bar and rival attorneys periodically accused Jeffrey of violating rules of professional conduct by aggressively recruiting potential clients, he was never officially reprimanded or successfully sued. He used his earnings to buy a mansion in the posh Piney Point Village area of Houston, and they filled it with French and English antiques and had a Renaissance-style fresco painted on the living room ceiling. The Sterns had two children, in 1995 and 1997, and a few years later they decided to move to Bellaire, six miles away, so that they could be closer to their synagogue and to the kids’ private Jewish school.
Jeffrey found a home on a street that was full of kids. He always attended his children’s sporting events and school programs, and no matter how much work he had to do, he was home in time for a family dinner. He also treated Yvonne’s son from her first marriage with the same kind of affection, even referring to him as “my son.” “He worshipped his family, and he especially worshipped Yvonne,” said Tami Saragusa, one of the Sterns’ closest friends. “He lavished her with gifts and took her on date nights at least once a week. And whenever you were with him, he never said one slightly negative word about her, not even in a joking way like so many other husbands do. He kept her on a pedestal.”
The Sterns gave generously to charities that helped the victims of child abuse and domestic battery. They presented a Houston orphanage with more than one hundred bicycles, they coordinated a bone marrow drive for a friend suffering from leukemia, and they regularly volunteered at the Aishel House, which provided rent-free apartments, kosher meals, and supplies for families who came to Houston to be treated at the Texas Medical Center. Occasionally, Yvonne was photographed at fund-raising events by the Houston Chronicle or the society newspaper Paper City wearing designer gowns. In 2008 she co-chaired a big-ticket Houston gala, Una Notte in Italia, which raised money for Family Services of Greater Houston. Although she had a weakness for Hermès handbags and Fendi dresses, she was not the type of person who rubbed her money in anyone’s face. “I’ve always said that not only would Yvonne give you the shirt off her back, but she would take it to the dry cleaner’s first,” said Gregg Rosenberg.
Their friends adamantly declare that if there was any sign that the Sterns’ marriage had problems, they never saw it. They recall how Jeffrey and Yvonne were so compatible that they finished each other’s sentences and how Jeffrey had a knack for knowing when Yvonne wanted a Dr Pepper before she even asked for it.
“People literally would tell me that they wished they had a life like ours,” Yvonne told me over lunch. “It was like we were the golden couple.”
“So did you ever think he was having an affair?” I asked.
“You know those articles in magazines that give you ten things to look out for to find out if your husband is cheating? Well, he never did any of them—not one. He didn’t get skinnier, he didn’t work out, he didn’t buy new clothes, he didn’t start staying out late. He was always the same old Jeffrey.” But he had her fooled. Since 2008, Jeffrey had been sleeping with Michelle Gaiser.
Michelle now spends her time in the Harris County jail, where she awaits her final sentencing. Though I didn’t get to meet her, I read a seventy-page letter she had handwritten after her arrest in which she laid out her version of events. Born in the Philippines in 1972, she was twelve years old when she moved to Houston with her mother and siblings to join her father, who had arrived several years earlier to work as an accountant for an oil company. After high school, she was hired by a personal injury law firm to be its receptionist. Eventually she went to work for other personal injury lawyers as an office manager, where she met clients, made sure their medical reports were complete, and wrote “demand letters” to insurance companies.
Michelle’s colleagues described her as pleasant and competent—“well-spoken and well-mannered and always professionally dressed,” one of her former co-workers said. Because her pay was based in part on the number of cases she settled with insurance companies, she put in long hours at the office. After the death of her father, in 2005, she began supporting her family, who lived with her in her three-bedroom home. She was responsible for two car loans, and she helped pay for her brother’s and sister’s college tuition.
Although she dated a number of men, she never married. Rand Mintzer, an attorney and a close friend of Jeffrey’s who may testify in his defense, told me that when he first met Michelle, more than a decade ago, she was “very flirty” and asked him out for a drink. “Another lawyer later told me to be careful around Michelle because she was crazy,” Mintzer said. “Obviously, Jeff didn’t get that memo.”
But Deborah Keyser told me that what she’s learned about her client indicates “that prior to meeting Jeffrey, Michelle was balanced, nurturing, and sweet. If she really was psychologically disturbed, then surely there would have been some telltale signs that she had genuine problems. There’s nothing that comes close to suggesting that.”
In her letter, Michelle wrote that she met Jeffrey in the late nineties, when he visited her law firm, which sometimes referred cases to his firm in exchange for a percentage of the final settlement or award. He began to pursue her, giving her tickets to a Houston Rockets game and sending her a sweatshirt and baseball cap from Aspen. In 2004, after she broke up with a boyfriend who also worked as an office manager at her law firm, she began taking Jeffrey up on his offers to meet for lunch and happy hours. According to her letter, the gifts, such as diamond hoop earrings, kept coming. He tried to pay off her credit cards, and he offered to buy her a new car.
Finally, after years of his advances, she succumbed. According to her story, Jeffrey let her know that he was going to Las Vegas with his son at the same time she was. He came to her hotel room one night, and they had sex for the first time. On that same trip, Michelle wrote, she saw a Maserati at a dealership that she said was beautiful. Jeffrey bought it for himself on the spot and had it shipped back to Houston.
Michelle said they were soon having sex at Houston hotels, at each other’s offices, and at his home when Yvonne and the kids were away. He flew her to Aspen, Fort Lauderdale, and New York. Michelle wrote that on the New York trip, which took place in 2009, “he told me that he’s never felt this way about anyone in his life. . . . He told me that he’s never been happier with anyone in his life until I came along, and that he’s honored to be with me.”
When police questioned Michelle, she said that she never expected to become the next Mrs. Stern. But she felt as though Jeffrey was her “soul mate.” In her letter she wrote that she was willing to get involved with Jeffrey because he regularly told her that he no longer loved Yvonne and that he would get angry and say that his wife was “nothing but a cheating whore and that he does his thing, she does her thing with her boyfriends, and they only get around each other because of the kids.”
If Jeffrey did make such comments about Yvonne, it hardly meant he was contemplating murder. But here’s where Michelle’s story takes a startling turn. She claimed that when Jeffrey was at home, he’d call her late at night after Yvonne and their children were asleep, and he would tell her about his fantasies. He talked about having sex in public, having sex in massage parlors, and engaging in a threesome with another woman. Then one night he asked her to fantasize about what Yvonne would do if she caught them having sex.
At first, Michelle said in her confession and in her letter, he asked her to imagine fighting Yvonne. But in later phone calls, he pushed Michelle to talk about dragging Yvonne down the stairs, pulling her by the hair, and then killing her. “He told me to take a knife and cut her throat and slit her breasts, and then cut her all over until she’s begging, and then take her out to the pool and drown her,” Michelle wrote.
After she told this story to detectives, they asked her how she had responded to such a sadistic fantasy. “I thought it was sort of odd, but at that point in time I had been seeing him for several months, and I dared not question him,” she said softly. She seemed to be strangely submissive, as if she were utterly under the thumb of Jeffrey and his desires. In fact, she claimed in her letter, Jeffrey controlled almost every aspect of her life. He not only paid all her bills but told her what to eat, what kind of clothes to wear, and even how to do her hair (he preferred it straight). She said he opened a small law firm at the edge of Bellaire under another lawyer’s name and had her run the office (the one where she would later be arrested), and he had her move out of the house where her family lived and into a town house he had rented near his office so that they could meet for sex whenever he wanted.
If she ever disobeyed his orders, or if he found out someone he didn’t know had come to the office to speak to her, “he’d make me feel so worthless and like absolute shit. . . . He told me on numerous occasions that I had to be obedient and subservient to him, otherwise he’d have to find someone else.” Michelle wrote that as time passed, “I became a person that simply did what he told me without asking why.”
Michelle’s attorneys recently allowed me to read a report from a psychologist they had hired to evaluate Michelle to see if she had any signs of antisocial personality disorder. He wrote that Michelle told him that she had endured “a short series of provocative sexual acts by her father soon after she arrived in America.” He concluded that because of the sexual abuse, she still suffered from “a form of post-traumatic stress disorder” and that she had little “ego-strength,” which made her “easy prey” for a man who wanted to manipulate her.
Jeffrey’s defense lawyers, of course, insist that Michelle has done nothing since her arrest but tell preposterous lies to everyone she has met. And her most far-fetched story of all, they claim, is that Jeffrey came to her in late 2009 and asked her to find someone to kill his wife.
Over the years, to get more clients, Michelle had paid wrecker drivers to introduce her to people they had met at the scenes of car accidents who might be looking to file a lawsuit. Law firms are banned from paying money to find potential clients or to solicit their business—known as barratry and solicitation of professional employment, it’s a third-degree felony—and Jeffrey’s defense team will no doubt suggest to the jury that if Michelle was willing to break the law to advance her career, it’s not a stretch to believe that she would break the law to advance her personal life. Michelle, in turn, will most likely say during her testimony that such a practice is simply the cost of doing business and that if she didn’t pay drivers to find clients, someone else would.
What neither side disputes is that when Michelle decided to start looking for a hit man, she went to those same wrecker drivers to see if they had any recommendations. One driver she approached, 32-year-old Richard Gutierrez, was far from a hardened criminal—his rap sheet consisted only of a cocaine possession charge, in 2001. But he was intrigued by her offer because his dream in life was to buy a tow truck of his own and start a wrecker service. According to what he later told police, he approached his younger brother Adam, asking if he’d do the hit for him in return for part of the fee. When Adam agreed, Michelle provided them with a photograph of Yvonne and her address. According to Richard, she never once mentioned Jeffrey’s name, and she never said she was working with anybody else.
Richard would later tell police that when Adam fired at the Sterns’ living room window in February 2010, he had no intention of killing Yvonne. He just wanted to make Michelle believe Yvonne was dead so he and his brother could collect the $20,000 fee. But when Michelle learned that Yvonne had survived, Richard begged her to give him another chance, promising he’d find a better hit man.
He then took at least a week off of work to search out other candidates, including the original tipster being held at the ICE facility who turned him down. At one point Gutierrez went to see his tattoo artist, 27-year-old James Lowery, who worked at the Brass Knuckle Tattoo Studio, in a strip mall a mere fifteen minutes from the Sterns’ home. While Lowery inked an image on Gutierrez’s right bicep of a buxom woman sucking on a lollipop, Gutierrez made his offer. Lowery was no stranger to violence—he had been charged with aggravated assault after he attacked his girlfriend’s ex-husband—but he said he just couldn’t see himself doing a murder-for-hire. A few days later, however, Lowery told Gutierrez he had changed his mind and would kill Yvonne for $20,000, plus a gun and a car to drive to Bellaire. Gutierrez checked with Michelle, who approved the deal. She and Gutierrez then bought Lowery a used green Toyota Camry for about $1,500.
What Lowery never told Gutierrez was that he had subcontracted the murder to Nhut Nguyen, a former member of a gang in Boston who had been sentenced to prison for twelve years for killing a rival gang member and who had come to Houston to start a new life. Nguyen told Lowery he was a professional and would never drive a beat-up Camry into Bellaire because it would attract too much attention.
Nguyen decided to take his own Ford Aerostar, which was perfectly fine with Lowery. He gave the Toyota to his mother, who needed a car. Nguyen, who fired at Yvonne in April while standing at the door of her home, would later claim that, like Adam, he never intended to kill anyone. He said he was hoping he would get a few thousand dollars for at least getting the shot off. Instead, he received only $40 in gas money from Lowery and the opportunity to shoot her again, which he refused.
The plot to kill Yvonne, which initially seemed to have all the makings of the next Blood and Money, the famous 1976 national best-seller by Thomas Thompson about a Houston murder-for-hire case involving a plastic surgeon named John Hill, was quickly turning into a Fargo-like black comedy, featuring a gang of hit men who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—shoot straight. What’s more, said Michelle, the bungled shootings were causing profound troubles in her relationship with Jeffrey. “I recall him even saying, ‘What an amateur job, they missed the bitch again,’ ” she wrote. “And he was upset that it was done with his kid in the house, because he repeatedly asked to do it when the kids aren’t around.”
Jeffrey’s defenders, in turn, claimed that he was going to extremes in April to protect Yvonne. The floodlights he had installed on the roof were so bright that neighbors joked that the Sterns’ yard looked like Reliant Stadium during Monday Night Football. Besides hiring a company to turn his Toyota Sequoia into an armored car, he had Yvonne fitted for a bulletproof vest. (“I said it had to be black so it didn’t make me look too fat,” she said.) The Navy SEAL taught the family the best escape route if someone firebombed the house. And Jeffrey, who had never before fired a gun, bought a handgun and signed up for a class that would teach him how to use it.
Meanwhile, Yvonne told her friends, who came over with cake and coffee, that she had no idea why anyone would want to shoot her. “I’m a mom and a volunteer,” she’d say. “I haven’t done anything. I don’t even flip anyone off driving down the highway.” When a friend asked her point-blank if Jeffrey might be having an affair with a woman who hated Yvonne, she said she couldn’t imagine such a scenario.
“Well, are you having an affair with a man who might hate Jeffrey?” another friend asked.
“Oh my God, no!” exclaimed Yvonne.
Jeffrey also made it very clear to anyone who asked, including the police, that he was not involved in an extramarital affair. He told the cops and his private investigator to take a look at a flooring subcontractor who had angrily claimed that he hadn’t been paid for work he had done at the Sterns’ home. He suggested that they also talk to Evander Holyfield, who had recently gotten into a heated dispute with Jeffrey over a $560,000 loan. After Jeffrey claimed that Holyfield never made a payment, he took possession of the former champ’s home, which had been put up for collateral. Or maybe, one of his former law partners said helpfully, the shootings had been carried out by a client they had represented who had suffered head injuries and who had possibly become mentally deranged.
Yvonne told me it was her decision to go to the Meritage close to their home and not to a high-rise with secure parking in another part of the city. “I still wanted to see my kids every day, pick them up from school, and make them dinner over at the house,” she said. “I wanted to have lunch with my friends.”
That’s why, if Michelle was stalking Yvonne that spring—as Jeffrey’s defense lawyers say she had to have been doing—she easily could have learned where Yvonne was living. Michelle’s story, of course, is that Jeffrey immediately told her about Yvonne’s new residence. At that point, Michelle said, she approached 26-year-old Damian Flores, a menacing-looking tow truck driver who wore a large medallion of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, around his neck and who had built a shrine to Santa Muerte in his home.
According to Michelle, Flores said he wanted $15,000 up front and $25,000 after the job was complete. She took the offer to Jeffrey, who agreed. A few days later, Jeffrey called Michelle and told her to send Flores to the Meritage’s parking garage to wait for his wife.
Yvonne said that after she was shot, she slumped over and played dead so the gunman wouldn’t shoot her again. At the hospital, she told detectives that the shooter looked like their flooring subcontractor. But when the man came up with an airtight alibi, the detectives returned to the hospital, told Jeffrey they were out of suspects, and asked him again if he was having an affair with a woman who might want to kill Yvonne. According to the police report, Jeffrey raised his hands in the air and muttered, “Here we go again!” Then he turned pale and his speech became incoherent. When he leaned over in his chair as if he were having a stroke, nurses signaled a code blue, and he was rushed to the emergency room.
Was Jeffrey overwhelmed by the idea that an unknown assassin was still out there, going after his wife? Did he finally, for the first time, suspect that the killer was his own mistress and that he had made a terrible mistake not telling the police about her? Or did he realize that the police were zeroing in on him?
His friends, who roll their eyes at the suggestion that Jeffrey was possibly overcome with guilt, tell stories about how, after leaving the hospital, he was so determined to solve the mystery of the shootings that he went to the synagogue, which is just around the corner from the Meritage, to see if its surveillance cameras had captured any video of the shooter as he left the parking garage. They talk about Jeffrey weeping uncontrollably, worried that he hadn’t done enough for Yvonne.
For her part, Michelle claims that the only emotion Jeffrey displayed was fear that he was about to be arrested. She wrote in her letter that he asked her to meet him in various shopping center parking lots he had scouted out that didn’t have surveillance cameras. He arrived in cars he had borrowed from a friend’s auto dealership because he didn’t want the police following him. He told her to get rid of anything that investigators could link back to him. He wanted her to give him back a Green Bay Packers jersey he had left at her town house. He told her to change her phone and throw away her SIM card, to hide the gifts and money he had given her in a safe-deposit box that wasn’t in her name, and to have one of her friends pose as her lesbian lover, which he said would confuse the police in case they were investigating her.
And that was just the start of her problems, Michelle said. She was constantly being pestered by Adam Gutierrez, who was demanding money to maintain his silence. She also was having to deal with Flores, who, she claimed, had asked her to bring him a piece of Yvonne’s clothing so he could put it on his Santa Muerte shrine and pray to finish the job.
By then, however, it seemed improbable that any hit man could get close to Yvonne. When she came home after eight days at the hospital, there were off-duty police officers with her day and night. So that she wouldn’t have to leave her house, her friends set up a dinner rotation, bringing meals each day. Only a couple of friends were too terrified to participate, thinking a gunman might still be lurking in the bushes.
Finally, in early June, Michelle met again with Richard Gutierrez, who had been telling her he had found a new hit man who was ready to go to work. She had no inkling that detectives had cornered Gutierrez and gotten his confession. But because they still needed to prove Michelle was involved, they put a wire on him. At the meeting, Michelle said that she first wanted the new hit man to kill Gutierrez’s brother. The onetime easygoing office manager was sounding like a ruthless criminal. She told Gutierrez she was sorry his brother had to be killed, but she just couldn’t deal with him any longer. And then, she said, the new hit man could go after “the bitch.”
When detectives arrived at Michelle’s office to arrest her, they also arrested Jeffrey for unlawfully carrying a weapon after he told them he had a handgun strapped to his right leg and another in his briefcase. (He explained, to no avail, that his concealed-handgun license hadn’t arrived in the mail but that he carried the weapons anyway to protect his family.) During the few hours he was detained at the city jail, he made a collect call to Yvonne, who had already been told by the detectives what had happened. “How could you do this to your family?” she shouted before throwing down the phone.
During her Aspen summer, Yvonne paid several visits to a therapist who was renowned in the resort town for her ability to sort through domestic issues. “I found myself telling the therapist, over and over, how Jeffrey was such a good, generous, loving father and how, in the thirty years I’d been with him, he had treated me with the utmost loyalty and respect, nothing but tender, loving care,” she told me. The therapist asked her to take a legal pad and make a list of pros and cons about Jeffrey. The list of pros was so long that Yvonne decided to return to Houston. Perhaps to symbolize their new start, Jeffrey got rid of his Maserati.
Nevertheless, as they put their marriage back together, Jeffrey and Yvonne knew that prosecutors were putting together a criminal case against him. At one point, Yvonne went to visit assistant district attorney Kari Allen. “I told her that she was making a mistake and destroying a good, happy family in the process,” she said. “I told her, ‘I’m the victim here. I’m the one who was shot in the stomach, and if I don’t believe Jeffrey had anything to do with the shootings, then why should anyone else?’ ”
Allen was unmoved. On the last weekend in January 2011, the Sterns celebrated their son’s bar mitzvah. At the synagogue, Jeffrey and Yvonne held hands. Then at the Hotel ZaZa, in the Museum District, where they had arranged for a James Bond–themed party, they stood and cheered along with 250 guests as their son was raised up from beneath the ballroom floor inside a red Ferrari, accompanied by two “Bond girls” in skintight gold dresses. The following Monday morning, Jeffrey’s grand jury indictment was made public, and Jeffrey turned himself in with Yvonne at his side.
Today, most of the trials of the would-be hit men are over. Richard Gutierrez pleaded guilty and was sent away for 15 years. Nhut Nguyen got 45 for his role in the plot. Adam Gutierrez disappeared and was never questioned by police, and Damian Flores’s trial ended in a hung jury, in part because his attorney, Sam Cammack, argued that Michelle never spoke about Flores during her initial police confession. (The reason, Michelle later said, was that he told her he would kill her if she mentioned his name. Allen said she will retry Flores after Jeffrey’s trial.) As for James Lowery, he got a 15-year sentence after having his probation revoked on his aggravated assault charge, and according to John LaGrappe, a well-known Houston lawyer who’s representing him, negotiations are under way to work out a plea deal on Lowery’s solicitation of capital murder charge. LaGrappe says that Lowery plans to testify that he saw Jeffrey standing behind Michelle during a meeting in the parking lot of a restaurant where he was allowed to see the money that he would receive for a successful hit.
Michelle is also ready to testify against her former lover, who she now says has betrayed her. “I am so ashamed and angry at myself for allowing [Jeffrey] to tell me what to do and not having my own wits to say, ‘No,’ and turn my back on him,” she wrote. To support those statements, Allen will most likely produce phone records showing numerous calls between Jeffrey and Michelle during the time period in which the shootings took place and present financial records showing that Jeffrey gave Michelle large chunks of cash. One of Michelle’s friends may also testify that she saw Jeffrey give Michelle a check for $50,000 after the May 2010 shooting and say, “If someone is going to shoot a person, they should do it right so the person would die.”
But Jeffrey’s attorneys will argue that Lowery is lying about seeing him with Michelle in hopes of getting a lighter sentence. They will point out that aside from Michelle’s confession there is not one iota of evidence linking Jeffrey to the shootings. And they will easily explain away his phone calls and secret payments to Michelle as the actions of a man having an affair, not a man plotting a murder. And then they will go after Michelle. “She was slick,” Paul Nugent told me. “She fooled everyone: her sister, her mother, her closest friends, and Jeffrey Stern. And then, when the police finally caught her, she had her story ready that Jeffrey was behind the whole thing. Her story just doesn’t make sense, and you would have to wonder if a person who has sought and hired multiple hit men to kill an innocent mother and perhaps her two young children has psychological issues.”
In truth, there are some people who know Jeffrey who still wonder why, if he was truly concerned about Yvonne’s safety, he didn’t tell police about his affair with Michelle so that they could quietly investigate her. “In my heart of hearts, I can’t imagine Jeffrey ever doing anything to injure the mother of his children, and I absolutely can’t imagine him putting his children in harm’s way,” said Dory Gordon, a realtor who’s married to one of Jeffrey’s former partners. (In the ceremony, Yvonne was a bridesmaid and Jeffrey was the best man.) “But, you know, you hear stories all the time that there’s no sure thing in life. You sometimes have to ask, ‘Do I really know this person?’ ” After a long silence, tears filled her eyes. “Only Jeffrey knows what happened,” she finally said.
Yvonne, however, just shook her head when I asked her if she had even the tiniest of doubts. “Today, because of all we’ve been through, our marriage is stronger than it’s ever been,” she said. “It’s full of love, it’s full of honesty, and it’s full of forgiveness. I made a decision to forgive my husband for his affair, and how dare anyone criticize me for that. How dare anyone criticize me for wanting to keep our family together.”
By then the restaurant had emptied. There was no one around to look at Yvonne. She leaned in and touched me lightly on the arm. “You know, I used to wonder why I survived those shootings, and now I know,” she said. “It was so that I could have a voice in this matter and help my husband get through this, because nobody really knows him like I do.”