In August 1997, I read a short story in the Dallas Morning News about Bernie Tiede, the 39-year-old assistant director of a funeral home in the small East Texas town of Carthage. Bernie had just confessed to murdering the town’s grande dame, Marjorie Nugent. In his confession, he said he shot her four times in the back, then stuffed her in her own deep freeze in her garage, where she remained undisturbed for nine months before anyone really started to look for her. Although Bernie was the sole heir to Mrs. Nugent’s estate, which at the time was worth millions, he told the sheriff that he felt he had no choice but to kill her because she had become “very hateful and very possessive.”
I headed for Carthage and met the county’s district attorney at Daddy Sam’s BBQ, where the marquee out front read, “You Kill It, I’ll Cook It.” Danny Buck was sitting at his usual table, eating his usual meal of brisket, fried okra, and iced tea (sweet). As we started talking about Mrs. Nugent’s murder, other diners came up to our table and asked Danny Buck to let Bernie go free. “He’s a Christian man,” one woman later told me. “Almost a Christ-like man.”
“And how can you blame him?” one man said. “Mrs. Nugent was so snobby that if she had held her nose any higher, she would have drowned in a rainstorm.”
Of all the crime stories I’ve come across, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” takes the cake. It’s a horrible, bewildering, and, at times, wildly comical tale that reads like Southern gothic fiction. Austin director Richard Linklater turned the story into the 2011 film Bernie, starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. To this day, people watch that movie and think, “There’s no way this can be true.”
Oh, it’s true all right.