The Killer Inside Him: The Bernie Tiede Story
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    Note: In early 2012, Scott Brunner and I revisited the 1996 murder of Marjorie Nugent at the hands of her friend and personal assistant, Bernie T… Read More
    Note: In early 2012, Scott Brunner and I revisited the 1996 murder of Marjorie Nugent at the hands of her friend and personal assistant, Bernie Tiede. Scott would provide the photos, audio, and video, and I would provide the interviews, writing, and words. The entire situation around the murder was unique and fascinating, so I interviewed the most direct participants surrounding the case, including Bernie Tiede in prison. My focus was to present the details in the most straight-forward manner. The details of the crime we so sensational that I did not need to add to the details. The case inspired the feature film "Bernie" starring Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, and the release of my story timed to hit before the theatrical release. It ran in the Longview News-Journal as a three-day series from April 16-18, 2012. I worked along side Scott Brunner on the story who captured images, filmed the interviews, and created a video element to the story. For our work, The Texas Associated Press Managing Editors awarded us Best Feature Series and Best Online Package. Read Less
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Bernie Tiede's mugshot following his arrest after police found Marjorie Nugent's body hidden in her freezer in 1997. 
Killer inside him: Movie puts 1996 East Texas murder back in spotlight - Part I

NEW BOSTON — In a prison in this East Texas town lives an inmate people once called the nicest man in Carthage. He preached at his church, helped students through college and volunteered around the community. He sang at weddings and funerals, and was a regular performer and director in the Panola College Theatre Department.

He also, admittedly, shot his friend and traveling companion four times in the back and stuffed her body into a Deepfreeze for nine months — all the while continuing his community involvement.
Bernhardt Tiede II, or Bernie, says he snapped Nov. 19, 1996, because of the abuse he suffered from 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, a widow and the richest woman in town. Tiede says he shot Nugent with the .22-caliber rifle she taught him to use to get rid of armadillos in her yard.
He also says, as he serves his life sentence, the crime still haunts him.
“I did something horrible, and I regret that every day for the rest of my life,” Tiede said recently in a tiny interview room in the Telford Unit state prison in Bowie County. “If they gave me 3,000 years in here, they could never take that away from me. Margie comes and talks to me all the time at night when I’m asleep, and I’m telling you, I have to live with this for the rest of my life.”
The man who prosecuted Tiede for murder doesn’t buy it. Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson paints a more sinister picture.
“The case, I would say, is about greed and betrayal,” Davidson said. “And we all know the love of money is the root of all evil.”
The case, now the subject of a Hollywood movie out later this month, was national news. It was featured in People and Texas Monthly magazines, on A&E and C-SPAN.
People wanted to know if after years of abuse, the nicest man in town had snapped and killed the richest woman in town — or if the whole scenario had been part of a long con to bilk the wealthy widow out of millions.
East Texas was neck-deep in a case of truth being stranger than fiction.

Friendship blossoms
Tiede moved to Carthage in 1985 and took a job as assistant funeral director at Hawthorn Funeral Home. He was a natural fit. He was compassionate, had a fantastic singing voice and was at ease delivering a eulogy.
Tiede became friends with the Nugents, Marjorie and Rod.
Rod balanced his wife’s behavior, Tiede said, which people described as difficult.
“Rod was just a wonderful man,” he said. “He kind of could keep his finger on her, keep his thumb on her, and things were OK.
“But she was a corker. She really was.”
After Rod died, Marjorie and Tiede grew closer. He provided her companionship, and the wealthy widow offered him a first-class view of the world.
“When he died in 1990, she wanted to travel, so we went traveling,” Tiede said.
Marjorie apparently found some happiness with travel — and her traveling companion. She asked Tiede to leave the funeral home and work full time for her, to manage her affairs and accompany her wherever she wanted to go. She took her family, from whom she was estranged, out of her will and named Tiede her sole beneficiary.
According to Davidson, some of Rod’s old friends tried to warn Marjorie about Tiede.
“(The friends said) that he was too young, and he wasn’t up to any good,” Davidson said. “But she enjoyed his company. He was tall, dark and handsome and smooth. She had the time of her life.”
Tiede said his boss, Don Lipsey, asked if he was sure about what he was doing with the widow, but he chose to scale back his funeral home duties and take the pay raise that came with working for Nugent. The pair continued to travel, and Tiede continued his work around the community.

‘My only friend!’
Then, Tiede said, Nugent’s behavior got progressively worse.
“She had her quirks and her ways and her attitudes, but when we were around other people, it was a berating kind of thing,” he said. “She really let loose on some things that were not appropriate. She would be very demanding of my life as time went on from ... until 1996. It was really bad — it got worse and worse and worse.”
Said Davidson: “She probably thought she had him bought and paid for.”
Tiede said his part-time work at the funeral home, his volunteer work and his friendships aggravated Nugent, and she made it difficult to have time away from her.
“I couldn’t have any friends,” Tiede said. “I had to go from my house to her house in the morning to fix her coffee, talk about her clothes, do everything. I couldn’t have a life ... that’s why she wanted me to leave the funeral home. Sometimes during the day, she would page me 40 or 50 times if I didn’t answer her page, and I would be in the middle of a funeral or something like that. It was really bad.”
For several nights, Nugent had Tiede clear out the armadillos from her garden and flower beds, he said. The late night hunts were where the widow, ironically, taught Tiede how to shoot.
“She made me sit on the porch one night until about 4 o’clock in the morning and kill armadillos, and I had never shot a gun in my life,” he said. “We sat on the porch several nights to corral these animals, and she made me shoot them. It made me just sick because I couldn’t stand that. That’s what kind of woman she was. She had a lot of power over me.”
One evening, Tiede said, he’d had enough and tried to end his relationship with Nugent.
“I brought her back everything she had given to me,” Tiede said. “I gave her garage door opener back, and I said, ‘Here, I can’t handle this anymore.’ She was crying and I got in the car. … It was midnight, and I drove to the gate. By the time I got to the gate, she had locked that gate on me. She wouldn’t let me out. So I had to go back down to the house and talk to her again ... She was crying ‘Don’t leave me! You can’t leave me! You’re my only friend!’”

The crime
Speculation abounds and accounts differ on what led Tiede to shoot Nugent in the back. In his written confession, he said she had become “evil” and “wicked.”
“She was very possessive of my life — so much of my life — for the last few years. And it got worse,” Tiede said. “I guess that’s what made me just snap.”
Tiede describes the murder in vague terms, and with a sense of curiosity. Though he’s admitted it, he says he still can’t believe he would kill someone.
“It was like I stepped out of myself for just a minute — I don’t know if that makes any sense to anybody,” Tiede said. “Thinking about how I thought in that moment, I can’t even go back to it. I don’t know what even caused that. It’s hard to describe because it was just so weird.”
Davidson, the district attorney, said he believes Nugent found out Tiede had been ripping her off and confronted him.
The speculation is she had called for a meeting at the bank to figure out what exactly was going on, and he shot her on the way to her car to cover his tracks.
“I think Mrs. Nugent may have found out that scheme was going on,” Davidson said. “He killed her, and he thought ‘My gosh, what can I do? I’ll just put her in the freezer and deal with it later.’ ”
Tiede’s attorney, Clifton “Scrappy” Holmes of Longview, doesn’t believe Davidson’s theory.
“There was not a malicious bone in his body, I don’t believe,” Holmes said. “I really believe what our expert told us, having examined and tested him, that it was a matter of disassociation. I can’t really explain what this is because I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist; it is a mental situation that allows people to do things absolutely contrary to their own personality and their own bent.”
Tiede said he clearly remembers his reactions to the murder and how he felt as he realized what he had done.
“I panicked. I saw her lying on the floor, and I thought ‘Oh my goodness, what am I going to do?’ ” Tiede said. “I thought ‘I’ve got to put her up for some time.’ ”
Then, Tiede’s mortuary experience took over.
“Being in the funeral business, you keep a body cool,” Tiede said. “You keep it cold; you tend to it later on. And that’s what I did. I took out some food from that freezer room — right off the door that goes into the house. I took her in there and laid her in the freezer and thought ‘I’ll tend to this later.’ I ... didn’t know what to do. I thought, ‘I’ll just leave her here for awhile, and then I’ll think of something.’ ”
The .22-caliber rifle that Bernie Tiede shot Marjorie Nugent with and the freezer he put her body in are kept at the Panola County Sheriff’s Office.
Hiding in plain sight
That night, Tiede rehearsed for an upcoming production with the theatre department at Panola College. And for the next nine months, he returned to his routine, blocked out the crime and continued with his life.
“I guess I have that capability,” Tiede said of mentally blocking. “I never thought about how I reacted to what happened, and how I kept acting. I’m sure I thought it through, but I don’t know what I was doing.”
Tiede no longer needed to answer to Nugent about how he spent his time — or her money. Some estimates indicate he spent as much as $3 million of her estimated $10 million.
“He paid for scholarships,” Davidson said. “He sent people to college. He donated to musicals, plays and bought instruments at the college. That was all done with Mrs. Nugent’s money. After she was in the freezer, he really jumped out there as a benefactor.”
Tiede said people’s lack of interest in Nugent’s whereabouts made it easier for him to forget about the murder.
“Nobody asked about her,” Tiede said. “She really didn’t have any friends constantly ask about her.”
Davidson agreed Nugent did not have a personality that drew people to her.
“Friendly? Probably not,” he said. “But she didn’t want to be friendly. She didn’t need to be friendly. She wasn’t running for office.”
Davidson said Tiede isolated the widow from people for the last few years of her life, and that’s why there were fewer questions.
“That’s what you do when you’re a con guy and you move in,” Davidson said. “He had her cut all ties, so ultimately the only person she had to rely on was him. Mrs. Nugent was a human being. She didn’t deserve her fate at the hands of Bernie. There are people in Panola County who liked Mrs. Nugent. There are people in Carthage, Longview and Shreveport who I know liked Mrs. Nugent.”
Scott Brunner/News-Journal Photo
David Jeter, who was lead investigator in the Bernie Tiede case, is now chief deputy in the Panola County Sheriff’s Office.
Time runs out
Eventually, though, people began realizing they had not seen her in months. When asked about it, Tiede gave varying accounts of where Nugent was or said she was too ill to see people. As the questions mounted, the walls began to close in.
“I had to tell some lies, and I couldn’t remember who I had told what to,” Tiede said. “It was very difficult. It was causing a lot of stress in my life, and I was having tremendous headaches. It was getting to be very burdensome.”
David Jeter, lead investigator in the case, said a confidential informant made him aware Nugent might be missing. When talking to Tiede, the informant claimed, he tripped up when explaining Nugent’s whereabouts.
Jeter, who is now chief deputy in the Panola County Sheriff’s Office, said he questioned Tiede about Nugent’s whereabouts and was told she was sick in a hospital under the name “Jane Doe.” The story did not match up with what a confidential source told Jeter. Nugent’s family filed a missing person’s report and came to Carthage to look for her.
“We were able to get a search warrant on the house,” Jeter said. “They called me and told me that they had found Mrs. Nugent’s body in the freezer. I sent officers to find Mr. Tiede and bring him in to the office.”
They caught him sitting down to eat with a Little League team. “The sheriff said, ‘Bernie’s eating with us tonight,’” Davidson recalled.
During the interrogation, Jeter called out Tiede on apparent lies involving kidnappings, threats and conspiracies.
Then, Tiede came clean.
“He finally came out with the truth,” Jeter said. “He just said ‘I shot her.’ To tell you the truth, I did not believe that because the man was someone who you never thought would harm somebody.”
Jeter said he needed more convincing the confession was not a lie.
“I said, ‘Come on, man. Just tell me what happened,’ ” Jeter said. “He said, ‘I couldn’t take it anymore, so I shot her. The gun’s in there in the pantry.’ ”
Though Tiede convinced Jeter he killed her, the investigator still doesn’t fully believe Tiede’s account of the murder.
“Truth is, they were getting ready to go to the bank because she had been contacted by bank officials saying large amounts of money had been taken out, and I think they were going to confront him,” Jeter said. “That’s when he decided he couldn’t take it and shot her ... four times ... in the back.
“When he finally told the truth, he was completely honest about it,” Jeter said. “But as far as her driving him insane — come on — all he had to do was walk away. But he couldn’t do that because he had come to enjoy that lifestyle from all that money.”
Today, Tiede recalls his confession as a release from the charade he was living.
“I was so relieved,” he recalled. “It was like this weight being lifted off my shoulders. It was wonderful. ‘Oh my goodness; it’s over with.’ ””
But it was far from over.
News-Journal File Photo
Panola County Sheriff’s deputy Robert Henderson, left, and San Augustine County Sheriff’s deputy Sgt. Steve Johnson escort Bernie Tiede from the San Augustine County Courthouse in San Augustine on Feb. 4, 1999.
Murder arrest split Carthage residents - Part II

When authorities found Marjorie Nugent’s body in a freezer in the pantry of her home, it brought to an end a nine-month charade by the man who killed her.
But Bernie Tiede’s actions were about to draw national attention to the murder, his lies and the small East Texas town of Carthage.
In August 1997, authorities found the wealthy widow’s body, Tiede confessed, and he directed investigators to the murder weapon.
Then, to tack another bizarre turn on an already bizarre case, came the unexpected public reaction to Tiede’s arrest.
“There were a lot of people who were outraged,” said David Jeter, lead investigator. “They thought that we had picked him out. They couldn’t believe he had done that — just like we couldn’t believe he had done it.”
District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson and Jeter faced questions from people who thought Tiede shouldn’t be charged. Elderly women circled the block in protest. People made “Free Bernie” signs.
“The initial reaction was very pro-Bernie, and surely a mistake had been made,” Davidson said. “As time went along and as more people realized he confessed, by the time the trial was over with, I think public opinion had swung back against Bernie.”
Tiede, who had attended church with Davidson and Jeter, said recently he holds no ill will for the pair tasked with putting him behind bars.
“(Davidson) had to make these people realize that something bad had happened,” Tiede said. “I took somebody’s life, and that’s not me. I don’t do things like that, and that’s the only thing people could see. ‘Bernie couldn’t have done that.’ No, but I did. I have to face up to that.”
So strong was pro-Tiede public opinion in Carthage that Davidson made the unusual move of calling for a change of venue. Usually, a defense attorney will call for a change of venue when a crime is so horrific there is no way a jury could try a defendant without bias. Rarely is a confessed murderer so popular the trial must be moved by a prosecutor hoping to find a jury willing to convict.
“We couldn’t find a fair and impartial jury,” Davidson said. “Everyone kind of had their mind made up about what they thought should happen.”

Trial and conviction
The trial was moved to the small town of San Augustine — a move that did not bode well for Tiede.
“We tried desperately to keep the trial in Panola County, which would have been to Bernie’s benefit,” said Tiede’s defense attorney, Clifton “Scrappy” Holmes of Longview. “Logistically, it was not possible to get a jury there.”
Davidson said Holmes did his best to keep the trial from taking place in the small town.
“He came very close to keeping us from getting a jury selected in San Augustine,” Davidson said. “He almost got the panel to say they couldn’t be fair and impartial.”
Describing the jury finally empaneled, Holmes thought for a moment, then settled on the word “rural.”
A carnival-like atmosphere surrounded the trial. Many used it as a macabre fundraiser.
“There were so many people in that town, there weren’t enough restaurants,” Davidson said. “You’d walk out and the band boosters and everyone were selling food. You could get a hot dog; you could get a fajita.”
Inside the courtroom, both attorneys knew the length of time Tiede would spend behind bars would hinge on how the jury related to him as a person. All the evidence, including a massive money trail of evidence provided by the IRS, was damning.
“With a confession laying there and all the physical evidence laying there, the only thing you can do is get some ease on the punishment phase of the trial,” Holmes said. “In the setting that it was tried, that was never really available.”
Before the trial was adjourned for the weekend, Davidson showed a clip of Nugent’s frozen body being pulled from the freezer in a Dallas crime lab.
“Two of the jurors stood up and screamed,” Davidson said. “Scrappy jumps up, he hollers for a mistrial. What do you think they thought about all weekend?”
Stephen King couldn’t have done a better job, Davidson recalled Holmes telling him.
“The jury reacted in unison when that part of the video was shown, and turned their eyes, and were completely blown away by what they saw,” Holmes said. “And they never got any better after that.”
Davidson kept the focus on Tiede’s joy of the good life provided by Nugent’s money. He described the treatment when flying first class, the voyage on the Queen Mary and the cross-Atlantic flights on the Concorde. He had him describe food and wine.
“He retired at 28 to be a travel companion and bookkeeper,” Davidson said. “I don’t think the jury could relate to him. He enjoyed the finer things in life.”
On Feb. 9, 1999, the jury convicted Tiede of murder. On Feb. 11, he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 2027.
Tiede was on his way to a new life inside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Scott Brunner/News-Journal Photo
Bernie Tiede speaks at the Telford Unit state prison in New Boston. Tiede has been transferred to the Panola County Detention Center.
Part III: Convicted murderer discusses life behind bars 

NEW BOSTON — When he was arrested in 1997 for the murder of his elderly companion, Bernie Tiede was 39 years old, had a head of thick, dark hair and was physically imposing.
Now he’s 54, his hair is silver, his bifocals are thick and he’s battling Type 2 diabetes. His demeanor, however, remains upbeat. And he remains convinced his victim shares some blame for the crime that landed him in prison — and that the small-town courtroom where he was tried is to blame for the length of his sentence.
“If it had been in a big town,” he said in a recent interview, “it would have been swept under the rug.”
Years of model behavior have earned him a spot in minimum custody at the state prison that holds him, and he said he’s resigned to a life behind bars.
“It’s just like going to church camp — if you will — with a whole bunch of strangers that you really don’t want to be there with,” Tiede said. “Once you realize what everyone is there for, it’s really OK.”
It hasn’t always been so. He was attacked by his fellow inmates when he entered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1999, but Tiede said his current situation is much less violent.
“Most people think of ‘Shawshank Redemption’ because that’s all you see,” he said of the 1994 movie.
This month, Hollywood is releasing a movie that might seem more familiar to Tiede. Titled “Bernie,” it’s a dark comedy based on the facts surrounding the murder of Carthage widow Marjorie Nugent, the crime for which Tiede is likely to live out his years behind bars.
Since November 2010, he’s been held here, in the Telford Unit state prison. He was transferred from the McConnell Unit in Beeville.
“If you were to come and live in this prison, you’d see it’s boring, really, because it’s just like your house. For that, I’m grateful,” he said. “It took me a little while to get used to this place. If I have to be here another 25-30 years, I’ll be all right.”
In prison, he does many of the same things he did on the outside, but on a scaled-down basis. He teaches health classes, sings in the choir and shares devotionals.
As he did on the outside, he said he tries to help people — as much as the law and his finances will allow. While he doesn’t have access to the same wealth he did when he was with his wealthy victim in the 1990s, Tiede said he is able to help fellow inmates with some basics, such as providing personal hygiene products.
“We can donate things — like if someone needs a deodorant stick, we can see to it someone has some shampoo, some toothpaste, you know, that kind of stuff,” he said. “Some of these people are indigent.”
There are people in East Texas who maintain ties with him, he said, though prison life does not allow them to be close ties. He can receive, but not send, email. Visitation is restricted to two hours on weekends, and only to people who are on his contact list.
“I have people from Longview and Carthage who write, who send money, who put money on my books,” Tiede said. “I’m very grateful for that because it makes things easier.”
A social man on the outside, Tiede said he has struggled with the isolation of prison.
“I miss my friends, a lot, because I had a lot of friends there — just being with them and spending time with them,” he said. “If prison has done something to me, it has separated me from a lot of that interactivity. However, I write copious letters. I try to explain things to these people what it’s like to live in prison. Kind of boring, really.
“I have friends in here that I have developed over the last few years,” Tiede said. “Some of them I wouldn’t have invited into my living room, but some of them are very dear friends. When we establish friendships in here, it’s just really nice. I am easily adaptable, and I have made the best of my surroundings.”
Tiede said he has continued to work with funeral homes, as he did while living in Carthage. When he is not teaching, he spends his days in the craft shop.
“They send me names of people who have died, and I create a little memorial,” Tiede said. “It says ‘In loving memory of,’ and it has a little pot of flowers. I put the deceased’s name and the year they were born and the year they died. Then I package it up real nice, put a frame around it, put it on an easel and send it to the funeral home.”
And while Tiede’s attitude is mostly upbeat, he points out the difference between the sentence he got from a court in San Augustine, where he was convicted, and what he thinks the sentence for a murder conviction might have been in a larger town.
Tiede argues he was driven to kill Nugent, his employer and traveling companion, by her own controlling actions. Prosecutors, however, say Tiede shot the wealthy widow after she learned he had been stealing from her.
“It was just amazing to me because it just blew up everywhere, and it was so public,” he said. “My life was suddenly ripped open because it was in a small town. But going to San Augustine — come on, man — there was no way, no way I could win anything. The whole trial was just insane.”
The crimes committed in cities such as Houston and Dallas — especially when there are questions about evidence or pre-meditation — often lead to shockingly short sentences, he said.
“There are people in here who have created and committed much more heinous crimes than I can even imagine, and they’ll be going home very quickly,” Tiede said. “That’s the problem. I’m glad Lady Justice has some blindfolds on, because if she saw what’s going on, she’d be flipping her wig. There’s such a disparity in the justice system.”
While he has met some great people who have made horrendous mistakes, he said many prisoners need to remain institutionalized.
“Some of these people should never, ever, ever go home,” he said. “It’s sad to say that some of those people will be released.”
And so the man once known as one of the nicest residents of Carthage is left in prison to deal with the consequences of his “great sin.” According to the sentence he received in 1999, Tiede has a possibility of parole in 2027.
“I know I need to do some time,” he said. “I’m going to ask for some time cut, I hope, one of these days. I’ve got 15 years under my belt.”
As his voice begins to crack, he adds, “I want to go home ... I want to go home.”
This video by Scott Brunner features interviews from our story as we gathered information. It was originally posted to News-Journal.com.