Friday, August 13, 2010
Midnight in the Garden of East Texas
Bernie Tiede II will be portrayed by actor Jack Black in a film about the 1997 murder of Marjorie Nugent and subsequent arrest and conviction of her companion, Tiede.
Midnight in the Garden of East Texas
is soon to be come a movie based on the Texas Monthly article below:
The news spread quickly around Austin film circles today via a casting call notice on the Short Film Texas website: Richard Linklater was starting casting for his new feature film Bernie, which will be shot in East Texas and Austin this fall. The film will reunite him with actor Jack Black, who co-starred in Linklater's School of Rock back in 2003. Bernie will also star Shirley MacLaine. Variety confirmed the news this afternoon. Castle Rock and Mandalay Pictures are producing the film.
Bernie's storyline is a far cry from School of Rock or Linklater's most recent film, Me and Orson Welles. It's based on a 1998 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, "MIdnight in the Garden of East Texas," about Bernie Tiede and the Texas town of Carthage. Small-town undertaker Tiede, whom I assume will be played by Black in the movie, confessed in 1997 to murdering his companion, Marjorie Nugent, "the richest lady in town" -- that would be MacLaine. Linklater appears to be aiming for a dark comedy with the material, and according to the casting call, hopes to cast nonprofessional actors in the smaller roles.
This isn't the first I'd heard about Bernie, thanks to Austin film writer Joe O'Connell. He's been working to track down details and confirmation on this project for the past couple of months. He caught a whiff of the story back in June, when Linklater described the project as "my Fargo in East Texas." A few days later, O'Connell published a photo of the real-life Bernie with Marjorie Nugent as well as a link to part of the original Texas Monthly article (the rest of it is subscribers-only). He even found a 2006 made-for-TV movie, Strange Felony Files: Deadly Sinner, based on Tiede's life. I believe I'll wait for Linklater's version, myself.
IT EVEN MAKE IT INTO THE Panola Watchman this week:
The entertainment community is buzzing with excitement over the announcement that crews will begin soon shooting a movie based on a story originating from Panola County.
Movie Producer Richard Linklater is schedule to begin production of the movie "Bernie" in Austin and Carthage, Texas beginning in October of this year. Jack Black will be starring in the film as Bernie Tiede II, and Shirley MacLaine is slotted to co-star with Black as 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in the movie which is based on the true story of the events that took place in Panola County in 1997.
The film will be a dark comedy about the Carthage mortician who befriended the wealthy widow, killed her and kept her in her own deep freezer for nine months as he went to great lengths to convince everyone she was still alive. During that time, he continued to live off of her money. The film is based on an article by Skip Hollandsworth, ‘Midnight in the Garden of East Texas’, which appeared in the magazine Texas Monthly. It gives an account of Tiede and Nugent’s relationship that began when he met her at her husband’s funeral.
Jack Black is an American comedy actor who has worked in the past with Richard Linklater on the hit movie “the School of Rock” in 2003. Shirley MaClaine, who will co-star with Black, is an important Hollywood figure who has starred in many movies including Mrs. Winterbourne (1996), Bewitched (2005), and Guarding Tess (1994).
Linklater plans to hire Texans who are not necessarily professional actors. “I’m trying to make as authentic a portrayal of small town East Texas life as possible, so I’m looking for the real deal – funny and interesting folks. There are a lot of small parts in the movie, mostly for people over 40,” says Linklater. An open casting call was held in Texarkana Saturday, August 7. For more information about the casting call, contact Sheila Steele at Beth Sepko Casting (512) 472-5385 Ex.1.
Marjorie Nugent was the richest widow in an eccentric town full of rich widows. Bernie Tiede was an assistant funeral home director who became her companion. When she disappeared, nobody seemed alarmed. When he confessed to killing her, nobody seemed outraged.
by Skip Hollandsworth
Sitting at his regular table at Daddy Sam’s BBQ and Catfish (“You Kill It, I’ll Cook It”) in the East Texas town of Carthage, district attorney Danny Buck Davidson began to realize that he might have some problems prosecuting Bernie Tiede for murder.
“Bernie’s a sweet man, Danny Buck,” a waitress said. “He’s done a lot of good things for this town. He’s given poor kids money to go to college and everything.”
“You got to admit nobody could sing ‘Amazing Grace’ like Bernie could,” someone else said.
The bulldog-faced Danny Buck took a bite of slaw and sipped his iced tea. “Now y’all know that Bernie confessed, don’t you?” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. “He came right out and told a Texas Ranger that he shot Mrs. Nugent four times in the back and then stuffed her in her own deep freeze in her kitchen.”
There was a long silence. “Danny Buck,” one man finally said, “it’s just hard for me to believe that old Bernie could fire a gun straight. He acts . . . well, you know . . . effeminate! You can tell he’s never been deer hunting in his entire life.”
“And you know what?” a woman told Danny Buck later at a convenience store. “I don’t care if Mrs. Nugent was the richest lady in town. She was so mean that even if Bernie did kill her, you won’t be able to find anyone in town who’s going to convict him for murder.”
Danny Buck Davidson had spent almost all of his fifty years in Carthage, the past three as district attorney, and neither he nor the town of 6,500 was accustomed to high-profile killings. Every couple of years or so a murder case would come across the DA’s desk, usually involving a resident from one of the poorer neighborhoods. But nobody from the respectable side of town ever seemed to get in trouble, as long as you didn’t count the recent conviction of Carthage state senator Drew Nixon, who was caught soliciting an undercover cop posing as a prostitute in Austin. Even then, Carthage’s civic leaders were able to put a good spin on Nixon’s arrest, saying that Nixon never would have had any problems if he had just stayed in Carthage. Carthage has no prostitutes.
This past August, however, Carthage captured the attention of the entire country when the news broke that the town’s richest and snootiest widow, 81-year-old Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, had been found in the bottom of a large freezer in her home. What made the story peculiar was that Mrs. Nugent had been dead for almost nine months before people began searching for her. What made the story truly bizarre was the way many of the townspeople rallied around the 39-year-old man who had admitted to killing her and stealing her money—the soft-spoken, chubby-cheeked Bernie Tiede, the former assistant funeral director at Hawthorn Funeral Home who had gotten close to Mrs. Nugent when he supervised her husband’s funeral.
For out-of-town reporters, the story of Bernie Tiede and Mrs. Nugent was like an East Texas version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, featuring a down-home gallery of characters entangled in an offbeat, tragic mystery. Wearing his flaming red chamber of commerce blazer, the town’s mayor, Carson Joines, posed for a People magazine photograph and then announced that Bernie might be acquitted. When Hard Copy arrived, Bernie’s former funeral home boss agreed to be interviewed sitting out by his backyard pool. Carthage’s congenial Methodist minister, the Reverend E. B. Beasley, gave reporters copies of a sermon he had preached the Sunday after Bernie’s arrest titled “When Life Doesn’t Make Sense.” “No matter what the truth is,” Beasley proclaimed, “Bernie will need our prayers. He needs to be with God, and he needs to know that we are with him.” The town refused to abandon Bernie even after Sheriff Jack Ellett announced during his Friday morning talk show on the local radio station, KGAS (“The Heartbeat of East Texas”), that deputies had confiscated nearly fifty videotapes from Bernie’s house, some showing men involved in illicit acts. “From the day that deep freeze was opened, you haven’t been able to find anyone in town saying, ‘Poor Mrs. Nugent,’” said city councilman Olin Joffrion, a respected Carthage insurance agent. “People here are saying, ‘Poor Bernie.’”
In fact, throughout last fall, a stream of mostly female well-wishers visited Bernie in jail, bringing him cakes and pies. “If I made a list of people I knew were going to heaven,” one woman told the Houston Chronicle, “Bernie would be the first on that list.” At the grocery store and at Daddy Sam’s, other women came up to the district attorney and said they were praying for him to do the right thing. A disgusted Danny Buck told me, “It’s almost as if everyone has already forgotten that an elderly lady was shot to death.”
Tucked away in East Texas’ piney Woods, about twenty miles from the Louisiana border, Carthage sits on what used to be one of the largest natural-gas fields in the world. In the forties and fifties the town was known as the gas capital of the U.S., and its citizens believe it is so rich in history that they’ve built dueling historical museums on opposite sides of the town square: the Panola County Historical Jail Museum and the Panola County Heritage Museum and Texas Tea Room. These days chamber of commerce representatives are promoting Carthage as Texas’ country music capital, the birthplace of such sensations as Tex Ritter, Jim Reeves, and budding solo star Linda Davis, a backup singer for Reba McEntire and a former Miss Panola County, who, according to one of her high school classmates, “would surely have won Miss Texas if she had gotten a boob job before the state pageant.” To improve tourist traffic, the chamber is planning to open a new museum this year devoted solely to Texas-born country music stars—the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.
All in all, Carthage, which made it into the 1995 edition of The Best 100 Small Towns in America, is an immensely likable place—“The kind of town,” says KGAS owner Jerry Hanszen, “where people get out of their cars to see which neighbors they can help whenever there’s a traffic jam around the town square.” Carthaginians are also conservative, politically and socially, which makes it hard to imagine that Bernhardt Tiede II, who moved here in 1985, would end up becoming one of the most popular people in town. Compared with the men who passed their afternoons at Leon Choate’s barbershop just off the square, the portly, mustachioed Bernie was, in the words of one person who knew him, “peachy and sweet.” When he wasn’t in his dark funeral suit, he wore colorful Tommy Hilfiger clothes and drove around town in his Lincoln Continental, smiling broadly at whomever he saw. “He wasn’t bad-looking, and there were numerous girls in the community who would have dated him,” says Don Lipsey, the former owner of Hawthorn, who had hired Bernie. “But he showed no romantic interest in women his age at all. I think some of the men during their coffee shop talks would insinuate that Bernie was a little light in the loafers.”
Despite the questions about Bernie’s personal life, Carthage’s citizens couldn’t help but take a shine to him. Bernie clearly loved the small-town life of East Texas. At First United Methodist he was the tenor soloist in the choir, he taught Sunday school, and sometimes, when the minister was sick or on vacation, he gave the sermon. (“Let me tell you, he was doggone better than the paid preacher,” one elderly member says.) Bernie got involved with the drama and music departments at Panola College, and he became so renowned for his knowledge of Broadway musicals that he was asked to conduct the drama department’s performances of Showboat and Guys and Dolls. He sang with the Shreveport Chamber Singers, a professional singing group just across the state line, and he served on the chamber of commerce’s Christmas decorating committee, giving advice about where the lights and wreaths should be placed around the town square.
“He brought a lot of compassion to Car-thage,” says Paula Carter, a fellow church member and a counselor at the high school. “He was very quick to shake your hand and ask how you were doing, and if you told him you weren’t doing too well, he would drop everything to talk to you and see what he could do.” He sewed curtains for people who needed them, he helped others with their tax returns, and he began buying so many gifts for his new Carthage friends that, according to Lip-sey, “the UPS truck started arriving in Carthage every day with something that Bernie had ordered from a catalog.”
Born in Tyler, Bernie spent his earliest years in Kilgore, a 45-minute drive from Carthage, where his father was the chairman of the fine arts department at Kilgore Junior College. His mother died in a car wreck when he was only three, and his father, after remarrying and moving Bernie and his younger sister to Abilene, died after a long illness when Bernie was fifteen. To help support himself and his sister, Bernie took an after-school job at an Abilene funeral home, first doing yard work and then helping out at the funerals. “I really think that because of the loneliness he went through in his childhood, Bernie made it his calling to serve people in times of their own need,” says his sister, a Central Texas social worker who asked not to be identified. “He wasn’t a dour boy. He was popular at high school, and for kicks he’d sneak the hearse on Fridays out of the funeral home and drive a bunch of us around Abilene. But he said a long time ago that he was meant to take care of others—and I think that’s why the funeral business appealed to him.”
He received an associate’s degree in mortuary science from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, worked at a funeral home in town, and in 1985 came to work in Carthage, living in a small apartment just behind the Hawthorn Funeral Home. “He was probably the most qualified young man I have ever seen,” says Lipsey. “He waited well on the families, he would sing solos behind the screen during the funeral, and he was a darned good embalmer. He had a talent of making the hair of the deceased look really natural.”
He was especially empathetic with older ladies who had just lost their husbands. He led them weeping to a sofa in the parlor, handed them handkerchiefs, quoted comforting Scripture, and stood close to them at the interment, always prepared to catch them in case they fainted as their husbands’ caskets were lowered into the earth. In the weeks after the funeral, he would call the widows, offering to pick up their medicines at the drugstore. Some of them loved him so much that they told their children that Bernie had to sing at their funeral when they passed on. “With that nice tenor voice of his, I just knew Bernie could sing me right into heaven,” one Carthage widow says.
Carthage is full of well-to-do widows who have inherited small fortunes from their rich husbands. Some of them can be seen driving their huge Cadillacs up and down the town’s streets, occasionally bumping into trees or stop signs when their tiny feet miss the brake pedal. They are a spirited bunch, even if they are somewhat behind the times. Speaking to me on the phone, one widow said that a man who had just delivered lunch to her house knew Bernie. “Chris,” she said to him, “why don’t you tell this reporter what you know. Shall I introduce you as Negro, black, or colored?”
Bernie was not partial outright to the wealthier widows. One of the first women he took a special interest in was Gracie Duke, the widow of a mechanic. When she complained about an ache in her bones, Bernie felt so sorry for her that he took her to Hot Springs, Arkansas, so she could sit in the baths. But he would eventually give the most attention to the richest widow in Carthage—Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, who arrived at Hawthorn in March 1990 for the funeral of her husband, who was worth between $5 million and $10 million.
Born in 1915 just outside Carthage—her father ran a grocery—Marjorie Mid-yette attended Louisiana Tech, where she met R. L. “Rod” Nugent, who had recently graduated from the school with an electrical engineering degree. After their marriage, Nugent took a job with Magnolia Oil (which later became Mobil), and the two of them lived throughout Louisiana, New Mexico, and Texas, spending more than a dozen years in Midland, where their only child, Rod Junior, was raised.
In 1989, at the end of his career, the eldest Nugent decided to bring his wife back to her hometown. He bought controlling interest in the First National Bank of Carthage, and the couple built a sprawling, six-thousand-square-foot stone home at the edge of town, surrounded by a stone wall and electronic gates. Although Mrs. Nugent rarely left the estate, it wasn’t long before she became the talk of the town. Curious neighbors learned that she refused to speak to her own sister, who was also a Carthage resident (another sister lived in Ohio), because of an argument the two had back in the eighties over their dead mother’s estate. Mrs. Nugent had so many disagreements with her son, who had become a prominent Amarillo pathologist, that she would only occasionally speak to him. According to most locals, she acted as if she was too good for Carthage. “If she had held her nose any higher,” one man once said of her, “she would have drowned in a rainstorm.” It was said that when she made an appearance at the bank, she sat in a chair in the lobby and barely nodded to people. She didn’t participate in any civic activities or contribute to worthy Carthage causes, and she seemed to hate spending money around town. When a local veterinarian told her that he would charge $45 for treating her dog, she argued with him until he lowered his price.
Even those close to her admit that she was imperious and critical, lashing out at whoever disappointed her. “If she liked you, she sent lovely birthday cards and thank-you notes,” says Lloyd Tiller, one of her stockbrokers. “But you had to cater to Margie and constantly flatter her. She could throw a temper tantrum if everything didn’t go her way.” A close relative, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that there were times when Mrs. Nugent seemed to lapse into a low-level clinical depression: “It was like these blue periods came on, and when they did, she could be very biting in her comments to people. Margie was a very difficult woman to love.”
Much of the gossip about Mrs. Nugent was, no doubt, exaggerated. “She wasn’t all that unfriendly, but she didn’t go out of her way to be friendly, which can mean a lot in a small town,” says a teacher at the high school. Nevertheless, when Mr. Nugent died unexpectedly of heart failure, only a handful of people came to the funeral to offer her their condolences. Bernie Tiede would later tell others that he could see the loneliness etched in Mrs. Nugent’s stern face as she stood by the casket. When Mrs. Nugent started shivering, Bernie gave her his coat. At the funeral service, held in the chapel, he sang a hymn, then he helped Mrs. Nugent to her car for the trip to the cemetery.
In the months after the funeral, the only person who took an active interest in Mrs. Nugent’s well-being was Bernie Tiede. “I don’t know if Mrs. Nugent had a single friend in town other than him,” admits Danny Buck. Bernie would arrive at her estate for lunch, leave little notes of endearment for her around the house, and take her to see theatricals at the local college. Says Tiller: “Bernie made her smile, he gave her plenty of attention, he was an excellent conversationalist. It was like he made her feel young again.”
And Mrs. Nugent was apparently willing to do what it took to keep him around. Soon after the funeral, she gave Bernie Mr. Nugent’s Rolex watch, worth $12,000—a startling act of generosity from a woman known as the town Grinch. In 1991 she ordered officials at First National Bank to accept checks from her account signed by Bernie so that he could handle some of her bills. When Tiller asked if she was certain she could trust Bernie, Mrs. Nugent grew livid and threatened to move all her stocks out of Tiller’s brokerage.
Bernie began spending his days off with Mrs. Nugent, which reportedly upset some of the town’s other widows, with whom he’d spent so much time over the years. One afternoon Don Lipsey called Mrs. Nugent looking for Bernie. She told him that Bernie was in one of her bedrooms taking a nap. Then word spread that Mrs. Nugent had gone on a cruise—something her husband had never wanted to do—and that she had paid Bernie to go with her. The two even slept in the same cabin.
Rumors flew through Carthage. Was the cherubic Bernhardt Tiede II trying to seduce the haughty Marjorie Nugent? Or was it the other way around? Some people were shocked when Bernie was seen holding Mrs. Nugent’s hand in town, but Bernie was quick to explain that Mrs. Nugent wobbled when she walked. “I think Margie truly enjoyed the companionship with Bernie, and I think Bernie truly enjoyed Margie’s money,” says a close relative of hers. For Bernie, who was making a reported annual salary of about $18,000 at the funeral home, Mrs. Nugent’s money must have been tempting. She was making between $200,000 and $300,000 a year in oil and gas royalty payments alone. He was constantly behind in his American Express payments, and he owed the IRS $4,000 in back taxes. “Bernie was a buyaholic,” says his sister. “He not only wanted to experience the finer things in life, he loved buying as much as he could for others. He’d order the same items over and over—like three of the same chairs or boxes of Cross pens—just so he could give them away.”
In late 1993 Bernie told Don Lipsey that Mrs. Nugent had asked him to work for her—at a much higher salary—as her business manager and escort on trips around the world. A barrel-chested, plain-talking East Texan, Lipsey had grown fond of Bernie, despite his discomfort with what he described as Bernie’s “tutti-frutti speaking voice.” “Bernie,” he warned, “you know what kind of woman Mrs. Nugent is. Whatever you think you’re going to get out of her, you’re going to have to earn every penny of it.”
“Mrs. Nugent is already so possessive of you,” added Sally, Don’s wife. “She’s already making you drive out there every morning just to fix her coffee! Is that really what you want for yourself?”
“Now, Don and Sally,” Bernie replied, “Deep down inside she’s a sweet woman. We will get along just fine.”
What few in town knew—and what Bernie was not saying—was that Mrs. Nugent had already changed her will, making Bernie the sole heir to her multimillion- dollar estate. (Mrs. Nugent later told a cousin that she didn’t want to leave a cent to her son or her immediate family because they didn’t “appreciate” her.) How could Bernie risk Mrs. Nugent’s wrath, and thus risk losing her money, by turning down her job offer?
WITH MONEY MRS. NUGENT ADVANCED HIM, Bernie bought a two-bedroom home about a mile from the Nugent estate. He set out his collection of black-and-white plastic penguins in the front yard. (He liked penguins, he told others, because they looked so well-dressed.) He hung white curtains on the living room window and displayed his collection of more than seventy wristwatches in the hallway. He threw a Christmas open house, inviting members of the chamber of commerce, professors at the college, and other Carthage VIPs. One widow who was there took a look at the polished furniture and the porcelain penguins on the side tables and said, “Bernie, you’ve created a doll house!”
“Bernie found himself living a dream,” says his sister. “For the first time in his life, he got to be somebody.” Bernie earned his pilot’s license and bought a couple of small airplanes. He took Mrs. Nugent’s seat on the board of the First National Bank, and he regularly placed calls to Lloyd Tiller, irritating the stockbroker to no end with recommendations of stocks that he thought should be bought for Mrs. Nugent. “What do you know about the stock market?” Tiller once shouted at Bernie. “You’re nothing but an undertaker!” A few minutes later Mrs. Nugent called Tiller and told him in an icy voice that if he spoke that way to Bernie again, she would be changing stockbrokers.
On their vacations together, Bernie and Mrs. Nugent traveled all over the world, visiting the Orient, Egypt, and Russia. They flew to New York to see new Broadway musicals, and they sailed on the Queen Mary for Europe, returning on the Concorde.
It was a glamorous life, but as Lipsey warned, Bernie paid a price. According to Bernie’s friends, he had to have Mrs. Nugent’s medicines laid out every day. If he wasn’t at her house by eleven forty-five for lunch, she would become extremely frustrated—“Almost panicky,” says one man—and call his pager incessantly until he arrived. When visiting someone else, Bernie would have to interrupt the conversation at regular intervals and use the phone to check in with Mrs. Nugent. “If I don’t call her, she will give me living hell,” Bernie would say.
Perhaps Bernie decided he deserved extra pay for his service to Mrs. Nugent. Or perhaps he thought he could do whatever he wanted with her money since he knew it would be coming to him anyway after her death. Or, as his sister suggests, maybe Bernie genuinely believed in the good of giving. For whatever reason, Bernie became the town’s Robin Hood. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Nugent, he started slipping money out of her hefty bank accounts and giving it to anyone he thought could use help. He bought at least ten cars for people who couldn’t afford one, telling them to pay him back when they could. He bought a home for a struggling young couple. He provided scholarships to students at Panola College, he pledged $100,000 to the new building campaign at First United Methodist, and he led the fundraising drive for the Boy Scouts. When a woman who owned a local trophy shop told him that her business was failing, Bernie stepped in and bought it so that Carthage High School and youth sports teams could get their trophies for another year. Bernie was on a one-man campaign to improve culture in Carthage, giving away tickets to the college theater productions and paying for the expenses of choir concerts. When a man who once worked with him at the funeral home told him that he wanted to open a clothing store, Bernie agreed to fund it, saying that Carthage needed its own Neiman Marcus. The man’s idea of what Carthage needed was a little different. He proudly opened Boot Scootin’ Western Wear.
Some townspeople thought Bernie’s presence did have a positive effect on Mrs. Nugent. At his urging she joined the Methodist church, and she once had the women’s Sunday school class over to her house for brunch. But sometime in 1995, Bernie told his sister that he thought Mrs. Nugent was developing a mild dementia. Mrs. Nugent had fired the gardeners, he said, because the flowers hadn’t bloomed on time. She also made Bernie buy a .22 rifle to shoot the armadillos that were rooting up her front yard. Bernie found himself stalking the armored pests while Mrs. Nugent supervised from the front porch. “Bernie said to me, ‘She’s so controlling, it just wears me down,’” his sister recalls. “I asked him why he didn’t quit, and he gave me this tortured look and said, ‘Because I’m her only friend. I have to stay because I’m the only one she has.’”
At thanksgiving, 1996, Bernie went alone to see his sister, telling her that Mrs. Nugent had decided to spend the holiday in Ohio with the one sister she was still talking to. At Christmas, Bernie decorated Mrs. Nugent’s home, but he again told those who asked that Mrs. Nugent was in Ohio. Early that spring, he began telling people that Mrs. Nugent was in bed because of an illness and not accepting visitors. By late spring, he said she was in a nursing home outside Carthage, recuperating from a stroke. He told Lloyd Tiller, who was concerned that Mrs. Nugent had not answered any of the messages he had left on her home phone, that she was losing her mind and perhaps had Alzheimer’s.
Tiller says he didn’t entirely believe Bernie’s explanations, but it never occurred to him that Bernie might have harmed her. Ruth Cockrell, a Carthage widow who was Mrs. Nugent’s first cousin, was also dubious: “I was worried something had happened to her, but I didn’t know who to talk to about it. Bernie was so beloved in Carthage that if I suggested he had done anything wrong, I would have been laughed out of town.”
Meanwhile, the maid continued coming to the empty estate to clean the house, and the yardmen kept cutting the yard. And Bernie kept giving: money for jet skis and pickup trucks, and to every student who performed in Panola College’s production of Guys and Dolls a $200 gift certificate to Boot Scootin’ Western Wear. In April Bernie performed with the Shreveport Chamber Singers. His solo rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” was so heartfelt the audience gave him a prolonged ovation. In June he went on a Carthage Chamber of Commerce trip to Nashville to view a new Opryland exhibit honoring Tex Ritter. When he made sure to pay extra attention to one of the Carthage widows who had come along on the trip, pushing her through Opryland in her wheelchair, people patted him on the back and said, “Good old Bernie.”
Then, in early July 1997, an unidentified Carthage woman called the sheriff’s department and said she was worried about Mrs. Nugent—had anyone there seen her lately? Because of more pressing matters around town, sheriff’s deputies didn’t look into the matter for nearly a month. Bernie, whom they found in Las Vegas singing at a Panola College student’s wedding, explained that Mrs. Nugent was staying in a hospital in Temple under an assumed name and did not wish to be contacted. But deputies couldn’t find anyone at the hospital who matched her description. They called Mrs. Nugent’s son in Amarillo, and he came to Carthage with his eldest daughter to search the house. When she told a deputy how odd it was that the deep freeze had been taped shut, he took a look inside. At the bottom, wrapped in a white sheet underneath some frozen food, was Mrs. Nugent.
Not wanting to destroy evidence, the sheriff ordered his deputies to lift the entire deep freeze, with Mrs. Nugent still inside, onto a pickup truck and drive it to Dallas for an autopsy. (The deputies connected a gasoline-powered generator to the freezer to keep it working.) Other deputies spread through town looking for Bernie. They found him preparing to take a team of Little League baseball players and their parents to dinner. He seemed surprised that deputies wanted to ask him some questions. With officers looming over him in a small room at the sheriff’s department, Bernie tried to keep his composure. But he grew increasingly nervous, and he finally, calmly admitted to shooting Mrs. Nugent the previous November 19. He said he had used the same gun she made him buy to shoot armadillos. When asked why he killed her, Bernie looked at the officers in bewilderment, as if the answer were obvious. At last, he said that Mrs. Nugent had become “very hateful and very possessive.”
The uproar in Carthage over Bernie’s arrest was, in the words of Danny Buck, “like a bunch of fireworks going off.” After a group of women tried to raise the money to meet Bernie’s $1.5 million bond, the DA went to the justice of the peace and filed additional theft charges against him (for stealing money from Mrs. Nugent’s account after she was dead) and got the bond raised to $2.7 million. He got so mad at the Reverend E. B. Beasley for publicly praying every Sunday for Bernie that, for a time, he stopped going to church. “Bernie is a con man and an accomplished actor,” Danny Buck kept telling anyone who would listen. “He duped a really nice, trusting town. He’s evil.”
IRS agents arrived in Carthage to charge Bernie with money laundering—it is estimated that he took more than $1 million from Mrs. Nugent—and Sheriff Ellett set off another round of fireworks when he said that certain Carthage men were seen on the videotapes confiscated from Bernie’s house. Soon there were rumors that everyone from elected city leaders to a DPS trooper to a sheriff’s deputy was seen on the tapes, engaged in what the local newspaper, the Panola Watchman, described as “misconduct.” One man showed up at a Carthage High School football game wearing a T-shirt that read “I’m the only one in Carthage NOT on the videotapes.”
Some of Bernie’s friends hired famous East Texas criminal defense attorney Clifton “Scrappy” Holmes to defend him. “Let’s face it, Bernie’s ox is in a ditch,” Holmes told me. He is reportedly trying to discuss a plea bargain for Bernie, which would be just fine with Danny Buck, who’s worried about finding an impartial jury in Panola County. “A couple of people have said to me that Bernie deserves to fry for what he’s done,” he says, “but I know there are a lot more who just want the whole thing to go away. They keep asking me if there aren’t some extenuating circumstances that would help his defense. And I think, ‘Good God-almighty, do people really think Mrs. Nugent was so mean to him that he had to shoot her in the back in self-defense?’”
That drove Bernie Tiede, the gentlest and most compassionate man in Panola County, to kill Mrs. Nugent? Many townspeople wonder if Bernie suddenly snapped and had a psychotic breakdown. They think he should plead temporary insanity. Danny Buck assumes that Mrs. Nugent finally discovered Bernie was looting her bank account and that Bernie panicked and shot her when she said she was going to expose him. But Bernie’s sister says that when she phoned him at the jail, he told her that there had been no particular problems that November day between him and Mrs. Nugent. They were about to go to Longview to run errands and have lunch when suddenly Bernie picked up the .22 rifle in the garage and started firing. He dragged Mrs. Nugent into the kitchen, put her in the freezer, and washed the blood off the garage floor with a garden hose. “He said, ‘I started thinking about having to live with her for the rest of her life, and I just couldn’t take it,’” recalls the sister. “He said, ‘I realized I couldn’t stand it another day.’”
But why on earth did Bernie leave Mrs. Nugent in the freezer for nine months? Sure, Bernie was used to being around dead bodies from his funeral home days. But Danny Buck admits that he probably never would have been able to file murder charges against Bernie if he had simply dumped her somewhere where she would never be found. “I don’t understand why Bernie didn’t put her in one of his little airplanes and fly her over the Gulf of Mexico and kick her out,” one of the town’s widows told me matter-of-factly.
According to Bernie’s sister, Bernie said that he couldn’t be so cruel as to abandon Mrs. Nugent.
“You couldn’t be so cruel?” the astonished sister asked. “Bernie, what were you going to do?”
In a very soft voice, Bernie said, “I want-ed to give Mrs. Nugent a proper burial. You know, everyone needs a proper burial.”
Mrs. Nugent did get her proper burial, in a small rural cemetery outside Carthage. Some of her relatives, who hadn’t spoken to her in years (including her sister in Carthage) came for the service, hoping in some way to say good-bye to a woman they never really understood. A granddaughter stood and sang “Amazing Grace.”
One Carthage widow, who didn’t make it to the funeral, later asked if Mrs. Nugent’s granddaughter had sung well. She said she was looking for a soloist for her own funeral now that she knew Bernie was going to be unavailable.
Copyright © 1973-2010 Emmis Publishing LP dba Texas Monthly. All rights reserved.