By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
The killing was so shocking, so unexpected and so downright weird that it became a Texas Monthly magazine story and then a popular motion picture, “Bernie.”
In 1996, beloved east Texas assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede — a darling to those who knew him around the town of Carthage — killed his closest confidant, a reclusive millionaire named Marjorie Nugent.
He was 38; she was 81. The soft-spoken Tiede hid her body in the freezer of her home and carried on for nine months as if she were still alive.
The story of how his secret unraveled, and how he was convicted of murder, was told in the 2011 movie starring Jack Black and directed by Richard Linklater.
The movie came out to favorable reviews, but Tiede was supposed to stay in prison.
That is, until now.
On Tuesday, Tiede walked free. A judge in Panola County recommended that his life sentence be reduced to time served and that he be released on $10,000 bond pending appellate court approval. She set a few conditions, including this one: Tiede will live in a garage apartment owned by Linklater.
“It’s art imitating life, life imitating art — imitating murder!” said Skip Hollandsworth, the writer whose story inspired the movie and who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater. “In his very sort of easygoing way, (Linklater had) said he was trying to do some work on the Bernie case and see about getting him some representation, and I would listen and go, ‘Come on. There’s no way you’re going to get Bernie a new trial.’”
Tiede, now 55, won’t need a new trial, and the reason seems made for Hollywood.
“Start typing, because this story is so amazing,” Hollandsworth said in a phone interview. “An attorney watches the screening of ‘Bernie’ the movie, Jodi Cole, when it comes out during its first screening in 2011. Linklater is at the screening. She walks up, hands him her card, says there’s something about this case that doesn’t make sense.”
It’s hard to find someone who didn’t think the case was bizarre. Tiede befriended Nugent, reportedly Carthage’s wealthiest widow, after handling her husband’s funeral. Tiede was known as a sweetheart around town, who was often generous with gifts and conversation.
Eventually, his relationship with Nugent grew so close that Tiede began handling many of her affairs, to the point that she gave him approval to sign checks for her.
In the magazine and cinematic account of their relationship, however, Nugent became overbearing and hateful, with her personality smothering Tiede until one day he shot her four times in the back with her armadillo gun.
Tiede’s defense at trial was that he snapped; the prosecution portrayed him as a conniving killer out for Nugent’s riches. It probably didn’t help Tiede’s case that he continued to spend her money after he killed her.
But when Cole, the new attorney, reviewed the case, she discovered a small detail that would boost his defense: Tiede had a small collection of self-help books for victims of sexual abuse.
Cole and a therapist eventually got Tiede to acknowledge that he’d been repeatedly sexually abused as a child, which he’d been too embarrassed to tell his original defense team, according to Hollandsworth, who has been following the case. (Cole couldn’t be reached for comment.)
When that revelation came to light — backed by a report from a defense psychiatrist who suggested that the killing was probably influenced by the abuse and that Tiede was vulnerable to toxic relationships — it would change the heart of the tough-talking, string-’em-up east Texas prosecutor who had put Tiede away for life.
“I looked at it and thought, you know, shrinks are a dime a dozen. (Now) I’ve got information we didn’t have at the time of trial,” said District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, who was played by a comically thick-drawling Matthew McConaughey in the movie. (Davidson said McConaughey’s portrayal was accurate.)
“I tried the case as if he was a psychopath killer for money,” Davidson said. “Now, I got this new information, thinking, ‘Well, what do I do?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ll see what my psychiatrist thinks.’”
When the prosecution’s psychiatrist — the same one who had examined Tiede before trial — agreed with the defense, Davidson changed his tune. “If you believe this, that ‘prosecutors are the good guys,’ and we’re supposed to follow the truth no matter where it leads us in our quest for justice, (then it’s our primary duty) to see that justice is done,” he said.
On Tuesday, Davidson told the judge in Panola County that he supported reducing Tiede’s sentence to time served. On hearing that, Tiede reportedly broke down in tears. Then Linklater, who couldn’t be reached for comment for this article, spoke in front of the court.
“Rick takes the stand today wearing a gray suit and tie, and I was thinking, ‘Who has ever seen Rick in a suit?’” said Hollandsworth, who followed the proceedings by video. “And he says that he will let Bernie live in Austin in his garage apartment.”
Tiede is to work as a legal clerk for Cole, The Texas Tribune reported. State District Judge Diane DeVasto ordered him not to speak to the media.
What had struck some observers most strange were the little old ladies who supported Tiede during his trial, even visiting him in jail. Many of them are dead now, and the movie turned much of Carthage against him, Davidson said — and Nugent’s family isn’t happy either.
“Everybody’s mad as hell,” he said. Then he added, “I’m just doing my job.”