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COVER: Convicted murderer Bernie Tiede at his second sentencing trial on Wednesday in Henderson. PHOTO by KEVIN GREEN/LONGVIEW NEWS-JOURNAL

by JOHNATHAN SILVER

HENDERSON — Convicted murderer Bernie Tiede is a calculating, money-hungry, cold-blooded killer who set his sights on elderly women, including Marjorie Nugent who he killed in 1996.

Bernie Tiede is a product of a broken home and a sexual abuse victim, trauma that triggered a deadly response to an abusive Nugent, who alienated her family and friends and ruled over Tiede’s life.

Those were the two pictures painted of the former Carthage mortician Wednesday by attorneys during opening statements in Tiede’s second sentencing trial for Nugent’s murder. Tiede became Nugent’s companion after her husband died in 1990, and he shot the wealthy widow four times in the back six years later. The murder inspired the 2011 dark comedy “Bernie,” starring Jack Black.

Tiede’s guilt is not in question, but a jury is now reconsidering whether he should resume his original life sentence or receive lesser punishment.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Tanner told a jury that Tiede had expensive tastes, became accustomed to the vacations and outings he and Nugent took and killed the widow when suspicious spending began to catch up with him.

“Always first class and always on her tab,” Tanner said.

Tanner detailed how Tiede shot Nugent and continued to shoot until she stopped breathing, then dragged and stuffed her body into a freezer.

He went on with his life as if nothing happened, Tanner said. The prosecution says Tiede spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on friends, community members and lovers.

“In fact, he was living large,” the prosecutor said.

Tiede attorney Mike DeGeurin told the jury his client lived a hard life, with his parents dying early, discovering he was gay and being sexually abused regularly by an uncle. But Bernie was one of many child victims, the attorney said.

Tiede’s uncle attacked his victims “not realizing what effect it would have on their lives,” DeGeurin said.

After Nugent’s body was found about nine months after she was killed, Tiede confessed.

“I had thoughts of hitting Marjorie in the head with a bat or anything for a couple of months prior to November the 19th, 1996, but I did not want her to suffer,” Tiede said in his 1997 confession. “She had become very hateful. She had become very possessive over my life. She was now evil and wicked. But I still cared for her.”

Tiede was convicted in 1999 for Nugent’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. After the film “Bernie” was released, his case was revisited and his sentence was set aside in 2014 over the concern that his sexual abuse history could have led to a lighter sentence.

Tiede killed Nugent because her abuse triggered the trauma he had faced when he was younger, DeGeurin said. The attorney added that Nugent had alienated most of her relatives and was had a reputation of being unlikable.

“What is it about her personality … that would cause that kind of fracture,” DeGeurin said. “Except that there was mental abuse going on.”

Nugent’s cousin Ruth Cockrell, 86, testified that she repeatedly asked about Nugent’s whereabouts, but Tiede always had a story, she said.

Cockrell said she became suspicious and even confronted Tiede but had no evidence to confirm her concerns. So Cockrell said nothing, she testified.

“If I had been wrong, I would have been the laughingstock of Carthage,” she said.

Nugent was not the first “wealthy, lonely, vulnerable” widow Tiede pursued, Tanner told a jury. Greg Kramer, a Louisiana funeral director who used to work with Tiede, testified that the defendant worked well with families and widows especially.

Don Lipsey, Tiede’s former boss in a Carthage funeral home, testified that a widow from Louisiana who knew Tiede called his work phone line asking that he return money to her.

Testimony continues Thursday and Friday. The trial is expected to last at least three weeks.

JOHNATHAN SILVER reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

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