Fresh stitches ran around her eyes and nose, and ugly bruises covered her swollen face. The sweet and pretty woman in Cottage 1 looked like some kind of monster. "I went out to say, 'My God, what happened?'" says Rob Ashley, a carpenter who lived across from Liza Pen-dragon this summer in a seven-unit complex in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea in South Florida. Pendragon told him she had been in a car crash. "Here's a woman with nobody in town, and she looked like she got thrown through a windshield," says Ashley, who felt so bad he helped her until she recovered. "She couldn't even get her key in the door," he says.

But the young woman he shopped and cooked for was nobody's victim—she was a fugitive wanted for allegedly arranging the brutal murder of her husband. Soft-spoken Liza—whose facial scars were the result of plastic surgery police say was designed to disguise her identity—was really Michelle Theer, a North Carolina psychologist authorities believe masterminded the Dec. 17,2000, slaying of Capt. Marty Theer, a decorated Air Force pilot. Theer, 31, was shot five times outside Michelle's Fayetteville, N.C., office. The motive, say police: his $500,000 life insurance policy.

On Aug. 28, 2001, a six-member military panel at Fort Bragg in North Carolina found Michelle Theer's then-boyfriend, Army Staff Sgt. John Diamond, 28, guilty of first-degree murder and sent him to a federal prison for life. Throughout Diamond's one-week trial, prosecutors argued that he and Theer had planned the murder together, and one of Diamond's lawyers even claimed that Theer was the shooter. Yet the military court had no jurisdiction over Theer, a civilian. And by the time Cumberland County investigators had painstakingly amassed evidence to convince a grand jury to indict her for murder on May 21, Theer had long since left the state. "Michelle is not your average criminal," says Fayetteville detective Ralph Clinkscales, the lead investigator on the case. "She used her knowledge as a psychologist and she gave you the feeling she could outsmart you. You always felt like she had an ace up her Sleeve."

On the lam for four months, Theer obtained a driver's license with yet another alias, Alexandra Solomon, collected how-to books on creating a new identity and kept a journal carefully listing slipups she made that might have blown her cover, including putting her old address on a form and getting a parking ticket. When U.S. marshals finally caught up with her at her rented cottage on Aug. 5, Theer's face was puffy and red. "She had just had laser surgery that day," says John Amat, the marshal who arrested her. "She was definitely trying to alter her appearance and start over."

Even before she re-created herself, Theer was something of a mystery. Public records list two spellings of her first name and two separate birth dates, making her either 31 or 33. Partly raised in Colorado along with two siblings by Thomas Forcier, 54, and Glenda, 52, she spent time in the Air Force Reserves before earning a master's in psychology from the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne in 1997 and a doctorate in clinical psychology two years later.

She met Marty Theer when they were students at different Denver-area high schools. Marty graduated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs on May 31,1991, and the next day he married Michelle. "He truly loved her and was so proud of her," says Marty's mother, Linda Gettler, 56, a nurse. But when she visited her son two month's before his death, "the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife," says Gettler. "Marty told me, 'We're having problems, but we're working on them.'"

One problem was Marty's military lifestyle. "Michelle didn't like it," says Gettler. Marty had fulfilled a lifelong dream by becoming a pilot, but Michelle, says Gettler, wanted him to earn more money by working for a commercial airline. By the summer of 2000, Michelle had become involved with John Diamond, who responded to an online ad seeking companionship. The son of a Texas truck driver, Diamond told Michelle he had had special training as an Army sharpshooter. In August 2000, Michelle and Diamond left their spouses to live together. "He liked to brag that Theer was a psychologist and made good money," says Detective Clinkscales. "He thought she was a pretty classy lady." The lovers took a trip to the Netherlands Antilles and passed themselves off as engaged. They told people they were planning to move there and inquired about jobs.

But that fall Michelle and Diamond both moved back with their spouses. On Dec. 17, 2000, Michelle and her husband went to a Christmas dinner hosted by Tom Harbin, a psychologist who shared office space with Michelle. Around 10:30 on that cold night, Marty pulled their 1999 Explorer into the parking lot of Michelle's office—so that she could get some books, Michelle would later tell investigators. Minutes later Marty apparently grew impatient of waiting outside and began walking up a stairway that led to Michelle's office.

Then—five gunshots. The first four bullets all hit Marty, but none was fatal, according to investigators. When he tumbled down to the bottom of the stairs, he was shot a fifth time, this time in the side of the head. Michelle rushed out of her office and, she says, cradled her husband's head. "She told us she thought he was still breathing but unconscious," says Clinkscales. After inadvertently locking her keys inside, Theer explained, she ran two miles to a Video Hut and dialed 911.

Police began an investigation the next day and quickly zeroed in on Diamond, who was identified as a close friend of Michelle's by Tom Harbin. "Diamond was the weak link," says Clinkscales. "He and Michelle told stories that didn't fit together." Diamond was caught in a lie when he denied borrowing a 9-mm Smith & Wesson handgun, the type used in the killing, from a fellow sergeant. What's more, his alibi—that he was home watching The Patriot—was blown by his own wife, Lourdes, 37. "Yes, we were watching a movie, but about 9 p.m. he got a call on his cell phone," says Lourdes, a native of Panama who met Diamond when he was stationed there in 1996. "He changed clothes, got all bundled up and said he was going to the barracks." Lourdes, who testified against Diamond at his trial, has since divorced him. Cell phone records, meanwhile, confirmed that the call that night had come from Michelle.

On March 15,2001, police arrested Diamond and charged him with first-degree murder. At his trial Michelle—who had shed about 50 lbs. since her husband's death and wore revealing outfits on the stand—took the Fifth on nearly every question asked her. "She brainwashed John," insists Diamond's sister Deborah Dvorak, 27. "She knows how the mind works, and she's seductive. I believe she set him up." Detective Clinkscales, for one, agrees. "Diamond would not have known where Marty was going to be that night had someone not told him," he says. "She put him there."

A Fayetteville grand jury finally indicted Michelle Theer after police learned she had disappeared from her last known address, an apartment in New Orleans. Weeks later she turned up at the Regal Apartments in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea with two dogs, one parrot and a story about fleeing an abusive boyfriend. "She didn't want to share any of her past history with me," says the Regal's owner Cindy Geesey. "She was very scared."

Her meticulous list of screwups, however, did not include taking a new boyfriend, a salesman named Dana who was several years her junior. U.S. marshals used telephone records to track Theer to South Florida and identify Dana as her boyfriend. Late on Aug. 5 they followed Dana to the Regal Apartments and knocked on Michelle's door. She told the marshals her name was Liza, but when they said they knew who she was, she reportedly replied, "I have nothing further to say." Police say Theer was about to leave the country.

Now she's going nowhere. Theer could go on trial as early as January and, if found guilty, faces the death penalty. Claiming to be broke—she never collected a penny of her husband's life insurance—she will have to make do with a public defender. "I really do believe that she is evil," says Diamond's sister Deborah. "And she's finally going to get what she deserves."

Alex Tresniowski
Michaele Ballard in Fayetteville and Siobhan Morrissey in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea

  • Contributors:
  • Michaele Ballard,
  • Siobhan Morrissey.