11/24/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
EIGHTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD MARJORIE Nugent had dropped out of sight, but not a soul in sleepy Carthage, Texas, suspected foul play. True, the wealthy widow hadn't been spotted in town for a while, but she had always been a little reclusive. Her gardener made his regular rounds and didn't find it odd that he hadn't seen her in weeks. She had only one close friend, her business manager Bernie Tiede. And if Bernie wasn't worried, why should anyone else give her a second thought?
It was only after weeks turned into months—nine months—that people in Carthage, a town of 6,500 in the piney woods of East Texas, began to get suspicious. "It puzzled me that I hadn't heard a word from her," says her hairdresser of 32 years, Billy Vaticalos. "No contact at all. It didn't seem right." An anonymous tip persuaded deputies from the sheriff's department to obtain a warrant and search Nugent's spacious, white-brick home; there, officers opened a large freezer and discovered, beneath packages of frozen food, the bullet-riddled body of Marjorie Nugent. Later that day, Aug. 18, Tiede, 39, a former undertaker she had met at her husband's 1990 funeral, and perhaps the most popular man in Carthage, was arrested and confessed to shooting Nugent, reportedly four times in the back.
If the arrest of Tiede for murder initially stunned Carthage, the reaction since has been equally unexpected. Many in town have rallied round the confessed murderer, who before his arrest was best known for teaching Sunday school, donating his time to youth groups and buying cars for folks in town who needed them. Several elderly women in Carthage tried to help him post his $2.7 million bail, and many continue to visit him in the Panola County jail, where he awaits a 1998 trial on charges of first-degree murder. The pastor of Carthage's First United Methodist Church, where Tiede sang in the choir and gave sermons, has said he stands behind him and will offer him help and prayers. Even Carthage mayor Carson Joines calls Tiede "a very nice fella," while Capt. David Jeter, the officer who arrested him, admits his prisoner is "a very likable guy."
None of which surprises Tiede's attorney Clifton "Scrappy" Holmes. "He's everything the Boy Scout Oath has to offer," says Holmes. "Kind, trustworthy, courteous—all that stuff. Everyone seems to love him." District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson has had to stop attending the First Methodist Church because of its support for the man he must prosecute. "He was a perfect person," says Davidson. "People just thought he was a good Christian man."
That was surely the initial impression Tiede made on Marjorie Nugent. The daughter of Spence Midyett, a wealthy Texas land and oil baron, she had been married for decades to Rod Nugent, a successful petroleum geologist. Together they had built their dream home just outside of Carthage but had lived there only three months before he died in 1990. At the Hawthorn Funeral Home, Nugent met Bernie Tiede, a gentle, caring mortician who, as was his habit, offered solace to the grieving widow, seldom leaving her side. When she shivered at the funeral, Bernie gallantly gave her his coat. "He would do everything he could to make you feel comfortable," says Mayor Joines. "He was very good to widow women."
A tall, outgoing man from nearby Kilgore, Texas, Tiede had worked as a florist and a funeral director in Louisiana before moving to Carthage in 1984. After Rod Nugent's death he began to dote on Marjorie, running errands for the widow and squiring her about town. When his employer questioned the arrangement, Tiede quit and became Nugent's full-time business manager, handling her affairs from an office in her house and arranging vacations for them to Russia and Europe. Soon, Nugent gave him power of attorney and set him up with a seat on the board of directors of the First National Bank, which her late husband had owned. "She bought him a Lincoln Continental, then a Town Car," says Vaticalos. "Monogrammed shirts, cashmere coats, jewelry, you name it."
As Tiede's net worth increased, so did his influence in town. He bought five small planes and started an aviation business to go with a local trophy-making shop. And while the aloof and unfriendly Nugent was "not overly generous," says Davidson, Tiede became known for his remarkable acts of charity. "There was this one girl at the college who didn't have anything," says Joines. "Bernie gave her a scholarship and bought her a car." Tiede's attorney thinks that "there are 12 to 14 automobiles being driven around Carthage which Bernie paid for." Says Davidson: "We estimate he spent between $1 and $2 million of" Nugent's fortune, which may have totaled $10 million.
Then came signs that something was amiss in the Nugent household. A married couple who had lived on one of Nugent's farms and cared for her for years were suddenly evicted, reportedly at Tiede's urging. Tiede also called Vaticalos, Nugent's hairdresser of three decades, and told him that she would no longer be coming in to have her hair done. Her pharmacist and financial advisers wondered why they hadn't heard from her in months. Meanwhile, Tiede calmly ran his businesses and took frequent trips, always telling anyone who called to speak with Nugent that she was too ill to come to the phone.
When the Carthage sheriff's department received the anonymous tip to check on her, Captain Jeter contacted Tiede at a Las Vegas Hilton, where he was singing at a friend's wedding. Tiede held him off by explaining Nugent had been hospitalized and promising Jeter could see her when she got better. Days passed, and still not a word from Nugent. "He told me that she had suffered a stroke and was unable to speak," says Jeter.
Finally, Jeter contacted Nugent's only child, R.M. Nugent Jr., a prominent forensic pathologist in Amarillo, Texas, who had been estranged from his mother. He gave Jeter permission to search her home, and on Aug. 18 deputies discovered her body in the freezer hidden beneath a Lands' End sheet. That same day, officers located Tiede in town preparing to take a local children's baseball team out to dinner. Early in his questioning he was "the typical Bernie, smiling and nonchalant," says Jeter. "Soon, though, he began to get a little nervous." Four hours later he confessed to shooting Nugent in November 1996, apparently, authorities suggest, because he had begun to regard her as too possessive.
As for now, Tiede, the model citizen, seems the model prisoner. "He just sits there reading his Bible," reports Jeter. Although Tiede faces the possibility of life in prison when his murder trial rolls around in 1998, he doesn't seem overly concerned. He has his faith and he has his friends—his many friends—in Carthage. "There are still folks around here who don't believe he did it," says Joines. "And if they get on the jury, he'll be acquitted."
CARLTON STOWERS in Carthage