Movie director takes in murderer he once made film about
AUSTIN, Texas — Three years ago, director Richard Linklater made a movie about a mortician named Bernie Tiede who went to prison after he shot a rich, cranky widow four times in the back with her armadillo gun and hid her body in a deep freezer under the pot pies.
Now he’s Tiede’s landlord.
Tiede, who was convicted of the 1996 murder of a wealthy Texas widow named Marjorie Nugent, was released from prison on Tuesday. Originally sentenced to life, he has been set free on a $10,000 bond — with conditions.
One of them is he live in a garage apartment owned by Linklater, the Austin, Texas-based director of such films as “Before Sunrise,” “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock” and 2011’s “Bernie,” based on Tiede’s case.
That’s OK. Linklater offered up the place.
It’s another strange twist in a case that’s been full of them.
For years, Tiede was a cheerful, well-regarded funeral director in the town of Carthage, Texas. As recounted in Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly story “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” the townspeople were four-square behind Tiede, despite the fact that he’d admitted to Nugent’s murder — and stored her body in a freezer for several months.
“I had been so flummoxed by the twists and turns of this case for the last 17 years,” Hollandsworth told CNN’s Ed Lavandera. “I just couldn’t imagine what was going to happen next, and here it comes. A turn of events that if you put a bunch of A-List screenwriters into the same room and told them to put out a new Bernie story, they never could have come up with this.”
Hollandsworth described Tiede as “the nicest guy in town. He ran the campaign for the Boy Scout fundraiser. He raised money for the new wing of the Sunday school building. He bought the trophy shop when it went out of business so the kids could keep getting the trophies. He was a kind of Robin Hood. He was this man who cared about people. And most of all he cared about them at their deaths, giving them this dignified funeral, and leading them into the next life. People loved what he did for them.
“Wherever you go in Carthage, there are people who look up to Bernie as if he is a saint. And that he just made one little mistake with Mrs. Nugent. Just one,” Hollandsworth said. “There are lots of Christian men in Carthage, these people say, who make two, three, four or more mistakes. And we forgive them, why can’t we forgive Bernie for just making one mistake of shooting a lady in the back four times?”
Nugent wasn’t as beloved.
“If she had held her nose any higher,” one man was quoted in Hollandsworth’s article, “she would have drowned in a rainstorm.”
Another resident told Davidson, “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.”
Tiede had befriended Nugent after her husband’s death. He eventually became a close confidant — they even traveled together — and sole heir to her $10 million fortune.
However, according to the article, the demanding Nugent also treated Tiede poorly. Sometime in late 1996, he shot her to death.
Tiede was convicted of Nugent’s murder in 1999. Linklater was fascinated by the case.
“I knew Bernie and this town. I just knew this world so well,” he told the Austin American-Statesman in 2012.
In Linklater’s film, Tiede was played by Jack Black and Nugent by Shirley MacLaine. Matthew McConaughey, then beginning the career upswing that eventually led to his Oscar earlier this year for “Dallas Buyers Club,” played Davidson.
It was “Bernie” that helped get Bernie out of prison.
According to The Washington Post, attorney Jodi Cole saw the film at a Texas Monthly screening and was troubled by some of the issues it raised. Taking Tiede as a client, she learned he had been sexually abused. Armed with that evidence, as well as a belief the sentence was unduly harsh, she got Tiede’s sentence reduced to time served.
Cole said the parties involved are not allowed to comment on Tuesday’s court proceeding. She added that it was part of the bond’s conditions.
Nugent’s family isn’t happy with Tiede’s release.
“Bernie Tiede committed a cold-blooded, calculated murder, killing our mother and grandmother, Marjorie Nugent, in her home,” Ryan Gravatt, a Nugent family spokesman, said in a statement. “He confessed to her murder and his confession was admitted in his trial. A jury found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison, where he should remain.”
Carthage residents, however, generally approve of Tiede’s release. James Baker, who knew Tiede, told Tyler, Texas, TV station KLTV, “I’m glad that he’s out.”
“I don’t think that he’s a threat to anybody anywhere,” he added, “but in the back of my mind you do say well, he did murder her and put her in a freezer.”