CARTHAGE, Texas (AP) — A former mortician whose killing of a rich widow shook an East Texas town and later inspired a movie is a free man after a judge agreed to reduce his life sentence and release him on bond.
Bernie Tiede’s freedom Tuesday was part of an agreement with the same district attorney who prosecuted him for the death of his 81-year-old longtime companion, Marjorie Nugent, who disappeared in 1996 and was found dead in a freezer in Carthage nine months later.
Tiede’s bond was set at $10,000 and after posting bail, he was released to go live in Austin with filmmaker Richard Linklater, who co-wrote and directed the 2011 dark comedy “Bernie” that was inspired by the case and starred Jack Black in the title role and Shirley MacLaine as Nugent. Linklater volunteered to take in Tiede, who will be under strict bond conditions.
A state criminal appeals court still must formally sign off on the sentence reduction.
The now-55-year-old Tiede, who was well liked in the close-knit community of Carthage, was convicted in 1999 in the death of Nugent, who had a reputation among townspeople as a crotchety cheapskate.
Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson agreed with Tiede’s appeals attorney, Jodi Cole, who said he deserved a lighter sentence because he was sexually assaulted as a child and also had an abusive relationship with Nugent before her death.
Psychiatrist Edward Gripon, who examined Tiede in January, testified Tuesday that Tiede and Nugent had a complex and abusive relationship. He said that combined with Tiede having been abused when he was younger pushed him to kill Nugent in a “brief dissociative episode.”
“He doesn’t come across in examination at all as a person prone to violence,” he said. “That set of circumstances … is not going to recreate itself.”
Nugent’s granddaughter, Dallas-area lawyer Shanna Nugent, said her family “is pretty much in shock” over the development.
“I really wanted justice for Nanny,” she said, using a pet name for her grandmother. “This doesn’t really feel like justice.”
Davidson, who said he believes residents’ opinion of Tiede has changed “180 degrees,” called Tiede’s release “bittersweet.” He said he had a duty, however, to act once it was clear other factors had led Tiede to kill.
Tiede still faces a theft charge for spending Nugent’s money after her death, but Davidson said nothing will move forward on that until the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals approves the sentence reduction in the slaying case. No timetable has been set for when the court might act.
Nugent’s corpse was found at her Carthage home nine months after her 1996 disappearance, wrapped in a sheet inside a freezer among packages of frozen corn, pecans and meat. She had been shot in the back four times with a .22-caliber rifle.
Tiede had met Nugent in 1990 at the funeral of her husband R.L. “Rod” Nugent, who had made his fortune in oil and banking. The two would grow close, taking trips around the world, and Nugent signed a will leaving her estimated $10 million fortune to Tiede.
Tiede became known for his generosity around the town, which is about 150 miles east of Dallas. Townspeople have said he started scholarships, pledged money to a church building campaign and ran a fundraising drive for Boy Scouts. He also gave away large gifts, including several cars.
After Tiede was charged in Nugent’s killing, pretrial publicity led to the case being moved to San Augustine, about 50 miles southeast of Carthage. A jury there convicted him in 1999 and sentenced him to life in prison.
Associated Press writer Terry Wallace contributed to this report.
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