What You Didn't Know About Murderer Bernie Tiede

The small town of Carthage, Texas, near the Louisiana border, was a strange place to have become enamored of a person like Bernie Tiede. Despite its unsurprisingly majority conservative population, the home of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame seemed to look the other way when it came to Bernie's effeminate side. According to a story about him in Texas Monthly, his former boss at the Hawthorn Funeral Home said that there was talk among the townsfolk that Bernie "was a little light in the loafers."

The young, portly mortician was so beloved in Carthage, however, that when he murdered 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, a rich widow he had befriended after overseeing her husband's funeral, people didn't hold it against him. Even though he admitted to shooting her in the back four times and keeping her body in a deep freeze in the garage for nine months, the district attorney prosecuting him actually had trouble convincing folks in town that what he'd done was wrong.

The rest of Texas learned about Bernie through that article in Texas Monthly, the rest of the world did so via a feature film by director Richard Linklater, and the murderer seemed to always end up exonerated in the court of public opinion. But as one Texas attorney would end up arguing, Bernie Tiede was nowhere near as justified in what he'd done as media representations of him would have us believe.

The Bernie Tiede story the silver screen told you

In 2011, acclaimed director Richard Linklater released Bernie, a feature film/documentary about Tiede and Nugent starring Jack Black (pictured above), Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey, as well as several actual residents of Carthage who knew Tiede. Based on the Texas Monthly piece "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas" by Skip Hollandsworth, who also cowrote the script with Linklater, the film portrays Bernie as a lovable, affable character who made a habit of comforting the widows whose husbands he buried. It follows Bernie and Marjorie as they get closer and closer, as she opens up her cold, cold heart, as well as her bank account, and he gladly accepts, absolutely loving the new good life he's found himself in. They travel the globe, enjoy spa treatments, and Bernie even ends up taking over some of Marjorie's finances, using her money to buy gifts for just about anyone in town.

But the melting of the old crone's heart doesn't last long, and she becomes more and more possessive of Bernie and his time. She forces him to wait on her hand and foot, buys a rifle, and makes him use it to shoot armadillos that come into her yard. He reportedly told his sister that Marjorie was "so controlling, it just wears me down." When she asked why he didn't just leave her, he said, "Because I'm her only friend. I have to stay because I'm the only one she has."

Bernie Tiede said he killed Marjorie Nugent because of her emotional abuse

And one day, Bernie finally snaps. While Marjorie is bossing him around, he shoots her four times in the back with the rifle that was meant for the armadillos, and then can't believe what he's done. He hides her body in a freezer and continues life as usual. When the truth finally comes out, the district attorney is forced to move the trial to another county, as he's unable to find people in town to make up an impartial jury. Although everyone knew Bernie did it, they all said they wouldn't vote to convict him.

The film presents Marjorie as the mean old lady that everyone in the town hated and Bernie almost as the victim of the story. He's so loved by everyone in town (and Jack Black does such a fantastic job of interpreting him) that you almost end up commending him for carrying out the cold-blooded murder of Marjorie Nugent.

Bernie Tiede's appeal due to claims of child abuse

In 2014, after spending 18 years in prison for the murder of Marjorie Nugent, Tiede filed an appeal that would end up giving him a bit of fresh air. For a while, at least. According to the Dallas Observer, he used claims that he had been sexually abused as a child to appeal his case and get released from prison. Marjorie Nugent's family was appalled at the ruling. "This is very shocking to me," said her granddaughter Shanna, herself an attorney. "I've kind of never heard of this happening before. We went through a whole three-week trial. He had a whole defense. He never brought any of this (his history of sexual abuse) up. From what I can tell, there's no evidence that it occurred, and I'm not sure it lessens his crime at all."

But there was one condition that was perfectly kooky for this high-profile case: Bernie was made to live in the garage apartment in the Austin, Texas, home of Bernie director Richard Linklater, who told Variety that "Austin's kind of a garage-apartment town, so it's not a big deal for me to let Bernie live there while he gets back on his feet."

However, the family of Marjorie (pictured above, with the real Bernie) felt he didn't deserve to get back on his feet. And as it turned out, neither would the next judge and jury who saw his case. And as one attorney would later say, things didn't happen exactly as they were portrayed in Linklater's movie.

The resentencing jury didn't buy Bernie Tiede's defense

Bernie's breath of fresh air would only last a couple years. The Texas Tribune reported that a few years later, his attempts to convince Texas juries that the sexual abuse he purportedly experienced as a child at the hand of an uncle should absolve him of murder were unsuccessful. He was sentenced to 99 years to life in prison in 2016, and attempted to appeal again after that, but to no avail. Murder is murder, they said, plain and simple. "Today truth and justice were upheld and a Hollywood myth was finally proved to be what it was ... a myth," said Shanna Nugent.

In 2019, Chad Baruch, an attorney who worked for the Nugent family on the Tiede case, published a blog post on his law office's website that revealed just how much myth was in the movie Bernie. For example, Bernie actually told detectives that he'd thought of murdering her in the months prior to doing it, demonstrating premeditation. Also, he didn't just shoot her four times in the back before realizing what he'd done. He shot her once in the back, then walked up to her as she lay dying and finished her off with three more shots at point-blank range. He had also drained her investment account of millions of dollars without her knowledge before he killed her, revealing he had a financial motive for getting her out of the picture.

Marjorie Nugent's family remembers her differently from the media

Readers of Hollandsworth's article and viewers of Linklater's movie come away with the explicitly stated idea that Marjorie Nugent was a terrible old woman who nobody loved and who all the folks in town — even in her own family — were happy to be rid of. Hollandsworth said she didn't speak with her own sisters due to an argument over a decade old, and that she rarely even spoke with her son.

But after hearing about Tiede's release from prison in 2014 via media reports, Marjorie's family decided it was time to correct some of those myths. They created a website in her honor "to memorialize her life and to act as a resource to others who may have had an elderly loved one exploited by others or who may be dealing with a current situation." Shanna and other relatives wanted the public to know that Marjorie was a beloved member of their family and that it was not right for Tiede to be released from jail just because Hollywood had made him a celebrity. It seems odd that some Texas lawmen would let Hollywood come in and tell them how to conduct justice in the Lone Star State, but that's exactly what happened. Luckily, for Shanna and others in the Nugent family, justice did prevail. As attorney Chad Baruch wrote: "Bernie Tiede is right where he belongs in prison."