He Dunnit: The Story of Bernie

The following article is presented for entertainment purposes. It is not intended as scholarly research or a final authority on the subject. 

Welcome to Freaky Friday. Since we talked about movies on Wednesday, let’s talk about movies again today. Today’s movie, Bernie, was based on a true crime that happened not far from where I grew up.

My husband and I probably would not have watched Bernie by choice.  However, my uncle worked as an extra in the movie.  We watched it because we wanted to see if he was really in it. And he was.

Let’s go.

 The Movie

Bernie was released in 2011. The movie is filmed in the mock-documentary and is billed as a dark comedy.

The screenplay was written by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth. It is based on a 1998 article from Texas Monthly titled  “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas.”

The Director

The film was directed by Richard Linklater, a native Texan who studied at Sam Houston State University.  He founded the Austin Film Society and is credited with solidifying Austin, Texas’s reputation as a hub for independent filmmaking.

Linklater is well-known for his films Slacker and Dazed and Confused, which both take place in Texas and which both show off his unique brand of humor. The point of all this is that Richard Linklater was the right person to direct Bernie.

Filming Locations

Bernie was filmed on location in Carthage, Texas where the story is set. Other Texas filming locations were Bastrop, Smithville, Georgetown, Lockhart, and Austin.

Starring

The movie starred Hollywood big names such as Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black, and Shirley MacLaine.

In addition to the big Hollywood names, the film featured a host of locals who were filmed doing mock interviews.  They all talked as though they had known Bernie. The  faux interviews were, by far, the best part of the movie.

 The Trailer:

Sometimes Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

If you watched the preview, you’ve got the gist of this case. Since this is Freaky Friday,  I’ll take you through a little of it–but I’ll be brief.

If the case catches your interest, check out my sources. I will link to Skip Hollandsworth’s article. That’s a good place to start.   I  will warn that the Texas Monthly article can be a bit hard to access, but it is worth the read.

The Town

Carthage, Texas is a town of less than 7,000 people.  It is located in Panola County.  The town sits about 20 miles east of the Louisiana border.  It is in the upper north corner of East Texas.

Carthage is in the part of East Texas where I come from – the pineywoods.   And, no, it ain’t two words.

In the 1940s and 50s, Carthage was known as the gas capital of the United States. Carthage is also the birthplace of country music legends Tex Ritter and Jim Reeves.

The Cast

Marjorie Nugent— who was in her early 80s at the time of her death—was the richest widow in Carthage, Texas.   In the movie, we are led to believe she was not a very nice person.

Bernie Tiede— who was in his late 30s at the time of his arrest—was the assistant director at the funeral home.  From all accounts I’ve read, he was very well liked in the area…even if he seemed a little light in the loafers.

The Crime

Bernie and Marjorie met in 1990 at Marjorie’s husband’s funeral. The two became BFFs.   Marjorie changed her will to name Bernie as the sole beneficiary of her $10 million estate.

By 1993, Bernie quit his job at the funeral home to work full-time for Mrs. Nugent as her business manager and travel companion.  During these years Bernie acted the role of wealthy philanthropist, donating quite a  bit of money to various causes.

In 1996, Bernie shot Mrs. Nugent four times in the back with a .22 caliber rifle. He placed the corpse in a large freezer — which East Texans call a deep freeze — covered her with a sheet, replaced the food on top of her, and left her there.

Nine months later, after people became suspicious about Mrs. Nugent’s extended absence, her body was found. Bernie confessed.

The Aftermath

Here’s where it gets sort of weird. Some of the citizens of Carthage did not seem as bothered by this development as one would think.  Many citizen insisted Bernie should be freed.

Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson was concerned that a jury of Tiede’s peers would not convict him.  He had the trial moved to San Augustine, Texas—about an hour’s drive south of Carthage and a world’s worth of difference.

In San Augustine, a jury of Bernie’s peers  Texas did what Danny Buck Davidson feared a Carthage jury would not do: they convicted Bernie Tiede of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison. He’s still there.

I don’t always recommend the movies I talk about, but I will recommend Bernie. We laughed out loud several times. It was like a trip back home.

Sources:

Midnight in the Garden of East Texas by Skip Hollandsworth 

Trial begins for man accused in death by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS With Sonny Bohanan 

How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze . . .    (If you can’t get the Hollandsworth article to work, this one might be a good substitute.)

Click here to watch a 10 minute documentary about Bernie Tiede.