‘Bernie’ is stranger than fiction

When the legend becomes fact,” newspaper editor Maxwell Scott said in the classic western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “print the legend.” Trust me, that’s not a problem when the story of Bernie Tiede is the topic of conversation for Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson. It’s probably safe to say, fact beats out any legend that might be conjured up at this point.

For nearly an hour Wednesday, the longtime East Texas prosecutor held the attention of a capacity crowd of Lions Club members and guests, reciting some details from his most famous conviction.

Davidson is unopposed while seeking a fifth term as prosecuting attorney in nearby Panola County. He combines folksy charm with the right amount of roughness around the edges, and that plays well on the campaign trail in East Texas, not to mention courtrooms around this part of the state.

The tale of Bernie Tiede could only be non-fiction, because, frankly, no one could make this stuff up. Tiede moved to Carthage in the 1980s and did all the right things upon arriving in town, Davidson said.

“He joined the church, he joined the chamber and he joined a civic organization,” Davidson said. “He did all the things that are going to make people like you. Nobody was bed-checking anybody here.”

While working at a Carthage funeral home, Tiede took up with a wealthy widow named Marjorie Nugent. That relationship ended in November 1996 when Tiede shot Nugent four times and stuffed her body in a freezer inside her own home.

Filmmaker Richard Linklater who directed the 2011 film named “Bernie” said he’s still waiting on someone to say something nice about Nugent. Davidson followed pretty much the same tack on Wednesday. “I’ll just tell you, she was mean-spirited.” For example… Davidson said it took Nugent’s family nine months to become concerned enough to look for her. It was August 1997 before her body was discovered. Gesturing toward longtime Rusk County investigator William Brown, Davidson said, “William drops out of sight for nine months, you don’t think someone’s going to look for him?”

In the aftermath of Nugent’s death, many in the shocked community had trouble believing Tiede could kill anyone. In fact, Davidson made the unheard of move to seek a change of venue, believing he couldn’t get a conviction in Panola County. The trial shifted to nearby San Augustine County, a locale best described as “rural.” Watching “Bernie” a couple years ago, I thought it accurately depicted life in a rural southern town like Carthage. Without a doubt, Linklater’s movie was rather harsh in its portrayal of the 12 jurors from San Augustine.

Linklater’s finished product, “Bernie,” starred Jack Black as the title character. Davidson was portrayed by Longview native Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley McClain played the role of Mrs. Nugent. Once “Bernie” was completed, the filmmaker asked Davidson if he ought to screen the movie in Carthage. “I told him, ‘Sure you can show the movie in Carthage. But don’t let your car break down in San Augustine.’”

The jury, made up of working class East Texans, proved to be a bad fit for a defendant like Tiede. Particularly once Tiede testified he retired at age 28 to manage Nugent’s affairs. “They were conservative, salt-of-the-earth people,” Davidson said, describing the jury.

For the most part, “Bernie” – best described as a dark comedy – was accurate in its portrayal of the case, Davidson said. One thing it did get wrong was no one went around repossessing playground equipment Tiede had donated with the help of Nugent’s money. And the First United Methodist Church in Carthage didn’t have to return Tiede’s $100,000 pledge for a building fund because, well… it was only a pledge.

And the story’s not over. Earlier this year, Tiede sought a new hearing based on evidence he was sexually abused as a child. Tiede returned to Panola County, and for now Davidson is waiting to see what happens next. “There’s no news,” he said. “We’re just talking to shrinks right now.”

When it comes to Bernie, fact is more than enough to make a good story.


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