The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

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August 23, 2013

Based on a true story: Panola DA shares “Bernie” story with Rotary Club

PALESTINE — The Palestine Rotary Club got the inside scoop the murder trial that brought one Texas town to the attention of Hollywood.

Panola County Criminal District Attorney and Carthage resident Danny ‘Buck’ Davidson regaled local Rotarians with stories of the murder trial of mortician Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede. Tiede confessed to the 1996 murder of 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent after he shot her in the back four times and stuffed her into a chest-type freezer in her carport. Nugent was discovered nine months later by her granddaughter.

“I like it when they confess,” Davidson joked, “makes my job so much easier.”

The case inspired the 2012 film “Bernie” which starred Jack Black and Shirley McClaine. Davidson was portrayed by Matthew McConaughey.

A synopsis of the movie, as published on the website, states, “Based on a seriocomic 1998 Texas Monthly article by co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, the plot revolves around the unlikely relationship between Bernie, a relentlessly thoughtful assistant funeral director, and Marjorie Nugent, recently widowed and one of the richest women in Carthage. As Bernie becomes indispensable to the fabric of the community with his acts of charitable kindness, his Broadway-style choir solos, and his gentlemanly way of comforting widows in the throes of their grief, the ever-scowling Marjorie is always ready for battle with not only the townsfolk who impede on her life but even her immediate family who can't stand her. Bernie, however, is able to breakthrough her icy veneer with his cheery persistence, and their relationship evolves into an unhealthy codependence to put it mildly. As Marjorie lavishes Bernie with expensive gifts and luxurious vacations, she grows increasingly manipulative in her need to control his every move to meet her every need.”

Davidson said it was Nugent’s family situation that helped Tiede cover up her death for nine months.

“She was killed in November and discovered the next August — now, what do we have during that time period? We got Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day, her birthday ...,” he said with a shrug. “Her family was not looking for her, but they got real mad when they found out he’d spent a bunch of her money after her death — ‘bout $6 million worth.”

It was Nugent’s stockbroker that finally became suspicious of Nugent’s whereabouts after being rebuffed numerous times while trying to obtain her signature on some paperwork.

He said much of the movie stayed true to the facts of the case and the personalities at the time.

“Jack Black did a tremendous job,” he said. “In fact, the way he walks in the movie is just like how Bernie walks in real life — like a penguin.”

Parts of the movie Davidson said they did not get right included the part about repossessing playground equipment and that the Methodist church Tiede pledged $100,000 to did not have to pay any money back.

“What happened was the church wanted to build a new church but didn’t have the funds to do it,” he remembered. “So Bernie steps up and writes a $100,000 check but tells them they can’t cash it until he sells off some stock. Well, not to be outdone, two other well-do-to families jump on the bandwagon and put up $100,000 each too. The funniest thing, the check Bernie wrote was never any good at all.

“Oh, and I never said she (Nugent) was frozen like a popsicle. That did get in the movie, but I didn’t ever say that.”

Davidson said while Tiede may have been well-loved by his community — many of whom maintain he never could have killed Nugent — he thinks Tiede’s confession more than amply underlines exactly what type of man he really is.

“I asked him probably more than 300 questions to try and get the whole truth,” Davidson said. “Things about how he did things after he shot her, like did he put her in the freezer feet first or head first? He said he didn’t remember that part. But one of his answers did stick with me — I asked him how he could sit in church, even sing in the choir, knowing what he’d done to that little old lady.

“He said it made him feel bad, so he just didn’t think about it.”

Davidson said he feels like he did his job, which was, as he puts it, to make sure justice was done. Tiede received life in prison and a $10,000 fine in the murder of Marjorie Nugent.

The Palestine Rotary Club meets at noon every Wednesday at the Ben E. Keith community room.

Cristin Reece may be reached via e-mail at

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