So where were we? Oh, yeah, Atlanta. In the summer of 2014, right after the kidney-stone-in-the-parking -lot incident but before I spent the bulk of the next six months hanging around with the Alabama Shakes, who succeeded in spite of me and have not yet banned me from their shows.
And, uh, well, that gets us up to 2015 during which I did many things very similar to things that I had done in 2014. And then 2016, where I did pretty much what I did in 2015. I went east one year, west the next. There were coffee shops. There were bars. There were Anytime Fitnesses. There were wrong turns and happy accidents. There were elk herds and blizzards, oceanside cliffs and big city back alleys. The giant North American loop that is my life wound its way through places where , for the most part, I’d been before. (Hello Cleveland, my old friend.) There were nights when I wasn’t entirely sure where I was and completely unsure of where I might be going. It was fun. Is still is. But I’ve written plenty about those places, those roads, those long stretches of not knowing or caring about what might be around the next curve.
So enough of this rear view mirror stuff. For now anyway. There are plenty of dispatches from the Traipsathon’s first five years. Go back and read them at your leisure. But me, I’ve got other shit to do.
By which I mean that I’ve spent most of the last month back in East Texas for another “Bernie” trial.
I’ve been a lot more involved this time around, not just as an observer but as a somewhat reluctant participant, a witness called on Bernie’s behalf to testify that, yeah, Aunt Marge had a history of controlling and abusive behavior and that, when crossed, she was prone to losing her shit. This would be the infamous garden shears incident that was in my New York Times magazine story , the one about me getting locked up in Aunt Marge’s house for two days because I refused to follow her commands.
Here’s what happened after the movie (and my story about the case) came out in 2012: An Austin attorney named Jodi Cole called me up and said she’d already spoken to Richard Linklater (the director of the “Bernie” film) about looking through the case files to see if she could find anything that might help Bernie appeal his conviction or at least reduce his life sentence. Rick said, “Sure, knock yourself out,” or words to that effect, and gave her access to the files he’d kept from the original trial.
And I’ll be damned if Jodi didn’t find something. A list of books, four of them, that had been taken from Bernie’s house on the night of his arrest in 1997.They were all about dealing with the after-effects of childhood sexual abuse. So, Jodi wondered, had Bernie been abused as a child? Had this come up in the trial? And, if not, why not?
It didn’t. Because Bernie had never mentioned his being sexually abused by an uncle when he was 12 years old to anyone. And at first he denied it to Jodi. He told her that the stack of books was just a coincidence, random arrivals from a book of the month club that all just happened to deal with recovering from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.
He was lying. Bernie’s lied a lot in his life and not just during those months when he pretended Aunt Marge was alive when she was actually dead in the freezer in the hallway off the garage. He was a closeted gay man in a small east Texas town, never acknowledging his homosexuality in public or private, not even to the men he slept with. Bernie was desperate to be liked, to be accepted, to be thought of as everybody’s best friend. You can’t do that without lying . Mostly to yourself.
So of course he lied to Jodi about being sexually abused. He finally admitted that yes, his Uncle Elmer had lured him to his house, shown him pornographic videos and eventually fondled and had sex with him. This went on from the time Bernie was 12 until the time he was 17. But it hadn’t been sexual abuse, Bernie told Jodi, because he’d enjoyed it.
Jodi Cole, who has a personal history with abuse and addiction, didn’t buy it. And she wouldn’t let Bernie continue to sell it to himself. When you are 12 years old sex can NOT be consensual, whether you enjoy it or not. And when the person doing the abusing is your uncle – at that point the closest thing to a male authority figure that Bernie had in his life – there’s no way it isn’t harmful. Jodi was adamant that Bernie needed to recognize this. And, she decided, so did the court.
He finally admitted his history of childhood abuse and Jodi promptly hired a couple of psychiatrists to interview him in prison and render judgment as to whether any of this might explain the very odd tale of how and why he murdered Aunt Marge.
Most people, when they heard him talk about how abusive Aunt Marge had become, — how she’d demanded to know where he was every minute of the day, how he expected her to cut her toenails and pluck her chin hairs, how she insulted his friends and treated him like a worthless peon – wonder why he didn’t just leave. And then, after he killed her, why on earth did he leave her in the freezer? He had to know – didn’t he? – that sooner or later she was going to be found. He could have disposed of the body in any number of ways. He was a mortician with a pilot’s license. But he didn’t. He left her there.
The psychiatrists confirmed what Jodi had guessed – that Bernie’s irrational actions before, after and, most importantly DURING the murder were directly tied to his history with Uncle Elmer. He was, on a certain brainwave level, incapable of walking away from Aunt Marge, no matter how badly she treated him. And equally incapable of walking away AFTER he murdered her. The murder itself, they said, was most likely a dissociative episode, a brain wiring malfunction where he lost control, however briefly, of the rage and turmoil that he’d probably been suppressing for years. That didn’t absolve him of responsibility for the murder, they said, but it was a likely explanation for why he did it.
Based on this new evidence Jodi filed a motion for a reduced sentence. If the dissociative episode could be treated as a form of “sudden passion” under Texas law then Bernie’s sentence would have been no more than 20 years. He’d already served 17. So Jodi went to the Panola County district, Danny Buck Davidson (played by Matthew McConaughey in the movie) and said, basically, “Look what I found. You ought to let him out.”
I thought the chances of this working were somewhere in the vicinity of No Fucking Way. This was the biggest case of Danny Buck’s prosecutorial life, the one he’d risked his reputation to pursue, the one that made him – for at least a few minutes – famous. Why in the world would he overrule himself? Do prosecutors ever say, “You know what, you’re right. We screwed up.” No! Of course they don’t.
Except that he did.
Danny Buck looked at Jodi’s evidence and agreed that if it had been admitted in Bernie’s original trial he would have gotten 20 years instead of life, that it would have been classified second degree murder instead of first. Which would have meant Bernie would be out by now. So Danny Buck, in what strikes me as an act of genuine moral courage, let him out.
There were conditions. Officially Bernie was out on bond, pending a new sentencing, which everyone thought was a mere formality, a procedural necessity in which Bernie’s new sentence – agreed to by the defense, the prosecutor and the presiding judge — would pass through the Texas appellate courts and then be finalized. That might take a year or so.
In the interim, Bernie was subject to certain restrictions. He couldn’t have any contact with either the media or the victim’s family (which meant he REALLY couldn’t talk to me). He couldn’t travel outside a few counties without getting permission from a parole officer. He had to have a job. And he had to have a guardian, someone who could vouch for his whereabouts. Richard Linklater volunteered.
Which is how a convicted murderer ended up living in an Oscar-nominated director’s back yard. Linklater set him up in a garage apartment behind his house in Austin, where Bernie took care of the pets – chickens and a particularly affectionate pot-bellied pig among them – and occasionally Linklater’s youngest kids. They adored him. Everyone did.
So a weird story got even weirder. Bernie had gone from a penitentiary inmate to a happily-out gay man in Austin, Texas, a singer in the Austin Gay Men’s Chorus, not to mention his new life surrounded by Linklater’s family and friends. So, yeah, he was hanging out with Ethan Hawke and Jack Black and God knows who else. It looked like a fairy tale ending.
Well, no. When my cousin, Rod Nugent Jr., Aunt Marge’s only child, learned that Bernie had gotten out early, he was livid. The Nugents – Rod, his wife Sylvia, daughters Shanna, Susan and Victoria and adopted son Matthew – had inherited Marge’s millions but were still pressing for additional theft charges against Bernie, convinced he’d hidden away money somewhere, maybe in a Swiss bank account, before and after he shot her.It turns out that the Nugents – and I didn’t know this before I started researching the case – have a reputation for being a particularly venal and litigious lot, a trait they inherited from Aunt Marge. It was part of the reason Marge had refused to see them for the last three years of her life. She’d tried to cut them out of her will. There were lawsuits. It was ugly.
And now they were hell-bent on putting Bernie back in prison and punishing Danny Buck for letting him out. Poor Danny Buck, who’d had his fill of their constant demands regarding the theft case, didn’t even bother to tell them Bernie had been released. They did not take this well.
The Nugents, it turns out, are very active in Republican Party politics in the state of Texas. They’d organized fund-raisers, contributed a fair amount of money themselves. They had connections. And they used them.
They got the attorney general to pressure Danny Buck into recusing himself from the case. They got the appeals process stopped in its tracks. And they got the Attorney General’s office to take over the case.
And, just like that, the deal disappeared. Instead of a pro forma hearing to finalize Bernie’s freedom there would be a sentencing retrial, in which the state prosecutors would argue that Bernie deserved the life sentence he got the first time around. They would try to convince a jury that Bernie should go back to prison.
There were months of motions and hearings and attempts to avoid the spectacle that would surely accompany any new trial. This was now a Hollywood murder, after all. A nationally-known case made famous by a film. Bernie’s original trial had been news in Texas but this would be a whole other beast. Nancy Grace fodder. A full blown shit show. From the first day there were producers in the courtroom from “Good Morning America” and “48 Hours” and, yes, a field producer representing Nancy Grace.
The prosecutors would have been thrilled to have the trial in Carthage, where public sentiment had turned in the years since “Bernie” the movie was released. The citizenry decided they’d been made a laughing stock “by Hollywood” and were about to be mocked again. They blamed Linklater. They blamed Danny Buck. And most of all they blamed Bernie.
So the trial was moved 30 miles east to Henderson, Texas, as if those 30 miles would make some kind of difference. The defense team would be led by Mike DeGeurin, whose brother Dick you might remember from the “Jinxed” HBO documentary, the one where Robert Durst got away with cutting up his elderly next door neighbor in Galveston. Dick DeGeurin was Robert Durst’s lawyer. His brother, Mike, was less well-known but a pretty high profile criminal attorney in his own right. And now he was Bernie’s attorney. (cue the song).
He didn’t come cheap. Which is why, in January, there was a supposedly top-secret fundraiser in Austin to help with Bernie’s legal expenses. Because of the gag order, Rick and Jodi didn’t want public word to get out. It did, of course. Resulting in the kind of knee-jerk condemnation you might expect, especially from the Nugents, who’d hired their own public relations expert to help demonize Bernie and soften Aunt Marge’s image. But this fit perfectly into their “Hollywood vs. Justice” meme, a room fully of big-money Austinites, sipping champagne and hobnobbing with celebrities to keep a killer out of jail.
And, let’s face it, it was an incredibly surreal night. Here was Bernie, who is still very much a small-town Jesus-loving guy, looking incredibly out of place surrounded by all these trust fund hipsters. They all wanted to meet him, of course. So he gingerly moved from one cluster of strangers to another, smiling and shaking their hands, just the way he used to do after services at the First Methodist Church in Carthage. It was weird as shit.
And then it got weirder. Rick Linklater gave a little speech, thanking everyone. Then Bernie sang a couple of songs and then Jack Black, who’d been working the room like he was running for office, got up and delivered a speech and sang a few songs of himself. They did a duet on “Love Lifted Me” from the movie. I know.
But it got weirder still. Because Jack Black had brought along his Tenacious D buddy, Kyle Gass and they did an entire Tenacious D set, obscenity-laden, loud raucous and meant for arena-sized crowds. There were maybe 50 people in the room. Bernie smiled but in a way that made it clear he was at least semi-horrified. Then they invited him on stage, at which point he was completely horrified.
Jack Black asked Bernie if he knew any Beatles songs and Bernie, said that, yes, he did, clearly expecting that they were going to sing “Yesterday” or “All My Loving” or something like that. Instead, Tenacious D launched into the Side 2 medley from Abbey Road which Bernie, quite clearly, had never heard in his life. He smiled, he nodded. He sang not a word.
When it was over, I asked Kyle Gass if this was the weirdest gig Tenacious D had ever played. At first he laughed it off. “We played some pretty strange places when we were starting out,” he said. He went back to packing his guitar and then came back over. “No, you’re right,” he said. “This was pretty bizarre.”
(Next week: The trial begins)