CLOWN

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - LOCAL -

won’t com­ment while a crim­i­nal case is pend­ing. Palm Beach County Sher­iff Ric Brad­shaw will say only that po­lice had to be cer­tain be­fore ar­rest­ing Sheila War­ren.

“There’s one thing to think some­one did some­thing and there’s an­other thing to know that they did it and be able to prove it in court,” he said dur­ing a news con­fer­ence.

A sur­prise at the door

The South Florida Sun Sentinel pored over the court files to pre­pare its lat­est episode of Felo­nious Florida, a pod­cast that takes a deep look into some of Florida’s most no­to­ri­ous cases.

Records show that in­ves­ti­ga­tors sus­pected Sheila Keen im­me­di­ately. They claim she put on a clown out­fit on May 26, 1990, and hopped into a stolen white Chrysler LeBaron. She drove to the War­rens’ home in the 15000 block of Take Off Place in the ex­clu­sive Aero Club de­vel­op­ment in Welling­ton, and rang the door­bell.

“How sweet!” Marlene War­ren said when she saw the clown at her door­way, de­liv­er­ing bal­loons with a bou­quet of car­na­tions ar­ranged in a white bas­ket. “You’re the great­est!” was writ­ten on one bal­loon.

War­ren, 40, an­swered the door.

The clown pulled out a gun — po­lice said it was ei­ther a .38- or .357-cal­iber pis­tol — and fired a sin­gle shot at point-blank range into War­ren’s face. Her son, who was home at the time, tried to save her and chase after the clown, to no avail.

Marlene War­ren never had a chance. Ma­chines kept her alive for two days.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion seemed to go quickly at first.

Ac­cord­ing to po­lice re­ports, in­ves­ti­ga­tors heard ru­mors that War­ren’s hus­band, Michael, owner of Bar­gain Mo­tors in West Palm Beach, was hav­ing an af­fair with Sheila Keen, the es­tranged wife of one of the men who worked for War­ren re­pos­sess­ing cars from peo­ple who failed to make pay­ments.

With Marlene War­ren on life sup­port at nearby Palms West Hos­pi­tal, a de­tec­tive ap­proached her hus­band and asked him ques­tions about the shoot­ing.

He was quick to say he had “no idea who would do this” to his wife. He told po­lice he was on his way to watch a horse race in Mi­ami as the bul­let was be­ing fired.

He sug­gested to the de­tec­tive that per­haps it was a grudge shoot­ing com­mit­ted by an evicted ten­ant. Michael and Marlene owned 17 rental prop­er­ties in a rough part of Palm Beach County, and Marlene man­aged them.

That meant hav­ing to col­lect rent — and evict ten­ants who couldn’t pay.

The get­away ve­hi­cle

Bar­gain Mo­tors didn’t deal with Chryslers, War­ren told po­lice.

But a neigh­bor­ing busi­ness did. A cou­ple vis­it­ing from out of town had rented a LeBaron from Pay­less Rent A Car, a lot in West Palm Beach not far from Michael War­ren’s busi­ness.

They called a num­ber they found on an ad in a tele­phone book to get in­struc­tions for how to re­turn the car — but they un­know­ingly called Bar­gain Mo­tors in­stead, po­lice said.

The per­son who an­swered the call told the cou­ple to leave the car out­side the gate to Pay­less, with the keys in the sun vi­sor.

Em­ploy­ees at a Publix less than a mile from Keen’s home called po­lice after the shoot­ing to re­port that a woman match­ing her de­scrip­tion bought flow­ers and bal­loons less than 90 min­utes be­fore the shoot­ing, ac­cord­ing to po­lice re­ports.

Em­ploy­ees of a nearby cos­tume shop also said a woman pur­chased a clown suit from them two days ear­lier

Within days of the mur­der, the Publix clerks who sold the flow­ers and bal­loons — and the cos­tume store em­ploy­ees who sold the clown suit — all picked Sheila Keen’s pic­ture out of a photo lineup, records show.

Po­lice even found the Chrysler, parked in out­side a su­per­mar­ket eight miles from the War­ren home. A later search of the ve­hi­cle turned up orange fibers from a wig and sev­eral strands of long brown hair.

In May 1991, on the an­niver­sary of the shoot­ing, a de­tec­tive work­ing the mur­der case de­clared there was enough ev­i­dence to make an ar­rest. But state at­tor­neys were con­cerned there was not enough phys­i­cal ev­i­dence for a suc­cess­ful pros­e­cu­tion.

Jeff Mar­cus, chief as­sis­tant state at­tor­ney in neigh­bor­ing Broward County, said pros­e­cu­tors need a lot more ev­i­dence than po­lice when it comes to de­cid­ing to ask a jury to send some­one to prison for the rest of her life — or to death row.

“If po­lice think they have prob­a­ble cause, they can make an ar­rest,” said Mar­cus, who is not con­nected to the case. “We’re think­ing of a lot more than prob­a­ble cause. We have to prove our case be­yond a rea­son­able doubt.”

Pros­e­cu­tors get only one chance at a jury. If they fail, a killer could go free.

Le­gal ad­vice

In the sum­mer of 1991, in­ves­ti­ga­tors talked to Christo­pher DeSan­tis, an at­tor­ney who rep­re­sented the vic­tim’s son in an at­tempted mur­der case two years ear­lier. Ac­cord­ing to the lawyer’s sworn state­ment, DeSan­tis said Michael War­ren asked him what would hap­pen to a woman’s es­tate if her hus­band killed her.

It was an odd ques­tion, DeSan­tis said, but he an­swered as though it were hy­po­thet­i­cal. He said if some­one else com­mit­ted the mur­der and it could not be traced back to the hus­band, the hus­band would in­herit her as­sets

Years later, re­view­ing his state­ment after Sheila Keen’s ar­rest, DeSan­tis re­mem­bered some­thing else he told Michael War­ren in 1989.

One way to get away with mur­der, DeSan­tis said he told Michael, would be to wear a dis­guise so no­body would be able iden­tify the killer, even whether it was a man or a woman.

A dis­guise such as a clown suit, DeSan­tis told him.

Around the same time as the ini­tial po­lice in­ter­view with DeSan­tis, the North­west­ern Mu­tual Life In­sur­ance com­pany paid out the claim on Marlene War­ren’s death pol­icy. Michael was the sole ben­e­fi­ciary and was given a check for $53,357.37.

The pay­out was an­other piece of cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence that raised sus­pi­cion but, in pros­e­cu­tors’ opin­ion, was not enough to charge any­one with mur­der.

‘Get on with it’

A few months later, pros­e­cu­tors went after Michael War­ren for busi­ness-re­lated felonies — rack­e­teer­ing, odome­ter fraud and grand theft.

“We have strong in­for­ma­tion that links the de­fen­dant as a pos­si­ble sus­pect in the mur­der of his wife, Marlene War­ren,” Pros­e­cu­tor Allen Geesey told the court dur­ing a hear­ing in Oc­to­ber 1991.

Still, no charges, and the judge on the rack­e­teer­ing case no­ticed.

Palm Beach County Cir­cuit Court Judge Wal­ter Col­bath Jr. ini­tially re­fused to send War­ren to prison after he was con­victed of the fi­nan­cial crime charges in 1992.

If Michael War­ren’s wife had not been the vic­tim of the so-called “clown mur­der,” he never would have been tried for rack­e­teer­ing, the judge said. If you have ev­i­dence to charge Michael with killing his wife, Judge Col­bath told pros­e­cu­tors, then “get on with it.”

An ap­peals court in­ter­vened, and War­ren was later sen­tenced to nine years in prison.

The mur­der case grew cold. The pile of cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence wasn’t enough to per­suade pros­e­cu­tors to go for­ward, and no new in­for­ma­tion was com­ing in.

New life

Good be­hav­ior got Michael War­ren out of prison in 1997. In 2002, he mar­ried Sheila Keen in Las Ve­gas. They moved to Ten­nessee, where their friends knew her as “Deb­bie.”

They later moved to Vir­ginia but con­tin­ued to run a restau­rant, The Pur­ple Cow, on the other side of the Ten­nessee bor­der on Lee High­way. They even­tu­ally sold the restau­rant and lived as a wealthy re­tired cou­ple in Abing­don, Vir­ginia, in the Blue Ridge Moun­tains.

Their friends were un­aware of their con­nec­tion to Florida, their pre­vi­ous mar­riages or Michael War­ren’s time in prison.

Then a fed­eral grant of $125,000 breathed new life into the mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The Palm Beach Sher­iff’s Of­fice formed a task force to re-in­ves­ti­gate the killer clown case in late 2013.

DNA tests con­ducted decades ear­lier were not con­clu­sive, but with im­proved DNA tech­nol­ogy, lead de­tec­tive Paige McCann or­dered new tests by an FBI lab.

The new tests con­nected the hair found in the Chrysler LeBaron to Keen, who had pro­vided DNA sam­ples ear­lier in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Mean­while a for­mer em­ployee of Michael War­ren’s gave in­ves­ti­ga­tors more in­for­ma­tion con­nect­ing him and Keen to the stolen LeBaron.

The orange fibers tied the stolen car to the crime scene.

Fi­nally, an ar­rest

By Septem­ber 26, 2017, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials were ready to make one ar­rest.

Po­lice caught up with Seila War­ren and her hus­band as they were driv­ing home to Abing­don from a trip to Ver­mont, ac­cord­ing to an ar­rest re­port.

She asked if she was un­der ar­rest.

Yes, the of­fi­cer told her.

“Is my hus­band un­der ar­rest?” she asked, hand­cuffed in the back­seat of a po­lice cruiser.

“Not yet,” said the of­fi­cer. It was news that Marlene’s mother, Shirley Twing, had waited 27 years and four months to hear. “I hope she gets what she de­serves,” Twing said. “Then maybe I can rest.”

Sheila War­ren has pleaded not guilty to the mur­der. She faces the death penalty if con­victed.

rolmeda@Sun­Sen­tinel.com, 954-356-4457, Twit­ter @SSCourts and @rolmeda

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