Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Black Widow?




Secrets of woman with 5 dead husbands die with her

By MITCH WEISS, Associated Press, 6-14-11, CHARLOTTE, N.C.

     To the outside world, Betty Neumar was a diminutive Georgia grandmother with a shock of white hair who operated beauty shops, attended church and raised money for charity. No one asked questions when her last husband died.

         It wasn't until North Carolina investigators in 2008 reopened a 25-year-old murder case that the dark secrets of her past began to unravel. Police discovered that Neumar had left behind a decades-long trail of five dead husbands in five states.

          Any hope of answering lingering questions of her husbands' deaths — or the missing pieces of her life — faded Monday upon word that the 79-year-old died of an illness in a Louisiana hospital.

    "She took all those secrets to the grave," said Al Gentry, who spent 25 years pressing North Carolina authorities in vain to re-examine the death of his brother, Harold Gentry, Neumar's fourth husband.

     Neumar died late Sunday or early Monday, her son-in-law Terry Sanders told The Associated Press.

        "She was a tough country girl and fought through a lot of pain," said Sanders, who has been married 38 years to Neumar's daughter, Peggy.

         North Carolina authorities said they planned to look into her death. She was free on $300,000 bond on three counts of solicitation to commit first-degree murder in the 1986 death of Harold Gentry. Her trial was postponed numerous times since her arrest in 2008.

        "We're going to make sure we examine the death certificate," said Sheriff Rick Burris of Stanly County, N.C.

        While investigating Gentry's death, authorities discovered Neumar had been married five times since the 1950s and each union ended in her husband's death. Investigators in three states reopened several of the cases but have since closed them.

        For Al Gentry, Neumar's death is bittersweet. He spent a good part of his adult life pushing law enforcement authorities to solve the case — and he says he knows who was responsible: Neumar. The case was finally reopened in January 2008 after he asked Burris, then the newly elected sheriff, to look into it.

       "I'm numb," said Gentry, 65, of Rockwell, N.C. "I wanted justice and we're not going to get it."

         He said there were too many delays: the first was in the initial police investigation in 1986 and later with prosecutors. Her trial was supposed to have started this February, but was postponed to give a newly elected prosecutor more time to prepare.

        "We still haven't answered the question: Who actually killed my brother?" he said.

         The mysteries in Neumar's past may never be solved.

        From the beginning, law enforcement authorities told The Associated Press they had struggled to piece together details of Neumar's life because her story kept changing. But interviews, documents and court records provided an outline of her history in North Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Georgia, the states where she was married.

          She was born Betty Johnson in 1931 in Ironton, a hardscrabble southeastern Ohio town along the West Virginia border. Her father was a coal miner. She graduated from high school in 1949 and married Clarence Malone in November 1950. She told her friends she wanted to leave her hometown for a better life. It's unclear when their marriage broke up. Their son, Gary, was born March 13, 1952.

          Malone remarried twice. He was shot once in the back of the head outside his auto shop in a small town southwest of Cleveland in November 1970. His death was ruled a homicide, although police said there were no signs of robbery.

         Gary was eventually adopted by Neumar's second husband, James A. Flynn, although it's unclear when she met or married him. She told investigators that he "died on a pier" somewhere in New York in the mid-1950s. She and Flynn had a daughter, Peggy. 

        In the mid-1960s, Neumar, who was a beautician in Jacksonville, Fla., married husband No. 3: Richard Sills, who was in the Navy. For the last two years, Sills' son, Michael, has been urging police to reinvestigate his father's death, which was ruled a suicide. 

        On April 18, 1967, police found his body in the bedroom of the couple's mobile home in Big Coppitt Key, Fla. Neumar told police they were alone and arguing, when he pulled out a gun and shot himself. 

        Sills said he knew nothing about how his father died until he was contacted in 2009 by The Associated Press about Neumar's past. Since then, he has been drilling into the records. 

        After Neumar was charged in North Carolina, the Monroe County Sheriff's Department in Florida took another look at the death. 

         They uncovered Navy medical examiner documents revealing Richard Sills may have been shot twice — not once, as Neumar told police. One bullet from the .22-caliber pistol pierced his heart, while a second may have sliced his liver. 

        The Navy medical examiner at the time said that without an autopsy, he would be unable to determine if Richard Sills was shot once or twice. No autopsy was performed when he died. And without knowing the number of gunshot wounds, there's no way to know if his death was a suicide or homicide. 

           County investigators planned in 2009 to exhume Richard Sills' body from an Ocala, Fla., cemetery for an autopsy, but then determined a statute of limitations applied to the case. Investigators have said Florida law sets a time limit on prosecution of some categories of homicide, including involuntary manslaughter, but not on premeditated — or first-degree — murder. 

          Michael Sills then turned to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service cold case squad. The unit is studying the evidence and could decide to investigate. But that could end with Neumar's death. 

          After Richard Sills' death, she met Harold Gentry, who was in the Army, and they married on Jan. 19, 1968. The couple moved to Norwood, N.C., about an hour east of Charlotte, in the late 1970s after he retired from the Army after 21 years of service. 

          Over the years, Al Gentry recalls, she told the family she had been a nurse and that her first husband died of cancer. Her stories always changed. At first pleasant, she grew to become "cold" to his brother and family, Al Gentry said. Other family members also said she could be verbally abusive — her mood changing quickly — especially after she had a few drinks. 

          In November, 1985, her son, Gary, was found shot to death in his Ohio apartment. Police ruled his death a suicide. But Neumar was the beneficiary on her son's life insurance policy — even though he was married with children. She also collected about $20,000 in insurance money when Harold Gentry was killed. 

           She also had a life insurance policy on husband No. 5, John Neumar, who died in October, 2007. She met him when she moved to Augusta, Ga., after Harold Gentry's death. There, she opened a beauty shop and did charity work. People in the community called her Bea and knew nothing about her past. 

           Georgia authorities two years ago closed their re-examination of the death of John Neumar, saying they had no evidence she was involved. His family has criticized the conclusion. 

          At the time, John Neumar's family said she isolated him from the rest of the family, and didn't know he had died until reading his obituary in the local newspaper. When they visited the funeral home, they discovered he had been cremated.

NOTEWhen stories like this pop up unexpectedly (or does that sound naive -- at the point, can anything that occurs really be considered unexpected?), one takes notice. 

Normally, I would say that this sort of thing appeals more to Caroline's curiosity than mine, but I love the 1987 movie "Black Widow" starring the beautiful and haunting Theresa Russell (above).  And like everybody else, I expect, I've been fascinated with the concept of black widow spiders (below) since I first learned about them when I was very, very young. 

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