Nancy Howard had no idea someone was following her that day.
In the morning, she headed to the First Baptist church in Carrollton, not far from her home. There was a women’s tea, and Nancy was hosting two tables. Her husband Frank had helped her pack the decorations into her car before he’d left on a business trip a few nights earlier. After tea, she went home before returning to church for a baptism service of a family friend. By the time she left First Baptist again, just before 7:30 in the evening, it was raining. A silver Nissan trailed her.
On her way home, Nancy stopped at Taco Bueno and picked up a steak fajita dinner in the drive-through. Then the 53-year-old mother of three grown children drove to the family’s immaculate two-story brick house on Bluebonnet Way, where she expected to relax in front of the TV. She pulled into the garage and got out of her car, carrying her purse and her Taco Bueno bag. That’s when she felt someone grab her around the neck and put a gun to her head.
She heard the young man demand her purse, but the words didn’t register. She wrestled away, turning to face him, and the seriousness of the moment caught up with her. A man she’d never seen before stood in front of her. He was in his 20s, with facial hair, wearing a black baseball cap, and holding a silver gun. He repeated himself, louder this time: “Give me your purse!”
In a moment of panic, Nancy tried to give him her purse but handed him the Taco Bueno bag instead. She could see him getting angry, and she shoved her purse at him with both hands, pushing him back a step. Then he lifted the gun and pointed it at her face. Before he pulled the trigger, she cried out: “Jesus, save me!”
A .380 caliber bullet entered her left temple, traveled through her sinus cavity, down her throat, and stopped in her right lung. The man ran away with her purse, leaving the bag of food on the rain-soaked driveway and Nancy bleeding on the garage floor.
They met at church in San Marcos. Frank Howard had a deep, gentle voice and piercing eyes. He had been married briefly in college—Nancy attended the ceremony—but it didn’t work out. Nancy had a great voice, too, and violet eyes that drew comparisons to Elizabeth Taylor’s. Frank’s father, a Baptist preacher, married them in 1983. Their first daughter, Ashley, came two years later. The family moved to the suburbs of Dallas, eventually settling in Carrollton, where they found a good school district and a church they liked. They had two more kids, Jay and Brianna, and established a comfortable life together.
Frank was an accountant who shared his small firm with a business partner. They had offices in Addison—decorated by Nancy—and more than 500 clients. Nancy called herself a “domestic engineer.” In addition to cooking and cleaning and keeping a schedule for her husband, for more than 20 years she made sure their three beautiful children made it to school on time and to their various activities. She also served in the PTA and volunteered on most of the school field trips. Together, Frank and Nancy hosted one of the church’s youth groups, and they sang in the choir on Sundays. Their son Jay would later tell people, “If the doors to First Baptist were open, my parents were probably inside.”
The marriage wasn’t perfect. Nancy struggled with depression and the chronic pain of fibromyalgia, and at one point Frank battled prostate cancer. While the health problems were stressful, the couple seemed to come through them with a stronger bond. They had healthy discussions before any major business moves or big purchases. (They worried Frank’s new Lexus might be too flashy.) They worked together to present a united front to their children. Nancy told people that she’d raised her kids to “love, honor, and respect their dad.” When their youngest, Brianna, graduated from high school a few years back, Nancy looked forward to their “empty nester years” and hoped she and Frank could rekindle the spark they’d had early in their relationship.
In May 2009, Frank told Nancy that he’d be taking on a new client and that he’d probably need to travel more. She was surprised that he hadn’t consulted her first. Frank told her that he hoped he’d still be able to make her happy.
The new client was Richard Raley, a Colleyville businessman who’d made millions on Defense Department contracts, supplying ice to troops in Iraq. His longtime accountant had recently died, and Raley needed help bringing more than $30 million from Kuwait into the United States. He offered Frank office space in Grapevine and the use of his private jet, and he eventually made the accountant his chief financial officer.
That summer, Nancy went on a mission trip to Africa with Brianna. It was a chance to spend some time together before her daughter headed out of state for college. But when they got back and Frank picked them up from the airport, Nancy noticed that something about her husband had changed—though she couldn’t put her finger on it. Frank was rarely emotional, but on the way home, he broke down in tears. At the time, he chalked it up to the death of a close family friend.
Soon Frank was traveling all the time. He was in Florida, then California, then Europe or Kuwait. He’d call or email, but Nancy was alone for long stretches, and she wasn’t happy. She’d never met Richard Raley, but she thought Frank’s new client was tearing their marriage apart.
Suzanne Leontieff is a dental hygienist in her early 50s from Santa Cruz, California. She has blond hair, a youthful face, and a perky, high-pitched voice. Her two daughters played competitive softball, and she traveled with them to tournaments all over California.
On the weekend of July 25, 2009—while Nancy was in Africa—Suzanne was at a tournament in Lake Tahoe. Killing time between games, she decided to hit the tables at a casino called Harveys. At one table, she met a man named Frank. He said he was in town for business, and he seemed nice, with a deep, gentle voice, and a head full of thick, black hair. After drinking and talking for half an hour or so, she had to go, but she saw him after dinner at a different table. They gambled together for a few hours that night, and when she walked through the same area the next day, she found him again. By that Sunday, they had exchanged phone numbers, and he was asking if she had any plans for the next weekend. Suzanne was married but separated, working on her divorce. She knew Frank was married, too, but he told her it wasn’t going well.
“He said he just hadn’t been happy,” she says, “but not miserable either.”
They talked on the phone and texted throughout the week, and the next weekend he invited her to meet him in Reno. They went to another casino and drank and talked as they walked around. She had her own room that weekend, but she spent a lot of time in his. They talked about the man she was leaving, and they talked about Frank’s wife, Nancy. A week after they met, Suzanne says, Frank was talking about a divorce “constantly.” A few weeks later, as Frank was creating holding corporations to move Richard Raley’s money, he named three of the companies after Suzanne. One was called SLH, as in Suzanne Leontieff-Howard, her name if they were married.
They kept talking, seeing each other every few weeks, but it went beyond that. He paid for softball tournaments. He helped pay for Suzanne’s oldest daughter’s college. He rented—and then bought—a boat for $30,000. In January 2010, he bought Suzanne a house in Santa Cruz worth $900,000, paying cash. He bought a condo in Tahoe worth nearly $380,000.
There were trips, too. He brought Suzanne to a suite at a Mavs game in 2010 and to a Steelers game in Pittsburgh. He brought her to the Super Bowl the next year. He took Suzanne and her daughters to a Giants game in San Francisco and to the Bahamas for seven days. (She told her kids he was already separated.) When he could, he flew her on the private jet. When he couldn’t, he paid for her commercial flights, and for their food and hotel rooms. And he always stayed with her, even when she came to Dallas.
Frank also started an IRA for Suzanne. He sent her a check for $500,000 and a wire transfer for $200,000. When her divorce finally went through and she lost her health insurance, he put her on the payroll of Raley’s company. He even kept a framed photo in his office from a helicopter trip they took.
Suzanne says they were in love. They rarely fought. And when they did, it was about Frank getting a divorce. She wanted it done and dreamed of a time when she could move to Texas to live with him. He told her that he and Nancy slept in separate rooms, that he’d file for divorce soon. But there was always something that got in the way: a graduation, a marriage, an illness, what he said was Nancy’s fragile mental health. He always had an excuse.
Billie Earl Johnson is in his early 50s. He’s thin and wiry, with a goatee and tattoos on his arms, chest, and neck. He has an affinity for methamphetamine and motorcycles, and he has spent more than a quarter of his life behind bars. When he got out in February 2009, his younger brother Chris was waiting for him, ready to bring him home to East Texas, an area full of tall pines and rusty truck-stop towns.
Chris and his wife set Billie up with a woman who worked with them at Van Tone, a flavor manufacturing company in Terrell. When the woman broke up with Billie in July 2009, he didn’t respond well. He phoned her at all hours, harassing her, threatening her in the middle of the night. She worried that Billie might show up at her work, as he had in the past, and she told the people at Van Tone to be on alert. Within a few weeks, though, he’d found a new lady friend and new troubles.
Billie says he was at home in the town of Ben Wheeler, lying on the couch, when his phone rang. His new girlfriend, a convenience-store clerk named Stacey Serenko, was in the kitchen. The man on the phone introduced himself as John. He told Billie that he’d heard of him and that he was hoping he might help with a job. The man said he needed someone to kill his wife.
“I raised straight up off the couch,” Billie says.
Looking back years later, wearing ankle cuffs and a county-issued jumpsuit, Billie says he never intended to kill anyone. He just wanted to string this guy along for money. Billie agreed to meet John outside a Sheplers Western Wear store in Mesquite.
When Billie showed up, there was only one other car there, a gray Lexus. Billie got out of his truck and into the passenger seat of the man’s car. John handed Billie a brown envelope containing $60,000 cash, along with a photo of Nancy Howard. John told him to make it look like an accident.
Back in East Texas, Billie was generous with his windfall. Everywhere he went, he paid for drinks or bought dinner or handed out $100 bills. A lot of the money went toward drugs. He and Stacey partied for several days straight, a period now fixed in their memories as a blur of shopping and meth-fueled sex. Soon he was arrested and charged with possession. What was left of the cash, the police confiscated. When Billie bonded out two days later, he called John and told him that he needed more money. Stacey noticed how soft-spoken and well-mannered John seemed. “A very nice man,” she says. “Very kind.” Still, the first chance she got, she sent a picture of the man in the Lexus to her confused mother. “If something happened to me,” Stacey says, “I wanted that photo to live on.”
Their second meeting took place at a Texaco off of Interstate 635, where Billie says John gave him an additional $35,000. Billie spent this money the way he’d spent the first payment, and before long he was in jail and broke again. He’s got a colorful way of describing how he burned through the cash.
“I would wipe—” he pauses. “I went through it the way a kid goes through diapers,” he says.
Charlie Louderman is a tall, intimidating man, with broad shoulders and thick arms. He’s the kind of guy who will tell you with authority, “I know what blood looks like,” and he can describe what it feels like to get hit in the head with brass knuckles. He lives at the end of a dead-end road in Mineola, where he can see who’s coming from a long way away.
Charlie grew up with a friend of Billie Earl Johnson’s, but the first time he met Billie was a few years ago in his driveway. Billie rode up on a purple chopper, wearing black chaps and a bandanna tied around his neck. He asked Charlie if he could help him get some guns. Billie also offered him $700 a week to be a bodyguard and runner of sorts. So for months he was an up-close witness to the chaos and misadventures of Billie and his band of East Texas misfits.
Charlie says he often went with Billie to pick up large sums of cash, all from this mysterious John. They met outside a Walmart and in a corporate parking garage and at a Grandy’s. Charlie recalls counting out $83,000 on his bedroom floor once. He watched as Billie traded stacks of the money for bags of meth. He says that Billie told him early on that he was a hit man but says that Billie claimed to be targeting a gang member who’d raped someone’s daughter. “When I found out it was a woman, I said, ‘I’m not doing that,’ ” Charlie says.
When Billie eventually introduced Charlie and John over speakerphone, Charlie accused the benefactor—the man Billie called his client—of being an undercover officer, then of being a drug dealer, and then of being a “chickenshit.”
He also heard John plot ways to kill Nancy. He and Billie both remember John telling them to make it look like a home burglary. John told them there would be $40,000 worth of jewelry, and they could set the house on fire afterward to cover their tracks. John worried, though, about the fire possibly spreading to a neighbor’s house. John also said Nancy regularly met her friends for lunch at a favorite spot. He suggested firing an automatic weapon at the group, shooting the first few rounds at Nancy, then “spraying around” to confuse the issue. Or perhaps they could do it during her book club or her scrapbooking retreat.
Every time they got a plan in place, though, something went wrong. Stacey slowed them down. Or they got too wasted to leave the hotel room. Or they were in jail. Each time, Billie had a new excuse for John, who seemed to grow increasingly frustrated.
At one point, Stacey remembers, someone asked John why he wanted his wife killed. He was asked: is it something legal, or is it something personal?
“A little bit of both,” he said.
By late 2010, John was using a hard-to–trace burner phone and delivering money to Billie via wire transfers. Billie and Stacey didn’t have bank accounts, though, so he recruited family members—Billie’s children, Stacey’s mother—offering to let them keep between 10 and 20 percent of everything that went through their accounts. It was $75,000 to one of Billie’s sons, then $20,000 to Stacey’s mom, over and over for two years. More than $750,000 total. That’s in addition to what Billie estimates to be about $1 million in cash and another $1 million in bail bonds.
Billie bought himself a decked-out Chevy Avalanche and his daughter a Firebird. He bought each of his three kids motorcycles and bought go-karts for his grandkids. He talked about saving up enough to open a shop. He bought a boat and a camper and countless motel rooms where they’d party. He bought Charlie a riding lawn mower and “numerous assault weapons.”
Billie could also be as destructive as he was generous. During one meth- and coke-fueled fight with Stacey, Billie videotaped himself firing an AK-47 at a motorcycle until it caught fire. Then he sent the video to Stacey’s son, Dustin. Then he smashed his daughter’s windshield and dragged his own $80,000 chopper in circles behind his truck. Stacey says he also beat her on multiple occasions. When he got arrested—which was often—he had John wire the bond companies directly.
At one point, Billie and Stacey were arrested in a Best Western in Wood County with more than $10,000 in cash and enough meth to get felony trafficking charges. While she was in jail, Stacey told an FBI agent about the elaborate plot to kill Nancy. “It was such an outlandish story,” she says, “people didn’t really believe it.”
Charlie Louderman told authorities about the plot, too. During a stint in the Wood County jail, he described how Billie was milking John and how eager this rich guy was to have his wife murdered. Nobody believed him either.
By the end of 2011, Billie was back out of jail and offering to pay cash for his older brother’s funeral. When his sister and his nephews came in from California, they were impressed with how much money Billie had, despite his lack of employment. By early 2012, his sister’s son, Michael Speck, had moved to Texas to get in on whatever was happening.
After more than two years of mishaps and delays and payments, John was getting harder to put off. And by now Billie had nearly a dozen people in his cabal of miscreants, most related through blood or marriage. “It started with just me and Stacey,” Billie says. “It ended up a whole nest of people.”
In late May 2012, Billie arranged a meeting with John at the Bass Pro Shops in Grapevine. Much to Billie’s chagrin, Stacey invited Michael and her son, Dustin. John concocted a plan with Michael that involved tracking Nancy on a trip to San Marcos. He said he’d pay them the $100,000 life insurance policy and $5,000 a week for the rest of their lives. Billie was quiet for most of the meeting, seething because other people were getting access to his money tree.
But before anyone could go to San Marcos, Billie and Stacey were arrested again. This time, when Stacey called John from jail, he couldn’t come up with the money to get them out.
“I know I’m not going to last long in here,” she told him, crying on the recorded jail line. “We can still make it happen if I’m out tomorrow. Everything is still ready. It will still go forward.”
After Billie and Stacey were arrested, her son, Dustin, moved in with Billie’s nephew Michael, the one who’d moved from California to get in on the action. That’s when Dustin, then 18, tried meth for the first time. He’s a lanky kid, with a Southern drawl and a ninth-grade education. Billie says, “He’s so stupid, he doesn’t know how to put antifreeze in a pickup truck.”
With his mom and her boyfriend in jail, Dustin began contacting John directly, initially about bail money, but soon John was asking him to do the deed himself. On the Fourth of July, Dustin met with John and was given $24,000. John said that Nancy would be staying at the Gaylord Texan hotel soon for a Mothers of Preschoolers convention. John told Dustin he should use a baseball bat.
Dustin returned to East Texas and promptly spent the money the way Billie would have. He bought a big bag of meth and spent the night sharing it with strangers. He also wished every person he saw a happy Independence Day with a handful of Ben Franklins and filled his Facebook profile with photos of himself holding stacks of money. At one point, he says, several thousand dollars blew off the hood of his car in a church parking lot.
Within two weeks, all of the money was gone, and Dustin asked John for more. John said he’d leave some cash by a water meter behind a house he owned. Dustin brought a friend named Jason Rendine with him on the ride from East Texas to Carrollton, but they were both high and got hopelessly lost. They spent hours driving through Nancy’s neighborhood, stopping at several houses. Soon they were pulled over and asked to step out of the car.
Dustin was nervous and stammered on about looking for his uncle’s house. Then he said it was his stepdad’s house. Then he said it was just a family friend that they all called John. Then he blurted out that he was a hit man who had been hired to kill a man’s wife.
Dustin and Jason were taken to the Carrollton police station. There was a report filed, but officers figured the hit man stuff was just the crazy ramblings of a meth head. Dustin was let out a day later.
His friend Jason believed him, though. When he got out of jail and back to his very angry wife, Stephanie, he told her what he’d heard and showed her a phone number he’d copied off a piece of paper. “You’ll never believe where Dustin is getting his money,” he said.
Soon Stephanie had a plan. They came up with aliases—Wes and Tiffany—and called the number. They told John that they knew all about his scheme and that if he didn’t pay them, they would go to the cops. John agreed to meet them at a Whataburger in Garland. He showed up in a dark Lexus and gave Jason (or Wes) an envelope with 30 $100 bills. Within a day or two, they met again, and John gave them $12,000. A few days later, it was a wire transfer for $20,000.
But then something happened that Jason and his wife hadn’t anticipated. John started calling them. He was persistent. He wanted to talk to Wes (Jason). He wanted to know if they knew anyone who could get this job done. Stephanie says John offered them a $50,000 finder’s fee and $100,000 to whomever did the deed. So she dyed her hair black and told John that she was Tiffany’s sister, Stephanie (using her real name). She got another $10,000 in cash. Later, an attorney would ask Stephanie about this interaction with skepticism.
“Do you really think he’s that stupid?” the lawyer asked.
She replied emphatically: “He is!”
Misti Ford is 32 years old and lives in Hemet, California. Her hair is dyed a dark shade of red, and she has piercings in her nose and lips. In 2012, she was engaged to a man named Michael Lorence. They’d met a few years earlier, before he’d gone to jail. When he got out, they moved in together. He told her about a cellmate he’d had, a man named Michael Speck—two Michaels in jail together, one of them Billie’s nephew.
Phone records indicate that while John was in touch with Dustin, Jason, and Stephanie, he was also communicating with Michael Speck. When Billie called John from jail at the end of July looking for bail money, John told him that he had given the last of his money to Michael.
In the recording, Billie is quick to the point. “I need some money,” he says.
“That’s part of my problem,” John says. “I’m still cut off from everything I’ve got going on. What happened to Michael? I gave him a bunch of money.”
You can hear Billie getting upset as they go.
“How much you give him?”
“I don’t even know anymore. It’s been so long.”
“I ain’t heard nothing from him on nothing!”
“I told him—I said, ‘This is the last I got.’ And he said he’d go take care of everything.”
On August 14, Michael Speck sent $1,000 to his old cellmate, Michael Lorence, and told him and Misti to come to East Texas. Misti thought the point of the trip was for her fiancé to ask Michael to be the best man at their wedding. They drove Misti’s Honda and made it in about 24 hours. Because the Honda had a janky tire, they rented a car when they arrived. It was a silver Nissan.
Misti says she and Lorence spent most of the trip at Michael’s house, hanging out with his extended family. On August 18, she says, Michael and Lorence left the house early. They told her they were taking the car to Dallas to do some “sightseeing and side jobs”—just two Michaels headed into the big city together.
She spent the day fiddling around on Facebook and passing time talking to the strangers she felt stuck with. She remembers that it was nearly midnight when the boys got back. They had alcohol and started drinking. She says she noticed something different about her fiancé. Lorence wasn’t normally a big drinker, but that night he drank a lot. He was also quiet. “Usually he doesn’t shut up,” she says.
When they were alone in a bedroom later, she says, he told her that he’d murdered somebody. He said he’d shot a woman in the face. She left the house and went for a walk alone. He stayed and kept drinking.
It was nearly two months before she broke off their engagement, and she didn’t talk to the Carrollton police until January 2013. A friend whom she’d told had tipped them off. Misti says she was afraid. “I was scared of the same thing happening to me.”
John wanted his wife dead, so he called Billie. Billie had a nephew named Michael who did time with another Michael, last name Lorence. It appears it was the second Michael who at long last did John’s bidding.
She slipped in her own blood but managed to walk into the house. In the laundry room, she stopped in front of a mirror and saw a horrific image staring back at her.
Nancy isn’t sure how long she lay unconscious in her garage. She says she heard God’s voice calling to her. “Get up!” she heard. “Get up!”
She pulled herself up using a metal table but fell back down. So she decided to crawl.
“Kind of like you might see Army men crawling,” she says.
Her phone was in her purse, which was gone, so she crawled toward her car, hoping to use her OnStar button. She opened the door and hoisted herself up, putting bloody handprints on everything she touched. She finally got close enough to push the button, but without the keys—also in her purse—it didn’t work.
She slipped in her own blood but managed to walk into the house. In the laundry room, she stopped in front of a mirror and saw a horrific image staring back at her. Her face was covered in blood and bits of torn flesh. Her sparkly purple blouse was beginning to turn brown. And where she expected to see her left eye, she instead saw a gaping, gushing wound.
She managed to dial 911 and howled into the phone: “Lord Jesus, help me! Oh my God, help me!”
She said she’d been shot. She gave her address and begged the operator to stay on the line with her. She was still conscious, waiting at the door, when the police and ambulance arrived.
A police officer who knew the family through church called Nancy’s children. Ashley called her father, who was at a Reno casino with Suzanne. She was gambling and he was at the bar, watching a Cowboys preseason game. When Ashley told him that Nancy had been shot, Frank began to cry. He collapsed by the casino door and needed Suzanne’s help to walk. She drove him to the airport, but there were no more flights to Dallas that night. He called Richard Raley, explained the situation, and asked if he could use the private jet. But Raley’s pilots were already back in Texas.
Eventually, Suzanne drove him four hours to the San Jose airport, where he caught the first flight out in the morning. When he landed, he rushed to his wife’s bedside.
He didn’t tell police about his paramour, but when they looked at his phone, they knew. Over the next week, he had a series of painful talks with his children and with Nancy, who was still in the hospital. He told them that he’d been having an affair and that it had been going on for more than three years. But he maintained that he had nothing to do with the shooting.
Nancy, still heartbroken by the news of the affair, believed him. When police showed up at the house and arrested her husband, she insisted that there had been a terrible mistake.
None of Nancy’s neighbors had seen or heard anything that night, so it took time to unravel the Coen brothers-esque tale of greed and ineptitude. With surveillance footage from the church, police could see the silver Nissan follow Nancy out of the parking lot.
Carrollton detectives were eventually given the police report from the night that Dustin was pulled over in Nancy’s neighborhood and claimed to be a hit man. They brought him down to the station, and, over three days of interrogation, he shared everything he knew about the twisted murder-for-hire plot. Police also got word from the jail that an inmate named Billie Earl Johnson was claiming to have information about the shooting.
Detectives were shown the picture of the money man everyone knew only as John, the photo Stacey had sent to her mother as insurance. Of course, detectives recognized the man in the gray Lexus as Frank—full name John Franklin Howard.
Turns out, the flavor company, Van Tone, was one of Frank’s longtime clients. He’d drive out every few weeks to do the books, often working directly with the woman Billie had been scaring. At some point that year, Frank had asked around for Billie’s number, promising that he’d be able to stop the harassment.
Finally, when Misti Ford told detectives what she knew, police could connect the silver Nissan to Michael Speck and Michael Lorence, who are both in the Denton County jail. The duo were originally charged with aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit capital murder, but Lorence has since been re-indicted for aggravated assault only.
The accusations shocked people who knew Frank. He’d always seemed so trustworthy. “We thought he was the epitome of a good Christian man,” is the way Nancy’s aunt puts it. During his bond hearing, the courtroom was packed with supporters.
While Frank was out on bail, his daughter Brianna got married. Because she wanted her daughter to have the wedding of her dreams, Nancy wrote to the court, asking if they could relax the conditions of Frank’s bail for one weekend, so he could attend.
“It was hard,” Nancy says. “But it was a joyous time.”
Frank’s trial took place in August 2014. It was a family affair. Frank’s kin packed one side of the courtroom, and Nancy’s packed the other side. There were at least 10 attorneys involved and dozens of witnesses: investigators, phone experts, motel managers, the 911 operator who took Nancy’s call the night she was shot. Nancy took the stand to talk about how their marriage had soured. Suzanne Leontieff testified about her three-year affair with Frank. It was their first time in the same room since she’d driven him to the airport two years earlier. As she perched in the witness chair and giggled nervously, Nancy’s family shook their heads.
Billie Johnson and Stacey Serenko—both brought over from the jail—talked about getting that first call and stringing the defendant along for more than two years and millions of dollars. Charlie Louderman, the man Billie had hired as a bodyguard, told the jury about listening to a man repeatedly plot his own wife’s murder. Dustin, Stephanie, and Jason all testified about their bizarre interactions before the shooting, their protracted cons and double cons, and the misery that money eventually brought them. And Misti Ford talked about driving from California to Texas with her fiancé and hearing the confession that changed the trajectory of her life.
The defense attorneys claimed Frank had been blackmailed and that the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses left something to be desired. Ashley, Jay, and Brianna each testified for their father, telling the jury what a kind and compassionate man they’d always known him to be. They weren’t in the room for the presentation of most of the evidence, but when they were, they sat behind Frank.
The trial lasted nearly three weeks, but the jury needed only two hours to convict. During Frank’s sentencing, Richard Raley took the stand. Wearing chains and orange scrubs—he’s in jail on a prescription pill-related charge—Raley told the jury that over a three-year period, Frank had systematically embezzled more than $30 million from him. There was a representative from Van Tone in the court, too, telling anyone who would listen about how Frank had stolen money from them as well. Prosecutors concluded that in addition to a building disdain for his wife of nearly 30 years, Frank must have known that a divorce would have exposed his financial misdeeds.
The jury sentenced Frank to life in prison. All three children were angry, leaving the courtroom without saying goodbye to their mother.
Nancy now has a prosthesis painted to match her beautiful, violet right eye. It still gets dry and sticks—and that hurts. Every morning, she has to get up and wash her eye to ease the pain. And the prosthesis still falls out occasionally, because her eyelid doesn’t have any muscle to hold it in place. She used to be very touchy-feely, but nerve damage in her arm makes hugging painful. Because the bullet went through her sinuses, she has lost her sense of smell and most of her sense of taste. She was in the hospital for more than two weeks. She has had multiple reconstructive procedures, and she can’t help but feel insecure about her appearance. Her family was worried she might lose her singing voice—she had a collapsed lung and was coughing up bits of tissue from her throat when the police arrived. But she has returned to sing in the church choir.
At 53, she’s living alone for the first time. She does some part-time nanny work, but she’s looking for a full-time job. It’s not what she expected to be doing at this point in her life.
Nancy could be bitter. But she’s not. She can separate Frank, the man she knew and loved for all those years—the man she knows loved her at one point—from John, “the alter ego” who cared only about himself. A lot of days still feel like a surreal dream she might wake up from. Her faith is strong, though, and it helps her to forgive. It also helps her to stay patient.
“I’m trying to find my way,” she says. “I was a homemaker for over 20 years. That’s what I did. That’s who I am. Now my kids are all over the country. It’s a struggle.”
Her relationship with the kids is strained these days. They’ve been in close contact with their father the whole way through, and they believe him when he maintains his innocence. She understands why her kids feel the way they do. Frank is still their dad.
Nancy hopes that the kids will come home for Christmas this year. She misses the warmth of a full house. She misses having so many smiling faces around her. She isn’t sure if that will happen, though. They had to give up a lot of time to attend the trial.
“It’s very complicated,” she says. “I raised them to love, honor, and respect their dad. And they do.”