Snapped - Mary Ellen Samuels   View more episodes

Aired at 06:30 PM on Sunday, Feb 21, 2010 (2/21/2010)      View all transcripts from this day


00:00:00They first hit him over the head with a heavy object, and then shot him in the head with a shotgun.
00:00:05And based on the conditionof his corpse, he'd been deadfor quite some time.
00:00:11Bob samuels lay there for, we think, about two days.
00:00:16It was like a horrible scenefrom one of bob's movies.
00:00:20And the mystery ofhis murder was only beginning.
00:00:23To solve it, the cops would haveto wait eight ..
00:00:29For the sequel.
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00:01:44You're all awesome.
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00:03:23÷ aCq ( narrator )ON THE EVENING OF DECEMBER 9th, Mary ellen samuels had found herestranged husband, bob, dead in the hallwayof his northridge home.
00:04:42A few hours later,the l.a.p.d.
00:04:43Was still busy combingthe couple's house for clues.
00:04:47They had pretty much concludedit was an inside job.
00:04:50The crime scene was notconsistent with a break-in, with a robbery gone bad.
00:04:57There was nosign of forced entry, there wasn't anythingmissing.
00:05:02When the cops broughtmary ellen down tothe station for questioning, she didn't seem too distraughtover bob's death.
00:05:09She was dressed in a very low-cut outfit and certainly made sure that her dress was noticeable.
00:05:16At one point in time, she put her hand on one of the detective's bald head and talked about how she liked bald guys.
00:05:23Mary ellen wouldarouse even more suspicion in the days ahead.
00:05:27The moment the cops took downthe yellow crime scene tape, she and her daughtermoved back into the house where bob had been killed, and went on like nothinghad happened.
00:05:37Mary ellen putthe sandwich shop up for sale, filed a claim to collectbob's life insurance, and went back toher two favorite pastimes: Bar hopping and shopping.
00:05:47I think it was pretty clear, that she was not a grieving widow.
00:05:51She was traveling, I think she went to las vegas within two weeks after the murder.
00:05:56Meanwhile, the police keptinvestigating.
00:05:58After questioning a few ofmary ellen and bob's friends, they discovered that shortlybefore his death, bob had decided to make thecouple's separation permanent.
00:06:08Bob began to realize that it wasn't going to work.
00:06:10And at that point, he went to seek the guidance of an attorney in the divorce.
00:06:15And this time, according to whathis attorney told the cops, bob wasfeeling far less generous.
00:06:21He would make about1,100 or $1,200 a month in payments to support her, and the settlement wouldn'tinclude the life insurance.
00:06:30But since she was still marriedto bob at the time of his death, mary ellen ended upwith everything.
00:06:36She inherits the property-- it becomes hers.
00:06:38And of course all of the life insurance policies.
00:06:41After her husband died, she collected about a half a million dollars in life insurance.
00:06:46Not that the half a millionwould last long at the ratemary ellen was spending it.
00:06:51She bought fur coats, she went to a boutique on melrose avenue calledtrashy lingerie-- miniskirts, leather push-up bustiers, that style of dress, which was kind of hip then.
00:07:01In march of 1989, four monthsafter her husband's murder, mary ellen threwherself a birthday bash at an l.a. nightclub.
00:07:10( Dean )SHE CAME INTO OUR ESTABLISHMENT With eight of her girlfriendsin a stretch limo.
00:07:17I gave them a nice table, and sent overa bottle of champagne.
00:07:21The next thing I know, we're out on a date.
00:07:23A week or two later, we're on an item, a month later, we're living together.
00:07:28Soon, mary ellen laidout $50,000 on a down payment for a present for hernew boyfriend.
00:07:34I walked out the door and there's that beautiful whiteporsche.
00:07:39The cops gotan unexpected gift, too.
00:07:43But not from mary ellen.
00:07:45In may of 1989,after months of investigation had failed to connect herto bob's murder, an anonymouscaller gave the l.a.p.d.
00:07:53A critical piece ofinformation.
00:07:55One of her daughter's friends started calling up and giving anonymous tips.
00:07:59He just knew things, and knew who some of the players were.
00:08:02The callersuggested the cops talk to a 27-year-old electronicstore clerk, and wannabewise guy, named jim bernstein.
00:08:10He was fromthe east coast, new jersey, street talker-type of guy.
00:08:13He kinda fanciedhimself as knowing peoplein the underworld.
00:08:18He also happenedto be dating mary ellen's now 17-year-olddaughter, nicole.
00:08:23She was a lot younger.
00:08:25Kinda seemed to be a mis-match to me.
00:08:27He had went out of his way to find money just to buy her stuff that she wanted: Expensive dresses, clothes, jewelry.
00:08:37Looking to confirm the tipabout bernstein, the cops hit the barsmary ellen frequented, hoping she mighthave let something slip to her drinking buddies.
00:08:46She had-- in fact,it appeared that mary ellen hadn't been very discreet in her search for a hitmanto kill bob.
00:08:53She just didn't seem to care who heard her soliciting his murder.
00:08:58It was a very open topic of conversation.
00:09:00( Ann ) THE THING THAT AMAZED ME Is a woman could go out to a singles bar, asked people if they knew where she could find a hitman and no one called the police.
00:09:08It blew me away.
00:09:09Most of mary ellen'sfriends, though, figured it wasjust the liquor talking.
00:09:14They didn't believe her, that it was just rantings and ravings of a woman going through a divorce.
00:09:19ON JUNE 15th,THE COPS BROUGHT MARY ELLEN Down to the station forquestioning.
00:09:24When detectivestold her an informant had fingered her asthe killer, mary ellendenied everything.
00:09:47Then she demanded to know heraccuser's identity.
00:10:00Then the detectives trieda new tactic.
00:10:03They'd also brought jimbernstein in that same night, and were questioning him in a neighboringinterrogation room.
00:10:10Once the cops figured both weresufficiently rattled, they broughtbernstein down the hall and left him alonewith mary ellen.
00:10:17They alsoleft the tape rolling.
00:10:30The cops hopedeither bernstein or mary ellen would break down and confess,or that they'd slip up, and saysomething incriminating.
00:10:39Neither happened.
00:10:40The cops had to let bothbernstein and mary ellen go.
00:10:44At that time, there was insufficient evidence to charge her.
00:10:48FOUR WEEKS LATER, ONJULY 23rd, 1989, Nearly eight monthsafter mary ellen samuels found her husband boblying dead on the floorof his los angeles home, a ventura county couple madea similar discovery along a remote mountain road.
00:11:03A man and wife had stoppedon the side of the road to look at someflowers growing wild up there and had found the body layingoff the side of the road.
00:11:12The bodywas badly decomposed, but fingerprints gavethe cops a name.
00:11:18And later thatday, the dead man's boss confirmed the corpse'sidentity.
00:11:22( Matt ) I GOT A KNOCK ON THE DOOR FROM Some sheriff investigators with a picture of a guy on a slab.
00:11:28They asked me if I knew him, " the investigationinto the murder of cameraman, bob samuels, was nowa double-feature.
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00:16:50( narrator )AT THE END OF JULY, 1989, 41-Year-oldmary ellen samuels was the focus of a policeinvestigation seeking to solvethe eight-month-old murder of her husband bob.
00:17:01When jim bernstein,the man police suspected as her accomplice inthe killing, was found deadalong a ventura county road ON JULY 23rd, THE COPSNATURALLY ASSUMED That the twocrimes were connected.
00:17:13( Jan )JIM BERNSTEIN THREATENED TO GO TO The police and mary ellensamuels decided that he couldn't be trusted anymore,and that he had to be killed.
00:17:23And that wasn't justspeculation.
00:17:25Bernstein apparently wasplanning on going to the police, according to what bernstein'sboss told investigators.
00:17:32He had called me upand he said, "i'm just going totell the police what i " and that's the last timei talked to him.
00:17:38Jim bernstein's death hada sobering effect on several ofmary ellen's drinking buddies.
00:17:43They didn't wanna be on her hit list.
00:17:45I think they were a littleafraid of mary ellen, but they were also afraid ofwhat they may be charged with, you know,as co-conspirators.
00:17:53Cops had little to go on untila check for $1,500 dollars, written justafter the murder, led police to mary ellen'sfriend, anne hambly.
00:18:03Hambly reluctantly admitted she'd helped mary ellenarrange the hit.
00:18:06In exchange for immunity,hambly told the cops everything.
00:18:11She told us who did it.
00:18:12She knew for a fact that mary ellen samuels had hired two guys to kill james bernstein.
00:18:17One of the hitmen was hambly'sboyfriend, paul gaul.
00:18:22ON JANUARY 26th, 1990,POLICE TRACKED HIM Down.
00:18:27He realized when we went in to get him, that it was pretty much over.
00:18:31He admitted to his part in it.
00:18:33And he said it wasmary ellen who hired him.
00:18:35Had it not been for the murder of james bernstein, mary ellen samuels might very well have gotten away with the perfect murder.
00:18:43That same day,detectives drove out to the house in northridge, where a littlemore than two years prior, mary ellen had "discovered"her husband's dead body.
00:18:52She was rather surprised that we were there, because she thought she was home free on the whole thing.
00:18:56Once tuse apart.
00:19:03They didn't care whatthey took.
00:19:05They took mystuff, her stuff, they went through everything,everything.
00:19:10That's when police foundthe photo dean hadsnapped months earlier in the couple's cancunhotel room, of mary ellencovered in a mound of cash.
00:19:18That was a very personal thing.
00:19:20That wasn't for public use.
00:19:23That photograph was all about me.
00:19:25The cops thoughtdifferently.
00:19:27They seized it as evidence.
00:19:29In april of 1994,mary ellen samuels stood trial for the double murders ofbob samuels and jim bernstein.
00:19:39In her opening argument,prosecutor, jan maurizi said the photograph proved that mary ellenwas obsessed with money.
00:19:47Obsessed enough to killfor it.
00:19:49A picture is worth 1,000 words, and this was probably worth 10,000 words.
00:19:53Because here the jury could look at this woman seated at council table and then they look at the photograph of this-- this cold-blooded killer.
00:20:03To back up that statement,hitman, paul gaul, and his accomplicedarrell ray edwards testified that they were hired bymary ellen samuels.
00:20:12Then the prosecutioncalled anne hambly-- who testified that it wasno coincidence mary ellen wascelebrating in cancun when bernstein was killed.
00:20:22( Jan ) SHE HAD PLANNED TO BE IN CANCUN With her new boyfriend when the murder went down.
00:20:27Our witness was to call her in cancun, after it happened, with a coded message to let her know that the homicide had taken place.
00:20:35When it was the defense's turn,mary ellen's attorney said his client had nothingto do with either murder.
00:20:41( Ann )THE DEFENSE SAID MARY ELLEN DIDN'T Kill her husband.
00:20:45These other people did it.
00:20:46Everybody in the world waslying, except for mary ellen.
00:20:49She was the victim here.
00:20:51THEN ON MAY 16th, A suddenly meek and demuremary ellen took the standin her own defense.
00:20:57She was a very coolcustomer.
00:20:59She didn't giveyou anything emotionally.
00:21:02On the standshe categorically denied 's allegation thatshe was obsessed with money.
00:21:08She tried to convince the jury that nothing had changed-- her lifestyle hadn't changed, and therefore, she's trying to tell them, "i had no motive to kill him, because my " it was a claimthe prosecutor picked apart on cross-examination.
00:21:23( Jan ) WHEN YOU CONFRONT HER WITH THE $50,000 Cash that she'd put down on herporsche, and her trashy lingerie, and her trips, and her condo in cancun and her birthday bash-- she very, sort of grudgingly admitted, "well, you know, maybe my lifestyle " another lifestyle changewould soon be in store for maryellen samuels.
00:21:44ON JULY 1st, 1994, The jury found her guiltyon both counts of first-degree murder.
00:21:51The informantsand insurance evidence contributed to her conviction.
00:21:55But accordingto the jury foreman, it was mary ellen's infamousmoney-shot that cinched it.
00:22:01As soon as your husband is killed, you're partying here, you're partying there.
00:22:07You're buying this, you're buying that.
00:22:09And you're rolling in all this money-- nude.
00:22:12Give me a break.
00:22:13That picture did more damage to her than anything else.
00:22:17ON JULY 21st, Mary ellen samuels receivedher sentence-- the death penalty.
00:22:27It took a lot of courage, I think, for the jurors to be willing to come forward with that verdict-- which I believe is the appropriate verdict, based on the facts.
00:22:59( narrator )ON FEBRUARY 7, 2001, Successful technical writerbrookey lee west was driving homefrom a las vegas7-eleven when she was pulled overby a patrolman, but this was noroutine traffic stop.
00:23:12She was taken intocustody there, and I took herover to our office.
00:23:17Earlier that week,police had been called tocanyon gate storage facilityin northwest vegas, alerted by reportsof a suspicious odor.
00:23:27It was the unmistakablesmell of death.
00:23:32Inside the unit, detectives had discovereda sealed trash can.
00:23:36There were maggotsthat were visible with a brownish red fluidoozing from the trash can.
00:23:44And when detectivesopened it up, they lifted the lid on oneof the most shocking crimes las vegas had ever seen.
00:23:53Captioning made possible byOXYGEN MEDIA, L.l.c.
00:24:10Born in el paso, texas,in 1953, brookey lee west was raised in an atmosphereof poverty and hardship.
00:24:18( man )BROOKEY'S MOTHER, CHRISTINE SMITH, Was an unstable individual,a chronic substance abuser, did a lot of drugs, dranka lot of alcohol.
00:24:28It was leftto brookey to look after heryounger brother, travis.
00:24:32When brookey was eightyears old, her mother, christine, hadan affair with a married man.
00:24:38But when the affairhit the rocks, christine arranged tosay goodbye one last time and brought a gunwith her.
00:24:47( man )SHE INVITED THE YOUNG MAN AND HIS Wife to meet her for dinnerat a restaurant and held the gununderneath the table and decided to shoot himat point-blank range with a shotgun.
00:25:01She was proud of the factthat she had shot this man.
00:25:03Brookey's mother was sentencedto 14 years in prison for the shooting, leaving her father, leroy,to look after the children.
00:25:12But leroy had other priorities,as brookey discovered when she arrivedhome early one day.
00:25:19She heard some strange noises and, as a young girl, walked down the stairs and saw her father and this neighbor and a group of people in black robes performing this occult ceremony.
00:25:34It wasn't longbefore brookey, too, began to experimentwith witchcraft.
00:25:40Brookey was walking down the street dressed as a witch, dressed all in black with this makeup on that made her look real pasty, almost, no color to her face, and it was as if she was practicing in the occult.
00:25:56But it wasn't just witchcraftthat brookey excelled at.
00:26:00Eventually,after two marriages, problems with alcohol, and severalunsuccessful careers, she discovered a talentfor technical writing.
00:26:10It would turn out to beher ticket out of poverty.
00:26:14BY THE EARLY 1990s, Brookey found herselfliving in silicon valley and earning $100,000 a yearwriting technical manuals for computer software.
00:26:26Brooke was making excellentmoney as a technical writer.
00:26:29She was driving ajaguar,and life was good.
00:26:33But one aspectof her life did not fit in withthe new, successful brookey-- her new husband.
00:26:41 john, a native americanshe met at an a.a. meeting.
00:26:49He and brookey madean odd couple.
00:26:53( Glenn ) HOWARD SIMON ST. JOHN, A man with basically nothing in his life, who'd done nothing but drink and party all his life and ended up homeless, and people couldn't understand what brookey, an attractive, successful woman was doing with this man.
00:27:09After less thana month of marriage, things were already headingin a bad direction.
00:27:15ON MAY 21st, 1994,A DOMESTIC DISPUTE ENDED When brookey pulled outa gun and shot him.
00:27:26Howard, remarkably, survived 32 caliber handgun at point-blank range.
00:27:33His luck wouldbe short-lived.
00:27:36Two weeks later,he was dead.
00:27:39 john turns updead on the side of the road, dumped in the side of theroad in california.
00:27:47Howard had been shot, and his face coveredwith a plastic bag.
00:27:51Given the recentdomestic shooting, brookey lee west wasthe prime suspect in her husband's murder.
00:27:58But police could never findenough evidence to charge her.
00:28:01The investigation waseventually shelved.
00:28:09Hen,r,christine, now out of prison, had turned to brookeyfor support.
00:28:14She basically latched on to brookey, so wherever brookey went, christine went, and it caused a tumultuous and difficult relationship between mother and daughter.
00:28:31Some days, you thought that they loved each other dearly, and other days, you thought they hated each other.
00:28:38Either way, their relationshipwas unusual, to say the least.
00:28:43Their take onmother-daughter bonding was to go shopliftingtogether.
00:28:48( Glenn ) THEY WOULD GO INTO HIGH-END DEPARTMENT Stores, likenordstrom's, and steal stuff.
00:28:55The two were actually-- got a reputation in santa clara county as a mother-and-daughter shoplifting team.
00:29:03By 1998, brookeywas living in las vegas and commuting to her lucrativewriting jobs in silicon valley.
00:29:12She was still supportingher mother, although the two wereno longer getting along.
00:29:18One neighbor saw them actually fighting with one another, the mother and daughter, in the front yard, yelling and screaming.
00:29:26In february, 1998, brookeytold friends and neighbors she was taking christineto live with travis, brookey's brother.
00:29:35Brookey had said, "i'm taking mom "to live in california with travis.