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The first hint that Michael and Marisa Hierro had that something was amiss when they pulled into the driveway of their Dallas-area home on the night of December 20 was their Christmas lights. They had been on when the couple had left earlier that day, but someone had turned them off.
The Hierros had been out shopping for office supplies before they returned to their home in the suburb of Rowlett around 8 p.m. Leaving the engine to their Lexus running, Michael Hierro got out of the car to move the couple's dogs from the garage into the house.
As her husband stepped out of the car in the darkness, Marisa heard him say, "Oh, no."
In the driveway stood a masked man armed with a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun. Hierro had just enough time to grab the man and tell his wife to run before the gunman fired, mortally wounding Hierro. Marisa dashed from the car toward the street, falling as she ran. The man fired again, blowing off part of her right arm.
As Marisa lay on the ground, blood seeping from her limb, the masked man walked behind her and stuck the barrel of his gun against the back of her head. Then a female voice said, "Shoot her. Shoot her."
Marisa caught a glimpse of the woman. She was wearing what looked like a ski mask that had two eyeholes but no hole cut for the mouth. Blond hair poked from beneath the mask, and Marisa noticed that the woman's fingernails were manicured.
"Don't be a pussy," the woman told her accomplice. "Finish it. Finish it. Give me the gun. I'll shoot her."
"I shot her," the man replied. "I did it."
Marisa lay still until she heard the sound of her assailants' retreating footsteps fade. Then she stumbled to a neighbor's house. Soon an ambulance arrived and rushed Marisa and Michael to Baylor Medical Center, where Michael died.
Marisa recounted the shooting to Rowlett police officer Jimmy Patterson from her hospital bed. She told him the female voice belonged to the woman who in March had warned Marisa that she would not live to see Christmas. The voice, Marisa said, belonged to her former boss, 51-year-old Catherine Mehaffey Shelton, a Dallas lawyer who had formerly practiced in Houston. The other voice sounded like that of Shelton's husband, Clint Shelton, Hierro told police.
Police moved quickly to begin collecting evidence against the couple they named as suspects in Michael Hierro's murder. Searches of the Sheltons' trash and home uncovered a slew of evidence, among it a pair of purple Hanes men's briefs. According to a police affidavit filed with the court to obtain a search warrant, the underwear had "two holes cut or torn from the seat that form eyeholes if worn as a mask, but no hole for a mouth." Police also found a receipt for a box of Remington 12-gauge shotgun shells purchased two weeks before the ambush, and collected various saws, boots, clothing and more shotgun rounds. They took hair samples from Clint Shelton to compare with those found on a pair of panty hose at the murder scene.
Sources familiar with Catherine Shelton and Marisa Hierro suggest that at the heart of the murder lies a business dispute between the two women. That dispute apparently spawned investigations into questionable legal practices by Shelton and her former employee.
Whether all this is enough to charge either of the Sheltons with Hierro's murder is up to a Dallas County grand jury, which at press time was reviewing the case, according to Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Toby Shook.
This much is certain, however: People who know Catherine Shelton are not particularly surprised that she is a murder suspect. Several attorneys who have crossed Shelton's path say she possesses a mean streak and a violent temper. She's a dangerous woman whom you don't want to cross, they say. Her reputation isn't helped by the fact that some of Shelton's associates have turned up dead, or by her conviction for shooting a former lover in Houston.
Yet few of the people willing to talk about Shelton will do so openly, for one simple reason. Catherine Shelton scares the hell out of them.
One person who is especially afraid of Shelton these days is Marisa Hierro's attorney, John Key III, who stayed with his client at the hospital the night of the shooting. When he went home early the next morning, Key says, he was so afraid that Shelton or her friend might come looking for him that he slept behind his front door, using his body as a barricade.
While Hierro is recovering from her wounds at an undisclosed location, Key says he still isn't sleeping any better at night.
"I don't live at home," he says. "I carry a gun with me everywhere I go."
Many unanswered questions remain about last month's bloody ambush of the Hierros. Yet the Rowlett attack just might be the final chapter in a bizarre tale of blood, sex and deceit that began in Houston 20 years ago. It features a gunned-down former reporter for The Houston Post, a handful of dead bodies and a woman whose strange, violent past once earned her the nickname "the black widow."