Line Of Defense
Catherine Mehaffey Shelton puts down her glass of Beaujolais and walks quickly out of her bedroom, searching through her pitch-dark house for a gun. "Where is that damn gun?" she says, walking back into the room and rifling through two sets of dresser drawers. Her husband, Clint Shelton, could tell her where the gun is. It's his, one he keeps in the house with myriad other firearms: three 12-gauge shotguns, two shotguns used to shoot clay targets, a Glock, an AK-47, revolvers and others. Clint Shelton can't help his wife, though, because he's in Dallas County jail, kept there by a $1 million bail, placed there because police suspect he killed 30-year-old Michael Hierro and wounded his wife, Marisa Hierro, in their Rowlett driveway in December.
"I can't find it," says Catherine Shelton, a former Houston attorney. She sits down in the wingback chair next to her bed, shaking her head. She wants to show the type of gun and armor-piercing ammo Clint would use if he wanted to kill someone. She can't figure out how anyone would believe that her husband, an avid hunter and expert marksman, would kill someone with a shotgun, something so cumbersome, so common. "He could have killed half the neighborhood if he wanted to," she says. "You don't take a knife to a gunfight.He has an armory in here."
"Here" is Catherine Shelton's home in Copper Canyon, in rural Denton County outside of Dallas. She bought a house there in March 1999 and moved there in August from her small, elegant home in the Big D hamlet of University Park, hoping to leave behind many unpleasant things. She would leave her unhappy marriage, reacquaint herself with old flames and friends. She envisioned a fresh start, a way to hide from old ghosts.
But her troubles did not disappear; they intensified. A construction worker at her house accidentally hung himself in an autoerotic incident in June. Ex-clients made claims of professional misconduct against her. The IRS began investigating her and put a lien on her property. Her purported paramour brought stalking and trespassing charges against her. Finally, Marisa Hierro, a former Shelton employee, identified Catherine and Clint Shelton as her attackers.
"I was not there that night, the night of the murder," she says, talking calmly -- a rare calm for Shelton, who is usually hyperactive even when happy. "[But] I think the deck is stacked pretty hard against me, and I think I stand a good chance of going to prison. I could run away.But I won't do that to [Clint], because he doesn't belong there in jail."
Catherine Shelton's love-hate relationship with her husband, who filed for divorce one month before the December 20 murder of Michael Hierro, is just one of the contradictions that Shelton, her attorneys and her friends say make this case more complex than has been presented by the media so far (see "Love Hurts," by Rose Farley and George Flynn, January 13).
She lays out her side of the story: an alibi through phone records, Marisa Hierro's alleged vendetta against Shelton, Shelton's alleged affair with the man many suspect with first pointing the finger at her after the murder. Her friends must wonder whether they know a killer.
I wonder, because I have known Catherine Shelton for nearly eight years. She has purchased gifts for me and my family, taken us to dinner, and had us over for Christmas parties and dinner parties. She is someone who trusted and befriended me after I wrote a 1992 D Magazine story about a client of hers who was falsely accused of killing a baby.
Shelton says she had nothing to do with the death of Michael Hierro, just as she had no part in the deaths of others close to her who died under unusual or violent circumstances. She argues that because of her habit of angering and defaming former associates, they have as much reason to conspire against her as she does them. To bolster this argument, Shelton and her defenders point out that the two people they believe are most responsible for the suspicion she is under, Denton County polygraph examiner Bill Parker (who has filed stalking charges against Shelton) and Marisa Hierro, appear to have complex, troubled relationships with Shelton.
"I won't be telling you that I murdered anybody, because I haven't done that," Shelton says. "I'm going to tell you about some professional infractions.But so what? What the hell?.What [else] can I do? They're all after me. I've pissed off the world."
TTicking off people seems to be something Catherine Shelton has been doing for a long time. Her list of turbulent relationships begins with her first husband, Navy officer Matt Quinlan. She was accused of shooting at him in 1969. She says the gun went off accidentally.
After divorcing in 1970, she returned to her hometown, Houston. In 1976, while in law school at the University of Houston, she began seeing George Tedesco, an anesthesiologist. By 1978 their relationship had soured. Friends of Tedesco's claimed Shelton hounded him. Tedesco was murdered in January 1979, and the case was never solved.
Later that year Shelton began a romance with Houston Post reporter Gary Taylor. He says that after a short time he tried to break off the relationship and she hounded him. During an argument in January 1980, Shelton shot Taylor twice with a .32-caliber pistol, an attack for which she would eventually be convicted and serve five years' probation.
A few months later a Houston friend and former client of Shelton's was found shot to death with a .357-caliber handgun. It was ruled a suicide. The victim's sister testified that Shelton owed the man $10,000 and that he had been asking her for his money.
In 1981 she married Clint Shelton, who would later work as an officer for a Dallas County constable. They moved to Dallas in the late 1980s, and she began working court-appointed cases. She made friends and enemies quickly, one often turning into the other. District Judge John Creuzot banned her from his courtroom after he said she was trying to have him investigated by the federal government.
Several business associates and office workers would leave her firm after getting crosswise with Shelton. Marisa Hierro was among them. She began working for Shelton in August 1998 after Shelton represented her husband in a theft case. Shelton's firm then began handling immigration cases drummed up by Hierro. Those became a source of contention between the two after immigrants began filing grievances against Shelton with the State Bar, saying their cases were being improperly handled or ignored.
In March 1999 Marisa Hierro left Shelton's firm and set up her own immigration-services firm. Soon afterward, anonymous mailings that detailed Shelton's past began circulating. Shelton believes Hierro mailed them.
During this time and before, Shelton claims, she was having an affair with Bill Parker, though Parker denies it, and in fact Shelton was charged with stalking Parker in February 1998. He later obtained a restraining order that prohibited her from coming near him. In December 1999 she was arrested for trespassing on his property, just six days before the Hierros were shot in their driveway.
The murder of Michael Hierro took place on a Monday night. Marisa Hierro told police they were shot as they returned home around 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. A neighbor puts the time of the gunshot at 8:20 p.m. As soon as her husband exited the driver's side, he was killed by a masked man with a sawed-off 12-gauge single-shot shotgun. Marisa Hierro fled, fell down and was shot in the arm. She says she heard the voice of Catherine Shelton tell the gunman, "Don't be a pussy" and "Finish it, finish it." No other shots were fired, though, and police later recovered the gun, unused and used shells, a panty-hose mask and latex gloves from near the crime scene.
Later that night Rowlett police took evidence from outside the Sheltons' home, including a receipt for 12-gauge shotgun shells and what they call a mask made out of dark underwear that would match the mask Marisa Hierro says Catherine Shelton was wearing.
Today even her close friends acknowledge that Catherine Shelton is many bad things: crass, impolite, an adulteress and an unfairly demanding boss. But, they say, she is not a murderer.
Law enforcement would beg to differ. They believe Clint Shelton killed Michael Hierro and Catherine orchestrated it, despite the divorce filed one month before. Although prosecutors won't talk on the record, courthouse gossip is that the district attorney's office has "a mountain of physical evidence," according to one lawyer. He says they have more than the DNA, hair and saliva samples found in the panty-hose mask to tie Clint Shelton to the crime. The attorney says that as far as Clint Shelton, the only one charged, "this is a slam-dunk case."
The case doesn't appear as airtight against Catherine Shelton. Her lawyers believe all the district attorney has linking her to the crime scene is the word of Marisa Hierro, whose credibility has already been called into question in her handling of residency cases for immigrants. That is why, they believe, Clint Shelton was arrested first -- to pressure him to implicate Catherine in return for a lighter sentence.
Catherine Shelton says there is no way she could have been there that night. For more than an hour, she lays out an intricate narration of her whereabouts and phone calls, which she says proves she could not have been at the murder scene.
Shelton says she left her downtown Dallas office at about 6:30 p.m. and headed north. She tried to call her divorce attorney, who was unavailable. At 6:52, she says, she called a friend, a Dallas psychologist, and talked for 28 minutes, according to her phone records. (The psychologist confirmed the conversation. The Houston Press was given copies of the phone records for Shelton's mobile calls for that period. The phone records do not indicate Shelton's location when the calls were made or received.)
Another call was made from her phone at 7:41 p.m., to Clint's cellular number. "I would call him [and] ask him to open the garage bay so I could get in fast and he'd close it behind me," Shelton explains. She says there was no answer because Clint was checking a live trap he had set out on a nearby farm to catch their lost cat, Felix.
Shelton says she went into her house and received a call from her mother in Houston at 8:21 p.m. "One minute after the murder. I pick up the phone, and we talk for 52 minutes. I can't get off the phone with the woman.You know how an old lady is."
Phone records confirm that her mother called Shelton's home at 8:21 p.m., but they don't indicate whether Shelton was the one who picked up the call, or whether the call was forwarded to another number -- Shelton's mobile phone, for instance. Shelton's mother, Margaret Mehaffey, confirms that she called her daughter. "We just talked about the Christmas holidays," she says.
Shelton says she stayed in the bedroom to avoid her husband but heard the sounds of metal and wood doors closing elsewhere in the house. She says that, according to what Clint Shelton later told her, he left the house to rummage through her downtown office that night, looking for proof that she was having an affair. "He was," she says, "on a mission from God."
MMy lawyer says this is a no-brainer case, that I'll be found not guilty if we go to trial," Clint Shelton says in a telephone interview from jail. He manages a chuckle. "But if it's such a no-brainer, why have I been in jail a month?" He laughs. He says his lawyer suggests that unless there is evidence they don't know about, his case won't go to trial.
Shelton denies any knowledge of the murder but admits they were not getting along in the marriage. The couple say Clint knew about her indiscretions after she was charged with stalking Parker. (Reached at home, Parker said only, "Don't call me at home," before hanging up.)
In a 28-page, handwritten narrative that Catherine Shelton wrote recently for the Houston Press, she details her marital woes. "We seemed to have no common interests. This was not his fault. I'm not the easiest person to live with.Clint showed no ambition to move up and on, and he refused to talk to me about his plans for the future. So, finally we just stopped talking -- at all."
Clint Shelton's divorce proceedings began last November. In case documents, he asks her to admit or deny that she had a sexual relationship with Parker. Clint says proving an affair would mean more money for him in a settlement. Is it possible the divorce was a ruse to make the Sheltons appear less likely to conspire to commit murder together?
"Bullshit," says Clint.
If it was a ruse, it was an elaborate one, developed over years and involving many people.
Catherine Shelton claims she began an on-again, off-again affair with Parker in September 1997. Parker, who has denied the affair, did polygraph work on several of Shelton's clients, and she says they went out for dinner and drinks a few times after the work was complete.
After the alleged relationship ended for good, she nevertheless continued to obsess. She acknowledges that one reason she purchased her Copper Canyon home was to get revenge. She says she imagined that she would begin life anew and have wonderful relationships, and that Parker, who lived just a few miles away, would be forced to hear every detail.
It's this fantasy-driven mind-set that would make Shelton's story much easier for prosecutors to discredit.
But according to a Dallas psychologist who is her friend, just because Parker wanted her to end the pursuit doesn't mean the affair didn't occur. "At one point he called me and asked me to intervene with her," he says. "He wanted me to be the messenger, to tell her that he wanted her to back off or he would 'hit the bull between the horns.'
"He threatened that he would destroy her career if she didn't back off.And now it seems that he may have gotten the ball rolling, in terms of the investigation of her."
Catherine Shelton's supporters say that the reason the Hierro murder investigation immediately focused on her was because of a phone call received by Rowlett police at approximately 11 p.m. on December 20, shortly after the murder. In a search-warrant affidavit, Rowlett detective Jimmy Patterson says he received a call from a man who identified himself to police but wants to remain nameless because of safety concerns. The caller believed Catherine Shelton was involved in the killing and gave her address. Less than six hours later police began more than a week of surveillance on Clint and Catherine Shelton. Shelton and her defense team are convinced the caller was Parker.
"[Parker] has got a way to screw me and screw Clint too," Catherine Shelton says. For his divorce proceedings, Clint Shelton had been trying to depose Parker. "So the attention was focused at 11 o'clock that night on me, to the exclusion of everyone else in [Dallas]."
None of which means the Sheltons didn't murder Michael Hierro. There is physical evidence linking Clint to the crime scene that cannot be ignored. He says he had worn the mask and gloves earlier in the week as he skulked about Marisa Hierro's house, trying to find her so his divorce attorney could subpoena her to testify that Catherine Shelton and Parker had an affair -- an explanation that would be extremely hard for a jury to swallow.
But if Marisa Hierro's testimony identifying Catherine Shelton is made an integral part of the case, the credibility of Shelton's accusers will be made an issue. But the person on whose credibility the case against either Shelton rests is, the defense hopes, Marisa Hierro.
Marisa Hierro was giddy. It was May 4, and she had heard that a woman had jumped off the One Main Place roof in Dallas and fallen 33 stories to her death. According to an affidavit of then-Hierro employee Maria Guerrero, "Marisa Hierro joked, laughed, and was happy thinking it was Catherine Shelton. Marisa Hierro even called the security at the building to find out if indeed it had been Catherine Shelton."
Hierro was obsessed with Shelton, according to three former Shelton employees and an Hierro business acquaintance. In affidavits gathered as part of Shelton's defense to the civil grievances filed against her, each witness describes Marisa Hierro's desire to harm Shelton professionally.
"It's like a bad Jamie Lee Curtis movie," Catherine Shelton says. "Why was [Hierro] so obsessed with me?"
But even if, as alleged, Hierro tried to ruin Shelton's practice, it would simply be more motive for Catherine Shelton to want her killed, say those who believe she had something to do with the murder. (Hierro could not be reached for comment.)
Shelton doesn't deny that she was furious at Hierro. She says her animosity was at least partly based on how foolish she felt after having trusted Hierro to such an extent as to have made her, in effect, a partner in her law firm.
When Hierro went to work for Catherine Shelton, she quickly made her mark; Shelton says Hierro collected $40,000 in overdue criminal fees. "That turned my head," she says. "Right like that. The money. And that wasn't the immigrant shit. She was a hell of a bill collector."
Shelton says Hierro became more than just an office manager and partner; she also became a confidante. She says Hierro would drive her around at night, while Shelton would drink and cry about her failing marriage. "She was a combination maid/personal secretary," Shelton says.
Shelton says she gave Hierro carte blanche to work full-time on the immigration cases because they brought in money. "I'm guilty of negligence," she says. "I fed the bad dog.I gave her status, because I was so fucked up in my own personal life, and so miserable, and so depraved, really."
The Sheltons say Hierro knew about Catherine's alleged affair with Parker, and Clint Shelton wanted that testimony in the divorce case. That's why Clint's defenders say he had nothing to gain by killing her or Michael Hierro.
What will be unanswered regardless of the outcome of the murder case is, Just who is Catherine Shelton? Is she what many people believe: a coldhearted, masterful manipulator who has managed to kill or orchestrate the killing of her enemies for two decades? Or is she, once again, an almost-too-impossible-to-be-true victim of circumstance?
"I'm a thorn in everyone's side, don't you know that?" she asks sarcastically. She reaches under a chair and pulls out the January 13 Houston Press issue and reads from the cover headline about her, that " 'Six of her ex-lovers or associates are wounded or dead.' How about the truth? How about 30, or 35? One ex-lover is dead. I've known 35 or 40, maybe 50, that are dead. People who were shot, or killed, or killed each other. What do you think I do for a living? I'm not a nurse."
She's a criminal defense lawyer, and she knows that despite her claims of innocence, there's little hope for immediate relief. Clint, she says, won't implicate her to lighten his sentence because he believes he'll be found innocent if the case goes to trial.
In any event, there are many questions to be answered by one or both of the Sheltons. Among them:
Why is one of Catherine Shelton's best friends, Judith Mercer, representing Clint Shelton in his divorce proceedings? Clint Shelton says he didn't know they were "best friends."
"I do know that she is a top-notch, highly ethical lawyer who is also a ball-buster," he says. (Reached on her cell phone, Mercer said she would call back for an interview, but never did.)
Why did they have a mask made out of underwear in their trash? Clint says it was only his worn-out underwear, and Catherine says she used it as a cleaning rag. She says if she had used it in any attack on the Hierros, she would have thrown it away with any mask Clint used. "It's confabulated," she says.
Shelton talks until there is no more tape left to record her. Then she walks me through her dark house, reiterating points of her story. Naturally she is concerned that she may harm her civil cases or any possible criminal case by speaking out, but she says, as does her husband, that the suspicion they are under is largely the result of media and political pressure. She finds a picture of herself, unretouched, and hands it over. "That's the real me," she says. "Not pretty, but not guilty."
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