Three decades after detectives first searched for a killer clown in South Florida, the case finally seemed ready for a jury this year. Then the new coronavirus stomped all over those plans.
Prosecutors say they’re awaiting justice for the family of Marlene Warren, the 40-year-old Wellington woman shot dead May 26, 1990, by a person wearing an orange wig, a red bulb nose, gloves and a smile painted on white makeup.
Equally frustrated with the delay is Sheila Keen Warren, 57, who is accused of pulling the trigger. An original person of interest after the shooting, Warren was arrested three years ago when cold-case investigators announced new DNA proof to support a first-degree murder indictment.
“It’s so unfair for me to have to wait this long, on 33 months now,” she wrote to a friend in late May from Palm Beach County Jail, where she is being held without bond. “Feels like 33 years to me.”
Already pushed back twice, the trial is now set for April 9. But no one knows if that’s even likely.
The lawyers haven’t been able to prepare for seven months, and it will be sometime early next year before judges are able to summon jurors for major felony cases, let alone such a high-profile one.
“It’s unfortunate and sad that as a result of COVID-19 there are innocent people locked up in jail awaiting trial,” said Richard Lubin, attorney for Warren.
A ‘clown’ did it
Based on original witness accounts, Marlene Warren opened the front door of her home and greeted the clown character holding two balloons and flowers in one hand and a pistol in the other.
After firing one shot at the victim’s face, the killer fled in a white Chrysler LeBaron, which was found four days later abandoned at a shopping center parking lot. The gun and clown get-up have never been located.
Court records show samples of Warren’s hair and blood were collected under a 1990 search warrant that also yielded fibers, from an orange wig, at her apartment. Similar fibers were reportedly found in the getaway car.
“We just needed a few little pieces of the puzzle,” lead Detective Paige McCann told reporters two days after Warren’s arrest. “And we were able to do that with new technologies and DNA. We were able to complete the puzzle and that led to the indictment.”
Prosecutors have yet to provide exact details about the specific DNA match, made by an FBI crime lab applying modern technology to the original evidence.
Among a trove of case materials sent to the defense are statements by Pahokee auto parts store workers who said Warren had once worn a clown costume while visiting the business some time before the fatal shooting. There is also a photo unearthed by investigators that shows Warren wearing a clown costume for Halloween many years after the murder.
But in handwritten letters by Warren over the past 18 months, the woman who also goes by the first name “Debbie” has insisted she is not to blame. The letters were released by prosecutors to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in response to a records request.
“I’m confident that my innocence will be proven,” she wrote. “I pray that no one ever does have to go through this like I am.”
Doesn’t fear virus
As she continues to stew in protective custody, separated from other inmates, she griped about the pandemic postponing her trial but also said she wasn’t scared about getting infected.
“I’m safe in isolation so chances are I won’t get the virus,” Warren wrote in an April message to a friend that had some misspellings and grammar errors. “There is some people in the jail that has got it and one deputy died, but he had health issues already.”
The next month she described the coronavirus as “such a crazy thing. I don’t know how we will ever get back to the way things were … people can’t live in a bubble with fear. It’s crazy.”
Warren also expressed hopes for a reunion with her husband, Michael Warren.
He was married to victim Marlene Warren at the time of the slaying, and also was a suspect, as well as the target of a separate fraud investigation over his used-car business, Bargain Motors, in West Palm Beach. Sheila Warren, then Sheila Keen, worked as a “repo lady” there.
Detectives originally pursued leads concerning a rumored affair between Sheila and Michael. Both then denied any role in the killing. Sheila said she was out working at the time, while Michael was on his way to Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens with friends at the time his wife was shot at their home in the Aero Club community.
After investigators reopened the murder case in 2014, they discovered Michael and Sheila Warren got married in 2002 and settled in southwest Virginia near the Tennessee border.
In a phone interview last year with the Sun Sentinel, Michael Warren spoke about the long arc of the case and said authorities lack proof against his wife.
“They had nothing before, they have nothing now,” said Warren, 68. “It’s not the person that they’ve got locked up, I would bet anything on it. I know sure to hell it’s not me.”
An attempt to reach Warren on his cellphone on Thursday was unsuccessful.
Lance Richard, attorney for Joe Ahrens, Marlene Warren’s son, also could not be reached despite a call to his office on Friday.
A month before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Assistant State Attorney Reid Scott notified the court that his office had decided not to pursue the death penalty. Warren would still face a life sentence if found guilty as charged.
She says she draws strength from her religion.
“I try not to worry,” she wrote to a friend in April. “I know that there isn’t anything I can do but be patient, trust and have faith in our Lord. The Holy Spirit in me keeps me strong.”
Marc Freeman can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @marcjfreeman.
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