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tv   Dateline  MSNBC  December 31, 2017 11:00pm-1:00am PST

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money is a motive. pride is a motive. love is a motive. a motive. love is a motive. it's a tale of love turned lethal featuring an adoring wife, a pageant queen. >> she was a whole lot of gorgeous woman. >> and at center stage, a charismatic guitar hero. >> just charming. you know, everybody loved him. he was playing for quite some time. >> two women, one man. a love triangle with sharp edges. >> jim at one point had told me that he wanted to know what it felt like to kill somebody. >> in this twisted game of hearts, how many would have to pay the price?
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>> she called and let me know that russ was dead. >> how far would things go? >> i looked in her eyes and i mean, she's evil. she is evil. >> a man hunt would stretch from the northwest down to mexico and run smack into mother nature. >> your suspect is quite literally in the wind. >> he's gone. love, according to the song writers, is a many splendored thing. >> financial empires have been built on our annual homage to hearts and flowers. but this story is about people caught in the powerful grip of love's darker side, obsession.
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>> it involves talented and beautiful people. >> miss washington. >> smart people, whose obsessions made them do stupid things. passionate people caught in an emotional whirlwind. >> we, the jury, find the defendant -- >> and finally, innocent people who paid the price when those passions ran amok. >> it all began, of course, on a dark and stormy night. >> they now expect what they're calling a worst-case scenario. >> it was august 2004, friday the 13th. hurricane charley was hammering florida's gulf coast, particularly the coastal city of pu punta goreda. >> the message is urgency and safety. >> get to safety and hunker down. >> that night jean huden thought her life was quite literally in shambles.
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>> i stayed and rode the hurricane out by myself in the house and watched my house come apart around my ears. >> 60 miles to the south jean's husband jim was holed up in a hotel, hiding, not from the storm, but from his past. >> he was scared so he figured he'd get while the getting was good. >> as soon as the worst of the storm had blown over jean says she joined her panicked husband. they ordered pizza and turned on the tv. >> the losses are substantial. >> but jean couldn't concentrate on the hurricane news. the personal storm that was wrecking her marriage and ruining her life took precedence. >> it was the big tensionfest. we talked and asked a lot of questions, you know? why? what were you thinking? what are you going to do now? >> it was a messy situation,
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betrayal, deception, dissertion, the usual menu of dysfunction that all too often falls und the category of other woman, but there was more to it than that. much more. >> a homicide investigation was at stake, one that just days earlier had led detective mark blumberg from the isle of washington all of the way to punta gorda, florida. he was hot on the trail of a potential suspect, and then came the hurricane. >> i didn't think he was going to stick around for us to come back. >> so the hurricane comes and goes and your suspect is quite literally in the wind. >> he's gone. >> for detective clumber, the twisted trail that led him from washington to south florida began just months earlier just after christmas 2003. a geotracker, a small suv had
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been spotted in a secluded driveway in a remote section of whidbey island, passenger door open and light on. >> the first thought was suicide, but on initial investigation they couldn't find a weapon. >> standing in the damp, december cold, the detective took stock. the body inside appeared to have been dead for 24 hours. i.d. found in the glove box indicated the dead man was named russel douglas, a ragged hole between his eyes had frozen his age at 32. >> there was a robbery, a whole lot of stuff left behind in the car that didn't make sense. >> just inside the driver's side door an empty .380 caliber shell casing lay on the floor. the detective thought it was a curious place for a homicide. >> near the end of a dead-end road parked into bushes as
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though he meant to be there with his car in gear, his emergency brake on and casually dressed in flip-flops. >> sounds like he was there to meet someone. >> that was the only thing that really made sense to us. >> but who? the detective hoped russel douglas' widow brenna douglas might shed some light on that, but that night when he told her the father of had her two children had been murdered the detective says he got a strange feeling. >> i never tried to judge how people are going react when i tell them thing, but her response wasn't what i expected. >> as in not emotional enough? >> she wasn't shocked, at least not visually shocked. it was a bit matter of fact and that did leave us at least wondering when we walked out of the house. yes. >> and so brenna douglas, as the wives of murdered men often do, became a person of interest, the domestic situation seemed unsettled.
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>> they were separated. russel was living in an apartment in renton. according to brenna they were trying to work it out and talking about getting back together. >> in fact, the new widow told the detectives that her husband had spent the holidays with her and the kids. >> she said the last time she saw him was the morning of december 26th. he left the house somewhere mid-morning and she thought he was going to run some errands. >> brenna douglas have an alibi? >> she didn't need an alibi at the time we went to talk to her. it was basically a death notification. she was able to answer our questions for us. >> who didn't like russel douglas? nobody could think of someone who really truly didn't like him. >> as winter turned to spring, the detectives' investigation seemed to be going nowhere, but a routine check of the numbers in russel douglas' cell phone had yielded a tiny clue.
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>> there were a few phone calls to a number with a las vegas area code and we made a phone call to that number. there was no answer. it went to an answering machine. >> was it a cell phone voice mail or a person's voice? >> it was a cell phone voice mail for a woman named peggy. >> peggy. that's a name you will hear again. the detective made a mental note to have that number traced, but within minutes of hanging up his phone rang. >> and there was a female who said she had gotten a phone call from that number and she identified herself as peggy thomas. explained that she was a friend of brenna and russel douglas. >> peggy douglas told the detectives she'd been visiting friends over the holidays and explained that she had simply contacted russel in order to pass along a present for brenna. >> she answered all of my questions to my satisfaction. there was nothing about that phone call that made me include her in the suspect list.
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>> but then again, the detective's suspect list was essentially a blank page. there were no names on it from florida or nevada or new mexico or any of the other places this investigation would eventually lead him, at least not yet. >> you don't want to believe the mother of your grandkids would ever be a suspect. >> but a wife as a potential person of interest is just the beginning in this cross country tale of love gone wrong. cannot live without it.
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as a nurse, gail o'neal knows that better than most. death never takes a holiday. as a nurse, gail oneal knows that better than most, still, she was unprepared for the news that greeted her when she returned home from a late shift two days after christmas 2003. >> the minute i opened the door i saw my husband on the phone, and it was like something hit me in the pit of my stomach and then he said russel's gone. >> her son's rocky marriage was on the mend. >> is this another drama-filled call from brenna that they had another argument or something and what bob had done was repeated the words that brenna had told him that russel was killed and then all i could do was go sit down and sit there for a while. >> russel's sister holly, she instantly assumed russel's personal troubles were to blame. >> my first thought is that he
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probably committed suicide so i was in shock and realized i needed to get over to the island for brenna and the kids. >> an alaskan bush pilot deliver the ared the news to russel's father jim who was in the wilderness hunting and unreachable by phone. he said your son's dead sxhi to say, of course, which one? and russel and i mean, he didn't know a whole lot about anything other than he knew it was important to get me out of there. >> russel's brother matt was the last to know. he, too, had been out of cell phone range for several days while vacationing in british columbia. >> we drove across the border and my phone had a seizure and it started buzzing for every voice mail message and text message that had been sent and it was matt, call me. matt, call me. matt, call me. >> within days of his death,
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russel douglas' far-flung family reunited on whidbey island. >> we rallied around brenna. >> we're sleeping on the room. >> i ended up taking up the organization of the house, what do we do for meals? >> russel douglas had left behind a lot of unfinished business. the oldest of three children born to jim and gail before they divorced, russel had been a late bloomer, but adulthood intruded early. shortly after he started dating brenna, she became pregnant. marriage and parenthood did little to help him mature. >> i think he was mourning and missing being an 18-year-old who had a lot of dates and drank and went out with the guys and he did a little of that in college, but not a lot. >> russel and brenna fought often over children, money and russel's affairs with other women.
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>> she'd called me after a really rough supposedly argument and i said, well, is he hurting you? is he hitting you? and she said no, really, he isn't physical. it's just emotional and verbal, but i've hit him a couple of times. >> earlier that year russel had separated from brenna. he'd taken an apartment near seattle and had a new girlfriend. for his family, the ongoing drama of russel's life was exhausting. >> he stopped talking to, basically, all of us. i think he was so angry with the whole situation he was just saying, i'm cutting off everything. >> but then just after thanksgiving all that seemed to change. russel had recently changed jobs and was close to completing an online masters degree program and as christmas approached russel reached out to family members and told his brother matt that he wanted to reconcile
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with his wife. >> he said, you know, i think i need to start doing the right things. brenna wants me back. i want her back. i want to be involved in the kids' life. >> then for reasons they could not fathom, their son, their big brother was dead, and the family became defensive when detectives suggested that russel's wife brenna may have had something to do with his murder. >> you don't want to believe that anybody that you've known for that long or is the mother of your grandkids would ever be a suspect. >> so gail offered to help her daughter-in-law hire a lawyer. >> one of the detectives seemed a little strong armed and i said, you know, you also need to get an attorney for all of your business affairs so let me see if i can find somebody for you. >> the financial picture for brenna and the children was murky. russel and brenna had filed for bankruptcy a few years earlier and though brenna owned her own hair salon in this upscale shopping center. russel had handled the business end of things.
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if there was a bright spot during those days it was that russel douglas did have some life insurance. >> i think when it comes down to it, he had a total of three life insurance policies, each one a couple hundred thousand dollars, i want to say. >> in fact, the face value of those policies was more than half a million dollars. that money would come in handy, particularly since brenna was under pressure to buy the house she'd been renting from a woman who used to work at her hair salon. the landlady's name was peggy. peggy thomas. in those last, dying days of 2003, russel douglas' family had no idea how large that name would loom for them in the months and years to come. coming up, detectives get a call from a mystery man who says he knows who the killer is, but getting him to talk won't be easy. it sounds like he's afraid for his own life.
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>> he said if i told you what i know the shooter's going to know that i told you. >> when "dateline" continues. for adults with moderate to severe ra for whom methotrexate did not work well. it can reduce pain, swelling and further joint damage, even without methotrexate. xeljanz xr can lower your ability to fight infections, including tuberculosis. serious, sometimes fatal infections, lymphoma and other cancers have happened. don't start xeljanz xr if you have an infection. tears in the stomach or intestines, low blood cell counts and higher liver tests and cholesterol levels have happened. your doctor should perform blood tests before you start and while taking xeljanz xr, and monitor certain liver tests. tell your doctor if you were in a region where fungal infections are common and if you have had tb,
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that gives you coverage here, here and here. and it even let's you take a timeout. nooooooo! yes! amazing speed, coverage and control. all with an xfi gateway. by the spring of 2004, detective mark plumberg has been working the phones and knocking on doors for months by the spring of 2004 detective mark plumber had been working the phones and knocking on doors for month, but getting nowhere. >> i actually started to start over and do the entire
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investigation from step one all over again. >> he had a murder at a good address on his hands and many more questions than answers. what had brought russel douglas to this remote area of whidbey island on the day after christmas? who put a bullet between his eyes and why? >> we ran out every lead i could run out and none of them connected to russel douglas. >> money, love, pride. talk to homicide detectives and they say any of those themes come up all of the time. >> all of the time. >> any of those themes seem to fit? >> he had several hundred thousand dollars, money is a motive, love is a motive, pride is a motive. >> for the detectives those factors seemed to point in the direction of russel's wife brenna douglas. not only had she been cheated on and publicly humiliated by
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russel, but she was the named beneficiary of three life insurance policies he'd taken out on himself the problem was brenna's alibi was solid. there were plenty of people who could confirm that they'd been with her at the time russel douglas was killed. the detective knew he needed a break, and in july 2004, exactly seven months to the day after the murder of russel douglas, he got one. >> i was actually out canvassing and interviewing again, and i got a phone call that said we had a tip on the russel douglas homicide. >> plumberg's partner on the investigation mike beach took the call. >> he just said hey, i'm calling to see if you have unsolved homicides from december 2003, and i said yes, sir, we actually have two in december of 2003. which one are you referring to? he says the guy who got shot in the head.
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>> beach said are says he didn't know if the caller was the killer or someone related to the killer, but he knew he didn't want to lose it. >> i'm doing everything i can to keep this gentleman on the phone because at that point he still hadn't given me his name. >> the caller was using an untraceable calling card and on the phone he seemed nervous. >> he said if i told you what i know the shooter's going to know that i told you. >> that first call lasted more than an hour, but the cops learned neither the name of the caller nor the killer. >> he was still afraid to give us any more information so i'm doing everything i can to gain his trust, just to keep talking to him. >> the informant agreed to call again the next day and this time he was more forthcoming. >> he started telling me that i needed to look for a girlfriend of the shooter that was from las vegas. he kept saying the shooter's where i am. >> the caller told beach that he was a retired air force
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serviceman and played in a band with the shooter. the shooter, he said, was his best friend. >> i asked him again to call the next day and he said i have to work, but i can call on thursday. i said okay. i'll be here waiting and he almost whispered, the shooter is jim huden. >> jim huden, in the age of google, that was all the break mark plumberg needed. by the end of the day the detectives knew that jim huden lived in south florida and played in a band and according to the band's website, one of its members was retired air force and so the next time the caller phoned detective beach was ready. >> he was asking me were you able to do anything with what i gave you. i said yeah, i think i'm looking at a picture of you and the phone went quiet and he said you guys are good. >> we're not good. it was simple google searching. at last, the detectives had a solid lead. one that raised plenty of
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questions. who was this jim huden and why was their tipster so will willing to give him up? the cops knew the answers to those questions. it could not be found in a google search. they would have to fly to southwest florida at a time of year when violent storm clouds always seem to luck just over the horizon. coming up, was this a case of love turned lethal? detectives learn about an affair between this beauty queen. >> she was a whole lot of gorgeous woman. >> and a guitar man with a dark side. >> jim at one point had told me that he wanted to know what it felt like to kill somebody.
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nearly 500 years ago a middle-aged spaniard came to this part of florida searching for the fountain of youth. ponce de leon never found it, but in 1992 it seems jim huden did. like deleon, huden was a middle-aged wanderer, but unlike the conquistador, the locals loved jim huden. >> jim was always a happy go lucky, fun guy. >> he was just a wonderful human being. >> very witty guy.
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just charming. everybody loved him. >> a native of washington state, huden's first fans in punta gorda were customers at his computer store. former mayor marilyn mooney was one of those. >> he was brilliant with computers. in fact, you could go in there and they would build a computer for you. >> but it was huden's band, buck naked and the exhibitionists that made him one of the most popular people in punta gorda. >> tim played keyboards in the band. >> we had two names to decide on. it was buck naked and the
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exhibitionists or les moore and the contradictions. so we picked buck naked and he came up with both names. was the bread and butter. lead singer al holland used to perform with the platters. he said that whenever buck naked played people would dance. >> we would pack the place every single friday and saturday night and it would just be one very big party. >> it must have been fun to be a part of the big band in town. >> it was. >> oh, yeah. it was. >> the band was so hot, in pack, that jim huden eventually turned over the computer store to his top assistant jean spender so he could concentrate on music. >> i kind of pushed him towards doing that because i knew that was his love and that's where he was most happy. >> were you in love with him? very much so. i loved that man very much. >> so much so that in december 2001, after six years of living
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together, jean and jim got married in las vegas. >> and i was asked by jean if i would walk her down the aisle. >> was she happy? >> oh, yeah. all smiles. both of them were all smiles. >> but the smiles did not last long. >> in june 2002 jim huden returned here to washington state for the funeral of an old friend, and it was here that fate intervened. a tall, red-haired beauty caught jim's eye. it was the beginning of a love triangle, one that would wreck the lives of all of the people who were involved, and some who were not. the woman in question was peggy thomas, a whidbey island hairstylist who also dabbled in beauty pageants. >> miss washington, peggy
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thomas. >> in fact, in 2001 thomas represented the state of washington in a las vegas pageant wing the evening gown competition. >> congratulations, peggy. >> leslie burkland got to know peggy thomas a few years earlier when she was just breaking into the beauty pageant circuit. berkland who now appeals on the reality show "big, rich, texas." i still consider myself new to dallas. >> says peggy was working as an auto mechanic at the time. >> you could aren't not notice peggy because she was a whole lot of gorgeous woman would you say she's a typical pageant contestant? >> no. not in 1998. here is this beautiful, volume house is red-head woman and she was a mechanic and she had a guy kind of job. it just added to her sex appeal. >> though jean says she knew nothing of her husband's budding affair at the time, she did notice that he had returned from his friend's funeral a changed man, secretive, sullen and withdrawn.
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>> i think jim's sister-in-law had mentioned peg thome and i didn't put two and two together. she made some comment about them being there at the funeral and it just didn't click so i didn't want to acknowledge it. >> jean says she later found emails and letters from this peggy and that the woman even called her home looking for jim, but jean says that jim told her peggy was simply a music contact who could get him gigs in las vegas, worrisome, to be sure, but jean says it was her husband's heavy drinking that really had her concerned. >> he started drinking constantly at home, you know, and drinking to obliterate himself, basically, to numb himself and then he started making trips out west. >> did you, at the time, think that there was another woman? >> no. i had no idea. >> there is, of course, no cure for willful blindness, but bill hill, huden's faithful wingman knew the truth about those out of town trips because sometimes he'd been along for the ride.
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>> we came out to las vegas, the reason that he asked me to go was to cover for him. >> he was seeing peggy? >> yes. tell me about jim's relationship with peggy? >> it was all love and kisses. >> really? >> uh-huh. >> more so than with jean who was waiting for him back home? >> yes. >> before long, other band members say that they, too, began seeing the same changes in jim that troubled jean, heavy drinking and erratic behavior. >> he'd go through a fifth of crown royal in a night and one night i'm calling cord changes to the bass player, and he hollers at me in the middle of a song quit criticizing the bass player or something like that and i hollered back at him why don't you keep your mouth quiet i'm doing my job over here and he shut off his guitar and walked off stage which is about the most unprofessional thing you can do. >> after that, the band's days were numbers and seemingly so were the days of jean huden's marriage, but the drinking and philandering were not the worst
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of it. >> jim at one point had told me that he wanted to know what it felt like to kill somebody. >> he told you he had wanted to know that. >> yes. one with of his deep, dark secrets. >> and you say sure, what? great idea, honey? >> i didn't know what to say. >> who would? jean could only guess at what was behind this sudden change. >> he lost his dad when he was, i believe, 10, 11 years old and his mom dated a series of men throughout that were abusive drunks and he saw his mom get beat up many, many times. he wasn't able to do anything and he always swore he would get this guy, the man who mostly beat her has since passed away. >> jean didn't know if something back in washington had triggered her husband's black moods, but she remained determined to pull him through. >> i loved that man more than life itself at the time. i was so in love with him. i thought he was the one. >> even though he was in the process of treating you like dirt. >> right.
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i was hoping everything could be salvaged. >> and then came june 2003 when the cold, hard facts of her husband's affair could no longer be denied. jim moved out telling jean he needed a change of scenery for his music. jean knew better. i was, like, you're going back to see peggy and i said get out and don't ever come back again. he didn't want to hear that. he wanted me to be hanging on while he had peggy, as well. >> that moment of clarity, it turns out, was short lived. all that summer while jim huden set up housekeeping with peggy and her two daughters out in las vegas, jean said her husband kept her dangling that he and peggy thomas were over and he'd soon be home, he told her. and for jean, that was a reason to believe. >> i thought there was some hope. i didn't want to let go. >> and for a brief moment in september 2003 jean looked as if her perseverance would pay off.
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jim invited her out to las vegas for her 40th birthday. for several days he wined and dined her, but her dreams of a happy ending she says, vanished when her husband turned to her in bed one nht and told her he intended to make his darkest dreams come true. there was a man who needed to die. >> not the kind of thing a wife wants to hear, but jean has an even bigger shock coming. >> it was like getting kicked in the stomach. life was over at that point. >> when "dateline" continues.
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they say that what happens in vegas stays in vegas. no one wanted that slogan to be true more than jean huden did. especially since vegas was where her husband had told her he intended to kill a complete stranger. >> he wanted to know what it felt like to kill somebody. >> nobody's ever said that to me before. >> yeah, me either. >> this was not to be a thrill killing. according to jean, her husband believed murdering the victim he had in mind would be a kind of public service. >> he just said he beat his children and beat his wife and didn't take care of his family and just an abusive --
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>> made him sound exactly like the guy jim had grown up with. >> exactly. >> what did jim say he was going to do? >> he said peggy's friend brenna approached him and she would share the insurance money with him. >> murder for hire. >> did you try to talk him out of this? >> i did. i thought he was just talking. i was hoping he'd get over it. >> it had been a tough year for mr. and mrs. huden. the death of a childhood friend had sent jim huden spinning off into a hall of fame-worthy midlife crisis that ran the gamut from alcoholism and adultery to vague notions of murder. >> i just didn't think he would follow through with it. he didn't even know how to shoot a gun. >> by 2003 things hit rock bottom. instead of returning with jean after their romantic reunion in las vegas jim had stayed out west. >> did you think he was with peggy? >> at that point i thought so,
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yeah. i knew what was going on, and i knew it was over, and i just -- there was no point in confronting him because he would lie about it anyway. >> abandoned and alone, jean spent the holidays waiting for word from jim. then in early january, jean says her phone rang. her husband was on the line. but jim huden wasn't calling to wish his wife a happy new year. according to jean, he was calling to tell her that dreams do come true. he had killed a man in cold blood. >> he just said it was done, and he's coming back. >> the murder? >> yes. >> what did you say? >> i think i was speechless at the time. i just -- i think i asked if he was okay, and does anyone know or are they after you -- i basically just asked if he was okay. >> your husband had just confessed that he had committed a murder for hire. >> uh-huh. it was like getting kicked in the stomach. i mean i knew life as i knew it was over at that point.
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>> jean says her husband drove through the night, pulling into their garage in punta gorda after dark the next day. >> he basically told me how they had lured russel to a certain spot on the island and how he had came out of some bushes and walked up to him and just shot him in the head, and he made it sound like, you know, it was kind of gentle and peaceful and his head just tilted over and he walked away. >> jim had told you that he had this dark secret. that he wanted to know what it would be like to kill someone? >> right. >> did it live up to his expectations? >> no. he said for a few days he felt like a big man and it was exhilarating and he had accomplished something and had rid the world of someone that didn't need to be there anymore and he started to close in on him and that he wasn't such a big man and he knew he had made a terrible mistake. >> based on what jim told you, did brenna douglas offer any
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shred of proof that her husband was abusive or did jim just kind of commit that murder pretty much on faith? >> pretty much on faith, as far as i knew because i'd come to find out later there were no records of him -- there were no reports of domestic abuse as far as i understand. >> after laying low for a while, jean says, jim gradually started picking up the pieces of his old life in punta gorda. as the weeks passed, jean says she even allowed herself to think that perhaps ting li ugliness of the past two years was in the past, that is until the april day when a tall red-headed stranger appeared on her doorstep. >> jim was doing a local radio show here in the morning and i was at home and there's a knock on the door and i opened the door and it's peggy thomas standing on my doorstep. >> in that icy instant, jim huden's complicated double life collapsed. as the women talked, jean says, it became clear that both had been lied to.
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both believed jim was done with the other and committed to them. >> he was playing us both for quite some time, trying to keep us both apart from each other. >> so there you are with peggy and jim's not there. >> uh-huh. >> for how long? >> not long because i called the radio station and suggested he get home real fast. he stopped the show and came home and peggy and i are sitting there on the couch. >> how did he look? >> not good. >> so what happens at that meeting? >> there was a lot of yelling. >> the two of you yelling at jim or at each other? a little of both. i was yelling at her because she knew he was married. >> and she was saying there was nothg left of your marage. >> it s a knife in the heart and at that point he needed to make a choice and he said he was going to stay with me. >> although jean says peggy agreed to leave them in peace and return to las vegas, a few weeks later she was back. this time showing up unannounced at a reunion gig for jim's old band, buck naked and the
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exhibitionists. hill says the moment he saw her face in the audience he knew it was trouble. trouble because shortly after returning to punta gorda jim huden had told him that peggy had helped him murder a man who reminded jim of someone he'd known as a child. a man who who had allegedly beaten and abused jim's mother. >> he says i would have done him in if he was still alive and he says i found a person that met his description as far as abusiveness, and i says, yeah. and he says, well, i shot him in the head and killed him. >> no chance that he was kidding or not telling the truth? >> i knew he was telling the truth. peggy found a person that supposedly was abusive and it happened to be the the husband of a woman that owned the hair salon in whidbey island, i believe.
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>> where peggy worked? >> where peggy worked, yes. >> so peggy knew all about this? >> she helped him. >> for five months bill hill says he struggled under the weight of that confession and then in late july 2004 his conscience finally got the better of him. >> i decided to make my first call. >> your first call? >> to whidbey island. >> to the police. >> yes. to the island county sheriff's -- i felt guilty i was giving up my friend, but i knew something had to be done. >> within days of that call detectives mark plumberg and mike beach were sitting face-to-face with both their tipster bill hill and their suspect, the artist formerly known as buck naked. coming up, the interrogation gets tough. >> you know what you told bill. the guy is falling apart over the guilt he's carrying around because you told him what you did.
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for seven months after russell douglas was shot between the eyes, police had little more to go on than a corpse and an empty shell casing. for seven months after russell douglas was shot between the eyes, police had little more to go on than a corpse and an empty shell casing. with their case in a dead end, whidbey island detectives desperately wanted to believe that bill hill, the tipster who had led them to florida was something other than a crack pot with an axe to grind. >> when we first landed in florida we met with bill hill, confirmed the story we wanted to meet him face-to-face, obviously. >> what was his mood? >> he was a bit nervous. i think he was still in that mode where he knew he was turning in his best friend. >> once again, bill hill told the detectives what he knew, that his best friend jim huden
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had told him he'd killed a man in whidbey island and that huden's girlfriend peggy thomas had helped set up the whole thing with the knowledge of the victim's wife. it was a compelling story, but with no murder weapon or any other physical evidence connecting jim huden to the murder of russel douglas, the detectives were no closer to being able to make an arrest. >> the next day we decide we had no cards other than to just go talk to jim huden and say what he'll say to us. >> after arranging to have a second team of detectives visit peggy thomas simultaneously in las vegas, the detectives drove over to jim huden's house, jean answered the door. >> i showed her my badge and my i.d. and said i was from island county, washington. >> jim was there. >> yes. he was sitting on the couch. he said what's island county washington doing all of the way here in florida? >> oddly enough, he didn't say anything like that. >> the detective didn't beat around the bush.
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>> i looked him right in the face and i said mr. huden i know you're the man who pulled the trigger and killed russel douglas and his only response was i don't know why someone would say that. i was sure at that moment i was in the room with the man. >> an innocent man would say i'm crazy. >> he never once made a denial of my accusation. >> huden admitted to being on whidbey island with peggy thomas over the christmas holidays, but denied ever owning a gun. he admitted to having briefly met russel douglas, but said it was only to drop off a present at his apartment near seattle for brenna from peggy. >> i asked if he'd be willing to come down to the police station with us. i said we'd like to get your story on tape. he agreed. >> he's under no obligation to do that. he doesn't have to go anywhere with us. >> do you want a soda? >> i'm fine. if the coffee is ever done i'll have that.
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>> with tape rolling, jim huden freely agreed to being in washington at the time of the crime, to meeting russel douglas there and to being a lousy, two-timing husband, but that's where jim huden drew the line. >> i'm a son of a -- but no killer. i'm a [ expletive ]. >> for nearly an hour, it covered old ground with few interruptions with detectives in las vegas who were at that very moment grilling huden's girlfriend peggy thomas. >> peggy was my guide out there? >> i would be surprised if it was any different than mine. >> and he was right, like jim, peggy wasn't giving the police anything in her interview. so detective mike beach decided to shake things up.
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>> who is bill hill? >> he's a friend of mine who lives here. bass player. >> does that surprise you that i
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brought up that name? >> yes. >> why? >> uh, because you're from -- whidbey island? >> would it surprise you that i've been talking to him almost daily for the last week and a half? >> yeah, it would surprise me. >> i just wanted to see a reaction. up until that point he was playing it pretty cool, and i think i got the reaction i was hoping for. it kind of deflated him a little bit. >> it's truth or dare time, jim. you know what you told bill. he's your best friend in the whole world. the guy is falling apart over this, literally falling apart over the guilt he's carrying around because you told him what you did. >> i don't buy that for a minute. >> if revealing bill hill as their source was intended to shock jim huden into confessing it failed. with no murder weapon, no warrant and no authority to make an arrest in the state of florida, the detectives had to let their primary suspect go free. were you worried at all about
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bill hill? >> now you've disclosed he's the source of all this. >> we made sure before we went back to washington that bill understood that we had to give his name, but my hope was that jim huden would be far too worried about his own skin and not have to worry about taking retribution on bill hill. >> easy for him to say. bill hill remembers being terrified when he heard his former friend knew he was the one that called the police. >> oh, yeah. scared to death. >> watching your back. >> oh, yeah. yeah. >> that terror was amplified a few days later when hurricane charley which had been churning up the gulf, suddenly made an unexpected turn and slammed into punta gorda. packing 150 mile-an-hour winds, charley leveled parts of town, taking out electricity and giving plenty of cover to someone like jim huden who might want revenge.
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>> i slept on the couch in the living room with my 357 under the pillow. >> because you thought jim was coming? >> yes. >> how did you sleep? >> not very good. >> as it turned out. the detective was right. jim huden had plenty on his plate and no intention of sticking around. once charley died down no one was surprised to learn that jim huden was literally gone with the wind.
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jean huden says her husband was sure of only two things, the cops would be back and he had no intention of ever wearing prison orange. >> he told me he will never see me in a jump suit meaning jail or prison clothes. no, he had every intention of killing himself before it came to that. >> which brings us back to that hurricane. hurricane charley. he told her he wanted to spend one last night alone drinking and gambling in a casino there before he committed suicide. >> and i left him with about $4,000 or $5,000, a bunch of pills and he was going go off and take himself out somewhere. >> you were crying some. >> i was hysterical? >> was he crying? >> yes, he was. he was. so i drove away thinking that was the last time i would see him and i would get a knock on the door with someone asking me to identify his body. >> for weeks, jean says she waited amid the ruins of her storm-ravaged home for word of jim's fate. she assumed he was dead and that's what she told the whidbey island cops when they called to follow up. >> there were several messages on the machine, you know, from them and i called them back and
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i told them what had happened, and it's, like, you got your man. he's dead and there you go. case is solved joo but shortly after telling the police that jim had probably killed himself the phone rang again. it was greyhound bus lines in houston, texas. >> they found a bag that was left on the bus with jim's name on it with a bottle of crown royal, his clothes and a gun in it. >> how long -- when did you hear from him? i got a phone call from my attorney saying they'd heard from jim and that jim was in a motel down in houston. the lawyer put jean in touch with jim and filled her in on his latest plan, a plan that could only succeed if jean agreed to send jim money. >> his plan was to get across the border and go from there. and so i sent him yet more money and allowed him to, you know, get out of the country.
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>> which wasn't at that point a crime since there were no charges against him. >> at this point, no. here's where our story takes another bizarre turn. while jean huden, the wife jim had cheated on for years was willing to stand by her man and help him escape to mexico, police learned that peggy thomas, jim huden's lover and alleged accomplice was now willing to give him up. >> i'm not involved in this. >> in this interview with detectives, peggy thomas said that in a phone call shortly before he fled to mexico jim had confessed to killing russell douglas. >> he said i'm sorry. i love you. i never meant for you to be involved in it and i did it when i went for cigarettes. he said it can't be, and i said you know what? just know that i love you. you'll never see me or hear from me again.
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>> with no evidence tying peggy to the murder, the detectives asked for the public's help in documenting motives in 2003 where russel douglas was murdered. >> we put out descriptions of the vehicle he was driving. just a few days after it hit the media we got a phone call from dona ana county sheriff's office in new mexico saying someone had turned in as a firearm tt they believe might have been used in a homicide on whidbey island. >> talk about luck. >> it doesn't get any better than that. >> the gun came from a former las vegas sheriff's deputy who recently retired to new mexico. the deputy had known jim huden and peggy thomas in las vegas and in october 2003, the deputy said huden had come to his house and asked to be shown how to shoot the gun. according to the deputy, the
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next time he saw either huden or the gun was in january 2004 when jim huden handed it to him in a paper bag and asked him to hold it for safekeeping. >> we took the weapon for testing, and it was matched to the shell casing from the tracker and also matched to the slug that was pulled from russel's brain. >> the murder weapon. >> that's the murder weapon. >> and you have a guy telling you that jim huden gave it to him. >> right. not just that jim huden gave it to him, but he taught jim huden to fire the weapon and that jim huden gave it back to him just a few days after the murder of russel douglas. >> if you'd had that information before you went to florida, you could have brought jim huden back in cuffs. >> yes. >> now you have the proof and jim huden is nowhere to be found. >> we have all we need. now we just need jim. coming up, with jim out of the picture, his lover peggy thomas meets a new man, a millionaire cowboy who was about
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to be taken in a wild ride. >> i looked in her eyes and i mean, she is evil. cannot live without it.
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for nine months the mystery of who killed russel douglas and why weighed on his family. then as it often does in this story a ringing phone brought momentous news. >> i got the call from the prosecutor who said i'm telling you first that they thought they knew who it was. >> jim huden's name meant nothing to russel's family, but the name of huden's girlfriend peggy thomas did.
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>> peggy thomas is the owner of the home that russel and brenna rented that they had had a verbal agreement that they were going to buy if they could come up with the capital. >> given that brenna was the named beneficiary on russel's life insurance policies, russel's family wondered if his death was in some way part of a real estate deal. >> i guess some of our family members kept thinking did peggy maybe do this or set this all up because she thought that if brenna got insurance money she would buy the house and peggy would then have that instant cash? >> peggy thomas appeared to be the only link between jim huden and russel douglas, and it wasn't just a circumstantial connection, either. on page 14 of the murder weapon's owner's manual, investigators had found a fingerprint belonging to peggy thomas. troubling, but what concerned
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russel douglas' brother and sister most was the fact that brenna didn't appear to be the least bit upset about the prospect of her friend peggy being involved in her husband's murder. >> he worked with her and you're not saying a peep, you know? if it was your friend, something, either disbelief or i can't believe my friend did this, i want to make sure they get punished. >> let's go get them. >> i said, you know, when you were really mad at russ did you ever say to peggy while you guys were working together that russ hads some insurance money and he'd be better to you dead than alive. she said, well, i might have and at that point i kind of looked at her and i thought, man, did this not give somebody a motive somewhere along the line? >> was this a case of angry words having unintended consequences or as some suspected, had brenna actively
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recruited russel's killers? the family couldn't know for sure, but that question now complicated their relationships with brenna and the grandchildren. >> and we tried to be as supportive as we could for the kids, but i know she listens to all of their conversations. so it's a very controlled conversation. >> when it comes to awkward telephone conversations none could have been more strained than the ones that took place between jim huden's lover and jim huden's wife after he fled to mexico. >> you call her first or she called you? >> no. she called me. >> what did she want to talk about? >> well, she wanted to know how much the cops had been bugging me and what they knew and if i had heard from jim or anything like that. >> and you, what? told her? >> i told her what the cops had said. i didn't tell her anything about jim. >> why did you not hang up the phone?
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>> i don't know. i don't know. >> this isn't even jim. this is jim's mistress. >> i know. i'm an idiot. >> jim asked her to fly out to vegas to meet peggy face-to-face and keep her in the loop. >> we did have jim in common. i never told her where he was. i did tell her i knew he was okay. it was just very weird. we went out and had drinks and saw a band, and i really found it hard to hate her as much as i wanted to. >> as months passed and jim huden's trail grew colder, the lives of the women who would love him took drastically divergent paths while jean grew steadily poor supporting jim, the ever-resourceful peggy, now a limo driver in vegas hit the jackpot. in 2007 one of her affairs turned out to be this man, mark
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allen, a new mexico horse breeder and heir to an oil fortune. >> the limo people asked me do you want some guy or the ex-mrs. washington, and i said i'll take the ex-mrs. washington. allen asked her to marry him. >> the biggest mistake i ever made in my life. >> within months of moving to his new mexico ranch, allen says peggy was nosing her way into his horse business, pressing him to fire longtime employees and hire friends of hers. >> you know, she wanted her people to do the accounting and stuff. >> when he refused, allen says, the man magnet turned into a maneater. >> she'd get on me and it was -- it was like a man getting on you. she's a pretty good sized woman. i looked in her eyes and i -- i mean, she's evil.
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she is evil. >> but if peggy thomas married well, she divorced even better. allen says he gave her money and an 80-foot houseboat just to go away. >> the divorce took way longer than the marriage did. >> looking back, mark allen says he should have known better. he says a few days before their wedding peggy let him in on a little secret. >> she said she was accused of being involved in a murder and that her ex-boyfriend had killed a guy, she said, but i didn't have nothing to do with it. i said, did you take a lie detector? she said, no, my lawyer told me not to. i said if you're innocent why would aren't you take a lie detector and she never gave me a good answer. >> it should be noted that although mark allen says his brief marriage to peggy thomas cost him dearly, she did give him at least one chuckle.
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>> in 2009 after one of his horses, mine that bird, won the kentucky derby, allen says he saw peggy quoted in the press. >> she said she was down here training horses and breeding horses. peggy can't even step up on a horse. coming up, whatever happened to jim, the fugitive from justice and his wife jean? >> i was getting ready to leave and not be able to come back to this country for the rest of my life. >> torn between joining jim on the lam and turning him in. which would she choose? when "dateline" continues.
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by the spring of 2011, russel douglas had been by the spring 2011 russel douglas had been dead for more than seven years. his suspected killer was still on the loose because the only person on earth who knew his true whereabouts wasn't talking to detectives. >> i mean, they'd been watching me for years. they tapped my phones. >> police were pretty sure you were in contact with jim. >> well, sure. they had a good idea.
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>> and they were right. >> of course, they were. >> the man no longer known as buck naked had been able to build a new life for himself in mexico. >> and even played the occasional gig. >> it was in vera cruz, mexico. to bring him more money and he was teaching music to kids at a music school down there. i'd fly up to dulles airport and then to kansas and change planes so they couldn't track how i was going and how i was getting to him or we'd meet in other cities. i never flew directly to him so, you know, so they couldn't trace me, you know, to get to him. >> but that kind of devotion doesn't come cheap. jim's life on the lam had taken a toll on jean's health and it's devoured the inheritance she received when her mother died.
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>> the man cost me every dime i had. i lost my house, and i lost my livelihood -- sorry. >> and yet, after her father died in 2007 jean says she seriously considered joining her husband in mexico where he was known as maestro jim and sharing his life as a fugitive. >> i knew what border crossing i was taking. i had a new i.d. i was getting ready to leave and not be able to come back to this country for the rest of my life. >> maybe you would have died in a shootout. >> who knows? he probably would have taken me out next. >> that did not happen, for one reason. >> just days before she planned to join jim jean met this man, bill bruner and fell in love. >> and he finally made me see what foolish thing that would be to do and for some reason i
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listened to bill, and now he's -- he saved my life, basically. >> so love kind of wrecked your life and then love also saved your life. >> yeah. i guess it did. it sure did. yeah. >> because of bill jean gave up her dream of re-joining jim huden, but it wasn't until the spring of 2011 that bill bruner convinced her to give up the addiction that was jim. >> i had to finally -- i had enough, you know? i know jim doesn't love me. he didn't care about me when he did what he did and he still doesn't care about me and probably less so now that i'm out of money. >> more than that, jean had herself gotten into some legal trouble after jim fled to mexico. in exchange for immunity from prosecution on some drug and check forgery charges, jean told authorities all she knew about the murder of russel douglas and just where jim huden could be
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found. >> they're not interested in me. they wanted jim. they said they would not prosecute me and i certainly hope they stick to their word. >> in june 2011 mexican authorities picked up the man known as buck naked or maestro jim in veracruz and quickly turned him over to waiting u.s. marshalls. when the plane carrying jim back to washington state landed in seattle he was greeted by a familiar face. >> and you said what? jim, nice to see you again. >> jim, i'm not sure if you remember me, but i'm here to escort you back to island county. i said you're under no obligation to talk to me and he immediately said i don't want to. >> something he should have said years earlier. >> probably would have been a good idea. >> for the foreseeable future, jim huden would be wearing exactly the ensemble he had, for
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so long, sought to avoid. immediately after huden's arrest detectives began trying to track down his former lover peggy thomas, a routine computer data search led police to this lake in new mexico where they discovered peggy thomas kept an 80-foot houseboat that she'd gotten in her divorce from mark allen. >> they said she was a really nice person, that she was single and that she'd put the name off the hook on the boat due to the fact she was single. >> captain burton of the san juan office, said she was lured to the marina with a bogus package. she didn't seem all that surprised when he placed her under arrest. >> she had an attorney and she'd been waiting for this day and was kind of ready to get it over with. >> peggy thomas was all business, current says and wasted none of her legendary charm on him.
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>> just enough time for her to make fun of me and make fun of my braces and how young i looked. she thought i would be someone older, she said. >> russel douglas' family was e lated that his suspected killers were in jail, but russel's wife? not so much. >> and i called brenna, and it was kind of a stunned silence for a little bit and then it was, like, oh, well good, but it was not the ecstatic thank god something that i was really wanting to hear. >> in july 2011 when russel douglas' family gathered in solidarity for jim huden's first court appearance, russel's widow was conspicuously absent. >> i asked her, are you going to go? why would i go? it doesn't concern me. it just didn't quite seem right. >> it would take another year
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before jim huden and the wife of the man he was accused of killing sat in the same courtroom, and when they did, all eyes would be on her. coming up, brenna douglas, could she have anything to do with the plot to kill her husband? >> i said who else knows about this? >> did he tell you? >> yes, he did.
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jim huden and peggy thomas were charged with the murder of russel douglas in the summer of 2011. from that moment, whidbey island prosecutor greg banks had been hoping they would turn on each other and spill the details of what had happened on the day russel was killed. >> that was the plan.
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>> but that didn't happen. >> did not happen. >> because why? they're still in love? they wouldn't rat on each other? >> you know, if you got a chance to interview them you could ask them. >> because jean huden was still married to jim, the prosecutor decided to split the case and try jim and peggy separately. >> we needed jean to testify against peggy, but washington has a rule thats you can't call a spouse against a defendant. >> if you try jean and peggy separately jean couldn't testify against peggy. >> more than a year after his wife had given him up, jim huden went on trial for the murder of russel douglas. the opening statement of the island county prosecutor set the tone. >> ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this case is about the assassination of russel douglas the day after christmas 2003. >> banks promised the jury that the evidence would show that jim
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huden and an accomplice had lured russel douglas to his death with the promise of a christmas gift for his wife brenna. >> james huden did not even know russ douglas, but his accomplice did. >> jim huden, he declared, was the triggerman. >> mr. huden walked up to that car. he opened the door. he looked him right in the face and in the distance of less than four inches used a .380 semiautomatic handgun to put a bullet between his eyes. >> the prosecutor began by calling the one person that police still believed knew more about this case than she was saying. >> state calls brenna douglas. >> brenna douglas, the dead man's widow. >> on the stand, brenna identified a picture of peggy thomas and said they used to cut hair together. in 2003, she said, she rented a house from peggy. >> did you two become close? >> yeah. we'd talk. it was just girl talk stuff.
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>> did you talk about personal things with her? >> yeah. >> according to brenna, her rocky marriage to russel douglas was among the things she talked to peggy thomas about. >> he had a lot of issues, throwing furniture around and different things and how he treated the kids and i, it just wasn't okay. >> when you and russ went through a separation, is that the sort of thing you might have talked to peggy about? >> they talked to most people about probably too much. >> why did you say that that you talk to people too much. >> are you a person who likes to chat. >> i just chat. >> do you know james huden? >> i met him. >> how is it that you met james huden? >> through peg. >> it was the woman to woman conversations between brenna and peggy that the prosecutor based his theory of the murder. brenna told peggy her husband was violent. peggy told jim and jim pulled the trigger. the prosecutor explained why. >> mr. huden pulled the trigger
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on russel douglas as a way of exercising his own personal demons. >> that point was underscored when huden's old bass player bill hill took the stand and told the court about the day jim huden shared his darkest secret. >> he said i need to tell you about something that's on my mind. >> as jim huden clenched his teeth and stared daggers at his former close friend, bill hill continued. >> he proceeded to tell me my stepfather used to beat me and beat my mother and always have hated that man and wanted to find somebody else that fit that m.o., and then he said they did find a person that fit and said that they murdered him. >> in halting language hill told the same story he'd told police eight years earlier that peggy thomas aided in the execution of russel douglas and that russel's widow brenna had known about it.
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>> i said who all knows about this? >> did he tell you? >> yes, he did. he said the only people that knew was him, peggy, his wife jean and the woman at the hair shop that she didn't play much of a part, but she knew it was going to happen. >> but no evidence was offered to buttress that charge, no incriminating emails, no cell phone records. no suspicious money transfers. the question of brenna douglas' possible involvement in her husband's murder was simply left hanging in the air for everyone to ponder. >> state's next witness is keith ogden. >> next the prosecutor presented the story of a gun. keith ogden, a retired las vegas lawmen told him that jim huden came to court in late october 2003, just two months before russel douglas was killed to talk about a gun jim had just purchased.
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>> he told me that he purchased it from somebody in the newspaper in las vegas. >> did you ever see it. >> yes, sir. >> when jim huden brought it over to my house to show him how to use it -- >> please raise your right hand -- >> a ballistics expert testified that the bullet taken from russel douglas' head came from jim huden's gun. >> this bullet was fired from this .380 auto. >> given those facts, it seemed odd that the murder weapon wasn't simply dropped into pujet sound, but keith ogden toll the court that in early january, just days after the murder jim huden had asked him to keep the gun in a safe place. >> please take the stand. >> the last witness for the prosecution was detective mark plumberg. he told the court that while he was questioning huden at his home back in 2004 huden asked a rather odd question of him. >> he said is peggy angry enough
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at me that she would implicate me in this? >> had you told mr. huden that peggy thomas had implicated him? >> i did not. i had not implicated peggy thomas, and i had not suggested that she had any knowledge or part in the crime. >> in closing, the prosecution played the videotaped statements huden later made to island county detectives down at the punta gorda police station. >> i'm a son of a [ expletive ], but i am no killer. i'm a son of a [ expletive ]. that would be the only time this jury heard the sound of jim huden's voice during this trial. >> please give your attention to the opening statement of mr. montoya. >> attorney matt montoya began his defense of jim huden with a quote from the musical man of la mancha. >> ladies and gentlemen, facts are the enemy of truth. >> you heard right. he told the jury in a
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first-degree murder case that facts are the enemy of truth. perhaps it's fitting that montoya who had just recently appeared in a production of man of la mancha who famously imagined wind mills to be giants. >> his defense of jim huden would also require a fair amount of imagination. not telling you that his side is wrong or that my is are side is right. i want you to address the facts critically because the facts will show you more than one outcome, other than what he suggested, was that russel douglas had shot himself. >> did anyone request that you test or preserve his hands for possible gunshot residue? >> no. we do preserve things for trace evidence and that's why the sheet was used inside of the body bag. >> so no one tested his hands
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for gunshot residue? >> not to my knowledge. >> a gotcha, perhaps. but no gun was found in the car and the fatal bullet had been traced to a gun known to have belonged to jim huden. >> was mr. douglas' body still in the vehicle at that time? >> it was. >> next, montoya suggested, russel douglas was killed somewhere else perhaps by someone other than jim huden and then placed in the car at the crime scene. >> i'm not find anything blood of any sort. >> a blood spatter expert named dr. john nordby. the car's interior should have been covered in blood if that was where russel douglas had been shot. >> the shooting seemed to me like it did not occur in this vehicle because there are empty spots where you would expect blood to be. >> permission to approach the witness, your honor? >> yes. >> on cross-examination
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prosecutor banks challenged the defense's only expert witness pointing out that in his written report on the case dr. nordby had cited the movie pulp fiction as the kind of example of the kind of blood spatter he would expect to see in russel douglas' car. >> the two characters in the film were facing in front and they actually got back spatter, the bullet went toward the backseat, but the spatter went through the front so that's the illustration i was meaning to convey. >> so you chose to rely on an illustration from a fictional movie produced in hollywood to help describe this scenario? correct? >> i guess. sure. >> the final defense theory was that jim huden had an alibi, ron young, a childhood friend of huden's took the stand and told the court that huden was near his home in seattle, at the time he believed russel douglas was murdered. >> i did see him december 26th when he was stopping by on his
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way out of town. >> do you recall what time that was? some time probably between noon and 1:00? >> was he by himself? >> no. >> who was with him? >> peggy thomas. >> with that the defense rested and the defense offered no cross-examination. a month shy of his 59th birthday jim huden was facing a minimum 25-year sentence if found guilty, but just before the jury began deliberations, jim huden's attorney reminded them one more time of those immortal words from the man of la mancha. >> ladies and gentlemen, when i started this trial i told you facts were the enemy of truth and i hope you wondered what that meant. you heard facts upon facts facts. i'm telling you there are other conclusions that could be made from that evidence. >> soon enough, jim hugheden and his attorney would find out if anyone on that jury had reached one of those alternate
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conclusions and thus save it from having to spend the rest of his life in prison orange. coming up -- >> we, the jury -- >> the verdict and then the other moment everyone's been waiting for. will jim testify against peggy when "dateline" continues.
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>> after deliberating for approximately three and a half hour, the jury in jim huden's murder trial reached a verdict. >> please rise. >> from the moment the jurors began filing in jim huden seemed to know the news would not be good. in a whisper, he murmured. >> i'm done. >> i'm done.
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the rest of the proceeding for jim huden, at least, seemed to be a formality. >> we, the jury, find the defendant james edward huden guilty of the crime of murder in the first degree as charged. huden would later be sentenced to 80 years in prison, but he'd scarcely been led from the courtroom before prosecutor greg banks turned his attention to a far more difficult case. the one against jim huden's alleged accomplice peggy thomas. charged with murder, was there only one piece of physical evidence tying peggy to the killing of russel douglas. it was that single fingerprint of hers on a page in the gun owner's manual. >> the case against jim was pretty strong. >> oh, yeah. >> but the case against peggy was pretty weak. >> it was much more circumstantial. >> it was jean huden, the wronged wife who stood to be the strongest witness against peggy thomas.
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according to jean, peggy had told her everything that time jean visited her out in vegas. >> the plan was peggy had talked to russel about did she have presents for brenna and the kids and she had talked russel into going out to the island to meet with him to pass these presents on. >> not only that, but jean says peggy told her that after dropping off jim at the ambush location peggy drove off to create an alibi. >> they made a point of driving jim to sebring to buy a pack of cigarettes and to make sure to get a receipt with the date and time so it would prove she wasn't there at the date and time. he got rid of his clothes in a dumpster and tried to cover their tracks as best they could. >> a powerful story, but the powerful story knew that putting jean huden on the stand was risky.
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in the years after jim fled to mexico, jean huden got into trouble with the law over drugs and check forgery. >> i've talked to jean a lot, and i do believe her, but i also know what happens in a courtroom and unfortunately, she is not as pure as the driven snow when it comes to what the defense attorney will do with her. >> peggy was clearly on the fence as to whether or not to accept a deal or go to trial. she thought if i just keep my mouth shut it's worked all this way, i'm going skate. >> that would be my assessment. >> please rise. >> on january 11, 2013, peggy thomas who had been under house arrest for the past year entered an island county courtroom for another round of pre-trial motions and encountered a familiar face. >> this time her former lover jim huden took the stand to answer the one burning question that was no doubt keeping both the prosecutor and the defense
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counsel from sleeping at night. >> mr. huden -- >> would jim huden agree to testify at peggy's trial? >> i assert my fifth amendment rights. >> though the two former lovers never seemed to make direct eye contact that day, jim huden made it clear that he, at least, was willing to carry their shared secrets to the grave. >> okay. i'll do the fifth amendment thing here. >> perhaps jim huden's gaunt appearance frightened peggy, maybe the prospect of having her wardrobe as well, reduced to basic orange had a sobering effect, but two weeks later, just days before her trial was to begin, peggy thomas was back in court. >> cause number 11-1-1. >> this time it was to plead guilty to a reduced charge. >> we are here for a change of plea to an amended charge rendering criminal assistance in the first degree with a special allegation that the defendant was armed with a firearm. >> in pleading guilty to
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criminal assistance, peggy thomas was agreeing to being an accessory after the fact. >> thomas, do you make this plea freely and voluntarily? >> i do. >> if you'd gone to trial against peggy thomas, do you think you would have won? >> uh -- >> if you say yes, my next question is why didn't you? >> we had a 50/50 chance of guilty versus not guilty and so it was a roll of the dice. >> today, just a few hours ago peggy thomas was formally sentenced to four years in prison. the sentencing was delayed so the family of russel douglas could attend. conspicuously absent, however, was russel's widow, brenna. i would love to see her come forward and say i did make a mistake. i did set it in motion and i didn't mean to. i don't know if that's going to happen. >> neither brenna douglas nor her attorney had responded to "dateline's" request for a
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statement, in a lawsuit filed on an insurance company to collect on one of the life insurance policies, brenna said i categorically state that i was not involved in the death of my husband in any way. and yet, even after the conviction of jim huden and peggy thomas, questions remain and brenna douglas remains a person of interest.
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