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Ernest and Charlene Scherer were a well-off, well-liked couple living out their golden years in the Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton, California, in 2008.
But on March 14, their bodies were found in their home by a club employee after the couple's daughter, Catherine Workman, asked for a wellness check. She hadn't heard from them in a week, and their whole family was supposed to fly out for a group vacation the next day, according to “In Ice Cold Blood” on Oxygen.
The smell of decomposition in the home was overwhelming, Ray Kelly, of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, told producers. The couple had been brutally beaten and stabbed — Charlene's throat had been cut so savagely she was almost decapitated.
The brutality of the murders, as well as the fact that Ernest's wallet still held $750 in cash, led investigators to believe it was a crime of passion. They struggled to identify someone who could bear such a grudge against the couple, however.
Investigators, after learning Ernest was a professional poker player and engaged local school board member, looked into the possibility of gambling debts and political grudges, but turned up nothing.
However, Ernest had also taught his son Ernie, 29 at the time, to play poker. And red flags were raised when Ernie's wife reported that he had left for Las Vegas just days after his parents' funeral. A probe of Ernie's finances revealed that he was deeply in debt — to the tune of more than $750,000, according to “In Ice Cold Blood.”
Ernie had borrowed about $600,000 from his dad to pay for his home and was struggling to pay his property taxes and loans he had taken out to cover gambling losses. Investigators also learned that Ernie was strongly disliked and thought of as arrogant by others in the poker world. He was living a double life, with a girlfriend he was lavishing with expensive gifts.
The Scherers' will set Ernie and Catherine up for about $2 million each — once they turned 30. Ernie was on the cusp of his 30th birthday, and between his refusal to talk to police and odd absconding to Vegas, investigators suddenly had their motive.
When detectives brought what they knew about Ernie's lover and financial situation to his wife, Robyn, she wasn't surprised. And when they told her Ernie was their prime suspect, she became a key ally in the investigation.
“I'm so far beyond all that cheating crap right now — I don't care if he slept with the whole country,” Robyn told detectives. “If he did that to his parents, he should pay for it.”
Detectives began recording Robyn's cellphone calls with her husband and using her email account to try and tease information from him while appearing supportive.
When surveillance footage from the country club showed a car that looked like Ernie's pulling in, then leaving four hours later, on what detectives believed was the night of the murder, suspicions deepened. In mid-April 2008, they told the rest of the family they believed Ernie was responsible for the murders.
With his 30th birthday coming up and no indication of what Ernie might be capable of, detectives advised both Robyn and his sister, Catherine, to go into hiding. Catherine could hardly believe it.
“He couldn't do this. This was gruesome and terrible,” she told producers. “He was not a violent person. Self-centered, selfish, egotistical, charismatic — all of those things, absolutely. But not violent … It made me mad.”
After months of recorded calls between Robyn and Ernie, in which he came across as less than innocent, detectives made their arrest on Feb. 23, 2009, in Las Vegas. Ernie was staunchly uncooperative and seemed more concerned with keeping in touch with a new girlfriend than the case against him. While he sat in jail pre-trial, the Alameda County District Attorney's office pored over the evidence to build something stronger out of a largely circumstantial case.
When the trial date arrived, on Jan. 4, 2011, prosecutors were armed with damning new evidence of Ernie buying the presumed murder weapon — a baseball bat — using cash in an area he was confirmed to have been in. That, plus the other circumstantial evidence and Ernie's suspicious phone calls with his wife, were enough to yield a conviction on March 3, 2011.
Ernie was handed two consecutive life sentences, between the two murder charges and special circumstances charges added because he committed the murders for financial gain.
“Ernie is probably one of the most evil persons that I've ever dealt with and I hope that he never gets a good night's sleep,” Detective Sergeant Scott Dudek told producers. “But, knowing him, I bet he sleeps like a baby.”
For more on the Scherer murders, including phone conversations between Robyn and Ernie, watch “In Ice Cold Blood” at Oxygen.com, and airing Thursdays at 9/8c.
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