After Jennifer Shanbrom's husband, Joel, a school resource officer in Northridge, California, was executed on her living room sofa while she claimed she was cowering upstairs, her behavior struck detectives as odd.
Jennifer, 30, soon became conspicuously close with Matthew Fletcher, a co-worker and friend of the couple, who had counseled them on selling insurance, according to “Killer Couples” on Oxygen.
The Los Angeles Police Department responded to a 911 call from the Shanbroms' home on March 18, 1998. Jennifer's mom had found Joel on the couch with what was later found to be three shotgun wounds to the head — two from .410 buckshot and one from a solid slug. Jennifer and her 4-year-old son, Jacob, were hiding in the upstairs master bathroom.
LAPD Officer Teri Montoya told “Killer Couples” that she quickly recognized Joel from his police work in the school district. It was extremely unlikely that anyone bore enough of a grudge against him to commit murder, she said.
Jennifer told police she had been giving her son a bath when she heard Joel confronting someone downstairs, followed by gunshots. The house had been ransacked, but detectives quickly determined that it was a ruse: Drawers had been pulled out and overturned, but many valuables remained in plain sight.
The autopsy report left investigators with questions about Jennifer's account of the evening. It was clear that Joel had been shot while lying down — likely sleeping, even. How, then, could he have been confronting someone before he was shot dead?
Detectives' suspicions grew on March 23, the day of the funeral. Jennifer was accompanied by Fletcher, 41, a then ubiquitous presence in the Shanbroms' lives. When the pair skipped the wake, picking up champagne and absconding to a hotel room, detectives followed them.
A suspicious supplemental life insurance policy and friends' accounts of a crumbling marriage began to give investigators a clearer picture of a likely murder plot, but the case was circumstantial. Justice wouldn't come for almost six years.
And throughout the next four, investigators watched as Jennifer cashed in on her husband's first life insurance policy and started her new life with Fletcher. The couple was married in Hawaii and indulged in profligate spending. Fletcher adopted young Jacob as his own and Jennifer bore another child by her new husband.
She was pregnant with Fletcher's second child when authorities closed in on the suspected killers. They turned their attention to Diane Bates, Jennifer's mother. Her story about that March 1998 night had been riddled with inconsistencies. Authorities offered Bates immunity and compelled her to testify in front of a grand jury.
Bates' testimony was evasive, but eye-opening, according to “Killer Couples.” Paired with the circumstantial evidence, as well as obvious forgery involved in the second life insurance policy, the grand jury voted nearly unanimously to indict Jennifer and Fletcher both.
Fletcher represented himself throughout the lengthy March 2004 trial. Both appeared confident that their alibis were strong and the evidence was lacking.
“He was a pretty good lawyer,” KTLA reporter Eric Spillman told producers. “That was part of his persona: He could sell anybody anything. He was good at questioning witnesses about his alibi.”
During the trial, Los Angeles County Prosecutor Jeff Jonas laid out the presumed sequence of events on the night of March 18, 1998, with Jennifer firing two shots into her husband and Fletcher finishing him off with a close-range shot to the eye that severed his brain stem and killed him instantly.
Prosecutors also exposed about $800,000 in additional life insurance benefits the couple was seeking, according to the industry publication Claims Journal.
After about six days of deliberations, the jury found Jennifer and Fletcher guilty on all counts. They were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
For more on Joel Shanbrom's murder and the love affair between Jennifer Shanbrom and Matthew Fletcher, watch “Killer Couples” at Oxygen.com and airing Thursdays at 8/7c.
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