Feuding Zookeepers, A Middle School Cheerleader’s Mom And 3 Other Unbelievable Murder-For-Hire Cases

Motivated by revenge, money and twisted desire, these are five of the most shocking murder-for-hire cases.

By Benjamin H. Smith
Exotic Joe and Wanda Holloway

When people think of paid assassins and contract killings, they tend to imagine Mafia hitmen and political intrigue, not jealous mothers and jilted lovers. There are, however, some people who feel their personal health, wealth and happiness can only be achieved by the murder of another. These would-be perpetrators often fail to achieve their deadly aim, revealing their nefarious plans to undercover police officers or citizens-turned-informants.  

"Murder for Hire,” now streaming on Oxygen, covers some of these fascinating contract killing cases. Featuring in-depth interviews and hidden camera footage, "Murder for Hire" reveals how everyday criminals negotiated their hits and gave instructions for how they wanted the slayings to go down.

Before you dive into the series, catch up on five of the most shocking murder-for-hire cases of all time:

Exotic Joe and Wanda Holloway

1. Wanda Holloway

This Texas mom took helicopter-parenting to the next level. Fearing her 13-year-old daughter wouldn’t make her junior high school’s cheerleading squad, Wanda Holloway offered to pay her former brother-in-law to kill the mother of another girl on the team, according to the Houston Chronicle.

It was her hope the girl would then be too distraught for cheerleader try-outs, opening up a spot for her own daughter. Instead, he went to the police, and she was arrested. Her family became a source of national notoriety and the subject of several made-for-TV movies.

Holloway was found guilty of solicitation of capital murder in 1991, but her conviction was later overturned. She then pleaded no contest and served six months of a 10-year sentence, according to the Chicago Tribune.  

2. Ira Bernstein and Kelly Gribeluk

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Murder for Hire: Man Ordering Hit On Wife Almost Discovers Hidden Camera In Undercover Operation

Ira Bernstein was a successful podiatrist in the suburbs of New York who counted local police among his clientele, and Kelly Gribeluk was his former-patient-turned-lover. Between malpractice suits, fraud allegations and a potentially expensive divorce settlement, they decided to hire luxury car salesman Marckensy Louissaint to beat up two insurance investigators and kill his wife.

Instead, Louissaint went to the police, who asked him to become an informant until they had enough evidence to bring charges against the couple. Bernstein and Gribeluk were arrested in March 2016. Gribeluk was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, and Ira was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison, according to The Journal News.

3. Mary Ellen Samuels

Known as “The Green Widow,” Mary Ellen Samuels is responsible for two separate murder-for-hire plots. In December 1988, her estranged husband, Robert Samuels, was found dead from a shotgun blast in his Los Angeles home. As a result of his death, she inherited $500,000, which she blew through in the course of a year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

An infamous photo of her lying in a bed with her nude body covered in $20,000 dollars cash was later discovered. When police zeroed in on family acquaintance James Bernstein as the possible trigger man in her husband’s death, Samuels paid two men to kill him.

In 1994, she was found guilty two counts of conspiracy and two counts of solicitation of murder and sentenced to death, according to the Los Angeles Times. She currently sits on death row in California.   

4. Leon Jacob and Valerie McDaniel

valerie mcdaniel leon jacob

Leon Jacob was a failed doctor with a reported history of domestic abuse, according to NBC-affiliate KPRC-TV. His girlfriend, Valerie McDaniel, was a popular Houston veterinarian who had taken out a $1.2 million loan to buy out of her ex-husband’s share of her clinic. While he feared an ex-girlfriend’s stalking charges against him would prevent him from getting a medical license in the state of Texas, McDaniel worried her ex-husband would sue for primary custody of their daughter. Jacob’s solution? Hire someone to kill them both.

Jacob and McDaniel would eventually pay more than $20,000 to an undercover officer posing as a hitman, while police staged photographs of their exes in various stages of distress and death, according to Fox News.

They were arrested in March 2017, and after making bail, McDaniel died by suicide after jumping off her high-rise apartment’s balcony, according to ABC 13. Jacobs was later convicted of solicitation of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison, according to the Houston Chronicle.  

5. Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, “Joe Exotic”

With his bleach-blonde mullet and handlebar mustache, animal park owner and big cat breeder Joe Exotic was not the type of man you meet every day. He gained even more notoriety when he was accused of animal abuse and sued for trademark infringement, which resulted in nearly $1 million in penalties, reported The Oklahoman.

He blamed the operator of animal sanctuary Big Cat Rescue for the lawsuit and posted threatening videos about her online. He even went so far as to hire a hitman to kill her, according to The Oklahoman. The hitman, however, turned out to be an FBI agent, and Joe was arrested.

On April 2, 2019, the Department of Justice announced Joe had been found guilty of two counts of murder-for-hire, along with nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act for killing tigers and eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records. He is currently awaiting sentencing.

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