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Crime News Snapped: Killer Couples

Was a Teacher's Death a Holiday Hunting Accident or a Murder Plot Hatched by Lovers?

Michael Kariakis claimed he was Charles Chumbler's son, but after Charles' wife died, investigators soon learned many around Charles believed Michael Kariakis was actually his lover.

By Caitlin Schunn

A Florida schoolteacher was shot and killed while visiting her husband’s Kentucky farm for the holidays. But what was at first presumed to be a tragic hunting accident quickly turned more sinister, as seen on an episode of Snapped: Killer Couples, airing at 6/5c on Sundays on Oxygen.

How to Watch

Watch Snapped: Killer Couples on Peacock and the Oxygen App.

“What started as a reported accidental shooting turned out to be this onion,” Mike Spissinger, a photojournalist for WPSD, told Snapped: Killer Couples. “You keep peeling layers back and peeling layers back ... it’s just getting crazier and crazier. The planning of it and just the backstory of it was just unbelievable. It’s what movies are made of.”

Charles and Nelda Chumbler Marry

A photo of killer Charles Chumbler, featured on Snapped: Killer Couples 1703

Charles and Nelda Chumbler were each on their second marriage when they tied the knot in the ‘80s. The couple had met while each teaching at a school district in Tampa, Florida. Nelda had two children with her first husband, and was a widow for nearly a decade before she met Charles. Charles, meanwhile, had moved to Florida from Kentucky after divorcing his wife. He also had two children.

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But the couple was having financial issues. Nelda had received a large insurance settlement when her husband died: close to $300,000. Then, about a year into her marriage, a man named Michael Kariakis showed up on her doorstep, claiming to be Charles’ illegitimate son from a previous affair, police said.

The 24-year-old told her he was sick with cancer and had nowhere else to turn. Embracing who she believed to be her stepson, Nelda paid for Michael’s apartment, vehicle, food, and lifestyle, according to authorities.

As her finances drained away, Nelda grew tired of paying for Michael’s expenses and refused to shell out another dime — causing a fight between Charles and Nelda.

Three years into their marriage, as they tried to repair their problems, the couple decided to spend Christmas at Charles’ daughter’s home in Paducah, Kentucky.

The Death of Nelda Chumbler

On Dec. 27, 1990, Charles and Nelda decided to leave his daughter’s home to visit his mother’s farm, taking Charles’ grandson, Shane, with them as they stopped to feed the horses before seeing more family.

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But as they were at the horse pasture, Nelda was shot and killed.

“Charles was crying and he looked pretty shaken,” Bill Mathis, the former son-in-law of Charles Chumbler, told Snapped: Killer Couples. “He said, 'We were feeding the horses, and I heard a shot.'"

Charles told police he drove his grandson to his mother’s home after the shooting and got help for his wife.

“I wasn’t sure what to think about it at the time,” Mathis said. “I was in shock still. Sorta, in the back of my mind, I knew this isn’t right — nobody would have just shot her down. It started out as just a normal, good Christmas. Ended up turning into one of the worst ones imaginable.”

Charles told police it must have been a hunter’s stray bullet. But his account of what happened differed from his grandson’s.

“Charles insisted there had been only one shot, whereas his 4-year-old grandson remembered hearing two shots,” said David Olinger, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, to Snapped: Killer Couples. “Now, if there’s two shots, that lessens the possibility of an accident.”

Police found part of a bullet in a nearby fence post. But the bullet also fragmented in Nelda’s body, according to the coroner — changing the investigation.

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“Now, when you realize that bullet has fragmented, that sort of ruled out that bullet going through her remains and then into that fence post, so that to me made me feel that there were two shots fired as opposed to one,” said Jerry Beyer, former McCracken County Coroner, to Snapped: Killer Couples. “One striking the post and one striking Nelda Chumbler. It would be difficult for me to believe that there were two stray bullets that were fired within seconds of each other, so once we established that two shot theory, I think we certainly realized we had a homicide versus an accidental stray bullet striking her.”

Chumbler Hunting Accident Turns to Murder Investigation

Police checked a half mile around the scene of the shooting, looking for evidence to support the stray bullet theory, but were unable to find any. They tracked the trajectory of the bullet to a shed on the property, about 25 yards away from the horse pasture, leading them to believe Nelda was shot through a crack in the shed.

A neighbor did see a car in the area at the time, with two people in it, but was unable to get the license plate.

As police talked to those who knew Nelda and Charles Chumbler, they learned of Michael Kariakis and his relationship to the couple. They also learned Kariakis drove a silver Nissan sedan — the same vehicle seen by a neighbor leaving the area of the murder.

When police arrived to search his Florida home, they found a woman there named Holly, who was married to Kariakis.

Holly Kariakis told police she and Michael were visiting family in Tennessee the night of the murder. But the hotel in Tennessee said the couple paid for a room and immediately left.

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Officers also learned the couple stayed at a hotel not far from the murder scene in Kentucky. In addition, officers discovered a Florida gun shop owner sold a custom rifle created for Kariakis to him in the days before the murder.

Kariakis told the gun shop owner he was “going to go deer hunting in Kentucky” with the rifle, police said.

Did Charles Chumbler and Michael Kariakis Have a Secret Romance?

A mugshot of Michael Kariakis, featured on Snapped: Killer Couples 1703

As police were investigating Michael Kariakis, they learned a big secret: Charles' family and friends believed he was in a romantic relationship with Kariakis — and that the story of Kariakis being Charles' son was a lie.

The two had actually known each other for years before Charles ever met Nelda, friends and family said.

“I’d understood it that Charles met Michael when he was 16,” Mathis said. “Michael worked in farming at Charles’ home. There was a big age difference between the two of them. Charles was basically obsessed with Michael.”

Kariakis was also known to Charles' ex-wife, Donna McAvene.

“I’d only met Michael about three times,” McAvene told Snapped: Killer Couples. “I knew immediately when I took a look at Michael and the way he was acting and everything that it was probably a lover. It had to be. Both of them argued that they were just friends. But I knew in my heart it wasn’t. It was different. Charles, I think he would do anything Michael told him to do. He was just that way — Michael had that control over him.”

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Police were tipped off to look in the backyard of the Chumbler home, where they allegedly discovered a container with pictures of Michael and Charles together, along with sex toys.

Authorities also found out Nelda had a life insurance policy that doubled in an accident, meaning Charles Chumbler would get $70,000 instead of $35,000 if Nelda accidentally died.

“I thought, wow, the motive’s money,” Lt. Donald Woods, Ret. Kentucky State Police, told Snapped: Killer Couples.

Was Justice for Nelda Chumbler Served?

Michael Kariakis was charged with the murder of Nelda Chumbler, while Charles Chumbler and Holly Kariakis were both charged with complicity to murder.

During the October 1991 trial for all three defendants, prosecution argued when the money ran out, Charles and Kariakis got desperate, so they arranged the murder scheme.

Charles Chumbler denied being in a sexual relationship with Michael, and called it a “deep friendship” to the jury. 

Ultimately, all three were found guilty.

In 1995, the Kentucky Supreme Court overturned the convictions, arguing the prosecutor’s portrayal of Kariakis and Chumbler’s sexual history was prejudicial. Instead of retrying them all, the defendants accepted Alford plea deals, where they pleaded guilty, but did not specifically admit to the guilt itself.

Holly Kariakis was paroled in 1996, just six years after the murder of Nelda Chumbler, at the age of 32. Charles Chumbler was paroled in 2003, 13 years after his wife’s murder, at the age of 65. And Michael Kariakis was paroled in 2008 at the age of 49.

“I thought it was a bunch of crap,” Mathis said. “When you can kill somebody and not serve no more time than that. Justice wasn’t done. Nelda didn’t get a reduced sentence.”

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