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There’s no bond greater than the one between a mother and child. But Hilma Witte, who went by her middle name Marie, twisted this bond, manipulating her two sons into committing murder.
Born in 1948, Marie had an unusual upbringing.
“My birth father ran a nudist camp in Delray Beach, Florida,” Marie’s half-sister Regina Jordan told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen. “We walked around nude all the time but as a child I never felt uncomfortable.”
It was at her father’s nudist camp that Marie met guest Paul Witte. Born in 1937, Paul grew up in Michigan City, Indiana, and entered the U.S. Navy right after high school.
Paul and Marie married in 1964. He was 27. She was 16.
“When I first met Marie was just before they got married. She’s not what I imagined that my brother would marry. She was loud and nobody, at least in my family, was impressed with her,” Paul’s half-sister Barbara Valencia told “Snapped.”
The couple lived in Beverly Shores, Indiana, on the south coast of Lake Michigan. Paul worked in the steel industry and was a volunteer fireman. In 1966, 18-year-old Marie gave birth to the couple’s first son, Eric. Another son, John, came along three years later and was known as “Butch.”
“Of the children, Eric was more of a sportsman. He had dad’s favor. He was sort of the golden child. Butch came along and he is mama’s boy,” said Jordan.
The two had different parenting styles, though.
“Butch and Eric described their father as being a very strict authoritarian,” former LaPorte County Deputy Prosecutor Scott Duerring told “Snapped.”
While Paul was at work, Marie stayed home with the children. According to family, she kept a messy house, something which seemed to get better when her widowed mother, Margaret “Marcie” O’Donnell, moved in with the Wittes in 1980.
But tragedy soon rocked the Witte residence. On the evening of September 1, 1981, Marie frantically called the Beverly Shores Police Department, saying she had arrived home to find her husband, Paul, dead from a gunshot wound.
“Paul had been apparently asleep on the couch when he was shot in the head,” former Indiana State Police Detective Sgt. Arland Boyd told “Snapped.”
When officers arrived on the scene, they learned the shooter was 15-year-old Eric Witte. He claimed he had been holding a .357 Magnum handgun when he tripped on a carpet and it accidentally discharged, killing his father, according to the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
“It wasn’t a well-kept house at all, by any stretch of the imagination. It wasn’t impossible for what he said to have happened, someone tripping, so you keep an open mind,” said Boyd.
Butch and Marcie claimed not to have seen what happened.
Investigators felt the angle of the gunshot didn’t look accidental. When they tried to speak with the underage Eric, his mother said she wanted a lawyer.
Eric later spoke with detectives in the presence of his mother and their lawyer. He repeated his story, that he found the gun in his home and brought it to his father to ask about the safety mechanism. His father was asleep on the couch and as he approached him, he slipped on the rug and the gun went off, he said.
Marie claimed she wasn't home at the time of the shooting and refused to make an official statement to police.
“I told Marie and told the attorney, ‘You’ll see me again some day because he’s getting by with this and he’ll do it again, so trust me, you’re going to see me again,'" said Boyd.
With no evidence to counter Eric’s narrative, Paul’s death was ruled an accident. After collecting a small life insurance policy, Marie and the boys moved in with Paul’s widowed stepmother, Elaine Witte, in Trail Creek, Indiana.
Over the next three years it seemed all was well with the Wittes. Elaine and Marie got along, and after high school, Eric joined the Navy, just like his father.
But in May 1984, one of Elaine’s neighbors contacted the Trail Creek Police Department.
“[He] indicated that he had seen Elaine out in the yard tending to her flowers but now he hadn’t seen her for a period of months,” former LaPorte County Chief Deputy Prosecutor William Herrbach told “Snapped.”
Police performed a welfare check. Marie answered the door and claimed Elaine was on an extended vacation.
“She said Elaine was traveling, that she was visiting Marie’s son who was in the Navy and that she didn’t know when she would be coming back,” said Herrbach.
As holidays and birthdays passed with no contact from Elaine, family members also started to worry. Police returned to her home but Marie repeated the same story.
Local authorities contacted the Indiana State Police, who took over the investigation. Arland Boyd recognized Marie Witte’s name and sensed something was amiss.
Investigators ran Elaine’s vehicle’s VIN number and learned Marie had recently sold it. Phone records showed no long-distance calls coming in or out of Elaine’s home.
“Bank accounts showed large withdrawals in the period of time from the beginning of January up until May or June of 1984. She had social security checks that were coming in on a monthly basis and they were still being cashed locally,” said Duerring.
No one had seen Elaine since January 1984, nearly eight months earlier.
Authorities again tried to contact Marie but learned she had fled the state with Butch. Investigators put pressure on Marcie, who eventually told them Elaine was dead.
“Marie’s mother said that she had been told that Butch had accidentally shot and killed Elaine with a crossbow,” said Herrbach.
Marcie then told detectives that Marie and Butch had dismembered Elaine’s body and disposed of it.
Investigators flew to California to interview Eric Witte. When confronted with his grandmother’s confession, he admitted that months earlier his mother told him Butch had killed Elaine.
“Marie told him it was an accident and she needed help. Eric said he told her to freeze the body until he could come home,” said Herrbach.
Two months later, Eric and Navy buddy Doug Menkel traveled to Indiana. They picked up a cooler filled with body parts and dropped them off along the way back to California.
On November 7, 1984, Marie and Butch were apprehended in Chula Vista, California, after she cashed one of Elaine’s social security checks. They were preparing to cross the border into Mexico.
Marie, Eric, and Butch were initially charged with forgery. While Marie refused to cooperate, Butch made a complete confession.
Butch said his mother was cashing Elaine’s checks and got caught. Fearing she would kick them out, Marie said they had to kill her. They tried poisoning Elaine but it didn’t work, according to court documents, so they turned to more extreme measures.
''My mom said I could strangle her or use my crossbow,'' Butch would later testify, according to the Chicago Tribune. The 14-year-old chose the crossbow, shooting his step-grandmother in the ribs after his mother drugged her.
After killing Elaine, her body was frozen. Over the next four months, Marie, Butch, and Marcie used knives and a chainsaw to dismember her piece by piece, before Eric arrived to dispose of the final remnants.
Hilma Marie Witte and John David Witte were charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Eric Witte and Margaret O’Donnell were charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Shortly thereafter, Butch contacted authorities. He had more to tell.
“He wanted to talk about the murder of his dad. He gave us a story about Eric and that Marie had also manipulated Eric into killing Paul and that it wasn’t an accident,” explained Herrbach. “Marie said that he had to kill his dad because she was suffering abuse by him. Also, he was threatening divorce and if they went through a divorce, they’d be out in the street.”
Eric admitted it was true when interviewed by police.
Hilma Marie Witte and Eric Witte were subsequently charged with the murder of Paul Witte.
John Witte pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter and agreed to testify against his mother in exchange for a 20-year prison sentence, according to the Chicago Tribune. Eric Witte would ultimately make the same deal with prosecutors.
In 1985, Hilma Marie Witte was found guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to a combined 90 years in prison, according to the Associated Press.
Margaret O’Donnell pleaded guilty to assisting a criminal and was sentenced to six years in prison. She died after being released.
Eric and John Wittie were released from prison in 1996. John died in 2008, at the age of 39, while Eric died in 2022, at the age of 56.
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