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Jealousy can truly affect a person. In the case of Marlene Johnson, it pushed her over the edge and drove her to murder Shirley Pierce.
Shirley grew up in Mooresville, North Carolina. She was part of a large, loving family and made friends wherever she went.
“She was so pleasant, so outgoing. She was just beautiful, just a good all around person,” friend Donna Harkey told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
In 1970, Shirley married Randall Pierce, with whom she had a daughter, Tracy. They divorced in 1981, and to support herself, Shirley got a job as an administrative assistant at Tuscarora Yarns Inc., a textile mill based in Rowan County, North Carolina. She was known as a hard worker, willing to do whatever it took to get the job done. In her free time, she organized charity golf outings and gala dinners and was a doting grandmother to Tracy’s baby boy.
In the late 2000s, Shirley began dating Chuck Reeves, a textile salesman she met through work. They dated for four years before getting engaged in spring 2013.
They never made it down the aisle. On the morning of July 23, 2013, Reeves called 911 to say he’d just found Shirley Pierce dead in her bathtub.
"Oh my god. I just arrived here to my girlfriend's house. I think she's been killed," Reeves told the 911 dispatcher, according to Charlotte, North Carolina, CBS-affiliate WBTV.
Officers arrived to find a puzzling crime scene. While it appeared Shirley's home had been ransacked, there were obvious signs her killer had tried to clean up after themselves.
“I could smell an odor of bleach. When I entered the bedroom I could see a lot of blood on the floor,” Rowan County Sheriff’s Major Chad Moose told “Snapped.”
Shirley had multiple stab wounds on her neck and face and defensive wounds on her hands. The blade of a knife was broken off and lodged in her throat, according to local newspaper the Mooresville Tribune. The brutality of the crime suggested her killer knew her.
Reeves said he last spoke to Shirley around 8:15 the previous night. He was about to leave for a business trip and arranged to drop off his dog at her house the next morning. The call went dead in the middle of their conversation, but Reeves thought nothing of it at the time.
As news of Shirley’s death spread, authorities received a call from Ervin Johnson, Chief Financial Officer of Tuscarora Yarns. He told them he suspected his estranged wife, Marlene Johnson, was responsible for the murder.
Born in 1952, Marlene grew up wealthy in Gastonia, North Carolina. “She wasn’t used to not getting her way, you could tell that. She was not used to somebody telling her no,” acquaintance Amy Christy told “Snapped.”
In 1983, Marlene married Ervin Johnson. The couple, who had a daughter together, were a study in contrasts. Marlene was confident and put together, while Ervin was soft-spoken and a workaholic. Ervin made good money and his girls wanted for nothing.
Despite a life of affluence and comfort, Marlene had demons she couldn't shake. In 2003, she suffered a nervous breakdown and tried to die by suicide. Ervin said from then on she became erratic and physically abusive.
“She had threatened to kill him. She had assaulted him. During the interview with Ervin Johnson, he was able to point out a scar where Marlene had stabbed him,” former Rowan County Sheriff’s Detective Carl Dangerfield told “Snapped.”
In 2006, Ervin began working at Tuscarora Yarns. As the CFO he was in frequent contact with Shirley Pierce, the company’s executive secretary.
“He characterized Shirley as a Southern lady and when he introduced his wife to Shirley she called him ‘Honey’ and touched his arm. Ervin said, ‘I saw Marlene’s antenna go up,'" Dangerfield explained.
Marlene became convinced that Ervin and Shirley were having an affair. She hired a private investigator to gather information about Shirley and obtain proof of her husband’s adultery.
“Marlene hired me on September 12, 2010, and our agreement was that we would surveil him for a month. I could not get any proof that any wrongdoing was going on on either of their parts,” Cynthia Gunther, a private investigator, told “Snapped.”
Despite the lack of evidence, Marlene remained obsessed with Shirley. Gunther says she hired another PI firm who used drones to track Shirley’s daily movements. From their surveillance footage, Marlene learned Shirley’s garage door was usually left open.
In Feb. 2011, Marlene assaulted Shirley outside a restaurant where she was having lunch with co-workers. "I will kill you for f--king my husband," Marlene screamed as she punched and kicked Shirley, according to court documents.
Marlene was found guilty of one count of misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury and two counts of assault and battery in June 2011, according to the Mooresville Tribune. Marlene appealed the ruling but was ordered to have no contact with Shirley.
"Shirley wouldn’t press charges against her. She didn’t want to do that because she didn’t want to make waves for Ervin,” Gunther explained.
Ervin later moved out of the house he shared with Marlene and got a restraining order against her. Following Shirley’s murder, however, he was afraid his wife would try to kill him next.
Investigators obtained a search warrant for Marlene's home and put out a BOLO for her vehicle. She was apprehended at her attorney's office in Salisbury, North Carolina. Cleaning supplies were found in the trunk of her car as was Shirley’s mail, according to court documents.
In Marlene's home, detectives found extensive surveillance materials on Shirley, including aerial photographs, maps of her home and the street she lived on, and photographs of her van.
"There were hours upon hours of work put into it. A lot of money, a lot of effort, it’s just starting to paint a picture of obsession,” said Dangerfield.
Detectives attempted to interview Marlene on the night of July 23 but she refused to answer any questions without her lawyer present. Officers noticed scratches, cuts, and red marks on her hand.
“To me, it was clear that she had used her hands in some kind of a situation similar to a fight and then the cuts on her hands were consistent with the knife cutting her fingers as she was stabbing somebody,” Moose told producers.
Marlene Johnson was arrested just past midnight on July 24, 2013 and charged with first-degree murder, according to WBTV.
After breaking up with her husband, Marlene had begun dating a man named Tim Connor. Detectives subsequently interviewed Connor, who said Marlene was with him the morning of July 22 until noon on July 23, giving her an alibi for the time investigators believe Shirley was murdered.
Under scrutiny, however, Connor admitted Marlene had not been with him but asked him to lie about it, according to the Mooresville Tribune. She also asked him to retrieve her personal computer which she believed contained incriminating evidence.
Detectives learned that on the night of July 21, 2013, Marlene had mistakenly texted 15-year-old Alex Norton. “Back off, you will not get Ervin over my dead body, you skanky whore,” read the text, according to local newspaper the Salisbury Post.
After Norton said she had the wrong number, Marlene replied, “Is this Shirley Pierce?” according to court documents.
Marlene's DNA was ultimately found on paper towels found at the crime scene and on the shower curtain in Shirley’s bathroom, according to the Salisbury Post. Detectives believe Marlene killed Shirley in another part of the home before dumping her body in the bathtub and attempting to clean up her own blood.
It took less than two hours for a jury to find Marlene Johnson guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of Shirley Pierce in January 2018. Upon hearing the verdict, the 66-year-old collapsed to the floor. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole, according to Charlotte ABC-affiliate WSOC-TV.
Despite her conviction, Marlene Johnson still maintains her innocence. Now 69, she is currently housed at Anson Correctional Institution outside of Charlotte.
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