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The cold-blooded murder of 66-year-old Margaret Abernathy shocked the city of LaGrange, Georgia — especially after it was revealed that her killer was her own daughter.
Nestled up against the Alabama border, LaGrange has a population of 30,000 and is an hour south west of Atlanta. Margaret and her husband, Bill Abernathy, ran a successful car dealership in the town and invested in real estate and rental properties with the profits.
“It was a small town but they were a part of everything, whether it was being on the board for the local electric company or the board of commissioners,” granddaughter Christy Lumpkin told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
The Abernathys had three children: Alect, Priscilla, and Melody. All of them would work on and off through the years at the various family businesses.
Priscilla showed a particular interest in the car dealership.The business prospered while she was involved there, but she suffered hardship in her personal life. When she was still a young woman, Priscilla’s first husband died unexpectedly, leaving her a single mother of two. She relied on her mother for emotional and financial support and the two became inseparable.
In the 1980s, Priscilla began dating a local man named Nick Matula, whom she later married. Nick soon joined his wife working at the Abernathys' dealership.
Then, in 1989, Bill Abernathy’s health began to deteriorate. Following his death in 1991, Margaret chose to sell the car dealership. Priscilla and Nick decided to open their own dealership but lacked the funds. Margaret agreed to help get the venture off the ground.
While Priscilla managed the business, Nick handled the service end. Priscilla often turned to her mother for advice on how to run the business.
But on Monday, Feb.4, 1991, the relationship was cut short. Priscilla called 911 from her mother’s home. She said there had been a burglary and her mother was lying on the bathroom floor covered in blood.
“Ms. Abernathy had two gunshot wounds to the back of the head. One was just under the skin and the other one had hit the brain stem,” former Troup County Sheriff’s Investigator Melinda Davis told “Snapped.”
Margaret was alive but unconscious. She was rushed to a nearby hospital where she succumbed to her injuries.
Investigators from the Troup County Sheriff’s Office returned to the crime scene. They found a broken window on the back door and a bloody mattress and pillows in Margaret’s bedroom.
“From the blood being in the bed you knew that she was most likely asleep when she was first attacked, or at least lounging in the bed,” former Troup County Sheriff’s Investigator Mike Newsome told “Snapped.”
Investigators believe that after being shot, Margaret crawled to the bathroom. Toilet paper on the floor led them to believe she tried to clean herself up.
Priscilla told investigators that she arrived at work around 8 on the morning of the murder. She said she left the dealership twice that morning to run a couple errands.
“The amount of detail that she gave the investigators when she interviewed with them seemed excessive. She had a narrative that she wanted to put forth,” prosecutor Anne Cobb Allen told “Snapped.”
Priscilla said she spoke to her mother nearly every morning and that it was not uncommon for Margaret to stop by the dealership. When she couldn’t get in touch with her she said she started to worry. During her lunch break, Priscilla went to her mother’s home to check on her. She said that after letting herself in, she found Margaret on the bathroom floor with blood pouring out of her head and called 911.
An autopsy revealed Margaret Abernathy had been shot by a small caliber weapon. The first gun shot didn’t penetrate her skull and would have been non-fatal. Investigators believe that was when she made her way to the bathroom.
“The second shot perforated her brain stem which meant at that point she could not do anything, walk, talk, anything, which means that the shooter had to shoot her once in the bedroom and once in the bathroom,” Newsome explained.
Nick and Alect Abernathy soon showed up at Margaret’s home. After talking with investigators, they discovered certain items had been stolen, including a mink coat and small caliber handgun, similar to the one used in the murder.
Investigators noted that other valuables had not been taken, including electronic equipment and jewelry left out in plain sight. While the house had been ransacked, the burglar had taken the time to neatly place items on the floor. Shattered glass outside the back door, meanwhile, indicated it had been broken from the inside out.
“The hole was real small, as if somebody had just tapped it to break it to try and fool whoever that someone had done that to make entry into the residence. It didn’t make sense,” former Troup County Sheriff’s Captain Larry Harris told “Snapped.”
While speaking to investigators, Nick indicated Alect might have a personal stake in his mother’s murder. He claimed Alect was deeply in debt and counting on his inheritance to solve his money troubles.
“Nick Matula said that Alect had made a comment that he needed his inheritance so his parents needed to go ahead and pass away,” said Davis.
Alect, however, had an airtight alibi. He sometimes worked at the Matulas’ dealership and had been there all morning on the day of his mother’s murder.
Investigators received an anonymous tip from someone who worked at a local bank. They said Margaret had come in two days before her death to request that Priscilla be removed from a checking account connected to the Abernathys’ real estate business, according to court documents. They learned that besides personally lending the Matulas a substantial amount of money to open their car dealership, Margaret had also been the co-signer on their business loans, using her home and a certificate of deposit as collateral.
“I believe that Ms. Abernathy had given Nick and Priscilla Matula $130,000 to help purchase this dealership, so she was already in fairly deep with them,” Cobb Allen said.
Unfortunately, the Matulas’ business struggled to turn a profit and they took on additional debt to stay afloat. Eventually, they began writing checks they couldn’t guarantee to move money around from one account to another, an illegal practice known as “check kiting.”
“She had kited checks in the amount of $20 - $30,000 so that it looked to be that she had a positive cash flow with the car lot,” added Cobb Allen.
On the Friday before her murder, Margaret learned Priscilla wasn’t making required lien payoffs. She subsequently discovered Priscilla had forged her signature to access funds from the Abernathys' real estate company, according to court documents. That Saturday, Margaret requested that Priscilla’s name be removed from the checking account signature card for the real estate company. She was told she would have to wait until Monday to complete the process.
Authorities believe Margaret confronted Priscilla over the weekend about her illegal activities and told her she was cutting her off financially first thing Monday morning. Without the dealership, the Matulas faced complete financial ruin. Investigators surmised that Priscilla then snuck into her mother’s home on Monday morning and shot her while she slept. They believe she returned later that morning to stage the crime scene, and upon discovering Margaret alive on the bathroom floor, delivered the coup de grâce.
A witness later came forward to say they saw Priscilla at a convenience store near her mother's home at 7:15 on the morning of the murder. Another witness claimed her car was parked in her mother’s driveway at 10 a.m and they subsequently heard a gunshot from across the street, according to court documents.
On Feb. 12, 1991, Priscilla Matula was arrested for the murder of Margaret Abernathy. During her interview with investigators, she denied having anything to do with her mother’s death and claimed she had committed no financial impropriety.
Priscilla Matula went on trial in August 1992. She was found guilty of the murder of her mother and six counts of forgery and sentenced to life in prison with parole, according to court documents.
After serving 23 years of her sentence, Priscilla Matula was released from prison in May 2015.
For more on this case and others like it, watch "Snapped," airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen or stream episodes here.
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