Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history.
Many killer wives have been dubbed “Black Widows” over the years, a tribute to the tiny red and black spider whose females are known for the post-coital consumption of their mates. Prosecutors and the press dubbed Mary Ellen Samuels the “Green Widow” after pictures of her covered in $20,000 of her dead husband’s cash convinced a California jury she was guilty of arranging his murder and that of another man.
“You’re rolling in all this money, nude. Give me a break,” juror Nick Catran Whitney told Oxygen’s "Snapped." “That picture did more damage to her than anything else.”
Born in 1947, Mary Ellen Gurnick grew up an All-American girl in sunny Southern California. As a teenager she spent her free time at drive-in movies, Disneyland and chasing boys at local dances.
Friend Barbara Favilla told "Snapped" that she was "very pretty," adding: "When we would go out and meet guys it was always Mary Ellen they would focus on.”
One boy who had a crush on her was two years her junior and one of her neighbors. His name was Bob Samuels.
Too shy to ask her out as a teen, Bob watched from afar as Mary Ellen moved on in life, got married and had a daughter. Meanwhile, he became a successful Hollywood cameraman. In 1980, their paths crossed again and they started dating.
“Bob started out smitten with her as a young child and was completely enamored of her when he met her then again as an adult,” Prosecutor Jan Maurizi told "Snapped." Within six months, they were married.
Things got off to a good start for the Samuels. They got a house in suburban Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley, and according to Barbara Favilla, Bob got along great with Mary Ellen’s daughter Nicole, whom he adopted.
Husband and wife, however, were a study in contrasts. Bob was hard-working and down-to-earth, but Mary Ellen liked fast cars, sexy clothes and excitement. The couple fought over money constantly. Bob eventually bought a Subway Sandwich franchise and made his wife the manager. They needed the extra cash it would bring in, and he hoped it would give Mary Ellen a sense of purpose.
In October 1986, Bob came home to find a note from Mary Ellen on the kitchen counter saying she was leaving him.
“The ‘Dear John’ letter included statements like "our marriage had gotten stale, things just didn’t work out" and "I hope we can be friends, but I can’t live with you,” according to Prosecutor Jan Maurizi.
Mary Ellen filed for divorce, but Bob hoped they could reconcile. They agreed to a trial separation, with Bob kicking in an extra $1,500 a month to cover her living expenses. Mary Ellen still had the sandwich shop, and she and Nicole moved into a nearby condo, where mother and daughter started living the high life going to clubs, with Bob picking up the bill.
“One of the things she liked to do was go bar hopping. She would dress up in her sort of Sunday best,” said Maurizi.
On the afternoon of December 9, 1988, the LAPD received a 911 call from Bob Samuels’ Northridge address. Mary Ellen Samuels met them at the front door. Inside, her estranged husband lay dead from a shotgun blast to the head. She said she and Nicole had stopped by to drop off their dog for the weekend when they discovered the body.
He had been dead for a couple of days. While the house appeared to have been ransacked, police say the crime scene was not consistent with a break-in. It looked like an inside job.
When police questioned Mary Ellen down at the station, she wore a low cut dress and flirted with the officers.
“At one point, she put her hand on one of the detective’s bald head and talked about how she liked bald guys,” said Prosecutor Jan Maurizi. Within days of Bob’s death, Mary Ellen and Nicole moved back into Bob’s house, put the sandwich shop up for sale and filed a claim to collect the money from his life insurance policy.
When police questioned Bob Samuel’s friends, they learned he was planning to finalize his divorce with Mary Ellen. He realized they were never getting back together, had met with a lawyer and wanted to cut her off financially. Lucky for Mary Ellen, since they were still married at the time of Bob’s death, she inherited almost $500,000 in insurance and assets. She began spending it with a vengeance, buying herself and Nicole fur coats, sexy lingerie and high-end leatherwear. She got a new boyfriend, Dean Groover, and bought him a $50,000 white Porsche. They planned to move to Cancun, dropping $180,000 on a condo there.
Despite their suspicions, police didn’t have much to connect Bob Samuels murder to his wife. Then, in May of 1989, they received an anonymous tip telling them to talk to one of Nicole Samuels’ boyfriends, a 27-year-old wannabe wise guy named Jim Bernstein. Follow-up interviews with Mary Ellen’s fellow bar flies revealed she had actively been trying to hire a hit man to kill her husband.
“She just didn’t seem to care who heard her soliciting his murder,” said Maurizi. Rumor had it Bernstein had murdered Bob on Mary Ellen’s orders.
Cops brought Mary Ellen Samuels and Jim Bernstein in for questioning on the same night. Mary Ellen held the line, denying she had anything to do with her husband’s murder, but Bernstein was rattled.
When they put them together in the same room, he told her: “He’s gonna arrest one of us or both of us right here, right now, tonight for the murder. He says he knows 100 percent that you and I did this.”
Despite the cops’ hope they would get a confession out of one of them, neither cracked, so they were forced to let them go. Four weeks later, a couple discovered a dead body along a remote mountain road in Ventura County, California. The body was badly decomposed, but fingerprints revealed it to be Jim Bernstein. According to Matt Raue, his boss at the electronic store where he worked, he had been planning to tell the police about his role in Bob Samuels' murder.
“He called me up and said ‘I’m just going to tell the police what I know,” Raue told "Snapped." “And that’s the last time I talked to him.”
As word of Jim Bernstein’s murder got around, Mary Ellen’s drinking buddies got spooked and started talking.
“I think they were a little afraid of Mary Ellen,” Ventura County Sheriff Tom Odle told "Snapped." “But they were also afraid of what they may be charged as co-conspirators.”
A $1,500 check written around the time Bernstein disappeared led police to two men, Paul Gaul and Darrell Ray Edwards, who they were told were hired to kill Bernstein. When police caught up with Gaul, he told them everything.
“He realized when we went in to get him, that it was pretty much over. He admitted to his part in it,” said Odle.
When police went to arrest Mary Ellen Samuels at her Northridge home, they discovered a photograph they felt showed motive. Taken by boyfriend Dean Groover in Cancun, it showed Mary Ellen in the nude, her private parts covered in $20,000 cash, and grinning ear to ear. The photograph, pictured above, would feature prominently in her upcoming murder trial.
“A picture is worth a thousand words, and this was probably worth 10,000 words,” said Prosecutor Jan Maurizi. “Here the jury could look at this woman seated at council table and then they look at the photograph of this, this cold-blooded killer.”
In April of 1994, Mary Ellen Samuels’ trial for the double murders of Bob Samuels and Jim Bernstein got underway. Paul Gaul and Darrell Ray Edwards both testified against her, and the prosecution portrayed her as cold, calculating and money-hungry. Against her own lawyer’s advice, daughter Nicole testified on her mother’s behalf, saying Bob Samuels had sexually abused her, an allegation his family vociferously denied.
"I don't believe her. Bob wasn't that type of person," Robert Samuels' sister, Susan Conroy, told the Los Angeles Times at the time. "Like mother, like daughter. After all, she is fighting for her mother's life."
The jury didn’t believe her, either. On July 1, 1994, the jury found Mary Ellen Samuels guilty on both counts of first-degree murder. Two months later, Superior Court Judge Michael R. Hoff followed their recommendation and sentenced her to death.
Speaking of her crimes, Hoff said, “The defendant involved many people, even her own teenage daughter...," according to The Los Angeles Times. For their part, Paul Gaul and Darrell Ray Edwards each pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received sentences of 15 years to life.
Mary Ellen Samuels is one of 20 women currently on death row in the state of California, all of whom are being held at the Central California Women's Facility. Now 71, she has been in prison for almost 24 years, with no execution date set. Paul Gaul was paroled in 2009, but according to the Los Angeles Times, he was returned to custody in 2011 for drug and alcohol abuse. Neither he nor Darrell Ray Edwards are currently listed as prisoners in the California Department of Corrections. No charges were ever been brought against Nicole Samuels, and she has never been implicated in the murder of Bob Samuels.