Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, breaking news, sweepstakes, and more!
"Green Widow" Masterminded Hits on Estranged Husband and His Killer, Took Nude Photo Covered in Insurance Money
A photograph of Mary Ellen Samuels naked underneath a pile of "blood money" was a key piece of evidence in the murder of her husband Bob Samuels.
For Robert “Bob” Samuels, working as a camera operator on such movies as Lethal Weapon and Heaven Can Wait was a dream job. But it all ended in a fatal flash.
On the afternoon of December 9, 1988, the 40-year-old cameraman was found dead at his home in Northridge, California by his ex-wife Mary Ellen Samuels.
How did Robert “Bob” Samuels die?
“He had blood coming out of his head,” said John Birrer, a retired senior detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. The wound was the result of a shotgun blast, Birrer told The Real Murders of Los Angeles, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
A pillow next to the body was used as a silencer. There were no signs of forced entry or a struggle.
“Bob's wallet and ID were found, but nothing inside the residence was missing,” said Birrer. “We dismissed the idea of a burglary.”
Detectives began by talking with both Mary Ellen, who’d filed for divorce from the victim, and her 18-year-old daughter, Nicole.
Investigators learned that Samuels and Mary Ellen married after reconnecting at their high school reunion. Samuels adopted Nicole.
Samuels’ ex and daughter were cooperative, said Geoff Boucher, a former Los Angeles Times reporter. “Investigators had no reason to be suspicious.”
Bob Samuels’ $500,000 life insurance raises a red flag
But a red flag went up when police discovered that Mary Ellen sought to collect Samuels’ $500,000 life insurance policy.
Police asked Mary Ellen to take a polygraph test. She agreed, and she passed. The insurance company cut her a check, investigators said.
Samuels’ autopsy revealed that in addition to being shot, he had been struck with a tubular instrument. Detectives believed it to be the shotgun barrel, according to Tom Odle, a retired sergeant investigator with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.
Detectives discovered that while Samuels was estranged from his wife, he had dated a married woman who was separated from her husband.
The woman’s husband was a former cop working as a security guard at a club who had a history of domestic violence and owned a shotgun, according to The Real Murders of Los Angeles.
Leads in Bob Samuels’ murder turn out to be dead ends
While a jealous husband made a compelling suspect, this man also had an airtight alibi and was cleared from the case, said Birrer.
Investigators interviewed employees who worked at a Subway sandwich shop Samuels bought that Mary Ellen managed to determine if anyone there may have harmed him.
This avenue led to a dead end, so they focused on the film community. “Bob was definitely plugged into Hollywood,” said Boucher.
These witnesses described Samuels as quiet and diligent. “I worked with Bob for a long time. He’s not a player,” said his friend Geary McLeod. “He was a hardworking guy.”
Detectives eventually turned up a lead. They found out that Samuels was involved in “a contentious tax issue” that had pitted him against some industry peers, according to Boucher. Investigators dug deep into the lead, but came to another dead end.
The case went cold for nearly five months. Then an unidentified tipster called Birrer. He claimed to know “a lot about the Robert Samuels case,” said Birrer. The caller identified the murderer as James “Jim” Bernstein.
Jim Bernstein emerges as murder suspect
“We looked into Bernstein’s criminal record and we could see that he had some minor arrests for drug related offenses,” said Terry Richardson, a retired LAPD detective.
Investigators learned that Bernstein had been in a relationship with Nicole, said Boucher. Nicole’s statements led investigators to conclude that her relationship with Bernstein was very casual.
Detectives sought to speak with Bernstein, who, they learned, had been a no-show at work. When police mentioned they wanted to speak to him in regard to Samuels’ murder, Bernstein’s boss shared a startling revelation.
The colleague said Bernstein talked about Samuels. During those conversations, he said that Samuels had molested Nicole and that he wanted something done about it, according to Richardson.
“Bernstein presented Bob Samuels as a man that needs to die for his sins,” said Boucher.
Investigators searched through divorce filings and crime reports to determine if abuse charges had ever been made against Samuels. They found none, said Richardson.
Detectives tried to speak directly with Nicole, but she and her mother were in Cancun. Investigators doubled down on their search for Bernstein.
Jim Bernstein found strangled to death
Police suspected Bernstein was on the run. But in July 1989, his body was found along a trail in Ventura County, Calif.
The coroner determined that the cause of death was strangulation, according to investigators. Police from L.A. and Ventura counties joined forces on the homicides.
At Bernstein’s apartment, police found a phone card that was sent for analysis.
In the meantime, detectives spoke with Bernstein’s brother. He informed them that his sibling was involved in dealing drugs and that his partner in crime was David Navarro.
Investigators tracked down Navarro and learned that he was the anonymous caller who dropped Bernstein’s name as the killer. Navarro also said that Mary Ellen Samuels masterminded the murder, said Boucher.
Mary Ellen Samuels named as mastermind of hit-for-hires
Navarro told police that Mary Ellen had tried unsuccessfully to recruit him to kill her ex, according to Birrer. Her reason: She wanted his insurance money and the sandwich shop.
When Mary Ellen returned from Cancun, she refused to cooperate. Nicole refused to talk about Bernstein’s murder or the abuse accusations.
Detectives needed physical evidence to tie Mary Ellen and Bernstein. Evidence from the phone card showed that Bernstein called both Mary Ellen and Nicole the night of Samuels’ murder.
Police also found payroll records from the sandwich shop showing that payments were made to Bernstein. Detectives considered that this was the way he was paid for his role in Samuels’ murder, according to Boucher.
Investigators also found that the sandwich shop had paid $6,000 to Anne Hambly, a friend of Mary Ellen who wasn’t an employee.
Hambly talked with detectives after securing immunity. “She knew how Bob Samuels was killed, who killed him, and how Jim Bernstein was killed and who killed him,” said Birrer.
According to Hambly, after Bernstein killed her ex, Mary Ellen became paranoid that the hit man she’d hired “couldn’t keep his mouth shut,” said Boucher.
Hambly suggested that her boyfriend, Paul Gaul, and his friend, Darrel Edwards, could kill Bernstein. Mary Ellen paid Hambly $6,000 for the tip, according to Richardson.
How did Mary Ellen Samuels become known as the "Green Widow"?
On January 26, 1990, Mary Ellen was arrested and her home was searched. Investigators found a Polaroid photograph of her "clothed only with the blood money of her husband," reported the Los Angeles Times. She became known as the "Green Widow".
“That callousness really shows that she was very evil in my mind,” said Richardson
Gaul and Edwards were arrested for Bernstein’s murder. Both men pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for their testimony against Mary Ellen.
Gaul and Edwards said Mary Ellen hired them to kill Bernstein and revealed how they conspired to strangle him. Mary Ellen was charged for the murders.
“There was no proof found whatsoever that Bob was molesting Nicole when she was younger,” said Odle. “We tried to interview Nicole but she didn't want to talk with us.”
Gaul and Edwards were sentenced to 15 years to life. They were released in 2009.
In May 1994, Mary Ellen was tried and convicted and sentenced to death. Her sentence was commuted to life in prison without the chance of parole.
To learn more about the case, watch The Real Murders of Los Angeles, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.