Like the men before him, Melissa Ann Shepard’s last victim fell for her in more than one sense of the word.
When Fred Weeks met Shepard in 2012, they were both in their late 70s and living in the same retirement community in the picturesque Canadian coastal province of Nova Scotia. The start of their romance was simple, according to court documents cited by the BBC: Shepard knocked on Weeks’s door and told him that she was lonely. She’d heard that he was lonely, too.
From there, the dalliance took on a familiar rhythm, one unbeknownst to the smitten Weeks at the time. After being wed in a civil union ceremony in his living room, the BBC reported, the couple embarked on their honeymoon across neighboring Newfoundland.
It was then that things started to go amiss for the man, who had lost his first, and longtime, wife just one year before. His mind became hazy while driving on the journey, unable to distinguish between gears and forgetting how to start the car. Soon, his condition worsened: He needed a wheelchair and couldn’t put on his shoes.
Upon the newlyweds’ return to Nova Scotia, they checked into a bed and breakfast, where Weeks told the owner of the establishment, Cheryl Chambers, that they were both ill and had been up “vomiting all night.”
Chambers told the CBC investigative program “The Fifth Estate” that only one of them appeared to be sick.
“Mr. Weeks didn’t look well at all. He looked a little green, very gaunt-looking,” she recounted. “Mrs. Weeks, on the other hand, she was beautifully groomed, in a lovely red suit.”
The next day, Weeks fell out of bed, hit the hardwood floor and had to be hospitalized. Doctors found him heavily drugged — the result, it was later found, of Shepard spiking his coffee with tranquilizers.
This act of “administering a noxious substance” (reduced from an earlier charge of attempted murder) landed her nearly three years in Canadian federal prison in 2013. It was just the latest in a long rap sheet of crimes as numerous as the last names she had accumulated over the years.
Now, the alarm is being sounded around Shepard once more. Last Friday, she completed her sentence for the offense against Weeks and was released from a federal women’s prison in Nova Scotia.
Melissa “Millie” Ann was born a Russell, but made herself by turns a Shepard, a Stewart, a Friedrich and a Weeks. All but her first known husband, Russell Shepard (the two later divorced), would become victims of a methodical, practiced ruse.
All were elderly men who had recently lost their spouses. They sought companionship and found instead in the hazel-eyed Shepard someone who siphoned their savings, slipped drugs into their food and, in the case of one man, ran him over with a car and left him dead on a dirt road.
Of all Shepard’s monikers, “Black Widow” is the one that has stuck over the decades in the news media. It befits someone who has been convicted of manslaughter, theft and forgery in connection with spontaneous marriages and subsequent illnesses and deaths.
(Romances aside, she also has 30 fraud convictions since 1977.)
Each time she struck, the headlines lamented her ever-growing web.
The Halifax Regional Police advised Friday, upon Shepard’s release, that “a high risk offender is residing in our community.” Authorities have ordered her not to use the Internet, to report any changes to her appearance and to abide by an 11 p.m. curfew. Any romantic relationships must also be reported to the police, so that prospective partners can be informed of her history.
These conditions offer little comfort to Alex Strategos, 84, whom Shepard dated in 2005.
“I don’t think she should be released,” Strategos told the BBC. “What she was, she still is — she’s the Black Widow. Some guys better watch out, that’s all I can say.”
Strategos, a Florida man, learned this the hard way after meeting Shepard on an online dating site. “I was just lonely, and I figured this was a good chance for me to find somebody and get together, and start a perfect life,” Strategos told the CBC.
But from the start, Strategos’s relationship with her was far from idyllic. Shepard drove down from Canada in a white Cadillac to meet Strategos for their first date, and spent the night in his bed. While she slept, he awoke to go to the bathroom and felt dizzy, his vision blurred.
The nausea continued night after night, and Strategos started to regularly fall and pass out. He eventually surmised that she was spiking the ice cream that she fed to him every night. By the time Shepard was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing $20,000 from Strategos, his savings were depleted, but he was still alive. The same couldn’t be said for Shepard’s prior two male companions.
Before Strategos and Weeks, there was Robert Friedrich, a successful engineer whom Shepard met at church in 2001.
“The Holy Spirit told me that this man would be my next husband,” Shepard explained to the CBC in 2005, in a rare interview from prison. Three days after meeting, the pair was engaged and soon embarked on a five-month honeymoon across North America, paid for by Friedrich’s life savings of approximately $250,000.
Friedrich’s deteriorating health during that period would be a harbinger of Shepard’s later experiences with Strategos and Weeks: He started falling constantly and was often in the hospital.
After the honeymoon, Shepard left Friedrich’s son Bob a menacing voice mail, the CBC reported, announcing that he and his two brothers were being taken out of Friedrich’s will.
“I have something to share with you this morning,” Shepard said to Bob, according to the CBC, which broadcast her voice mail on television. “Your father is going to change his will. … You guys are getting nothing, a big fat zero. So try that on for size, and have a nice day.”
No more than a year after Shepard was supposedly moved to make Friedrich her husband, he passed away, leaving her some $100,000. Shepard has never been charged for anything in connection with that marriage.
Before Weeks, Strategos and Friedrich, there was Gordon Stewart, a 44-year-old Nova Scotian who met his end in 1991. He was crushed beneath the tires of a Chevrolet Cavalier and found with a near-lethal combination of alcohol and drugs in his system.
At the wheel of the Chevrolet was Shepard, his wife.
Shepard admitted to running Stewart over, the Daily News in Halifax reported during her 1992 trial for manslaughter, for which she was convicted and served two years in prison. She contended that it was an accident; she hadn’t realized that her husband was directly behind the car, and she was trying to escape an attempted rape, Shepard said.
While prosecutors doubted that Stewart could have assaulted her in his incapacitated state, Shepard’s claim made her a spokeswoman for battered woman syndrome, a legal defense for women who go on to attack or kill their abusive partners.
“I never really thought she was trying to kill anyone,” Shepard’s former attorney, Allan Nicholson, told Canada’s Chronicle Herald last week. “If you look at her past, she really wanted to influence them, and have them change their insurance and wills.”
Barb McKenna, a Prince Edward Island-based journalist, heard Shepard speak during one of her public lectures about the syndrome.
“There’s a saying, ‘She could charm the bark off a tree,'” McKenna told the BBC. “She’s very slick. You would confront her, and she could immediately think up a response to it … even though it was an obvious lie.”
This was the tack Shepard took in her 2005 interview with the CBC. For every incriminating detail that was fired at her, Shepard appeared to have a ready answer — her husband didn’t have as much money as the police said he did; she got the gears confused when she ran over her husband; she had nothing to do with the drugs and so on.
Finally, the CBC’s Linden MacIntyre asked her, after decades of criminal convictions, “Can you change?”
“I can’t say that from now on I’ll be a perfect citizen,” Shepard said, “but I’m just going to try day by day, to behave myself and do what I should have been doing all along. But I can’t say that that is going to be the outcome of how my life will end.”
More from Morning Mix