July 14, 2008
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jeff Carstensen was spooked when he learned his grandmother planned to buy him a $100,000 life insurance policy — and name herself the beneficiary.
"She told me that people of our stature have insurance policies on each other," he said. "That way, if something happens to you, you take care of me, and if something happens to me, I take care of you. It was all too suspicious. So I got out of there any way I could, as soon as I could."
As he and everyone else who came into Betty Neumar's orbit have learned, he apparently had good reason.
The 76-year-old Georgia woman sits in a North Carolina jail, accused of hiring a hit man to kill fourth husband Harold Gentry. Authorities are re-examining the deaths of her first child and four of the five men she married, including Gentry.
No motive has been discussed, but records and interviews with relatives and police officials paint Neumar as a domineering matriarch consumed by money.
Said Al Gentry, who pressed North Carolina authorities for 22 years to reopen their investigation of his brother's death: "You can't trust her. You can't believe a word she says."
She collected at least $20,000 in 1986 when Harold Gentry was shot to death in his home. A year earlier, she had collected $10,000 in life insurance when her son died.
She also had a life insurance policy on husband No. 5, John Neumar, who died in October. The official cause of death was listed as sepsis, but authorities are investigating whether he was poisoned.
Betty Neumar is being held in a North Carolina jail on $500,000 bond, and is scheduled to appear in court Monday. Her attorney has declined requests for comment.
To the outside world, family members said, she was Bee — a friendly woman who operated beauty shops, attended church and raised money for charity.
But Carstensen saw another side: fist fights at family functions, use of obscenities and belittling of relatives, how she would act "one way in public — especially church — and another behind closed doors."
Police in Ohio are looking into the death of Carstensen's stepfather, Neumar's son Gary Flynn, who was found shot to death in his apartment in November 1985. It was ruled a suicide, but his family has questions. A decision on whether to formally reopen the case is pending.
Law enforcement authorities told The Associated Press they have struggled to piece together details of Betty Neumar's life because her story keeps changing. But interviews, documents and court records provide an outline of her history in North Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Georgia, the states where she was married.
She was born Betty Johnson in 1931 in Ironton, a hardscrabble southeastern Ohio town along the West Virginia border. She graduated from high school in 1949 and married Clarence Malone in November 1950. She was 18, he was 19.
In December 1951, she claimed in court papers that Malone abused her. It's unclear what happened to that complaint or when the marriage broke up. Their son, Gary, was born March 13, 1952.
Malone remarried twice. He was shot once in the back of the head outside his auto shop in a small town southwest of Cleveland in November 1970. His death was ruled a homicide, although police said there were no signs of robbery.
Gary was eventually adopted by Betty Neumar's second husband, James A. Flynn, although it's unclear when she met or married him. She told investigators that he "died on a pier" somewhere in New York in the mid-1950s. She and Flynn had a daughter, Peggy, and his death is the only one officials are not reinvestigating.
Records from Florida show she was living in Jacksonville when she enrolled in beauty college in 1960 under the name Betty Flynn. At some point, she met her third husband, Richard Sills, who was found dead in his apartment in the Florida Keys in 1965. Neumar told police they were alone in a room arguing when he pulled out a gun and shot himself. Authorities who ruled it a suicide are now reinvestigating.
Three years later, Neumar married Gentry. Five years after he died, she married John Neumar.
It was while living with him in Augusta, Ga., in the mid-1990s that, former friends and family members said, she persuaded more than 200 people to invest in a get-rich-quick scheme.
She told them they would receive up to $100,000 for every $100 they put toward the legal expenses of a rich European family that had died with no heirs.
Word spread, and people brought money to her beauty shop near Belvedere, S.C., near the Georgia border. Her husband's son, John K. Neumar, invested $1,000.
Months later, more than 200 antsy investors met with Betty Neumar at the Augusta Civic Center. She said lawyers in Europe needed more time and their money was safe. It wasn't true. Seven ringleaders in the scam pleaded guilty in 1997, but Neumar was never charged.
"We were rather stupid. I know," said Mary Miller, an investor who lost $500. "But we believed her. We trusted her."
It appears they weren't the only ones.
John Neumar was worth more than $300,000 when he and Betty married in 1991. But nearly 10 years later, they filed for bankruptcy and listed more than $206,000 in debts on 43 credit cards. It's unclear where the money went.
"Before he met her, he always saved his money," said John K. Neumar. "That's what he taught us. So it was a big surprise when I found out he was having financial trouble. It wasn't like he bought anything. She just took all his money."
The AP News Research Center in New York contributed to this report.
(Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. )