News 12 at 11, April 23, 2009
AUGUSTA, Ga. --- The story of Augusta's alleged black widow has gained worldwide news coverage. A film crew traveled from England to Augusta to shoot a documentary on Betty Neumar.
The BBC documentary filmmakers interviewed me to discuss how News 12 broke part of the international story. Today I interviewed them about Betty Neumar.
Neumar has never spoken to the American media since her arrest,
but she's speaking out for the first time in a documentary for the BBC,
telling them she feels her story wasn't portrayed fairly in the United States. Neumar says she hopes international media will tell her side, and what she told them may shock you.
The world first met Betty Neumar when she answered to a Richmond County judge, facing now three counts of solicitation of murder in the death of her fourth husband, Harold Gentry, in 1986 in North Carolina.
23 years later and two states away, the charges caught up to Neumar. And as investigators started to look into her past, they found a disturbing trend. She'd been married five times in five different states, and all five husbands were dead. Two were murdered and a third was shot to death. The fourth husband's death is a mystery.
"It's a completely fascinating, complex story," director Norman Hull told News 12. "I don't think we'll ever know the truth. I think there are gray areas. I just can't get my head around it. I don't think the truth will ever come out or not totally." Neumar's story brought Hull, with AVPFilms, from London to Augusta to direct and produce a documentary about her.
Hull interviewed me for his film, and he also interviewed Betty herself.
News 12's Lynnsey Gardner: "What was your experience with Betty? My experience with her she was very guarded, she was very feisty. Did you meet that same Betty, or did you meet a different Betty?"
Director Norman Hull: "I met the sweet old lady. Butter wouldn't melt in your mouth. You build up this image of this evil woman and you don't know quite what to expect but um, suddenly, there is this sweet old lady."
Born Betty Lafon Johnson in 1931, she married her first husband Clarence Malone at 18 in her hometown of Ironton, Ohio. The announcement ran with a picture of the beaming bride-to-be in the local paper.
A year later, court documents show Betty wanted a divorce, claiming Clarence abused her. She got what would be her only divorce, and full custody of their son, Gary.
18 years later, Clarence was dead, killed in what local reports called a shotgun slaying at his Ohio business in 1970. Betty was never named a suspect.
She went on to marry four more times and have two more children by two other husbands, both daughters. Hull talked to them as well. "They both believe their mom and they both think she's innocent."
The oldest daughter, Peggy Flynn, is pictured with her mother and half brother Gary. Peggy's father was husband number two, James Flynn, who also adopted Gary. Noticeably missing from the picture is James himself.
"Well, the mysterious one is husband number two," says Hull. "I heard four husbands were shot and I heard the murky one is Flynn. That he was shot in New York on a pier."
Investigators first told News 12 they believed James Flynn was shot to death on a pier in New York in the 1950's, because that's the version Betty told them. But no records of his death have ever been found.
Hull says Betty told him a different story. "Betty claims he froze to death in a container in New York. So whether he was shot or not, I don't know. Why is she changing her story and told me he froze to death in a container? It's weird. Were four of them shot or three of them shot? That one is a real mystery."
Fast forward to husband number three, Richard Sills. He died about a decade later in Florida in 1967. His death was ruled a suicide. An investigation was re-opened in his death after Betty's arrest last May.
Hull: "We interviewed Peggy, the oldest daughter, and she says on camera, she was in the house, she was about eleven years old, she heard her mother, Betty and Richard Sills, the third husband. She heard them arguing and then she says she heard a shot. Now, she says one shot, not shots. Then she went in the room and she saw her stepfather, Richard Sills, gurgling on the bed, bleeding, and then he fell on the floor and died. So that's suspicious, and that was ruled a suicide, and no one mentioned two shots you see, but I do believe the Navy investigation does mention 'shot twice'."
The case was closed later last year, but now, Sills' children are pushing Florida investigators to reopen it.
And it was Al Gentry's pushing of North Carolina investigators for 23 years that finally got them to give Betty another look in his brother's murder. That push ended in her three solicitation charges.
"And there are a lot of people with axes to grind," explains Hull. "There are a lot of angry people out there."
Not angry is Betty's third child, Kellie Bulcack Gentry. She told News 12 last May, "I know my mother is innocent, she has not hid anything." Kellie also says she was with her mom in Augusta when her father Harold was shot and killed.
"Kellie, the daughter, was sitting there like a rottweiler, listening to every word," says Hull. "But what Betty tells us, obviously, is that she is completely innocent and she's just been unfortunate in her choice of husbands."
Hull says Betty herself at times seemed upset, opening up about her marriages. "She also told me of her five husbands, only one never cheated on her. That one being John Neumar. She sang this snatch of a country western song called 'Cheater, Cheater'."
News 12: "She sang for you?"
Hull: "Yeah, she sang a snatch of it, yeah."
John Neumar is the Aiken native who met Betty at her North Augusta beauty shop in the 1990's. He was also recently widowed and later married Betty.
"She was like an iceberg," Kathy Neumar Scarlett says. Kathy says because of Betty, she and her brother lost their father long before he died. "We had so many years that we weren't able to keep in touch. She cut us off from that and I resent that immensely."
John later got sick. Hull says during the interview, Betty twice referred to John as dead weight after he became ill. He died of a blood infection in 2007. After Betty's arrest, Richmond County investigators seized John's ashes in a search of Betty's home and tested them for arsenic or other poisons, but found nothing.
"I think the whole thing was dropped way too soon, I really do," explains Scarlett.
But the question remains: is it criminal, or coincidental?
Hull: "Perhaps she has just been unlucky, who knows? It's a pretty unfortunate series of bad luck, but she came across as a sweet old lady."
News 12: "Did you almost feel sorry for her then, Norman, seeing this sweet little old lady?"
Hull: "Yeah, a little, yeah. 76-year-old lady...what do you do with people? If she has committed any crimes, obviously, she has to be punished. But I don't see how society gains from locking away this 76-year-old woman for the rest of her life."
As Hull and his crew head back to London to finish their film, life goes on for Betty Neumar. "I asked her what was going to happen to her, and she says, 'No matter what happens, I will be free. I shall be free.' "
Betty Neumar is out on bond awaiting her murder-for-hire trial. No trial date is set.
Investigators believe the motive is money. When Betty was arrested, she had current passports, vaccine records and at least two overseas bank accounts despite filing for bankruptcy in 2000. In that filing she claimed she and John Neumar were broke with more than $200,000 of debt on 43 credit cards. However, they had just recently come into a lot of money with the sale of both of their homes. Betty also collected life insurance on past dead husbands, reportedly $20,000 for Harold Gentry alone.
As for the death of Betty's only son, Gary Flynn, he also died from a gunshot wound and his death was also ruled a suicide. Flynn reportedly shot himself in the chest with a shotgun. His wife said Betty reportedly collected at least $10,000 by claiming her son wasn't married, when he fact he was, with three kids of his own.
Hull says there are still four weeks of editing left to do on the documentary, so no air date is set for the BBC. We'll of course let you know what happens.