Watch CBS News

Death Without Mercy

This story was originally broadcast on Jan. 5, 2008. It was updated April 17, 2009.

In November 2005, quiet and sleepy Morgantown, W.Va., was left shaken when the body of James "Jimmy" Michael was discovered inside his burning home.

As correspondent Susan Spencer reports, the death appeared suspicious to police from the get-go, and investigators soon focused on Michael's widow, Michelle.

Was Jimmy's death a homicide? And was there motive?

The opening game for the 2007 West Virginia Mountaineers is the pride of the entire state. From small towns, to the most remote mountain valleys, kids here dream of being part of the excitement in Morgantown.

Young Michelle Goots, raised in nearby Clarksburg, was no different and her dream came true. "Shelly," as she liked to be called, was a straight-A student and cheerleader in high school.

When she got to West Virginia University in 1990, her looks, brains and talent paid off: she won a coveted spot on the cheerleading squad.

But Shelly also had a more serious side. "I knew I wanted to be involved with children somehow. That was never a question. I always wanted to be a pediatric nurse," she says.

After graduation, she landed a job at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.

Respiratory therapist Stephanie Estel remembers Shelly well -- hard not to, she says. "Cheerleader moves in the unit. And she was all about flirting with the boys that we worked with," Stephanie recalls. "I can remember she just came over and did this high kick to her ear and just kinda giggled and kept on walking."

But what Stephanie found annoying, apparently made a very good impression on another therapist in the unit, Jimmy Michael.

But Jimmy was married to Stephanie, and they had two kids. And Shelly was also married to Rob Angus, and also had two kids.

None of this appeared to deter her or Jimmy in the slightest. "Jimmy and I would talk off and on at work. And I knew that he and Stephanie were having issues. And Rob and I were not getting along very well," Shelly says. "And kinda just connected that way."

By the fall of 1998, Stephanie suspected something was up.

Soon, both couples divorced. Just eight months after Shelly's divorce was final, Shelly and Jimmy, both 28, got married and moved to a house on Killarney Drive, only minutes away from Shelly's job at the hospital.

It seemed like a perfect match, and Jimmy's parents, Dennis and Ruth, say that "perfect" was very important to Shelly. "She wanted everybody to think that they were the perfect model family," Denny recalls.

Jimmy had left the hospital to start a medical supply business and coached football in his spare time, while Shelly coached the cheerleaders.

On Nov. 28, 2005, the Michaels were home alone; their kids were staying with the exes. Jimmy turned in early, Shelly says, and was still asleep when she left the next morning. "I left to go to work around 6-ish. I got there about 6:10, 6:15. And I went in to do my normal routine work," Shelly remembers.

Shelly says it was hours later - about 10:30 am - when she got a phone call telling her that her house was on fire. Shelly rushed back to the house. "Firemen everywhere. I was saying, 'Where is Jimmy? Where is he?' And they just kept saying, 'We don't know. We can't find him, we don't know,'" she recalls.

Firefighters fought the blaze for half an hour before finding Jimmy's remains in the master bedroom, still lying in what was left of the bed.

Morgantown Police Detective Paul Mezzanotte says police initially thought they were dealing with a routine fatal fire. But he says his impressions changed the minute he got to the scene and began watching Shelly.

"The people that were showing up, they seemed to be more upset than she was. And it was just kind of different when we talked to her that day," he recalls.

The more they talked, the more he was sure this was a "person of interest." Mezzanotte says Shelly "didn't have a reaction" and that he never saw her cry.

"There was something that just kept drawing me to be around her. 'Cause something never sat right with me from the beginning of the investigation," he recalls.

And then there was the crime scene itself, with Jimmy's body simply lying on the bed. "When we saw the body, something just stuck out to me that there wasn't something right with this," Mezzanotte explains.

Just three days later, the medical examiner confirmed why all these "somethings" weren't right: Jimmy had not died in the fire, but was dead before the blaze even started.

Morgantown, according to Geri Ferrara of the local Dominion Post, is a place where nothing much happens. "Morgantown still maintains a small hometown flavor. Everyone knows everyone," Ferrara explains.

So imagine the shock in town when police discovered the charred body of a popular businessman and Pee Wee football coach in his burned-out home, and that he had been murdered in his bed. "A premeditated murder of that nature with all the bells and whistles doesn't happen. Not in Morgantown," Ferrara explains.

But Det. Mezzanotte says investigators suspected murder from the minute they saw Jimmy's body. "The body looked as if he was asleep. It was like no fire damage I'd ever seen on a body," he says.

Mezzanotte says it struck him as "very bizarre."

Bizarre, because intense heat normally causes muscles to contract. Not only was Jimmy laying flat on the bed, the healthy 33-year-old man apparently made no effort to escape. "The house was pretty much salvageable, other than just some water and smoke damage. And I thought that was kind of weird," Mezzanotte says.

When the medical examiner found no soot in Jimmy's breathing passages, police knew this was murder. The fire was set by someone to destroy evidence.

Rumors began that the "someone" was Shelly Michael; one anonymous caller even named a drug she might have used.

Toxicology results would take weeks. In the meantime, investigators interviewed family and friends. When they checked out the Michaels "perfect marriage," they hit pay dirt. "We were able to confirm that there was an affair. And then that kind of started driving the investigation," Mezzanotte explains.

Shelly's lover was a man named Bobby Teets, who worked for her husband. When questioned, Teets admitted the affair.

The affair started at a Chicago hotel, when the two supposedly were on a business trip. And the affair was on-going: Teets said they'd had sex just three days before the fire, in the very bed where Jimmy was found.

Asked if Teets had an alibi, Mezzanotte says, "He had an alibi for the day of the fire. He was making deliveries and he was at the warehouse and we have people that are putting him there."

Investigators also briefly looked at Jimmy's ex-wife Stephanie, but although she and Jimmy had gone through an ugly divorce, Mezzanotte couldn't see her killing her children's father.

Every lead led Mezzanotte to the same place: Shelly Michael.

But Shelly had an alibi: she'd been at work when the fire was discovered. Apparently sure that would clear her, she actually asked to come in and chat with detectives a second time and came without a lawyer.

During the interview, which Mezzanotte says took about nine hours, Shelly told detectives she kissed Jimmy on the forehead before she left, and that she got to the hospital around 6:10 or 6:15 a.m.

The only time she left, she said, was to retrieve a forgotten pager from her truck. But hospital security video showed Shelly leaving for 17 minutes - leaving the hospital at 8:11 and returning at 8:28 a.m.

"Surveillance cameras don't lie," Mezzanotte told Shelly during their taped interview. "We have your car leaving the hospital grounds."

"I didn't leave the hospital grounds," Shelly replied.

Complicating her denials was that a neighbor actually saw her pull out of her own driveway at 8:20 a.m., when she insisted she was at work.

In the end, Shelly finally admitted that she did leave briefly for an errand around 8:00 a.m. But that was a full two hours before the fire was discovered.

And she doggedly stuck to her denial of the affair, not knowing that Bobby Teets already had confessed.

The detectives were flabbergasted at her denials, and completely unpersuaded. "She brought the investigation to herself. We didn't center it around her. Y'know, everything that she did was a lie," Mezzanotte says.

Then in February 2006, toxicology results finally came back. Just as that anonymous caller had suggested, Jimmy did indeed die of a lethal dose of a drug called rocuronium. The drug is used in hospital procedures when doctors need to temporarily paralyze muscles; but the patient always is put on a ventilator to help him breathe, because without a ventilator an injection of rocuronium causes slow suffocation.

For police it was the last piece of the puzzle. On March 10, 2006, Shelly was charged with first degree murder and arson.

Yet there were questions: could Shelly really leave work, kill Jimmy, ignite a fire, and return to the hospital in just 17 minutes? And why was it two hours before any sign of fire?

The whole story, says her attorney Tom Dyer, is preposterous: "The defense is able to contend that the murderer and the arsonist are one and the same person. And we know, absolutely, this young lady is not the arsonist. So, it's going to be our position, she's not the murderer."

No one was more determined to make Shelly pay than District Attorney Marcia Ashdown, especially given how rocuronium kills. "It's like being buried alive. Not being able to move," Ashdown says.

The lead prosecutor on the case, Ashdown says that as paralysis slowly crept over him, a terrified Jimmy would have been totally helpless.

The state's theory of the crime is this: Shelly lifted the vial of rocuronium from the hospital, injected Jimmy - probably while he slept - and then around 6 a.m. left for work as usual, only to secretly return home some two hours later.

Asked if she thinks Shelly had enough time in 17 minutes to head home, light a fire, and return to the hospital, Ashdown says, "Yes. It only takes, even by her own accounting, maybe four or five minutes one way, and how long does it take to flick a Bic?"

But why then was the fire not spotted until 10:30 a.m., two hours after Shelly was seen at the house?

Ashdown says it's very significant that all the windows and doors to their bedroom were closed. "This was an oxygen-deprived fire, meaning that it could burn in a limited area for a period of time until some smoldering is sufficient to burn into something else that then becomes fuel," she says.

A fire that smolders for hours, then suddenly bursts into flames? To Shelly's lawyer, Tom Dyer, that makes no sense. "This fire had to have started sometime after 10 o'clock. There's no evidence of any delayed combustion device or anything like that," he points out.

Not only is there no hard evidence against Shelly, Dyer insists she had no motive, not even the affair. Shelly's reputation after all, was for loving and leaving her men. Not killing them. "She has had affairs and run around on other men previously, she's divorced previously, she's taken advantage of her relationships with men in the past and never harmed any of them," he explains.

Prosecutors say the motive is obvious: it turns out Jimmy had recently taken out a half-million dollar life insurance policy.

But despite the money, and despite the affair, Shelly swears she is innocent. As for the drug, rocuronium, Shelly says, "I work with it every day. And I had nothing to do with it."

She has another suspect in mind. "I know that there was one person that gave him a lot of trouble all the time. Constantly. Made him miserable. Seemed like it was her point in life to make him miserable. And it worked," Shelly says.

Shelly is talking about Stephanie Estel, Jimmy's ex wife. But she has an alibi: Stephanie was at home with her new baby.

"Making trouble for somebody is a long way from injecting them with rocuronium and setting the house on fire. You can't believe that about her," Spencer tells Shelly.

"I can believe that she is capable of it. Yes, I can," she replies.

But the challenge for the defense is to convince the jury that Shelly isn't capable of it and her lawyer is worried that jurors may decide to punish her for the affair, for lying, or for simply not being the bubbly ex-cheerleader and perfect mother she tried to present to the world.

"She has a reputation for bein' a bit abrasive, bit of a disciplinarian around her children and those who were working with her and for her, under her at the hospital," Dyer says.

Asked if the jury is going to like Shelly, or whether it matters, Dyer says, "Sure. Absolutely. I mean, it's especially important when the state's case is entirely circumstantial."

But Shelly doesn't always make herself easy to like. Out on bail, Shelly was put on strict home confinement by the court, not that she seemed to care.

"We had people calling saying, 'I think I saw Michelle Michael drive by the Killarney house,'" Ferrara recalls. "Is it possible she was getting her nails done?"

It turns out Shelly stopped by a nail salon.

"Did she not understand?" Spencer asks Tom Dyer.

"Honest to goodness, Susan, she is indignant that she's on home confinement during this period of time. She is highly indignant that she's being accused of her husband's death," he replies.

An equally indignant judge threw her in jail a month before the trial, which was moved 150 miles to Charleston, because of all the publicity. If that fazed Shelly you'd hardly know it, even as the trial began: she was photographed giving a thumbs up, which was printed in the Dominion Post.

"People couldn't believe it! How could she? She's on trial for the murder, how could she give a thumbs up?" Ferrara asks. "You'd think that her attorney would have warned her not to do that!"

Twenty months after the fire on Killarney Drive, all that was left was an impromptu memorial to Jimmy Michael.

That, and a prosecutor totally convinced that it was his wife who killed him. Asked what she thinks her strongest evidence is going into the trial, Ashdown says, "The manner of death, the murder weapon."

But prosecutors have no evidence directly linking Shelly to the murder weapon or any aspect of this crime, and her lawyer insists the circumstantial case is a weak one. "This is my first 'whodunit.' This is the first case that doesn't involve either direct evidence of guilt, an eyewitness, a smoking gun, so to speak, or a confession," Dyer says.

Prosecutors Marcia Ashdown and Perri DeChristopher wasted no time providing jurors with painful details of Jimmy's death and lurid testimony of Shelly's infidelity.

Shelly's lover Bobby Teets testified about their affair.

During excruciating testimony, Jimmy's dad wondered if even his son's murder ended the affair. "I came in the back door and I went into the rec room. Bobby Teets was in his pajamas and he had his arms around Shelly, kissing her on the cheek. She immediately shoved him away when I walked in. And this was the night before the funeral," Denny Michael testified.

Admitting that the affair makes their client look bad, defense co-counsel Jim Zimarowski reminded jurors that motive without opportunity means nothing, and that Shelly had an alibi.

The defense suggests the fire started shortly before it was spotted, around 10:30 a.m. Prosecutors say Shelly set it when she was seen at the house, shortly after 8 a.m.

But, if that's so, it would have had to have smoldered for two full hours before bursting into flames. To sort it all out, the state called on arson experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They built six models of the Michael bedroom -- exact replicas down to the mattress, carpet and paint -- and set them on fire.

In the tests, the bedroom erupts into flames after smoldering for 2 hours and 12 minutes.

Although, as the defense points out, that result came only after several failed tries. "They keep manipulating these things and the first five tests they can't get anywhere near what they're looking to prove, they can't squeeze the square peg in the round hole," Dyer remarked during the trial.

Still, the prosecution has scored points simply by showing it's possible for a fire like this to smolder undetected for two hours.

"There was never another person that we investigated with motive to do this and there was never another suspect that was developed," Mezzanotte says.

And that, the defense argues, was the problem: police never really investigated anyone else -- not even others who had access to rocuronium, like Jimmy's ex-wife.

Stephanie Estel listened as the defense tried to finger her for this murder.

"From what I heard, she was unaccounted between 7:30 and 9:30 and her only other alibi between 6 and 10 were her husband, Dan. You verified all that?" Zimarowski asked Det. Mezzanotte.

"Yes, sir," Mezzanotte replied.

"And you took them at their word?" Zimarowski asked.

"Why wouldn't I take them at their word?" Mezzanotte asked.

"Why wouldn't you take Michelle Michael at her word?" Zimarowski asked.

"Because every time I gave her an opportunity to do that she lied," Mezzanotte said.

Courtroom dramas on television often have dramatic moments when defendants take the witness stand to try to un-do damaging testimony. In real life, it almost never happens; certainly defendants whose repeated lies have been caught on tape don't testify. But with her case in seeming shambles, Shelly rolled the dice and stepped into the witness box.

Her lawyer, Tom Dyer, sympathetically elicits all the reasons she chose to lie.

Asked why she didn't tell the truth about leaving the hospital on the morning of the fire, Shelly testified, "I didn't want my boss to find out. I didn't want to get fired."

As for not admitting her affair to the detective, Shelly said, "I was ashamed of myself -- I just cheated on my husband and didn't want to cause any more pain - make it worse."

The life insurance, Shelly insists, was for the children, though she was the beneficiary. She testified the couple had no debts, and that she had no motive to kill Jimmy.

On the stand, she reiterated that she had nothing to do with her husband's death or the fire at their home.

But prosecutor DeChristopher is merciless, saying Shelly killed out of greed. And she points to her initial 34-page insurance claim to show just how greedy Shelly could be. "You claimed reimbursement for 12 bottles of nail polish, totally $72?" DeChristopher asked.

"I had a big basket of nail polish - actually that's probably an understatement," she testified.

"You requested reimbursement for Jim's dress socks - 30 pair totaling $240, is that right?" the prosecutor asked.

"I guess so if it's on there," Shelly said.

"You put a price on your framed wedding vows - $40," DeChristopher remarked.

"It was Michael's frame - yes," Shelly replied.

Over and over, DeChristopher ridicules Shelly's claim that at heart she really is an honest person. "And in your interviews with Det. Mezzanotte, you lied to him over a hundred times, correct?" De Christopher asked.

"I lied a lot," Shelly said.

Cross-examination was brutal, but Shelly says she had to testify. "I didn't do it and I wanted everybody to hear me," she explains.

The ex-cheerleader who had twirled and charmed her way through life could only hope that when the jurors saw her struggling in the witness box they saw an innocent person.

Asked if she felt that taking the stand helped, Shelly tells Spencer " I don't know if it did or not."

The jury was about to get the case, and nothing less than Shelly's future was on the line. The decision might rest on how jurors saw Shelly: is she still the perky cheerleader whose white lies made her the easy target of investigators, or is she a psychopath, a murderer of unimaginable cruelty?

As the trial winds down, Shelly insists again that she only lied because she was scared, not because she was guilty.

All those lies figure mightily in closing arguments. "Her lies are a symptom of her guilty knowledge," says prosecutor Marcia Ashdown dramatically, who recreates her version of the crime.

"She had injected her husband with rocuronium and all she had to do takes about a second," Ashdown told jurors, injecting a grapefruit in front of the jury box.

"And to get the fire started, this is all she had to do," Ashdown told jurors, flicking a lighter.

The evidence may be circumstantial, but Ashdown says it is overwhelming. "Who had access to the murder weapon? Who had access to the victim's home? Who had access to the victim's body? Who had motive or something to gain from Jimmy Michael's death?" she asks,

"She's guilty of lying. Cheating. There's no question about that. Is she guilty of murder and arson? No!" Tom Dyer tells the jury.

In a last ditch effort to plant doubt, the defense shocks the court by suggesting that perhaps no one is guilty - that perhaps this isn't even a murder. "So why is this guy found in bed?" Dyer asks. "Could it be suicide?"

Perhaps, Tom Dyer continues, Jimmy killed himself, making it look like a murder so his family would get the life insurance money. "He knows what rocuronium does. He's a respiratory therapist. He knows it's gonna give him a little bit of time to start a fire. It won't look like suicide," Dyer tells jurors. "This evidence alone is all the reasonable doubt you would ever need in a case like this."

Jimmy's family is appalled. "That's the most unbelievable part that my son would ever commit suicide," Denny says.

Finally, after eight days of testimony, the judge gives the case to the jury. After a day and a half, jurors reached a unanimous verdict: guilty, with a recommendation of mercy.

They also found Shelly guilty on the arson charge. The murder conviction alone carries an automatic life sentence. "With mercy" only means parole is theoretically possible.

Shelly seems stunned, emotionless. Her family takes it hard. "My daughter did not do this. Could not have done this. Would not have it in her to do it," Kathi says.

But Shelly never convinced Morgantown. "There are an awful lot of people who would love if Michelle Michael never saw the light of day again, again because of the type of crime it was," says Geri Ferrara.

And she certainly hasn't convinced the Michaels. Asked if justice was done, Denny says yes.

"I don't know how a person becomes the person she is to be able to do what she did," Jimmy's mother Ruth says.

"She had planned this thing out -- what she thought would be maybe the perfect crime," Denny adds.

She will have ample time to consider what went wrong. Why someone so good at living the picture-perfect life fared so badly at the perfect crime.

Shelly Michael's children are living with her ex-husband. He will not let them visit their mother.

Her petition to appeal was denied in the fall of 2008.

Shelly Michael will be eligible for parole in 2027. She'll be 55.

Produced by Tim Gorin and Sara Ely Hulse

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.