Before our current era of creepy clowns (and the problems they cause for professional clowns), there was a killer clown who frustrated Florida detectives for nearly three decades.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office announced on Tuesday it had arrested one of its prime suspects from the start: Sheila Keen Warren.
On May 26, 1990, a woman named Marlene Warren answered the front door at her home in Wellington, Fla.. She lived in the Aero Club, a tony community with a private airstrip. Standing at the door was someone dressed as a clown: red bulb nose, orange wig and painted-on smile. The clown held a bouquet of flowers and two balloons — one emblazoned with a picture of Snow White and one that said “You’re the Greatest!”
The clown held them out to Marlene Warren. And then shot her in the face.
Witnesses heard the gunshot. Marlene Warren fell to the ground, and her teenage son found her lying in a pool of blood, the Sun Sentinel reported. The clown calmly walked back to a white Chrysler LeBaron and drove away. Marlene Warren died two days later.
“This is the strangest thing I’ve seen in all my 19 years in law enforcement,” sheriff’s spokesman Bob Ferrell told the newspaper at the time. “It certainly seems well planned out.”
The case took many strange turns from its already outrageous beginnings.
Early on, police identified Sheila Keen as a suspect. The Sun Sentinel noted just two weeks after the murder that detectives had requested phone records for Keen and her then-husband, Richard, “but would not say why.”
Police also began looking at Marlene’s husband, Michael Warren.
Five months after the murder, he turned himself in to the sheriff’s deputies, who charged him and one of his employees with operating a “chop shop” selling parts from stolen vehicles and stealing cars to collect on insurance claims. He was convicted of racketeering, grand theft and odometer tampering in 1994 and served nearly four years in prison, according to The Associated Press.
Keen worked for Warren’s dealership, where she repossessed cars.
The Sun Sentinel reported in 1992 that detectives believed that Keen and Michael Warren were suspects in the killing: “Michael Warren and Keen had several motives for wanting Marlene Warren dead, detectives said. Detectives cited an alleged affair, a five-figure life insurance payment covering the victim and the full ownership for Michael Warren of the couple’s property, which included the car dealership, a car rental agency, the lavish Wellington home and rental properties in the Westgate section of West Palm Beach.”
Detectives worked the case for years, but couldn’t convince prosecutors they had enough evidence to make an arrest.
“This case was a series of circumstances that pointed in one direction,” former detective and lead investigator Bill Williams told The Palm Beach Post. “Just because you can point the finger doesn’t mean you got enough to convict them.”
Sheriff’s Detective Paige McCann, the lead investigator, said in a news conference on Thursday that her office received a grant in 2014 that it used to reopen some cold cases.
A new investigation into the killer clown case was launched — and this time, advances in DNA technology provided detectives with sufficient evidence, and they arrested Sheila Keen.
“You basically get one shot and if you roll the dice and take that chance and she is found not guilty, you never get that chance again,” McCann said. “Sometimes patience is the best.”
Since the time of the slaying, Sheila Keen has become Sheila Keen Warren: In 2002, she married Michael Warren. She was arrested at the home she shares with him in Abingdon, Va.
The Sun Sentinel called Marlene Warren’s 87-year-old mother on Tuesday and informed her that an arrest had at last been made — and that the accused was married to her daughter’s former husband.
“He married the killer?” she asked. “Son of a gun.”
Michael Warren has not been charged, though the AP reports that investigators have not ruled him out as a suspect. Detectives interviewed him again on Wednesday.