Transcript: 204. Internet Black Widow, Melissa Ann Shepard | Canada

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At first glance, Melissa Ann Shepard looked like a sweet and charming older lady seeking companionship after the tragic death of her husband. With her rosy cheeks, spectacles and overall harmless appearance, Melissa didn't exactly seem like the type of woman that you should be afraid of. And yet, at the age of 82, the authorities considered Melissa Shepard so dangerous, they had to make preparations to ensure the safety of the people of the Halifax area in Nova Scotia, Canada upon her release. Residents were warned to steer clear of the Internet Black Widow, especially those who happened to be lonely elderly widowers looking for love.

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Born in Burnt Church, New Brunswick, Canada, on May 16, 1935, Melissa Ann Russell seemed to have had a relatively normal and uneventful childhood. Almost nothing has been said about her early years, but at the age of 18, Melissa packed her things and moved to Ontario to live with her aunt. Melissa ended up completing high school through evening correspondence at Stafford College and married her first husband, Russell Shephard in 1955.

The young couple lived in Toronto and eventually had two children together—a son and a daughter. Again, very little is known about Melissa and Russell's relationship, but there definitely were some hardships after Russell was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes. Due to Russell's illness, the family's financial situation got tighter and tighter, which seemed to cause Melissa to resort to desperate means. She began to write bad checks, which was obviously not a sustainable way to fix the family finances.

Between 1971 and 1985, Melissa was charged with over thirty counts of fraud and forgery in addition to impersonation and littering in Toronto and Georgetown, Prince Edward Island. Melissa was convicted of her crimes and ended up spending a total of 5 years in prison, her first term of 11 months starting in 1977.

After her release in December 1985, Melissa returned to her husband and children in Russell's hometown, Montague, Prince Edward Island. For a while, it seemed like Melissa was going to live a decent life and forget her criminal chapter. She got herself a real estate licence and started a career as an agent. For a few years, everything was working out just fine—but then, in 1988, 53-year-old Melissa met a man named Gordon Stewart.

Gordon had recently retired from the army and was living alone in Prince Edward Island after tragically losing his wife to cancer the year prior. It’s unclear if the couple of many years ever had children together, but Gordon did have siblings, a brother named Brian and sister named Kate. Gordon’s military friends described him as an honourable, fun-loving guy who would ‘give you the shirt off his back’ and with a great sense of humour. According to Terry Randall, who served with Gordon, his friend had a tattoo reading his last surname “Stewart” on his lower lip that he liked to show often, as Terry later recalled:

He always said: ‘I’m Gordie Stewart from P.E.I. ‘Bud the Spud from the Mud,’ and he’d pull down his lip every time. I’ll remember that until the day I die.”

At the time Melissa met Gordon on a blind date through a lonely-hearts column, he was still wearing his wedding ring, having a bit of a hard time moving on. But there was something in Melissa that convinced Gordon he could find happiness again. So despite the fact that Melissa was still married to Russell, she and Gordon began a relationship. It's unclear how the situation between Melissa and Russell was at this point, but by 1990, they were still legally together, forcing Melissa and Gordon to travel to Las Vegas to have an unofficial wedding – the couple later had a second ceremony in Vancouver once her divorce was final. Little is known about how Melissa was involved in her childrens’ lives at this point or if she just basically abandoned her son and daughter with her first, ailing, husband. It seemed like Melissa was more focused on her new relationship than being a mother and carer.

Although one would think Melissa and Gordon were a happy couple based on their hurry to tie the knot, the relationship was actually quite tumultuous. Gordon was known to enjoy drinking to the point that it became a problem. In turn, Melissa may have not been the most faithful wife and her husband suspected she was using his retirement savings without permission. Gordon had saved about $50,000 and was getting a monthly pension of about $800—but strangely, the money began disappearing . Melissa herself claimed that the disagreements led to fights that often included physical violence. Apparently, Gordon once even picked up a gun, pushed the barrel against his wife's head and pulled the trigger—the only reason why Melissa survived was that the gun jammed. Afterwards, Gordon reportedly lost his right to own a firearm for five years.

Another incident occurred on December 23, 1990, when Gordon was found in the couple's apartment acting delusional, foaming at the mouth. Gordon was rushed to the hospital, where lab tests revealed he had a large amount of benzodiazepine in his system. There was no logical explanation for why or how this drug had ended up in Gordon's body, as it was not prescribed to him and he denied taking it himself. Benzodiazepines, like Valium and Xanax, are used to treat conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, and seizures—but an overdose of the drug can cause dangerous deep unconsciousness that can prove fatal, especially when combined with alcohol.

Needless to say, when Gordon was released from the hospital, he was increasingly suspicious of Melissa and what she was after in their relationship. The situation often escalated into arguments and long lists of accusations back and forth. During a fight in early 1991, Gordon slapped his wife, which Melissa reported to the police. Gordon was charged with domestic violence and after pleading guilty, spent time in prison before his release in March. Despite the judge ordering Gordon to stay away from Melissa, she visited him often in prison and was open to starting fresh and attempting to repair their marriage once he got out. Gordon agreed and in April, the couple moved to a new apartment in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The reconciliation, however, didn't last long and when the fights started again, they were worse than ever before and this time it would end in death.

On April 27, 1991, Melissa contacted the authorities saying she had killed her husband in self-defence. According to Melissa, Gordon had been drinking that day and forced her to drive for hours along deserted roads at knifepoint, before sexually assaulting her. When Gordon had then gotten out of the car to urinate, Melissa saw her chance to flee but ended up running over her husband with their Chevrolet Cavalier. Not once, but twice. Melissa claimed it was an accident, saying that she didn't notice the transmission was in reverse which is why she hit Gordon who was standing behind the vehicle. That, however, didn't explain how she ran over Gordon the second time nor did Melissa explain why it took three hours for her to report the incident. A post-mortem examination also found Benzodiazepines Valium and Restoril in Gordon's system once again in addition to large amounts of alcohol. These three substances together made for a toxic cocktail, enough to either incapacitate Gordon or even kill him. Furthermore, a sexual assault forensic exam found no evidence of rape in Melissa's body. But, regardless of the fact that her husband was unlikely able to move at the time, Melissa said Gordon had violated her in one way or another:

"What can I say, to say that he raped me doesn't mean he has to have sexual intercourse with me. That means he could have performed other kinds of sex on me that is considered rape."

Melissa also contradicted herself, claiming she didn't even realise she had hit her husband, instead she thought she had run over a log. Needless to say, the police were suspicious of Melissa's version of the events, especially as two witnesses saw him running over Gordon twice and she hurried to apply for pension benefits from the Department of National Defense and Canada Pension shortly after his death. In the end, Melissa was charged and convicted of the manslaughter of 44-year-old Gordon Stewart on May 26, 1992. This implied that the jury thought his death was an accident. The judge sentenced Melissa to six years in prison and sent her to The Prison For Women located in Kingston, Ontario.

During her imprisonment, Melissa formed a support group for women who were victims of domestic violence and wrote an article about her relationship with Gordon. In the article, Melissa said her second husband came from a family of alcoholics and she knew about his problems, but thought she could save him. But instead, Melissa was constantly beaten and psychologically abused, resulting in many broken bones and mental problems. However, this is just Melissa's version of the story and Gordon's family would later argue he was never abusive and was a victim himself.

No matter what the truth was, Melissa was eventually released after just two years behind bars based on her good behaviour. In Canada, the maximum penalty for manslaughter is imprisonment for life with a mandatory minimum penalty ranging from 4 to 7 years if the person was killed with a firearm—otherwise, there is no minimum. In Canada, the offender ends up spending 4 to 15 years behind bars for manslaughter. So, Melissa getting out so soon was a bit unusual. She only just served one-third of her time, which is the requirement to be eligible for parole.

After her release, Melissa toured Canada, speaking about battered woman syndrome and defending herself as the victim of an abuser. Melissa was also interviewed for the documentary When Women Kill and she ended up suing The Guardian’s Barb McKenna over an article she felt doubted the veracity of her claims. Melissa's role as a battered women's advocate kept her busy for a while. She set up a toll-free counselling line for women having trouble in jail called "Project Another Chance and even received a grant from the government to help other survivors of domestic violence—but in the end, Melissa needed something more in her life.

In April 2000, 66-year-old Melissa travelled to Florida where she met a man named Robert Friedrich at a Christian Retreat. According to Melissa, when she saw Robert standing up on the platform with the pastor, the Holy Spirit spoke to her saying that this man would be her next husband. Robert, who was in his 80s at the time and had lost his wife of 53 years to breast cancer, 14 months before the retreat, later received a letter from Melissa with her picture and the message:

"God wants us to be married."

Robert ended up responding to Melissa's letter in May 2000, asking her to visit him in June. It seems that the two hit it off as after spending just three days together, Robert and Melissa got engaged. He had three children, who later described how their father was extremely happy about the relationship and that he was pleased iwth the fact he was not alone anymore, thinking he now had someone to take care of him for the rest of his life. Apparently, Robert seemed like a teenager again, who had just found his first love. But while Robert's children were happy for him, they couldn't help but think that Melissa had ulterior motives. Their father was not a poor man and as the relationship was moving so fast, Robert's children feared Melissa could be a gold digger. Still, there was nothing that could have changed Robert's mind and on June 23, 2000, he and Melissa married in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Afterwards, Melissa moved in with her third husband in Florida.

The newlyweds spent the following year travelling extensively. But during that extended honeymoon, Robert's children began to notice their father's health deteriorated at an alarming rate. Robert's speech was often slurred, he suffered from fainting spells and he suddenly needed a walker despite the fact he had been walking just fine before. Strangely, whenever Robert's relatives visited him, the symptoms seemed to ease up but then got worse again once he was left alone with Melissa. Eventually, the situation got so bad one of Robert's sons, Bob Friedrich, called the Elder Abuse Line and filed a complaint against Melissa's care of his father. Melissa was not happy finding out about this and left Bob a heated message:

"Hello Bob, this is Melissa Friedrich calling. I have something to share with you this morning. Um, your father and I are going to see a lawyer … and your father is going to change his will. He's going to leave all the money to me except for the portion that he had set aside for you and your two brothers. And that portion now is going to go to the Christian Retreat and you guys are getting nothing—a big fat zero. So try that on precise and have a nice day."

Those were not just empty words. Robert did in fact rewrite his will in 2002 making Melissa the sole beneficiary. Only some months later, Robert passed away on December 16, 2002. His cause of death was determined to be cardiac arrest, although a doctor didn't even examine Robert's body and the death certificate was confirmed over the phone—after all, he was advanced in age and had had a couple of months with ill health.

Melissa wasted no time in getting her third husband cremated so no autopsy or toxicology tests were ever performed. After Robert's death, Melissa continued to receive his social security checks and tens of thousands of dollars in assets. She eventually returned to PEI, although Melissa kept travelling back and forth between Canada and the U.S over the following year. Meanwhile, Robert's sons remained convinced their father's widow had something to do with his death—especially after one of them searched for information about Melissa on the Internet and found out about her manslaughter conviction. If Melissa had killed her second husband, it did not seem too far-fetched to think she had done it again.

In the end, Robert's sons filed a criminal complaint against her, alleging she caused his death by overdosing him with prescription medicine. Melissa was indeed investigated by the Manatee County Sheriff in Florida for six counts of ‘doctor shopping’ during the time she was married to Robert in September 2003. Doctor shopping being when a patient has a script filled by more than one practitioner, to obtain more medicine than they clinically need. According to police reports, Melissa obtained several prescriptions for Benzodiazepine called Lorazepam from different doctors, getting a new one only a short time after each visit, which should not be possible. But although it was quite clear Melissa had been obtaining a large number of drugs through prescription fraud, she was never prosecuted and there was also no evidence proving she had done something to her third husband. Melissa was never charged in connection with Robert Friedrich’s death and his sons only won back $15,000 of their father's assets from her in a civil trial.

In January 2004, another investigation was launched by Human Resource Development Canada relating to the Old Age Security Act. It was eventually found out Melissa had used different names and social security numbers to cheat the system and receive money that didn't belong to her. Meanwhile, Melissa discovered online dating—now, she had a much larger hunting ground at her disposal. By September 2004, Melissa was talking with dozens of men both in Canada and in the US. As soon as Melissa felt things were getting too hot in Canada due to the ongoing investigation, she drove down to Florida to meet one of her online contacts on AmericanSinglesDating.com, a 73-year-old man named Alex Strategos. Alex had been feeling lonely and looking for companionship online for some time and he was absolutely thrilled when Melissa told him she was coming for a visit. As Alex later recalled:

"I thought this would be a good chance for me to find somebody and get together and start a different life."

Melissa and Alex had dinner together on November 5, 2004, in Pinellas Park. Due to the fact that Melissa had not booked a hotel room, Alex invited her to stay at his house. Things apparently went well because, after that one night, Melissa didn't return home but instead moved in with Alex immediately. Oddly, Melissa's new boyfriend seemed to become plagued by bad luck the minute Melissa stepped into his home. During the first night together, Alex started to feel dizzy, fell, hit his head and was taken to the hospital. But due to the fact Alex was diabetic and not exactly physically fit, he didn't think much about the incident. But over the following weeks, paramedics kept visiting the Strategos residence quite regularly. Within two months, Alex was hospitalised eight times due to feeling feeble and constantly falling over.

On December 28, 2004, Alex was again in a hospital bed when Melissa came to visit him with two of their neighbours. After some quick gestures of affection, Melissa told Alex he needed to sign some papers. While the neighbours witnessed, Alex signed overpower of attorney to his girlfriend of eight weeks while sick in the hospital. That very same day, Melissa decided it would be better if Alex was moved to a nursing home—after all, his health issues were not looking good and made it difficult for him to live at home. Needless to say, Alex's relatives found the situation odd and felt bewildered by the fact that a lady who they didn't even know was making such a big decision for their loved one. Something strange was definitely going on.

Then, in January 2005, Alex's son Dean visited his father and went through his medical records. Dean noticed Alex's blood tests had shown benzodiazepines in his system, although such a drug had never been prescribed to him. Alarmed by the discovery, Dean decided to investigate further and checked his father's bank accounts—around $18,000 was missing. At this point, Dean realised it was time to contact the police.

Melissa was arrested on January 6, 2005, and charged with exploitation of the elderly, theft and forgery—again, there was no proof she had actually poisoned Alex. The police concluded Melissa had made Alex give her power of attorney while he was in a compromised state, he didn’t understand the implication of what he was doing. Afterwards, Melissa transferred her boyfriend's life savings to her own bank account. Melissa was further charged with defrauding the government of Canada of $30,348.54 over four years after RCMP finished their investigation in February 2005. These offences took place between July 1999 and October 2003.

On March 14, 2005, Melissa ended up pleading guilty to seven charges related to what happened with Alex Strategos, including three counts of grand theft from a person 65 years or older, two counts of forgery and two counts of using a forged document. Due to her plea agreement, Melissa was sentenced to five years in prison. Despite pleading guilty, Melissa later claimed the prosecution had figures wrong, saying Alex never had $18,000 for her to clean out. It didn't seem to matter that there was proof of her making several transfers and money orders worth thousands of dollars. During an interview, the Fifth Estate's Linden MacIntyre enumerated three transfers worth around $13,000, but the only thing that Melissa cared about was the fact that it still wasn't $18,000. During the same interview, Melissa said she can't say she didn't personally give Alex benzodiazepines. Alex himself, had a theory about how it all happened, as he explained:

"When I'd go to bed, she'd bring me a little dish of ice cream. Not more, a little custard cup, maybe a couple of teaspoons or something like that. And she'd bring it into the bedroom and she'd feed it to me. I guess that's where the drugs were. Then I'd get up to the bathroom and fall flat in my face."

Melissa was released from prison in Florida on April 4, 2009, and deported back to Canada where she made a home in a retirement community in Nova Scotia. One could think Melissa had learned her lesson during her years in prison and even promised to stay out of trouble—but in the end, it didn't take long for her to be back to her old ways.

By 2012, 77-year-old Melissa began to feel lonely and one day decided to knock on the door of her neighbour, 75-year-old Fred Weeks. Fred fit the pattern of Melissa's previous partners—he had recently lost his wife of several decades and was in need of human connection. The two immediately got together, developing a relationship that moved faster than many feel comfortable with. On September 25, Melissa and Fred were already wed by Fred's friend and a justice of the peace, George Megeney. That day, George had been glad to be part of Melissa and Fred's big day, the couple seemed truly happy. But it wasn't long after the ceremony that George began to worry about the safety of his life-long friend.

A lady contacted George asking if he knew who Melissa was and if he had seen the documentary called The Black Widow about her and her troubled past. Needless to say, after some digging, George felt a need to warn Fred about the fact his new wife had killed one of her former husbands and had committed many other crimes. But unfortunately, George couldn't reach his friend who was heading out for a honeymoon in Cape Breton. Finally, George contacted the authorities to ask them to warn Fred that he might be in danger—but the police refused to get involved.

Melissa and Fred arrived at Chamber's Guesthouse in North Sydney on September 28 after a seemingly rough ferry trip. Pushing her husband in a wheelchair, Melissa explained to the innkeeper, Cheryl Chamber, that Fred had fallen ill during their trip across the waters. Cheryl later recalled:

Mr. Weeks didn’t look well at all. He looked a little green, very gaunt-looking. Mrs. Weeks, on the other hand, she was beautifully groomed, in a lovely red suit.

So Cheryl didn't find it that odd when the couple remained in their room for the rest of the day, but she heard some strange noises from the room at night. The reason for the thud was revealed the following morning when Melissa asked the guesthouse owner to call an ambulance for Fred, who had fallen out of bed and hurt himself. However, Melissa made sure the call was made only after she had finished eating her breakfast because she knew she was about to have a long day at the hospital.

Paramedics found disoriented Fred Weeks on the floor of the couple's room. He was taken to the hospital, where his worried wife stayed beside him, telling every nurse how her husband suffered from dementia and how she was all he had as Fred was childless. But the thing is, Fred Weeks actually had a son and a daughter, who knew their father had not had any other medical issues than high cholesterol before he met Melissa. Apparently, Melissa had told similar false claims about Fred to their neighbours in the seniors' apartment building in Nova Scotia. As the suspicions rose, Fred's blood was tested—the results revealed a heavy dose of tranquilisers in his system.

Following the discovery, Melissa was arrested and the police searched the home she shared with her husband. The investigators recovered 144 tablets of Lorazepam, numerous empty, unlabeled bottles, prescriptions from five different doctors and several sets of identity documents with different names. Melissa was eventually charged with attempted murder and administering a noxious substance. Meanwhile, Fred, fortunately, recovered from the ordeal, barely remembering what had happened between the wedding and the time he woke up from the hospital. Luckily for Fred, his and Melissa's was later ruled invalid by the province's Vital Statistics division due to the fact some false information had been provided on the marriage certificate. In other words, Fred and Melissa technically never were husband and wife and he didn't have to go through a divorce process.

Again, Melissa didn't try completely deny what she had done and pleaded guilty to administering a noxious thing and failing to provide the necessity of life, avoiding the attempted murder charge. Melissa was once again sentenced to prison, this time for three and a half years followed by Chief Justice Joseph Phillip Kennedy's comment:

"People who have contact with this lady should be careful."

When 82-year-old Melissa was eventually released on March 18, 2016, authorities made preparations to keep the community safe. Melissa was given a list of more than 20 conditions she must follow, including an 11 PM curfew, a ban on internet access, no contact with victims and their families, and no prescriptions for certain medications. Melissa was also required to notify the police if she changed her appearance or if she entered an intimate relationship so that authorities could inform the partners of her past. Crown prosecutor James Giacomantonio commented on the conditions saying:

It’s just important for us to keep an eye on high-risk offenders like Ms Shepard. We believe she poses a risk going forward to the particular group of elderly males that she has preyed on in the past.”

Fred Weeks, who had managed to survive the short marriage with Melissa, was also concerned about public safety, saying:

She’s too smooth of an actor. She kept me in the dark for a long time, telling me her stories. Everything was a story. Everything was a lie that she told me … I wouldn’t want her to come around myself or any friends.”

It seemed that for the most part, Melissa followed the rules and wasn't bothering anyone after her release. But just a month later, on April 11, 2016, she was spotted at the Halifax Central Library accessing the internet by a community response officer. Furthermore, Melissa had a device in her possession that allowed her to browse the Internet, meaning she was breaching not just one but two of her release conditions. In the end, Melissa was charged with three counts of breaching a recognizance to which she pleaded not guilty on August 4, 2016. But although a trial date was already set, the charges ultimately were dropped on December 22, 2016.

So, how much of a threat is Melissa to society? Back in 2005, when CBC asked her if she could be able to change her behaviour, Melissa replied:

I can’t say that from now on I’ll be a perfect citizen, 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.”

Melissa Ann Shepard, known as Internet Black Widow has maintained a low profile. Not much is known about her life nowadays but perhaps we can hope that this octogenarian has finally changed her ways.

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