Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Call Her The Black Widow

INDEPTH: CRIME
Melissa Friedrich: Internet Black Widow


Friedrich
They call her the Black Widow. For Melissa Friedrich, it's another name on a long list that includes killer.

Melissa made headlines in Canada in 1991 when she was arrested and charged with murdering husband Gordon Stewart in Nova Scotia.

Known as Melissa Stewart at the time, she fed her husband a lethal dose of liquor, pills and rubbing alcohol. Then she ran him over with her car on a deserted road near the Halifax International Airport.

She was convicted the next year of the lesser charge of manslaughter, claiming her husband was an abusive alcoholic. The case propelled her into the spotlight as a spokesperson for victims of domestic violence.

In an interview in a 1994 documentary about abused women, Melissa said: "I put the car in gear and I didn't realize, but I put it in reverse instead of forward and I backed the car over him."

Friedrich
Friedrich in 1994
But Kate Reeves, Gordon Stewart's sister, never believed Melissa's claim. "Obviously she's capable of anything, in my opinion," Reeves said.

Now Melissa Friedrich has ended up back in a jail cell, this time in Florida. She was arrested on Jan. 6, 2005, and charged with exploiting an elderly Florida man she met through an online dating service and bilking him of nearly $20,000 US.

"Just choose your friends carefully," Alex Strategos, 73, told reporters in January after leaving a hospital.

Friedrich still had the licence plates from her home province of Prince Edward Island on her car when she moved in with Strategos in Pinellas Park, 32 kilometres southwest of Tampa, Fla., last fall.

Neighbours say she introduced herself as one of Strategos' relatives from Canada. She told another neighbour that she was his wife.

Soon Strategos started getting sick. He was taken to hospital, where neighbours say they saw Melissa make him sign legal documents.

"He signed it with a frown on his face. He just looked so miserable that day and I had never seen him look like that," said neighbour Dottie Gibbons.

Police investigated allegations she poisoned Strategos but they now say they will not be filing a charge of attempted murder because Strategos' medical records don't show he was poisoned. They did pursue charges of the relatively new crime of targeting seniors for theft.

Friedrich
Robert and Melissa Friedrich
The case caught the attention of Dennis Friedrich, the son of Melissa's last husband, Robert Friedrich, who suspected she had a hand in the 83-year-old's death in 2002.

Robert Friedrich died at home about 14 months after meeting Melissa. They had hooked up through a website and were married at a wedding chapel in Dartmouth, N.S., three days after meeting in person.

To Dennis Friedrich, Melissa is a "black widow," even though she was never charged in his father's death. By the time Robert Friedrich died, she had become the sole beneficiary of his estate.

Friedrich's sons took Melissa to court and eventually won back all but $15,000 of the $100,000 she got after his death.

Investigators in Florida discovered a wide web of stories as they looked for answers. Melissa had 13 aliases, several different birth dates, and at least two social insurance numbers.

On March 14, 2005, she was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to seven charges, including grand theft from a senior and forgery. In total she stole $18,000 US from Strategos.

But if she ever returns to Canada she may face even more charges. In Nova Scotia, RCMP are investigating allegations she defrauded the federal government between 1997 and 2003 by using two names, Melissa Shepard and Melissa Stewart, to get an extra $30,000 in old-age security payments.

Timeline

Friedrich
--END IMAGE TABLE--> May 16, 1938:
Melissa Russell is born in Burnt Church, N.B.

1955:
At the age of 17, she meets Russell Shephard from Montague, P.E.I. They marry and have two children. Shephard and a daughter still live in Montague, while a son lives in Pictou County, N.S.

1977:
Melissa has her first major scrape with the law, according to her criminal record. She's sentenced to 11 months in a P.E.I. jail for forgery. Between 1977 and 1991 she spends more than five years behind bars for more than 30 separate fraud convictions.

April 1990:
Melissa marries Gordon Russell Stewart, a widower retired from the armed forces, in Las Vegas, then later in Vancouver once her divorce is final. Stewart, who has saved about $50,000 and is getting a monthly pension of about $800, soon notices his money disappearing. At the same time, Melissa starts accusing him of violence. Various stay-away orders are put in place, but both parties break them.

April 27, 1991:
Soon after the couple move to Dartmouth, N.S., Gordon Stewart is dead. Melissa drugs him and runs him over with her car at Goffs, near Halifax International Airport. She's arrested and charged with first-degree murder, but the charge is later reduced to second-degree murder. She tells police her husband raped her and she accidentally ran over him while trying to escape.

May 1992:
Melissa is convicted of manslaughter, a lesser charge, and is sentenced to six years in jail. The Crown's evidence included two eyewitnesses who reported seeing Melissa drive over her husband and back up over him. She didn't report it to police until three hours after, and by then she had changed her clothes. Melissa did not take the stand during her trial.

1994:
Melissa is featured in the National Film Board documentary Why Women Kill, about battered woman syndrome. She receives a grant from the Ontario government to set up a hotline for abused women. Later, Melissa is paroled after serving two years of her sentence at Kingston Penitentiary.

October 2001:
Melissa meets Robert Edmund Friedrich from Bradenton, Fla., through an online dating site. She travels from Nova Scotia to see him, and they're engaged within three days. They marry at the Wedding Chapel in Dartmouth, N.S., later marrying again in Florida.

Dec. 16, 2002:
Friedrich, 84, dies and his body is cremated. All of his assets had been signed over to Melissa. Friedrich's sons get suspicious and file a complaint with the sheriff's department alleging she killed their father by overdosing him with prescription medications. The sons go to court and win back all but $15,000 of the $100,000 Melissa got in insurance money. She is not charged with any crime.

October 2004:
After moving back to P.E.I., Melissa meets Alexander Strategos, 73, through an online dating service. She shows up unannounced at his home in Pinellas Park, Fla., and moves in. Strategos begins to get sick, and within three months he's placed in a nursing home. Strategos' son goes to police after reviewing a toxicology report and learning that money was withdrawn from a bank account.

Jan. 6, 2005:
Pinellas Park police arrest Melissa and charge her with exploitation of the elderly. She's granted bail of $7,500, but the Department of Homeland Security places a hold on her because she lied about her manslaughter conviction when trying to enter the U.S. in 2004.

Police later add several other charges, including grand theft and forging cheques. But after an investigation into allegations Melissa poisoned Strategos, police say they will not be filing a charge of attempted murder because Strategos' medical records don't show he was poisoned.

CBC News Online | March 14, 2005

Feb. 1, 2005:
RCMP in Nova Scotia issue a warrant for Melissa's arrest. She's charged with defrauding the government of Canada of $30,348.54 over a four-year period. She's accused of using two different social insurance numbers and two names (Melissa Shephard and Melissa Stewart) to get extra old-age security payments between July 1997 and October 2003.

March 14, 2005:
Melissa Friedrich pleads guilty to seven charges related to the Strategos case, 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. As part of a plea agreement, she's sentenced to five years in jail.

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