Friday, 20 October 2017 20:26
On the morning of May 26, 1990, Marlene Warren opened her door to a very unusual guest.
It would be the last time the dealer’s wife would open her door to anybody.
A woman stood there, dressed as a clown in full make-up, holding flowers in one hand and a gun in the other.
The clown shot Marlene Warren in the face. She died two days later.
The murder would be unusual anywhere, but especially in Wellington, Fla., a Palm Beach suburb so high end that the Warrens’ neighborhood was built around an airstrip for the locals’ private planes.
As is usually the case, police started looking at the victim’s husband, Michael Warren. There were rumors he was having an affair with Sheila Keen, the woman who handled repossessions for his store, Bargain Motors.
Authorities were unable to link the pair conclusively to the murder, even after featuring the case on television’s “Unsolved Mysteries.” But many of those involved never gave up seeking justice for Marlene Warren.
In 2014, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit reopened the homicide investigation. Witnesses were re-contacted and additional DNA analysis was conducted.
Authorities finally felt they had enough evidence to take to a grand jury. The jury indicted Keen and a warrant was issued for her arrest.
She was taken into custody on Sept. 26 in Washington County, Va., where she was living with her husband – Michael Warren.
The pair married in 2002 and had been running a local restaurant since a few years after he was released from prison after serving two years of an eight-year sentence following his wife’s murder.
He had been convicted of odometer tampering and insurance fraud, but not murder.
Those charges arose from some very atypical business practices investigators found at Michael Warren’s store and rental car operation.
For example, at almost all buy-here, pay-here dealerships, the more payments customers make on their installment contracts, the lower the amount outstanding becomes.
At Bargain Motors, the amount customers owed actually increased with each payment.
Then there was the matter of a car from Michael Warren’s rental operation – a white Chrysler LeBaron that was reported stolen the day of the murder. The same car was reported leaving the Warren’s home after the shooting.
It turned up in a nearby parking lot. The last driver left behind a clown wig.
The Florida attorney general’s office eventually moved to seize Michael Warren’s businesses. Unfortunately, the decision took so long that he managed to get rid of his inventory.
But the state still had the more than 200 finance contracts to collect on.
Terry O’Loughlin was working in the attorney general’s organized crime division, handling lots of high-end foreclosures from the heyday of the Florida drug scene.
His bosses tapped him to oversee the finance end of the case and that’s how he found himself in the car business.
O’Loughlin knew nothing about running a buy-here, pay-here operation, but he quickly learned to respect those who did.
The first lesson that he learned was customers often don’t want to pay. O’Loughlin had one advantage over the average dealer – the Florida Highway Patrol served as his repo agents.
O’Loughlin would watch the junkyards for the cars. And he would search the classifieds for cars being sold without titles.
Other customers wanted to make payments and improve their credit. O’Loughlin was happy to help them out.
Then there were some unusual encounters, such as the woman who had a special non-monetary payment relationship with Warren.
O’Loughlin had to tell her it was now a cash-only business.
The state wound down the operation after two years. O’Loughlin came away from the experience with a new interest in the car business.
“It was an awful lot of fun,” he said.
He became the lead automotive specialist for the attorney general’s office. After several years, O’Loughlin decided he preferred the other side of the table and now serves as director of compliance at Reynolds and Reynolds, appearing as a regular speaker at numerous dealer events.
The state of Florida is seeking the death penalty for Keen.
O’Loughlin said he was glad when he heard about Keen’s arrest. He hopes Michael Warren follows her to prison.
“He’s a devious fellow,” O’Loughlin said. “From beginning to end, a real slime ball.”