We may never know exactly how many times Melissa Ann Shephard (inset) has killed. In a criminal career that spans five decades, Shephard has sown confusion, obfuscated with layers of lies and masqueraded as a victim. The criminal justice system, unable to affix the damning labels she may deserve – serial killer, psychopath – continues to turn her loose to kill again and struggles to contain her. She has learned from her criminal mistakes and profited from her predation. Infamous as the ‘Internet Black Widow,’ Shephard was released Friday (March 18, 2016) from a women’s prison in Nova Scotia – amid a police warning – after her latest stint behind bars, a three-and-a-half year sentence. It was imposed in 2013 after she admitting spiking drinks of her newlywed fifth husband, 74-year-old Fred Weeks, with potent tranquilizers. An attempted murder charge was dropped when Shephard pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Two of Shephard’s four husbands who preceded Weeks ended up dead and another mysteriously fell ill immediately after meeting Shephard. Recent prison assessments (read what experts say, in internal documents after the jump) warn that Shephard scores high for some psychopathic traits, she is resistant to treatment and indifferent to the suffering of her victims. The only thing that has contained her lethal greed in the past 40+ years has been time behind bars and yet, the system has refused to apply the brand that could keep her locked up.
Authorities in Halifax, where Shephard will live after her release from prison, are so concerned about her presence that a public warning was issued (read full release below) on Friday, March 18 by Halifax police, including a recent photo of Shephard. Police caution that Shephard “has a “history of violent criminal convictions dating back to 1992” and she “has been assessed as being a high risk to re-offend.”
Police clearly fear Shephard will strike again. Remarkable conditions have been imposed, including an order that requires her to tell police about any possible romantic relationship, cohabitation or marriage, so that officers can explain her criminal background to her potential partners. It’s a luxury that four men victimized by Shephard did not have. She’s also barred from using the Internet, the hunting ground where she found most of her targets.
The conditions are impossibly difficult to enforce, particularly in the case of a criminal who has been set free at the expiry of her sentence. Shephard served every day of her latest term. The opportunity to delcare her a dangerous offender (DO), a designation that could have permited authorities to keep her locked up forever, passed. A DO application is typically brought forward by the prosecution immediately after conviction but before sentencing. An application can be made up to six months after sentencing, if new information comes to light. In 2008, criminal law was tightened to provide that a habitual criminal who had committed three serious offences was, presumptively, a dangerous offender. Shephard has been convicted three times of serious, violent crimes, including manslaughter, that earned her penitentiary terms, yet no effort was made to designate her a dangerous offender. This is why police are left with the difficult task of enforcing conditions that Shephard can easily circumvent.
There’s no reason to believe that Shephard, despite her age, will abide the rules or give up her predatory behaviour. In prison, she was caught hoarding medicine and fabricating stories. Expert assessments revealed that she did not respond to treatment.
“You continue to display a substantial degree of indifference … to your elderly vulnerable victims,” states a December 2014 parole document.
A psychological risk assessment completed in 2014, and which employed a widely accepted test for psychopathy, the Hare PCL-R, found that Shephard’s “score on Factor 1 items was notably high for traits related to psychopathy.”
“The psychologist noted that your criminal history is disturbing in that it is not clearly and explicitly recorded as a pattern of violence,” the record of the 2014 parole board decision states. “However, he described your behaviour as highly suspect and that your intent, if not murderous, was endangerment of life, showing wanton and reckless disregard for the lives or the safety of the men with whom you were romantically involved. He went on to caution as to the potential for volatility with respect to the management of your case.” (emphasis added) After the hearing in December 2014, the board ordered Shephard kept behind bars until she had served every day of her sentence, because she was “a significant threat to your target group of elderly vulnerable men” and too dangerous for early release on parole.
While Shephard has been convicted only once of manslaughter, in the death of her second husband, family members of Shephard’s third husband, Robert Friedrich, who died under suspicious circumstances and was quickly cremated, believe she poisoned him. Alex Strategos, her fourth husband, believes that Shephard spiked his food with prescription drugs in a bid to kill him and steal his life savings. The 73-year-old was hospitalized soon after meeting Shephard. They met through an online dating site. Police in Florida believed Shephard poisoned Strategos to get his assets.
“I truly do think she was either trying to incapacitate him enough to perform the crimes that she was doing, or actually end up ultimately killing him, which is what I think what would have happened to him,” Pinellas Park detective Sgt. Mark Lynch has said.
Police couldn’t gather enough evidence for an attempted murder charge but succeeded in convicting Shephard of seven crimes related to exploitation and defrauding a senior. She was sentenced to five years in an American prison. Her latest victim, Nova Scotian Fred Weeks, also has said that he believed she was trying to kill him.
“She was trying to kill me … there’s no doubt in my mind,” Weeks said, in an interview with CBC in 2013.
Shephard was released from her U.S. sentence in 2009. Within three years, she had stalked and poisoned Fred Weeks. The potent prescription drug benzodiazepine was found in his body. The same drug was found in Alex Strategos. The problem for police investigators has been connecting Shephard to the drugs found in the bodies of her victims. Tests done on Alex Strategos when he was hospitalized did not establish how much drug was in his system and police could not prove that he didn’t take it himself. Shephard seems to have learned that poisoning homicides are notoriously difficult for investigators. Symptoms often mimic natural disease and because murder-by-poison is rare, it is easily overlooked.
Poisoning hasn’t always been Shephard’s principal criminal enterprise.
She was born in a small fishing community in New Brunswick and began her criminal career as a petty thief and cheque forger. Between 1970 and 1985, she was in and out of jail in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, accumulating roughly five years behind bars for more than 30 convictions for fraud and related crimes.
She earned her first penitentiary term after the death of her second husband, Gordon Stewart, in Nova Scotia in 1991. Shephard went to trial on a charge of second-degree murder. She claimed Stewart was an abusive alcoholic who abducted and raped her before she killed him in self defence. Evidence showed that Shephard drugged Stewart, then ran him over with a car twice on an isolated road near the Halifax airport. Forensic tests found no evidence she had been assaulted. A toxicologist testified at the trial that Stewart was so full of prescription drugs and several kinds of alcohol that he likely would have been unconscious at the time he was run over. Two shopping bags filled with prescription drugs were found in Shephard’s apartment. Convicted of manslaughter, Shephard was sentenced to six years in prison. She had killed Stewart after draining his bank account and stealing his pension payments.
Her third husband, lonely widower Robert Friedrich, was dead two years after meeting Shephard. The couple were engaged three days after meeting at Friedrich’s home in Bradenton, Florida, in May 2000. Five months after they wed, Friedrich called his adult children to tell them he was changing his will to leave all of his estate to Shephard. Friedrich became strangely ill soon after he married Shephard. He began falling, necessitating hospital visits and nursing home stays. Friends couldn’t understand his sudden decline. He was hospitalized seven or eight times in his two years with Shephard. Records obtained later by family revealed that toxicology tests were not performed when Friedrich was hospitalized, according to a sweeping investigation of Shephard by my former colleague at The Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper, Tamsin McMahon. McMahon spent roughly a month criss-crossing North America, interviewing 30 people who knew Shephard. Her investigation included a revealing jailhouse interview with Shephard in Florida. In April 2005, the Whig published a novella-length, five-part series based on McMahon’s work that exposed Shephard’s many lies and the depth of her murderous greed.
On December 15, 2002, Robert Friedrich, 84, was rushed to hospital. McMahon’s investigation revealed that:
Melissa had called an ambulance, saying Robert was suffering from severe stomach pains, had been going in and out of consciousness and had been up vomiting since 2 a.m. In their notes, paramedics wrote that Robert’s story “completely conflicts with what [the] patient’s wife is saying. Patient denies abdominal pain. Admits one nausea episode and states he slept soundly all night,” the notes read.
Under [the heading] ‘chief complaint,’ a nurse at Manatee Memorial Hospital wrote that Robert had said: “I don’t know why I’m here.” His vital signs were normal, except for a racing heart. He was treated and released that day.
On Dec. 16, a day after he returned home from the hospital, Robert Friedrich died.
The death of an 84-year-old man at home in his bed hardly raised eyebrows in the retirement community. The doctor who signed the death certificate over the phone listed the cause of death as cardiac arrest.
It appears no one examined Robert’s body before he was cremated.
Melissa was out shopping when her husband died.
“They gave me a prescription I had to fill for him,” Shephard [told reporter McMahon]. “I went out to the drug store to get the medication and while I was away, this happened. When I got back home he was already dead in bed.”
Melissa said she shook Robert and tried to perform CPR before calling 911.
“He died of natural causes,” she said. “He had heart failure and he had had a stroke and cardiac arrest all at the same time. The doctor said that the cause of death was a massive heart attack. He died in bed at home and he was glad to be at home.”
Friedrich’s family members are convinced that Shephard poisoned Robert with prescription drugs. They found credit card receipts showing that Shephard was obtaining prescription drugs from different doctors. American police drew up six charges against Shephard for doctor shopping for illegally obtaining prescriptions from six different doctors for pain killers and benzodiazepines, a class of tranquilizers that work by slowing the central nervous system. The charges weren’t filed because prosecutors said they could not prove that Shephard withheld information from the doctors she visited.
In 2005, Manatee, Fla., police opened an investigation into Friedrich’s death, but it did not lead to charges. McMahon reported, in her expose:
Police spokesman Dave Bristow said that with no body and no autopsy it’s unlikely that charges will ever be filed. “This is an 84-year-old man who died and had a heart condition and his body was cremated very quickly and a doctor signed a death certificate,” Bristow said, in an interview. “We’re doing all we can do with very limited evidence and information. We don’t even know if there was any wrongdoing.”
Robert Friedrich’s son Dennis told McMahon: “I know my father was drugged to death. I can’t prove it, but I know it.”
The written records of the two most recent decisions in Shephard’s case by the Parole Board of Canada: The November 2015 decision confirming the order to keep her locked up until the expiry of her sentence and, the December 2014 original detention decision:
The “High Risk Offender Notification” issued by Halifax Police on March 18, 2016:
High Risk Offender Notification
Police Media Releases – Friday, Mar 18, 2016 at 1:18pm
In accordance with the Nova Scotia Release of High Risk Offender Information Protocol, Halifax Regional Police is advising all citizens, particularly those in the Halifax Regional Municipality, that a high risk offender is residing in our community.
Melissa Ann Shephard, 80, was released from the Nova Institution for Women today, after completing a sentence for serious assaults against her intimate partners, including administering noxious things and not providing the necessities of life for which she was sentenced in June 2013. Shephard has a history of violent criminal convictions dating back to 1992 that includes a conviction for manslaughter. Shephard has been assessed as being a high risk to re-offend. Her victims have included her intimate partners consisting of elderly men.
Shephard will be on a recognizance and will be required to follow a multitude of strict conditions, some of which include:
- should she alter her appearance, she shall upon a demand by a police/peace officer, submit to having her current photograph taken
- she shall not access the internet or be in the possession of, any device that is capable of accessing the internet
- she shall make no attempt to communicate, directly or indirectly with any of her past victims or family members of the victims in the case in which she was convicted
- she is not to enter into any romantic relationship, cohabitation, common-law relationship, or marriage until that person has been identified by a member of the police agency where she resides and there has been a reasonable opportunity provided to the said police agency to inform them of her history in these and other legal proceedings.
Shephard is an 80-year-old white woman, 5’5”, 181 lbs, with white hair and hazel eyes.
This information is provided to alert members of the public of her presence in our community. Any form of vigilante activity or other unreasonable conduct will not be tolerated.