FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — On May 26, 1990, a killer dressed as a clown stood at Marlene Warren’s doorstep in Wellington and shot the 40-year-old woman in the face. Flowers and two balloons — a heart-shaped one that said “You’re the Greatest” and one with a picture of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves — were left behind.
A decades-long saga to bring the killer to justice ensued, and 32 years later, the accused killer, Sheila Keen Warren, is still awaiting trial. The case went cold until she was arrested in 2017 in Virginia, where she had made a new life under a new name with her husband and Warren’s former husband, Michael Warren.
People told police during their investigation that Keen Warren had been seen in clown garb before. But right after Warren’s murder, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office got dozens of tips from people who said they’d seen a clown, and all were placed in a “clown sighting file,” court records say.
There are 40 different leads in the 25-page clown sighting file that have yet to be investigated, Keen Warren’s defense attorneys wrote in an Oct. 13 motion, prompting the latest delay in her trial, which was scheduled to begin Friday. It has now been delayed seven times.
Defense attorneys wrote in the motion that they had been seeking the clown sighting file since June 2019, but prosecutors said they did not find it until last week.
It will take defense attorneys “considerable time and resources,” they wrote, to look into the clown sighting leads, leads that may help Keen Warren’s case. One of the tips “points to a suspect who PBSO previously investigated,” the motion says.
Defense attorneys are asking Judge Scott Suskauer to impose sanctions against prosecutors for allegedly failing to disclose evidence several times and that Keen Warren be allowed pretrial release, which she had previously been denied. Suskauer will preside over a pre-trial motion hearing at 10 a.m. Friday.
Assistant State Attorney Reid Scott in a filing Thursday admitted that the clown sighting file hadn’t been turned over to the defense but wrote it was through no purposeful fault of their own. The file had been found at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office “misplaced” inside of a box with documents relating to Michael Warren’s past criminal case on odometer fraud, Scott wrote.
Scott wrote in his response that after reviewing, the clown sighting file “clearly does not contain 40 ‘credible’ leads” as the defense attorneys said. Eleven people who submitted a tip are now dead, 18 are anonymous or did not leave contact information, and of the tips left, only a few “provide information that could be considered a ‘lead,’” Scott wrote.
The file “would appear at first glance to be of major consequence, once it was carefully evaluated, it is clearly a minor issue with very little information of value,” he wrote. “Given the totality of the circumstances, its oversight is not willful and its impact is trivial.”
‘I saw him’
Whether the clown who killed Warren was even a woman is one of several discrepancies in the case that defense attorneys have pointed to throughout the pre-trial proceedings.
Four people at the home in Wellington saw the clown that day before it calmly walked away, and three of them said the clown was a man over 6-feet tall, defense attorneys wrote in a filing last year. Keen Warren’s driver’s license issued in 1990 says she stands at 5-feet-6-inches tall, they wrote.
Warren’s son Joseph Ahrens, who was 21 at the time, watched the clown in the colorful costume and wig with a white face and red nose kill his mother. The 2021 court filing cites a radio interview from 1991 where Ahrens said he thought the killer was a man because of the big hands and body size he saw.
Jean Pratt, another witness to the murder, told detectives that “he was real tall” and looked “a little bit built,” the court record says.
“I saw his beady eyes,” she told detectives in her interview. “I saw him.”
A year after the murder, Pratt still said she believed the person underneath the clown costume was a man, the court filing says.
Descriptions of the clown’s costume, wig, shoes, eye color, weight and whether the clown’s face was painted or if the person was wearing a mask vary among the witnesses, the defense wrote in 2021, and all add up to circumstantial evidence with “substantial inconsistencies.”
“Even if the witnesses were unable to identify the clown’s gender, one fact remains: applying makeup does not cause a person to grow six to eight inches,” the defense attorneys wrote. “Both on the day of the shooting and one year later, all four witnesses expressed no doubt about the clown’s height. The State wants the Court to turn a blind eye to four eyewitnesses giving the same description of the clown’s height — a description that does not match Sheila Keen Warren.”
Evidence is ‘overwhelming’
Prosecutors have said in court filings that the amount of evidence that points to Keen Warren as the person underneath the costume is “overwhelming.”
Keen Warren was identified in a photo lineup by two employees of a costume store as the woman who hurriedly bought a clown costume, orange wig and white makeup two days before the murder, prosecutors wrote in a court filing in 2021. A Publix employee recalled a woman matching Keen Warren’s description who purchased the exact balloons found at the crime scene.
It was known by several who knew Michael Warren that he and Keen Warren were romantically involved, prosecutors wrote. Michael Warren ran a used car lot, A Bargain Motors, and Keen Warren worked for him repossessing cars.
She was considered a suspect early on in the case, but her arrest 27 years later was a result of new advancement in DNA technology. Evidence found inside of a white Chrysler LeBaron led to Keen Warren.
Four days after the murder, detectives found an abandoned white Chrysler LeBaron in the parking lot of a grocery store. The LeBaron had been stolen 45 days before the murder by Michael Warren and Keen Warren, the filing written by prosecutors in 2021 said, and it was “identical” to the LeBaron witnesses said they saw the clown drive away in.
Inside the car, investigators found fake orange-yellow acrylic hairs and long brown human hairs. The root of one of the human hair inside the LeBaron matched Keen Warren’s DNA, the prosecutors’ filing said.
And the acrylic hairs found in the car, orange-yellow acrylic hairs found on shoes inside Keen Warren’s home and on a ribbon from the balloons all matched a clown wig that detectives bought from the Spotlight Capezio — the costume store where the two employees identified Keen Warren as the woman who bought the clown costume, prosecutors wrote in the 2021 court filing.
One of the employees told detectives the woman was skinny and had long brown hair and “manlike features,” the document says. The second employee said the woman was as tall as 5-feet-9-inches with “chocolate” colored hair and that she was “mannish” in her walk, clothes, figure and frame.
Investigators also talked to Regina Albaro, a Publix employee who was working the day of the shooting at the store less than a mile from Keen Warren’s home, the document says. The employee remembered that on May 26 about 10 a.m., a few hours before Warren was killed, a woman who she initially thought was a boy or man came in and purchased a wicker basket of red and white flowers and two helium balloons. She recalled the pictures on the balloons: “You’re the Greatest” and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
“These are the exact balloons that were left at the crime scene,” Assistant State Attorney Scott wrote. “Albaro gave her statement prior to viewing photos of the crime scene. There would have been no way for her to have known the specifics of the balloons left at the crime scene.”