‘God be with her’: Decades-old, notorious ‘killer clown’ case comes to an end with unexpected guilty plea

Sheila Keen Warren, the woman accused of dressing as a clown and shooting Marlene Warren in the face on the doorstep of her Wellington home 33 years ago, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of second-degree murder, suddenly and unexpectedly ending one of the most highly anticipated cases in Palm Beach County just two weeks before her trial was set to begin.

But she still says she didn’t do it.

“This is an incredibly difficult decision to make, just having to plea to a crime you didn’t commit,” said defense lawyer Greg Rosenfeld. “The gamble’s just not worth it ... When you’re looking at going home in 10 months versus the risk of what could happen at trial, you never know. It’s a huge win for our client.”

Rosenfeld maintains Keen Warren’s innocence but said the offer was one no defense attorney would turn down. Negotiations started last week, he said.

State Attorney Dave Aronberg ignored the out-of-court statements in a news release Tuesday.

“After years of professing her innocence, Sheila Keen Warren has finally been forced to admit that she was the one who dressed as a clown and took the life of an innocent victim,” he said. “She will be a convicted murderer for the rest of her days.”

Keen Warren, 59, faced life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years if convicted of first-degree murder. Instead, Palm Beach Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer sentenced her to 12 years, with credit for more than five years of time served since her arrest in September 2017.

She could spend as little as 16 months in prison, according to her defense attorney, with the prosecution saying at least two years. Initially, Keen Warren was facing execution.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Tuesday evening it supports the deal.

“The defendant pled guilty and admitted her role in this heinous crime that was committed more than three decades ago,” the statement said. “She will now serve out the remainder of her agreed upon sentence in a Florida State Prison. We hope that this plea agreement brings closure to the family of the victim, Marlene Warren, who also supported and agreed with this decision.”

The defendant’s name was Keen before she married Michael Warren, the man who was the victim’s husband at the time of the murder in May 1990. Keen Warren and Michael Warren married in Las Vegas in 2002, years after they were rumored to have been having an affair while Keen Warren worked as a repo woman for Michael Warren’s used-car shop, Bargain Motors. They both initially denied any romantic relationship.

Michael Warren was an early suspect in his wife’s murder, but he was never formally accused. Instead, the seedy operations at his car business were uncovered, and he was convicted of racketeering, odometer fraud and grand theft charges. He received a nine-year prison sentence.

Marlene Warren was well aware of the rumored unfaithfulness of her husband and had told at least one of her relatives that she wanted a divorce several weeks before the murder, court records say. Others who knew the couple told detectives during the initial investigation that Michael Warren wouldn’t divorce his wife because he couldn’t afford to.

An attorney who was familiar with the Warrens told detectives in 1991 that Michael Warren had “two personalities,” according to a transcript of the interview.

“He was either cold and silent and very reserved or he was the most affable guy in the world,” said attorney Christopher DeSantis in 1991. “His personality perfectly described a psychopathic deviant.”

DeSantis told investigators Michael Warren had asked him one day “what the ramifications would be if a husband killed his wife on her estate,” the transcript said.

The attorney had never heard anyone ask such a question, and he didn’t take it seriously.

“I said ... if he had a friend who did it and they couldn’t tie him as an accessory to the friend he’d get away Scott free [sic],” DeSantis recalled to investigators.

Marlene Warren’s son, Joseph Ahrens, was one of four people who saw the clown walk slowly back to a white Chrysler LeBaron after shooting Marlene Warren in the face on the Saturday morning of May 26, 1990.

Marlene Warren, her son and his friends had just finished breakfast when the clown, bearing two balloons and a basket of flowers, came to the door in the wealthy Aero Club neighborhood of Wellington.

Details were hazy for one witness a year after the murder, but she told detectives she remembered the clown’s eyes — “horrible” eyes, according to a transcript of a 1991 interview.

The bullet that killed Marlene Warren entered her lip, fractured her teeth, punctured her tongue and tracked into her neck, injuring her upper spinal cord, a medical examiner concluded days after her murder. She died at the age of 40 two days later, on May 28, 1990.

Ahrens offered few words at Tuesday’s short hearing. He said he accepted the terms of the plea agreement but lamented the fact that the defendant never said she was sorry for what she did.

“The only thing I want to say is, all through this trial I haven’t seen any remorse,” he said. “God be with her.”

Rosenfeld said his client made no remarks after Ahrens spoke at the short hearing because she is innocent.

“She knows nothing about this. She didn’t participate in this. She 100% did not commit this crime,” he said.

When the judge asked her whether she was pleading guilty because she actually committed the crime, Keen Warren said yes.

Tuesday’s outcome was one of many turns in the case. The trial’s start date had been delayed numerous times over the past several years, in part due to the pandemic.

Keen Warren often called the looming trial a “nightmare” in letters she mailed from jail to family and friends.

“I’m still trying to hang in there, but it’s getting harder all the time,” Keen Warren wrote in a letter to a family in Virginia after one of the delays. “Just when I think this nightmare is almost over they postpone it again ... I swear every month seems like a year to me.”

Being freed from the jail cell where a 3-inch-by-6-inch window offered her only view of the outside world while behind bars has long been on Keen Warren’s mind.

“I’m so tired of waiting and want this to be over with so bad. I pray everyday that I will get to come home soon,” she wrote in another jail letter in March 2020.

For the past five years, Keen Warren has sent letter after letter to her husband, professing her devotion and love to him, encouraging him to eat better and assuring him she’d be back soon. Unable to buy birthday and holiday gifts, she was relegated to hand-drawing pictures to serve as cards for those she loves.

She drew a tree in a 2020 Valentine’s Day card to her husband with lip-shaped leaves.

“If all of these leaves were lips and they could tell you how much I love you, that still wouldn’t be enough,” she wrote. “Happy Valentine my love,” signing off with “Forever Your Wife.”

She wrote to friends in one letter that she talks to her husband daily, “but he tells me that he doesn’t talk to anyone” and that “he works all of the time and doesn’t see anyone unless they come to him.”

“He’s so depressed, I don’t think he hardly calls anyone,” Keen Warren wrote in a December 2019 letter to a friend. “He tells me he’s trying to keep busy at work.”

Keen Warren wasn’t arrested until decades after the killing, by then living in Virginia where people knew her as “Debbie Warren,” helping her husband run a popular fast-food restaurant called The Purple Cow in nearby Kingsport, Tenn. Her arrest on Sept. 26, 2017, came almost as unexpectedly as Tuesday’s plea.

Advancements in DNA helped lead to Keen Warren’s indictment, prosecutors wrote in court filings. A root portion of one of the hairs found in the clown’s getaway car showed Keen Warren was the source, prosecutors said. Fibers from the clown wig were also found inside the car, which was stolen before the murder and was later connected to Michael Warren.

Keen Warren and Michael Warren were driving in their black Cadillac when U.S. Marshals pulled them over on Good Hope Road in Abingdon, Va., records say. They placed her in the back of a patrol car, where she asked where her husband was and where she was going.

“Am I under arrest and what for?” Keen Warren asked one of the officers on the way to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

With southern hospitality, the officer responded: “Yes ma’am,” records say.

Keen Warren asked if her husband was also under arrest. “Not yet,” was the officer’s answer.

Once in an interview room at the Sheriff’s Office, she learned she was under arrest for the murder of Marlene Warren. She hung her head, records say.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys both acknowledged the challenges of getting the decades-old case to trial in recent hearings and court records. Key witnesses have since died, were unable to testify or couldn’t be found, and evidence and records needed for Keen Warren’s defense were no longer available, her attorneys argued.

Assistant State Attorney Reid Scott wrote in one recent court filing that prosecutors’ hands were similarly tied, relying on witnesses whose memories have faded with the passing of 33 years.

“The fading of witnesses’ memories with time may disadvantage the government far more than the accused because the government carries the burden of proof,” Scott wrote in the court filing.

Keen Warren’s defense attorneys previously argued that the state’s evidence was circumstantial with “substantial inconsistences” as witnesses gave varied descriptions of the clown’s costume, wig, shoes, eye color, weight, height, gender and descriptions of the getaway car. They also argued that even if DNA testing of hairs showed they belonged to Keen Warren, the testing didn’t say when or how they got there, the defense wrote in one court filing.

Aronberg acknowledged the challenges with the case in his statement Tuesday.

“The decision to negotiate a guilty plea was made after considering the age of this 33-year-old case, particularly the death of key witnesses,” Aronberg said in his statement. “For example, the death of the lead crime scene investigator broke the chain of custody for critical evidence that could no longer be authenticated.”

Attempts made Tuesday afternoon to reach Michael Warren, Keen Warren’s son, Marlene Warren’s sisters and witnesses to the murder were unsuccessful.

Angie DiMichele can be reached at adimichele@sunsentinel.com, 754-971-0194 and on Twitter @angdimi.