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The Case of the Merry Widow

A widow remarries and finds herself enjoying fabulous wealth after an insurance payout from the murder of her first husband. But holes in her story eventually reveal a darker side, and she and her new husband are charged with the killing.

She is cunning - the black widow - deceitful, as she weaves her deadly web. Only the sharpest eye could spot the fault, the clue, the dangling thread. Though, if that thread were ever pulled, what a frightful unravelling might ensue....

Los Angeles. 1998. March 18th.  Evening. The home: a comfortable tract house in the town of Northridge. San Fernando Valley. The TV was on.  There was a man on the couch in the living room. A door opened.

The spider's sticky trap was sprung.

911 Operator: "9-1-1 emergency operator #682."


911 Operator:"Okay ma'am, what happened?"

Diane Bates:"I don't know! It's my son-in-law!"

The call was from the mother in law, back from a night at the movies.

Diane Bates: "It's a gunshot! He's bleeding!"

Diane Bates was distraught. It was she who discovered Joel Shanbrom, sprawled on the couch. Dead.

911 Operator: "Got shot by a gun?"

Diane Bates: "He's dead, I think!"

Detective Brian McCartin: He was shot in the head three times.

Keith Morrison: They weren't foolin' around.

Detective Brian McCartin: No, whoever shot him, they wanted him dead. 

Veteran LAPD detective Brian McCartin arrived to find a house ransacked. 

Detective Brian McCartin: At quick glance, it looks like it was a home invasion robbery. So that was the first thing going through our minds.

Home invasion? And then, another shocking discovery.  There was a witness! Still in the house! Joel's wife Jennifer was where she almost always was about that time in the upstairs bathroom, bathing their three-year-old, Jacob.

Detective Brian McCartin: As she gave him a bath, she heard some voices and some noise.  And she heard what she thought sounded like someone confronting her husband.  And then all of a sudden the shots rang out.

And so, said Jennifer, she scooped up Jacob from the tub and rushed down the hall to hide in the master bedroom shower.

Detective Brian McCartin: She said she heard some voices, and she heard people come upstairs. She thought multiple people. 

Keith Morrison: So, maybe these were the robbers?

Detective Brian McCartin: She thought, "Now they're going through the upstairs."  And she heard drawers opening, noise banging, drawers falling onto the floor. And then all of a sudden-- she said the next thing she heard were the police knockin' on the bathroom door.

So terrified was Jennifer that cops had to slide their badges under the door to coax her out. Her story supported what happened. A ransacking upstairs. A violent shooting downstairs.

But then investigators learned something else that might also explain what happened... Joel Shanbrom was a police officer.

Detective Brian McCartin: Maybe it was job-related.  That was an avenue we had to look at also.  Maybe he arrested somebody that was angry enough to do this to him.

Joel had been an officer for the LA School District for five years. And one of it's most popular.

Officer Russ Orlando: Joel and I just hit it off.  And, he was like the brother i never had.

Russ Orlando went through training with Joel. They were close friends.

Officer Russ Orlando: I never saw Joel upset. I never saw him have a harsh word. 

Keith Morrison: A gentle guy?

Officer Russ Orlando: Very gentle, but firm and would take action when he needed to.

Joel's sister Karen.

Karen Shanbrom, sister: Joey was the kind of guy that would light up a room.

Karen Shanbrom: He didn't get upset. Wasn't confrontational. And things would just roll off him like water off a duck's back.

He was the baby of the Shanbrom family's four kids. He served in the Navy after high school. And then came back home and fell for a sweet, perky blond, named Jennifer Fisher. Met her rollerskating.

She was five years younger than he was. But it was love: her very first love. And though Joel worried that she might someday want to sow her wild oats after all. Jennifer seemed to know just what she wanted. She was just 21 when they married.  But eager to settle down. And life seemed to be just the way it was supposed to be.

Karen Shanbrom: You know he had a home.  He had a wife. He had a baby. He had a career that he liked.

How sudden it was. Whatever the cause” targeted as a cop, or robbed and killed by chance... The end was ugly.

Karen Shanbrom: I remember when my mother told me, somebody killed our Joey. I felt like I had lost my right arm and my right leg. I felt like they were gone.  I felt like I had body parts missing because part of me was gone. 

All night long, that first night, the cops combed the Shanbrom's house. A visibly shaken Jennifer was taken to the nearby police station to provide what information she could in the hope that it might lead to whoever executed her popular husband.

Detective Brian McCartin:Obviously, he's a police officer.  We actually get more pressure from his agency and our agency. And-- but I'm still gonna put as much effort into that case as I would any case.

But for the moment Detective McCartin didn't have much to go on... Except, perhaps, for a small discovery near Joel's body: tiny pellets suggesting he was killed by a small gauge shotgun, normally used for sport hunting.

A clue, possibly?

And then, a few days later - it was at Joel's funeral, of all places - a loose thread caught the detective's attention, like a spider web glinting in the sun.

If he pulled that thread would it tell him who killed officer Joel Shanbrom...and why?

The morning after, LAPD Detectives investigating the brutal murder of fellow officer Joel Shanbrom spent the entire night extracting  clues from the chaos of the crime scene:

Detective Brian McCartin: We believed maybe we were lookin' at a home invasion robbery, and that was from her story.

"Her" was Jennifer Shanbrom, Joel's wife.  She told police what she heard as she hid, terrified, in that upstairs bathroom.

Jennifer Shanbrom: "Well, at first I thought it was just the TV, but I think I heard Joel say, 'I'm a cop' or 'I'm a police officer."

Detective: "Then you heard a shot?"

Jennifer Shanbrom: "Yeah."

Jennifer Shanbrom: "I think i heard the next gun shot and it was at that point that I realized I'm dead meat."

Detective Brian McCartin: She said she ran into the master bathroom in a panic because she thought she was gonna be the next victim of these robbers.

It struck detectives as important that Jennifer told them she heard her husband confront the killers downstairs... just before she heard the gunshots. So McCartin looked carefully at that scene down in the living room. And imagined what may have happened there the night before.

Detective Brian McCartin: If you're confronted by people, intruders in your home, you're on the couch. You're gonna be up, tryin' to defend-- get ready-- you might have to just move or do something to-- you know, to fend off an attack.

But here's where the evidence didn't seem to fit quite right. For one thing, said McCartin, a policeman at home, out of uniform, would never reveal he was a cop for fear of making a bad situation worse. And besides, if Joel had been shot while confronting his attackers, there should have been blood spatter everywhere. But there wasn't. There was lots of blood, of course. But only on the couch.

Detective Brian McCartin: In my opinion he was shot while he was sleepin' on the couch. He was on the couch the entire time.

Keith Morrison: It was more, what? An execution-style killing?

Detective Brian McCartin: That's what I believe, yes. 

There was something else about the place that bothered him, too.

Sure, it was ransacked.. But there was no rhyme or reason to it. Why would the robbers turn the baby's bedroom upside down? What could they possibly have wanted in there?

Detective Brian McCartin: We realized that-- it couldn't have been a home invasion robbery.

Jennifer must have been mistaken.  Maybe, up there in that bathroom shower stall, guarding a baby, terrified, she simply misinterpreted what was going on.

After all, as detectives had long since learned...

Mark Saffarick: There's a flow to crimes. There's a crime flow. Everything makes sense. Everything happens in a sequence, it happens in time, a time sequence, it happens in a chronology sequence. But you get crimes where-- that doesn't make sense. And that's where I can come in.

Mark Saffarick is a former FBI special agent who consulted on the case. He's an expert on analyzing crime scenes, especially ones that appear... staged.

Mark Saffarick: When you see a staged homicide, you start to recognize that-- there's just too much going on.  It's just too much activity.  Like they really want you to believe that someone was in here stealing stuff and searching. But you don't have anything taken.

Keith Morrison: No jewelry?

Mark Saffarick: Nothing's taken.

Keith Morrison: No weapons, no money? 

Mark Saffarick: Nothing. Except the murder weapon.

And that murder weapon, as revealed by the pellets, was a sport weapon, an unusual type of shotgun.

Detective Brian McCartin: And-- so all these little bits and pieces together, we started to think. And that-- that doesn't sound right.

Detective Brian McCartin: When I take on any murder, you start from the closest people to the victim.  Ninety-something percent of all murders are committed by friends, relatives or acquaintances of the victim. So, obviously the first one is the-- is the wife.

Though it had to be said: petite, pretty Jennifer Shanbrom, now a 28-year-old widow, was nobody's idea of a murderess.

Still. Maybe she knew something - or someone - that she wasn't revealing? Or... was afraid to reveal.  

Detective Brian McCartin: Within that 24 hours, we had our surveillance unit, we decided, let's tail Jennifer, see where she's going, see who she's meeting.

And - this was odd - and also a little unusual for a grieving widow:

Detective Brian McCartin: She was every day-- almost every minute of the day was with Matt.  wherever she went, Matt was with her.

Matt? Who was Matt?

He was Matthew Fletcher, a family friend, who had gotten Jennifer and Joel involved in his financial services business. Now he was apparently helping Jennifer deal with her loss.

Joel's sister Karen knew Matt Fletcher and had her own impression.

Karen Shanbrom: He always knew what he was gonna do. And he was always, seemed so sure of himself. Nothing was ever an issue, 'cause he just seemed to have an answer for everything.

And he seemed to be everywhere with Jennifer, including Joel's funeral, where Russ Orlando gave one of the eulogies.

Officer Russ Orlando: (Cries) "I love you, Joel."

Dozens of police officers from all over California attended, including LAPD detectives, who kept a close eye on Jennifer. After the service, Joel's friend Russ Orlando went to pay his respects.

Officer Russ Orlando: I walk up to limo. Bend my head in. Pay my respects. And she's crying. I turned around and walked away.

Finally coming to terms with her husband's death?  Later, Russ encountered another observer who had a better view into the limo.

Officer Russ Orlando:She was sitting in the limo with Matt Fletcher. And she had put her hand on his knee and said, "Thank God that's over with."  And then the waterworks were off. 

Could it be? Was her public grief a facade? After the funeral, Joel's family held a somber gathering... But Jennifer, Matt and her family, still under the watchful eye of a plainclothes policeman, had their own funeral reception.

Karen Shanbrom: They all went back to this hotel, they did the same thing that we did.  except for theirs was festive.

Keith Morrison: Festive?

Karen Shanbrom: Yeah. Theirs was festive. I understand that they had champagne delivered. To have champagne delivered?! I mean, I dunno, it doesn't make any sense. I always thought that champagne is for celebration. And who the hell would celebrate a murdered husband? Not me.

It didn't make sense. Even if  Jennifer wasn't actually celebrating the death of her husband and father of her three old son.. even if it was their version of a wake... why champagne?

Was she hiding some secret knowledge about the crime? Did she know who pulled the trigger? Or why?

Detective Brian McCartin: Probably more murders are committed between husbands and wives than anybody else. Husband killin' the wife or vice-versa. It happens a lot.

So it does. But this particular murder that Detective Brian McCartin was investigating didn't quite fit the profile. The victim, Joel Shanbrom, was thought to be happily married. And his wife Jennifer, a bubbly young blond, hardly seemed the type to pull the trigger at point-blank range. Yet, her story of what happened didn't quite fit what McCartin had seen in the house. And her behavior at the funeral.. a little too cozy with that “family friend” Mathew Fletcher.

Detective Brian McCartin: There's something here. There's something not right. There's gotta be something else. 

Like, for example, a motive for murder. McCartin dug into the Shanbrom's financial records. And there he found a clue.

Detective Brian McCartin: He wasn't making enough money for her.  And as we learned, he at times had two or three additional jobs on top of his full-time job just to supplement their income and to keep his wife happy.

The Shanbrom's were deep in debt. Joel's $40,000 police salary wasn't coming close to cutting it, especially when it came to Jennifer's lavish lifestyle.

Officer Russ Orlando:She spent money  faster than he could make.

Karen Shanbrom: Jennifer wanted the biggest house.  The top of the line model. The biggest house.

Keith Morrison: Had to be the biggest?

Karen Shanbrom: Had to be the biggest, had to be the best. Whatever she had, it wasn't enough for her.

In fact, less than two years after celebrating this Christmas in their brand new home, the bank foreclosed. They were forced to move to a rental house.

But downsizing and Jennifer didn't seem to get along.

Officer Russ Orlando:She wanted more and more and more.  And Joel kept working harder and harder and harder.

One of Joel's three side jobs was moonlighting as a sales rep for a financial services company.

Detective Brian McCartin: That's where the connection between Matt, Jennifer & Joel first started.

Ah yes, Matt...Matthew Fletcher. The man who seemed to know everything and be everywhere, especially when it came to Jennifer.

Detective Brian McCartin: He worked for a financial advisor type company. And he convinced them to join the company that he was with.

Keith Morrison: He was a pretty smooth guy, right?

Detective Brian McCartin: He's like a conman televangelist. I mean, he's good in a crowd. He could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

And he could also sell insurance; life insurance, which was part of his financial service business.

In fact,soon after meeting Joel, Fletcher sold him $500,000 of insurance, even though he already had a $314,000 policy from police department.

And there was insurance that Joel didn't even know about. Just weeks before he was killed, detectives discovered, Joel's wife Jennifer had secretly re-instated yet another policy which Joel had earlier cancelled. This one totaled $300-thousand too.

Detective Brian McCartin: The amount of insurance that the coverage had was-- was high for-- for his income. Actually three policies that amounted to about $1.2 million. 

Over a million bucks in coverage for a cop making $40,000. But Jennifer and Joel had high hopes that their new business venture would soon justify all those numbers.

Detective Brian McCartin: And so his goal was to work hard at this business, financial business, and eventually quit the department and go full-time.

But in the months before the murder it was Jennifer who seemed to be working full time with Matt Fletcher. And apparently it wasn't all business.

Karen Shanbrom: I started to suspect that they were having an affair.

Keith Morrison: Just by the way they were behaving together?                               

Karen Shanbrom: I don't even know how to put it into words. But you know when somebody's havin' sex and you know when they're not. There's just somethin' there.

Now under surveillance and possibly implicated in a murder, Matt and Jen maintained they were just "friends. But their pagers told a very different story.

Detective Brian McCartin: They were sending codes back and forth to each other on their pager.  "I love you.  I miss you. I want you." And this was all within the first week of the murder.

The more digging detectives did, the more Joel's murder looked like an inside job.

Detective Brian McCartin: Jennifer-- what we learned from her father and from other friends is that she knew how to use a gun. She was a good shot. She actually bragged to people that she taught Joel how to shoot a gun. She had her own gun.

Those pellets found at the crime scene, remember, came from a shotgun... a hunting weapon.

Jennifer knew how to use one,  and Matt Fletcher, friends confirmed, owned a shotgun and was known to use it at a local skeet range.

Detective Brian McCartin: It didn't take us long to be 100 percent sure it was them. It wasn't very long at all.

It seemed like a solid case: an affair, a clear motive, the shotguns... Certainly enough to file charges. So he eventually took the case to one of LA's top Deputy District Attorneys: Jeff Jonas.

Jeff Jonas, deputy district attorney: There's a lotta cases in L.A. County and there's-- there's x amount of manpower. I've done a lot of circumstantial cold cases. This was gonna take a lot of work. First of all, are you gonna take it and then are you gonna expend the manpower to try to put it together? 

Keith Morrison: Did you hear the sound of the brakes coming on?

Not that Deputy DA Jonas didn't like the case - he did - but he wasn't convinced the evidence was strong enough for a conviction. He told the detectives: keep digging.

Keith Morrison: Didn't have enough? i mean, good Lord. You had them partying a couple of days after the murder, telling a story that didn't make any sense based on the murder scene. 

Detective Brian McCartin: THAT'S TRUE.

Keith Morrison:                You know, obviously having an affair. Insurance policies that are too big. That isn't enough?

Detective Brian McCartin: We don't have the murder weapon, we don't have any eye witnesses.  We don't have any real physical evidence-- like DNA or anything of that nature that would point to-- either one of them.  It was-- it's a tough case. 

And so what first appeared to be a promising case instead joined the long depressing parade of unsolved crimes grinding slowly through the system.

But there was nothing slow about Jennifer Shanbrom and her lover Mathew Fletcher. They moved quickly to cash in on all that insurance money. And before long began buying up the  luxurious lifestyle Jennifer always wanted.

Not enough evidence. Too many questions. No smoking gun.

A few weeks after Joel Shanbrom was shot to death in his own living room, the investigation into his murder seemed to stall. Which made what happened next all the more infuriating for investigators to watch.

Joel's widow Jennifer and her constant companion Matt Fletcher were not wasting any time cashing in.

Jeff Jonas: Immediately after the murder, the very first thing on Matt Fletcher's mind, is to file for everything in terms of insurance.                          

Detective Brian McCartin: Matt was spearheading the collection of all the insurance funds.  he would, more or less, tell these insurance agents what to do and how to do it.// and he was very pushy at trying to get-- the insurance paid as quickly as possible to her.

Sure enough, within months, Jennifer's first insurance payout arrived.

Jeff Jonas: The proceeds of that policy, $314,000 are given to Jennifer, she gives half of that to Matt.

The DA's office requested a hold be put on the remaining insurance payouts. But in June, Jennifer and Matt, who until now maintained they were just "friends", still managed to fund a romantic rendezvous in Mexico.

Karen Shanbrom: She said that she and Matt officially started dating. In June, that's when they started dating. He's killed March 18-- in June, she says, "We officially started dating."

Then just four short months later, they got engaged...

Jeff Jonas: There's a picture of Jennifer and Matt together. She looks the happiest that I've ever seen in a picture, just the whole connotation of the sinister widow.

...Or the Black Widow as Jonas had taken to calling her.

Jeff Jonas: Interesting way to mourn the death of your beloved husband-- get engaged to the  person that helped you perpetrate the murder and get a three-carat engagement diamond ring-- probably with the proceeds.

Then in Hawaii, on Valentine's Day 1999, a month before the first anniversary of her husband's death, Widow Shanbrom became Mrs. Mathew Fletcher. 

Keith Morrison: What did that tell you?

Detective Brian McCartin: It just bolstered our belief that, you know, they lied initially that they were having an affair, and-- that they were both in cahoots together in this murder.

First the murder, now the marriage. And a lifestyle funded by a dead police officer's insurance money. While the happy couple was skating, Joel's family was steaming. Why wasn't something being done?

Detective Brian McCartin: The father would write letters to the district attorney's office, trying to pressure them to look at it closer. "Look at my son's case.  You know, let's file it. Let's go to trial. Let's arrest the people that did this."  

Karen Shanbrom: My sister was calling. My brother was calling. Poor Jeff. He was getting calls, you know, from all of my family members.

Jonas was under pressure from both the family and a massive caseload. An orphan case like this?  He could have, perhaps should have, reassigned it...down the ladder. But something told him not to.

Jeff Jonas: I said, "you know what, I'll take this personally.  But, you have to understand I've got three or four other murder cases backed up."

By keeping the case for himself, Jonas could at least ensure the investigation would remain on the District Attorney's radar. But,filing charges? Getting it to trial?  That, he warned the family, would take a long time.

Jeff Jonas: I said, we got a great investigator in Brian McCartin. You just have to trust us. You know, there's no statute of limitations in a murder."

For the next two years,Detective McCartin quietly kept compiling the case, reviewing the evidence, interviewing dozens of people who knew Joel, Jennifer and Matt.

Detective Brian McCartin: I think it's persistence is-- is the key.  You know, just don't give up. If you give up, the case'll never be cleared.  And I have a lot of persistence. I never give up.

McCartin also kept track of Jennifer and Matt, who were living in a secluded townhouse, but keeping a low profile...

Karen Shanbrom: She always used the word "officially." We're officially a pager and a, and a P.O. box. We don't want anybody to know where we live, 'cause the intruders might come to try to find us.

But the newlywed Fletchers weren't shy about sporting around the neighborhood in their fancy cars, adorned with distinctive license plates.

Karen Shanbrom: One of them said-- the acronym for "create wealth." and the other said, "Quit workin'."  And he had a motorcycle that had a-- a paint job on the gas tank and on the side with $100 bills. All they ever talked about was money. All that mattered was money.

And now, as the second anniversary of Joel's murder approached, it seemed like Jennifer and Matt had indeed committed the perfect crime.

Karen Shanbrom: My father would call me all the time. When are they gonna get arrested? What's going on?  Why, you know, why haven't they been arrested yet?" I do remember thinking, "What if? What if they get away with it?"

McCartin and Jonas needed something to put the Black Widow case over the top. But what about this? Instead of targeting Matt and Jennifer, wasn't there another person in the house that night?  Why yes, there was.

There's a hard truth at the heart of the justice system. Decisions have to be practical. No solid evidence can mean acquittal. So circumstantial cases often go cold, no arrest, no trial... No justice.

But as murdered police officer Joel Shanbrom's widow Jennifer and her new husband, Matt Fletcher, flashed their new wealth, an improbable determination kept the investigation alive.

Karen Shanbrom: I don't remember ever losing hope. I do remember Brian McCarten from robbery/homicide saying, "we will never close this case. we will keep it open until we solve it."

Detective Brian McCartin: We'll find out who did this, we’ll  arrest 'em. We'll convict 'em.

Keith Morrison: You really believe that yourself at the time?

Detective Brian McCartin: I did. I did. 

An opinion Detective McCartin shared with deputy DA Jeff Jonas.

Detective Brian McCartin: And we would periodically meet and discuss the case.  And I-- I remember tellin' him, I said, "Jeff, we-- we're probably not gonna get much more than this. I mean, this is it. Let's let a jury decide." 

But not just any jury. How about an investigative Grand Jury? A kind of a legal dry run, to test the case.

Detective Brian McCartin:Where you can bring in your witnesses, lock them into statements; and there's no defense attorney there to cross them. And then, let's see, really, how much and what we have; and what would an independent body, like a grand jury, decide or think of everything we have. 

Jeff Jonas: I wanted to get Diane Bates under oath, on the witness stand.

Diane Bates...Remember her? Jennifer's mother. She's the one who apparently stumbled into the crime scene and then called 911.

Jonas and McCartin had long suspected Bates knew a lot more than she was saying about that horrendous night.  For one thing:

Jeff Jonas: She could never account for at least 20 to 30 minutes from the time that we were able to figure that she got home until the time that she made the 911 call.

Did she know more than she let on? All along she had supported  Jennifer's alibi... about hiding in the bathroom during the shooting... AND had backed up Matt Fletcher's contention that he wasn't anywhere near at the time of the murder.

But Diane Bate's story had changed - frequently. And even in this interview with police she had been erratic and inconsistent.

Diane Bates: "My first reaction was that he killed himself.""So I said, there's been a murder... or there's been a shooting or something."

Jonas was convinced that Bates was the key to implicating not only Jennifer but also Matt, who, the DA believed was at the crime scene... Either during or right after the murder.

Jeff Jonas: When she phoned 911, she knew what had occurred and she was covering for both matt and Jennifer. And she was gonna cover for-- for Jennifer for the rest of her life. 

Diane Bates: "It all happened so fast!"

Maybe under questioning Bates would slip up...and give the prosecution something to work with.

But.. to get Jennifer's mother even to tell her side of the story Jonas had to grant Bates immunity. She would never be charged with any part of her son-in-law's murder.

Bates took the bait. For three days, under the Grand Jury's grilling, she refused to implicate Matt or Jennifer...but to members of the jury, her testimony seemed ...evasive.

Jeff Jonas: The grand jury has a right to ask questions at the conclusion of your presentation. One of the first questions was, "Diane Bates, do you always lie or just in front of the grand jury?"

Then Jonas took the grand jury through the couple's affair, their financial motive, the apparently  staged crime scene.

Keith Morrison: What did that grand jury think?

Detective Brian McCartin: Oh, they believed we had enough. That was enough to go forward and indict.

But ... not yet. Jonas was committed to this now, but his higher-ups wanted more evidence. And who could blame them? LA juries, after all, have become famous for granting acquittals in cases prosecutors believed were solid.

And so now, and for the next two years, Jonas and Detective Brian McCartin worked out the details, in an effort to make their case jury proof.

Detective Brian McCartin: Well, you go over everything numerous times. There's gotta be something else. And-- then I'd find this, then I'd find that. Add it to my list.

But all the while, Mathew and Jennifer Fletcher were apparently oblivious. Or at least - by all accounts - unworried.

By now they were living in a posh gated community, raising Joel's son Jacob and their own newborn daughter.  Just the lifestyle Jennifer always wanted.

Jeff Jonas: She wanted to be a millionaire, as did-- Matt Fletcher.  And when she saw Matt Fletcher, who is the great deceiver; the great manipulator-- and she just bought in hook, line and sinker.

But then, it was February 2002, nearly four years after Joel Shanbrom's murder. Still no smoking gun. The evidence they had was apparently all they were going to get.

Was it a gamble? Jonas spoke to his Detective. Time to strike.

Detective McCartin tracked down Matt Fletcher driving his new Mercedes and arrested him.

Detective Brian McCartin: He believed that he was beyond-- the reach of the police-- that he was untouchable. He was laughing at what we were doing. 

The next morning Jennifer turned herself in. She was eight months pregnant.  

Matt and Jennifer would finally have their day in court. But even after an exhaustive four year investigation the case was still totally circumstantial. No weapon. No DNA. No eyewitnesses.

Detective Brian McCartin: It's a 50/50 crap shoot. You know, in my opinion, I believe we have more than enough to convict. Whether the jury is gonna believe that...I have no idea. 

And the prosecution would also have to prepare for a big surprise in the courtroom: a smooth talking opponent who knew the case even better than they did... Mathew Fletcher.

Here it was: The case that almost didn't make it to court... A case that looked for all the world like a black widow's perfect crime, finally in front of a judge and jury.

Prosecutor Jeff Jonas was ready to unravel that complicated web of a case. But now found himself facing an unlikely and utterly unexpected opponent.

Defending Mathew Fletcher would be none other than... Matthew Fletcher!

Mathew Fletcher: This trial is about a senseless murder, with no eyewitnesses, no weapon, no physical evidence to link myself or Jennifer to this crime. Our involvement is only in the prosecutor's mind. A made for television imagination.

Jeff Jonas: Matt had this very, very, very inflated opinion of his intellect, of his ability and of his persuasive-- talents. 

Keith Morrison: He thought he was the smartest guy in the room.

Jeff Jonas: Oh, my word. We were all stupid.

Jennifer's road to court was more complicated.  She had her baby in jail, while she awaited trial. All three of her children now lived with Jennifer's sister.

To help her to face the charge of murder, she hired an experienced trial attorney named Barry Bernstein.

Barry Bernstein: We've heard nothing. Not one thing material from these people, except speculation there was an affair, conjecture there was an affair and changing stories based on gossip.

It was, as one reporter called it, a "circus," from the moment Matt and Jennifer entered the courtroom.

Detective Brian McCartin: They-- were as though they were on a picnic together. They were obviously in separate cells, but once they came together at the-- counsel table, they would joke and talk as though, "This is nothing.  We're just here, you know, and we're having lunch; and then we'll be on our way soon". It's like they didn't realize the gravity of what they were-- where they were and what they were facing.

...Which was murder in the first degree and several counts of conspiracy and insurance fraud. For good measure, Jonas also charged Matt with one more crime: bigamy. It turned out he failed to divorce his current wife before he married Jennifer!

Jeff Jonas: People in my office are sort of s-- lookin' at me, like, "Well, are you nuts?  You got a murder case and you're filing a bigamy?" I said, "I'm showing what kind of a person this guy is." 

For over four months in court Jonas presented an exhaustive case unraveling Matt and Jennifer's affair, the murder, cover-up and insurance conspiracy.

Jeff Jonas in court: So that we don't forget throughout the testimony (holds up pictures). That's what this case is about. There's no question it's a murder. No question that it was an execution.

When it happened on that dreadful night in Northridge, Jonas told the jury, Joel was asleep on the couch. It was Jennifer, he said, who - with her three-year-old in the house - sneaked up from behind her husband and fired the first shot. Then, a second, but neither one was immediately fatal.

Keith Morrison: Was there a third shot?

Jeff Jonas: My belief is, that Jennifer panicked after the second shot. And then Matt finished it off and left.

Keith Morrison: Why do you think it was Jennifer who shot the first two times?

Jeff Jonas: Because she despised her husband, and-- intended to marry Matt Fletcher, and had fallen in love with him, and was willing to do anything-- and he probably-- had some-- some influence in doing that.

Jonas argued that Diane Bates, arrived unexpectedly either during or right after the shooting. Then the cover-up began: the bogus ransacking of the house, Matt's escape with the murder weapon, and eventually the 9-1-1 call.

A theory which, said Matthew Fletcher, simply missed both the real murderers and their blatantly obvious motive: to  rob the house and if necessary kill anybody who got in their way.

Matt Fletcher in court:"The people that came there did not come there with the deliberate intent on killing Joel Shanbrom or any occupants of the house." 

And Fletcher, it turned out, was a decent courtroom debater. He presented alibi witnesses, though they couldn't, in the end, account for his whereabouts right at the time of the murder. Still Fletcher insisted the state had it all wrong.  Joel Shanbrom, he told the jury, was the victim of a home invasion robbery gone wrong.

Matt Fletcher in court:"They didn't expect Joel to be there. They didn't expect a police officer to be there. And upon confronting them and identifying himself as a police officer that cost him his life."

Matt was smooth. He seemed persuasive.

And as the end approached, the outcome was, at best, uncertain.

Detective Brian McCartin: I couldn't read the jury. They were all sharp. They stayed awake. Some juries fall asleep. I had no idea what they were gonna do.

Nor did Jonas, and with closing arguments nearly complete, he felt he needed something else to sway the jury. One night just before his final rebuttal, Jonas took a last look at the crime scene photos, including the bathroom where Jennifer was hiding with her son. And there it was!  Why hadn't he noticed it before?

Jeff Jonas: And sitting in the shower stall is this water bol-- bottle, the light bulb goes on, I said, "Wait a minute.  Whoever keeps a water bottle in the shower?"

Jeff Jonas in court: Does that bother you? You always take a shower with a water bottle? It's half-drunk. She had time to get a water bottle but not time to get a gun or a phone?

Jeff Jonas: That means this whole thing was planned. She's got a boy in one arm, and she's running, running down the hall. She says, "You know what?  I might be in there for an hour and a half, I'm gonna grab a water bottle and take it in there, because we're gonna need a drink." 

The trial had stretched from March to July. Now, it was up to the jury. Was Joel Shanbrom killed in a home invasion robbery? Or had Matt and Jennifer committed cold blooded, premeditated murder for insurance money?

Karen Shanbrom: The jury went out. And they went out. And they stayed out, and they stayed out, and they stayed out. Oh-- god.  It was hellacious.  It was brutally, brutally hellacious.

Detective Brian McCartin: I've never been that apprehensive about anything-- worried about what the outcome was gonna be. 

Jeff Jonas: I do not allow myself to believe that a jury is gonna let a killer go.  I can't-- I can't buy into that or I'd probably have-- a nervous breakdown.

Then finally after 12 days...a verdict.

In a packed courtroom, thick with tension, Matt and Jennifer seemed surprisingly relaxed - even confident.

Detective Brian McCartin: Happy, jovial. "I'm going home today." This is all-- people were there.  Actually, her family was sitting in the audience with gifts to give them when they were acquitted.  

Court Clerk reads verdict: "We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant Jennifer Fletcher guilty of the crime of murder."

The web had come undone, and it showed. Matthew and Jennifer Fletcher were found guilty on all 6 counts of  murder, conspriacy, lying in wait, insurance fraud. Everything. And for Matt, a 7th count: guilty of bigamy.

Karen Shanbrom:"I don't think we can say anybody's happy today because Joey's not back, but now we know that the people who did this terrible thing, who have ruined so many lives, now, god willing will not see the light of day except through, through bars."

Detective Brian McCartin: I was very happy. It felt good to finally be done with the case and put two murderers away. They were done. They were gone. 

Jeff Jonas: There's a euphoria, you would think.  But, by and large, it's a huge void.  And the reason is because you can't really celebrate a death.  And you can't really celebrate a murder.  You're thankful that it's over. You're grateful that the jury did the right thing.

10 months later, Matt and Jennifer were formally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Black Widow and her mate would spin their poison web no more.

Karen Shanbrom: Those two people are serving the rest of their life in prison because they decided that it was okay to play god and to kill my brother. Justice, standing tall and being blind, wasn't gonna let that happen.  The system works, and justice does prevail.