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A decades-old killing and two murder trials divided juries — and a family

Greg Malarik was found not guilty in his wife's death after two prosecutions. His daughter swears he’s innocent. His son is convinced he’s guilty. 
Collage with images of Sherri Malarik and family
Kelsea Petersen / NBC News

On the night of Sept. 21, 2001, Sherri Malarik’s home was bustling with activity. The Navy air traffic controller was hosting a family sleepover with pizza, video games and a large group of kids that included her own — her blended family had five — and her sister’s.

At one point, Malarik, 34, stepped outside. She never returned.

The next morning, her body was found inside the family’s Dodge minivan in a parking lot just outside Pensacola, Florida. She’d been shot twice with a .25-caliber gun.

Nearly two decades passed before there was an arrest in Malarik’s killing. In two first-degree murder trials that followed, prosecutors failed to convict the suspect, her husband.

The first trial against Greg Malarik, now 61, ended in a hung jury, and when he stood trial again last year, he was acquitted.

The proceedings exposed a lingering fracture between relatives, one that has left them divided not only over who’s responsible for Sherri’s killing, but over their family’s shared memories.

"I don’t even know how to describe, to be honest, the way it feels to go through all of that and then see nothing come out the other end, other than a broken-up, torn-apart family,” Tera Malarik, Greg and Sherri’s youngest daughter, told “Dateline.”

Tera, 26, has publicly supported her father, who has always denied killing Sherri. She testified for the defense during his second trial and, after his Oct. 13 acquittal, posted words of support on Facebook: “Thank God, justice prevailed and dad is innocent.”

Tera’s older brother, Jacob, 33, testified for the prosecution in both trials, however, and believes Greg killed his mother. He told “Dateline” that while he and Tera are “very close,” their connection is broken for now.

 "I texted her on her birthday,” Jacob said. “Just to let her know, like, I’m not done with you. I haven’t written you off. I’m just not ready yet.”

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Tera and Jacob with their mother, Sherri Malarik.Courtesy Family

Their cousin, Lisa Leake, described the familial rift in even bleaker terms. Asked if she had anything to say to Tera, Leake said: “I have no words.”

Greg declined an interview request from “Dateline.” Tera said he is trying to rebuild his life after spending more than three years under house arrest.

A happy start, then an affair 

Jacob, Sherri’s son from a previous relationship, recalled his mother as someone who loved music, dancing and being a parent. She was also highly organized and well suited for the high-stress environments of an air traffic control tower or a house full of children, her family said. 

Sherri met Greg in Bermuda in the early 1990s while they were both in the Navy.

Jacob’s early memories of Greg are good. He recalled his mother’s new partner picking him up early from day care for fishing trips or motorcycle rides.

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Greg and Jacob Malarik.Courtesy Family

The family returned to the United States and eventually settled in Pensacola. While Sherri was in Greece for a yearlong assignment, Jacob said, a Navy employee who sometimes babysat for Greg began spending more time at their home — even when there was no babysitting to do.

 Once, Jacob said, he found their father “canoodling” on the living room floor with the woman.

Two decades later, this affair with Jennifer Spohn became a key part of the prosecution’s case against Greg. But at the time, Jacob was too scared to confront Greg, he said. Nor did he tell his mother about what he’d seen — a decision partly motivated by the fact that when Sherri returned, Spohn had disappeared from their home, Jacob said.

She stepped outside and never returned 

That changed on Sept. 21, 2001, the last day Sherri was seen alive. She was busy managing what Jacob described as the “controlled chaos” of the cousins' first sleepover. At one point, one of the kids sat down to eat, he said, and his mother stepped outside to talk to Greg, who was in the backyard working on the family’s minivan.  

 "That was the last time I ever saw her,” Jacob said.

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Sherri and Jacob MalarikCourtesy Family

The sequence of events that followed also became central to the prosecution’s case: At some point, Jacob told investigators, Greg returned through the back door and the children asked where their mother was. Greg told them she’d gone to the store, Jacob recalled, adding that Greg then walked to the bathroom and turned on the shower. 

Shortly after, Jacob said, Spohn — the woman who Greg was having an affair with — stopped by to return a lawnmower. It was roughly 9 p.m., an investigator with the state’s attorney’s office in Pensacola, Wayne Wright, told “Dateline.”

At 8 the next morning, Sherri was found dead in the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie.

After the discovery, Spohn told authorities that her visit to the family’s home that night was a coincidence. She felt Greg had “needed” the lawnmower back,” recalled Buddy NeSmith, an Escambia County Sheriff’s detective who investigated the killing.

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Greg and Jacob MalarikCourtesy Family

Authorities were suspicious of Spohn’s account, NeSmith told “Dateline.” But in subsequent interviews over nearly two decades, she always gave the same account and said she knew nothing about Sherri’s murder, said prosecutor Amy Shea of Florida’s First Judicial Circuit.  

Then, on March 7, 2020 — nearly 19 years after the killing — Greg was arrested. The evidence against him relied largely on the memories of the children who, in some cases, recalled the events of the sleepover to authorities. 

There was no “smoking gun that’s gonna point to one person or another,” Shea said. “It’s the circumstances.”

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Easier ‘just to kill her’

After Greg’s arrest, investigators returned to Spohn and offered a deal: If she told the truth about what happened on the night of Sept. 21, she’d get full immunity from prosecution. Spohn agreed.

Spohn recalled the account to “Dateline” in her first media interview: Greg had gone through a divorce before and believed it would be easier “just to kill her,” Spohn recalled him saying. 

“It’s nonsense,” Spohn said she told him. “You don’t just kill your wife. And it’s not gonna be easier.”

Spohn said she didn’t believe he’d go through with it — even though he allegedly provided instructions on the night of Sept. 21 to meet him at the Winn-Dixie parking lot, where he’d parked the family’s van, she said.

Spohn said she drove him home, then waited a bit before knocking, per Greg's request, and saying she had the lawnmower. The real reason she was there, she told “Dateline,” was to help establish Greg’s alibi.

Spohn said she never asked Greg about why she’d picked him up or what he’d done. But she recalled thinking: “How in the world did I get into this?”

Spohn said Greg gave her clothes and bags — including one with what Spohn said contained a gun — and told her to get rid of them. She said she later tossed them into a river. 

“I know what I did,” Spohn said. “I know it was wrong. I made some bad decisions, but once you make that bad decision, there’s no going back. I’m sorry for what I did.”

After Sherri’s death, Spohn often stayed at the family’s home and briefly moved in in 2009. She dated Greg until she left Florida in 2014. 

 A shocking allegation 

Tera was 3 when her mother was fatally shot. She has a few memories of Sherri, but she isn’t sure if they’re real. Still, when Tera was growing up, her siblings often described Sherri as a “super mom,” she told "Dateline." 

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Sherri and Tera MalarikCourtesy Family

Tera said she was 15 when she learned that her father may have been responsible for her mother’s death; a cousin sent her a Facebook message suggesting it.

Tera became angry when she learned of her father’s affair, she said, but she’d always known him to be supportive and protective, someone she shared a love of music and old movies with, and later became close friends with. When Tera confronted Greg about the Facebook allegation, she recalled, he denied it and told her he didn’t understand why the cousin had said it. 

“He gave me a hug, and he told me everything was going to be OK,” she said.

To Tera, Spohn seemed a likelier suspect in her mother’s killing. Spohn has denied any involvement and has not been charged.

Jacob, on the other hand, said he became convinced that Greg killed Sherri, based on Spohn quickly coming "back in the picture" after his mother’s death and a series of events on the night of the killing that he said didn’t add up — like why did his highly organized mother go to the store when she’d just been two days before?  

Jacob said he shared his suspicions with another brother, but not with Tera. To her, the allegation in the Facebook message came as a shock.

Despite Tera’s differences with Jacob over who they believed was responsible for their mother’s death, she said, they largely stayed away from the subject and remained close.

 A deadlocked jury 

Tera said she approached her father’s first trial, in June 2022, with an “open mind.”

Two of her brothers, including Jacob, testified for the prosecution. Spohn was the government’s star witness. Greg’s lawyer, Chris Crawford, argued that Spohn had little credibility and law enforcement had botched the investigation.

There were moments when Tera doubted her father’s innocence, she said, but in the end, she came to believe he hadn’t killed her mother. When the jury came back deadlocked, she said, it “was a hard pill to swallow because that’s not something you want to go through one time, let alone two times.”

When the second trial opened last October, Crawford presented a defense that suggested Spohn was the possible killer — someone who “wanted that life,” Crawford said at trial. "And she decided to take it."

Crawford also tried to show that Sherri’s family had sought to turn her children against Greg, and Tera testified that she was sometimes uncomfortable around them because “everything was always centered around mom’s death.”

Jacob said he was taken aback by his sister’s testimony, believing it misrepresented the past. Her cousin, Lisa Leake, said Tera’s testimony felt like being stabbed in the back.

“My heart just breaks,” she said.

Tera said that her testimony was truthful and that she’s open to explaining her statements to her family.

“I tried to be respectful of everybody’s point of view,” she said. “And it seems like absolutely nobody is respecting mine.”

To Jacob, the second trial was far more difficult than the first. He disliked the defense strategy, believing it made it seem as though his family — and not Greg — was on trial. And he was floored when the jury returned a not guilty verdict, making Greg a free man. 

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Jacob and Tera Malarik, shown at Tera's graduation, have had little interaction since the acquittal last fall.Courtesy Family

Besides the text on her birthday, Jacob has remained out of touch with Tera since, he said. 

“I’ve got a lot of anger in my heart right now that I’m trying to deal with, and that’s why I’ve put Tera off for a moment,” he said. “I need to deal with my stuff.”

Jacob said he understands that Tera wants to protect her father “when nobody else will.”

“You don’t wanna lose the only parent you have,” he said, adding: “But at the same time, I think that speaks volumes that nobody else is in his corner.” 

Tera, meanwhile, just had a baby and hopes to reconnect with the sibling she thinks of as her “brother dad.”

“He’s been one of my biggest supporters in life,” she said, adding: “I’m ready whenever he is.”