Those who should have known her best knew her least. In the established tradition of black widows, Marie murdered her husband. It didnt stop there. Her murderous escapades undermined what should have been the most sacred of family relationships. When it appeared she would finally be brought to justice for her crimes, she disappeared and began life anew with an assumed identity. One persona after another, discarded when it no longer suited her needs.
Frank Hilley met Marie when she was twelve and he was a junior in high school, and by the time he graduated he was smitten with her.
Marie, against her parents wishes, returned his affection. Though he wasnt from one of Anniston, Alabama’s moneyed families, Frank treated her like royalty. Like most young couples they had intense, dramatic arguments, but they always made up. When Frank went into the Navy after high school, he pined for Marie. He had been assigned to Guam, and the distance and time away were unbearable. Afraid of losing Marie, he married her while he was on leave in May, 1951.
Marie stayed behind in Anniston to finish high school while Frank finished out his stint in the Navy. At the end of his tour of duty they discovered Marie was pregnant, and when he was discharged they moved back home to Anniston, where they bought a small home. Frank got a job in the shipping department of Standard Foundry while Marie worked as a secretary. Their first child, Michael Hilley, was born on November 11, 1952.
Outwardly the Hilleys seemed happy and settled, but the first stirrings of trouble had already begun. Frank worried about his wife. Sometimes she would be awake all night, and he would hold her while she shook in nameless fear. She was restless and he was unable to soothe her. She taunted him with love letters she said she received from local men. And then there was her spending. Marie’s refined tastes kept the bills coming to the Hilley home year after year. Sometimes Frank would reprimand her, but it did no good. Marie wanted the best, and she wanted it now. She rented a post office box and began having some bills routed there so Frank wouldn’t know what she was spending. And she began taking out loans, which quickly became past due.
By the fall of 1974 Frank couldnt ignore the troubles in his home any longer. Word of his wife’s credit arrangements leaked back to him through the grapevine. Worse still, he came home sick from work on day to find Marie in bed with her employer, Walter Clinton. Frank told his son, who was married by now and attending Atlanta Christian College, of these latest developments. He didnt mention, though, his increasingly failing health.
Frank was sick a lot during 1974. At first he attributed his weariness and periodic bouts of nausea and vomiting to something hed eaten, or to exposure to chemicals at work. He took Alka-Seltzer and bore his symptoms as best he could. But his illness persisted, and by May of 1975, he was ready to consult a doctor. Nothing the doctor prescribed helped. When Franks sister Freeda Adcock visited him on May 22, he told her he was sicker than hed ever been and that he feared he would die. He also told her that Marie had, on Dr. Jones’s orders, given him an injection. At the time, Freeda thought nothing of it.
At 3:30 the following morning Marie found Frank wandering the yard in his underwear. She took him to the hospital, where tests showed that his liver had failed. His doctor changed his diagnosis to one of infectious hepatitis and prescribed new medications. Franks condition worsened; he was jaundiced, hallucinating and very agitated. At around 5:00 am on May 25, Mike Hilley went to the hospital, finding his mother asleep and his father dead.
Frank Hilleys autopsy report stated that hed died of natural causes, so Marie had no trouble collecting on the $31,000 in life insurance he’d bought. After her husband’s death, Marie invited her son, Mike and his wife Teri to live with her. He and Teri accepted, but soon regretted their decision. His mothers demands for his time and attention wore Mike down. On top of that, Teri was often ill with stomach trouble. During the time she and Mike lived with Marie, Teri was in the hospital four different times and had a miscarriage.
He and Teri found an apartment. But the night before they were set to move out, Maries house caught fire. Marie, Lucille and Carol moved into the new apartment until repairs could be completed. When the time came for them to move back home, the apartment next door to Mike and Teris caught fire, forcing the couple to move back in with Marie until they could find new housing. When they finally succeeded in moving away from Marie, a strange new series of events began.
In the following months, the Anniston Police Department became increasingly familiar with Marie Hilley. She reported gas leaks, thefts in her home and claimed she found a small fire in her closet late one night. Neighbor Doris Troy, to whose house Marie had a key, found a similar fire in her own hall closet, but had no idea who couldve set it. Both Marie and Doris Ford reported harassing phone calls. Police responded to dozens of complaints from both Marie Hilley and Doris Ford.
Marie and her daughter, Carol, moved in first with Franks sister Freeda, then with his mother Carrie Hilley. The strange occurrences began again - small fires, cut phone lines, and, increasingly, a tendency in Carrie Hilley toward nausea and vomiting.
Carol Hilley first became ill in April, 1979. Now nineteen and a freshman at a nearby college, she returned to her high school for its annual Junior-Senior Prom. As the party wore on Carol became nauseated. It wasnt serious enough to impinge upon her gaiety, so she ignored it, concentrating on having a good time. The following day, though, the nausea returned with a vengeance. Carol left church services early and vomited in the parking lot. On returning home she discovered that her grandmother, Carrie Hilley, was in the hospital after fainting at church. Carol accompanied Marie to the hospital, where she was sick all afternoon.
After that, Carol Hilley would not be completely well again for a long, long time. Over the summer she grew sicker and weaker. But she was still feisty, and although she was becoming increasingly dependent on Maries care, she insisted on moving into her own apartment. Marie was a constant presence there, expressing concern and acting as Carols caretaker. She administered Carols various medicines and cooked for her. She took her to several doctors, none of who was able to explain with any certainty what Carols torturous symptoms meant. The nausea and vomiting, now almost constant, were accompanied by tingling sensations in her hands and feet and ever-worsening muscle weakness.
In August Carol was admitted to Regional Medical Center in Anniston for the fourth time since April. Carol was despondent and expressed a desire to die. Doctors admitted Carol to the psychiatric ward at Carraway Methodist Hospital in Birmingham.
Carol, confined to the hospital, could not know that her mother was rapidly becoming entangled in her own web of lies and misdeeds. Several checks Marie had written had bounced. The bank filed charges, and Marie was arrested, and then released on bail. In Florida, Mike Hilley was slowly coming to the conclusion that his father had not died of natural causes.
But it was Eve Cole who sounded the final alarm. Eve was Carols friend from church, and she had been present at Carols apartment one night during the summer when Marie had given Carol an injection. When she called Carol at Carraway Methodist, Carol mentioned offhandedly that Marie had given her more injections during her hospitalization. Concerned, Eve told Carols Aunt Freeda, who called Mike Hilley, who in turn called his sister to find out the truth. Yes, she told him, Marie had given her shots.
On September 20, 1979, Marie was arrested again on more check charges and the rest of Carols family took the opportunity to reveal their suspicions to Carol’s doctor new doctor. Though the story was fantastic, Dr. Thompson took it seriously. He checked Carols fingernails and toenails for Aldridge-Mees lines, white deposits clearly visible in the nails of those whove been dosed with arsenic. The lines appeared on every nail. Dr. Thompson felt sure that further tests would reveal that Carol Hilley was loaded with arsenic, and had been so for a long time.
Upon hearing his sisters diagnosis, Mike Hilley wrote a long letter to the Calhoun County Coroner regarding an exhumation of his father’s body. He recounted his fathers rapid decline and death, his grandmother Lucille Fraziers death, Marie’s various financial troubles, and Carol’s illness.
Marie, still in jail on check charges, was now officially under suspicion of murder and attempted murder.
Subsequent developments were as stunningly rapid as Carols poisoning had been agonizingly slow. Frank Hilleys body was exhumed on October 3, 1979. Three days later, Freeda Adcock searched the house where Marie and Carol had lived with Carrie Hilley and found a pill bottle half full of liquid. Tests proved the liquid was arsenic. Arsenic was also found in a pill bottle Marie had in her purse when she was arrested. Evidence mounted, and Marie was charged with the attempted murder of her daughter. Meanwhile, the toxicology reports from Frank Hilleys exhumation came back and arsenic was present in his tissues at many times the normal level, though it was too soon to tell conclusively if the poison had been the cause of his death. The day after the toxicology reports were released, Lucille Fraziers body was exhumed - arsenic in her tissues ranged from four to ten times the normal level, though it was cancer that finally killed her.
Marie was released on bond on November 11, 1979, and Wilford Lane, her attorney, took her to Birmingham to stay at a motel. On November 18, when Wilford Lane and his wife came to the motel to visit Marie, they discovered she was missing. Maries clothes were strewn about the room, her suitcase lay on the floor, and her purse had been emptied onto a bed. All that seemed missing were her wallet, credit cards and checkbook. A note scrawled on motel stationery read, Lane, you led me straight to her. You will hear from me.
On that same day Carrie Hilley died of cancer in Anniston. Tests done on strands of her hair in the previous weeks had indicated elevated arsenic levels. Marie Hilley was now suspected of poisoning at least four people.
Maries trail went cold almost immediately. Back in Anniston, the final toxicology reports from Frank Hilley’s exhumation had come in. Marie was indicted on January 11, 1980 for the murder of her husband.
Authorities brought Marie back to Anniston on January 19, 1983. It took the jury just three hours to come to its verdict. Marie Hilley was guilty of the murder of Frank Hilley and of the attempted murder of Carol Hilley.
On June 9, 1983, Marie entered Tutwiler State Womens Prison in Wetumpka, Alabama. Despite reports that she talked constantly of escape and had reportedly made plans for a break out, she was reclassified in 1985 as a minimum security prisoner, which made her eligible for passes and leaves from the prison. In late 1986 her first eight-hour pass was approved. That pass and three others came and went with no trouble; Marie returned to Tutwiler promptly each time, and by February, 1987 she had qualified for a three-day furlough. On February 19, she left Tutwiler Prison for the last time.
Marie was missing for four days. It was rainy and cold on February 26 when police were called to a house near Blue Mountain. A strange, delirious woman was on Sue Crafts porch and she needed help. She said her name was Sellers and that her car had broken down. She was suffering from hypothermia. Sue Craft did not recognize the woman as Marie Hilley, though she had known Marie years before. Within a few minutes Marie lost consciousness and began convulsing, and her heart stopped in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. No one knew how long shed been wandering, but her body temperature had fallen to 81 degrees. Marie Hilley, who had always aspired to wealth and position, died an ugly, lonely death very near her childhood home.