Texas Love Triangle Murder Plot: Who Was the True Mastermind?

Who was behind the failed murder plot against a wealthy lawyer's wife?

April 5, 2012, 4:09 PM

April 6, 2012 — -- It will go down as one of the most unusual criminal cases in American history. Jeffrey Stern, 55, of Bellaire, Texas, stands trial next week for being the alleged mastermind of the failed plot to murder his wife, 54 year-old Yvonne Stern. And she will be standing by his side even though he is charged with trying to have her killed, fully convinced that he has been wrongly accused.

The story of Yvonne Stern's escape from death and surprising forgiveness began on Feb. 11, 2010, when bullets were fired into their family's stately million-dollar home. As Yvonne told "20/20" anchor Chris Cuomo in her first television interview, "I sleep with ear plugs. I didn't hear anything."

It wasn't until the next day that they discovered that a bullet was lodged in their living room chair and had shattered an upstairs window.

Watch the full story on the latest episode of "20/20."

Such events are pretty much unheard of in this wealthy Houston suburb. They were convinced there was no way they could be the target of something more sinister than a drive-by shooting or a robbery gone wrong.

PHOTOS: Dangerous Love Triangle

Yet the random shooting theory was quickly shattered when just weeks later, someone rang their doorbell after 10 p.m.

"Approaching the door, [I] still saw no one, and then I see this man jump out of the wall with a gun in his hand and a smirk on his face."

The gunman fired through the door at Yvonne but missed his mark.

"The bullet hit the floor and ricocheted on the opposite wall. ... He barely missed," Yvonne said.

The police and the Sterns were now convinced that somebody was in fact trying to kill them. Yvonne and the kids moved to a nearby apartment while Jeffrey Stern worked to secure his home, spending $75,000 on over a half-dozen security cameras, spotlights, and bullet-proof glass for the front door. Jeffrey Stern, a successful personal injury lawyer, wondered if he was the target, his lawyer said.

"He was just terrified," according to Jeffrey Stern's attorney, Paul Nugent. "He had a lot of suspicions, maybe an ex-client, who knows."

Even former boxing champ Evander Holyfield fell under Jeffrey's suspicions. Holyfield once starred in ads promoting Stern's law practice but their relationship ended in a legal dispute.

But on May 5, 2010, it became clear who the bullets were meant for. Yvonne headed to her Cadillac Escalade in a gated parking garage at her new apartment building and yet another hitman appeared out of nowhere.

"I see someone jump out of their car," Yvonne recalled. "And I see him coming toward me with a gun pointed to me."

The gunman came to her car, pointed the gun to her head, walked away, then turned around and fired one round. The bullet went through Yvonne's purse and into her stomach before lodging in her right hip. She played dead and waited until the gunman drove away before driving herself to a nearby gas station.

When the ambulance arrived, Yvonne begged, "Please don't let me die -- not like this. ... I have children. I have family."

Though she'd been face to face with at least two different gunmen and survived three shootings on her life in three months, Yvonne Stern's ordeal was far from over.

While she was recuperating from her serious injuries, detectives showed her an 8 by 10 mugshot of a suspect that they said was the person who wanted her dead. Yvonne, expecting to see the face of one of the gunmen who shot at her, was instead staring at the face of a woman she didn't recognize.

'An Intense Affair'

Yvonne, who had just survived a bullet through the stomach, was about to get a shot to the heart. She learned from the police that the woman in the picture, someone who would stop at nothing to have her killed, was Michelle Gaiser – her husband's longtime lover.

Gaiser was an officer manager for another local law firm who had carried on a torrid affair with Jeffrey Stern for several years.

"They had an intense affair," explained Paul Nugent, Jeffrey Stern's attorney. "But she wasn't pressuring Jeff. ... There was zero talk about marriage."

Nugent claims that, unknown to Jeffrey, his mistress had developed a deep hatred of Yvonne. "Michelle Gaiser knew that Jeffrey Stern was very happy with his wife and his children, and maybe that's what she despised."

"She worked for a law firm by day," Nugent further explained, "and by night she was meeting with hitmen trying to murder Jeff Stern's wife."

Spending thousands of dollars, Gaiser had hired a revolving door of hitmen who, luckily for Yvonne, couldn't get the job done. By the third failed attempt, Gaiser was furious.

"She [Gaiser] literally cried when she learned that the hitmen failed and Yvonne didn't die," said Nugent.

Gaiser was finally arrested after she was caught on tape trying to hire yet a fourth hitman to murder Yvonne and then charged with solicitation of capital murder.

Yvonne initially did what one would expect – she called it quits. She filed for divorce and moved with the kids to their Aspen, Colo. vacation home.

But for the next few months, Jeffrey Stern sent flowers, called, wrote, visited, begged for forgiveness -- and, finally won her back. Despite the bad, Yvonne describes Jeff as her "soulmate" and decided their marriage was worth saving.

"He was a victim too, of (Gaiser's) trickery," Yvonne told Chris Cuomo. Her husband, she said, "had a moment -- (a) middle-aged crisis."

Yvonne Stern's forgivness was even more striking because police told her that they believed her husband was guilty of more than just infidelity. Jeffrey Stern, they alleged, was the mastermind behind the plot to kill Yvonne.

After her arrest, Gaiser had told police that it was Stern who initiated their affair -- that he wooed her with diamond jewelry and tried to impress her with his wealth. And, she said, he eventually had her programmed to do whatever he wanted.

Gasier's lawyers claim Jeffrey Stern even paid his mistress' bills. But soon, they said, Stern went from "sugar daddy" to something more sinister.

They said he "groomed" Gaiser for four years until she heeded his every command..

"We're talking about a lot of extremely deviant sexual behavior that was part of the grooming process. He would get her to do something that was past what she was comfortable with," said lawyer Deborah Keyser. "And if she didn't do it then she was punished."

Eventually, they said, Jeffrey Stern told Gaiser to find someone to hurt Yvonne Stern.

Jeffrey Stern "was hateful about his wife...He was wanting her out of there but he didn't want to lose half of his money and he didn't want to lose his children," Keyser said.

Jeffrey Stern has denied the allegations. His lawyer told "20/20" that Gaiser, who agreed to plead guilty to solicitation of capital murder last year, had good reason to implicate her former lover -- in exchange for her testimony against Jeffrey Stern, prosecutors agreed to reduce her possible life sentence to a maximum of 25 years in prison.

"Michelle Gaiser is caught red-handed. She has no defense. Her only way out is to come up with a story...And she's cut a very sweetheart deal."

The Harris County District Attorney will put Jeffrey Stern on trial next week for soliciting to have his wife murdered.

Yvonne Stern is continuing to stand by her man. She said there's "no way" her husband could have been involved in the plot to kill her but rather believes they are both victims of a fatal attraction.

"It's preposterous," she said.

Her confidence comes in part from what she sees as the sheer sloppiness of the failed murder scheme.

It's "the biggest joke of all," she said. "Jeff Stern's the mastermind. Is this the plot of a mastermind? My husband is brilliant. He's smart. He's talented. He would never be capable of doing such a terrible job."

Relatives and friends have set up a Facebook page in support of the Stern family. It has 17 members.

Watch the full story on the latest episode of "20/20."

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