FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A clown came to Marlene Warren's door on a May morning in 1990, handed her carnations and balloons and then shot her dead in front of her son. On Tuesday, her husband’s second wife finally pleaded guilty to being the killer, closing a case that is strange even by Florida standards.
Sheila Keen-Warren, 59, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a deal that will likely see her released from prison in no more than two years. Long suspected of being the shooter, Keen-Warren has been jailed awaiting trial for first-degree murder since 2017, when Palm Beach County sheriff's investigators said improvements in DNA technology proved that a hair found in the clown's getaway car came from her. Keen-Warren has insisted, however, that she is not the killer.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said in a statement that the plea deal “obtained a measure of justice” for Marlene Warren and her son. No public notice was given for Tuesday's plea hearing in West Palm Beach, which otherwise would have drawn a throng of reporters and spectators. Instead, it was handled quietly during Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer’s lunch break from another murder trial.
“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. She will be a convicted murderer for the rest of her days,” Aronberg said.
Her attorney, Greg Rosenfeld, told The Associated Press in a phone interview that “this is an incredible win for Ms. Keen-Warren," still insisting she is not the killer. Keen-Warren has said she is not the killer.
The deal calls for a 12-year sentence, but Keen-Warren has already served six years awaiting trial. Also, Florida law in 1990 allowed significant time off for good behavior, so Rosenfeld expects her to be released early next year.
Her trial was set to start next month, and if convicted she would have received a life sentence. If she had received a life sentence, she likely would have been paroled after serving 25 years. Originally, prosecutors sought a death sentence but eventually dropped that.
“The State of Florida originally wanted to execute her, but now she is going home in 10 months," Rosenfeld said. “While it was difficult to plead guilty to a crime she did not commit, it was kind of a no-brainer when there is a guarantee that you will be home with your family.”
Aronberg's office disputes Rosenfeld's claim, saying she will be in prison at least two more years.
Marlene Warren's son, Joseph Ahrens, watched the proceeding online. Only 21 when he saw his mother murdered and now in his 50s, his only message to the court and Keen-Warren was, may God be with her.
The trial was delayed numerous times by the COVID-19 pandemic and fights over evidence.
At the time of the shooting, Keen-Warren was an employee of Marlene Warren’s husband, Michael, at his used car lot. Since 2002, she has been his wife — they eventually moved to Abington, Virginia, where they ran a restaurant just across the Tennessee border.
Witnesses had told investigators in 1990 that then-Sheila Keen and Michael Warren were having an affair, though both denied it.
Over the years, detectives said, costume shop employees identified Sheila Warren as the woman who had bought a clown suit a few days before the killing.
And one of the two balloons — a silver one that read, “You’re the Greatest” — was sold at only one store, a Publix supermarket near her home. Employees told detectives a woman who looked like Keen-Warren had bought the balloons an hour before the shooting.
The presumed getaway car was found abandoned with orange, hair-like fibers inside. The white Chrysler convertible had been reported stolen from Michael Warren’s car lot a month before the shooting. Keen-Warren and her then-husband repossessed cars for him.
Relatives told The Palm Beach Post in 2000 that Marlene Warren, who was 40 when she died, suspected her husband was having an affair and wanted to leave him. But the car lot and other properties were in her name, and she feared what might happen if she did.
She allegedly told her mother, “If anything happens to me, Mike done it.” He has never been charged and has denied involvement.
But Rosenfeld said the state's case was falling apart. One DNA sample somehow showed both male and female genes, and the other could have come from one out of every 20 women — even Marlene Warren, he said.
And even if that hair did come from Keen-Warren, it could have been deposited before the car was reported stolen. He said Ahrens and another witness also told detectives that the car deputies found wasn't the killer's, though investigators insisted it was.
Aronberg, in his statement, conceded that there were holes in the case, saying they were caused by the three decades it took to get it to trial, including the death of key witnesses.
Michael Warren was convicted in 1994 of grand theft, racketeering and odometer tampering. He served almost four years in prison — a punishment his then-attorneys said was disproportionately long because of suspicions he was involved in his wife's death.
Michael Warren did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.