“Millie” is back in the news again. The Canadian senior citizen has a rap sheet that earned her the nickname “the Black Widow” — a sobriquet that helps trace her crimes across the various aliases that her (not always legal) multiple marriages have provided. As Melissa Stewart, she was convicted of drugging, running over and killing her second husband while still married to the first. As Melissa Friedrich, she defrauded a third husband, who died under suspicious circumstances — then she drugged and defrauded another suitor. Most recently, Melissa Ann Weeks is accused of drugging her brand new groom in an attempt to kill him.
Her early story is simple enough. Born in Burnt Church, New Brunswick, in 1935, Millie moved to Ontario with her family when she was a teenager. In 1955 she met and married a factory worker, Russell Sheppard. They had two children.
Between 1970 and 1985 Melissa Ann Sheppard was convicted on a string of charges of false pretenses fraud, forgery and impersonation (and littering) in Toronto and in Georgetown, Prince Edward Island. But it wasn’t until she was 55 that she began her most serious crimes.
Overkill?: Give Him a Lethal Amount of Benzodiezapene, Hit Him With the Car, Hit Him With the Car Again
In 1988, living on Prince Edward Island, “Millie” took up with widower Gordon Stewart. She and Russell Sheppard weren’t divorced until May 1991, but she wed Stewart in ceremonies in Vancouver and Las Vegas in 1990.
Just before Christmas in 1990, Gordon Stewart, disoriented and foaming at the mouth, was admitted to the hospital. Lab tests showed a large amount of benzodiazepine, a psychoactive drug usually prescribed for insomnia or anxiety. Abuse can lead to overdose, ranging from deep sleep to death; in elderly patients, its side effects can mimic dementia.
At the time, the benzodiazepine didn’t arouse suspicion. Nor did the Stewarts’ tumultuous relationship reveal who the real danger was in this couple.
In 1991, Gordon pleaded guilty to assaulting Millie and he spent some time in jail. A judge issued a restraining order against him in March, but in April they moved together to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Their reconciliation didn’t last long.
On April 27, 1991, Melissa Stewart ran her husband over twice with their car. She reported the death only a few hours later. His autopsy showed a lethal amount of benzodiazepine.
During her trial, she said Stewart had raped her. She was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years. At the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario, she formed a convict support group (once released, she would found Project Another Chance, a counseling line for women prisoners) — and she found herself a star of the National Film Board’s When Women Kill feature.
Melissa Stewart was released in 1994. And she was lonely; or broke.
Another Chance at Love: More Benzodiazepene, Another Death, Plenty of Alleged Fraud
In April 2000, Melissa Stewart wrote to a Florida widower and retired engineer who she had spotted in a Christian Retreat newsletter. She enclosed a photo, and she told Robert Friedrich flat-out that she believed God wanted them to get married. He invited her to visit him the next month, and within three days of her arrival they’d agreed to get married. The wedding was in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on June 23, 2000; she then joined him in Florida.
Over the next two years, his family noticed that Robert increasingly suffered from slurred speech and faltering health. In July 2002, one of his sons complained to the Elder Abuse Line, blaming Millie for his father’s decline. And around that same time, Robert rewrote his will, leaving out his sons and making Millie the sole beneficiary of his full estate.
Robert Friedrich died of cardiac arrest on December 16, 2002. There was no autopsy. Millie continued to cash his Social Security checks before returning to Prince Edward Island in 2004. The Social Security Administration specifies that benefits are due only through the last full month that the beneficiary lives.
Friedrich’s family later saw new reports that made them wondered whether his wife had caused his death. The authorities also regarded Melissa Friedrich with suspicion.
Records show that she held multiple prescriptions for Lorazepam, a potent, fast-acting benzodiazepine. Florida’s Manatee County Sheriff investigated her for “doctor shopping” and prescription fraud, but by the end of 2004 the county decided it didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute her.
By then, Canada’s Department of Human Resources Development had started its own investigation into Melissa Friedrich’s possible involvement in Old Age Security fraud, alleging that she’d bilked the government of over $30,000. But in 2009, they too dropped their investigation.
Meanwhile, Millie met another man.
More Love, More Benzo, More Money
In November 2004, Melissa Friedrich returned to Florida to meet with Alex Strategos, one of several men with whom she’d corresponded on AmericanSinglesDating.com. Not only did she move into the divorced Pittsburgh accountant’s Pinellas Park apartment the night of their first date, but the usual pattern of accidents and ill-health began that very night when he went to the hospital with a head injury. This was the first of his eight hospital visits during their brief relationship; during one of them, he gave her power of attorney.
Strategos later suggested that his beloved might have slipped a drug into his ice cream on that initial dinner date; she served him ice cream most nights. His son noticed benzodiazepine showed up on his father’s blood tests during a January 2005 hospital visit; it was not a drug his father’s doctor had prescribed.
When the son also noticed that $18,000 was missing from his father’s accounts, he called the police. They went after the little old lady.
In March of that year, Melissa Friedrich accepted a plea agreement: grand theft, forgery, and five years in prison.
In 2009, she was freed and deported to Canada. She moved into a seniors complex in Nova Scotia — and eventually started more trouble.
Love! Also, Benzodiazepene, and Attempted Murder
In September 2012, Melissa Friedrich’s whirlwind courtship with a neighbor culminated in a yet another marriage; within a week of the wedding, the 77-year-old bride would be charged with the attempted murder of the groom.
Fred Weeks, 75, had lost his wife of half a century just 18 months earlier. He kept himself busy with cribbage games and karaoke outings, but he was lonely. He welcomed Millie’s attention, marrying her on September 25 after knowing her just a month, but at least one friend was suspicious. George Megeny, a justice of the peace, had seen Millie on a CBC documentary about her alleged crimes, “The Widow’s Web.” Megeny performed their marriage ceremony, but he asked the police to intercept the couple on their way to the ferry that would start their New Foundland honeymoon trip, and to warn Weeks about his bride’s pattern of trouble with the law; unsurprisingly, the police refused to involve themselves in this errand.
Melissa and Fred Weeks checked into the Chambers Guesthouse in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, on September 28th. Millie complained of a rough ferry crossing, and said that her husband wasn’t feeling well. The innkeeper thought she heard someone fall in the night, but Millie insisted everything was fine. The next morning she asked the innkeeper to call an ambulance for Fred — but she insisted on finishing her breakfast first. The innkeeper called for an ambulance — and the police. Paramedics found Fred Weeks on the floor of the couple’s room in the bed & breakfast, weak and disoriented.
On September 30, Weeks’ son called the police, and reported that hospital staff had told him that his new stepmother insisted that Fred Weeks suffered from dementia, and that he had no children. Weeks also has a daughter, and the children agree that their father’s only medical problem is high cholesterol, but police soon found that Millie had also told her neighbors at the Quinway Apartments seniors villa that Weeks was childless and struggled with dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and that he’d had multiple heart attacks.
Millie seemed to be up to her old tricks. Fred Weeks survived the episode and was released, but tests showed a high dose of benzodiazepine in his body. Police confined his wife and searched their apartment. They found 144 tablets of Lorazepam, a small amount of Temazepam, three unlabeled empty bottles, prescriptions from five different doctors, and a suspicious tub of ice cream that would have to be analyzed.
Fred Weeks is still piecing together what happened; he remembers little between the wedding and waking up in the hospital, and he isn’t convinced that they even took that ferry. He’s learned that there was a mistake on their marriage license, and that it means they weren’t in fact married.
Sources on following page.