Page last updated at 10:33 GMT, Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Tangled web of 'Black Widow' case

Grandmother Betty Neumar has had five husbands, some of whom died in suspicious circumstances. As she awaits trial in the US over the death of husband number four, film-maker Norman Hull investigates whether the woman known as 'The Black Widow' could really have been a serial killer.

Betty Neumar
Betty's daughters say she was 'dealt a bad hand'

For 22 years, Al Gentry begged investigators to take another look at the mystery surrounding the death of his brother.

Harold was shot six times in the home he shared with his wife Betty in North Carolina. The police investigation revealed no motive and no suspect.

Al was sure he knew the identity of the murderer and visited the sheriff's office dozens of times.

In 2007, Betty was arrested. The 77-year-old is now awaiting trial, charged with hiring a hit-man to shoot her husband.

Marriages revealed

"This is something I've been waiting a long time for," Al told me.

Betty, who says she was in Augusta, Georgia, the day her husband was killed, showed no emotion when she returned home to the news, he claims.

"If she had gotten out of that car with tears in her eyes and asked me why would anybody kill Harold, I would never have suspected her at all," he said.

Harold Gentry
Harold Gentry was shot six times in his home in North Carolina

Al believes Betty hired someone to kill Harold because he was seeing another woman.

After her arrest, authorities discovered that Betty had been married five times, and that each union had ended with the death of the husband.

The American media had a field day, suggesting that Betty had murdered all five of her husbands and dubbing her the Black Widow.

But where is the evidence? The more I looked into the story, the more it seemed to me to be a matter of assumption, presumption and speculation.

Born Betty Johnson in 1931 in Ohio, she graduated from high school in 1949, and married Clarence Malone in 1950. She was 18 and he was 19.

They were married for just over a year before they split up. A single shot to the head killed Clarence outside his car repair shop in 1970. His death was ruled a homicide.

Betty Neumar
Clarence Malone, shot to death in 1970
James Flynn, died in New York in 1955
Richard Sills, allegedly shot himself in 1965
Harold Gentry, shot to death in 1986
John Neumar, died from natural causes in 2007

It is unclear when Betty and husband number two, James Flynn, met. But James died in 1955, a year or so after the couple's daughter Peggy was born. Betty told investigators he had "died on a pier" somewhere in New York.

Self-inflicted wound?

A decade later, Betty's third husband Richard Sills was shot dead in the bedroom of the couple's trailer home in Florida.

Peggy, who was 11 at the time, was in the room next door. She heard her mother and stepfather arguing, and then a single gunshot.

"He was laying on the bed and he went in to snorting and he rolled off the bed, and I asked the paramedic if he was dead, and they said to get me out of there - that's all I remember," she said

Betty told police they were alone in the room arguing when he pulled out a gun and shot himself. Authorities, who ruled it a suicide, are now reinvestigating the death.

In 1968 Betty married Harold Gentry. They were together for 18 years before Harold was murdered.

After Harold's death, Betty moved to Augusta, Georgia.

Betty and her daughters, Kelly (right) and Peggy (left)
Betty's daughters say she is a caring, loving mother who has had bad luck

In 1991, she married John Neumar. Sixteen years later, he died from apparent natural causes but with symptoms consistent with arsenic poisoning. He was 76.

Mr Neumar's son, John Neumar Junior, says he was not told about his father's death until he read about it in the newspaper.

"I'm sitting there at work. I found out he was dead when I saw his obituary. When I went to check on him, she had already had him cremated," John told me.

"I mean, it's just strange, why do you do that? I don't think my daddy ever said he wanted to be cremated."

Seemingly frank

After Betty's arrest, Georgia police reinvestigated the death of John Neumar, but could find no evidence of foul play.

Later on it's going to eat their heart out - the hate and discontent that they are living in now will make them miserable
Betty Neumar

Betty's two daughters Peggy and Kelly are convinced of their mother's innocence.

"She has been a caring, loving mother, and she's a loving, caring grandmother. I think that she was dealt a bad hand," Peggy told me.

I also spoke to Richard Sills's biological son Michael, who had never known his father. Michael wanted the case reopened and his father's remains exhumed.

Betty denies all the accusations against her, including soliciting Harold's murder.

Husband number one had been shot, yes, but he and Betty had been separated for 18 years when that happened.

Husband number two froze to death, she says, in a truck in New York.

Al Gentry
Al Gentry says the pain of his brother's murder still haunts him

She describes how husband number three grabbed a gun and shot himself in his side during a drunken row.

She says she was out of town at the time husband number four died, while husband number five's death certificate says he died of sepsis.

When I interviewed her, she described her accusers as "nuts".

"Later on it's going to eat their heart out. The hate and discontent that they are living in now will make them miserable," she said.

And she says accusations that she may have benefited financially from her husbands' deaths are not true.

"I got no insurance from the first one, no insurance from the third one. After Harold died I got $50,000. But as far as all this money and all this stuff goes, there wasn't none," she said.

Despite the torment caused by the accusations, Betty says she is prepared to forgive.

"If you're going to heaven you have to forgive. You don't have to forget, but you do have to forgive," she says.

Al Gentry says the pain of his brother's murder still lingers.

After Betty's arrest, he visited his brother's grave, where he delivered a simple message: "Brother, we got her."

But have they? It has been almost two years since Betty was arrested and no trial date has been set.

Could this little old lady really be a serial killer? Or is she just unlucky in love?

Only Betty knows the answer. But all she will say is: "I cannot control when somebody dies. That's God's work."

Black Widow Granny directed by Norman Hull is on BBC One on Tuesday 3 November at 2235 GMT.

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