Murder most embarrassing

Catherine Shelton isn't exactly the belle of the Dallas bar. In fact, since 1988, when she turned up in Dallas County working court-appointed cases from then-criminal District Judge Tom Price, most of Shelton's brethren at the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts building have given her a wide berth.

It wasn't just her bizarre history back in Houston -- a history everyone seemed to know, in part because Shelton herself would, on occasion, brag about it. No, the problem was that Shelton never played by club rules. She competed aggressively for cases -- in the opinion of some lawyers, too aggressively. She became emotionally wrapped up in her cases, erupting with rage or tears in circumstances others found inappropriate. When crossed, she lashed out at other lawyers and even judges, sometimes physically, more often verbally. She turned federal informant against some of her enemies and simply spread rumors about others -- behavior that led to at least one judge banishing her from his court.

Of course, none of this means she's a murderess. But it's why, for the last two weeks, the courthouse has been humming with gossip. Before Michael Hierro's corpse was cold, the Crowley courthouse knew Shelton was a suspect. Since then, knowing eyes have been studying every move made by Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Toby Shook, who has been put in charge of the investigation into the December 20 murder of Hierro and the attempted murder of his wife, Marisa Hierro.

"It's all everyone at the courthouse is talking about," says one lawyer who has represented Shelton, "and that obviously includes me."

On the q.t., Catherine's own lawyers and sources close to the grand jury investigation say an indictment could come any day; just last week, Shelton's lead criminal attorney, Randy Taylor, was employing various behind-the-scenes maneuvers to find a judge willing to set a bond for his client. (Smart money at the courthouse is betting that, when and if Shelton is arrested, no Dallas County judge will bond her out.) But she may be out for a while yet. As in other recent high-profile cases, the district attorney's office is taking its time on this one. For the last two weeks, Shook has been running Shelton's friends and business acquaintances into the grand jury, using "instanter" subpoenas, which, as the name suggests, command those handed the papers to run on down and sing right now, before they can iron out stories with one another or with counsel. Prosecutors are nailing down testimony, gathering information, being cautious, keeping Shelton under surveillance, and at the same time trying to understand what, exactly, this is all about.

Whatever the district attorney concludes, Shelton's case may leave the State Bar of Texas with quite a shiner. Think The Sopranos is an interesting, morally complex tale? Dramatically speaking, the New Jersey Mob has nothing on Catherine Shelton.

On one side of this TV-movie-in-the-making is Catherine, who, according to news reports, is a suspect in at least two unsolved 20-year-old Houston murders, a woman tried and convicted of assault in yet another attempted murder case, who somehow got her law license back. A woman who, despite numerous grievances filed over the intervening years, has somehow managed to hang on to her ticket. A woman who, the Dallas Observer has learned, has assisted in a Dallas police investigation into illegal solicitation -- barratry -- and other possible business crimes, while at the same time being the subject of a similar probe by the State Bar.

And that's just the start. There's her history as a federal government informant in a mid-'90s probe of corruption at the Frank Crowley criminal courthouse. According to federal law-enforcement sources, Shelton provided information about at least two Dallas County criminal judges -- information that, for a variety of reasons, never netted a corrupt robe. (The investigation ultimately nabbed a couple of lawyers cheating on their taxes, though not necessarily through Shelton's information.) Prior to that, Shelton persuaded one of her good friends, Judith Mercer, then known as Judith Bridges, to challenge in the Republican primary one of the judges who had angered Shelton. Speaking figuratively, Mercer ended up getting slaughtered.

Then there's the allure of Shelton herself, an aging but still attractive woman who in many ways conducts herself like a man, who swears like a man, who runs her business in as hard-nosed a fashion as any man. In person, Shelton is unforgettable: engaging, shrewd, and emotionally volatile. When I interviewed her four years ago in connection with the corruption probe at the Crowley courthouse, the first thing she did was set the ground rules: no quotes, no sourcing of information to her. Once I agreed, the seduction began. I recall that as she pitched her story -- mostly personal asides about a particular judge, all unusable -- she cycled rapidly through moods.

At first she was girl-friendly, full of comments about diet and appearance, then paranoid and distrustful, then forceful. Although aging, she was smartly dressed in a pantsuit and well-groomed, with carefully tended bleached blond hair, quiet makeup, and manicured hands, and it was easy to see that, 20 years earlier, men would have followed her anywhere.

Of course, that's part of Shelton's story -- the whiff of sex, particularly kinky sex. As she told the Dallas Times Herald 20 years ago, she's had "scores" of boyfriends, and marriage allegedly hasn't slowed her down; in a divorce petition, her husband, Clint Shelton, claims she was having an affair.

Then there are the victims, who don't lack character development themselves. The deceased, Michael Hierro, is a former client of Catherine's with a criminal record for robbery. His wife, Marisa, worked for Catherine Shelton from August 1998 until March 1999, when Hierro and Shelton apparently had it out. According to one of Shelton's attorneys, Hierro was developing an immigration-law practice for Shelton, who wished to expand her business; when Hierro and a male lawyer left, Shelton has told several people, the bulk of the immigration-law business left too. Marisa Hierro told R. Michael Thomas, a lawyer who shared an office with Shelton, that the immigration business was earning $60,000 or $70,000 a month. To top it off, a number of these former clients filed grievances against Shelton with the State Bar -- grievances Shelton apparently believed were filed at Marisa's urging.

Worst of all, Shelton also believed that Marisa was the source of a series of anonymous mailings made to the media, to Shelton's clients, and to her neighbors, detailing Shelton's past and warning them away. According to one of Shelton's lawyers, the mailings prompted Shelton to blow the whistle on Marisa's immigration-services business.

If Shelton's allegations are true -- and the Observer has uncovered evidence supporting at least some of her claims -- there may be people other than Shelton who were angry at the Hierros. And one ought to pause before rushing to hang anyone so hated by so many. If she is charged, Shelton may well raise this topic herself, claim she's being set up by her enemies and railroaded by jealous colleagues, crooked judges, and a world that in general doesn't cotton to women acting like men. She will try to portray herself as someone with an extraordinary history of snakebite, a perverse gift for being in the wrong relationship at the right time, and of having made stupid threats.

"I hate to say it," says one courthouse regular who has tangled with Shelton in the past, "but I can almost see somebody setting her up. Some of her associates are so screwy."

Either way, the State Bar would do well to start icing this shiner -- even as its members market the movie rights.

Christine Biederman is a lawyer and former Dallas Observer staff writer.