Every small town has that one notorious crime. In Anniston and Calhoun County, that distinction belongs to the Black Widow.
When word spread in December that a film crew from the Investigation Discovery network was in Anniston, everyone knew it was for Marie Hilley, the housewife who killed her husband, Frank, with arsenic in 1975 and attempted to do the same to her daughter, Carol.
Marie was arrested, freed on bond and escaped to Florida, where she lived under a fake identity, married a man named John Homan and moved with him to New Hampshire.
She disappeared again, then returned home wearing a blond wig and pretending to be the sister of Homan’s supposedly deceased wife. Marie was caught in 1983 and returned to Anniston, where she was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In February 1987, while on a weekend furlough from Tutwiler State Prison in Wetumpka, Hilley escaped once again. She spent several days in the woods in the freezing rain before collapsing on a stranger’s porch near her childhood home. She quickly died of a heart attack due to hypothermia.
The saga became a Lifetime movie in 1991 and was covered on ID’s "Deadly Women."
Stephen Oxenham, producer/director for Arrow Media in London, couldn’t provide details on the current Hilley project, stating only that the "show will not be airing for a few more months."
While the story may be old news, Michael Hilley, Marie’s eldest child, understands why the Black Widow saga makes for compelling TV.
"If she had just murdered my father, gotten caught and went to prison, nobody would think twice about it," said Hilley, who now lives in Jacksonville, Fla. "But it’s the unknown that keeps people interested. How this professional housewife and loving mother could do the bizarre stuff she did … she had this secret life going on and nobody knew, nobody saw it."
Michael Hilley agreed to participate in the upcoming project after politely declining most interview requests over the years. His sister, Carol, who still lives in the Jacksonville area, is "done with all that," he said.
Michael has his own reasons for talking. When friends learned his story, they’d often say he should write a book — an idea that sounded about as exciting as "living on a submarine for six months," he said.
But the idea quietly took hold, and in 1985 he started writing off and on. By 1994, the book was finished, save for the final chapter. It remained, untouched, in Michael’s closet for 10 years.
"Every time I saw it, there was this guilt that gnawed at me," he said.
A couple of years ago, Michael started editing the 600-plus manuscript with the intent of finally sending it to a publisher.
"When ID called, I thought it might be a marketing ploy to be able to tell a publisher, ‘Hey, sure, this is ancient history, but there’s still interest,’" he said.
With that, Michael intends to close the Black Widow chapter of his life for good, save for one last thing. If the book is published, it will be dedicated to Carol
"She went through more than anybody else," Michael said. "It shows an incredible strength and persistence of character that she’s still standing."
Brett Buckner is a freelance writer for The Anniston Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.