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Killer Clown Case Resolved by Defense Investigator

by Kendra Budd, Editor

After nearly 30 years, the famous Palm Beach, Florida “Killer Clown” case has finally reached a conclusion via a shocking plea deal. Sheila Keen-Warren has officially pled guilty to second-degree murder in a Florida courtroom—in exchange for a reduced sentence, including time already served. Keen-Warren has been in prison since 2017 and her attorneys expect her to be out within the next ten months.

However, anyone who has been following the case might recall that originally the prosecution was seeking the death penalty. So, why was the plea deal introduced as an alternative instead? Well, once the defense brought in their own private investigator, the prosecution’s case began to derail. Dan Riemer, a private investigator for over 27 years, owner of South Florida PI and the current President of the Florida Association of Licensed Investigators (FALI), was brought in as a criminal defense investigator for Keen-Warren’s legal team. He looked back on the 30-year-old case and found several flaws in the original investigation. From possible cross-contamination of evidence to conflicting eyewitness testimonies, it was clear to Riemer that there were too many holes in this case to be ignored.

Here is what he told us.

The Case
On the morning of May 26th, 1990, Marlene Warren answered her door to be met with—surprisingly—a clown. The clown handed Warren balloons and a bouquet of carnations, before shooting her in the face. Her then 21-year-old son Joe Ahrens witnessed the attack, along with some friends—each confirming the clown calmly walked back to their car and drove away. Two days later, Warren was pronounced dead.

A month later, detectives discovered a car abandoned in a parking lot which they believed to be the getaway car. The car had previously been repossessed by Bargain Motors, a company owned by Michael Warren, Marlene Warren’s husband. Inside the vehicle was brown hair and orange fibers—the hair was believed to belong to the murderer and the orange fibers to that of a clown wig.

Upon further investigation, it was alleged that Marlene Warren’s husband, Michael, was having an affair with Keen-Warren—whom he would marry 12 years after the murder. Both have denied this claim, but detectives viewed the husband as a key suspect for several years due to the nature of the accusation. Investigators even searched Keen-Warren’s apartment and found an orange fiber matching the one found in the suspected getaway car. However, the evidence was too circumstantial to pin either to the case.

Leads poured into investigators, but the majority led to dead ends. Grocery store workers recall someone purchasing a balloon and flowers similar to those found at the crime scene—but could never give an in-depth description of the person. Only that the individual had long brown hair, was tall, and skinny. Meanwhile, two women who owned a costume shop told detectives they sold a clown costume to someone who also had long brown hair, but was “androgynous” and they couldn’t tell if they were a man or woman. However, all of the witnesses agreed that the person was at least six feet tall. All leads seemingly ended there.

Reopening a Cold Case
The case went cold due to lack of evidence until 2014 when the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office reopened it. Detectives re-interviewed all witnesses, examined the evidence again as well as submitted it for DNA analysis.

Upon examining the brown hairs for a second time, detectives alleged it to be an exact match to Keen-Warren. Then, a new orange fiber had been found on the balloon strings, which had been missed before—confirming it to be the same as the one in the getaway car as well as the one found in Keen-Warren’s apartment. Detectives now believed they had enough evidence to prove Keen-Warren was indeed the killer clown and a grand jury indicted her of the crime in 2017. What the defense team uncovered over the next few years would ultimately lead to the shocking plea deal. So, how did the defense untangle these accusations?

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The Defense Investigator
Shortly after Keen-Warren was indicted, her defense team brought in their own defense investigator: Dan Riemer. Riemer has been an investigator for 27 years now—specializing in criminal defense investigations.

When he was brought into this case, he was shocked by the lack of evidence the detectives actually had. “In a criminal defense case, our job isn’t to prove ‘who-done-it’ but rather to prove there is reasonable doubt. And this case was filled with plenty of reasonable doubt,” explains Riemer.

One of the ways defense investigators find reasonable doubt is by discovering or following up on leads that detectives, for one reason or another, had dismissed or failed to pursue. This includes studying the police report front and back and uncovering anything the prosecution may have tried to hide. Here is what Riemer’s investigation uncovered.

Contaminated Evidence
One of the first things Riemer does as a defense investigator is to look at the reputation of the Sheriff’s office employees involved. The Palm Beach Sherriff’s Office evidence room was less than satisfactory, according to Riemer. Riemer tells us that in 1999 the Palm Beach County Auditor was sent to examine the evidence room. “Let’s just say they found cases that were misplaced and evidence that was mixed into other cases,” reports Riemer.

In fact, that same report mentioned the “Killer Clown” case as one of the several improperly stored cases. “The bags were ripped open and were lying on the ground, mixed with other evidence. So the evidence they were holding was basically contaminated,” Riemer argues. The prosecution would go on to defend the evidence citing that only the outer bags of evidence were torn, not the inner bags.

Unfortunately for the prosecution, once their forensics expert took the stand during pre-trial and was trying to retrieve a balloon string from an evidence bag, the string fell out of a tear in the bag—a gasp could be heard throughout the court room. These were the same balloon strings that had the orange fiber tangled in it, which hadn’t been found years prior. Keen-Warren’s defense quickly called for the evidence to be dismissed, however the judge ruled against it.

Although the evidence was still in play, the defense was able to raise enough reasonable doubt in the court, especially once the world saw the balloon strings fall in the forensic expert’s lap—literally. The defense team’s discovery had the prosecution now scrambling.

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DNA Evidence
Remember the hair that detectives found in the car, claiming that it was a 100 percent match to Keen-Warren? Well according to Riemer, that’s not exactly true.

“All the DNA evidence proved was that the hair could potentially belong to Keen-Warren, otherwise it was inconclusive. It was never an exact match that the prosecution claimed it to be,” Riemer tells us. Indeed, the hair found in the alleged getaway car was never actually fully proven to be Keen-Warren’s, just that it was a possibility.

Even if it was in fact Keen-Warren’s hair, it wasn’t odd that it would have been found in the car. “She repossessed cars for Bargain Motors, possibly the one in question. Keen-Warren even said herself that would likely be an explanation as to why her hair would be in there. She had nothing to hide,” Riemer says.

Although it was possible that Keen-Warren was in the car, it still remained unknown if the hair was left behind in the car before or after the murder. Nor was it ever fully proven to be her hair. Once again, the defense chalked this up as circumstantial evidence, rather than forensic.

Eyewitness Testimony
In this case, there were three sets of highly influential eyewitnesses: the store clerks who sold the balloons and flowers, the costume shop owners, and of course, Warren’s son.

Riemer’s job was to closely examine each of these witnesses and their testimonies, including anything they said outside of their original statements. Riemer first called attention to the two store clerks. “They described a woman who was very young, tall and extremely skinny, but they never picked anybody out of the lineup or anything.” Although Keen-Warren matched the description for someone that was very young and skinny, she was anything but tall. In fact, considering that this store was the only one in the area to sell the type of balloon found at the crime scene, it seemed odd that they wouldn’t show the store clerks a lineup, but instead only went off the description.

Riemer then took an in-depth look at the two costume shop owners—having quite a bit of an “off-feeling” about them. “I think these ladies might have been in it for the publicity,” Riemer theorizes. He goes on to say that the two women were often on the news, spouting the story of Keen-Warren who came in just before closing to get the costume. Even though they originally said they couldn’t tell if whomever was purchasing the costume was a man or a woman, they remembered they were tall—again, conflicting with Keen-Warren’s actual description.

However, when shown a lineup, the two women both pointed to Keen-Warren, but Riemer says that isn’t as cut and dry as everyone makes it out to be. “Back then, sometimes cops would [put] their thumb on the picture that they want you to point to while they’re holding up a lineup,” Riemer explains. While it isn’t clear whether or not that happened in this case, Riemer iterates that at this point in time, DNA evidence wasn’t as available and as perfected as what it is today, which is why many cops use this technique to get a case solved. It could be a potential explanation as to why they might have pointed her out.

Finally, Riemer investigated every claim Warren’s son, Joe Ahrens, had made about the killer clown. In Ahrens’ original statement, he said that the clown was about six feet tall, seemed to be a man, and had “man-like” hands. Hardly fitting of Keen-Warren’s description. His girlfriend Jean Platt was also certain that the killer had light blue eyes. In the early days of the murder investigation, “Ahrens was adamant in a radio interview that the killer had blue eyes, not brown,” Riemer tells us. Meaning Ahrens had two conflicting recollections—not making him the most reliable witness.

In fact, according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, “Studies have shown that mistaken eyewitness testimony accounts for about half of all wrongful convictions. Researchers at Ohio State University examined hundreds of wrongful convictions and determined that roughly 52 percent of the errors resulted from eyewitness mistakes.” The fact that the prosecution relied so heavily on eyewitness testimony is troublesome and was something Riemer wanted to address in his findings.

The Runaway Mechanic
Most of the public seems to believe that Keen-Warren was the only lead that police had, which is why they pursued her so heavily—however, according to Riemer that isn’t the case. “One section of the [police] report mentions a woman who lives in Hope Sound calling to leave a tip,” explains Riemer, but for some reason detectives never followed up on the lead.

After 27 years, Riemer became the first to investigate this woman’s tip further. Riemer found out the woman lived in an apartment building with her fiancé when the murder happened. A couple of days after Warren’s death, another building tenant (we’ll call her Jane) was frantically moving out. Riemer says the resident who left the tip (the witness) went to look at Jane’s place to see what she was selling. “The witness told me that Jane’s apartment was cluttered with clown memorabilia, figurines, and clown costumes hanging on the wall. However, what was really odd was that Jane had a photograph of Warren on her kitchen counter,” recounts Riemer. By this time, everyone knew the picture of Warren well from news stories, so there was no mistaking who it was.

Upon further investigation, Riemer was able to identify Jane since the witness was able to remember the apartment number of Jane’s unit. “Jane was 17-years-old and she had just gotten her driver’s license.” Riemer details. Not only that, but the witness who offered the tip also reported that Jane was about six feet tall, had blue eyes, and “dirty, man-like hands”—matching the description of the eyewitness testimony more so than that of Keen-Warren.

Riemer even decided to look into if there was anyone else who lived in the unit, perhaps a possible boyfriend. What he found, was shocking, “Sure enough, a mechanic that worked for Bargain Motors was also living in the apartment with Jane at the time. He fled weeks after the murder took place, leaving the girl high and dry.” Talk about a coincidence! Remember those dirty, man-like hands that were mentioned earlier? A mechanic could easily fit that description as well.

Both “Jane” and the mechanic appear to have been viable suspects that the original detectives overlooked. Why none of the prosecution’s investigators ever followed up on this lead is unclear, however Riemer’s job is not to speculate on such things. With this newfound information, Riemer knew he had more than enough evidence to introduce reasonable doubt to the jury. Now, the prosecution’s argument was looking weaker and weaker.

The Plea Deal
As a result of Riemer’s diligent investigation, the defense team was able to present viable counter-arguments to each piece of evidence the prosecution introduced. The prosecution began to realize they did not have nearly enough forensic nor hard-hitting circumstantial evidence to convince a jury to convict Keen-Warren of murder, let alone secure a death-penalty conviction.

“The case was so weak, that the state attorney came to the defense two weeks before the trial and asked to work out a plea deal,” Riemer recounts. All Keen-Warren had to do was plead to second degree murder in exchange for a shorter sentence, including time already served. The prosecution and defense came to an agreement that she would plead guilty and get a 12-year sentence. However, according to Riemer, the prosecution didn’t account for something called “gain time.”

Gain time is “when you’re a model prisoner with no disciplinary actions ever needed, you can cut your sentence up to 85 percent in this present day,” Riemer informs us. This means that even though initially Keen-Warren was looking at serving about six more years in prison, Keen-Warren would be sentenced under 1990 guidelines since that is when the crime occurred. Gain time in 1990 was day for day or 50%. So she could be out in the next four months. “Ultimately, she chose to take the plea, even though she’s innocent. She’s got a murder conviction, but she doesn’t care. She’s 69 years old, and her friends know she didn’t do it. She’s guaranteed an out rather than gambling with a jury,” Riemer suggests.

Rather than risking a life sentence, Keen-Warren decided to put an end to her suffering by taking the plea deal. She still maintains her innocence, and Riemer and her defense believe it.

Final Thoughts
Without Riemer’s investigation, it is hard to determine whether or not Keen-Warren would have been offered the plea deal. This case is a great example of why criminal defense investigators play such a crucial role in our justice system—helping to overturn, avoid or soften wrongful convictions.

Riemer says criminal defense investigations are more than just a lucrative business, “These cases are serious. You could be what is standing between life or death.” Although this case didn’t turn out with an innocent verdict, Keen-Warren’s defense team expects her to be released within the next few months—largely thanks to Riemer.

Remember, a criminal defense investigator isn’t meant to prove who committed the crime, but rather provide enough reasonable doubt to exonerate their client. Riemer did just that.

Stay safe out there!

About the Author
Kendra Budd is the Editor of Working PI magazine and the Marketing Coordinator for OREP, a leading provider E&O insurance and General Liability policies for private investigators—trusted by over 12,000 professionals. She graduated with a BA in Theatre and English from Western Washington University, and with an MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University. She is currently based in Seattle, WA.

We’re always listening: Send your story submission/idea to the Editor: kendra@orep.org.

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