Clown murder shattered Wellington’s innocence: ‘My friends were fearful’

Updated Sept 29, 2017
May 26, 1990: Palm Beach County detectives examine the doorway where someone dressed as a clown shot and killed Marlene Warren in Wellington. 27 years later, Sheila Keen-Warren has been charged in the crime. (Sherman Zent / The Palm Beach Post)

Violent, brutal crimes were not supposed to happen here.

By 1990, 20,000 newly-arrived residents had moved into this sprawling suburb’s freshly-built homes. They came to send their children to Wellington’s sparkling, modern schools and to play in the pristine parks, amid safety and security.

RELATED: Will suspect in clown killing face death penalty?

For families who could afford the tile-roofed houses with lofty ceilings and a whisper of Mediterranean romance, the sprawling, still-unincorporated, overwhelmingly white western suburb was a quiet, green antidote to rundown neighborhoods on the coast, to troubled schools and street crime stemming from the crack cocaine epidemic.

“At the time, we didn’t lock our doors,” recalled Kathy Foster, one of the village’s founders and its first mayor. “We lived in a bubble of insulation out here.”

Marlene Warren, killed in 1990. Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

When someone dressed as a clown shot Marlene Warren in the face when she opened her front door in the Aero Club neighborhood two days before Memorial Day that year, the blast shattered any illusions that Wellington could insulate itself from the rest of the world.

RELATED: When death knocked on Marlene Warren’s door in a clown suit

“The murder just consumed the community,” said Foster, a Brooklyn native who fought to bring those schools, parks and popular recreational sports leagues to the growing community. “It was very overwhelming to think someone could ring your doorbell and kill you at the front door of your own house.”

Kathy Foster, photographed at her home in Wellington. “There was a real element of fear because nothing like that had happened in Wellington,” she said of the murder of Marlene Warren in 1990. “It really consumed the community for quite some time.” (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Earlier this week, police arrested former Indiantown resident Sheila Keen-Warren, in the 27-year-old cold case. Sheila and Michael Warren, the victim’s husband, were having an affair when police say Sheila donned the clown costume to murder Marlene, after handing her a clutch of balloons.

Twelve years after the murder, Sheila and Michael married in Las Vegas. The pair was driving to their home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia on Tuesday when she was taken into custody.

Sheila Keen-Warren after her arrest on Tuesday. Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

RELATED: The Post’s complete coverage of clown killer case

Nearly three decades later, longtime Wellington residents vividly recall the day the bubble burst.

“There was a sense that the world did reach us that day,” said Foster. “We lived in isolation from reality. It was a case of an awakening, that even in places like Wellington, bad things can happen.”

John McGovern, the village’s vice-mayor, was a sophomore at Wellington High School. “Adults were talking about it. My teenage friends were talking about it. It rocked people,” recalled McGovern.

Michael Drahos, a village councilman, was in his last year at Wellington Landings Middle School that spring. “Even years afterward people would drive by the house and say, ‘That’s where the clown shooting was. Everybody in town drove by to get a look at it.”

The home in Wellington where Marlene Warren was murdered in 1990. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

In Wellington, Keen-Warren’s arrest brought back memories of a fearful summer.

At first, people wondered if the killing had been a random act of madness. Parents kept even closer eyes on their children. Children became afraid of clowns.

“I recall driving around town with my parents, looking into cars to see if there was a clown,” said Drahos.

“My friends were fearful,” remembered McGovern. “Wellington then was a place where you didn’t worry about crime.”

October 2000: Michael Warren in court. (Jim Lee/ The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

But as the weeks went by and investigators focused on used car dealer Michael Warren, most felt it had been a targeted killing.

In the remote Aero Club neighborhood, where about two dozen homes with backyard airplane hangars clustered around a grass airstrip, the other pilot families had kept Michael Warren at arm’s length, longtime resident John Herring recalls.

His house includes an attached hangar where he keeps a Robinson 44 helicopter in which he commutes to his Fort Pierce roof truss company. He also has an aerobatic prop plane and keeps his Citation jet in a friend’s hangar a few doors down.

“It was pretty desolate out here then,” said Herring on Wednesday. “This was back in the cowboy days of Palm Beach County.”

People didn’t always want to know who was landing on the airstrip late at night, said Herring, who recalled some drug trafficking arrests in the community in the 1980s.

But no one expected the kind of violence that killed Marlene Warren.

“We were just, ‘Wow, we can’t believe that happened right here,’” said Herring.

John Herring with his Robinson R44 helicopter at his home in Aero Club in Wellington. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Rough-around-the-edges Michael Warren seemed to have money, but he didn’t fit in among the more sophisticated pilots, according to Herring.

“Michael wasn’t a mover and shaker in the neighborhood, he was kind of an outlier with that used car, rent-a-wreck business,” said Herring. “Things were always happening to him. Someone stole his airplane, it showed up somewhere with a broken engine, someone killed one of his (race) horses. He was that kind of guy.”

One night a few weeks after his wife was killed, Warren and Herring arrived early for a property owners meeting.

“I asked him, ‘So, Mike, do you know who killed your wife? Or did you kill her?’” recalled Herring. “We were sitting there, the first one’s there for the meeting. He said ‘No, no, of course not,’ but he didn’t seem too tore up about it. It was more about, ‘They’re going through my files, they’re going to take my business.’”

Two years later, Michael Warren spent three years in prison for odometer tampering, grand theft and and racketeering. In court, a prosecutor called him a suspect in his wife’s murder, but for nearly 30 years, there was no arrest.

Over the years, Wellington’s clown murder acquired the contours of a suburban legend.

“The murder became like folklore here, ‘the woman killed by a clown that was never solved,’” said Foster, “although Wellington grew so fast that many newer residents never knew about it.”

Today, Wellington is an incorporated community that calls itself a village, although its 64,000 residents make up the fifth largest city in Palm Beach County.

In the Aero Club, houses are priced from $1 million-$5 million. The grass airstrip is now a smooth stretch of pavement, where some owners like Herring land small jets.

Crime isn’t unknown in the village, but violent crime remains rare. This week’s arrest brought back memories of the long ago summer’s fear, along with breathless national news coverage.

“Longtime residents are saying two things: we’re glad this crime has been solved and this is the outcome they always expected,” said McGovern, a little squeamish about being the center of media attention. “I would rather talk about being the winter equestrian capital or that we have the best schools in Palm Beach County.”

For Foster, who has spent 38 years in the community she helped create, the arrest reminded her that the murder betrayed the sense of security people here once felt, but it doesn’t diminish the city’s promise to its families.

“Wellington people,” she said, “still come here to give their children the best life possible.”

Researcher Melanie Mena and reporter Matt Morgan contributed to this story.