Texas doctor accused of hiring hapless hit-man to kill esteemed love rival
05/22/2017 2:40 pm PDT
UPDATES March 7, 2019:
Two jurors serving during Mike Dixon's first trial held out on reasonable doubt. The case was ruled a mistrial, which eventually forced a second trial in 2016, which resulted in Dixon's conviction — a ruling that was ultimately overturned on an appeal, ABC News reports.
Dixon was released on bail, waiting to see if prosecutors are successful in their bid to get getting the state's highest criminal court to reinstate his conviction, ABC News reports. If they are not, they may take him to trial for a third time for the same first-degree murder charges he faced years ago, ABC News reports
Money, mansions and murder: An unbelievable love story that ended with one man dead and a surprising suspect in handcuffs.
A rich, dashing Texas doctor is found shot and stabbed to death in the garage of his luxury home. And the investigation into the shocking murder of esteemed pathologist Dr. Joseph Sonnier becomes a mystery of cinematic proportions, with a cast of players that includes Sonnier's beautiful new girlfriend and another rich doctor obsessed with stealing her away.
For his children, the 2012 murder of Dr. Sonnier in Lubbock, Texas was a tragic and astounding case of lightning striking twice in the same place.
Their father would die almost exactly two years to the day after their mother Becky, his ex-wife, was shot dead by her second husband in a bloody murder-suicide.
"Losing one parent would be enough to crawl in a hole and give up on everything, but in our case we lost both parents and lost them within two years of each other, both under incredibly tragic circumstances," said Dallas Sonnier.
On July 11, 2012, Dr. Joseph Sonnier was found savagely murdered, shot five times and stabbed 11 times, lying in a pool of blood next to a Gatorade bottle used to silence the gun.
The brutality is painfully reminiscent of the horribly violent way Dr. Sonnier's ex-wife died. Their mother's killing was emotionally devastating for her children.
"The boys loved their mother, and there was a lot of grief and anger and a great sadness because it was so unnecessary," said Sonnier's sister Missy Bartlett.
It also deeply hurt their father, who had been married to Becky for nearly 30 years.
"He still loved my mom, and the fact that they had gotten a divorce didn't mean that he didn't look back fondly on the years of our family being together," said Dallas Sonnier.
And Dr. Sonnier continued to be a tower of strength for the family.
"Joe immediately took over and handled funeral arrangements, legalities, helped his boys through the trauma of it all," said Bartlett. "Joe was there for his sons."
Dallas says the tragedy drew the two of them even closer than they already were. And it wasn't just his family who loved Dr. Sonnier.
"He didn't have any real enemies. He had a lot of friends. He took care of a lot of people. He was a support structure for so many of his colleagues and friends," said Dallas.
And being a doctor with charm, good looks and an estimated net worth of $12 million made him one of Lubbock's most eligible middle-aged bachelors.
"He was a crazy, and silly, and funny, and very charismatic. Women seemed to love him," said his sister Missy Bartlett.
And Dr. Sonnier, 56 at the time, was kicking up his heels at a local ballroom dance club.
"He got so good at it. I mean, he was on fire," said Dallas. "And he felt so confident, and it was a great place to meet friends, to meet dates, to take dates."
It was on the dance floor that Dr. Sonnier found romance with a stunning 47-year-old divorcee named Richelle Shetina.
"When I met her I liked her immediately. She was funny. She was fun, she was very down to earth," said Missy Bartlett. "Everybody I know liked her."
Dr. Sonnier had swept Richelle off her feet, taking her on glamorous nights out to the best restaurants and private clubs, whisking her off to Paris for a romantic getaway, and to Los Angeles to meet son Dallas and his family.
"We were taken by her. She was very beautiful, and she was intelligent and she carried herself in a very respectful manner," said Dallas.
And it was apparent Richelle was in love with Dr. Sonnier. Richelle made no secret of it, excitedly posting photos of herself with Dr. Sonnier on Facebook, and declaring: "I love this man." And she appeared to have found the Mister Right she'd been looking for.
"At that point she was a single mom, she was doing all she could to support her kiddos, and she was trying to you know, find the perfect man. I think that with Dr. Sonnier she believed 'I have finally found the perfect man that I can spend the rest of my life with,'" said Lubbock Police Detective Zach Johnson.
And Dr. Sonnier seemed to be equally smitten with the gorgeous Richelle. But Dallas says his father didn't want to commit to any one particular relationship.
"I was really sad for him then because I felt like he was finally with someone who had been a better fit for him than some of his previous relationships, and I knew this one wasn't going to last," said Dallas.
Nobody could have imagined how suddenly and tragically it would end.
Dashing Dr. Joseph Sonnier reportedly planned to end his 10-month romance with Richelle Shetina. Instead, the wealthy pathologist was found murdered in the garage of his luxury home in Lubbock, Texas, by a pair of gardeners working on the property. One of the gardeners was too hysterical to speak to the 911 operator and handed the phone to her co-worker, who told the dispatcher they found a bullet on the floor, searched for Sonnier and found him in the garage.
"He's not breathing and it looks like he's been there for a while. The blood has dried up," the caller said.
Police arrive at the crime scene to find a bloody Dr. Sonnier lying dead face-down on the garage floor, shot five times and stabbed 11 times.
"You could chart what happened following the evidence," said Det. Zach Johnson.
The doctor's attacker had apparently broken in at the rear of the house through a big picture window that had been pushed in, part of it hanging out into the back yard.
Detectives say the shooting occurred in the dining room, where bullet casings were found.
"And you have a Gatorade bottle there that resembled a silencer or a make-shift silencer," said Det. Johnson.
But the doctor was still alive and apparently tried to get away from his assailant.
"Then you start to see blood and if you follow the blood down the hallway you eventually got to the garage," said Det. Johnson. That's where the doctor was repeatedly stabbed until he was dead.
Police think it may have been a robbery gone wrong -- until they discover that nothing has been stolen from the house.
"It appeared to be just a random type of murder that had taken place," said Lubbock County District Attorney Matt Powell.
But investigators can't fathom why anyone would want to kill the highly respected and much-loved pathologist. Cops say everyone who knows Dr. Sonnier was immediately under suspicion.
But investigators believed jealousy may have been the motive, saying that Dr. Sonnier had been seeing several other women at the same time he was dating Richelle. And detectives bluntly declare him a serial ladies' man when they ask Richelle if she knew he was cheating on her when they question her at the station.
Richelle tells detectives she didn't know Dr. Sonnier had been unfaithful to her. She insists she had nothing to do with his murder, and provides police with an alibi for the night he was killed.
In another interview with police, Richelle, who first told cops she didn't know her boyfriend had multiple girlfriends, starts weeping as she points to other women as possible suspects in the murder.
She sobs as she tells detectives that several jealous women from Dr. Sonnier's past had been stalking him. One of them was a Florida dance instructor who wouldn't stop calling Dr. Sonnier even after he told her he was now with Richelle. She says that another of Dr. Sonnier's exes, a nurse, also refused to stop calling And Richelle tells detectives she had just recently received a threatening letter from yet another woman claiming Dr. Sonnier had abandoned her and her daughter.
Police ask Richelle if there's someone they should know about.
"One is Dr. Mike Dixon," Richelle tells police.
Dr. Mike Dixon, a plastic surgeon in Amarillo, is not just another physician. He's also Richelle's obsessed ex-boyfriend, and he's got a grudge.
"I know he blames me for our breakup," Richelle Shetina tells detectives.
Richelle Shetina tells detectives someone had been watching her and following the couple around -- and she has a good idea that it's Dr. Mike Dixon.
Richelle tells Lubbock detectives she went to his cosmetic medical spa for Botox treatment and ended up dating the married Dr. Dixon for the next 18 months.
"It was very tumultuous, up and down," said Richelle. "And it was horrible."
And Richelle says in another police interview that a jealous and obsessed Dr. Dixon was furious when she eventually dumped him for Dr. Sonnier -- maybe even furious enough to kill him.
"He didn't want to split up. He wanted me to come back to him," Richelle tells police.
Lubbock Police lead detective Zach Johnson, accompanied by an Amarillo investigator, makes an unscheduled house call on Dr. Dixon and they record the audio of their interview with him.
They tell a startled Dr. Dixon that Richelle had mentioned his name when she was interviewed about Dr. Sonnier's murder. He tells police he didn't do it.
Detectives ask Dixon about his relationship with Richelle, and he admits he fell in love with the beautiful divorcee at first sight. In fact, Dr. Dixon says he left his wife of 20 years for Richelle Shetina.
"I loved, loved, loved that woman. I really did. I really had fallen head over heels," Dixon tells police. "When it was good it was great, and when it was bad it was argumentative."
Richelle puts it another way: "It was the worst relationship that I've ever had in my entire life."
She says Dr. Dixon turned out to be an emotionally abusive serial philanderer.
"He was mean-spirited. He was mentally cruel, he was a liar and a cheat obviously, you know, and not just with me, you know, with his wife," said Richelle.
And Richelle left him, believing she'd been deceived.
"Everything was a lie and he was not the person that I thought he was in the beginning," Richelle told detectives.
Richelle says Dixon desperately tried to reconcile with her after she left him and moved to Lubbock.
"But I said I can never go back to that. Not ever," said Richelle.
"She said 'I'm in a new relationship,' and so that broke my heart," Dixon told police. "I said 'Hey, I'd like to try to put this back together if that's possible.'"
Richelle says Dr. Dixon told her he'd even be willing to share her with Dr. Sonnier.
"He said 'I'm not asking you to stop seeing him. I just want you to see me too and give me a chance,' and I told him that I didn't do that to him, and I wasn't going to do it to Joseph," Richelle told police. Dixon admits it to detectives.
It was around this same time that Richelle says she began to feel like she was being followed. She says she and Sonnier both thought they saw a camera flash in the back yard of his home one night. Dixon says he doesn't know anything about that, and that he's never been to the residence.
Dixon provides an alibi for the day of Sonnier's murder, saying he was at work through the day and spent the night with a new girlfriend.
"You didn't hire anybody to go over there and commit this crime?" Det. Johnson asks Dixon.
"No," Dixon says.
"So you wouldn't be able to give me any information on who I would look at that could have been involved in this?"
"I have no idea."
But someone else does.
The case takes a dramatic turn when a man calls Lubbock Police to say an old friend just told him he had murdered a doctor.
A man calls police and says the guy staying in his house just confessed to a murder.
"Over the last few days he's been relaying these stories to me about this thing that he did," the caller tells police.
The caller, Paul Reynolds of Amarillo, says the man, a lifelong friend, told him he killed a doctor in Lubbock.
"He said he went down there. He was waiting for this guy, this doctor, at his house somewhere," Reynolds says.
And this immediately gets the attention of detectives.
"He said he pushed the window in or something, and he said he shot the guy," Reynolds says.
The caller supplies details only Dr. Sonnier's killer could have known.
"None of this information had been released to the media, and so we knew he was either A, very close to the person that did this and in fact had been told about it, or B, that he was actually involved in it," said Det. Zach Johnson.
But there's one piece of information Reynolds provides in his call that would break the Dr. Sonnier murder mystery wide open.
"So he said that he killed this guy, and also that this doctor friend of his gave him some silver bars like, you know, payment to do it, and ..."
"Do you know the doctor's name?"
"I think it's a guy named Mike Dixon."
The same Amarillo plastic surgeon who had been desperately trying to pry his ex-girlfriend Richelle Shetina out of the arms of her new love, Dr. Joseph Sonnier, and get her back.
"He texted this Mike Dixon a couple of times while he was sitting there, and then he called Mike Dixon on his phone," Reynolds tells police.
Lubbock detectives head straight to Amarillo and the door of a 52-year-old unemployed salesman named Dave Shepard.
"Paul explained in the days after the murder David had started acting very irrationally and suicidal, and during this time period when he was highly intoxicated, under the influence of medications, he had explained to Paul this whole thing, this whole murder-for-hire scheme and that he actually killed somebody for Dr. Dixon," said Det. Johnson.
Detectives gather plenty of evidence connecting Shepard to the murder of Dr. Sonnier, including a footprint he left at the doctor's home, and his DNA found on a Gatorade bottle he used as a silencer for his gun but dropped at the crime scene.
"He wasn't even smart enough to use a Gatorade bottle that he didn't drink from," said Lubbock County District Attorney Matt Powell.
Investigators found a photo Shepard had accidently taken on the day of the murder showing his own reflection on a glass door at the rear of Dr. Sonnier's home.
Confronted with the overwhelming case against him, Shepard confesses to shooting and stabbing Sonnier to death as Dixon's hired gun. Shepard gives detectives a detailed account of this tangled tale of love, jealousy and murder that began the day he met Dr. Dixon.
"You could say they were kindred spirits," said Det. Johnson. "They were going through a divorce, both of them separately, and had met at a cigar bar, they just started talking and they hit it off."
"We just connected, and hooked up, started becoming friends," Dave Shepard says in a recorded interrogation.
Soon Dr. Dixon was crying on Shepard shoulder about his ex-girlfriend Richelle, and how she had fallen in love with Dr. Sonnier.
"He mentioned that he wanted to cause her problems because he left his wife for her, she broke up this marriage and he just wanted I guess payback," said Shepard.
And win her back.
"I think he wanted her back, and if Dr. Sonnier was out of the picture I believe he thought that Richelle would come back to him," said D.A. Matt Powell.
Shepard tells detectives he offered to help his new best buddy with Plan A: A smear campaign against Dr. Sonnier.
"Just the appearance that this guy might have something on the side, in his words, excuse me, 'Will [----] her up,'" Shepard tells detectives.
Dr. Dixon already knows how he wants to begin.
"He pretty much wanted to break up Dr. Sonnier and Richelle and was asking me if I knew somebody that could pretend to be like a 'sugar baby' of Dr. Sonnier," said Shepard.
And reveal herself to Richelle.
"And he goes 'I'll pay her a thousand bucks' -- he goes, 'I'll pay her money just to do it but if they break her up, it's a thousand bucks,'" said Shepard.
Richelle Shetina had told detectives she received from a woman claiming to be Dr. Sonnier's paid mistress. Now police could tell her who was likely behind it.
"We found some information out about attempts made by Mr. Shepard and Dr. Dixon that are very, very, very, very, damn near close to identical to the letter," detectives tell Richelle. "In regards to asking other ladies to call you and portray themselves as having an affair with Dr. Sonnier."
Richelle had previously said she thought she was being followed, and that she and Dr. Sonnier thought they saw a camera flash one night in his back yard. Well, that was Dave Shepard spying on them on paid trips to Lubbock, reporting back to Mike Dixon.
"He would give me cash money for gas, maybe $100, $150," Shepard tells police.
But when the spy-and-smear campaign fails to break up Richelle and Sonnier, Dixon goes to Plan B.
"He wanted him hurt," Shepard tells police. "It gradually developed into having him killed."
Dr. Mike Dixon's diabolical plan was to win his beautiful ex-girlfriend Richelle Shetina back from her new love, Dr. Joseph Sonnier, by killing Sonnier and destroy his good name at the same time, so an embarrassed and shell-shocked Richelle will come running back into his arms.
"Make it look like he committed suicide, or in an act of auto-erotica ends up killing himself by accident," Dave Shepard tells police.
Dr. Dixon's right-hand hit-man Dave Shepard agrees to murder Dr. Sonnier for the sum of three silver bars worth a total of nearly $10,000. And Dr. Dixon gives Shepard one of the silver bars up front as a down payment.
"And he immediately goes down to the local pawn shop and cashes it in," said Det. Johnson.
But Shepard tells detectives in this confession that the murder would not go down like he and Dr. Dixon anticipated.
"He gave me a gun and he wanted to know exactly what everything that was going on," said Shepard.
Then Shepard sits in a chair in Dr. Sonnier's back yard in the early evening, waiting for him to come home from work.
"I have my bandanna on, glasses, and I have my bag," Shepard tells police. "In the bag is a gun with a Gatorade bottle on the tip of it, a pair of gloves, a knife and a belt."
The Gatorade bottle to act as a silencer for the gun, the knife as an emergency backup weapon and the belt to hang Dr. Sonnier. And Dixon is exchanging texts with Shepard the whole time.
"You know, 'Get it done. Are you surveilling him?'" said D.A. Powell. "There were all kinds of things that indicated exactly what was going on."
But Shepard is suddenly surprised by Dr. Sonnier knocking on a window inside the house, trying to get the attention of the stranger on his property.
"And I walk to the window and he has lowered the window about this far from the top down," Shepard says. "I pulled the gun out of the bag with the Gatorade bottle on it. I point the weapon with the bottle at him, and I discharge it several times. He's backing away, trips on his feet, falls to the ground. I'm in the patio, the gun discharges a couple more times."
Dr. Sonnier manages to get up and run down a corridor in the house.
"I push the window in. I don't know if he's going for a gun. I don't know if I've ever hit him," Shepard tells police. "I don't know what's happening. I pretty much run around the corner as fast as I can so I can intercept him if he has a weapon and he's gonna come after me.
"As I turn around the hallway right into the garage he's laying on the floor, not moving, nothing breathing, nothing. I check his pulse in his neck and he's dead. I pull the knife out of my bag and I stab him in the vital organs two or three or four times," said Shepard.
The medical examiner later found Dr. Sonnier had actually been stabbed 11 times.
Dave Shepard hightails it from Lubbock back to Amarillo and an anxious Dr. Dixon.
"I go to his house. He gives me the other two bars of silver and a box of Cuban cigars," said Shepard. "He was happy about it. He was fine with it. He said 'It sounded like you got away clean.'"
Police arrest Dr. Dixon on first-degree murder charges based on Dave Shepard's confession, and a wealth of evidence that includes their texts and phone calls on the night he was killed.
Detectives are hoping to get a confession from Dr. Dixon. Dixon plays dumb, still insisting he knows nothing about Dr. Sonnier's murder. Detectives push him some more, but Dixon won't crack. He asks for an attorney.
While Dave Shepard pleads guilty to his role as the hit-man in Dr. Sonnier's murder and gets life in prison without parole, Mike Dixon goes to trial, still maintaining his innocence.
"Dr. Dixon was charged with capital murder," said D.A. Matt Powell. "We waived the death penalty because we weren't certain that a jury would give it in that particular case."
To the dismay of police, prosecutors and Dr. Sonnier's family, Dixon's trial ends in a hung jury.
But they weren't giving up. Dixon was retried.
"That jury took about three hours and found him guilty of capital murder and that's an automatic sentence of life in prison," said D.A. Powell.
Dixon will most likely end his life behind bars. His sentence comes without the possibility of parole.
Dr. Joseph Sonnier could finally rest in peace.
To this day, Mike Dixon still maintains he did not order the hit on his love rival's life. His lawyers have filed an appeal and are hoping to get a new trial.