The Husband Did It: Marilu Geri Serrato

Marilu was shot dead in an apparent burglary that police say never happened. Her husband remains the top suspect.

This writing is part of a continuing series on cold cases linked to domestic violence. Cases taken from Unsolved Mysteries.

The case of Marilu Geri Serrato is on season 1, episode 12 of Unsolved Mysteries.

For legal purposes, the husband in this case was never charged with crimes against his spouse. I have no physical evidence at all, only circumstantial evidence, the narrative given to us by those involved, and extensive knowledge on the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence. I have tried to make it clear when giving my opinion versus stating objective facts of the case.

The narrative according to Robert Stack:

On February 14, 1986, Marilu was found by her mother, Maria Serrato, in her home, shot four times. She was rushed to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. Her exact time of death was obscured because of a chemical given to her by paramedics to restart her heart.

Around 8:15 am that morning her husband Stephen Geri called Maria and asked her to go over to their home and help Marilu prepare for a party they were throwing that afternoon. Maria called Marilu, but there was no answer. Maria drove to Marilu’s house and found her lying unresponsive on the ground.

Maria says that the jewelry and other valuables in the home were left untouched and that there was no indication that Marilu had been the victim of a robbery gone wrong. Stephen disagrees.

Well, there were many things taken. The gross value was about $25k to $30k, maybe $45k worth of jewelry, fur coats, or other valuables. — Stephen

It was a torment of a marriage. The last 2 1/2 years of her life, it was nothing but crying about one thing and another. They were fighting over money. — Maria

Stephen disagrees.

It was an extremely exciting and the most fulfilling relationship that I have ever had with an individual. She brought out the strongest qualities in me, made me more productive than I had ever been in my entire life. We allowed each other to develop to the fullest. — Stephen

The alibi Stephen gave police:

I woke up about five that morning. I went upstairs and worked on the computer. I had an extremely busy day, there were some things that I had to finish up. Marilu was still in bed. Told her that I would call her at 7. I know that the security system was on when I left the house at about 6:25, 6:30. I went down to 7-Eleven and got another cup of coffee. I left there and went to the post office, picked up our mail for the day. From there I went to the post office, picked up our mail for the day. From there I went to a donut shop and picked up donuts. Then I went to Precision Glass, Don Richardson’s company, and talked with them for a moment. I started to leave, realized that I had forgotten to call Mari. I went back in at the reception desk and called her at almost 7:30. She was up. She said she was busy, busy, busy. So I told her goodbye.

Private detective Bill Elliott interviewed witnesses who said it was unusual for Stephen to be out and about before nine and ten in the morning. Additionally, the next day Stephen went back to each place he listed on his alibi and reminded them he had been there the day before.

It was discovered that Stephen had $120k “hard cash judgments” against him in Texas. 10 months after Marilu’s murder, Stephen filed to collect on her $435k life insurance policy. Her parents sued to prevent him from collecting the money, claiming he had murdered Marilu for it.

Stephen says her parents had ulterior motives for suing.

Well, there’s two things that make the world go round, and that’s sex and money. And it definitely wasn’t sex, was it?

The parties settled out of court with each side accusing the other of offering the settlement. The details of the settlement were sealed.

Stephen Geri was never charged with Marilu’s murder. His many guns were tested and none where found to be used in the crime. Marilu was shot by two different guns. Her parents are still convinced Stephen is her murderer.

Since 1986, and the airing of the episode, new information has come to light. Here is what I found:

Stephen operated an insurance business from the house and Marilu worked for him.

Detectives say that there were no signs of forced entry and no evidence of anything of significant value was stolen, despite what Stephen once said. Detectives have sent evidence to the DPS crime lab in Houston for re-analysis. They’re hoping advancements made in forensic testing in the years since the murder might turn up something they previously missed.

They’ve long called Stephen Geri a “person of interest,” but they have never actually labelled him as a “suspect.”

“We have leads. We have suspects but we’re still not there yet… If [Stephen] didn’t do it himself, he may know or have had something to do with it.” — Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls

The reward for information on Marilu’s murder was increased to $20k.

According to court documents, sometime around 1996, Stephen was indicted for felony theft of $200k in Houston County. On April 11, 2019, Stephen filed an action in his personal injury lawsuit against Starbucks. It is unclear when the original action was filed.

Today, Stephen lives in San Antonio, Texas with his family and is a “dedicated philanthropist who loves fishing, golfing, and tennis.” He currently serves as Managing General Agent for his insurance company DEBS.

Stephen also writes on Medium.

Domestic Violence

Women are killed by intimate partners — husbands, lovers, ex-husbands, or ex-lovers — more often than any other category of killer… Intimate partner homicides make up 40 to 50 percent of all murders of women in the United States (Source: National Institute of Justice, NIJ Journal).

“The husband did it” is a popular phrase for a reason.

We’ve known for decades that domestic violence is strongly linked to homicide, however we didn’t identify the concrete steps leading up to intimate partner homicide until 2019. In her study, Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide, Dr. Jane Monckton Smith established the eight stage process that most male abusers take before murdering their female partners.

The stages are not necessarily followed chronologically and sometimes couples loop back to earlier stages, for instance if an abuser is able to reestablish control. However, if the relationship culminated in homicide, all eight stages were likely involved.

For a full breakdown on the stages, read the article below.

Stage 1: Pre-relationship

A pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse by the perpetrator. Unfortunately, we do not have any information on Stephen’s relationships prior to the one he had with Marilu. However, the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence reports that the majority of men arrested for domestic violence have histories of perpetrating abuse against previous partners.

These [histories] include: police reports by their victims; prior domestic violence arrests or orders of protection against them; multiple offenses against the same partner; [and] offenses against multiple partners. [The study] examined seven years of entries in a statewide order of protection (OP) registry, and found that, among men who had OPs against them: 23% of were serial abusers — high-risk violent offenders who had two or more OPs issued against them for up to eight different victims; a one-week sample of defendants included 209 serial abusers who had abused 513 victims over five years; [and] half of those with 4 or more victims abused their newest victims within one year of the most recent OP against them (Source: Information for Professionals: Understanding Domestic Violence).

It would not be unreasonable to think that Stephen had a history of abuse in his relationships.

Stage 2: Early Relationship

The romance developing quickly into a serious, and abusive, relationship. Unfortunately, we do not have any information on how quickly their relationship progressed.

Stage 3: Relationship

The relationship becoming dominated by coercive control. This is where most of the variation of abuse occurs among abusers.

Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour… Experts like Evan Stark liken coercive control to being taken hostage.

In Marilu’s case we have statements from family that the Serrato marriage was in trouble and that Marilu was miserable from the constant fighting. Stephen was in considerable debt and they often fought about money. Economic hardship and unemployment are considered risk factors for domestic violence.

Unemployment and economic hardship at the household level were positively related to abusive behavior. Further, rapid increases in the unemployment rate increased men’s controlling behavior toward romantic partners even after we adjust for unemployment and economic distress at the household level (Source: Daniel Schneider, Kristen Harknett, and Sara McLanahan, Intimate Partner Violence in the Great Recession).

Specifically, an abuser’s lack of employment is a direct link to intimate partner related femicide.

In comparing our femicide perpetrators with other abusive men, we found that unemployment was the most important demographic risk factor for acts of intimate partner femicide. In fact, abuser’s lack of employment was the only demographic risk factor that significantly predicted femicide risks after we controlled for a comprehensive list of more proximate risk factors, increasing risks 4-fold relative to the case of employed abusers (Source: Dr. Jacquelyn C. Campbell, et al, Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results From a Multisite Case Control Study).

I am sure Stephen would have jumped on the opportunity to collect her insurance payout even if he had nothing to do with her murder, as is evidenced by how often he was charged with or accused of theft before and after her murder.

Stage 4: Trigger/s

A trigger to threaten the perpetrator’s control — for example, the relationship ends or the perpetrator gets into financial difficulty. Like I previously stated, Stephen had significant money problems, and at the time of Marilu’s death, he owed $120k in hard cash judgments to the state of Texas. Murdering Marilu would allow him to collect on her $435k life insurance policy and pay off his debts. It is possible that the squeeze was on and that he was triggered by a particular due date.

Stage 5: Escalation

An increase in the intensity or frequency of the partner’s control tactics, such as by stalking or threatening suicide. It is unclear, based on the evidence provided, what Stephen did to escalate the situation at this stage.

Stage 6: A Change in Thinking/Decision

The perpetrator has a change in thinking — choosing to move on, either through revenge or by homicide. I think Stephen’s change in thinking came when he realized he could fix his money problems if Marilu came up dead.

Stage 7: Planning

The perpetrator might buy weapons or seek opportunities to get the victim alone. I think we can see evidence of Stephen’s planning the morning Marilu was murdered. Stephen specifically left the house early that morning and made multiple stops where he could be witnessed by many people. In addition, he went back the next day to make sure each witness remembered that he had been there.

Clearly this is all conjecture, but I think that Stephen hired people to rob his home, or stage a robbery, so that he could collect the insurance money, and Marilu was shot in the process. It may or may not have been part of the original plan.

Stage 8: Homicide

The perpetrator kills his partner, and possibly hurts others such as the victim’s children. Given the evidence provided by authorities, I think we can safely assume that Stephen either facilitated Marilu’s murder, or participated in it at some point, with another person. This is purely conjecture, but the fact that Marilu was shot twice by two different guns leads me to believe that she was shot and left for dead once, and then the job was finished by a second person when they realized she was still alive. All of Stephen’s guns were checked and none were found to have made the kill shots, but that does not necessarily rule out a secret gun, and none of it rules out a plot of murder for hire.

This case is a little different than other cold cases involving domestic violence because I believe this one involved reckless indifference to a victim’s life, and it was not necessarily a femicide based on the cycle of power and control. Usually DV-related femicide occurs spontaneously and for reasons other than solely a financial payout, however they have occurred before. Regardless, I do believe that setting your wife up to experience a robbery/fake robbery, and endangering her life, is domestic violence.

Based on these markers for domestic violence, and the evidence provided by authorities, I think that Stephen Serrato murdered his wife, Marilu Geri Serrato, or helped facilitate her murder, in 1986, after following the eight stage progression to domestic violence related homicide.

In other words, the husband did it.

A discussion on how and why I use the term domestic violence.

For other information on DV, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great place to start.

advocate for victim/survivors of violence || writing for They Matter & published in An Injustice!, COSY, The Collector, Equality Includes You, CrimeBeat, & more

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