Death Without Mercy

A Seemingly Perfect Marriage Goes Up In Smoke

This story was originally broadcast on Jan. 5, 2008. It was updated April 17, 2009.

In November 2005, quiet and sleepy Morgantown, W.Va., was left shaken when the body of James "Jimmy" Michael was discovered inside his burning home.

As correspondent Susan Spencer reports, the death appeared suspicious to police from the get-go, and investigators soon focused on Michael's widow, Michelle.

Was Jimmy's death a homicide? And was there motive?

The opening game for the 2007 West Virginia Mountaineers is the pride of the entire state. From small towns, to the most remote mountain valleys, kids here dream of being part of the excitement in Morgantown.

Young Michelle Goots, raised in nearby Clarksburg, was no different and her dream came true. "Shelly," as she liked to be called, was a straight-A student and cheerleader in high school.

When she got to West Virginia University in 1990, her looks, brains and talent paid off: she won a coveted spot on the cheerleading squad.

But Shelly also had a more serious side. "I knew I wanted to be involved with children somehow. That was never a question. I always wanted to be a pediatric nurse," she says.

After graduation, she landed a job at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.

Respiratory therapist Stephanie Estel remembers Shelly well -- hard not to, she says. "Cheerleader moves in the unit. And she was all about flirting with the boys that we worked with," Stephanie recalls. "I can remember she just came over and did this high kick to her ear and just kinda giggled and kept on walking."

But what Stephanie found annoying, apparently made a very good impression on another therapist in the unit, Jimmy Michael.

But Jimmy was married to Stephanie, and they had two kids. And Shelly was also married to Rob Angus, and also had two kids.

None of this appeared to deter her or Jimmy in the slightest. "Jimmy and I would talk off and on at work. And I knew that he and Stephanie were having issues. And Rob and I were not getting along very well," Shelly says. "And kinda just connected that way."

By the fall of 1998, Stephanie suspected something was up.

Soon, both couples divorced. Just eight months after Shelly's divorce was final, Shelly and Jimmy, both 28, got married and moved to a house on Killarney Drive, only minutes away from Shelly's job at the hospital.

It seemed like a perfect match, and Jimmy's parents, Dennis and Ruth, say that "perfect" was very important to Shelly. "She wanted everybody to think that they were the perfect model family," Denny recalls.

Jimmy had left the hospital to start a medical supply business and coached football in his spare time, while Shelly coached the cheerleaders.

On Nov. 28, 2005, the Michaels were home alone; their kids were staying with the exes. Jimmy turned in early, Shelly says, and was still asleep when she left the next morning. "I left to go to work around 6-ish. I got there about 6:10, 6:15. And I went in to do my normal routine work," Shelly remembers.

Shelly says it was hours later - about 10:30 am - when she got a phone call telling her that her house was on fire. Shelly rushed back to the house. "Firemen everywhere. I was saying, 'Where is Jimmy? Where is he?' And they just kept saying, 'We don't know. We can't find him, we don't know,'" she recalls.

Firefighters fought the blaze for half an hour before finding Jimmy's remains in the master bedroom, still lying in what was left of the bed.

Morgantown Police Detective Paul Mezzanotte says police initially thought they were dealing with a routine fatal fire. But he says his impressions changed the minute he got to the scene and began watching Shelly.

"The people that were showing up, they seemed to be more upset than she was. And it was just kind of different when we talked to her that day," he recalls.

The more they talked, the more he was sure this was a "person of interest." Mezzanotte says Shelly "didn't have a reaction" and that he never saw her cry.

"There was something that just kept drawing me to be around her. 'Cause something never sat right with me from the beginning of the investigation," he recalls.

And then there was the crime scene itself, with Jimmy's body simply lying on the bed. "When we saw the body, something just stuck out to me that there wasn't something right with this," Mezzanotte explains.

Just three days later, the medical examiner confirmed why all these "somethings" weren't right: Jimmy had not died in the fire, but was dead before the blaze even started.