WELLINGTON, Fla. - You never know when a witness may come forward with new information. For John Moran Jr., that moment came 27 years after a Wellington mom was shot in the face by a killer dressed as a clown.
"I did not want my children to have to live with knowing their grandfather was part of Marlene Warren's murder," Moran Jr. told Contact 5 earlier this year. "But he was. He was definitely a part of it."
Marlene Warren was killed the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in 1990. Her homicide shook up the quiet, exclusive neighborhood in which she lived. Tips poured in and suspects were immediately identified, but the case remained open.
Twenty-seven years later, detectives with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office arrested a woman, Sheila Keen-Warren, for the killing. But the case remained open and under investigation.
Contact 5 has learned why. For the last six months, Contact 5 has uncovered records which show detectives are looking at a second suspect, and thanks to new information provided by Moran Jr., they may be able to finally locate key pieces of evidence related to the cold case; evidence like the clown costume and the murder weapon; evidence which may have been buried in Palm Beach County this whole time.
A DEATHBED CONFESSION
John Moran Sr. spent part of his career turning back odometers, chopping up cars and dumping the pieces into Palm Beach County's canal system. But on his deathbed, the auto mechanic made sure some secrets didn't die with him.
"Have you ever heard of a deathbed confession? My father told me everything that happened before he died," John Moran Jr. said, sitting in the living room of his late mother's trailer in Clewiston, Fla.
Moran Jr. claims his father told him secrets about a used car lot in West Palm Beach where he says they both used to work, Bargain Motors. Moran Jr. says his father also shared secrets about the owner, Michael Warren.
"Mike used to give my dad orders," Moran Jr. said. "My dad would then drop them down the line to who he could trust…As long as we were doing the dirty work, his hands were free."
Moran Jr. claims odometer tampering and insurance fraud were part of the job.
According to a criminal history report provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Moran Jr. was arrested ten times between 1987 and 2006, but he was only convicted once. Records show Moran Jr. got two years probation for dealing in stolen property.
"We would repo cars. We would bring them out to [the] cane fields and we would make them disappear forever," said Moran Jr.
But back in 1990, Moran Jr. says his boss, Warren, would joke about getting rid of something else: his wife, Marlene. "'Can't y'all make her disappear like y'all make those repo cars disappear?'," Moran Jr. said. "I took it as a joke. I mean, it was a once-a-week thing."
Incident reports show Moran Jr. told detectives about Warren's comments in November 1990, after Marlene was murdered. "[Moran Jr.] informed me that he used to be a part-time employee of Bargain Motors, and he had run a detailing shop at the Farmer's Market for Mike Warren," a detective wrote. "On several occasions, since July 1989 through December 1989, Michael Warren had hung up the phone after arguing with his wife, and made a comment, 'I'm gonna kill the bitch.'"
Moran Sr. also told detectives similar information a few weeks after the murder, according to other incident reports. "According to Mr. Moran, Michael Warren did hate his wife Marlene," a detective wrote in June 1990. "Moran stated that Michael wished he could get rid of the bitch and wished that he had never married her."
Warren has never been charged in his wife's killing and has previously denied any involvement. He declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.
Contact 5 received the incident reports as part of a public records request to the State Attorney's Office; they declined to comment on an active case. Despite numerous interview requests, cold case detectives with PBSO also declined to comment for this story, citing an active investigation.
The reports show Moran Jr. talked to detectives in 1990, 2014 and 2017. However, it was not until after Sheila Keen-Warren's arrest in 2017, that Moran Jr. says he gave detectives additional information about the killer clown case, including his father's deathbed confession from 1996.
"I knew everything," Moran Jr. told Contact 5. "My father was directly involved. 100 percent."
A SECOND GETAWAY CAR
Thanks to witnesses, detectives knew from the beginning the killer clown drove away from the crime scene in a white Chrysler LeBaron. A few days after Marlene's death, detectives found the LeBaron they believed to have been driven by the clown abandoned in a Winn Dixie parking lot in Royal Palm Beach.
But according to Moran Jr., the LeBaron was not the only getaway car involved in the crime. "There was one car, one car, right after the shooting – absolutely [my father] would not let me touch it," Moran Jr. said. "On his deathbed, he told me that car would get me anything I ever wanted from Mike Warren," Moran Jr. said.
A few weeks after the murder, Moran Jr. says his father told him to 'take a car swimming', or get rid of it so they could file false insurance claims.
"I got the call to go to 'Gate One'," Moran Jr. said, explaining that meant to meet at a specific spot along the bank of a canal, off Highway 80 in Palm Beach County, one of the handful of spots Moran Jr. claims he used to bury cars. "I just thought it was another one of our nightly escapades at Bargain Motors."
But when he got there, Moran Jr. says he noticed something was different: his father was there waiting for him. "Normally [my father] did not come. He was never involved…He would not let me touch the car. Normally I did all the set up to get the car ready. I was not allowed to touch the car. I was not allowed to look in the car."
Moran Jr. claims, without touching the car, he helped his father sink it into the canal. "Once the car went in and sunk, he reached in his waistband and grabbed a pistol out, and he slung it. Nothing was ever said. Nothing was ever said, until February of 1996," Moran Jr. said.
TAMPERING WITH A WITNESS
Moran Jr. admitted he could not remember the make or model of the car, but a search warrant filed in Hendry County and obtained by Contact 5 shows he told detectives about the second getaway car and the gun after Keen-Warren's arrest.
"John Moran Sr. told his son, prior to his death, that he had driven the second getaway car the day of the murder," the warrant reads. "John Moran Sr. told him (Jr.) where the getaway car and the gun used in the homicide were disposed of after the murder. John Moran, Jr. would not provide us with the location but alluded to the fact it was in the water at a location he would have to physically take us to."
Moran Jr. did not stop there. According to the warrant, Moran Jr. also claimed Warren contacted him through Facebook and phone calls shortly after Keen-Warren was arrested, and "offered to buy him a house" if he testified on behalf of both Warren and Keen-Warren.
Moran Jr. told Contact 5 that Warren first contacted him looking for his father, Moran Sr. "I let him know that my dad was gone, but I let him know - I'll be honest with you - I could make him or I could break him. I knew everything. I knew where the car was. I knew who planned it. I knew the whole works. I knew where the gun was at."
Detectives filed the warrant in search of Moran's cell phone and evidence that would corroborate his story. The warrant shows detectives are investigating Warren on charges of homicide and tampering with a witness, but as of this writing, Warren has not been charged with anything related to his wife's murder.
Detectives have not said if they found the evidence they were looking for as a result of the warrant.
A CLOWN SUIT
Moran Jr. told Contact 5 the second getaway car has more evidence buried inside it.
"The clothes that everybody was wearing that day will be in the car," said Moran Jr., and per his father's deathbed confession, that includes the infamous clown suit the killer wore the day of the murder.
Moran Jr. told Contact 5 he took detectives to the location of the car a few months after they seized his cell phone.
He also took Contact 5 Investigator Merris Badcock. "You can see the tire tracks down through here where it looks like they pulled the car out," Moran Jr. said, pointing to markings alongside a seemingly random canal off Highway 80: the spot otherwise known to Moran Jr. as 'Gate One.' "I was told that they had found the car and was waiting on a search warrant to go into it."
Through public record requests, Contact 5 confirmed PBSO detectives impounded a car in June tied to Marlene Warren's case number. Most of the information is redacted, citing an active investigation, but it is clear detectives filed a search warrant to look inside the vehicle.
Contact 5 also uncovered dispatch records which confirm firefighters with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue were asked to bring in the "jaws of life" to open "car doors that were rusted shut" related to a "30 yr old cold case". According to the report, the car "was just found underwater."
Most recently, records filed last month in the case against Keen-Warren show a 1982 Audi 4000s was recently search by PBSO detectives. The warrant was sealed. Keen-Warren's attorney, Richard Lubin, declined to comment for this story.
Contact 5 requested the records, but we are still waiting to find out if anything was found inside the Audi 4000s. It's unclear what other implications the car may have on the case.
"[My father] was determined to make sure I knew where to find that car" said Moran Jr. "I just hope the family can understand and accept that I did come forward and hopefully their mother and their daughter's killer will be brought to justice."
As people have said before, this case is full of "many twists and turns". Contact 5 dug through the WPTV archives and found old stories about the case from 1990 and 1991. You can watch and read more information about parts of the case previously reported over the years below.
MARLENE WARREN'S MURDER
Marlene Warren was in the middle of cooking breakfast when she was shot in the face by a person dressed as a clown on May 26, 1990.
"There was an individual standing at the door dressed in a clown suit, wearing a mask, holding some balloons and flowers," a Palm Beach County Sheriff's deputy told reporters who showed up to the scene of the crime. "She reached out to take the balloons and flowers. [The clown] came up with the gun and shot her twice."
Marlene's 21-year-old son, Joey Ahrens, and some of his friends were home when the clown rang the doorbell. They witnessed the shooting. "Well I was on the couch, and it all happened – just happened so fast," Ahrens told a WPTV reporter a year after his mother's death. Ahrens told investigators the clown had 'brown eyes', but it was hard to identify the shooter. "Make up and all that," Ahrens said.
28 years after Marlene's death, Moran Jr. told Contact 5 Investigator Merris Badcock he wasn't surprised to learn a clown had killed Marlene. "The clown is an inside thing," Moran Jr. said. "Everybody in the office knew Marlene loved clowns. There were in her office. They were in her car. They were in her house. Everybody knew she loved clowns."
THE GETAWAY CAR
The clown made a clean getaway in a white Chrysler LeBaron. Detectives recovered a LeBaron from a Winn Dixie parking lot a few days after the murder. Incident reports show investigators found "orange curly, believed to be synthetic, fibers" in the car, along with a long, brown strand of hair and other evidence.
Detectives ran the vin number of the LeBaron and discovered it had been reported stolen by Payless Auto Rental, one of Michael Warren's competitors.
Warren was later charged with stealing the LeBaron during the chop shop investigation, but none of this surprised Moran Jr. when he talked to Contact 5.
"The LeBaron was one of the Payless cars we were supposed to switch the vin numbers over, turn back the odometer and sell, and it never happened," Moran Jr. said. "We used that car for two weeks riding around doing repos. We all had long brown hair, all of us."
WARREN'S ARREST AND THE 'CHOP-SHOP' TRIAL
Court records confirm detectives caught on to the odometer tampering operation running out of Bargain Motors. By October 1990, Warren and two of his employees, identical twins Ronald and Donald Carter, were charged with a trunkload of crimes, including grand theft, dealing in stolen property, falsifying insurance claims and running a chop shop.
The charges were the result of a separate investigation into Warren and his Bargain Motors business, after Marlene's death. Eventually, Warren was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of racketeering, odometer tampering and grand theft.
Neither Moran Sr. or Moran Jr. were never charged in the Bargain Motors case. Instead, incident reports named both men as possible witnesses for the state, and a newspaper article shows Moran Sr. testified against Warren during the chop shop trial. But Moran Jr. told Contact 5 he regularly turned back odometers, striped cars and got rid of the evidence in Palm Beach County's canals at his father's or Warren's request.
'TWO PRIME SUSPECTS'
From the start of the investigation, detectives made it clear they were investigating 'two prime suspects': Michael Warren and Sheila Keen.
Keen worked for Michael Warren repossessing cars, and numerous people claimed the two were having an affair.
Both Keen and Warren denied the rumor, but in 2002, after Warren was released from prison for his chop-shop crimes, the two married in a Las Vegas ceremony.
Twenty-seven years after Marlene Warren's murder, detectives with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office arrested Sheila Keen, who was now going by the name Debbie Warren, for the murder. Keen-Warren was charged with first degree murder, and has pled not guilty to the crime. The state filed a notice seeking the death penalty against Keen-Warren. Her next court date is set for January 7, 2019. Keen-Warren's attorney, Richard Lubin, also declined to comment.