FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A clown knocked on Marlene Warren’s door one morning in May 1990, handed her carnations and balloons, then shot her dead in front of her son. On Tuesday, her husband’s second wife finally pleaded guilty to being the murderer, closing a case that is bizarre even by Florida standards.

Sheila Keen-Warren, 59, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a deal that will likely see her released in no more than two years. Keen-Warren, a longtime suspect in the shooting, has been jailed awaiting trial for first-degree murder since 2017, when Palm Beach County sheriff’s investigators said improvements in DNA technology they proved that a hair found in the car in which the clown fled came from her. However, Keen-Warren has insisted that she is not the killer.

Palm Beach County State’s Attorney Dave Aronberg said in a statement that the plea deal «achieved a measure of justice» for Marlene Warren and her son. No public notice was given for Tuesday’s plea hearing in West Palm Beach, which would otherwise have drawn a crowd of reporters and onlookers. Instead, it was handled quietly during Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer’s lunch break from another murder trial.

Sheila Keen-Warren sits in the back of a Virginia police vehicle.Washington County Sheriff’s Office

“Sheila Keen Warren has finally been forced to admit that she was the one who dressed as a clown and took the life of an innocent victim. She will be a convicted murderer for the rest of her days,” Aronberg said.

Her lawyer, Greg Rosenfeld, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that «this is an incredible victory for Ms. Keen-Warren,» still insisting that she is not the killer. Keen-Warren has said that she is not the killer.

The agreement calls for a 12-year sentence, but Keen-Warren has already served six years awaiting trial. Also, Florida law in 1990 allowed significant time off for good behavior, so Rosenfeld expects her to be released early next year.

Her trial was scheduled to begin next month, and if convicted, she would have received a life sentence. If she had received a life sentence, she probably would have been paroled after serving 25 years. Prosecutors originally sought a death sentence, but ultimately dropped it.

“The state of Florida originally wanted to execute her, but now she is going home in 10 months,” Rosenfeld said. «While it was hard to plead guilty to a crime she didn’t commit, it was a no-brainer when there’s a guarantee you’ll be home with your family.»

Aronberg’s office disputes Rosenfeld’s claim and says he will be in prison for at least two more years.

Marlene Warren’s son, Joseph Ahrens, watched the proceedings online. He was only 21 years old when he saw her mother murdered of hers and now he is 50 years old, her only message to her court and to Keen-Warren was, God be with her.

The trial was delayed several times by the pandemic and fights over evidence.

At the time of the shooting, Keen-Warren was employed by Marlene Warren’s husband, Michael, at his used car lot. Since 2002, she has been his wife; they eventually moved to Abington, Virginia, where they ran a restaurant across the border from Tennessee.

Witnesses told investigators in 1990 that the then-Sheila Keen and Michael Warren were having an affair, though both denied this.

Over the years, detectives said, costume shop employees identified Sheila Warren as the woman who had bought a clown outfit a few days before the murder.

And one of the two balloons, a silver one that read, «You’re the best,» was sold at only one store, a Publix supermarket near his home. Employees told detectives that a woman resembling Keen-Warren had purchased the balloons an hour before the shooting.

The suspected getaway car was found abandoned with orange, hair-like fibers inside. The white Chrysler convertible had been reported stolen from Michael Warren’s car park a month before the shooting. Keen-Warren and her then-husband recovered cars for him.

Relatives told The Palm Beach Post in 2000 that Marlene Warren, who was 40 when she died, suspected her husband was having an affair and wanted to leave him. But the car lot and other property was in her name, and she feared what she might do if she did.

He allegedly told his mother: «If something happens to me, Mike did it.» He has never been charged and has denied his involvement.

But Rosenfeld said the state’s case was falling apart. One DNA sample somehow showed male and female genes, and the other could come from one in 20 women, including Marlene Warren, he said.

And even if that hair came from Keen-Warren, it could have been deposited before the car was reported stolen. He said Ahrens and another witness also told detectives that the car officers found was not the killer’s, even though investigators insisted it was.

Aronberg, in his statement, admitted there were flaws in the case, saying they were caused by the three decades it took to bring it to trial, including the deaths of key witnesses.

Michael Warren was convicted in 1994 of grand theft, extortion, and odometer tampering. He served nearly four years in prison, a sentence that his then-lawyers said was disproportionately long because of suspicions that he was involved in the death of his wife.

Michael Warren did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.