ANATOMY OF A MURDER VICTIM
On a cool night in early November, Muffin Shew left work at the Robinson's department store in Paradise Valley Mall, like she always did, shortly after 9 p.m.
She drove her big, old silver T-bird with the same sense of purpose with which she lived her life, barreling down the street, aiming toward the driveway at the end of the cul-de-sac where she lived alone.
Occasionally, Muffin would tend the plants in her front yard, but was generally clad in large Jackie O-style sunglasses and straw hat with a sash tied neatly under her chin.
Muffin had been a long-running mystery to the residents of Presidio Road near the mall for more than 15 years. She came and went without event or conversation. There was no visiting, no tools borrowed, no chitchat in the yard. No one watered the plants or brought in the mail when Muffin was gone, nor did she do that for anyone else. She never asked anyone for a ride or a hand. In fact, she became enraged at her brother when he spoke to one of the neighbors during a visit three years ago.
They generally saw only the garage door closing behind her or the birds she fed regularly flying away from the backyard.
Once inside that November night, she traded her signature tailored outfit for the comfortable clothes--and white sneakers with pink trim--of her private world.
She turned on the television and had the sort of dinner a lot of people would consider a snack. She probably fixed herself some tea, too, because the British-born Muffin always had tea.
The front door and the gate were both locked, just like always. But, for some reason, on that night, Muffin went out the sliding glass door into the backyard. Maybe she saw someone. Maybe she heard something. Maybe Pumpkin, the orange cat, was in some kind of predicament.
No one really knows.
Muffin was a petite fireball, in better shape than women much younger than her 62 years. She had a no-nonsense style that left no room for question. But while Muffin was fearless, people say, she was not foolish.
The last person to see her alive may have come from out of the dark. Maybe it was a happenstance meeting with a trespasser, or with someone she had known from the past.
Muffin struggled, but was no match. No one heard her scream. The assailant hit her face and broke her ribs and then finally strangled the life out of Muffin with the very clothes that had made her private world more comfortable.
And then he left, apparently without taking anything from Muffin's house.
In a matter of minutes, the very complicated life of Muffin Shew was reduced to a humble, violent end.
Officially, Muffin was a dedicated employee who juggled part-time work at the Phoenix Central Library and at Robinson's. She had also spent years as a tireless volunteer with organizations like the Center Against Sexual Assault. She was outspoken and fought vehemently for anything she believed in, regardless of how seemingly trivial. She adopted political causes and worked on campaigns.
To some who knew her, Muffin was a retired British government agent, maybe even a spy. To others, she was a Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. Some even heard she had a mysterious foreign lover. Muffin spun exciting yarns about international intrigue and adventure, about involvement in top government affairs and of moving with the rich and famous.
There is no evidence to support most of the tales of Muffin's mysterious past. And, there is no evidence to refute some of them.
She was not afraid, but acted as though she was in danger.
Maybe her death was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe something from the past finally caught up with Muffin. Or maybe it was simply a random act of violence against a woman alone.
There were no pictures, no plants, no personal trinkets on Muffin's desk at the library. She never mentioned her plans for the holidays or vacations, except to talk about weekend trysts with her anonymous suitor.
The one thing, maybe the only thing, that is eminently clear is that someone murdered Muffin Shew. And the circumstances surrounding her death are as mysterious as the life she led.
The woman guarded her privacy like a bulldog, which has led some of the people closest to her to wonder who she really was.
Muffin hated her given name, which was Mary Jane, according to her former husband.
She grew up with three or four siblings in a three-bedroom flat in an industrial city somewhere north of London. The home did not have indoor plumbing until long after she left. In her youth, she spent afternoons at the movies and visited Tyrone Power's grave after coming to America.
Maybe the movies inspired her tales of having been a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. On one occasion, she reported having received an anti-Semitic threat in her mailbox at the Maricopa Skill Center, where she was a teacher before working at the library.
At least two people say they saw a number tattooed on her left arm. They figured it was the reason she always wore long sleeves. But Muffin's brother told police she was not Jewish. And there was no tattoo on Muffin's body at the time of her death. Nor was there any evidence that one had been removed.
The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors has no record of Muffin Shew.
According to her brother, Muffin and her siblings were among the many children temporarily moved to the northern part of England by the British government during the Nazi bombings. The family was reunited after a short time.
Mary Jane married an Englishman named James Davis in 1959 and immigrated to the United States a year later. Details about her early life in this country are sketchy, but, apparently, the couple lived in Southern California. He co-owned a television repair shop. She worked as an accounting clerk and, later, may have worked at the UCLA library.
Mary Jane and James Davis divorced in 1964. In court filings, she alleged that he beat her. Sometime after that, she legally became known as Muffin and told her family that James Davis had died during surgery after a car accident in Mexico. Police detectives are still wading through immigration records to see if Davis is, in fact, dead.
In late 1968, Muffin met Gary Shew in Dallas. Both were there working for a company that sold portraits in department stores across the country.
She was striking, like a young Angie Dickinson, with a dramatic accent and an exciting past. He was a tall, Midwestern-friendly fellow just out of the Air Force.
He went east. She went west. They got back together that Christmas. In January, a Las Vegas minister squeezed them in an hour before their scheduled appointment to get married.
Both Muffin and Gary Shew liked a warm climate and decided to start their life together in Phoenix, where neither had a job.
According to Gary Shew, their home was filled with language books, from which Muffin learned at least enough French, Hebrew, Spanish and Russian to converse in quick phrases. And there were lots of spy novels, which were his.
Muffin was very accomplished. She wrote well, took dance classes, cooked like a professional chef and arranged things inside her house with just the right flair to make an average home interior picture perfect.
Everyone who has ever been inside Muffin's home says it was always immaculate and organized.
Muffin was much more critical of other people than anyone was of her. She liked nice things, whether it was clothing or jewelry or furniture, and would sooner do without than compromise. She despised casual comments that weren't sincere and was harshly critical of people who didn't tell the truth.
Though Muffin had two cars, she took the bus or walked most places she went during the day. It wasn't a hardship and she wasn't afraid. She moved with a no-nonsense walk and held her head high. Common street thugs were not Muffin's concern.
Shew remembers how, without missing a beat, Muffin would turn to face the men who occasionally gave her the look-over. "Pardon me," she would say. "Am I wearing something of yours?"
The couple divorced in 1985 and returned to court sporadically over alimony payments until 1989. Shew thought Muffin had returned to England. Muffin told her family that Shew had been found dead in the desert. They were a bit shocked to meet him after her death.
Those who were handling Muffin's affairs after her death found that her passport had been partially burned, and the birth date altered to make her appear older. At the time of her death, her house was an unkempt mess, which was very out of character.
Muffin Shew began and finished every day in the dark. She took the bus from her home near Paradise Valley Mall to the library on Central and McDowell and got to work promptly at 7:30 a.m.
She worked in the accounting office, processing payments and making sure that the library's vendors were in compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity standards. People who spent their days with Muffin say she was a competent accountant who could handle anyone, anytime.
One year, she directed a Christmas pageant of sorts among the employees, and took the job seriously enough to chastise participants if they showed up even a few minutes late for rehearsals.
Muffin never took a lunch hour and never participated in the office potlucks.
Bruce Gruys, her supervisor at the library, was closer to Muffin than most of her colleagues. He and his family would stop in to see her at Robinson's whenever they were in the mall.
When the woman scheduled to play Mother Goose at his daughter's fourth birthday party canceled, Muffin stepped in. The party became a tea, starring Muffin as Mary Poppins, which was not a stretch. She showed up in a gray suit, carrying an umbrella, and delighted children with a magical afternoon of stories and dancing.
At the library, Muffin was formal and tailored, accessorized with high collars and beautiful brooches. Colleagues say a job applicant once mistook her for the boss.
But she seems to have suffered from the curse of age in a changing workplace. She was a high-speed typist and ten-key user, but less proficient in the computer skills that improved technology made valuable. She could do seemingly anything, but needed the training to learn.
Muffin left the library at 1 p.m. and went to her second job as a sales clerk at Robinson's, usually until the store closed at 9 p.m.
By all accounts, she was a top sales clerk, sometimes waiting on two or three customers at a time in the women's dress department. The store now refuses to discuss Muffin's employment.
In earlier years, Muffin focused her energy on volunteer work. She put in hundreds of hours volunteering at places like the Phoenix Zoo. She taught disabled children to swim and cut through red tape like a machete. She was a helping hand to senior citizens and led exercise classes for women in and out of jail.
But even the most routine days did not go by without some sort of subplot for Muffin.
Colleagues at the library say she sometimes kept a log of their comings and goings, and her style could be confrontational. She made it her personal campaign to seek benefits for part-time employees.
She often spoke of knowing celebrities like Donald Trump, Jerry Lewis, Elton John and Queen Elizabeth. She told colleagues she had once worked as a personal assistant to George Peppard.
"There was always just enough truth in them so that you never really knew if they were real," says Gruys of her stories.
And Muffin told fantastic tales of her love affair with an Israeli colonel known only as Josef, a pilot who trained at Luke Air Force Base. According to her, Josef escorted her to parties with important people and they shared romantic weekends out of town.
There is no clue that Muffin's mysterious lover ever existed, nor have neighbors seen such a visitor to her home. But then again, according to police, Israeli pilots have trained at Luke.
In the 1980s, she worked as a night auditor for Valley hotels like the Biltmore, and was at the Phoenician when federal agents took over the resort from Charlie Keating.
Muffin loved to work, and work hard. But somehow, it just wasn't enough without the flavor of intrigue.
It was a rare occasion when Muffin Shew kept her opinions or her politics to herself.
She enjoyed the nickname "Toughy Muffy," because there was seemingly no cause she wouldn't take on. She wrote letters to City Hall, to the White House and all points in between. Some of them were vicious, others were threatening. She protested tax collection, immigration laws, the return of a child to her biological parents, foreign affairs and a grab bag of other issues.
She kept files of various pieces of information that she had collected on issues of importance to her, and she was an avid researcher once she sunk her teeth into something.
Muffin worked on Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign. She worked vehemently to oppose the Maricopa Community College District bond election in 1992.
Muffin had taught hotel management at the district's Maricopa Skill Center in 1990 and 1991. During that time and after, she developed a distaste for the college administration. She complained constantly to anyone who would listen that the district was wasting taxpayer money and that administrators were grossly overpaid.
She told friends and colleagues she was going to Washington, D.C., in September to speak before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Immigration hearing, led by Senator Ted Kennedy. She took the day off work to do it.
According to Kennedy's office, he did lead the committee until this year. There were two hearings in 1994--in June and August. But Muffin Shew never testified at either, nor did any other member of the public.
In 1991, Muffin filed sexual discrimination charges against Arrowhead Landscaping, alleging that Arrowhead had fired her days after she was hired because company principals refused to work with a woman.
The complaint was settled for $10,000. But Muffin continued to argue with the Attorney General's Office, complaining that it was not collecting the money.
She visited with police detectives and reporters and government officials. To most of them, she was an acquaintance, a source, a friend or just a nice lady. To Muffin, they were her "contacts."
She casually told a select few people she knew that they would likely find her dead someday. And she was right.
Gary Shew was sitting at the drafting table where he makes his living when he got the call that would begin the most bizarre week of his life.
Muffin was dead and the police wanted to talk to him. And until that day, he believed that the woman to whom he was married for 16 years had been a British government agent, had traveled around the globe, graduated college in England, attended law school at UCLA and had never been married before they met.
"I loved her. But, honestly, I have no idea who I was married to," says Shew, who bears an uncanny resemblance to actor Sean Connery.
Throughout their relationship, Muffin maintained that she had worked for British intelligence. She didn't say much about it, but, occasionally, told of boarding British-registered ships in California to inspect the captain's log.
"I had no reason to question her," Shew says. He also thought he had reason to believe his wife.
Once in a while, Muffin got phone calls at home and held quiet, private conversations. She never allowed friendships with the neighbors.
One day, an old Air Force buddy called Gary and they reminisced for a good, long time over the phone. Shew was happy to hear from his old friend, but Muffin's response was deadpan. How did he get their phone number? Hadn't Gary told his family not to give out their phone number?
Muffin changed the couple's number immediately.
"It appeared to me that she was quite concerned about her safety," Shew says. "She didn't want anyone to know anything about us."
Her family can find no reason to explain this.
Austin Barrass, Muffin's brother, told police that Muffin had once worked as a clerk for some government agency, he said, but never anything more than that.
MI-5, the domestic intelligence agency of Great Britain, has no record of a retirement or a pension for Muffin, nor does it have a record of anyone with her known surnames dying in 1994. But the agency could not confirm whether she had ever worked there.
Maybe she was just a good candidate for the job.
The Muffin Shew that her husband knew could handle any situation beautifully, whether it was a confrontation at a restaurant or cutting through bureaucratic red tape.
Gary Shew's job took him out of town often for weeks at a time. On one occasion, when they lived in an apartment, Muffin saw a stranger on the patio. She told Shew that she stood in the doorway, turned toward the house and said, loudly, "Gary, get the shotgun." Gary was in Wyoming at the time, but the prowler ran away.
There was no funeral for Muffin Shew. Her family apparently wanted it that way, but it only added to the mystery surrounding her death.
Knowing the truth now, friends feel somewhat betrayed, thinking they'd been duped by Muffin's tall tales. Others are nervous, wondering if some of her stories were true, and that maybe something from the past led to her demise.
Neighbors speculate that someone Muffin crossed got even with her. A few former colleagues raise an eyebrow over her politics, especially the bond issue, because it was so recent.
Gary Shew doesn't know what to think. He's still a little shocked and a bit dismayed. Muffin's family has gone back to England. Some of them call every so often to see if there's any news on the case.
And regardless of what she was or was not, what she had or had not done, who she did or did not know, Muffin Shew was murdered in her backyard, in a quiet, suburban Phoenix neighborhood, without anyone seeing or hearing anything. And maybe that's more disturbing than anything in Muffin's mysterious past.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.