When Catfishing Turns Into a Deadly Love Triangle

He claimed to be an 18-year-old Marine heading off to war, and she alleged to be an attractive young woman sending him off with provocative pictures. Or so they thought. However, they were actually two middle-aged people carrying out a fantasy internet relationship that seemed like harmless lies.

Jessi Shieler / Mary Shieler, Jessi Shieler / Thomas Montgomery / Jessi Shieler.
Source: YouTube

When truthful 22-year-old Brian Barrett entered the mix, the cyber love triangle turned deadly. While the internet is known as a place for illicit affairs between people hiding behind fake identities, most virtual relationships aren’t as dangerous as this one turned out to be. Find out how this twisted love affair ended in murder.

MarineSniper and Talhotblond Enter the Chat

It started out as a chance encounter in an online chat room. In May 2005, Thomas Montgomery entered a teen chatroom under the username MarineSniper. He said he was an 18-year-old Marine preparing for deployment to Iraq. He chatted with a few people before a message appeared from Talhotblond.

A photo of Thomas Montgomery as MarineSniper.
MarineSniper. Source: ABC News

Talhotblond revealed her name was Jessi, a softball-playing high school senior from West Virginia. She began messaging Montgomery, and their flirtation soon turned into a romance. She even sent him pictures that lived up to her screen name. In return, Montgomery sent her a picture from Marine boot camp.

The Reality of MarineSniper

Behind his macho username was the real Thomas Montgomery, who was actually 46 years old. He was a machinist at a local factory and a Sunday school teacher in upstate New York. Montgomery and his wife Cindy had two daughters. From the outside, they had a nice life and a solid marriage.

A portrait of Tom Montgomery with his family.
Montgomery family. Source: Pinterest

When Montgomery was online in the teen section of a gaming chatroom, he thought it would be inappropriate to engage in a conversation with a high schooler. Therefore, he assumed the fake identity, posing as Tommy and using his Marine portrait from 30 years earlier. He didn’t know that Talhotblond was fake too.

Talhotblond Had Some Secrets

Just like Montgomery’s fake identity, Talhotblond, aka Jessi, was not who she claimed to be. Behind the promiscuous screen name was 45-year-old homemaker Mary Shieler. She posed as her daughter Jessi without her knowledge and used her pictures to make her story seem believable. She was unaware that Tommy was doing the same thing.

A blurred image of Talhotblond user.
Talhotblond. Source: ABC News / Photo by Nathan Dumlao, Pexels

Shieler seemed like the perfect mom, one who loved and spoiled her daughter. They did everything together because Jessi was her only daughter, and it seemed like she wanted the best for her. However, she was bored with her life, so she started using Jessi’s identity online.

An Intense Love Affair

Montgomery and Shieler struck up an intense online affair using their false identities. Shieler would send suggestive photos of her daughter and even sent Montgomery special packages with love notes and pairs of lace underwear. Montgomery never thought he would meet her, so he played along and accepted her advances.

A picture of Montogery’s wife / A photo of Shieler’s daughter.
Cindy Montgomery, Jessi Shieler. Source: ABC News

Their conversations started as sexual fantasies, but they began to form a deeper connection. Over the months, they talked about love and even marriage. They hung on each other’s words and anxiously waited for the message notifications each day. In their minds, Montgomery and Shieler felt like teenagers again.

It Was Like a Drug

As their conversations intensified, Montgomery said his time online talking to “Jessi” was like a drug. He was so bored with his life that talking to her became the most exciting part of his day. He barely wanted to be away from the screen.

An image of a laptop in a dark room.
Photo by Philipp Katzenberger/Unsplash

When Montgomery wasn’t at work, he was glued to the messages. Although he had a family to take care of, pretending to be Tommy seemed more important. At some point, his life as Tommy became more real to him than his real life.

He Lost Touch With Reality

The more time Montgomery spent talking to “Jessi,” the less he cared about his actual life. He even wrote a note to himself stating, “On January 2nd, 2006, Tom Montgomery (46 years old) ceases to exist and is replaced by an 18-year-old, battle-scarred Marine.”

A photo of Montgomery during an interview.
Montgomery. Source: ABC News

In the note, he said this new 18-year-old resembled a red-headed Harrison Ford and had $2.5 million in the bank. Montgomery started telling “Jessi” tales of combat based on things he saw in the news. He barely knew what was real and what was made up.

A Snag in His Fantasy

Because he was spending so much time on the computer, Montgomery’s wife, Cindy, became suspicious. Unfortunately for Montgomery, Cindy found one of the special packages from “Jessi.” She was furious, so she sent her a message.

A reflection of Montgomery on the screen of a laptop.
Source: ABC News

Cindy wrote, “Do not trust words on a computer, let this go, you will only be hurt by a man who has mastered the art of manipulations and lies. Sincerely, Cindy Montgomery.” She also added a description of who the real Tom Montgomery was.

Ending the Relationship

When Shieler received Cindy’s letter and photo, she was upset to find out that he was also lying. However, she wasn’t going to reveal her identity. She sent a message to Montgomery ending things and wrote that he should be in jail.

A blurred portrait of Jessi.
Jessi Shieler. Source: ABC News

Shieler was far from innocent in the situation by using her daughter’s pictures, but she didn’t want Montgomery to know that. While this would have been the perfect time to let the fantasy end and close the chat room, she couldn’t let it go.

Getting Revenge

Shieler was angry with Montgomery for lying, so she searched his friend list and found 22-year-old Brian Barrett. He was one of Montgomery’s co-workers and friends. Shieler used her identity as Jessi to flirt with Barrett, whom she goaded into humiliating Montgomery at work and online.

A picture of Brian Barrett.
Brian Barrett. Source: YouTube

Barrett thought Jessi was a real person, and they began a romance of their own. They started talking in the same chat room that Montgomery had used. It enraged Montgomery when he found out.

He Consoled Her

Barrett used the screen name Beefcake, and he helped “Jessi” get over her heartache over Montgomery. It seemed she found a better fit with him because he was kind and caring. Barrett was described as a nice guy with a good heart.

A photo of Barrett.
Brian Barrett. Source: Facebook

Before long, “Jessi” started sending Barrett the same photos she had once shared with Montgomery. She didn’t send him gifts as she had in her former romance. She knew she was playing with fire, but Shieler liked the attention she got as “Jessi” from Barrett.

They Started Talking Again

Shieler started communicating with Montgomery again to tell him she wasn’t over “Tommy.” It seemed that neither of them was ready to let go of their fantasy romance, so they started communicating every day again. However, he was angry that Barrett talked to her.

A blurred image of Jessi Shieler.
Jessi Shieler. Source: YouTube / Photo by Designecologyst, Pexels

As Jessi, Shieler continued to talk with both Barrett and Montgomery, simultaneously. It sent Montgomery into a downward spiral. He was jealous and possessive of a person he had never met in person. Montgomery told “Jessi” that he would make Barrett pay in blood.

He Finally Snapped

The final straw came while Montgomery was at work. He overheard Barrett telling their co-workers how he was going to drive to West Virginia to see “Jessi” and “pop her cherry.” Montgomery fumed with anger at the thought of Barrett taking his girl.

An image of a keyboard.
Photo by Christian Wiediger/Unsplash

There was no way Montgomery was going to let Barrett get away with what he said. The two had been close friends, but they were now enemies. He started making threats against Barrett and “Jessi.” Montgomery told “Jessi” that she had turned his heart ice cold.

It Turned Deadly

Despite the threats, Shieler continued to play Barrett against Montgomery. She was egging him on because she didn’t realize what Montgomery was capable of. However, she should have been more careful because Montgomery flew into a jealous rage.

A picture of Mary Shieler and Jessi Shieler.
Mary Shieler, Jessi Shieler. Source: ABC News

On September 15, 2006, Montgomery drove to the factory to meet Barrett after his shift. As Barrett got into his truck, Montgomery shot him three times, killing him. His body was found two days later when a co-worker spotted his vehicle in an isolated part of the parking lot.

Connecting the Crime

It didn’t take long for the police to connect the crime to Montgomery. They quickly learned from his co-workers about the online relationship with “Jessi” and went through his computer to find hundreds of messages. They also saw the threats to Barrett.

An image of Montgomery’s portrait behind police tape.
Source: YouTube

The police sent officers to Jessi’s home in Oak Hill, West Virginia, to ensure she was safe. When they arrived, Shieler answered the door, and the police asked where her daughter was. She scooted around the question for a few minutes before breaking down.

Her Big Confession

Shieler told the police that her daughter never communicated with either of the men; it was her the whole time. She said she used racy pictures of her daughter to seduce the men and have cybersex with them under Jessi’s name without her daughter’s knowledge.

An image of a computer in a dark room.
Photo by Michail Sapiton/Unsplash

She even admitted taking photos of Jessi in secret and a video she managed to film up her daughter’s skirt. Shieler definitely wasn’t winning the mother of the year award, but the police were only there to make sure her daughter wasn’t in danger.

Arrested and Charged

Once police found Montgomery, who had fled after he shot Barrett, they arrested him and charged him with second-degree murder. There was enough evidence against him for a conviction, and Montgomery admitted to killing Barrett in the parking lot where they worked.

An image of police officers outside their vehicle.
Photo by Erik Mclean/Unsplash

Montgomery told the judge he intentionally went there to kill Barrett and used his rifle to shoot him through the window of his pickup truck. Montgomery’s lawyers urged him to take a plea deal instead of going through a trial, which could turn out worse.

He Took a Plea Deal

Montgomery would have faced more severe charges had he not taken a plea deal. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail. Barrett’s parents were in court during the trial, and they consented to the deal after being assured Montgomery would be behind bars for at least two decades.

A picture of a gavel.
Photo by Tingery Ingury Law Firm/Unsplash

He was initially charged with second-degree murder but would have served less time. Barrett’s parents were hoping for more, but they were glad the judge didn’t prolong the trial and give Montgomery more rights than their son had. It was a horrible feeling.

Barrett’s Parents Were Devastated

Barrett was only 22 at the time of his death. The judge said, “This is a totally senseless killing. This young man has been cut off in the prime of his life for no reason.” Barrett’s parents didn’t understand how such evil could exist in the world.

Montgomery / Jessi Shieler / Brian Barret.
Source: ABC News

Before the sentencing, Barrett’s father read a letter written by one of Barrett’s teachers. It stated that Barrett had an “infectious smile.” He was a leader and dedicated student who wanted to become a teacher someday because he loved working with children.

He Tried to Withdraw His Plea

Although he had already entered a guilty plea deal, Montgomery tried to withdraw it and take the case to trial. He believed he would get a more lenient sentence, and he claimed that he was coerced into taking the deal. However, the judge denied his request.

Montgomery gives an interview from prison.
Source: ABC News

The judge said he had a full understanding of the consequences. Montgomery first informed his attorney, John Nucherino, of his desire to take back the deal shortly after he entered it. Unfortunately, there was no turning back because he committed the crime.

Trying His Luck

After the plea hearing, Montgomery was placed in a special observation unit at the holding facility because of concerns for his mental health. As soon as he got access to a pen and paper again, Montgomery wrote a petition to file for a new council.

An image of a barbed wire.
Photo by Robert Klank/Unsplash

Montgomery thought he had an “automatic right” to do so in his mind. However, Nucherino said Montgomery’s request was a reflection of his “lack of knowledge about the basic concepts of the plea.” He started to regret his actions and tried to find a way out.

New Representation

After his request, Montgomery’s first attorney, John Molloy, was relieved of his duties. When Nucherino stepped in, he realized Montgomery was an inexperienced defendant. It had already been changed once, so why couldn’t it be changed again? Unfortunately, that isn’t how the legal system works, which he should have known.

A picture of hands in cuffs.
Photo by Kindel/Pexel

Montgomery swore under oath at the sentencing that he understood the plea and the possible sentence. He never indicated he was confused. Nucherino said Molloy pressured Montgomery into the plea because the case would be tough to win at trial.

His Children Wanted to Testify

Montgomery’s two teenage daughters had been prepared to testify at trial that they were with their father at the time of the murder. Nucherino said Montgomery was stressed that his daughters’ words would be picked apart on the stand, so he didn’t want to go to trial.

Pictures from the case are displayed on a table.
Source: YouTube

The pressure he felt made him take the original agreement. His children were ready to lie under oath for him, but he never had the courtesy to protect them when he was sitting behind his computer messaging someone he thought was years younger than him.

Key Piece of Evidence

Another reason why Montgomery might have changed his mind about the plea deal is because a key piece of evidence was discovered. Investigators found a peach pit at the crime scene, not far from Barrett’s body. They believed it belonged to the killer.

An image of a police tape at a crime scene.
Photo by kat wilcox/Pexel

Though Montgomery refused to give a DNA sample, he made a mistake. He asked for a soda during an interview and left the can behind when he finished. Investigators had enough saliva to get a sample. His DNA matched that found on the peach pit.

Not Believing His Manipulations

Deputy District Attorney Frank Sedita disputed the idea that Montgomery didn’t understand what he was doing because he had spent a whole weekend with his lawyer discussing it. Sedita saw through Montgomery, stating the motion and affidavit were full of lies.

A picture of hands typing on a keyboard at night.
Photo by Anete Lusina/Pexel

Sedita said he had prosecuted more vicious people in his career, but Montgomery was more manipulative than all of them. The evidence of this was in the transcripts from his conversations with “Jessi.” He tried to persuade her several times, and it was “almost predatory.”

Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Sedita believed Montgomery tried to withdraw his guilty plea because Barrett’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against him. He thought the statements made during his sentencing could be used against him in the lawsuit. Nucherino disputed that Montgomery wasn’t aware of the lawsuit then.

A still of Montgomery during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Shieler would have been the prosecution’s key witness if the trial had proceeded. However, Montgomery thought he would stand a better chance now that she might be reluctant to testify because Barrett’s family was also suing her for her involvement.

Planned Appeal

Nucherino had plans to appeal the sentence within the week of the hearing. He claimed Montgomery was a family man, former Marine, and a law-abiding citizen. Montgomery sought psychiatric treatment for his depression, and the chat rooms only added to his fragile mind.

An image of the sunset in West Virginia.
Photo by Fatih Turan/Pexel

His lawyer’s truly believed Montgomery’s mental state could have played a part in the murder, which could have gotten him a lesser sentence. Unfortunately, he was not able to appeal because of the agreement and the clear evidence that he knowingly committed the crime.

Fragile Mental Health and Divorce

While he is far from a victim in the situation, Montgomery went through a divorce and was placed on suicide watch several times following his arrest. We can’t blame his wife for wanting to end their marriage, considering all he put her through.

A portrait of Cindy Montgomery.
Cindy Montgomery. Source: ABC News

His attorney said, “Unfortunately, the internet can put us in a world where fantasy and reality are blurred. It’s easy to share your feelings with somebody you never have to meet.” It wasn’t a healthy situation for Montgomery or anyone else involved.

Shieler’s Role in the Murder

Although Shieler didn’t pull the trigger, her role in the tragedy was just as bad. According to Rex Beaber, a clinical psychologist and attorney, what Shieler did when she found out Montgomery’s true identity was “a kind of homicide” in his eyes because she broke the fantasy.

An image of screenshots of Talhotblond.
Talhotblond. Source: YouTube

Montgomery was so deep into their made-up relationship, so Shieler killed any hope he had to save himself by cutting it off. From Beaber’s psychological perspective, she engaged in cyber homicide. The tragedy was almost inevitable when their illusion ended.

Her Daughter Found Out

After Shieler told the police she posed as her daughter, it didn’t take long for Jessi to find out as well. She felt so violated by what her mother had done. Jessi couldn’t believe Shieler used her pictures and took pictures of her to send to a stranger online.

A picture of Jessi Shieler looking disappointed.
Jessi Shieler. Source: YouTube

A mother is supposed to love and protect you from these situations, so Jessi was angry. She stopped speaking to Shieler immediately. No one would be able to look at their mom the same way after finding out this information.

Not So Sensitive

While you would think that Shieler would do anything to get back in her daughter’s good graces, she showed little remorse for her actions. She never bothered to even apologize to Jessi for violating her privacy. Shieler’s husband also filed for divorce.

A blurred image of Jessi Shieler.
Source: Facebook

During Shieler’s divorce hearing, she approached Jessi, saying, “Why don’t you get over this?” She clearly didn’t understand how much she hurt her daughter and family. In a twisted way, Shieler thought she was doing something good. She seems like a disturbed woman.

No Charges for Shieler

Besides the wrongful death lawsuit, Shieler has not been charged in regard to the murder. Prosecutors in New York, where Montgomery and Barrett lived, looked for a way to charge her for something. Unfortunately, she technically didn’t do anything illegal.

An image of hands typing on a laptop’s keyboard.
Photo by Vlada Karpovich/Pexel

Shieler crossed the moral and ethical line, but you can’t prosecute someone for that. She knew about Montgomery’s threats towards Barrett and didn’t try to stop him. One prosecutor said he thought Shieler provoked Montgomery to kill, but they couldn’t arrest her.

She Doesn’t Feel Responsible

The only punishment Shieler received was losing her family. It seems she didn’t care much about them in the first place because she didn’t try to apologize. She has defended herself by saying she was “just having fun playing games online.” Shieler was not sorry for Barrett’s death.

A picture of flashing lights on a police car.
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

At one point, Shieler said she felt like she was doing Montgomery a favor. She claimed to be afraid that he would talk to real teenagers if he stopped talking to her. In reality, it looks like she was bored with her life and enjoyed the attention.

She Tried to Make a Profit

If there is one thing we learned about Shieler from this story, it’s that she is shameless. After the event, she pursued an education, taking classes at a community college in West Virginia. She did an interview about the deadly love triangle for a profit.

A photo of a calculator next to U.S. dollar bills.
Photo by Tara Winstead/Pexels

She also had plans to write a book about the dangers of the internet. That is pretty interesting coming from a woman who used her own child as bait to talk to young men online. Shieler has a very warped sense of reality.

They Could Have Been the Perfect Couple

The irony in this case is that the people behind Talhotblond and MarineSniper are an equally well-matched pair. Montgomery and Shieler were both lonely people in their mid-forties with their best days behind them. They both turned to the internet to find companionship.

A photo of a couple holding hands by the beach.
Photo by Valentin Antonuci/Pexels

The two created teenage identities to recapture the glory of their youth. Montgomery and Shieler might have been the perfect couple if they had met in real life. Maybe they can have a true connection when he gets out of jail in another couple of years.

It Could Have Been an Interesting Trial

Shieler initially prepared to testify at Montgomery’s trial. The prosecutors had thousands of pages of transcripts of conversations between Montgomery, Shieler, and Barrett. There were some conversations between Montgomery and Shieler that were not hidden, which would have been quite shocking to hear in court.

A photo of MarineSniper / A blurred image of Jessi.
Source: YouTube

District Attorney Frank Clark said the trial would have been an interesting one. He stated, “We deal with facts and reality. Here you have a cyberspace love triangle. It all exists online. The only thing that was real was the murder.”

Barrett’s Parents Petitioned for New Laws

After everything that happened, Barrett’s parents started a petition to enact laws to protect others from people like Shieler. Sadly, there is no clear indication of what a law like that would state. It is unlikely that a new law could fix this social problem.

An image of a judge in court.
Photo by Ekaterina/Pexels

Unfortunately, it seems that more people have to get killed before lawmakers see this as a real problem. A situation like this could happen to anyone. While free speech is one thing, using it as a drug or weapon requires laws so that people can be punished.