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Prosecutors Got One Conviction In A Snake King’s Murder, And Now They Are Going After Another

A 600g Royal Python sits on the scales at London Zoo on August 21, 2013 in London, England.
Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

Other than the dead guy, everybody involved in what Hollywood should one day call The Reptile Dysfunction Murder Case is a creep or, you could say, a character from a Coen Brothers film. There's the dead man with the reptile empire. There's the still-alive wife, accused of carrying out his murder while carrying on lots of romantic affairs and embezzling lots of money from the family snake business. There's the convicted ex-boyfriend and the un-indicted ex-employee, both expected to testify about their own comical attempts to help said wife get away with murder. And all this is scheduled to play out next month in a Missouri courtroom.

In June 2017, Ben Renick was found dead on the floor of his snake-breeding compound in tiny, outta-the-way New Florence, Missouri. His corpse was surrounded by hundreds of caged ball pythons, the main meal ticket at Renick Reptiles Inc. When cops first responded to a 911 call from Lynlee Renick, 33, they thought her 29-year-old spouse might have been killed by the very animals whose breeding had put bread on his and Lynlee’s table. It wasn’t until they discovered a slew of spent bullet shells amid the blood and serpents that authorities realized he’d been shot to death, not bitten. 

Michael Humphrey, whom prosecutors said was Lynlee Renick’s accomplice, was convicted last month of first-degree murder for his participation in the killing. At his trial, Humphrey was portrayed by the state as one of a sizable gaggle of Lynlee's paramours as well as a hitman with cold feet. Humphrey was said to have curried favor with Lynlee by saying he’d kill her husband—until it came time to actually pull the trigger. Testimony from another ex-lover of Lynlee's turned informant said the lead couple in this gang that couldn’t shoot straight got in a fight hours before the killing over both who was supposed to pay for gas and because Humphrey forgot to bring gloves to help cover their tracks. When they arrived at the Renicks’s snake compound, prosecutors contended, Humphrey had a crisis of conscience and backed out, telling Lynlee that, if she wanted Ben dead, she’d have to be the one to kill him. So she went ahead and did it herself, said the state.

The jury deliberated mere hours before delivering Humphrey's guilty verdict.

Adding even more weirdness to the murder tale, shortly before his death, Ben Renick had agreed to sell his python operation for $1.2 million to Robin Lehner, a snake-obsessed star goalie for the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights. The murder killed the sale, too. 

Lynlee Renick’s trial is scheduled to begin on Dec. 6, 2021. Because of pretrial publicity in tiny New Florence, the case has been moved outside Montgomery County to Columbia, the county seat of Boone. (Humphrey’s case was heard in Mexico, Missouri, for the same reason.)

Lynlee Renick’s attorney, Timothy Hesemann, could not be reached for comment. Earlier this year, Hesemann told Defector, “Our position is my client is innocent, and that the witnesses are not credible.” 

But given all the awfulness of all the involved humans, Hesemann should have plenty of opportunities to plant reasonable doubt of Lynlee Renick’s guilt in at least one juror’s mind.

Take, for example, the shady past of Ben Renick’s dad, which appeared to impact the investigation of the murder from the start. Along with being a pet magnate, as owner of the pet food manufacturer Spectrum Pet Care, Frank Renick was a con man who also practiced insurance fraud. In the 1990s, courts ruled that he was liable for an explosion that blew the Renick family home to smithereens in 1992 as part of an insurance fraud scheme. By 2012, Frank Renick was facing 60 years in prison and a $750,000 fine after being indicted on federal mail fraud charges. Investigators found he’d organized his pet food business like a Ponzi scheme and defrauded a group of mostly local investors out of $7 million. On Father’s Day 2012, the elder Renick was found dead of a gunshot wound to the chest on the very same property where Ben Renick would be found years later.

Renick's death was ruled an "apparent suicide" by law enforcement. But an associate of Ben Renick told Defector that they believed one reason the investigation into his 2017 killing was so slow was investigators figured the snake breeder’s murder could have been payback for his dad’s debts. Lynlee Renick's attorney could float that same theory in front of a jury. The prosecution has been making up for lost time—investigators got their first big break in the case two and a half years after the murder—with a series of aggressive pre-trial moves that legally benefited some seriously bad actors in exchange for their testimony against her at trial.

First, the state made a deal to get an informant named Brandon Blackwell out of jail. Blackwell had hooked up with Lynlee Renick before the murder on Ashley Madison, the website for wannabe adulterers. At Humphrey’s trial, prosecutors said Lynlee Renick was a regular peruser of Ashley Madison, and produced another man who said he hooked up with her after finding her there. (The state has painted Lynlee Renick as a very-online killer. Along with finding Blackwell on Ashley Madison, prosecutors said she connected with Humphrey while looking on a legal records website for men with a criminal past, since she thought they'd be more amenable to signing on to her murder-for-hire plan.) After a hiatus, according to a source close to the case, Blackwell reconnected with his old flame by sending her a sympathy card following Ben Renick's death. That kickstarted their romance all over again.

Their relationship was never a stable one. The case prosecutors built against Michael Humphrey rested almost entirely on information provided by Blackwell in January 2020. When Blackwell went to authorities and fingered Lynlee Renick as the person who pulled the trigger, he was incarcerated for violating one of several protection orders she had gotten to keep him away from her. Blackwell got out of jail by providing his tale. As if their past wasn’t seamy enough, Blackwell had previously been brought to court by Lynlee Renick for failing to pay child support on a child conceived after Ben Renick’s murder. 

However, the state was hardly done handing out get-out-of-jail-free cards. 

After hearing Blackwell’s story, the prosecution offered what seems like a criminally sweet immunity deal to Ashley Shaw, a colleague of Lynlee Renick’s at Ascensia Spa, a failing business she owned in Columbia that advertised wellness-service offerings. Lynlee Renick had been secretly funneling her husband’s hard-earned snake-breeding proceeds into her spa before allegedly killing him. Based on testimony in Humphrey’s trial, Shaw helped Lynlee both come up with several plots to kill Ben and carry them out. Shaw admitted to grinding up pills so Lynlee would have what prosecutors called “an enormous amount of narcotics” to put in a protein shake that she gave to Ben in hopes he’d die of an overdose. Ben drank the poison cocktail but only got sick. 

When Ben survived the mickey they slipped him, Shaw also admitted that she helped Lynlee Renick with Plan B: hiring a hitman to do the dirty deed. Shaw went on a recruiting trip to Jefferson City during which, according to charging documents, she and Lynlee spent a night driving around shopping malls and “trailer parks” hoping to find Michael Humphrey, whom they’d targeted as the most likely guy to help Lynlee knock off her spouse. The charging documents also said that Shaw carried Lynlee’s cellphone around town on the evening of the killing to provide her pal with an alibi by making it look like she was nowhere near the murder scene at the time Ben Renick was offed. 

But because of Shaw’s deal with prosecutors, she will face no jail time for her roles in the plot that ended in Ben Renick’s death.

And, lastly for now, the state has even cut a deal with Humphrey since his first-degree murder conviction. Missouri assistant attorney general Kevin Zoellner recently announced that Humphrey had agreed to cooperate with the state in the upcoming Lynlee Renick trial. In exchange for testifying against Ben Renick’s widow, Zoellner will reportedly reduce Humphrey’s crime from first-degree to second-degree murder. ​​By statute in Missouri, sentencing on first-degree murder convictions for a person 18 or over brings either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. But under the new deal, Humphrey could be spared both, and instead eventually will be eligible to get out. 

The prosecution has already gotten dividends from its agreement with the convicted killer. Zoellner recently announced that he has procured what is thought to be the murder weapon, and said he was steered to it by Humphrey. Brianne Besheer, Humphrey's attorney, told Defector that she and co-counsel T.J. Hunsaker brought their client to meet with Zoellner after the conviction "and began cooperating."

Humphrey is now set to be the star witness at Lynlee Renick’s trial. He is also currently set to be sentenced on Jan. 6, 2022. Barring a postponement or a mistrial, by then Lynlee Renick will be either a convicted murderer or a free woman. Either way would give the movie its ending.

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