Frank Howard: Strange and Sensational Murder for Hire

Our past two cases have been about killer nurses Kristen Gilbert and Charles Cullen. This week we go to Texas. Everything is big in Texas and even the murder cases seem larger than life. Our case involves successful businessman Frank Howard (not to be confused with the former baseball player). Howard concocted a scheme to hire East Texas gangsters to murder his wife. One of them eventually shot Nancy Howard but she survived.

Frank Howard and Nancy Shore Howard

Born John Franklin Howard, Frank married Nancy Shore in 1983. They settled in Carrollton, Texas, north and slightly west of Dallas and near Lewisville Lake. Together they raised three children.

Frank and Nancy Howard in happier times
Frank and Nancy Howard in happier times

From the outside, the Howards seemed like a normal suburban couple. Frank coached his kids’ soccer teams and went to their musical theater performances. The couple sang in the church choir and hosted Bible study for youth groups in their home. Frank was a successful businessman with his own accounting firm and Nancy was a stay-at-home mom.

The Howards’ apparently idyllic life began to dissipate as their children grew up and left home. Frank started devoting more time to his work. He took on a new client, Colleyville businessman Richard Raley, who’d made millions as a defense contractor. He told his wife that this new business would require more travel. Nancy found herself at home with little to do. In most cases, this wouldn’t be much of a problem, but trouble was brewing.

Frank Howard Meets Suzanne Leontieff

It was the weekend of July 25, 2009. Frank was in Lake Tahoe on business and Nancy was on a mission trip to Africa with her youngest daughter, Brianna. At a casino named Harvey’s, Frank met a woman at one of the tables. She was Suzanne Leontieff, a dental hygienist. Suzanne was in her early fifties but had blonde hair, a youthful face, and a perky demeanor. She was in Lake Tahoe to watch her daughters compete in a softball tournament.

Suzanne and Frank met for dinner. Suzanne was married, too, but had separated from her husband and working toward a divorce. The next weekend, Frank invited Suzanne to meet him in Reno. She did.

Suzanne Leontieff (MSNBC/Dateline)
Suzanne Leontieff (MSNBC/Dateline)

Over the next three years, Frank and Suzanne saw each other often. Sometimes he met her in California, while others he flew her to Dallas. Then there were expensive trips to the Bahamas and prime sporting events. Frank also bought a condo in Lake Tahoe and Suzanne a house in Santa Cruz. When Suzanne’s divorce came through, she lost her health insurance. So, Frank put her on the payroll of Raley’s company (by now he was Chief Financial Officer).

An Attempted Murder

On Saturday, August 18, 2012, Nancy went to the First Baptist Church in Carrollton for a women’s tea. She didn’t know it, but someone followed her into the parking lot. That evening, she went back to the church for the baptism of a family friend. When she left the parking lot at about 7:30, it was raining. A silver Nissan trailed her out of the lot.

On her way home, Nancy stopped at a Taco Bueno and picked up a steak fajita dinner at the drive-through. From there, she drove home, a two-story brick house on Bluebonnet Way. In the garage, she got out of the car with her purse and the Taco Bueno bag in her hands. Someone grabbed her from behind, put a gun to her head, and demanded her purse.

The Howards' house on Bluebonnet Way in Carrollton, TX
The Howards’ house on Bluebonnet Way in Carrollton, TX

Startled, Nancy turned around. The intruder, a man in his twenties demanded her purse again. Confused, she handed him the Taco Bueno bag instead. Seeing the man becoming angry, she shoved the purse at him with both hands. He backed up a step, pointed the gun at her face, and fired. He then fled, leaving the bag of food on the rain-soaked driveway and Nancy bleeding in the garage.

A Bizarre Plot

Frank was in Reno with Suzanne when he got the news that Nancy had been shot. He broke down crying and Suzanne had to help him walk. Since there were no more flights to Dallas from Reno that day, Suzanne drove Frank four hours to San Jose where he caught a flight home.

But while he may have shed tears, investigators soon learned that Frank was not exactly the grieving husband. Far from it. Frank, it turns out, had been paying money to East Texas gangsters for years to kill his wife. Somehow, Frank managed to connect with a shady character named Billie Earl Johnson. Calling himself “John,” Frank gave Johnson an envelope with $60,000 cash and a picture of Nancy, telling him to “make it look like an accident.”

Billie Earl Johnson (L) and his nephew, Dustin Hiroms (R). Hiroms shot Nancy Howard in her own garage on August 18, 2012.
Billie Earl Johnson (L) and his nephew, Dustin Hiroms (R). Hiroms shot Nancy Howard in her own garage on August 18, 2012.

Johnson and his cadre of relatives and associates strung “John” along for months on end, extracting more and more money from him. But there were always excuses. Either something slowed them down, they were too wasted, or they were in jail. Nancy lived on. Johnson estimated they squeezed over $2 million out of “John.”

All this would have been funny if Johnson’s stepson, Dustin Taylor Hiroms hadn’t tried to carry out the plot. He’s the one that accosted and shot Nancy.

Frank Howard Goes on Trial

Nancy Howard survived the attack, although she lost her left eye. She divorced Frank and went back to using her birth name, Shore.

John Francis "Frank" Howard
John Francis “Frank” Howard

Frank Howard went on trial in August 2012. All three Howard children testified for their father and sat behind him when they were in court. Nancy testified for the prosecution. The defense claimed Frank had been blackmailed and attacked the credibility of the prosecution witnesses. They did have a point: the East Texas crew had an astonishing number of arrests and convictions. However, the jury took only two hours to return a guilty verdict.

At the sentencing hearing, Frank’s former boss, Richard Raley, testified. He told the jury that Frank had embezzled over $30 million from him over a three-year period. He used the money to finance his affair with Suzanne Leontieff and to pay his meth-addled hitmen. And apparently, according to a later lawsuit, he donated over $200,000 of it to the First Baptist Church! He received a life sentence with no possibility for parole until after 30 years.

Epilogue

Today (April 2022) Frank Howard is 62 years old. He spends his time at the James V. Allred Unit of the Texas prison system near Wichita Falls, Texas.

You can read more about this case in Allice Matthews’ book, The Shooting of Nancy Howard: A Journey Back to Shore.

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