A one-time reality TV personality who gained fame on a show about his mother’s Missouri soul food restaurant has been found guilty of ordering a hit on his own nephew to cash in on a life insurance policy he had taken out on the young man.
James “Tim” Norman, 43, was convicted Friday by a St. Louis jury after 17 hours of deliberation on three federal counts of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, murder-for-hire, and conspiracy to commit mail or wire fraud, according to court filings. Norman was arrested in the Jackson, Mississippi area in August 2020, nearly 4.5 years after 21-year-old Andre Montgomery was found shot to death.
Montgomery, an aspiring rapper, was recording a new track in the studio when he got a phone call from someone asking him to come outside. When he emerged, Montgomery was killed, according to his grandmother and Norman’s mother, restaurateur Robbie “Miss Robbie” Montgomery.
Miss Robbie, founder of the popular chainlet Sweetie Pie’s, which has counted Beyoncé’s father Mathew among its investors, said at the time she thought Montgomery’s death had been a setup. What she couldn’t have known then was that Norman, who starred alongside her and Montgomery on the Oprah Winfrey Network show “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s,” had taken out a mid-six-figure life insurance policy on Montgomery 18 months earlier—and that he was worth more to Norman dead than alive.
The case gained significant notoriety, both local and national. Defense attorney Gloria Rodriguez said she knew straight away that this trial was going to be very different from most others she has taken on.
“I’m not from St. Louis, I had never been there, had not heard of the ‘Sweetie Pie’ show, and yet… I kind of realized after I had been retained that this was a story that had captured a lot of people’s attention,” Rodriguez told The Daily Beast on Friday.
The manager at Sweetie’s Upper Crust, the business’ flagship location, said she had no comment when reached by The Daily Beast on Friday evening.
Norman’s scheme began at the end of October 2014, when he secretly took out a $450,000 life insurance policy on Montgomery, according to an indictment charging him with his nephew’s murder. Montgomery was then 20; Norman was the sole beneficiary. He “conspired with… his insurance agent,” who pleaded guilty in July to participating in the plot, to fraudulently obtain the policy, as there was “no financial dependence or relationship” between him and Montgomery, prosecutors argued.
After withdrawing his first application, Norman succeeded in obtaining a $200,000 policy on Montgomery’s life, as well as a $200,000 accidental death rider that would be triggered if Montgomery were to die of something other than natural causes. The policy also included a $50,000 payout if Montgomery died within 10 years of the policy’s inception.
“You should have by next Friday,” the insurance agent told Norman in a text message obtained by investigators. “They’ll call him on Monday.” Act like you’re Andre.”
Norman continued to apply for additional life insurance policies on Montgomery, but was repeatedly denied. In September 2015, Norman began to express concern about the plan.
“Man… I’m worried about that thing bro…” he texted the insurance agent. “… Shit has changed.”
“Oh ok,” the agent replied.
“He ain’t gonna be around much longer,” Norman wrote back.
Norman had been involved for a few years at that point with Terica Ellis, an exotic dancer in East St. Louis, according to the feds. On March 13, 2016, Norman flew from Los Angeles, where he lived, to St. Louis, where he met up with Ellis at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel.
After they had sex, Norman showed Ellis, 33, a picture of his nephew and asked her if she knew him, prosecutors said. Ellis said she had met him at Bottom’s Up, the club where she worked. Montgomery had introduced himself as a rapper from New Orleans, and the two of them had exchanged phone numbers, Ellis told Norman.
Norman had been looking for Montgomery but had been unable to track him down, he said, explaining that he was “upset” with his relative and needed Ellis’ help finding him. Ellis, who also pleaded guilty in July for her role in Montgomery’s death, agreed, according to prosecutors.
During the trial, Norman testified that he had taken Montgomery under his wing about 18 months prior to the killing. He said he agreed to pay his rent, and enrolled him in a local music school. But he claimed he stopped paying when Montgomery eventually stopped showing up for work or class.
On March 14, Ellis and Norman “purchased pre-paid Tracfone cellular devices at a Walgreens located in the Central West End neighborhood of the City of St. Louis,” the indictment states. Ellis then texted Montgomery, writing, “What’s up trying to see you before I leave,” court filings state.
“I’m here at da studio across from da fairground,” Montgomery texted back. Several days earlier, Norman had informed Travell Hill, a local drug user, that he wanted Montgomery dead. Hill, who testified against Norman and pleaded guilty in June to murder-for-hire, agreed to do the job. Norman told Hill that Ellis would be in touch with further details.
Shortly after 7 pm on March 14, Montgomery texted the address to Ellis, who then passed it to Norman and Hill.
Ellis called Hill and told him where Montgomery could be found. In a phone call, she lured Montgomery out of the home studio where he was recording. Montgomery walked to a car outside, chatted with someone in the vehicle Hill assumed was Ellis, then began heading back into the studio. That’s when Hill yelled over to Montgomery, who started walking towards him as Hill fired multiple shots from a .380 handgun.
Immediately after Montgomery was shot and killed, Ellis called Norman and began driving home to Memphis. Norman flew back to LA early the next morning, and arranged for a mutual acquaintance to give Hill a bag with $5,000 in it as payment and to “keep your mouth quiet.”
Norman paid Ellis $10,000 in cash, which she broke up into multiple deposits at numerous banks around Memphis, according to the feds.
On March 18, 2016, four days after Montgomery’s murder, Norman tried to cash in the life insurance policy he had taken out on his nephew. He was denied again and again, finally hiring a lawyer in 2018 to try and force the insurance company to pay up. Norman never got anything.
“Not a penny,” co-counsel Michael Leonard told The Daily Beast on Friday evening.
In court filings, prosecutors called it a crime that “involved substantial calculation and planning.” Norman’s checkered past also emerged in court, with prosecutors pointing to a past conviction for armed robbery. Taking the stand in his own defense, Norman said he suspected Montgomery had robbed his mother’s home before skipping town for New Orleans. However, he claimed he never hired anyone to harm him.
“The defendant saw his opportunity to cash in and he tried,” Assistant US Attorney Angie Danis said during closing arguments Friday. “He had his own nephew executed.”
After it was all over, Leonard told The Daily Beast that he doubted the veracity of Ellis and Hill’s claims, describing them both as not credible. Leonard also noted that he put Norman on the stand in his own defense, “which I normally don’t do,” and that he “did really well.”
“The fear is that you put your guy on and expose him to a deluge,” Leonard said. “But he didn’t really take any water on. So, we felt pretty darn good going into closing arguments.”
In deliberations, the jury asked to review various pieces of evidence again, including Norman’s flight records, phone data, and text messages. After lengthy deliberations, Norman was found guilty, which “shook” him “to the core,” according to Leonard.
“This is a tragic tale,” Rodriguez added, noting that she had just gotten off a jailhouse call with Norman a few minutes earlier. “There are really no winners here.”
US Attorney Sayler Fleming said she was “very, very pleased” with the outcome, according to the Associated Press.
Norman faces a maximum of life in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for December 15. Leonard and Rodriguez say they plan to appeal.