On the night of September 21, 2001, Sherri Malarik’s home was bustling with activity. The Navy air traffic controller was hosting a family night with pizza, video games and a large group of kids in his blended family, including five and his sister.
Suddenly, 34-year-old Malarik came out. He never came back.
The next morning, her body was found in the family’s Dodge van in a parking lot near Pensacola, Florida. He was shot twice with a .25 caliber gun.
Nearly two decades passed before Malarik was arrested in connection with his murder. In two subsequent first-degree murder trials, prosecutors failed to convict the suspect’s husband.
The first trial against Greg Malarik, now 61, ended in a hung jury and he was acquitted when he was retried last year.
The proceedings revealed a long-standing rift between the relatives, which left them divided not only over who was responsible for Sherri’s murder, but also over their shared family memories.
For more on the case, watch “The Sleepover” tonight at 9 ET/8 CT on “Dateline.”
Tera Malarik, Greg and Sherri’s youngest daughter, told Dateline, “Honestly, I don’t even know how to describe the fact that we’ve been through all of this, nothing but a broken, broken family.”
Tera, 26, has always publicly supported her father, who denies killing Sheri. He testified for the defense in the second trial, and after his acquittal on October 13, he posted words of support on Facebook: “Thank God, justice has prevailed and my father is innocent.”
Teran’s older brother Jacob, 33, testified for the prosecution at both trials and believes Gregg killed their mother. He told Dateline that while he and Tera are “very close,” they are on a break for now.
“I texted him on his birthday,” Jacob said. “Just to let him know, like, I’m not done with you. I haven’t written you off. I’m just not ready yet.”
Their cousin Lisa Leake described the rift in the family in even darker terms. Asked if he had anything to say to Tera, Leake said, “I don’t have anything to say.”
Greg declined an interview request from Dateline. Tera said she is trying to rebuild her life after more than three years of house arrest.
A happy start, then a relationship
Sherry’s son, Jacob, from a previous relationship, remembered his mother as someone who loved music, dancing and being a parent. He was also highly organized and suited to the high-stress environments of an air traffic control tower or a house full of children, his family said.
Sherri met Greg in Bermuda in the early 1990s while they were both in the Navy.
Jacob’s first memories of Greg are good. He recalled his mother’s new partner picking him up early from daycare to go fishing or riding his motorcycle.
The family returned to the United States and eventually settled in Pensacola. While Sherri was in Greece for a year, Jacob said, the Navy SEAL who sometimes babysat for Greg started spending more time at their home, even when she wasn’t babysitting.
Once, Jacob said, he found their father “canoodling” on the living room floor with a woman.
Twenty years later, this affair with Jennifer Spohn became a key part of the indictment against Greg. But at the time, Jacob was too scared to face Greg, he said. He didn’t tell his mother about what he saw — a decision partly motivated by the fact that the Spohns disappeared from their home when Sherri returned, Jacob said.
He went out and never came back
That changed on September 21, 2001, the last day Sherri was seen alive. He was busy managing what Jacob described as the “controlled chaos” of his cousins’ first dream. At one point, one of the children sat down to eat, he said, and his mother went outside to talk to Greg, who was working on the family’s van in the yard.
“That was the last time I saw him,” Jacob said.
The sequence of events that followed also became central to the prosecution’s case: At some point, Jacob told investigators, Greg returned through the back door and the children asked where their mother was. Greg told them he was going to the store, Jacob recalled, adding that Greg then went into the bathroom and turned on the shower.
A short time later, Jacob said, Spohn — the woman Greg was having an affair with — stopped by to return the lawnmower. Pensacola State Attorney’s Office Investigator Wayne Wright told Dateline that it was around 9:00 p.m.
At 8 a.m. the next morning, Sherry was found dead in the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie.
After the discovery, Spohn told authorities his visit to the family’s home that night was a coincidence. He felt that Greg “needed” a lawnmower,” recalled Escambia County Sheriff’s Detective Buddy NeSmith, who investigated the homicide.
Authorities were suspicious of Spohn’s account, NeSmith told Dateline. Florida’s First Judicial District Attorney Amy Shea always gave the same account in subsequent interviews over nearly two decades, saying she knew nothing about Sherri’s murder.
Then, on March 7, 2020 — nearly 19 years after the murder — Greg was arrested. The evidence against him was based mainly on the memories of children who, in some cases, told the authorities what had happened in their dreams.
There was no “smoking gun to point to one person or the other,” Shea said. “It’s the setting.”
It’s easier to kill him
After Gregg’s arrest, investigators returned to Spohn and offered him a deal: If he told the truth about what happened the night of September 21, he would receive complete immunity from prosecution. Spohn agreed.
Spohn recalled his account to Dateline in his first media interview: Greg had previously gone through a divorce and believed it would be easier to “just kill him,” Spohn recalled him saying.
“That’s nonsense,” Spohn told him. “You don’t just kill your wife. And it won’t get any easier.”
Spohn said she didn’t believe she was going to make it — even though she had made an appointment the night of Sept. 21 to meet him at the Winn-Dixie lot where his family kept their van. .
Spohn said he drove her home, then waited a moment before knocking on the door at Greg’s request and telling her he had the lawnmower. The real reason he was there, he told Dateline, was to help establish Greg’s alibi.
Spohn said she never asked Greg why he took her or what he did. But he remembered thinking, “How in the world did I get here?”
Spohn said Greg gave her clothes and bags, which Spohn said contained a gun, and told her to get rid of them. He said he then threw them into the river.
“I know what I’m doing,” Spohn said. “I know it’s wrong. I made some bad decisions, but once you make that bad decision, there’s no going back. I regret what I did.”
After Sherri’s death, Spohn often stayed at the family home and moved out briefly in 2009. She dated Greg until they left Florida in 2014.
Tera was 3 years old when her mother was fatally shot. He has a few memories of Sherri, but isn’t sure if they’re real. Still, when Tera was growing up, her sisters often described Sherri as a “supermom,” she told Dateline.
Tera said she was 15 years old when she learned her father might have caused her mother’s death; a cousin suggested it by sending him a Facebook message.
Tera was upset to learn of her father’s attitude, but she said she knew he was always supportive and protective, someone who loved music and old movies, and who later became a close friend. When Tera confronted Greg about the Facebook allegation, she recalled, he denied it and he said he didn’t understand why his cousin said that.
“He hugged me and told me everything was going to be okay,” she said.
To Tera, Spohn seemed more of a suspect in her mother’s murder. Spohn denied any involvement and was not charged.
Jacob, on the other hand, says that Spohn is convinced Greg killed Sherri based on a series of events on the night of the murder, “coming back in the picture” soon after her mother’s death. – why did his highly organized mother go to the store when it was two days ago?
Jacob said he shared his doubts with another brother, but not with Tera. For him, the claim in the Facebook message came as a shock.
Despite Tera’s disagreements with Jacob over who was responsible for their mother’s death, she said they mostly stayed away from the topic and remained close.
A deadlocked jury
Tera said she is approaching her father’s first trial in June 2022 with an “open mind.”
Two of his brothers, including Yaqub, testified for the prosecution. Spohn was the government’s star witness. Greg’s attorney, Chris Crawford, argued that Spoh lacked credibility and that law enforcement botched the investigation.
There were moments when Tera doubted her father’s innocence, she said, but in the end she believed he did not kill her mother. When the jury returned deadlocked, he said, “it was a tough pill to swallow because it’s not something you want to go through once, twice.”
When the second trial opened last October, Crawford presented a defense that suggested Spo was a possible killer — someone who “wanted life,” Crawford said in court. “And decided to take it.”
Crawford also tried to show that Sherry’s family tried to turn their children against Greg, and Tera testified that she was sometimes uncomfortable around them because “everything always revolved around mom’s death.”
Jacob said he was confused, believing his sister’s testimony was misrepresenting the past. Her cousin Lisa Leake said Teran’s statement felt like a stab in the back.
“My heart is breaking,” she said.
Tera said her testimony was true and that she was open to explaining her testimony to her family.
“I tried to respect everyone’s point of view,” he said. “And nobody seems to respect my rights.”
For Jacob, the second test was much more difficult than the first. She didn’t like the defense strategy, believing it was as if her family – not Greg – was on trial. When the jury returned a not guilty verdict, it made Greg a free man.
Aside from the birthday text, Jacob said he hasn’t contacted Tera since.
“I have a lot of anger in my heart right now, I’m trying to deal with that, and that’s why I put Tera on hold for a moment,” she said. “I have to deal with my stuff.”
Jacob said he understood Tera’s desire to protect her father “when no one else wanted to.”
“You don’t want to lose your only parent,” she said, adding, “But at the same time, I think it shows that no one else is in her corner.”
Tera, meanwhile, has just had a baby and is hoping to reconnect with her sister, whom she thinks of as her “brother father.”
“He’s been one of my biggest supporters in life,” she said, adding, “Whenever he’s around, I’m ready.”