Widow's Web

Gene Lyons, a New Jersey–born writer who settled in Arkansas, set out to impose order and create literature out of the spectacular murder mysteries and media circus involving Mary Lee Orsini, a North Little Rock (Pulaski County) woman who ultimately was convicted of the murders of her husband and the wife of her defense attorney. The result was Lyons’s Widow’s Web, which was published by Simon & Schuster in 1993 and recounted in fastidious detail the police work that eventually foiled all of Orsini’s schemes and those of her willing and unwitting collaborators, sending her to prison for the rest of her life.

Lyons already had a national reputation as a writer before he tackled the bewildering Orsini story that had consumed the Arkansas media and much of the public for years, and he would later produce such books as The Hunting of the President (2000), co-authored with Joe Conanson. Widow’s Web delved into the brutal conniving of a suburban housewife who had captured the rapt attention of the media and the public and entangled in her web much of the law enforcement community in central Arkansas, as well as an unscrupulous politician. Publisher’s Weekly described it as a “taut and gripping story” that included “ample regional flavor.” However, Kirkus Reviews dubbed the book “a bizarre but boring tale of conspiracy, murder, lies, publicity, lust, politics, and mayhem in early 80’s Little Rock.”

The events were confusing enough. Mary Lee Orsini telephoned the police in the neighboring town of Sherwood (Pulaski County) on the morning of March 12, 1981, to report that she had found her husband, Ron, “covered in blood” in a bedroom of their home in the upscale Indian Hills subdivision of North Little Rock. That call would begin three years of spectacularly public intrigue—the discovery that Ron Orsini had been shot in the back of the head while he was lying in bed; her various stances that he had committed suicide, that he had killed himself accidentally, or that someone else had killed him; a bungled effort to kill Alice McArthur, the wife of Mary Lee’s attorney, Bill McArthur, by planting and exploding a bomb under her car; the subsequent murder of Alice in her home by two men posing as floral deliverymen; warring law enforcement agencies, including the flamboyant Pulaski County sheriff, Tommy Robinson, with competing ideas about who the villain or villains might be; battling daily newspapers and television stations with planted scoops about the crimes; the convictions of Mary Lee Orsini for the murders of both her husband and Alice McArthur; and, finally, decisions by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1985 to uphold her conviction in Alice McArthur’s murder and to reverse her conviction in her husband’s murder, followed by the state’s decision not to retry her for the first murder because she was safely in prison for life.

In the prologue of Widow’s Web, Lyons summarized the great spectacle thusly: “Call it what you will: murder mystery, soap opera, morality play, political spectacle, or multi-media extravaganza. The McArthur case was all of the above and more. Gaudier than the state fair and more passionate than an Arkansas-Texas football game, it became a public entertainment having less to do with facts than with the passions and prejudices of its audience.” Mary Lee Orsini was the singular villain of the story, although at the end of Lyons’s account and even at the end of her life, no one could be sure of who she was—beyond an obvious sociopath—or what had motivated her schemes beyond her excuses of money and love, which were plausible in their simplicity but implausible in her accounting.

From the public’s perspective, law enforcement seemed inept. After Alice McArthur’s murder, the young Pulaski County sheriff, Robinson, took Mary Lee Orsini’s side and went after Bill McArthur, a well-known defense attorney who had previously thwarted him, and dragged the lawyer from his home in the middle of the night and outfitted him in an orange jumpsuit for the cameras. Robinson tried and failed to get McArthur indicted by a grand jury. Meanwhile, the North Little Rock and Little Rock (Pulaski County) police found Alice’s real killers—a friend of Mary Lee Orsini named Eugene “Yankee” Hall and his sidekick Larry McClendon—and stacked up the evidence against the pair, and against Orsini, in the murders of both her husband and Alice McArthur. Yankee Hall would spell out what he did in planning the murder with Orsini and then carrying it out. Nonetheless, the McArthur affair helped propel Robinson to Congress in 1984. Backed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, Robinson made a failed race for governor of Arkansas, still insisting upon Bill McArthur’s guilt.

City cops are the real heroes of Widow’s Web, the prosecutors and judges only marginally so. Lyons’s methodical reporting and piquant storytelling long afterward supplied what was missing in the frenzied daily reporting by newspapers and broadcasters: the intrigues, warring, and threats among lawmen, prosecutors, grand juries, and judges in one judicial proceeding after another. If Widow’s Web supplies a secondary villain, it would be Sheriff Robinson, who only avoided criminal prosecution and civil damages by making private financial settlements with McArthur and a detective whom he had accused of wrongdoing.

Orsini died on August 11, 2003, in a state prison near Newport (Jackson County). Shortly before her death, she sent a letter to Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, who had been the prosecutor who sent her to prison, confessing to both murders. When two policemen went to the prison to interview her, she said she had murdered her husband, not for anything he had done but because she had ruined them financially; she also said that she had arranged the murder of Alice McArthur because she had had an affair with Bill McArthur and he would not acknowledge it.

Jan Meins, a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat, also wrote a book about the case, Murder in Little Rock. It inspired a television movie and a filmed dramatization.

For additional information:
“Businessman Found Dead in Bedroom.” Arkansas Gazette, March 13, 1981, p. 17A.

Lyons, Gene. Widow’s Web. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Meins, Jan. Murder in Little Rock. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Oman, Noel E. “Orsini: Shot Spouse because She Cared.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 22, 2003, pp. 1A, 6A–7A.

Orsini v. State, 281 Ark. 348, Supreme Court of Arkansas, February 13, 1984.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

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