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Mary Lee Orsini (1947–2003)

Mary “Lee” Hatcher Orsini was the central figure in two sensational murders and the ensuing media frenzy that took place in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1981–82. After many dramatic turns, including the arrest of her defense attorney on suspicion of conspiring to kill his wife, Orsini was ultimately arrested and convicted.

Mary Lee Orsini was born Mary Myrtle Hatcher in Searcy (White County) on August 17, 1947, to Henry Hatcher, who raised cattle on land near Gravel Ridge (Pulaski County), and Julia Hatcher, who was a school cafeteria worker and drove a county school bus; she had two siblings. Though Hatcher later left the impression with acquaintances that she had been a refined “society” girl, she spent her early life growing up poor off a dirt road near Gravel Ridge, close to the back gate of the Little Rock Air Force Base (LRAFB). She attended Sylvan Hills High School in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), dropping out in the tenth grade.

Hatcher soon began calling herself “Mary Lee” or simply “Lee.” On December 22, 1963, when she was sixteen, she married Douglas Sudbury, who was stationed at LRAFB. They moved briefly to Riverside, California. After divorcing, they remarried on July 14, 1966, but divorced again in 1967, the year their daughter was born. After the second divorce, she was living in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) and working as a sales representative for the Arkansas Democrat. In 1971, she married David Raymond May of North Little Rock but left him six months later.

In 1976, she met Ron Orsini, a partner at Central Heating and Air located in the Mabelvale (Pulaski County) area of southwest Little Rock. After the couple’s marriage on September 17, 1976, Orsini, her husband, and her daughter lived in the Indian Hills subdivision of North Little Rock.

On March 13, 1981, a report appeared in the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat stating that Ron Orsini of North Little Rock had been found dead in his bed the previous morning. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the crown of the head. The case was investigated by the North Little Rock Police Department, who noticed some inconsistencies and curious elements in his wife’s story. They also uncovered financial problems incurred by Orsini, of which her husband had been apparently unaware. As suspicion mounted against her, Orsini enlisted noted Little Rock trial lawyer William Charles (Bill) McArthur to serve as her defense attorney for the grand jury investigation.

Later that year, in the fall of 1981, McArthur became a partner in BJ’s Star Studded Honky Tonk, located at 9515 Interstate 30 in Little Rock, during the height of the “Urban Cowboy” disco craze. The club opened in December 1981. Suspicious fires and other incidents involving the nightclub began. The news media quoted the Pulaski County sheriff as saying that these incidents represented an influx of organized crime into central Arkansas.

Orsini began spending a great deal of time at McArthur’s law office, once organizing a champagne party there for his birthday. Witnesses recall her visiting BJ’s and chatting with McArthur and his wife, Alice.

On May 21, 1982, Alice McArthur suffered cuts and abrasions when a bomb under her car exploded; it had failed to detonate fully. Again, some sources tied it to the nightclub and organized crime, with Orsini making a statement that she and Alice McArthur were on a “hit list.”

On Friday, July 2, 1982, Alice McArthur, in her Pleasant Valley home in west Little Rock, was packing for a holiday weekend trip to Hot Springs (Garland County) with her husband and several other couples. Later testimony indicated that she apparently answered her front door for what appeared to be a deliveryman carrying a bouquet of flowers at about 4:00 p.m. Orsini had requested a late afternoon meeting with Bill McArthur at his office. After determining she had no legal business to discuss, he left for the weekend at about 4:40, arriving home shortly after 5:00. He and a neighbor found his wife on the floor of an upstairs closet, dead of a gunshot wound to the head.

Alice McArthur’s murder generated an ensuing circus of competing law enforcement agencies and breathless media coverage. At one point, Bill McArthur was arrested by Pulaski County sheriff’s officers, marched before news reporters in handcuffs, and later photographed in an orange prison jumpsuit. Evidence against McArthur was presented in two hearings, the second before a grand jury, but he was never indicted.

Orsini was arrested for conspiracy to commit murder, having been implicated in the confession of Eugene “Yankee” Hall, who affirmed that he and Larry Darnell McClendon had killed Alice McArthur. In October 1982, Orsini was convicted of hiring Hall and McClendon to pose as florist deliverymen and kill Alice McArthur. She was again tried in 1983 and convicted of the murder of Ron Orsini, though this conviction was later overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court. She was one of the first inmates transferred to the McPherson Unit near Newport (Jackson County) when that prison opened in 1998, and she died there of an apparent heart attack on August 11, 2003. Bill McArthur died in Little Rock of natural causes on October 4, 2009.

According to Gene Lyons in his book Widow’s Web, what came to be known as the McArthur case was the most meticulously documented homicide in the history of the Little Rock Police Department. In addition to a torrent of newspaper articles and Lyons’s book, it was also the subject of the book Murder in Little Rock (earlier published under the title Bouquet for Murder) by Jan Meins. A made-for-television filmed dramatization was broadcast during the first season of A&E TV’s City Confidential in 1999, titled “Little Rock: The Politics of Murder.”

There have been various speculations about Orsini’s motives, including mental illness, sociopathic tendencies, imagined romances, money problems, influence of the soap opera–style mentality of the time manifest in such TV shows as Dallas and Dynasty, and addiction to the drama and media spotlight. However, there has been no definitive conclusion to date , despite her confession, shortly before her death, to murdering her husband and being involved in the bombing of Alice McArthur’s car.

For additional information:
“Businessman Found Dead in Bedroom” Arkansas Gazette, March 13, 1981, 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, Jailed for ’82 Killing, Dead of Likely Heart Attack.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 12, 2003, 1B, 5B.

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

Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University

Last Updated 8/10/2011

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