No doubt about it: Geraldine Kelley was one tough woman, owners of the Victoria Motel in Ventura said Friday.
Small and dark-haired, "Geri" sported tattoos, kept attack dogs as pets and sometimes draped a 6-foot boa constrictor around her neck during the seven years she managed their 36-room motel next to Highway 101, Valerie and Don Kiunke recalled.
But coldblooded enough to shoot her husband in the head, stuff his body into a freezer for 13 years and wait until she's on her deathbed to tell her secret?
"When we got the word, we were in shock," said Valerie Kiunke, standing next to her husband in the motel's parking lot Friday. "We just looked at each other. It's just devastating."
The story of Geri and John T. Kelley's tumultuous marriage was unfolding Friday in investigations underway on both coasts after the woman's death last week.
In an afternoon news conference, Massachusetts authorities confirmed that remains found in a storage locker in Middlesex County were those of John Kelley.
The couple's grown children had told Massachusetts state police earlier this week where to find the freezer containing their father's remains, said Emily LaGrassa, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex County district attorney's office.
On Nov. 12, as she lay dying of cancer, the 54-year-old mother confessed to her daughter that she had killed their father in California several years ago, LaGrassa said.
She had previously told her children he had been fatally struck by a car.
Based on an autopsy, authorities believe Geraldine shot her husband in the head in 1991 or 1992 and hid his body in a freezer. The freezer remained in a Ventura storage facility until 1998, when Kelley moved back to her childhood home of Somerville, Mass., shipping her husband's remains with her.
The remains stayed in a Massachusetts storage until Thursday, when medical examiners used a physical description and several tattoos to tentatively identify John Kelley, authorities said.
"This whole thing has been very bizarre," said Melissa Sherman, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex County district attorney's office.
In a statement, the Kelley's two adult children requested privacy "for healing and to comprehend it all." Until her confession, their mother had stuck to the accident story, refusing to reveal where their father was buried, the statement said.
Estranged from their parents since their teens, they had never questioned the tale, the statement said.
"Until the recent disclosure by their mother, they accepted and believed their mother's story as true," according to the statement, distributed to the media by the children's attorney. "Today they are facing the grim reality of what has actually happened."
John and Geri met in a tough neighborhood in Somerville, where they grew up, said Thomas McCann of Dorchester, Mass., who said he was a close friend of John's.
McCann said John Kelley was a gifted auto mechanic and a nice guy when he wasn't drinking. Sometime in the 1980s, John ran into trouble with the law over a fight that resulted in the death of one of John's relatives, McCann said.
That was when John and Geri decided to move to California, he said. McCann, 57, a firefighter, said he never heard from his old school friend again.
"I never saw violence between them, just a lot of arguments," McCann said. "She was tough. She wouldn't back down from nothing."
District attorney spokeswoman LaGrassa said she didn't know anything about John Kelley's prior legal troubles and couldn't comment on them.
In California, the couple drifted from one job to another, usually managing apartment complexes. By late 1991, according to Valerie Kiunke, they had been hired as in-house managers of the Victoria Motel.
Geri was a good manager because she didn't take any guff from troublemakers, Valerie Kiunke said. Her husband helped with plumbing, painting and other odd jobs, she said.
Although a former maid reported that she frequently heard them arguing, the Kiunkes said they had no clue of marital trouble.
Sometime in early 1992, Geri Kelley told the Kiunkes that her husband had been called back to Massachusetts to help out with a family business.
A couple of days later, she informed them that John had been killed by a motorist as he tried to cross a street. She seemed upset, but went on managing the building by herself for six years, they said.
Kelley seemed to prefer pets to people; she owned a Doberman, a Rottweiler and a chow over the years, Valerie Kiunke said. She fed mice to her boa constrictor, she said.
"She was a good manager," Don Kiunke said. "But she was a tough lady."
Now that they know what happened to John Kelley, the couple said one incident stands out in their minds. The day after her husband disappeared, Geri told them that she had to leave for a bit.
"She said, 'I gotta run because my storage unit just called and said there's something leaking from my unit,' " Valerie Kiunke said.
McCann said he always hoped that John Kelley would one day send him a Christmas card. After years of silence, McCann said he assumed that the Kelleys had left the country.
When he heard about the discovery of John's remains, the feeling inside was not quite remorse, McCann said.
"I don't think she got away with murder because she died of cancer," he said. "It's either John's way or God's way of getting back at her."
Times staff writer Elizabeth Mehren in Massachusetts contributed to this report.