The upcoming episode of NBC Dateline will dig deeper into the harrowing disappearance and murder of Marie Carlson, a 37-year-old resident of Fort Walton Beach and mother of two. Pastor-turned-killer James Flanders managed to evade justice for five years after choking Carlson to death.
Tune in to the NBC Dateline episode titled Secrets on the Emerald Coast on July 22, 2022, at 10/9c to find out more about the 2011 cold case.
Investigator Keith Morrison will report on the secrets and lies that surrounded the mysterious disappearance of a woman who left behind everything, including her newborn daughter.
Combining journalistic exploration with the emotional aftermath suffered by the victim's loved ones, the NBC Dateline episode will provide a complete picture of the murder case.
NBC Dateline: Marie Carlson murder case
On October 17, 2011, Marie Jane Carlson was last seen by James Flanders at their residence in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. The 37-year-old mother-of-two had recently given birth to her and Flanders' daughter. She bore another daughter with her ex-husband, Jeff Carlson.
After escaping an abusive relationship, Marie sought refuge with James and Tanya Flanders, the former pastor of a local church. It was later revealed that Marie was in a polygamous relationship with the couple and that James considered her a "sister wife."
Carlson's family received a cryptic message saying she had left to do what she had always wanted to do. The message did nothing to console them but only made them more suspicious.
On October 24, 2011, Jeff Carlson reported her missing, and an investigation began into her mysterious disappearance.
The case remained cold for years before additional evidence came to light in 2015 when James confessed to the manslaughter. He admitted to having put Marie "in a choke hold" until she succumbed to asphyxiation. Her remains were found buried in the backyard of their Fort Walton Beach house.
NBC Dateline: Where is James Flanders now?
Marie Carlson's disappearance remained just that until 2016, with no leads on any sightings or confirmation regarding her death. It was through the efforts of producers of Cold Justice in 2015 that the cold case became a subject of interest again.
Parishioners began coming forward with the truth about the strained relationship between James and Marie. They revealed that the two had an altercation on the day Marie went missing. They also told detectives that a "distraught" James was hospitalized for days after she went missing.
Old cell phone records were analyzed, and it was revealed that Marie's phone never left Fort Walton Beach. Moreover, detectives found that she never intended to abandon her newborn baby or sever contact with her 8-year-old daughter.
On May 5, 2015, James was arrested at his residence in Arizona, where he moved three months after Marie's disappearance. He was charged with second-degree murder and extradited to Florida.
In April 2016, James pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a prison sentence of 15 years. He also offered a stirring apology in a statement:
"I never imagined it was within me to fail and fall the way I did in every way at the time of Marie’s death, and in the days and weeks that followed,” he said. “It would take an act of God for me to forgive James Flanders … My entire life has been a horrible lie."
Based on his confession, statement and the deal he struck to show where the body was buried, James received a lenient sentence instead of life imprisonment.
According to prison records, he currently remains incarcerated at the Madison Correctional Institution in Florida and is scheduled for release in 2029.