The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in in the 1980s. I strongly recommend you start from the beginning of the narrative. Preview sets the scene, followed by Stranger in the Dark and Cold Hit which discusses the creation of CODIS and the first Fort Worth Cold Case Unit. The Devil you Know and Caging the Predator address the issue of serial rapists who escalate to murder, and the first killer confined under the Sexually Violent Predator Act.
Something was bothering Vanessa Villa on August 3, 1986. The 11 year-old Fort Worth Worth girl had been out of sorts all day and now she didn’t want dinner. She didn’t want to go to the store with her mother and aunt. She just wanted to lie in bed listening to a cassette of sad, Spanish songs. She might have been nervous about the school year that was about to start. School was hard for Vanessa. She was bubbly and outgoing and teachers liked her enough to make her an office helper, but her English was limited and so even though she was a bright child who loved art and history, she struggled. At times, she wanted to leave and go back to Mexico. She wrote in her diary, “Momma take me from this place. I’m scared.” But at other times she dreamed of being a cheerleader and had exchanged kisses with a boy. She lived a normal life for a girl on the Northside.
The Northside of Fort Worth has a long history of being a tight knit Mexican community. School might be hard, but Vanessa’s family had found a welcoming home in the neighborhood. Their extended family was all here. Vanessa made money selling Western belts and boots at the Bernal Flea Market, something she did earlier that day. Her friends and family remember her as not being her cheerful self. That night, she excused herself from the dinner table without eating. Vanessa’s mother stopped by her bedroom to check on her before leaving. The baby needed diapers and another child need new shoes for school. Vanessa was lying on the bed wearing blue jean shorts, listening to the sad music as a fan hummed in her open window, keeping the heat at bay. She repeated that didn’t want to go. Her seventeen year old brother was in his room, so her mother let Vanessa and the youngest children stay home while ran her errands.
Vanessa’s mother and aunt weren’t gone long, just a trip to the store and maybe stopping to talk to friends. Upon arriving home, the first thing Vanessa’s mother noticed was that her bedroom door was closed, which was strange because it was hot. The door had been open when they left in order to let the air flow through. She opened the door and was startled to find her daughter naked from the waist down. Her first instinct was to snap, “Cover yourself up!” But on closer look , she realized something was very wrong. Then she started screaming and Vanessa’s brother ran into the room.
It was a crime that shocked the community. There had been a steady creep of the problems facing the rest of the city, but a eleven year-old girl raped and strangled in her own bed? Chris Cook, a senior detective was called out to the scene, but he quickly called for another detective, one who spoke Spanish. Manny Reyes would always recall the first murder case he worked.
Vanessa had been brutally attacked, with ligature marks around her neck and half-moon cuts from finger nails dug in her thighs, yet no one had heard anything. Outside her window, police found a white bucket, the type markets used to sell pickles. The bucket was turned over and the fan had been pushed out of Vanessa’s window. Police believed her attacker had come in through that window.
At first, police pursued leads hard. There was a neighbor with a history of sexually abusing children, but he proved to have an alibi. This was the same year the discovery of DNA was announced. The idea of using it solves crimes was far away. The best police could do was test the semen for secretions. The neighbor was excluded from being the killer, but that didn’t bring police any closer to answers. Vanessa was laid to rest in a dove grey coffin with a lace veil over her face. Reyes watched people shuffle past to pay their respects and he wondered if one of them had done it.
The fifth name in the visitation book at the funeral is written in shaky hand, Mr. and Mrs. Juan Segundo. Juan and his wife, Rosa Maria were friends of the family. Rosa Maria worked with Vanessa’s mother at a nursing home. Juan, who went by Johnny, used to visit there until he was accused of molesting one of the residents and banned from being there.
Johnny was considered harmless by most people. He was small and soft spoken, but Rosa Maria knew he had a darker side. He drank heavily and could be abusive. In 1983, he came home covered with blood and refused to talk about it. She went out to his car, looking for clues. Under the seat she found a woman’s purse. Segundo had been in and out of jail, mostly for marijuana and drunk driving, but also burglary. If she had any suspicions then about just how dangerous her husband was, Rosa Maria kept them to herself. She did leave him soon after.
People were eager to leave the neighborhood after Vanessa was killed. Too much violence and they were now suspicious of each other. Police were sure the killer was local. Everyone knew each other on the Northside. Vanessa’s killer was able to walk up to her house and away again without anyone noticing even though the heat of the evening had driven many outside. He belonged. A stranger would have been seen. Without any meaningful leads, the police moved on to new crimes and the tight knit community broke apart, but no one forgot, not Vanessa’s family or friends, and certainly not that young detective.
October 6, 1987, Irene K. was separated from her husband and staying with a friend on North Houston Street. She woke in the night to the feeling of someone touching her. Startled, she turned on a lamp to find a man with his pants down, kneeling over her. She screamed and he began punching her in the face. The man seemed very drunk to her as she fought back. Fortunately, Irene wasn’t alone. Irene’s screaming brought her friend running. The friend also fought the man who ran off and the women immediately called the police. Juan Segundo might have gotten away with the brazen attack if the friend hadn’t recognized him. She had worked with Segundo and considered him a nuisance. He was was always “hitting on” her and making sexual comments. Perhaps Segundo was actually looking for the friend that night when he broke in.
Thanks to her friend having recognized him, a warrant was issued for Segundo. Police were already looking for him because he had just made bond on his most recent DWI. Segundo was quickly arrested and charged with Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison on June 28, 1988. Thanks to overcrowding and mandatory early release, he was back out in less than a year.
His parole didn’t last very long. Sharon H. lived in the Ripley Arnold Housing Complex right across the street from the Tarrant County Courthouse, the very place Segundo had pled guilty to trying to rape Irene K.
Like Irene, Sharon woke to a naked man in her room. To keep her from screaming, her grabbed her around the throat and began strangling her. Later police would discover that he had removed a window pane to make entry into her bedroom. Sharon fought Segundo and was able to get free. Ripley Arnold Housing was a series of duplexes that were close on top of one another. Her screams brought neighbors running. They weren’t able to catch Segundo but they got a good look at him and were able to tell police who he was. Segundo was well known in the neighborhood. As one man told the police, “Johnny gets crazy when he drinks.”
How a convicted sex offender who had attacked a woman after being out of prison for less than a year was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor is a real mystery, but that is exactly what happened. Although Segundo was again charged with Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault and was eligible to be punished as a Habitual Offender, meaning he could have gotten anywhere from 25 years to Life, Segundo was only given a sentence of one year.
Segundo’s parole was revoked and he was sent back to prison where he was again released in 1993. Five days later he was arrested for threatening another man with a gun at a bar over a woman. He was released on bond because the courts were slow. Then in 1995, while drunk Segundo ran a red light and led police on a high speed chase through the streets of Fort Worth. He was once again released on bond. This DWI, Segundo’s third, was a felony. Apparently, DWI is more serious than rape, because when he pled guilty on September 14, 1995, he was sentenced to five years.
While on bond for the felony that would send him back to the pen, Segundo killed at least three times, crimes that wouldn’t be revealed for a decade, not until Fort Worth created it’s first Cold Case Unit and assigned a veteran detective, Manny Reyes, who had never forgotten that first case he had been assigned. For 19 years he had stayed in touch with Vanessa Villa’s family and when CODIS made DNA a formidable weapon in solving old crimes, hers was one of the very first cases he sent off for testing.
The results would shock everyone. Without DNA, Fort Worth police would never have discovered that four seemingly disparate crimes were actually the work of a serial killer and that he was loose on the streets, free to kill again.
There are numerous other articles, especially from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from reporters Melody McDonald and Deanna Boyd. Many of these articles are not online and must be accessed through Fort Worth Public Library Archives.
The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in in the early to mid 1980s. I strongly recommend you read the first four parts of the narrative. Preview sets the scene, followed by Part One, Stranger in the Dark and Part Two: Cold Hit which discuss serial killer Curtis Brown and how the advances in science uncovered his crimes. This article is a continuation of Part Three: The Devil You Know.
Identifying the killer of Retha Stratton was the easy part. Within 48 hours of her murder, he was behind bars, but keeping him there would become a struggle. The typical time lapse from arrest to trial is on average a year in Tarrant County, but only 10 months after his arrest, Wesley Wayne Miller was on trial. Due to the intense publicity, the trial was moved to Ector County. There almost wasn’t a trial. Concerned with the lack of physical evidence as the trial date loomed, prosecutor Steve Chaney offered a plea of 35 years just one week before the trial to Miller’s defense team, attorneys Jack Strickland and Bill Lane.
Miller did not accept immediately and the plea offer was nixed by then District Attorney Tim Curry. Judge Gordon Gray intervened, saying Miller must be afforded the opportunity to accept or reject the offer before it could be withdrawn. He told the attorneys that he would honor the 35 year offer if Miller was inclined. He was not. The case would go to trial.
On one side were the citizens of River Oaks who firmly supported the Stratton family, sister Rona, parents A.J. and Doris. On the other, sat Miller’s parents Morris and Carol who believed in their son’s innocence. Carol repeatedly told the media that her son had been ‘tricked by the police’ into confessing. She did not believe he was responsible for the murder or the two sexual assaults he had been charged with.
He was charged with the rape of L.V., the 19 year old Saginaw woman after fingerprints at the scene were linked to Miller. He was a stranger and there was no legitimate reason for his prints to be in her house. He was also charged with rape of D.O. after a shoe print was determined to belong to a size 7 1/2 Kinney sneaker, a shoe Miller owned. She was one of the women who said her attacker ‘was built just like Miller.’ Miller was never charged in the other cases. Again, this was pre-DNA and there wasn’t any physical evidence. The cases discussed in The Devil You Know were all linked by identical M.O.: the victim was home alone, receiving mysterious calls and hang ups, they were attacked in their bedrooms by a man with dark hair, very muscular body but short, around 5 foot 9 inches, who wore a stocking over his head and said the same things to them and forced them to perform identical acts. The victims all had similar appearances and ages. Police had no doubt Miller was the rapist, but there just wasn’t the evidence to charge him in all the cases.
In fact, the judge ruled that evidence of the serial rapes was not admissible, and not just at the guilt or innocence phase. It wasn’t coming in at all, not even when deciding punishment. After a two week trial, the jury deliberated for five hours before finding Miller guilty. His attorneys fought hard on his behalf, doing what they were supposed to do. They challenged the voluntariness of Miller’s confession, but Retha’s family and friends were all smiles, holding hands as the verdict was read, sure this part of their nightmare was at an end. The punishment phase was short. Without the rapes to talk about, there was nothing else the prosecution could bring up to show Miller belonged behind bars. At that time, anyone not previously convicted of a felony was eligible for probation, even for murder. There was nothing else in Miller’s past they could argue. He had no issues with drugs or alcohol, no other crimes, no problems in school. He was the smiling, all American athlete, voted “Best All Around Student” of his class just the year before.
Not allowing the jury to know about the sexual assaults left them with only Miller’s version of events, his statement where he painted Retha as a “tease” who provoked him to violence with her actions. We will never know what truly caused Miller to escalate to murder, but a more likely scenario is that he broke in to rape Retha, but she recognized him and her killed her to shut her up. Her jammed her underwear in her mouth to make her be quiet, then stabbed her 38 times before slitting her wrists to make sure she would never tell his secrets. The facts were brutal, and they were all the prosecution had.
Steve Chaney argued for life in prison. Jack Strickland begged for probation, portraying his client as a scared kid. The jury compromised on 25 years. Both sets of parents burst into tears. As Strickland went over to comfort Miller’s parents, the judge remarked “That’s a win, Jack.” Privately, Strickland and Lane agreed. Everyone knew it was a light sentence. Tim Curry publicly promised Miller would be tried for the rape cases and Chaney assured the family that it would be more than seven years before Miller became eligible for parole. Because Miller had been convicted of a crime involving a deadly weapon, he would have to serve what was called ‘agg time’ meaning he would serve at least a third of his sentence before he became eligible for parole.
There was a clerical error at the Texas Department of Corrections. Even though an affirmative deadly weapon finding was listed on the judgment and sentence, Miller wasn’t listed as a an “agg” offender in their system. Due to prison overcrowding, the actual time served was often brief. Miller came up for parole in just two years.
At the time, victims weren’t notified and the parole hearing came and went without Retha Stratton’s family being aware, but Miller would come up for parole on a yearly basis and keeping Miller, and other sexually violent predators would become the life’s work of Retha’s sister, Rona Stratton, and her friend Lisa Gabbert, also a victim of Miller’s serial rape spree.
For years, they flooded the parole board with letters, petitions, even graphic photos of the crime scene, anything to remind them of what Miller had done. Instead of taking the rape cases to trial as promised, Tim Curry’s office allowed Miller to plead to one case, with a charge of Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault. The punishment was 20 years to run concurrent with time he was already serving. He would receive no additional time. Even worse, the clock was ticking because eventually Miller would be eligible for mandatory release.
Mandatory release is exactly what it sounds like. All prisoners were allowed to accrue “good time.” If Miller behaved himself in prison, he must be released when his years served plus good time equaled a specific number. For Miller, that came in 1991.
Rona and Lisa didn’t stop fighting. They fought Miller’s release back into the same community where he had lived. The idea of running into him at the local store, knowing he walked the same streets was unacceptable. He would not be allowed to return to Tarrant County. TDC had trouble finding a county willing to accept Miller. Each time after the public learned of Miller’s potential release to their community, the outcry forced them to find another location until Miller was quietly placed in Wichita Falls. Rona Stratton compared Miller to the New Jersey garbage barge that couldn’t find a place to dock. “Nobody wants this guy and I don’t blame ’em.”
Miller was finally free, but that wouldn’t last long. June 7, 1992, in Wichita Falls, Laura Barnard had done some late grocery shopping. It was 11:00 p.m. when she parked in front of her home to unload her car. She noticed a stranger, a man with long, dark hair standing near a white truck across the street. There was something in the way he stared at her that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She stared back and then man got into the truck, but as she came back out for another load of groceries, there he was again. Again she stared back, wanting the man to know she had seen him. Again, he acted as though he was leaving. She turned back to the car and as she was lowering the trunk, she heard footsteps. Startled, she looked up in time to see him charging at her, running full speed. She dropped the paper towels in her hands and ran into the house, calling for her husband.
They went outside to look. At first they didn’t see anything, but then she felt the stare and pointed him out. He was trying to hide behind a tree. “That’s him.” Both got a good look at Miller as he walked briskly away. They also got the license plate of his white truck. The truck was registered to his father, Morris. Miller was tried and convicted for Attempted Assault, and he was sent back to prison.
Rona and Lisa thought Miller would now serve the rest of his sentence, but five years later he was released again–sort of. This time he was required to spend most of his day in the Tarrant County jail, only being released for short periods with a GPS monitor on. Miller was escorted to counseling and job interviews. As a condition, the parole board ordered Miller to complete a Sex Offender Treatment Program. Miller refused. His attorney, Jeffrey Gooch called a press conference where he complained about his client’s treatment. He claimed that Miller had not technically been convicted of a sexual offense and therefore the parole board had overstepped their bounds.
Miller had pled guilty to that Burglary with intent to commit a sexual offense, so the requirement stuck. He had only thought he was getting a good deal, but it came back to bite him with a vengeance.
Senator Mike Moncrief declared “He will be the most monitored man in Texas.” Everyone was tense, waiting to see what would happen next. What happened, was that Miller refused to participate. The parole board revoked his release and he was sent back to prison for his refusal to participate in a Sex Offender Treatment Program. For the next six years, this would be the pattern. Each time he was given parole, he was immediately revoked for his stubborn refusal to agree to the rules, most particularly treatment. He seemed content to wait out his sentence. He would be released in 2007 with his entire sentence done. There would be no rules to follow, no monitoring, no counseling. Miller would be free.
But Rona Stratton and Lisa Gabbert had one more card to play, Title 11 of the Texas Health and Safety Code, also known as Civil Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators. Civil Commitment is a response to public frustration over the danger of repeat offenders. It’s a way to confine those with a high risk of recidivism after the completion of their criminal sentences and force them into treatment and monitoring. The first such legislation was in Washington in 1990. Texas passed Title 11 in 1999 with Rona Stratton and Lisa Gabbert as passionate advocates. Twenty states have Civil Commitment legislation which has been extremely controversial because they allow indefinite confinement for people deemed predatory through a “mental abnormality or personality disorder”. For a thorough discussion of the issues, see Kansas v. Hendricks in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legislation providing there are sufficient procedural safeguards and that such legislation is for public safety and not merely punitive or Miller’s appeal from his Civil Commitment proceedings which challenged the Texas statute.
The Title 11 of the Texas Health and Safety Code begins with a legislative statement:
The legislature finds that a small but extremely dangerous group of sexually violent predators exists and that those predators have a behavioral abnormality that is not amenable to traditional mental illness treatment modalities and that makes the predators likely to engage in repeated predatory acts of sexual violence.
The law requires a person be a repeat sexually violent offender, meaning the person must be convicted of two or more offenses deemed “sexually violent.” Miller claimed not to be a sex offender but he had pled guilty to the Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault. That was one conviction, but Murder does not qualify unless it is found to have been sexually motivated. That specific language was added to the statute in 2005 as Miller’s release date drew near. Again, Retha’s sister was instrumental in seeing that legislation passed.
The procedure for declaring someone a Sexually Violent Predator is as follows. When a potentially eligible person grows close to release, they are referred for an evaluation by a multidisciplinary team for psychopathy and ‘behavioral abnormalities.’ If the committee decides the person meets definition of Sexually Violent Predator, they issue a petition to commit him. A jury trial follows in which both the state and the person are represented by counsel. The program is overseen by the Texas Civil Commitment Office.
In Miller’s case, the jury would have to hear the facts of Retha’s murder and make a determination if the crime was sexually motivated. The family would have to endure another trial. No murderer had yet to be committed as a sexually violent predator. The statute had only been used for pedophiles.
In 2006, Miller was sent for evaluation. He didn’t have many of the normal risk factors. No violent family history. No substance abuse. His refusal to admit guilt and refusal to participate in treatment could be used against him. He also refused to cooperate with the evaluation, insisting that he didn’t remember the actual murder. But the main evidence would be Retha’s crime and the other sexual assaults. Several of the women would finally have their chance to testify. It would be their only day in court, their only opportunity to confront Miller about what he had done. They sat in the courtroom where he could see them, even as the prosecutor showed the jury graphic photos of Retha’s body.
On Miller’s side was his father, brother, and an aunt. His mother had passed after a battle with Alzheimer’s. Morris Miller testified on his son’s behalf. “No matter what he’s done, he’s still my son. And I’ll love him forever. I feel like Wes has paid his debt to society. I believe he should get out, not one day more than the 25 year sentence at the most.”
The state offered the testimony of Dr. Kenneth Price, a forensic psychologist who labeled Miller a “sexual psychopath” and offered his opinion that he was likely to offend again.
After hearing about Miller’s full history, this jury took less than two hours to declare Miller a sexually violent predator. Upon release, he would be civilly committed with a long list of rules to follow and intense supervision. He would be ordered to undergo treatment. If Miller ever wanted to be released, he would have to attend treatment.
In 2007, Miller was released from TDC and required to live in a secure facility. He first went to another facility but was moved to live in Tarrant County’s Cold Springs Unit. He should have where he couldn’t prey on anyone else. After all, he had a long list rules and constant supervision. Although he was 46 at the time, he somehow began a romance with a female jailer who was only 21.
She wasn’t supposed to have contact with him. Any contact with Miller had with woman had to be approved by Miller’s supervising officer. But they could see each other, especially when she parked her truck so that he could past and see it. They would smile and wave at each other. The contact escalated to passing messages and sneaking conversations on the intercom. At the time she was still 20 and dazzled by this man everyone told her to stay away from because he was dangerous. They worked out a system to circumvent his phone privileges and the relationship began in earnest. When they were caught in the relationship, he was arrested and charged with violating his Civil Commitment. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He is still serving that sentence, but after that he will return to Civil Commitment, still unrepentant, still uncooperative. He has refused to discuss his crimes. But if he ever convinces the Texas Civil Commitment Office that he has been rehabilitated enough for release, you can be sure that Rona Stratton will be watching.
Next week, The Hunting Grounds will finally discuss one of the most notorious serial killers from Fort Worth, Juan Meza Segunda.
The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in the early to mid 1980s. I strongly recommend you read the first three parts of the narrative, Preview which sets the scene, and Stranger in the Dark and Cold Hit which discuss serial rapist and murderer Curtis Don Brown. Originally part three was intended to Juan Mesa Segundo, but we will return to his story later. Instead we are moving out into the suburbs which seemed safer than the city, but that veneer of civility was an illusion.
Looking at their senior pictures side by side, Wesley Wayne Miller and Retha Stratton are the perfect, couple, the American ideal. Although the two were not dating, they were friends. Retha was a popular, bubbly cheerleader at Castleberry High. Miller was captain of the football team, a three-sport athlete voted “Best All Around Student” in 1981, their senior year. Miller wrote in Retha’s yearbook, “I’d like to get to know you better. Your [sic] the best looking girl in our school and I hope to see a lot of you this summer, Love Always Wesley.”
Castleberry ISD is in River Oaks, a small suburb north of Fort Worth known as a bedroom community for blue-collar families and for the nearby Carswell Airforce Base. Seniors are always glad to escape the confines of school, but for the class of ’81, they were especially glad to leave. Since the start of that year, a rapist had stalked the senior girls.
January 23, 1981, Susan Davis, 16, was home alone when a man entered her room. “He walks in with a stocking overt his head, his face, no shirt on, jeans with, you know, his zipper open. And at that point I realized something really bad was going to happen.” Dangerous Reunion, 48 hours
Susan ran, but the man caught her and began threatening her. “Don’t scream or I’m going to hit you.” The man began punching her in her face. He ripped her panties off. At some point, however, instead of completing the rape, he fled. She never found out what spooked him.
River Oaks police took a report, but with little physical evidence, there wasn’t much else they could do– but they did tell Susan it was likely someone she knew. “I had to go back into cheerleading. And I was paranoid all the time about ‘Is this person in the stands watching me?’”
The record isn’t clear what led police to this conclusion. A masked intruder would make most people think this was an attack by a stranger, but from the very start, police thought it was someone who knew the victims. Was it the assailant’s familiarity with the house? The fact he struck at a time when she would be alone? Or did they know that just by playing the odds, they were likely to be right, because most sexual assaults aren’t committed by strangers. In the 1980’s, the terminology was “date rape” which is an unfortunate choice. Rape and sexual assault have nothing to do with a “date gone wrong.” They are predatory, deliberate acts of violence. Now, the preferred terminology is “non-stranger” sexual assault. See, research and studies by Dr. David Lizak
In 1979, clinical psychologist Nicholas Groth set out to categorize different types of rapists. After working with both victims and offenders, he set out three specific types. First is the power rapist who derives comfort and satisfaction from dominating his victim. The second type is the anger rapist, who rapist is driven by rage against a specific group, women or men, causing him to lash out with violence. The third sort is the sadistic rapist who receives sexual gratification by causing pain to the victim. The types blend and rapists are most often a mix of these different elements.
The man who assaulted Susan showed multiple types. He gave specific orders to her, demonstrating control, but then hurt her, even as she complied. He left without completing the attack, which could have been a lack of confidence which is often found in power rapists.
Fortunately, studies have shown that most men aren’t rapists. How then do we account for the high level of rapes committed? One in four women is a victim of sexual assault. The answer is that most rapists are serial offenders. Studies show they often begin in adolescence and continue throughout their lives. This pattern held true here. The River Oaks Rapist wasn’t done with his one aborted attempt.
Retha Stratton graduated in May along with close friends and fellow cheerleaders Amy Moody and Lisa Gabbert. Retha and Amy got an apartment together and Retha went to work doing data entry for the Ralston Purina company . Unknown to them, another young woman was raped in November.
L. V. (a pseudonym), 19, was home alone on November 11, 1981 in the nearby town of Saginaw, when she received several mysterious phone calls. Each time, a male voice asked for a person she didn’t know and she told him that no such person was there. She fell asleep and when she awoke, it was to a nude man with a stocking covering his face kneeling over her in the bed. He ripped the phone from the wall and told her he was going to rape her. She struggled, even though the man said he would kill her if she didn’t do what he told her to. He physically assaulted her for some time before finally leaving. She immediately ran to her parents’ room and called her boyfriend. Sagniaw police processed the scene and came up with the first solid bit of evidence: a fingerprint on the telephone and in her bedroom. There were semen stains in her room, but this is before DNA. She described the man as muscular but only around 5 foot, six inches tall.
Police had a fingerprint, but the person it belonged to wasn’t in they system and without a known person to compare it to, that wasn’t much help. But it was something. The attack didn’t make the news.
It never occurred to Retha and her friends that they could become victims. Then on December 7, the unthinkable happened. Lisa woke up to find a man in her house, “And when I looked over I saw that someone was standing in the doorway with a red ski mask and panty hose over the mask. And he leapt on me. And we struggled. There was some choking. And then he tore back the covers. Opened my robe. And we struggled some more. And so he proceeded to rape me.” Dangerous Reunion, CBS 48 hours
Once again, the River Oaks Rapist demonstrate knowledge of his victim and her specific living situation. He walked right past Lisa’s disabled mother, who couldn’t move or speak, as if she were not even there, as if he knew she couldn’t interfere or become a witness. The rapist reminded Lisa of someone. She told a rookie patrolman that the man was built just like Miller, especially his arms. She didn’t think it was Miller. It couldn’t be Miller, of course, but she wanted the police to know that the attacker had the same exact build.
Miller’s girlfriend, Roxy McDonnell lived just across the street from Lisa and the very next day, her younger sister became a victim of the River Oaks rapist. Again, the rapist struck when the girl was home alone and once again, he reminded her of someone. According to the CBS 48 hours:
“And we had just said to the dad, ‘Well, he’s built like Wesley. And has arms like Wesley’s.’ And he says, ‘Wesley, come here.’ And he said, ‘Let me see your arm.’ And he pulls his arm over. He said, ‘You mean it look just like this?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah,'” Lisa recalls. “And Wesley yanked his arm back and went upstairs. Without saying a word.”
Everyone was careful for a while. Shocked by the attack on their close friend, roommates Amy and Retha changed their locks, and didn’t come home alone, but gradually, they relaxed their guard. The River Oaks rapist stayed quiet for six weeks and life returned to normal for most people.
In 1982, Curtis Don Brown was still in prison for auto theft. Ted Bundy’s trials had faded from view. Instead recent news was the marriage of Lady Diana to Prince Charles, the identification of the AIDS virus, and the shooting of the Pope. The serial raps of teen girls in Texas suburbia was barely a blip on the local radar, much less the bigger news markets.
That would change on January 21, 1982. Amy came home to a scene of horror. A trail of blood led from the livingroom, down the hall into Retha’s room and back to the closet where her brutalized body lay partially in the closet as if she had fallen backwards. She had been stabbed 38 times with the majority of the wounds to her left breast. Her wrists had been slit and her bloody panties crammed into her mouth. She was nude from the waist down. The knife still protruded from her chest.
Locating the culprit wouldn’t take long. Miller’s pick up truck was spotted at Retha’s house around the time of the murder and he turned to his girlfriend, Roxy to help him hide the evidence. Claiming he had bloodied someone’s nose in a game of touch football, he handed her a pair of bloody jeans to wash. She took the jeans, but as soon as news of Retha’s murder broke, Roxy handed those jeans to the police. Police immediately began looking for Miller.
January 23rd, just two days after Retha’s murder, there was a sexual assault of a woman in Lake Worth. She received several phone calls from a male voice asking if “Ed” was there. The woman said there wasn’t a man in the house and hung up. Soon after, a young, athletic man around five foot nine inches and wearing a stocking over his head broke into the house and sexually assaulted her.
Miller was arrested later that day.
Within 48 hours, Miller was charged with Retha’s murder. He confessed to the Fort Worth detective C.D. Timmons, although he tried to lay much of the blame on Retha for her own murder. He told police that he went over to the house and Retha was “coming on to him.” He said they were kissing, but she refused to go further. Miller said this happened twice, that she would make sexual advances on him, but then back away. He said he lost his temper the second time and refused to stop “And we started fighting.” Next, he claimed Retha grabbed for a ‘ledge’ that was between the kitchen and the bedroom and a knife just fell to the floor. He thought she was maybe going to grab it, so he grabbed the knife instead and stabbed her. “I kind of lost my mind and I do not remember how many times I stabbed her . He said he hid her body in the closet and washed the knife, but then went back and slit her wrists to make sure she was dead. “I didn’t want her to tell on me,” he said. Then he thrust the knife into her chest and drove home.
As Retha’s heartbroken family and friends laid her body to rest, they at least had the relief of knowing that her killer wasn’t roaming free. What they couldn’t know, was that this was just the beginning of a decades long battle to keep Miller behind bars, a struggle that would make new laws and result in permanent changes to the way we treat sexually violent predators.
Next week, I will return with the next installment of the Hunting Grounds: Caging the Predator.
Information for this article came from the archives of numerous newspapers, chiefly the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , the Dallas Morning News, and AP stories. Additional information came directly from parole records and police reports.
The next post in The Hunting Grounds will be up later this week, but in the meantime, I wanted to share what keeps me going during my long commute. I haven’t reviewed a podcast in a while because life is busy and it’s messy and it’s summer in Texas. Summer means BBQ, lemonade, and tubing down the river. It also means lots of time sitting in the air conditioning listening to podcasts. So for this Monday, I want to shout out my top five favorite members of the Texas True Crime Posse.
I reviewed this podcast way back when they were shiny and new. Since then they have rapidly grown to dominate the Texas podcast scene, but in a good way. Husband and wife team Shea and Erin present cases in a conversational manner that still manages not to lose the narrative thread. Check out episode 22 which features an interview with yours truly. Extra thanks to Shea for working sound magic with my squeaky voice.
If you love a serious deep dive, this is the podcast for you. Also produced by a husband and wife team, Vince and Erica have crafted a single narrator podcast that stands out for the depth of their research and sensitive interviews with family and friends of victims. I reviewed them here last November. They’ve been on a hiatus, but are about to drop new episodes which makes this the perfect time to binge their list.
Texas 10-31 is the Houston PD code for a crime in progress. Texans Hannah and Cassie host a very conversational podcast mostly focused on the Houston area, but they move freely about the state when they feel like it. Because they cover two cases per episode, that’s a lot of territory. What they bring to the table is an unmatched level of passion for their topic. I reviewed them here and they returned the favor in a special minisode on March 14th.
This podcast is still in single digits, but host Krista has already made her mark on the podcast scene. She does an exceptional job of explaining what the law is and how the system works due in no small part to her career as an investigator. This podcast includes interviews placed seamlessly into the narrative. I highly recommend 10-4 Little Lady for an episode that will punch you in the gut. I haven’t reviewed this podcast yet, but you can be sure I’ll correct that soon.
New kid on the block is Murder City, True Crime of Houston. The hosts offer a glimpse of the diverse communities that make up the fourth largest city in the nation. This is a dual host with a conversational style. I’m looking forward to seeing where this podcast goes and I will definitely review them when they get a few more episodes under their belt.
BONUS! I said I was giving you a top five, but this is Texas and we always do things bigger.
The above podcasts are all dedicated to true crime. Tx Files covers everything from crime to ghost stories, weird history, and aliens. Hosted by two men named Michael, this humorous podcast is a wild, weird ride. Definitely worth a listen as are all the podcasts on this list.
The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in the early to mid 1980s. I strongly recommend you read the first two parts of the narrative, Preview which sets the scene, and Stranger in the Dark which discusses how Brown was first caught.
If you don’t know who the Bass brothers are, then you ain’t from around here. Sundance Square, the thirty-five blocks of restaurants and shopping at the heart of downtown Fort Worth, is their creation. They oversee the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, pumping millions of dollars into the economy, but individually, the brothers have their own interests. Ed Bass is the odd, quirky brother, dedicated to the arts. In the early 80s, he had dreams of a downtown apartment in the heart of an arts district. Such a place didn’t exist, so he created one.
In 1983, Ed Bass founded Caravan of Dreams with Kathelin Hoffman. Named from 1001 Arabian Nights, it was part nightclub, part recording studio, part bar, with living quarters for Ed, staff and artists and a roof top desert garden–but the bread and butter, the life in Caravan of Dreams, was the live jazz nightclub. Terece Gregory, 29, had a love/hate relationship with the place. She worked there periodically as a waitress. She was fired. She was rehired. She was let go again. The club had a reputation as place where sex and drugs could be easily had. The early 80s were a time of excess and Terece enjoyed what life offered. Even after she had been let go by the club, she remained friendly with the staff and often hung out there. She was no wild party girl, though. Friends remember her as tidy and quiet. She was reserved but also social, preferring company to being alone. She liked reading and sewing.
Just before the afternoon rush hour on May 29, 1985 a Fort Worth officer responded to an abandoned car call. The car was slightly blocking traffic at 5550 Bridge Street which runs parallel to I-30. He found a white and maroon Pontiac with both right side tires blown and a dent in the front. The car appeared to have struck a curb and come to a stop. He ran the registration, noted that it returned to a Patricia Gregory, and arranged for a tow.
Meanwhile, Patricia Gregory was at the Fort Worth police department filing a missing persons report. She told police that she lived with her daughter who had gone out with her boyfriend, but didn’t come home. This wasn’t like her daughter at all. Terece would have called or come home by now. Shortly after moving to the Metroplex, Terece had become the victim of a sexual assault in Dallas. The man was only given probation and Terece was extremely vigilant when out after dark.
Terece had taken Patricia’s Pontiac in order to have a reliable car. Her own car was aging and she was always very nervous driving alone. Patricia gave police a photo and a description. Terece was 5 foot 10 with green eyes and curly brown hair. A grown woman who didn’t come home after a night partying with her boyfriend didn’t sound like much of a crime. Still, a detective dutifully began calling jails, hospitals, morgue, looking for Terece. Then someone ran the license plate and discovered the tow. The mild concern became real alarm. To the detective’s trained eye, it looked like Terece had been “curbed”, that is, run off the road until her tires blew out and then kidnapped. She was only six blocks from home.
Sadly, the detective’s instinct would prove correct. May 30th, a young man went to his favorite fishing spot during his lunch hour. He often fished the Trinity at lunch, especially near the Rockwood Golf Course, but today, as he readied his equipment, he noticed something floating about 15 feet from shore. It appeared to be the body of a woman face down wearing a dark skirt and blouse with spaghetti straps. He hoped it was a mannequin, of course it wasn’t. It’s never a mannequin. He hooked the skirt with a line and pulled it close enough to determine it really was the body of a woman. Then he called the police.
This case was originally assigned to Detective J.D. Roberts. The case would remain his until the day he retired. Roberts, who just passed at the age of 89 on February 14, 2018, had a colorful career, but this was one case that frustrated him. Robbery was quickly ruled out. The woman had been dumped still wearing her watch and jewelry. Her cause of death was obvious, a gunshot wound to the face. Roberts was fairly certain he was looking at the corpse of Terece Gregory.
He reached out to the two people he most needed to speak with, her mother Patricia and boyfriend, J.D. Bartlett. Roberts showed Patricia the rings and watch and she began to cry. Bartlett agreed to do the identification so Patricia would be spared.
The autopsy confirmed that Terece had been sexually assaulted due to vaginal bruising and the presence of semen. The biological evidence was collected and stored, an act that would later mean everything to the case. Cause of death was a single gunshot wound from a .38 caliber weapon from intermediate range, not point blank, but not far. Her blood alcohol concentration showed her to be moderately intoxicated.
Terece Gregory’s last photo
Roberts quickly determined that the last person to see Terece alive had been her boyfriend. Did he own a .38? Bartlett confirmed that he did. Terece and Bartlett met than night around six at Caravan of Dreams. They drank and visited with friends. One of Terece’s friends, bartender Michael McCreary, took a photo of her, her last photo. Her earrings and sandals were the only things missing from the night, but they were hook earrings, easily lost in the currents of the Trinity.
Terece and Bartlett left the nightclub and went to Sammy’s for dinner with friends. One of the people they went with was a piano tuner. At Sammy’s, he spotted someone he knew, famed pianist Van Cliburn. Van Cliburn was interviewed by police and he remembered Terece as quiet an introspective.
It was approximately 2 am when Bartlett took Terece back to the parking lot at Caravan of Dreams where she had left her car. He said he walked her to her car, saw her get into it and pull out from 312 Houston Street. She turned left and he got in his car to drive the other way. Police were deeply suspicious of Bartlett. His criminal history wasn’t spotless and they were certain this case wasn’t related to all the other murders of young women. They even said so to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram repeatedly. Bartlett was asked to submit to a polygraph which he failed. To police, this solidified him as their primary suspect, but when they compared his weapons to the bullet from Terece’s body, it wasn’t a match.
Roberts exhausted every lead he had, but nothing moved the case. The case went dormant, but the one key to solving it was there all along, just waiting for science to catch up with nature. In 2005, CODIS spurred Fort Worth to finally create a cold case unit. The unit was actually a team of one, Detective Manny Reyes who worked out of a glorified closet, patiently sorting through jumbled boxes of cases and notes for cases with possible biological evidence.
The news came in an envelope. The DNA taken from Terece Gregory’s sexual assault kit had a match, a “cold hit.” Reading Curtis Don Brown’s file, several things jumped out. Terece’s car had been found on Bridge Street, just one block from the apartments where Brown’s last victim Jewell Woods lived. Like Jewell, Terece had encountered Brown in one location, but was taken and killed at another place and her body somewhat concealed. The cold hit had come just in time. Brown had been in prison for life, but after 19 years, he had just become eligible for parole. Thankfully, they had new charges filed before he was released.
Flush with the success, Det Reyes reached out to other departments. Based upon the similarities between Terece Gregory’s murder and other unsolved crimes from the same time period, he believed he had just identified a serial predator. He was correct.
One of the detectives he reached out to was Arlington Detective Jim Ford. When it came to submitting cold case profiles, there was one case at the top of Ford’s list, a case that had always haunted him: the murder of 18 year-old Sharyn Kills Back.
Sharyn Kills Back grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, she was the youngest girl of 9 siblings. Life on the reservation wasn’t easy and Sharyn wanted a chance to experience the world. At the age of sixteen, she had a chance to attend the Clearfield Job Corp Center in Utah where minority students could participate in a vocational education program.
At the completion, students were allowed to choose a location: California, Georgia, or Texas. Sharyn’s sister Blanche wanted her to choose California, but Sharyn chose Arlington, Texas. Her family couldn’t understand that choice, but Sharyn had met someone in the program. Barbara Bouknight was coming to Texas, so Sharyn would as well.
Portrayals in the media all describe the women as “roommates” and an episode of Swamp Murders goes so far as to suggest an upstairs neighbor might have been romantically involved with Sharyn. But reading the original reports and statements, everyone was very clear that Barbara and Sharyn were a couple. They were in love and lived openly as lesbians. Barbara and Sharyn were especially good friends with another couple in the same Meadowbrook Apartment complex, Josie and Richard. The two couples socialized frequently and soon Josie and Richard’s friends were also Sharyn and Barbara’s friends.
Sharyn was petite, but feisty. She was extremely outgoing and made friends everywhere. She was also enjoying life in a city, far different from her upbringing. Like many 18 year olds away from home for the first time, she drinking and going out almost every night. Sharyn and Barbara had been working at the Arlington location of Miracle Paint and Body Shop, but Sharyn had some sort of problem there and changed to a different location for the same business.
Sharyn’s mother worried. She enjoyed the letters she got from her daughter, but Sharyn had no car and walked everywhere, including at night. She repeatedly warned her daughter that the city wasn’t safe, this wasn’t South Dakota. Sharyn dismissed her mother’s concerns. She was perfectly safe. Sure, the news was full of stories about women in Fort Worth going missing, but this was Arlington.
Arlington is halfway between Fort Worth and Dallas. It had always been part of a greenbelt between the D and the FW, but in the 80s, the urban sprawl had encroached from both sides and Arlington was rapidly transforming into a formidable city of its own.
March 15, 1985, Sharyn wanted to go out, while Barbara was tired after working all day. Sharyn, always persistent, initially convinced Barbara to go with her. They set off on foot after dark to meet friends while carrying a “boombox” or portable stereo. Think John Cuisack from “Say Anything.” Along the way, they began to quarrel. Barbara decided she’d had enough and announced she was going back to their apartment. Sharyn said she was still going to meet friends. They parted and Barbara went down about a block along East Park Row. When she turned back, Sharyn was gone. She would never see her girlfriend alive again.
When Sharyn didn’t come home that night, Barbara first thought she was still angry from the argument and must be staying with friends, but a few phone calls on the 16th showed her this wasn’t the case. Police protocol at that time didn’t consider a person missing until 48 hours, so Sharyn wasn’t officially a missing person until the 17th. On the 17th, Barbara filed the missing persons report.
Sharyn’s family was also concerned. They’d just had a letter from her on the 14th that she was coming home for a visit in two weeks, however her uncle had a heart attack. Her sisters had been calling for her repeatedly to let her know and see if she could come home right away. Sharyn had always called right back, but now they only had silence.
March 23rd, Barbara saw a story on the news that chilled her to the core and she immediately called the police. A plumber working on new residence construction on Bandera drive stopped to throw some cardboard boxes into a storm drain, when he saw what looked like a shoulder and arm. He drew close enough to confirm there was a body and backed away to call the police.
The body of a young woman had been wedged down into the drain, rolled onto her side as if she were sleeping. It was necessary to remove the nearby manhole cover to retrieve her. Around her neck, a hemp rope had been tightly knotted. There was significant trauma to one side of her head as if she had been beaten and blood had pooled underneath her in the drain. While it was muddy and damp in there, she wasn’t lying in water. She was fully dressed which at first led investigators to believe she hadn’t been sexually assaulted. There was no ID on the woman, but she had several tattoos including the initials SKB on her hand.
Barbara went to the police and identified the body of her girlfriend. She blamed herself. “Maybe she would still be alive today if only I had gone with her that day. I don’t think this guy would have gotten both of us if I were there.”
The injuries to Sharyn’s neck told a grim story. Her killer had knotted the ligature around her neck, yanked her around, leading her like an animal before strangling her with the two foot rope. Although 1985 technology wasn’t able to detect the presence of sperm, samples of everything, including cuttings from Sharyn’s underwear, were taken and preserved in a refrigerated setting.
Immediate suspicion was focused on the men who knew Sharyn, especially her friend Richard and an upstairs neighbor who went by the name Patrick at that time. Patrick was from Africa and had a wife who lived in another city. He was friendly with Sharyn according to Barbara. When police interviewed him, he claimed they had a few sexual encounters, but that was the extent of it. Other friends disputed his claim to have had a sexual relationship with Sharyn, saying she was only interested in lesbian relationships and was not bisexual. Regardless of the truth, that was his story. Police administered several polygraphs, and like Terece Gregory’s boyfriend, JD Bartlett, Patrick failed multiple polygraph exams. Police were extremely suspicious of him, but there was no actual evidence he was related to Sharyn’s murder.
Her family wanted to come to Texas, but were financially unable to afford it. They were forced to watch from South Dakota as the trail gradually went cold. Three years later, Sharyn’s mother passed away due to complications from diabetes. She would never see justice for her daughter. Sharyn’s father would all pass away, leaving her sisters and Barbara to wait and watch. For 19 years they held onto that hope.
In 2005, emboldened by the success in other cities, Arlington set to work on their old cases. Using vastly improved testing techniques, they identified biological material from Sharyn’s vaginal swabs and underwear and soon had a profile of the offender to submit to CODIS. Like Reyes, Jim Ford received an envelop with confirmation of the cold hit. Charges had already been filed on Brown for the murder of Terece Gregory. Ford was eager to add another murder charge for Sharyn, but there was one more step.
CODIS hits aren’t proof that can be used in court. Because they are remote matches, they can only be used as probable cause in order to take DNA. That means police needed to get a search warrant and swab Brown’s cheek for a DNA comparison to confirm the match.
Fort Worth detectives Johnson and Carroll went to see Brown in prison. First they spoke to several inmates familiar with him. Everyone they spoke to indicated Brown wasn’t a popular guy. He masturbated daily while others were around and was always focused on “perverted things.” He was prone to starting fights. One inmate said Brown talked about killing women. He said Brown told him he was in prison because he met a woman at a bar, raped her and bashed her head in with a rock before dumping her body in the Trinity. He told of other claims Brown had made of killing a nurse with two children and beating a woman to death in Cleburne with a baseball bat. He also claimed to have killed a woman in River Oaks. The details sound like Brown was adding in bits and pieces from crimes he committed but confusing them.
Brown agreed to speak with them. He especially focused on Johnson, a female detective, staring at her breasts in a predatory manner. The detectives asked him about Jewell Woods. Brown said he was with some guys and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wouldn’t admit to killing her, but just kept saying that he pled guilty and they shouldn’t ask him about it. They moved onto Terece Gregory. Brown said that he didn’t know her, but “his memory wasn’t good.”
When police mentioned they had evidence linking him to her murder, he didn’t seem surprised at all. They told him they wanted to speak with him about all the unsolved murders of women in the area from that time. Again, he didn’t seem upset or surprised. They managed to get him talking about Jewell Woods by showing him offense reports. He pointed out how he gone in through the window and for the first time admitted killing her.
He refused to speak about other cases. “You’re going to kill me,” he explained and added that he wanted to die a “natural death.” He was afraid of the death penalty. He shrugged off mentions about his DNA being found at crime scenes and remarked “DNA isn’t wrong.” He did indicate that he might be willing to cooperate if he was brought back to Fort Worth and taken to the various crime scenes and if the death penalty was off the table. Police probed more to see if he would give him a number of murders, telling him that they thought he was responsible for many more than the three, but he danced around their questions. As the detectives were leaving, he called out to them “What you’re thinking” about their being more murders, “you’re not wrong,” he said.
Brown pled guilty to the murders of Terece Gregory and Sharyn Kills Back. He received two more life sentences stacked on top of the one he was already serving, guaranteeing he would spend the rest of his life in prison. Terece’s brother was angry at prosecutors for not seeking the death penalty, but Sharyn’s family was relieved not to have to live through a trial. “I wanted to shout out loud” her sister said on hearing the news. “I’m only sad our parents aren’t here to share it.”
Offender Profile: Curtis Don Brown, B/M DOB 8/2/58
Known victims: white and Native American, ages 18, 28, and 51; Survivors: white and Hispanic, ages 29 and 30
MO: blunt force trauma, ligature strangulation, .38 gun, burglary through window, transporting victim to another location, sexual assault, disposing of body in or near water
Locations: Fort Worth/Houston Street, Pearl St., Bridge Street, Trinity River, Rockwood Golf Course; Arlington/East Park Row, Bandera
Timeline: Paroled 1983. Arrested May 29, 1986.
In two weeks, the Hunting Grounds will continue with another possible suspect for the unsolved Fort Worth homicides, Juan Mesa Segundo. The murder of Vanessa Villa, 11 shocked and horrified the community. Who would rape and murder a child in her own bedroom. It was the first murder case Detective Reyes worked and one he wouldn’t solve for decades.
Additional information can be obtained from Star-Telegram archives at the Fort Worth Public Library and through Open Records requests for primary sources.
SWAMP MURDERS: I almost didn’t include this in my sources because there are so many errors. First, Sharyn wasn’t found anywhere near a swamp. She wasn’t in water. It was a street and a storm drain. Second, I have an issue with the way they “scrub” her identity. The portrayal of her and of Barbara and of their relationship is extremely inaccurate and unfair to the women. Ultimately, I did include it because of the footage of Sharyn’s sisters talking about their memories of her. It’s a PPV on YouTube.
Burglary is a gateway crime. Just as some recreational substance users will enjoy a few drinks and a little smoke without ever progressing to the so-called ‘hard’ drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine, so do some burglars remain just that. Burglars. For them, it’s about theft, stealing. Get in. Get the stuff. Get out. The most common time for burglaries is daytime, not night. Burglars don’t want to confront anyone. They hit when you’re at work or when you’re known to be out of town. They hit closed businesses. They just want your stuff. Money is the motivation.
These crimes are neither pure impulse not extensively planned, just a bit of each.
But for another sort of person, being in someone’s house becomes the ultimate rush. They become aware they’re violating a sacred space. They can do anything, touch anything. It’s power. They plan their crimes, stalking the location. They watch from a distance. They hunt–until just being inside isn’t enough anymore. They need more of the adrenaline and so they escalate. The stalking becomes as important as the execution. They need the illicit thrill. Behavior addiction is a real thing and once a burglar moves past the simple desires of a monetary motivation to an emotional one, barriers break down. The larger the violation, the more intense the rush. Add someone with the tendencies of a sexual sadist into the mix, and things get very dangerous.
Curtis Don Brown was such a man.
He already had a history of violent crime before he ever made his way to the streets of Fort Worth. December 13, 1976, Curtis Brown, 21 was a Marine assigned to Camp Pendleton in California when he committed his first known crime. Brown robbed a man by the Lucky Inn on Hawthorne Boulevard. He was spotted running past the location by police. A woman ran out after Brown, pointing and shouting that he had just robbed a man. Police gave chase, finally locating Brown lying on the floor of a tool shed. He was uncooperative, refusing to even identify himself.
Police went in to speak to the victim and found him seriously injured. He hadn’t responded quickly enough to suit Brown during the robbery. He’d fired a shot in the air and then savagely kicked in the victim’s face with his boots. Police were able to locate Brown’s wallet in the tool shed where he was hiding, along with the victim’s wallet and a pistol. The robbery cost him his career as a Marine, but he didn’t spend much time in jail.
In November 26, 1978, Brown was staying in an Amarillo motel with his girlfriend, who knew him by the name James Ware, Jr., an alias he would frequently use along with another nickname: Bandit. Brown left his girlfriend at the motel and went to a nearby small grocery store. On the way, he spotted an acquaintance named Hutchison and asked him for a ride. In the store, he robbed the clerk at gunpoint of $3,000. He ran back out of the store and jumped in Hutchison’s car. Hutchison noticed Brown had a sack and a pistol now. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had just happened. He was afraid, so he drove Brown around until Brown was satisfied they hadn’t been followed and he jumped from the car.
Hutchison was only too happy to cooperate. He told police everything he knew about “Bandit.” Brown was arrested a couple months later in a stolen car. He pled guilty in 1979. Brown was paroled in 1983 and came to Fort Worth where his mother was living. In 1983, there were a series of unsolved stranger rapes where a man came in through the window at night. July of 1984, Brown married a woman and had a daughter, but that did nothing to settle him down. He drank heavily, used cocaine and only worked sporadically at unskilled labor. That year, eight women went missing from the area near where Brown lived. Some would surface as bodies. Still others would never be found.
June 20, 1985, Patricia Morales, 29, was home alone in her Hulen Place Apartment when she heard a sound at her bedroom window screen. Cautiously, she came into the room. The screen had been removed. The window hung open. Before she could turn around, a man grabbed her from behind, roughly demanding to know where her husband was. Hoping to scare the man away, she claimed her husband was in the apartment’s other bedroom. She told the man she had a little money. He could have it if he would just leave.
He forced her to come with him to the bedroom, then turned on her angrily when there was no one there. Taking her chance, she grabbed up a metal rod, striking him with it. She only made him angrier. He took the rod away from her and hit her several times. He put a pillow case over her head and forced her to lie on the floor while he ransacked the room. She reminded him about the money in her purse. She had been to the bank. Her cash was in an envelope. Again, she promised he could have her money if he would just leave.
He retrieved the money and went to the front door, dragging her with him. Patricia hadn’t been silent. She had screamed as she was being hit and a neighbor heard. The neighbor alerted the apartment’s armed security. He was at the front door as the man tried to leave. The man roughly pulled Patricia in front of him as a human shield and they backed into the apartment. Thankfully, the neighbor had also called Fort Worth Police Department. As they rolled into the parking lot, Patricia wrenched herself free from the man’s grip and ran screaming towards the police.
Police arrested the man and transported Patricia to the hospital where she would be treated for lacerations and broken bones. The man had a bank envelope with Patricia’s money in it and a pair of white, cotton gloves. Police identified him as Curtis Don Brown, a man with no criminal history in the city of Fort Worth. They assumed he was an over-eager burglar. Within hours, Brown had posted bond and was released. He gave a Houston Street address, just 8 miles from where Patricia lived.
Patricia didn’t know it at the time, but she had just survived an encounter with a serial killer, a man who had already killed twice at least, and would kill again.
February 24, 1986, Brown struck again, this time in Arlington.
Debra Hodges, 30 was sitting home alone, watching some TV before bed. It was close to midnight and she was ready to call it quits when a sound at her back window caught her attention. Looking out her patio door, she spotted a man crouched down trying to remove her screen. He looked up at her and both were startled. The man turned and fled, jumping over a wooden fence, but not before she got a good look at him. As Debra was standing on her patio pointing things out to the Arlington officer who had responded to her call, they heard a commotion. Apartment security was chasing a man through the complex, telling him to stop. She was astonished to recognize the man by his clothing. “That’s him,” she exclaimed. The Arlington Officer joined in the chase and he and the security guard brought the man, soon identified as Curtis Don Brown, back for Debra to see.
Looking in his face, she had no doubts. “That’s the man.”
The security guard told the police that a woman had just pointed out Brown as a man who had been following her outside and ‘sexually harassed her’ in the laundry room to the point she became frightened. The woman left before the security officer got her information. The Arlington officer read Brown his rights and asked if he understood them. Brown cussed at him and said, “What rights?” He gave various stories about why he was in the apartment complex. The officer noted Brown’s boots. There had been boot prints in the soil of the flower beds outside Debra’s apartment. A man, one of substantial size, had stood there for some time, watching Debra through her window. Brown was 6’2, 200 pounds, and very muscular.
Brown was placed under arrest for attempted burglary. This time he spent three days in jail before posting bond and being released.
May 29, 1986, Fort Worth Officers Galloway and Dunn were working undercover in response to the increased crimes in the area. As the officers cruised the 6000 block of Brentwood Stair, just after midnight, a man emerged from the shadows. He kept away from the street lights, but they could see him. Sweating, nervous, he looked around sharply. Under his arm, wrapped in a towel, were two purses.
As the officers cruised past, the man made an effort to hide the purses, shifting them to his other arm and pulling down the towel. The officers circled, moving to a parking lot the man would pass by while they kept him in careful view. When the man was fifteen feet from the officers, they stepped out and showed badges. The man paused, and then took off running behind the Autumn Moon restaurant.
Dunn pursued while Galloway called for back-up. Dunn followed the man into an overgrown vacant lot in the 5600 block of Charlotte Street, just a block south of Brentwood Stair. Back-up was there within seconds, two more officers joined the chase. All four men were now chasing the man who still clutched the purses as he ran past the Amblewood Apartments, running parallel to a viaduct which stretched north and south. The viaduct was fifteen feet tall and twenty-five feet wide, it’s concrete walls slanted at a difficult angle, but the water underneath was just a trickle, the ground mossy and slick, and the man decided to use it to escape. Galloway caught the man’s leg just as he leapt for the edge. The man kicked and tried to pull free, but he was caught. His hands went to Galloway’s hip. He struggled with the officer for his gun. Instead he came away with the officer’s radio which he threw in the shallow water.
It took all four officers to subdue the man. They had to pry the purses from his hands, even as he fought them. He was reluctant to give them up. One of the purses was empty, but the other had a wallet and credit cards in them, all in the name Jewell T. Woods. A more careful search of the area would locate a black bra and a pair of women’s glasses, items that had fallen out of the purse.
They patted the man down and put him in the car, locating a syringe of narcotics in the process. They read him his Miranda Warnings, which he waived and agreed to answer questions. He claimed to have taken the purses from three men outside the Circle K gas station. He said the men had accosted him with racial slurs so he kicked them in the necks and took their purses. These were clearly women’s purses and the police weren’t buying, especially as he refused to identify himself and continued making attempts to escape. As they put him the back, he commented, “This is the third one for me. I’ll be doing the bitch.”
Doing “the bitch” or “high bitch” refers to someone being punished as a habitual offender. If it is proven that an offender has had two sequential convictions for third degree or higher offenses that included a trip to the pen, punishment for the third offense is 25 years to life. He wasn’t going to do anything to help them lock him away.
Concerned for the woman whose information was in the purse, they went to her home, the apartments at 6051 Bridge Street. They could see the screen had been pried off a window. Their knocks went unanswered. Afraid Jewell Woods, 51, might be injured inside, they tried the doorknob and found it open. Inside, the lights and television were on. A partially drunk glass of tea sat beside an evening chair with the evening paper and a pair of eyeglasses perched on the stuffed arms, as if someone had just stepped out. But there were also indications that this wasn’t what had happened. Clothing was strewn everywhere, including a pair of women’s panties in the entry way. Drawers had been pulled out. The door to the bathroom was damaged and appeared to have been kicked in.
Police knocked on doors. The next door neighbor said he had heard sounds of a commotion and Jewell’s dog yelping or whining just a half hour before midnight. At least, he thought it had been her dog. Now he wasn’t sure. There had also been some yelling, but he minded his own business. Jewell’s keys were in the stolen purse and her car was located in the parking lot, still locked. The dog, an Irish Setter named Emmy Lou, was also missing. Could she have stepped out to walk the dog? It didn’t seem likely she would walk out and leave the door unlocked, but there was no blood, no evidence of injury.
They contacted everyone they could think of based upon the information in her purse: her cousin, her uncle, her son, her many friends. Police then secured the scene, while leaving information for her to contact them upon returning home. That call never came. Instead, they heard from her employer the next morning when she didn’t show up for work. This was very out of character for the 51 year-old nurse. An immediate search began for Jewell.
Brown had been booked into jail for burglary and drugs. This time he gave his address as 3310 Pearl Street, his mother’s residence.
As word of the missing woman hummed across the grapevine, other residents of the apartment complex came forward to say they had witnessed a man who didn’t live there walking around at night. All of them described his clothing and said he was a tall, black male with a red shirt and red shorts. One woman saw him walking away with the items wrapped in a towel. The woman identified Curtis Brown from a photo spread. One man wasn’t sure, but he did place a question mark by Brown’s picture. He had seen the man from a balcony, but Jewell’s apartment was on the ground floor and he didn’t get a good look at the man’s face, however he was sure the man was wearing a red shirt and shorts. At the time of his arrest, Curtis Brown was wearing red shirt and shorts.
At the other end of the breezeway from Jewell’s apartment lived a woman named Becky. Becky complained to maintenance that night that the lights along their hall were all burnt out. The maintenance man who responded discovered the lights weren’t all burnt, nor were they malfunctioning. They’d all been unscrewed, making the breezeway dark. Detectives spoke with Becky. She was expecting her boyfriend, so when there was a knock on her door, she jerked it open. Instead of her boyfriend, there was tall, black male whom she didn’t know wearing a red shirt and shorts. He had a something in his hand covered by a towel. He stared at her for a minute. “Wrong door,” he said and walked away.
It was 11:30 am, just hours after police had left the apartment when they located her partially nude body in a stand of brush of a steeply slanted vacant lot just a short distance east of her apartment complex. She had been left face down, arms outstretched as if embracing the ground, wearing only a red and blue checkered shirt.
The soft ground told a story. Near the top of the slope there was a depression the size of Jewell’s head and a bloody rock. Drag marks led down to her body. The cause of death was obvious due to the damage done to her head. She had been beaten to death with that rock. There was bruising around the neck which indicated there had been some strangulation, but that was not fatal. The autopsy would confirm she had been sexually assaulted.
Brown’s movements could be tracked by his shoe prints. He left prints around the scene with diamond-shaped tread which matched his shoes. His clothing was examined and they found vegetation from the crime scene in his shorts. Blood on his shirt and underwear was type O, consistent with the victim.
Authorities believed he had come in through the front window. Jewell must have come into the room and seen him. She fled into the bathroom, but he broke in the door. They struggled and she broke free and ran, leaving the door open. He pursued her and caught her across the street where he raped her and killed her, then dragged her body farther from the road. He went back to steal, helping himself to two of her purses, one with her wallet and credit cards. As for the bra and eyeglasses, those were possibly trophies.
The Irish Setter, Emmy Lou, was found by a friend of Jewell’s and put in a kennel.
Murder in the course of committing sexual assault or burglary is a capital offense. The death penalty was on the table, but Brown agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. He also pled guilty to the burglaries.
Police were suspicious there were more crimes. They received information that Brown had been “robbing white women” for some time. He fenced the items he stole from these women with a drug dealer he was friendly with. The items were usually small, credit cards and jewelry items. They were also highly suspicious of a series of unsolved rapes that had occurred in 1983.
January 22, 1983, a black female, 36, living at 1502 East Canon woke up to find a man on top of her in the bed. He held his hand over her mouth and told her he would kill her if she didn’t cooperate. She was terrified, not just for herself, but for her young son. He sexually assaulted her. At one point, her son came out into the living room and saw the man on top of his mother. The man allowed him to go to the bathroom, then instructed the child to go back to bed. The boy saw the man, a black male, rifling through his mother’s purse. After the man left, the woman was afraid to leave the house. She showered around 4 am, then worked up her nerve to call the police. They arrived to see that the man had come in through the front window which had a broken lock. The screen had been pried open. Police spoke with the woman and the little boy who said he thought he recognized the man. He told police where he had seen the man before. January 25th, police spoke with the woman who said she had nothing to add. Police suspended the investigation that same day as unsolvable.
July 12, 1983, white female, 33, residing at 708 Grainger awoke to a noise. A man was in the room with her. He was a slender black male and told her to cooperate or he would “cut her.” He covered her head with a blanket and sexually assaulted her.
November 9th, a black female living at 1023 E. Magnolia woke up with a man on top of her. He had a hand over her mouth. The man dragged her outside to her back yard where he sexually assaulted her. After the man left, she ran to a neighbor to call police. She described him as a black male, around the age of 25 with facial hair and a slight build. She had just moved to this house a month before from 1013 East Canon, just blocks from the first rape, because her house there had been repeatedly burglarized.
There were other rapes, but they all had common threads, certain things that were done and said by the rapist that later led police to think they might have been the same man, a slender, black male with facial hair. In 1983, Brown was fresh from prison and far more slender than he was in 1986. Due to old statute of limitation laws, those rapes could not be prosecuted now and it’s doubtful the sexual assault kits were ever sent for testing, if they were even preserved.
Jewell Wood’s son was unhappy with plea bargain. He wanted to face the man in court. He wanted the death penalty. It was only later that he realized he was lucky to have a resolution. If Brown hadn’t been stopped fleeing from the scene, he too might have waited 19 years to know who killed his mother, because that’s how long it would take for Woods other crimes to come to light.
Curtis Brown’s Fort Worth crimes didn’t begin with Jewell Woods. It didn’t even begin with Patricia Morales. We can’t be sure exactly when it did start, but do know he had started killing by March 23, 1985.
April 2004 began the cold case revolution for Texas as the prison system began taking DNA from prisoners entering the system. That year alone they solved 14 murders and 81 sexual assaults. There was a renewed interest in old cases. Both Fort Worth and Arlington assigned a detective to pursue cold cases. In 2005 came a new mandate: test everyone in prison who came in before April 2004. Cold case detectives excitedly combed evidence records, looking for potential biological links.
For Fort Worth cold case detective Manny Reyes, that meant sorting through the city’s 764 “unsolvable homicide” files that had been boxed and stacked in a room in no particular order. Cases with preserved bio evidence were his first priority. He analyzed and cataloged cases, submitted the evidence for proper testing and sent profiles to CODIS for comparison. It was tedious work, but the results were undeniable. Within months, he got his first hit on a 19 year old murder to a man already sitting behind bars: Curtis Don Brown. That “cold hit” was just the start.
Next week, we will take a look at two very different women, Terece Gregory and Sharyn Killsback, two lives forever tied together by their violent end, and by the DNA that would unravel the mysteries of their deaths in part two of The Hunting Grounds: Cold Hit.
Fort Worth was a dangerous place to be a woman in the early 80s. They were vanishing, dying and being attacked in unprecedented numbers for the area. The women were white, black, Hispanic and native American. They were shot, strangled, and bludgeoned. They lived everywhere from the working class streets of south side to more genteel ones of TCU. They were moms, professionals, secretaries, nurses, teenagers. The only constant was the seeming randomness.
There might not be one obvious pattern, but it was clear that a predator had made Fort Worth his hunting grounds. Although they denied it at the time, Fort Worth Police Department had formed a task force that grew to 40 officers. For years they aggressively pursued thousands of leads. Interviews, polygraphs, and the limited forensics available at the time were used to sift thorough suspects and look for connections between victims, but when a predator chooses a stranger at random, the links can be impossible to find.
Some cases would be solved, both by luck and dogged police work. Others would linger, unsolved, cold, leaving families without answers and victims without justice. For those cases that did reach a resolution, a startling picture emerged. There wasn’t a single predator hunting Fort Worth. There were multiple predators, and the women of Fort Worth were their prey.
The killings abruptly stopped, leaving the unsolved cases as a horrific footnote to the decade of big hair, dance pop, and neon lycra. As time moved on, so did the police. There were always new investigations, fresh murders that were raw and immediate in their demands, stretching attention further and further from the those earlier crimes that cooled and then went cold.
But the victims were never forgotten. Certainly not by their families and friends. For them, the cases were always painful, a wound that couldn’t heal. Police remembered as well, but what could they do? They needed evidence that didn’t exist, or rather, they needed a way to read the evidence they did have. In many cases, there was biological evidence just sitting there, taunting them with an identity so close, but locked in the genomes and alleles of his DNA. For the cases to progress, something would have to change.
DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, the genetic blueprints of all living organisms, was first uncovered in 1869 by a Swiss physician and biologist, Friedrich Miescher. Miescher found nucleic acid left behind in surgical bandages. It would take more than a century for science to unlock the secrets hiding in our cells and longer still for forensics to develop a means of creating and comparing profiles.
This new, dramatic evidence was first used in the United States in 1988 to convict a man named George Wesley of the rape and murder of Helen Kendrick, 79. The New York trial was a media show that put science on trial, not George Wesley. Science prevailed.
In the bustling new world of forensics, DNA was a game changer. Not since fingerprints had such a reliable source of identification been utilized. DNA was a fantastic tool when a victim pointed at her attacker. Eye witness identification can be problematic, but with DNA, there was a concrete answer. The innocent were exonerated. The guilty were convicted. But to compare the DNA found at a crime scene, you had to have a known suspect, someone to compare it to. Then came CODIS.
In 1994, the FBI began CODIS, an acronym for the Combined DNA Index System, a program of support for criminal justice DNA databases. The National DNA Index System or NDIS is the national level version of CODIS, containing the DNA profiles contributed by federal, state, and local participating forensic laboratories. For the first time, local police could take an unknown sample and have it compared against an enormous database of known offenders. They would also eventually be able to compare to other unknown offenders in an effort to identify serial predators.
The larger the database, the more effective. For CODIS to work, it needed samples. In 2004 Texas required all convicted felons entering the penitentiary to give DNA for CODIS. They immediately solved 14 murders. That same year they also solved 81 sexual assaults, 40 burglaries, and four robberies in Texas alone. In 2005, a new law required the system to go back and take samples of everyone who came in before April 2004. Even more cases were solved.
Cold cases continue to be solved through a mix of detective work and scientific advancement. It’s time to re-examine these killings from the 1980s. If anything, recent developments in the news have shown us that justice may be slow, but it can still arrive, even 40 plus years later.
Over the next several weeks, I will look at some of the known killers that stalked Fort Worth in the early 80s–Curtis Don Brown, Lucky Odom, Juan Mesa Segundo, Faryion Waldrip, Ricky Lee Green– and then at some of the still unsolved cases in an ongoing series, The Hunting Grounds. I’ll also discuss legal issues facing cold cases including the backlog of DNA testing and time limit statutes that prohibit prosecutions.
You can expect to see a new article in this series every other week, starting with Curtis Don Brown on May 14th. Brown was every woman’s nightmare, the stranger in the night, crawling in through the windows. He would be caught in a murder by fate mingled with accurate police instincts. Only years later would science reveal just how lucky police had gotten when they nabbed the man who went by the nickname “Bandit.”