Slow Justice: The murder of Donald Rodgers

 

 

Donald Bryan Rodgers is forever a 14 year-old boy, forever smiling back from a photo looking dapper with his bow tie. For Donald it’s forever August 7, 1973. That’s where his future came to an end at his best friend’s home–and at the end of his best friend’s gun.

Donnie, as he was called by his family, was one of six kids growing up in Southeast Fort Worth in the Rolling Hills neighborhood.  The siblings ranged in age from 22 to 3 years old. The Rodgers were strict, but loving. The family was tight-knit. He was especially close to his father. Donnie and his father, Jeff had their own side business, scrapping. Jeff worked for a newspaper and later as a maintenance worker at a hospital. Donnie would sometimes go to those jobs with his father as well. Mom was a nurse. She was also the disciplinarian. The children all had duties around the house.

Rolling Hills was considered a very safe neighborhood. The children could walk to their friends’ houses or ride bikes.

Melvin Knox also lived nearby with his parents and his sister, Sheila, just about ten minutes from Donnie’s house. The Knox family owned a grocery store. Unlike Donnie, Melvin had been in trouble before. At 15, he already had a reputation for a bad temper. When he was 13, he pointed a shotgun at a boy with whom he’d had an earlier argument. An adult neighbor saw this and intervened. This was just before Melvin and his parents moved to Rolling Hills.

But whatever their different lives, the boys met and were instant friends in the way kids can be. That August evening, they were playing basketball when the rest of Melvin’s family left for church at 7:00 pm. When the family returned at 8:30, they found the livingroom a mess. The glass patio door had been smashed in with a big rock, The TV was knocked over. Melvin was nowhere to be found.

The family searched frantically for the boys. In the bathroom, 12 year-old Sheila Knox discovered a grisly sight. A young boy was sprawled, his body partially propped in the corner between the shower and the toilet. Blood was everywhere. The shower door was shattered from the shot and the blood splatter on the wall indicated this was where the boy had been shot. His face had been destroyed by a gunshot wound. The damage was so severe, at first Sheila thought it was Melvin’s body. Inexplicably, there was also a knife sticking from the boy’s chest and multiple stab wounds.

The police were immediately called. Moment’s later, Melvin showed back up with his Uncle Emmit. Melvin told the police that Donnie went inside to go to the restroom. While he was in there, Melvin stayed outside. He said he heard glass shatter, walked around the back to see what was going on and then heard a gunshot. He said he ran, jumped the back fence and ran to his Uncle’s house two miles away. He said he didn’t go inside at all.

Knox_house

 

 

The scene was process by David Whisenhunt, he noticed several odd things. He located wadding to a 16 gauge shot gun next to the body. In the master bedroom closet was a Mossberg 16 gauge. Due to the smell, he knew that gun had been recently fired. Why would the murder weapon have been put back in the closet? The knife in Donnie’s chest was also from the house. Someone would have to break into to home, get the family’s shotgun, shoot Donnie, and then put the weapon away. Then they would have to go into the kitchen, grab a knife, and repeatedly stab Donnie. It didn’t make any sense.

The TV, which was in front of the sliding glass door had been knocked over, but curiously there was no glass underneath it, indicating the TV was knocked over before the glass door was shattered. The TV wasn’t damaged from the fall, almost as if it had been gently laid down. Nothing was taken from the house.

A neighbor, Chris Guinn, who was outside in his yard heard a loud noise followed by  glass shattering, and saw Melvin running away. This didn’t match Melvin’s sequence of events. And in a neighborhood full of houses, why would he run two miles to his uncle’s house?

Then there was what had happened the day before. Melvin had been playing basketball with another boy named Ricky. They went inside and for some reason, Melvin pointed a shotgun at him. He told Ricky that his father had given him the gun for his birthday. Ricky pushed the barrel of the gun away and told Melvin to stop, that he shouldn’t play with guns. In response, Melvin pulled the trigger. Ricky heard the click. Melvin laughed it off, but  he later faced charges for this incident.

But would he face charges in Donnie’s death? His story didn’t add up and the scene appeared to be staged to look like a burglary. Had he repeated his actions of pointing a gun at a friend only this time it was loaded?

Dr. Feliks Gwozdz, Tarrant County’s legendary medical examiner performed the autopsy. In his report, he noted an entry wound to the right of the victim’s face and an exit wound to the left side. He also observed nine stab wounds, seven to the chest. One of these stab wounds went into Donnie’s heart. Dr. Gwozdz ruled it a homicide and listed the cause of death as “Shock and hemorrhage due to shotgun wound of head and multiple stab wounds to the chest.”

KNOX_TV2

15 year-old Melvin was charged as a juvenile by an Assistant District Attorney named Billy Mills. Four months later, Mills made the determination he didn’t believe there was enough evidence and he dismissed the case.

Donnie’s family, engulfed in a blur of shock and grief, assumed Melvin was still being prosecuted. They weren’t vengeful people. They weren’t clamoring at the court house everyday. Sure, there wasn’t anything on the news, but then Melvin was a juvenile so in their minds, that explained it. It’s unknown if Donnie’s parents were ever told. If they were told, they didn’t let Donnie’s siblings know.

It would be decades before anyone looked at the case again.

That’s not to say that nothing was happening. You might think Melvin would have learned a hard lesson about violence and playing with guns. You might think he would have been scared straight, but that’s the farthest thing from the truth. Over the next forty years, Melvin was in constant trouble with the law.

His juvenile records are not public record, but from the moment he was a legal adult, his record shows that Melvin never changed. His crimes include burglaries, thefts, and drugs–lots of drugs. Melvin wasn’t just a user, he was a dealer and did several stints in prison for dealing. In 1999, he was sent to prison for Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon for threatening a couple with a shotgun. Once out of prison, he resumed his career as a drug dealer.

Meanwhile, Donnie’s eldest sister, Carolyn became curious about what had happened to her brother’s killer. Their parents were deceased. She couldn’t ask them.  The original detectives were also deceased. She tried to find information online and even through calling the police department, but she couldn’t find anything. She brought her concerns to Jeff Jr, but he was sure things had been handled. Why dredge up the pain again?

Carolyn was persistent so Jeff, a juvenile probation officer, agreed to check into the matter. To his surprise, he discovered Melvin had never faced charges. Jeff contacted the cold case detective, Mike McCormack who agreed to dig into the case.

Cold cases are always difficult and a 40 year old case, especially so. Many of the original witnesses were now deceased. Further complicating matters, the physical evidence was missing. Gone was the shot gun, Melvin’s clothing, and the knife. The property room has moved several times and a great deal of old evidence has been lost. He had the old testing, but that was all he had to go on. There would be no new testing.

All he could do was retrace the steps of the investigation and that meant re-interviewing the witnesses. The first person McCormack went to speak with, was Melvin Knox.

Melvin hadn’t gone far. He was still living in an apartment building owned by his parents. He agreed to speak with McCormack. The story Melvin told was essentially the same except for one very important detail. He claimed to have seen the intruder. This didn’t match any of his previous versions. That would have been a crucial detail, one everyone would have jumped on if he had ever mentioned it. Melvin claimed to have heard the crash of the glass and the gun blast. He went and looked inside and saw a white man in his 20’s carrying a shotgun. The man pointed the gun at Melvin who ran away to his uncle’s house.

McCormack interview Melvin’s Uncle Emmit. He confirmed for McCormack that Melvin had never said anything about seeing the intruder. He said that Melvin arrived looking sweaty and borderline hysterical. Melvin said that an intruder broke into his house and killed Donnie. McCormack was instantly struck by this recollection. Melvin had insisted he never went inside. How did he know Donnie was dead in the bathroom?

McCormack then interviewed Ruth Knox, Melvin’s mother. She told a different story than police had ever been told. She said that the day after the offense Melvin admitted to her that he and Donnie were playing basketball and Donnie asked to use the restroom. After a couple of minutes the Melvin went inside and noticed Donnie was playing with his little brother’s toy in the bathroom. Melvin claimed that he told Donnie to put the toy down but he refused. Melvin was angered by this so he got the shotgun, pointed it at his friend and pulled the trigger. He said he did not know the gun was loaded. Ruth told McCormack that she and her husband loaded the gun that night due to criminal activity in the neighborhood. She was evasive about why she hadn’t told police before. She claimed Melvin didn’t remember the stabbing part.

That was the break McCormack needed. He arrested and interviewed Melvin again and this time he confronted him with his mother’s statement.

 

Melvin confessed shooting Donnie. He said the two were just playing with guns and his gun went off.  First he said they both pointed guns at each other. He said Donnie pulled the trigger and it clicked. He said he then pulled the trigger and heard a boom and remembered nothing more. Under more questioning, Melvin admitted he lied about Donnie having a gun. He said he just meant to scare him when he pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger. He did not know it was loaded.

He first denied knowing about the knife or that the Donnie was stabbed. McCormack asked Melvin if he stabbed Donnie because he was afraid he would tell on him. Melvin said “probably so” but again claimed he did not remember the details. In other words, Melvin shot Donnie, possibly on accident, but then didn’t seek help for his friend. Instead he silenced the only witness to the crime. He stabbed his best friend repeatedly until he was dead. Then he left the knife in his chest, staged a burglary, and ran off to save himself.

McCormack had his man and he had new evidence, but there were still obstacles to overcome. Although Melvin was now a 59 year old man, he had committed the crime as a juvenile and therefore that was the law that applied. The case was assigned to Assistant Criminal District Attorney Matt Smid. Smid presented evidence before a juvenile court on August 16, 2016 in a hotly contested hearing. The judge granted Smid’s request and certified Melvin Knox to proceed. Smid then presented the case again to a grand jury and secured an indictment.

Melvin Knox would proceed to trial, but a conviction was not assured. The original evidence was lost. Five witnesses were now deceased including the original detectives. After much discussion Donnie’s siblings, Smid made Melvin an offer. Ten years in exchange for a plea of guilty to Murder. He reasoned that with Melvin’s age and the issues in the case, they would take what they could get.

Astonishingly, Melvin rejected the officer. He was facing five years to life, but he wanted probation. Probation was never on the table. Under current law, that wouldn’t be an option, but Melvin was subject to what the sentencing laws were when the crime was committed. In 1973, people could get probation for Murder.

Both sides were preparing for trial, when Melvin made a startling announcement just two weeks before trial. He was going to plead guilty.

Pleading guilty without an agreed punishment is called an “open plea.” Melvin was going to throw himself on the mercy of the court, or rather, on the mercy of Judge Wayne Salvant.  Judge Salvant is a no-nonsense former marine. He is not afraid of high profile cases.  Ethan Couch, also known “the Affulenza teen” now has his adult cases pending before Judge Salvant. It was big gamble on Melvin’s part.

Judge Salvant

The prosecution went first laying out for the court what happened August 7, 1973 and all of Melvin’s lies and crimes. Hearing all of life laid bare must have made Melvin nervous because at a break, his attorney approached Smid and asked if he could have the ten year sentence. Smid refused. The case would be placed in the Judge’s hands.

Melvin testified before Judge Salvant that he didn’t know the shotgun was loaded when he pointed it and pulled the trigger. He admitted getting the knife out of the kitchen drawer but then insisted he didn’t remember stabbing Donnie or staging the house to look like a burglary.  He said he took care of his parents and that he volunteered at church. Then he asked for probation.

Judge Salvant wasn’t having any of it.  “Do you think you deserve probation for all you’ve done? You committed a heinous crime, you tried to cover it up, then in the past 40 years, you’ve basically been a criminal. Let’s just face it, you have. So probation is not even an issue, not for this court.” Salvant then goes on to note that Donald Rodgers has been dead for over 40 years and so that is Melvin’s sentence. 40 years.

“No matter what I do today nothing’s going to bring Mr. Rodgers back, but that family deserves justice,” Salvant said. “They do. They’ve waited a long time for it.”

UPDATE: A NOTE ABOUT SOURCES:  Today I was contacted by a member of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who was concerned that I did not acknowledge one of their reporters as a source for information in this article. I had linked to one of this reporter’s articles in the paragraph proceeding this one, however, I never specifically mentioned that  I did read the series of articles and did use them as one of my primary sources. In addition I read the police reports for myself and attended the punishment hearing of Melvin Knox in person because I was so interested in this case.

The articles by FWST Reporter Deanna Boyd, and a subsequent podcast about the case– also by Ms. Boyd– are much more in-depth than I could possibly manage here. I am indeed indebted to her for the amount of work she put into covering this case and I wish to acknowledge this. I am not a professional journalist, just someone with a deep interest in true crime. If this story interests you, I encourage you to read the FWST article for yourself here. This article contains a link to the podcast as well. Out of the Cold, Ms. Boyd’s podcast detail many other cold cases other than just this one and the interviews with family members are memorable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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