Buried Alive: The Lisa Rene Story

The 911 call came in just after 8 pm on September 24, 1994.  “There are three men trying to get in. They say they’re with the FBI. I think they have the wrong house.”

Sixteen year-old Lisa Rene was home alone. The straight A student had come from the Virgin Islands to live in Arlington, Texas with her older sister Pearl. Lisa wanted to be a doctor and so she was spending the night studying for finals.

Lisa’s brothers were also temporarily living with her and Pearl. Neil Nick Rene and Stanfield Vitalis had been arrested for dealing drugs and evicted from their apartment. The brothers insisted that it wasn’t true. It was a misunderstanding. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They had trusted the wrong people.

Actually, Nick and Stanfield were the wrong people and they had run afoul of even worse people.

{left to right: Neil Nick Rene and Stanfield Vitalis}

 

 

If you were buying pot in Pine Bluff, Arkansas back in the early 1990’s, odds are you were doing business with one of three men: Bruce Webster, Orlando Hall, or Marvin Holloway. The three imported their weed from the DFW with the help of Steven Beckley. Beckley lived in Irving and was acquainted with Nick and Stanfield.

Typically, Beckley would purchase large quantities of the weed and transport it to Arkansas where it would be stored in Marvin Holloway’s house. Beckley introduced Hall to Nick and Stanfield as two local dealers who could get him what he wanted. Hall paid the brothers $4,700 to score 9,000 pounds of pot for them.

The brothers missed their delivery date. Hall tracked them down by phone and the brothers claimed to have been robbed. They said they had been car jacked and the people took the money and the brothers car. Suspicious, Hall and Beckley tracked the brothers to the Arlington apartment they shared with their sisters. They saw the brothers were still driving the car they claimed to have been stolen. Beckley and Hall then knew they had been double-crossed. They called Webster who flew to DFW.

On the night of the 24th, they went to get there revenge. Hall, his younger brother Demetrious, and Webster, and Beckley drove a gold Cadillac belonging to the Halls’ elder sister. They went armed with guns, a baseball bat, duct tape, and gasoline. The plan was to pour gasoline on the brothers and force them to return the money or they would be set on fire.

Webster and Demetrious Hall went to the front door. They beat on the door claiming to be FBI, but there was no answer. They went around to the back and that’s when they saw Lisa.

Lisa panicked when the men were beating on the door. She called her sister. Pearl told her she was on her way, but instructed Lisa to call 911. On the 911 call, you can hear the men in the background, beating on the door. Lisa tried to describe what she could see and told the operator, “They’re trying to break down my door. Hurry up.”

On the recording, there is the sound of breaking glass as Demetrious broke in the through the sliding door. Lisa screams and you can hear a man say, “Who you on the phone with?”

The phone disconnected. The police arrived before Pearl.  The FBI were immediately alerted. At the time, it wasn’t known they would end up with jurisdiction, but because the men claimed to be FBI, they were contacted. FBI knew there was no involvement on their part because the men were all African American and at the time, there was only one African American agent in the district. Because he was called, he responded to the scene and remained as the lead on the case.

The brothers had gone to Houston for a concert. Upon learning of the drug dealing allegations, police wanted to speak with them immediately. Pearl gave them the Stanfield’s cell number. Over the phone, the brothers denied being involved with drugs or having anyone who might be after them. A neighbor had reported a gold Cadillac being parked outside the apartment, so police asked the brothers if they knew anyone with a car like that. Again, the brothers denied knowing anything.

Later that same night, the brothers called the police back. They claimed that after driving back from Houston, they just happened to go to Irving instead of going home and just happened to drive around and just happened to see a gold Cadillac exactly like the one described outside their house. They gave police an address.

Police went and knocked on the door. A woman answered and allowed police to look around. It was Demetrious and Orlando Hall’s sister. She told them she didn’t know anything about a kidnapping and that the Cadillac was hers. Her husband told police that he was suspicious one of her brothers might have taken it out because they had attended a barbecue there just a day before and could easily have taken one of the spare keys. They had just arrived home after being out that night.  They wouldn’t know if it had been moved. Police took a look around, but didn’t have a search warrant. They couldn’t do the sort of thorough search they would have liked.

One officer noted a bat in a child’s bedroom. The little boy sat up and was reassured that everything was okay. Another officer peeked up into the attic area. It was dark and he looked around with his flashlight but didn’t see anything.

The police ran the criminal histories of the Hall brothers and learned they had drug arrests and lived in El Dorado, Arkansas, near Pine Bluff. When they called Arkansas, local police knew all about the Hall brothers. They were big trouble. Orlando had a warrant out for violating his parole.

Nick and Stanfield finally broke down and told police about their drug buy gone wrong. They never had any intention of returning with the marijuana and had used the cash to pay for their current legal troubles. They denied knowing who the men were, but did give up Steven Beckley. Investigators were focusing in on their suspects. Demetrious Hall was found at his father’s house and Steven Beckley was found at a friend’s house. Both men were arrested, but neither one was talking–at first.

Gradually Beckley began to speak, offering bits of information at a time,  and a horrifying story emerged. The men had dragged the terrified 16 year old out of the apartment and forced her into the car at gunpoint. As they sped down the road, they passed police responding to the call. Lisa was on the floorboard. They drove to the Irving location and changed from the borrowed Cadillac to Beckley’s car. They drove around looking for a spot to hide out for a while. During this time, Orlando Hall forced Lisa to perform oral sex on him.

They changed their mind about staying in Arlington, so they dropped Hall back at his sister’s house. He hid in the attic while police searched the location. Webster, Beckley, and Demetrious drove back to Pine Bluff. They took turns raping Lisa. Once in Pine Bluff, they rented a motel room, tied her to a chair, and again took turns raping her. Hall flew in the next day to join them. They put Lisa in the bathroom to keep her out of sight and kept a hood over her head.

Beckley told the police that was the last place he had seen Lisa and that she was probably still at the motel with “B-Love”. Hopeful of still finding Lisa alive, the police and FBI moved in on the Arkansas motel, only to find no one there. Lisa had now been gone for four days. The manager remembered the men and remembered they had a girl with them. She heard “B-Love” instruct the others to “get the bitch back in the car” when Lisa tried to get out. The manager didn’t call police at the time. It wasn’t that kind of motel. Instead, she asked the security guard to check them out. The guard knocked on the door. When it was opened, he didn’t see a woman or anything unusual and had no reason to do anything but leave. He was, however, able to confirm that “B-Love” was Bruce Webster and he had been at the motel with the Hall brothers. He also gave a description of Webster’s car.

Although the room had been cleaned, investigators found Lisa’s finger and palm prints behind the toilet in the bathroom where she had been kept.

Beckley hadn’t been honest with the officers. The men had decided the security guard was too nosy and moved to another motel. Demetrious stayed behind to clean up. Orlando Hall decided Lisa knew too much and they were done with her anyway. On the morning of September 26th, Webster and Hall went to Byrd Lake Park and dug a grave.

It was dark when they returned with Lisa and the idiots couldn’t find the grave, so they took the poor girl back to the motel. The next day Orlando Hall, Bruce Webster, and Stephen Beckley took Lisa back to the park. They again put a hood over her head and took her to the grave site, guiding her by her shoulders. They positioned her with her back to the grave and threw a sheet over her. Then Hall hit her over the head with a shovel.

Lisa screamed and ran. Beckley caught her and tackled her. He hit her in the head with the shovel once, before handing it back to Hall. Hall and Webster took turns hitting her in the head with the shovel. They left marks against one of the trees from their swings. She was gagged, dragged back to the grave, stripped, and doused in gasoline. The autopsy would show that she was still alive when they buried her.

Investigators had tracked the Webster and Hall to the second motel after finding the first one abandoned. When Webster drove up to the motel, he was arrested. Police found guns and marijuana, but no Lisa. Hall later surrendered, and the rest of the story unraveled. They were too late. Webster agreed to take them to Lisa’s grave.

On October 3rd, Lisa’s body was recovered. She had defensive wounds to her hands from trying to shield her head and deep lacerations from where the shovel had struck her, but the cause of death was suffocation. She had been buried alive.

 

Byrd Lake beauty.png
Byrd Lake

 

Because the kidnapping happened in Arlington, Texas and the murder happened in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the U.S. Attorney’s Office picked up the charges against the men.

Demetrius Hall pled guilty to kidnapping and provided evidence against his brother and Webster. He received 25 years in federal prison.

Steven Beckley also pled guilty to kidnapping and received 30 years in prison. He testified against the others.

Marvin Holloway, who had assisted in the planning and provided the funding received 15 years for his role. He is no longer in prison.

Orlando Hall was tried and sentenced to death. He was the first person to be sentenced under the new Federal Death Penalty. He still sits on death row.

Bruce Webster was also sentenced to death. He has continually appealed his case claiming to be intellectually disabled with a low IQ. He likewise still sits on death row. The Federal Government hasn’t executed anyone since 2003. For those interested in the process, I’ve included links to the appeals in Source Notes. I think this appeal highlights the problems with correlating IQ testing to intellectual disability. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s law which set an IQ of 70 as an absolute dividing line. In the opinion, the Court noted that there is a margin of error and it’s more appropriate to look at other factors to determine if someone fully appreciates the consequences of their actions. IQ tests are geared more towards testing academic functioning.

Webster’s mental capacity was a highly contested issue in his trial. The defense pointed to Webster’s Social Security status. That’s right. He had filed for–and received–disability payments while running a vicious drug ring. The prosecution presented witnesses to talk about his adaptive ability, noting how he was reading up on law and taking notes in preparation for his case.

I’m conflicted about the death penalty. I have never tried a case where the death penalty was on the table and I’m not sure how I would feel if I were asked to do so. It’s irrevocable. I have never walked into court with a case I didn’t believe in with all my heart, but errors can be made. We know this. Then there are cases like this.  Cases like this are why we have the death penalty. If these monsters don’t deserve to die, who does? It’s time for the federal government to begin executions again.

As for Lisa’s brothers, little has changed. They were sent to prison for a very small sentence, just five years, perhaps out of respect for the tragedy the family had suffered, but they learned nothing and have been in and out of prison. Neil Nick Rene was convicted for leading a massive drug trafficking ring funneling drugs from the Virgin Islands to the DFW area. He received 12 and a half years for his role.

No victim ever deserves to be murdered, but Arlington Detective John Stanton would call Lisa Rene “probably the most innocent victim” whose case he ever worked. Lisa’s fate is a reminder that we cannot truly render justice. We can punish. We can remove killers from society to protect future victims. But we cannot make whole. We can’t fix the damage already done.

At Orlando Hall’s sentencing, Pearl Rene was interviewed by reporters. “I thought I would feel better, but I really don’t. The only thing that would feel better is if Lisa was here today. And she’s not coming back.”

 

Pearl
Pearl Rene

 

Source Notes:

The Heat Mag: Remembering Lisa Rene

Neil Nick Rene’s Federal Charges

His sentence

Dallas News

Bruce Webster’s appeal

My Life of Crime Blog

Orlando Hall’s first appeal and second appeal

The FBI Files: The Search for Lisa Rene,  also on YouTube. I highly recommend it. There are interviews with the investigators.
 

3 thoughts on “Buried Alive: The Lisa Rene Story

  1. Some parts of your story are not true. Interesting to read articles like this. I guess the unspoken rule of Journalism is “Just get it out there.” Your personal opinion doesn’t matter in this line of work. State facts or forever hold your peace.

    Like

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