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.
British geneticist Sir Alex Jeffreys is credited with developing the first means of DNA profiling and proving that no two people had the same DNA–except identical twins. In 1988, Colin Pitchfork became the first man linked and then prosecuted for the rape and murder of two British schoolgirls using DNA evidence. (If you’re interested in learning more about the case, I highly recommend Joseph Wambaugh’s THE BLOODING.)
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.”