Betty Lou’s Wishing Well: The True Story of a Texas Black Widow

 

Betty Lou
Betty Lou was prettier when smiling

 

On August 6, 1983, Betty Lou Beets reported her sixth husband, Jimmy Don Beets missing from their home in Gun Barrel City, Texas. Jimmy Don was beloved in the community. He was a big, loveable bear of a man, a Dallas firefighter and a laidback cowboy. Betty Lou told investigators her husband had left the house to go fishing the day before and she hadn’t seen him since. An immediate search was launched, but with no results.

 

Six days later, Jimmy Don’s boat washed up near the Redwood Beach Marina on Cedar Creek Lake. Liz Smith, the owner of the marina spotted the green boat bobbing in the water. Two of her customers went out to check on the drifting vessel and spotted Jimmy Don Beets fishing license. Parks and Wildlife personnel spent weeks dragging the lake, looking for Jimmy Don’s body. His heart medication and glasses were also found in the boat and it was assumed he had trouble and had fallen overboard.

 

Gun Barrel City sits on the edge of Cedar Creek Lake, a man-made lake just sixty miles south of Dallas. The 34,000 acre lake is a popular get away spot, close enough to commute to Dallas daily, or a place to retire. It offers a small town lakeside feel, but with all the amenities of a big city just within reach. It was here that Jimmy Don planned to retire from the Dallas Fire Department. The location seemed perfect for him. Jimmy Don was an avid fisherman and Betty Lou already had a trailer on the lake, surrounded by a dense forest of pine and oaks.

The small community rallied to support Betty Lou. How unlucky could one woman be? Her last husband had just gone off and abandoned her and now another husband had vanished. Betty Lou was holding up awfully well, but everyone grieves differently, right? Perhaps she was just stoic.

Privately, though, people were already beginning to ask questions. Bodies just didn’t disappear in this man-made lake. Then there was the matter of Betty Lou’s attitude. A chaplain from the Dallas Fire Department went to visit with Betty Lou during this difficult time and he was taken aback when she immediately began asking if her husband had life insurance and how much she could get.

Betty Lou never had trouble attracting men. She married her first husband in 1952 at the age of 15. She’d had a hard upbringing. Born in 1937 to a pair of young sharecroppers, she was raised in a small pine cabin in Virginia without electricity or running water. Her mother suffered from mental illness and spent long periods of time hospitalized. Her father was a heavy drinker. A bought with measles left Betty Lou’s hearing severely damaged. Due to her mother’s illness, she spent her teen years caring for her younger siblings. Like so many girls of her time, she escaped her parents’ household by marrying in order to set up a house of her own. She was just 15 and Robert was just 18, but early on they seemed happy enough.

Betty Lou and Robert Branson would remain married for 17 years before divorcing. It would be her longest marriage. Betty Lou and Robert had six children together including her daughter Shirley, and son Robert “Robby” Branson II. Accounts suggest that neither spouse was exactly faithful. Betty Lou often escaped the drudgery of being a young mother and housewife to go honky-tonking. At one point, the couple moved to Mesquite, Texas to try and start over and save their marriage, but it didn’t work. Robert worked long hours and soon Betty Lou slipped off to drink and dance while her eldest daughters watched the other children.

Still, she was devastated when Branson left her for another woman and she began drinking heavily. Robert didn’t always pay her child support.  This was the first time she had ever been truly on her own and it was hard. Eldest daughter Faye repeated her mother’s choices and moved out at 15 to get married. Taking this as her cue to lighten the load, Betty shipped out the other children. She sent a daughter and Robby to live with their father. Although she promised them it was a temporary visit, she wouldn’t see them again for five years. Another daughter went to live with Faye. Shirley went to stay with friends. The only child she kept was three year old Bobby.

Just a year later, she would remarry. Her marriage to Billy Lane was short, but violent. There is little doubt that he abused Betty and left her bruised, but the two couldn’t seem to stay away. They would break up and reconcile over and over.  While they were apart, Betty Lou took malicious pleasure in tormenting Billy. She would go to the same clubs he was at and slow dance with other men while staring at her estranged husband. The marriage ended when Betty shot him twice.

Betty Lou claimed that Billy had forced his way into her house. (source: Buried Memories, by Irene Pence)

“That’s when I reached behind my back and got my gun. He didn’t act afraid. Maybe he thought I was bluffing. He took another step toward me, so I fired at him. Can’t remember how many times, but I kept firing until I saw him stagger out the back door.”

Billy’s teenaged daughter told a different story. She said that Betty Lou, who was living apart from Billy at the time, called and asked Billy to come over. Billy told police he came over in response to this invitation but the two argued, as always. He said he was leaving when she suddenly started firing. This scenario seems likely since he was shot twice in the back. One of the bullets caused so much nerve damage he was never able to walk properly again. He was lucky to have survived. Betty was charged with attempted murder.

Incredibly, the charges would be dropped down to a misdemeanor when Billy told the authorities he had threatened her during a fight. Of course, friends noted that Betty Lou was Billy’s angel while he was in the hospital. She was as loving and sorry as she could be. Betty Lou and Billy would marry again, but that reconciliation wouldn’t last longer than a month.  Once the charges were reduced, she had what she wanted. I suppose that technically makes Lane husband number two and husband number three. Either way, he was lucky to survive marriage to Betty Lou. Other men wouldn’t be so lucky.

Six years later, Betty Lou married her third husband (or fourth, depending on how you’re counting), Ronnie Threlkold. She had taken Bobby and moved off once again for a fresh start. This time she’d gone to Little Rock, Arkansas.  This marriage was also marked with violence on both sides. Ronnie slapped Betty Lou and she retaliated by slashing the tires on his truck. She also went after him with a tire iron during an argument. She moved back to Texas and Ronnie came with her.  Betty was insanely jealous and accused Ronnie of sleeping around with everyone, including her grown daughters. Ronnie finally had enough and packed up to return to Arkansas.  As he was packing his car, he heard the sound of an engine gunning, the only warning he had as Betty Lou tried to run Ronnie over. He dove out of the way in the nick of time, cowering between two parked cars as she sprayed him with gravel.

Less than a year after divorcing Ronnie, Betty married Doyle “Wayne” Baker. Betty Lou had a type and Wayne fit it to a ‘T’. He was tall and tan with dark hair and eyes. His work as a roofer kept him fit. Wayne was a hard worker, but he was also a hard drinker and just seven weeks after they married, Betty Lou and Wayne separated. They divorced, but the divorce was as short-lived as their first marriage. Betty was seriously injured in a car accident. As she recovered, Wayne came back with hat in hand, begging for another chance. They remarried. For Betty Lou, a new start always required a new location. Doyle’s boss owned a place on Cedar Creek Lake and the two had spent a lot of time down there. Betty Lou bought a half-acre lot down in Gun Barrel City and Wayne bought the trailer, a nice spot right on the lake.

The happiness didn’t last. One October evening, Betty Lou confided in a couple of her children that Wayne had slapped her and hit her. Her children immediately jumped to her defense and told her to divorce him, but Betty said she would handle it in her own way. The children were all shocked. They like Wayne. He had been nothing but nice to them and they had never seen him mistreat their mother. But they also knew how she was. Betty Lou could be sweet or she could be mean as a cornered rat snake, depending on her mood. Wayne was known to get in the occasional bar fight. Maybe he really did hit their mother.

Betty and Shirley sat outside with a quickly assembled bonfire. Shirley asked her mother what she was going to do about Wayne. “I’m going to kill him,” Betty Lou  replied. Shocked, Shirley at first thought her mother might be joking, but soon realized she was serious. She desperately tried to convince her mother to get another divorce, but Betty Lou wasn’t having it. Wayne owned the trailer, she explained to Shirley. Betty Lou just owned the land and she wasn’t about to start over again. Wayne had to go and she had been planning it for a while.

Betty Lou pointed out a hole in the backyard area. She had cajoled some e construction workers to dig for her so she could put in a barbecue pit. She told Shirley that Wayne was going to go in that hole and she would build her patio on top. That night, Betty Lou sent Bobby to stay at a friend’s house. The next morning, she called Shirley to say that the deed was done and she needed Shirley’s help to drag Wayne into the hole, but not until the cover of darkness.  Betty Lou also called Wayne’s boss to say Wayne wouldn’t be coming into work. She claimed they’d had a fight and he stormed off to buy cigarettes and hadn’t come back.

Wayne’s boss was shocked. They had a big job planned that day and Wayne was really responsible. That wasn’t like him at all. After three days without his best employee, the boss went by Wayne and Betty Lou’s trailer. He was surprised to see Wayne’s new truck and assumed that meant he had returned. Of course, Wayne wasn’t seen again, but Betty remembered to pick up his last check from the roofing company. Wayne’s boss was sure something was wrong with the situation. A man just doesn’t go off and leave his brand new truck, but he had no proof. Betty Lou filed for divorce claiming desertion. She sold the truck and settled down to live in her trailer, but she was never without a man for long.

Two years later, she would be married again, this time to Jimmy Don Beets.

beets-jimmy-don

Jimmy Don was financially well off. He owned his own house and he had a boat on Cedar Creek Lake. The two met at the Cedar Club, a smoky bar where Betty Lou was a waitress. After a day at work, Jimmy Don liked to stop by for a beer and some company.  He was a native Texan and liked his women curvy, blonde and bubbly and was quickly smitten with the waitress. Betty Lou like her men tall, dark, and financially well off. Jimmy Don fit the bill.

He had his own place at a neighboring lakeside community, Glen Oaks. It was a three bedroom and entirely paid for. Jimmy Don had been smart with his money. He also owned a nineteen foot Glastron fishing boat and tidy life insurance policy. The one downside with his house was that he had no lake access there. He had to use a friend’s dock. Betty Lou’s place was right on the lake, so it was only natural that he moved in with her.

He had a grown son and rented the place to his family. Jamie, the son, and Betty Lou hated one another on sight and the relationship only got worse from there. One day the house mysteriously burned down. It might have been saved, but somehow the water had been turned off. Good thing Jimmy Don had insurance on the place.

It was around this time that Jimmy Don’s niece discovered a new life insurance policy in her uncle’s name. She thought it was odd because he already had a good life insurance policy through the City of Dallas. Also, the policy information all went to Betty Lou’s daughter in Mesquite. She asked her uncle and he was surprised and told her to cancel it. When he confronted Betty Lou, she played it off as a misunderstanding.

Betty Lou was proud of her trailer. She was always neat as a pin, but she kept after Jimmy Don to help her with beautification projects. The first thing she wanted was a shed and she was very particular about where it should be. She wanted it built over a cement block patio. Jimmy Don agreed that a shed would be useful but he didn’t think the location was right. Why, he could see where the land had sunk in a bit under the patio, but she would not be deterred. She wanted a shed and she wanted it right there. Always indulgent, Jimmy Don built the shed just where she had wanted it.

Next Betty Lou wanted a wishing well. Jimmy Don had rebuilt his Glen Oaks house after it burned and he agreed to build the wishing well for her out of leftover brick. With the help of her son Robby, he spent three days building a four-foot-tall wishing well intended to be a planter. It was a dirty, sweaty job under the broiling August sun, but as Jimmy Don reportedly told Robby, “Whatever Betty wants, Betty gets.” (Source: Buried Memories).

Spinning her web like the black widow she was, Betty Lou put the next part of her plan into motion. Once again, she enlisted one of her children as her partner in crime. First she went to Shirley and explained her plan. Shirley was furious. “You promised me would never kill anyone again!” She refused to help. Apparently, she was okay with her mother killing one husband, but a second one? That was a husband too many.

“I’m going to kill, Jimmy Don,” she announced to Robby. He was shocked. Jimmy Don was the nicest of his mother’s husband’s to date, but she brushed aside his concerns. After a lifetime of living hand to mouth, Betty Lou was ready to cash in. Jimmy Don had plenty of assets and life insurance. She instructed Robby to take his brother and stay gone for several hours. He was to come home alone. She would take care of the killing, but petite as she was, she needed help getting the body out of the house.

Betty took her .38 and went into the bedroom where her husband lay sleeping. She shot him twice, once in the chest and again in the head. First she wrapped him in the bedspread and then she pulled a blue sleeping bag out of the closet. It was a mate to the one she and Shirley had wrapped Doyle Wayne Barker in. She called her daughter and told her she had done it. Again she wanted Shirley to come over and help, but Shirley refused. It was late and Shirley was a newlywed. Betty Lou was on her own until Robby came home.

With his help, they took the body out to the freshly complete wishing well and dumped him inside. Shirley did show up very early the next morning, while it was still dark out, and she asked her husband to stay in the car while she went inside. She came out later and only said that her mother and Jimmy Don had been fighting and he had gone off to Dallas, but everything was going to be okay. That didn’t sound like Jimmy Don. He wasn’t the kind to storm off. His truck was still there as well. Her husband knew something was up, but he kept his mouth shut. Where Betty Lou was involved, it was better not to ask questions.

Later that morning, Betty Lou filled her wishing well with peat moss and flowers. She’d had them in the shed, just ready to go. She instructed Robby to get Jimmy Don’s boat and help her stage the drowning. They placed the fishing license, pills, and glasses and then pushed the boat out. The boat was docked at the back of the property away from prying eyes.

Betty Lou was less than happy to hear that she was expected to wait seven years for her missing husband to be declared dead. She wanted Jimmy Don’s money now. She started looking around for ways to get her hands on his money. What followed was a struggle over the estate between Betty Lou and Jimmy Don’s son, Jamie. She put Jamie’s things out of the Glen Oaks house and tried to sell it without his knowledge. He had to get an attorney to take out a restraining order against her to keep her from selling off items of the estate. She still managed to forge Jimmy Don’s name to the boat title and sell it. She also faked a power-of-attorney form giving her the ability to dispose of his possessions. One day she was seen fiddling with the air conditioning unit of the Glen Oaks house. A little while later, the house burned to the ground for the second time. Firefighters determined the cause to arson.

Robby didn’t have his mother’s ability to stay quiet about his crimes. He told his common-law wife and his grandmother. Likewise, Shirley told their sister Phyllis about Mama’s crimes.

Never long without a man, Betty Lou took up with a new one. His name was Ray Bone and he was a bad, bad man. Ray had done time in the penitentiary for murder. He was known to be just plain mean. All of Betty Lou’s kids were a little scared of him. When rumors hit his ears about the husbands in the yard, a couple of Ray’s friends payed some visits to Robby’s common-law wife and other acquaintances. They never spoke about the rumors again.

Insurance companies don’t like to pay up when there are allegations of arson. Betty Lou was furious when they refused and she rushed off to her attorney. First she couldn’t collect the death benefits, then she couldn’t collect the fire insurance. Her attorney was a man named E. Ray Andrews. E. Ray suggested she seek a “Determination of Death” to speed up the process. She filed for a death certificate, swearing before a judge that there were no other heirs. March of 1985, the judge declared Jimmy Don Beets deceased and granted Betty Lou’s request to be named administrator of his estate, clearing the way for her to inherit everything, the life insurance money, the widow’s pension, and the house.

Just before she got her hands on it all, something happened.

Rose
Rick Rose

 

That something was a Henderson County Sheriff’s Deputy named Rick Rose (1947-2015). In March of 1985, a jail informant was brought to his attention. This informant was charged with a drug case, but he had information to trade. Rose was skeptical. It would have to be something good. The informant offered to tell him who had killed Jimmy Don Beets. Well, that had Rose’s attention. It seems Ray Bone hadn’t been the only man in Betty Lou’s life. She’d had a one-night stand with a man while drunk out of her mind and blabbed about the dead husband in her wishing well. She even told the man that she had her husband build the wishing well before she killed them and that her son helped her dispose of the body.

Ray Bone’s attempt to put a lid on the rumors had failed. Even a conspiracy of two can fail. Shirley had talked to her sister Phyllis. Phyllis talked to a friend and that friend called Crime Stoppers. Rick Rose was now hearing the same story from multiple sources.

Meanwhile, Jamie had gotten wind of his step-mother’s antics. He filed a protest to have the “Determination of Death” set aside for a new trial because she had failed to include all the heirs. Betty Lou’s windfall would be delayed just a tiny bit longer.

Police were narrowing in on Betty Lou, but just before they could serve a search warrant for her trailer, it burned. Like the house on Glen Oaks, this was arson. Undeterred, police went out the next day to search the property. They tipped the wishing well over and dug it out. Inside was the blue sleeping bag containing the mortal remains of Jimmy Don Beets.

 

The trailer was burned, but not entirely. Police recovered 19 guns, including a .38. There were matching  projectiles from a .38 located inside the sleeping bag. Taking down the shed was a tougher prospect but finally they were able to get underneath and there they discovered yet another blue sleeping bag, with yet another husband. Doyle Wayne Barker was no longer missing.

 

Barker's resting place (2)
Doyle Wayne Barker’s grave; Photo from Henderson County Sheriff’s Department

 

An arrest warrant was issued for Betty Lou Beets. Surprisingly, a tip about her leaving town came from Ray Bone. He called Rose to let him know they were leaving his house in Mansfield. He told them exactly where they would be when. Mansfield Police Department was called in. They set up on a bridge and swooped in. Inside the truck were numerous guns, ammo, and Betty Lou’s clothing and jewelry.

The trial itself was a circus. Black widows make for great press and Betty Lou was blonde and pretty. Robby and Shirley both testified against her. Incredibly, she blamed them for the murders. She claimed she’d had nothing to do with the murders. Her story–at that time–was that Jimmy Don was very drunk. He and Robby started fighting and she heard the shot from the bedroom.  She testified that she had helped her son hide the body in the wishing well, but she denied knowing that Wayne was also buried on the property.

The jury didn’t buy it. They convicted Betty Lou of murder for remuneration, that is for killing for financial gain, and sentenced her to death. Throughout the numerous appeals, Betty Lou would tell many different stories. She became “born again” and bonded with her notorious cellmates including  pick-axe killer, Karla Faye Tucker and Darlie Routier.

In 1990, an execution date was set. Betty Lou’s attorneys peppered appellate courts with complaints. They claimed she was incompetent at the time of trial. They claimed she’d had a series of head injuries which caused her behavior. They claimed her father sexually abused her–the first time she had ever made such a claim–and that the memories had been repressed until now. They claimed all of her husbands had brutalized her, beating and raping her daily. Experts hired by the defense diagnosed her as suffering from Batter Woman’s Syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, two things which were very much in the news at the time.

Media picked up the story and somehow the woman who had never admitted her crimes was suddenly a woman who desperately shot her husband in the midst of a beating. There was never any evidence to support this. One picture surfaced showing Betty Lou with a black eye and a bruise on her chin. Her hair and appearance likely place this as from the time she was married to Billy Lane who was known to have struck Betty Lou. She now said “What my husbands began, the State is going to finish.”

Betty Lou in Prison
photos from deathpenaltyinfo.org

 

You couldn’t escape the interviews. She was all over the media. In her pictures, she looked frail or elderly, but the steel was still there. The stories became more and more elaborate. She claimed to have been raped, dragged out in a field, strangled and left to die. She was even featured on Good Morning America.

Her appeals finally ran out. February 24, 2000 Betty Lou Beets was taken to Huntsville, Texas for her date with needle. Protesters stood outside, crying and holding up that picture of Betty Lou with the black eye. She had no final words.

The Texas Council on Family Violence declared:

 

“Beet’s life is a chronicle of virtually uninterrupted physical, sexual and emotional abuse. She was severely abused as a child and was battered by multiple husbands. Beets suffers from severe learning disabilities and a hearing impairment she has had since early childhood. She also suffers from organic brain damage caused by repeated blows at the hands of abusive men.”

 

The Council has done good work and I know they had the best intentions, but their pity was misplaced. Men who kill multiple women get called serial killers. Women get called Black Widows, but don’t let the cute moniker fool you. She may have only killed two husbands, but not for lack of trying. I’ve no doubt that her hard life shaped the woman she became, but many people have rough lives. They don’t think that entitles them to murder other people for personal gain. Betty Lou Beets learned early on that anything she wanted in the world, she would have to take. She took that to extremes and sadly Doyle Wayne Barker and Jimmy Don Beets paid the price.

 

 

SOURCE NOTES:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Lou_Beets
https://www.thoughtco.com/the-crimes-of-betty-lou-beets-971313
http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/beets616.htm
Beets v. State, 767 S.W.2d 711 (Tex.Cr.App. 1987) (Direct Appeal). https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/2451426/beets-v-state/
Beets v. Scott, 65 F.3d 1258 (5th Cir. 1995) (Habeas) . https://www.casemine.com/judgement/us/5914bd42add7b049347a1423

Beets v. Collins, 986 F.2d 1478 (5th Cir. 1993) (Habeas). http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-5th-circuit/1321322.html
http://murderpedia.org/female.B/b/beets-betty-lou-photos.htm
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/texas-executes-betty-lou-beets/

Betty Lou Beets


https://krazykillers.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/black-widow-betty-beets-begged-bush-for-benevolence/
https://krazykillers.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/black-widow-betty-beets-begged-bush-for-benevolence/
https://www.bing.com/search?q=betty+beets+family+photos&FO
https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Texas+Betty+Lou+Beets&&view=detail&mid=0AFA4CE7BDDF44503F940AFA4CE7BDDF44503F94&FOR
Buried Memories, by Irene Pence, 2008, Penguin Random House

http://maamodt.asp.radford.edu/Psyc%20405/serial%20killers/Beets,%20Betty%20Lou%20_spring%202007_.pdf

 

 

Picture Perfect: John Battaglia

Trigger warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of domestic violence and the deaths of children.


To the outside world, Mary Jean Pearle was living the perfect life. Her charming, handsome husband of seven years made a good living as a CPA. She was an antique dealer living in one the wealthiest enclaves in Texas with two beautiful daughters. But behind the walls of her fashionable Highland Park home, her life was turning into a private hell.

She had noticed flashes of John Battaglia’s temper early in the relationship. He could be fun and giving, but those sparks of temper worried Mary Jean. Battaglia became verbally abusive. She was encouraged to “work it out” by well-meaning family and friends. How could she throw away her perfect family?

Mary Jean tried harder. She suggested counselling, but Battaglia refused. The vicious verbal tirades lasted longer and longer, until he would rant at her for up to 20 minutes, calling her every name in the book.In an interview with Deborah Roberts of ABC News Mary Jean detailed the incident that convinced her to leave.

“He got real close, and his eyes were bulging out, and veins, and the whole thing, and he said ‘I’ll knock your fucking head off, bitch…And I said, ‘John you need to step back.’ And he got about an inch closer. So he’s about an inch from my face and he screamed it again at me, and so I stood up and I turned to the bathroom, and I walked in there, picked up the phone, called 911.”

She left. But as victims of domestic violence know, leaving doesn’t make you safer. Statistics show that leaving is actually the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship. The intensity of the assaults ramps up as does the stalking and controlling behavior. 60% of dating violence and a quarter of all murders of women occur after the abused partner has left.

Leaving didn’t protect Mary Jean Pearle. Christmas 1999, Battaglia arrived to visit with the girls. Although the girls had witnessed the abuse their father heaped on their mother, he had never raised a hand to the girls and had full visitation. At some point during that Christmas day, Battaglia became angry. Pearle would later recall, “I saw him coming, and so I just grabbed my head and I fell onto Liberty’s mattress, and I covered my head. He was just pounding on me as hard as a man can pound on, on the back of my head. And I’m screaming ‘Call 911! Call 911!’”

He beat Mary Jean with his fists, pulled her hair, threw her to the floor and kicked her. All the while, the girls were crying and begging him to stop. Although she was black and blue, Mary Jean refused to let paramedics take her to the hospital. She insisted on cooking Christmas dinner for the family and trying to pretend everything was okay.

Battaglia plead guilty to Assault Causing Bodily Injury, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. He was placed on two years’ probation. He was forbidden to have contact with Mary Jean and for 30 days he was not allowed to visit the girls. Then the visitations were resumed.

Family

Mary Jean felt protected. She still worried Battaglia might harm her but “I really thought it was only directed at me. I never thought he’d hurt the children.”  In fact, a study of ‘intimate partner homicides’ found that 20% of the victims were not the abused partners themselves but other family members, neighbors, friends, or first responders. Abusers often use children as a means to control their partners, treating them as hostages to the adult drama.

At the time she married John Battaglia, Mary Jean was unaware of his dark past. She knew he had been married before. He only told Mary Jean that there had been ‘an argument’ between him and his prior wife, but the truth was so much worse. Battaglia was extremely abusive and violent with his first wife, Michelle.
battaglia-001

Once, while arguing in the car with Michelle, he tried to get at a gun. He was violent with her son from a previous marriage and even hit Michelle while she was holding their infant daughter, Kristy, causing her to drop the baby. After she left him, he stalked her. He made false credit reports. He called her employer and showed up at her work. He tapped her phone. He showed up at her home, banging on doors and windows in spite of a protective order forbidding him to be there. Although Michelle made reports, there weren’t stalking laws at the time and there was little the police could or would do.

One night, she woke with him standing over her, knife in hand, wanting to have sex. She refused and to her relief, he left. January 1987, He chased her on the highway and tried to force her car off the road.

He called one of the partners at the law firm where Michelle was an attorney and claimed she was “having an affair with another partner and he would go public if she didn’t drop the charges.” The law firm took steps to make sure he didn’t have access to their office. He went to jail and for a while, he seemed calmer. But that was a false image. While picking up Kristy, he again assaulted Michelle and she again pressed charges.

He showed up one day as she was picking her son up from elementary school. He told her that “if he was going to jail, might as well be worth it.” He beat her unconscious, dislocated her jaw and broke her nose. Then he threatened to do the same to her seven year old son. Michelle left the state to escape him.
When Easter of 2001 rolled around, Faith Battaglia was 9 and Liberty Battaglia was six. Faith, who resembled her father loved playing soccer and the violin. Liberty, who favored Mary Jean in appearance, wanted to be a ballerina.

girls
Mary Jean sent an Easter gift to Kristy, the daughter from Battaglia’s first marriage. Battaglia was livid. He left a message on her answering machine. “Mary Jean, the next time you give my daughter $50 why don’t you tell her how you screwed her out of her college fund, you fucking pig. How does that feel, pig?” Contacting her was a violation of his probation. In addition, Battaglia had failed a drug test. A warrant was issued and on May 2, 2001, he was told by a police officer that he needed to turn himself in. It was the day of his scheduled visitation.

The girls didn’t want to go. While making plans over the phone, Battaglia told the girls they weren’t going out to dinner. He told them he was too sad to eat because he was going to jail. Liberty hid under the bed, but Mary Jean assured her it would be okay. To keep Battaglia away from her house, they always met at neutral locations to exchange the children. Mary Jean took her daughters to a local shopping center, kissed them and sent them off with their father for the last time.

Sometime during that day, Battaglia called Michelle, his ex-wife and left a message on her phone that Mary Jean should lose her girls.

That evening, Battaglia called Mary Jean’s mother to tell her that the girls wanted to talk to Mary Jean. When she got the message from her mother, Mary Jean called him. He put Faith on the phoned and ordered her to “Ask her.”
Faith asked “Mommy, why do you want Daddy to go to jail?”

She told Battaglia not to do that to the girls. Then she heard Faith screaming, “No Daddy. No Daddy. Please don’t do it.”

Gunshots.

Silence.

She immediately called the police who broke in and found the girls in a pool of blood. Faith was shot three times and Liberty, four. Both girls had been shot in the back, severing their spines and rendering them helpless for the fatal shot, a contact gunshot to the back of the head. Detectives took seven guns from the home that night because they didn’t know which weapon had been used to kill the girls.

Battaglia had murdered his daughters and then left the scene. He went to a bar to use the phone. From there, he left a message on Mary Jean’s answering machine: “Goodnight my little babies. I hope you’re resting in a different place. I love you, and I wish that you had nothing to do with your mother. She was evil and vicious, and stupid. You will be free of her. I love you very dearly. You were brave girls. Very brave. Liberty, you were oh so brave. I love you so much. Bye.”

He then went to a tattoo parlor to memorialize his girls with two roses tattooed on his upper left arm, one for each girl. When he left the parlor, four officers moved in to arrest him. There was a loaded gun in the truck and he fought the officers.

 

At trial, the jury deliberated for 19 minutes before convicting Battaglia. He blamed the murders on being bi-polar, but after the jury heard from his first wife and learned about his history of violence, he was sentenced to death almost exactly one year from the death of his girls. His father continued to support him. Mary Jean told him she hoped he “burned in hell.”

But that was 2002. Today, Liberty would be 22 and Faith would be 25 if only they had a chance to be something more than an object used to hurt their mother.

Battaglia jail

Battaglia still sits on death row. He has continually fought his conviction and his sentence. He has had an execution date set multiple times and each time has been able to earn a stay to determine if he is competent enough to be executed.
He is set for execution February 1, 2018.

If you are in an abusive situation, there is help. Call 1-877-701-SAFE (7233) for help. The crisis line is answered 24 hours a day. Laws have changed an there is more we can do than ever before. If you want to help, go to Safehaven.org and click the donate button. 

 

Ripples in a Pond: The White Rock Lake Machete Murder

 

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A pebble thrown into a still pond does not sink without any trace. It causes a circular ripple with an expanding radius. As anyone who has faced this as part of a math quiz can tell you, the greater the mass of the rock, the more water displaced and the bigger the radius will grow. A murder is the same, a single act that spreads its zone of impact in an ever widening ripple. Unlike that still pond, those touched will never be the same again.

October 12, 2015 started like any other Monday for Dave Stevens. Dave had been a passionate runner since he was a child and had completed 11 marathons. He was training for the Dallas Marathon just a few weeks away. Sometimes he ran with Patti, but on this day he was alone.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Dave ran 10 miles on the White Rock Creek Trail, part of the Dallas Trail System that winds through neighborhoods and parks including Valley View, Anderson Bonner, Orbiter, and Harry Moss. The trail is a favorite of runners and bikers because it’s not overly crowded and fairly flat.

He set off that day at 7 am, just before the sun would rise. He parked at the Valley View trail entrance and set off. Everything was as it always was on his morning run, until Dave passed through Harry Moss Park, and into the dark place underneath the Walnut Hill overpass.

Thomas Linze Johnson was also in a dark place.

Just three years earlier, Johnson’s future had seemed bright. He was a star running back at Dallas Skyline High School. Intensely recruited, ESPN ranked Johnson as the number three receiver in the entire nation. He initially committed to Texas, but changed his commitment to Texas A&M. In 2012, he played ten games for the Aggies, catching 30 balls for 339 yards.

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On November 10, 2012, 15th ranked A&M defeated Number 1 ranked Alabama. Johnson caught several passes from eventual Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel (aka Johnny Football). But after that game, instead of savoring the triumphant moment, he became very upset.
According to his college roommate, Johnson had become reclusive, spending hours alone reading his Bible and smoking marijuana. His father says Johnson admitted smoking K2, a potent synthetic marijuana. Others would say he had become obsessed with the movie The Book of Eli and compared himself to Denzel Washington’s character, a nomad in a post-apocalyptic world who hears a voice giving him an important task to complete.

The next day he missed practice. When he missed a second practice, coaches began looking for him and contacted his mother who had no idea where he was. For three days his whereabouts were a mystery until he was found walking down a road back in Dallas. He had simply walked away from college and football, carrying a knapsack of Bibles and an engagement ring he had bought for his girlfriend. He never went back.
Johnson spent three days in a court ordered psychiatric facility where there was finally a clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia. Upon release, he refused all treatment. Over the next two years of Johnson’s life, he struggled with both mental health and substance abuse. His family was at a loss for how to help him when he became delusional and resistant to treatment.

According to a September 22, 2016 ESPN article, his relationship with his mother proved problematic. She could be both a help and a hindrance to him getting the help he needed. His mother rejected the diagnosis saying to ESPN reporters “they threw around schizophrenia. I don’t know. I don’t know much about it…I think it was something else going on that was mind-altering. In some form or fashion, his mind had been altered.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), schizophrenia generally starts anywhere between the ages of 16 to 30 years old, but the most common time for men is late adolescence to early adult hood. When people think of schizophrenia, they think of the most obvious and dramatic symptoms such hallucinations and delusions, but schizophrenia is so much more. It’s an entire cornucopia of symptoms including thought disorders and cognitive disorders.
People with schizophrenia often display what is called “flat affect” meaning a lack of facial expression and vocal tone. You can definitely see this in pictures of Thomas Johnson after the onset of his illness. He doesn’t even face the camera, just staring off at nothing. In fact, those suffering from schizophrenia often experience diminished enjoyment in things. They have difficulty beginning and finishing normal tasks. They develop trouble focusing and an inability to pay attention. Memory and decision making can be severely impacted. And yes, there are often the hallucinations and delusions, the symptoms everyone knows, the symptoms that can lead to a complete break from reality.

In 2014, Johnson broke into his aunt’s home, stole money and her minivan. He drove down to College Station with the intention of reclaiming is old life. He mumbled to himself and walked in circles until he was asked to leave. His aunt, who said he had been causing problems for some time, pressed charges, although she later agreed to drop them if he completed a diversion program. Johnson continued having troubles, violating the rules of the program, and was placed on probation. He wasn’t compliant with his probation and a motion to revoke was filed by prosecutors for numerous violations including smoking pot.

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There were people who tried to help Johnson, people who loved him. He lived with a family from his church for a while, but walked away from them just before meeting with a psychiatrist. Everyone in the family seems to have a story to tell about Johnson and the voices in his head. Everyone wanted to help him be better, but either they were in denial or didn’t know how or their efforts were met with too much resistance. Nothing seemed to halt his downward spiral and by October 10, 2015, Johnson was on the verge of being homeless and very angry. He had cursed at his mother and she told him that if he was going to treat her that way, he needed to get out, so he took a knife, and he left.
October 12th, at 7:32 a.m., a man called 911 from the White Rock Creek Trail. He reported seeing a “large crazed man” wearing a hoodie by the tennis courts. Something about Johnson made this witness nervous enough that he took out his pepper spray, just in case. He said during the call that Johnson was following a jogger who noticed and began running faster.
At 7:55, a bike rider, identified by NBC Dallas-Fort Worth only as “Brandon,” came upon a scene which is the stuff of nightmares. He saw a man who looked like he was hacking at the ground, almost like he was chopping wood, but as Brandon got closer he could tell that the man had a machete and what he was hitting was a person, face down on the ground. He saw the man strike six or seven blows.
“It was apparent to me by the time I got close that there was nothing that could be done for that person. I heard a little bit of a yell from behind. I assume it was the guy with the machete yelling to stop. I just kept going and I just kept going.”
Johnson, then covered in blood, left the machete in Dave Stevens head and calmly walked to the equestrian center. He saw a man named Jason Hagen there and asked to borrow his phone which he used to place a chilling 911 call. “There’s a man laying down with a sword in his head.”
He went back to wait for the police by Dave Steven’s body. He told the first officer who arrived, “I just committed capital murder.” The officer asked Johnson what he meant and he replied, “It’s like when you don’t wake up.”

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The shocking news of a murder on the White Rock Creek Trail broke almost immediately, but Dave didn’t run carrying his wallet or a cell phone and there are so many places along the trail to park a car. No one knew which car was his. His face was almost obliterated and unrecognizable. Police had no idea who he was.
Patti Stevens knew something was wrong when her husband didn’t come home from his job as an engineer at GE, but she didn’t listen to the news. She started looking for Dave and even drove to the lake where his SUV was parked and checked the lots where he typically parked until she found the SUV. Then she started calling the police. It was almost a full day before the connection was made and her worst nightmare was realized.
Patti and Dave met at Michigan State and by all accounts it was one of those storybook romances. They were best friends. Soulmates. In 1989 they moved to Dallas and bought their dream home. Friends and family describe Dave as someone who was competitive within himself, but gentle, thoughtful, polite. A guy with a dry sense of humor. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Patti described her husband as a “sweet” man who gave her “everything I wanted.” She told the reporter “I’ll just say, Dave was the love of my life. And I’m lost without him.”
Patti kept it together through the funeral. Six days after she drove family to the airport, her neighbors became concerned when they didn’t see her. Police finally broke into the house. They found Patti’s body on the floor of the garage, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. She had left pictures of her and Dave on her kitchen table and a scrawled note. The voices in Thomas Johnson’s head had claimed another victim.
Sadly, there is no satisfaction, no tidy resolution in this case. Dave and Patti Stevens—two ordinary people with no connection to the darkness inside Thomas Johnson’s head—are dead thanks to a chance meeting. Thomas Johnson is also beyond reach. In April 2016, Johnson was found incompetent to stand trial. He has remained that way in spite of treatment and has been housed in a mental health care facility.
This brief burst of violence has left continuing ripples. Family and friends are left to struggle with the questions of what might have been, what they might have done. If only someone had realized the tragic outcome of Johnson’s downward spiral. If only someone had recognized Patti’s despair and hopelessness. The church family who welcomed Johnson into their home have tried to visit him repeatedly, only to be turned away. He has refused to see anyone, not even his court appointed lawyer. He won’t take the hands stretching towards him. He remains locked in his mind which is more of a prison than bars could ever be. Biology has already handed Thomas Johnson a life sentence.
And let’s not forget the others marked by this day, random strangers caught in the ripples. Brandon who will never be able forget the horror of seeing a man with a machete. That first 911 caller who was afraid enough to take out his pepper spray. Jason Hagen who was approached by a bloody man demanding use of his phone. Let’s not forget those first responders, forced to bear witness to the worst humanity has to offer.

Let’s not forget the secondary responders, the prosecutors, mental health professionals, jurors, people forced to face the crime scene photos and deal with wreckage left behind.
Unlike so many murders, this story isn’t about good and evil. There are no villains or heroes in this tale. Just a very broken man with a machete who in a matter of minutes sent out ripples into the world that are still spreading.

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 If you have a loved one, family or friend, experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek help. There are so many national and local resources available that take mere minutes to locate. If you are in the DFW area, you can reach MHMR by calling or texting 817-335-3022 or 1-800-866-2465 (Toll free) or 817-569-4488 (TTY-TDD number for Hearing Impaired. Help is available 24/7. You’re not alone.