The Hunting Grounds: Part One, A Stranger in the Dark

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.

CBD

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.

Hulen Place apts.png

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.

Woodstone AptsConcerned 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.

Manny Reyes
Retired Fort Worth Homicide Detective Manny Reyes

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.

 

SOURCE NOTES:

http://www.dallasobserver.com/news/caught-cold-6405623

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.B/b/brown-curtis-don.htm

Additional information can be obtained from Star-Telegram archives at the Fort Worth Public Library and through Open Records requests for primary sources.

 

 

 

 

The Hunting Grounds: A Preview

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.

vtwi.org
Fort Worth Skyline in background, circa 1984; Photo credit: VTWI.org

 

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.”

 

Then
Curtis Don Brown, AKA “Bandit” coming May 14th.

 

SOURCE NOTES:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/july-marks-the-25th-anniversary-of-the-first-use-of-dna-evidence-to-convict-a-killer-10509877/

https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1917&dat=19890221&id=cXIhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=fogFAAAAIBAJ&pg=1056,5467847&hl=en

 

 

 

 

Childhood Interrupted: The Shakeisha Lloyd Story

The adults in Shakeisha Lloyd’s brief life failed her. It’s not that they didn’t love her. She was very loved. It’s not that they weren’t doing their best. They tried. But the truth is that they utterly failed to protect her resulting in her death at the age of ten, just a day after she completed 4th grade. Surviving family members remember her as a sweet, cheerful little girl who loved singing.

 

Shakeisha lived with her extended family in the historic Stop Six neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas. Stop Six is primarily an African-American community that was once the sixth stop on the Northern Texas Traction Company, a trolley line that ran between Fort Worth and Dallas. They’re best known as the home of the Dunbar Wildcats and their multiple basketball state championships under the guidance of legendary coach Robert Hughes. If she had survived, Shakeisha would have gone to school there. Instead, her mother met a man named Edward Lewis Lagrone.

Like so many inner city, blue collar communities, Stop Six was ravaged by drugs and gangs in the 80s and 90s like they were natural disasters that laid waste to families and the infrastructure. In 1985, Shakeisha’ s mother began dating Lagrone. Allegedly he made a living as a cook, but everyone knew Lagrone’s real job was as the local drug dealer. Crack had ferocious grip on Stop Six and Lagrone was deep in the culture. Pamela Lloyd only dated Lagrone for six months, but that was enough for him to ingratiate himself to the family. He would come by to visit with the children.

lagrone2
Edward Lewis Lagrone

No one questioned why a grown man would be so invested in the children of a woman he briefly dated. As for Pamela, she was struggling with her own addiction to crack and Lagrone was her supplier. She was willing to ignore everything else to keep him closer. There were eight people living in Shakeisha’s house. She had a older brother, Charles, a baby sister, her mother, her uncle Dempsey, and two elderly great aunts, seventy-six-year-old Carolina “Caola” Lloyd and eighty-three-year-old Zenobia Anderson. Other family members were frequently there. Shakeisha was especially close to another great aunt and uncle, Beverly and Billy Lloyd. Their daughter Kendra was the exact same age as Shakeisha. Kendra was her cousin and her best friend in the world.

In spite of there being so many people around, we know Lagrone had plenty of alone time with little Shakeisha. In 1991, Pamela noticed physical changes in her daughter that concerned her. She was gaining weight and her breasts were growing. One night after her bath, Shakeisha told Pamela, “Mommy, something is moving around inside of me.” Pamela took her daughter to the hospital for an examination and learned that her 10 year child was 17 weeks pregnant.

Shakeisha admitted to her mother that Lagrone had been raping her for two years and that he said he would kill her if she told. She could remember nine different times she had been raped by Lagrone, but it’s hard to know how much occurred. Child predators spend time getting close to a child and gaining their trust. The goal is to have access, but to also ensure that the child doesn’t tell. The process of gradually escalating intimacy and control is called “grooming” and frequently includes lavishing attention on lonely children.

The predator starts out with little things, kissing or cuddling before moving into fondling and ultimately full intercourse. Threats and guilt are used to maintain control of the child. The child victims are often conflicted. How can someone make them feel so good and yet so bad at the same time? They believe from all the attention that this person must love them. If they tell about the bad parts, they’re harming this person who loves them. As with any confession, the longer they silent, the harder it becomes to tell. They become afraid that no one will believe them.  Shakeisha had told no one. Not even her cousin.

Pamela wanted to do the right thing. She reported him to the police. But she also contacted Lagrone. At first he denied “messing with” Shakeisha and hung up on her. But later he called back and apologized. He said he was sorry for what he had done and that he would take care of the baby. She told him she was pressing charges.

The next day, she instructed Shakeisha to call Lagrone’s beeper, fearing that he might not call her back, but he would call Shakeisha. He did call back and she told him Shakeisha need to have an abortion which would cost $895. He said he would pay.
May 29th was the end of the school year. Shakeisha should have been looking forward to the summer and 5th grade. She should have been riding her bike or playing with Barbies. She should have been giggling with Kendra and dancing around singing as she loved to do. Instead, her mother was negotiating with Shakeisha’s rapist to pay for her abortion. Lagrone offered Pamela $1,000 to pay for the abortion and another $500 just for her. All she had to do was withdraw her complaint. He told her he would be by on Thursday with the money.

Pamela didn’t withdraw the complaint. She was trying to do the right thing by her daughter. She had brought this man into their lives and allowed him access to her children. She was going to protect her daughter now. But communicating with Lagrone would prove a fatal mistake. She should have known better. She really should have.

Lagrone was more than just a drug dealer. He had already been to prison before. Lagrone was already a convicted murderer.

Lagrone1

On October 6, 1976, Lagrone shot and killed a man named Michael Anthony Jones in a dispute. He was sentenced to 20 years. While on parole for this offense, he began dating Pamela. In 1990, he has several pending arrests for dealing drugs and was facing more prison time. He was also under investigation for a double homicide committed in December of 1990. Someone broke into an apartment with a shotgun and killed a Clifton Demerson, 39 and Mary Demerson Daniel, 40. According to police, a note in Mary’s possession implicated Lagrone.

This was the man Pamela let into the lives of her family, her vulnerable children and fragile elderly women. She wasn’t bothered by Lagrone being on parole. At the time, she was newly paroled herself after serving time for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. She was deep into her addiction. Her uncle Billy Lloyd warned her about Lagrone. Everyone knew he was a dangerous man. But Pamela just knew that he brought her drugs. She would later comment that she thought he was great with children because he bought lots of presents to the children of the people he sold drugs to. He lavished attention and gifts on the kids of parents whose minds were clouded with drugs.

Although he was a convicted murderer who had threatened to kill the child victim of his new sexual assault charge, Lagrone hadn’t yet been arrested. Arlington Police Department were aware he lived in their city and had the warrant, but they just hadn’t gotten around to it yet citing “a heavy caseload.”

After the conversation where Pamela refused to drop the charges, Lagrone had his new girlfriend Anetta Daniel go with him to the Winchester Gun Store. He couldn’t legally buy a gun, but he gave her the money to purchase a double-barrel, pistol-grip, slide-action Winchester shotgun. She brought the gun out to him and he put it in the trunk of his car.

The next day was May 30, 1991. Pamela woke up around 4:00 am and went to get a drink of water. She was startled by a banging on the door demanding to be let in. Shakeisha’s brother later said he recognized the voice and begged him not to answer the door, but Dempsey Lloyd opened the door to find Lagrone standing there. Dempsey asked Lagrone what he wanted at that hour. In response, Lagrone shot him. Dempsey grappled with Lagrone for the shotgun, but he was weakening quickly.

Lagrone wrestled the shotgun away and went into the first bedroom. There he found Caola Lloyd. Caola was suffering from terminal cancer and was blind and mostly deaf. Lagrone executed the elderly woman with a single shot.

From there he went into the kitchen where he found Zenobia Andersons washing out some clothing. He also executed her with a single shot.

“Run, Mama” Shakeisha cried out. She and Charles were also running for cover, but first Shakeisha stopped to hide her 19 month old baby sister. This altruistic act probably cost her life as Lagrone caught up with her. Ten year-old Shakeisha threw up her hands to shield herself. When Lagrone shot, the bullet traveled through her hands, dismembering fingers and slammed into her cheek, exiting her jaw on the opposite side. He then placed the gun to the back of her neck and pulled the trigger a second time.

On the way out, he leveled the gun again at Dempsey. Dempsey begged for his life, but Lagrone shot him again anyway. Incredibly, Dempsey survived to identify Lagrone as the shooter. Pamela and Charles would also identify him. He was arrested almost immediately. Although there were three living victims and extensive forensics, Lagrone would deny he was the shooter. He also denied being the man who had impregnated Shakeisha, but unlike Lagrone, DNA doesn’t lie. He was the father.

 

At trial, Lagrone put a witness who testified that another person was bragging about the murder. Lagrone’s grown son Erik Williams, AKA Omar Anderson. His son wasn’t the most credible witness, having shot three men in three incidents, one of whom had died. That’s right. Just five months after the Lloyd family murders, Lagrone’s son also killed a man. At the time he testified for his father, he was a known gang member and drug dealer who was under indictment for murder. The jury rejected his testimony in favor of more credible evidence.

After the conviction, the jury heard more about Lagrone’s past including the drug dealing and the previous murder. They also heard testimony from two sisters, both aged fifteen at the time who had been abducted at gunpoint by Lagrone who sexually assaulted and terrorized them in 1986. He threatened them before releasing them and they didn’t tell until he safely behind bars.

The jury sentenced Lagrone to death in just 25 minutes. The violence and drugs didn’t stop there. They continued stalking this community and this family. Lagrone’s son is now serving a life sentence for the murder he was convicted of. Pamela’s addiction was too big to ignore. After Shakeisha’s murder, it only increased. She married the father of her baby girl, but he was also a violent man. In 1997 she shot and killed her husband Gene Tutt. She said it was self-defense. A plea agreement of five years was agreed on in 1999. This meant she was incarcerated on February 12, 2004, date Edward Lewis Lagrone was finally set for execution.

Charles also couldn’t be there. He, too, had fallen prey to the scourge of drugs, dying of an overdose at the age of 22. Shakeisha’s beloved aunt and uncle Beverly and Billy attended the execution as did Kendra, now 24. Lagrone was defiant to the end, refusing to admit responsibility and refusing to apologize. Kendra wept bitterly in front of reporters. She said she didn’t want to hate another person, but he had raped and killed her best friend. She was disappointed that he couldn’t at least apologize. Her father, Billy expressed relief that Lagrone would never again harm another person.
Pamela said before her release that she now accepted responsibility for her role and was ready for a change. She was ready to step away from drugs and men who had dragged her down. Upon release, she left the state and now resides in Missouri. I hope she has found her way.

When I look at the picture of Shakeisha, I’m filled with rage. She deserved better from the adults in her life. Her face is so innocent, so joyous. What a waste of a sweet, precious life.

Source Notes: The following are all sources I have used in this article, particularly murderpedia and clarkprosecutor, both of which list numerous other sources they relied on.

http://murderpedia.org/male.L/l1/lagrone-edward-lewis.htm
http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/lagrone896.htm
http://txexecutions.org/reports/318.asp
http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/02/02-10976.0.wpd.pdf
https://texasattorneygeneral.gov/oagnews/release.php?id=366
https://groups.google.com/forum/#!msg/alt.thebird.copwatch/Z1WrIvhIvB0/AZVH8Di2b90J
http://caselaw.findlaw.com/tx-court-of-criminal-appeals/1323216.html
https://www.myplainview.com/news/article/Convicted-killer-of-10-year-old-he-impregnated-8770534.php

Deadly Affection: The Suzanne Parsons Story

With the purity of hindsight, the warning signs are easy to see. John St. Angelo was always going to kill one of his wives. He was a loaded weapon, just waiting to go off, and when he finally did explode, all his rage and fury was directed at the newest ex-Mrs. St. Angelo, Suzanne Parsons. As prosecutor Allenna Bangs would later say, “She wanted to leave that house, and John St. Angelo didn’t want her to. But she did leave that house and didn’t come back. That was the beginning of the end for Suzanne Parsons. You just don’t leave a man like John St. Angelo until he’s ready for you to go.”

john-st-angelo

St. Angelo and Suzanne married in Florida in 2010. They had known each other for many years, but the romance was new. It was the third marriage for St. Angelo and the second for Suzanne. At first, everything was golden. Both were extremely successful, professional people and business owners. St. Angelo’s children from his second marriage often lived with them, something that added stress into the relationship. Another source of stress was St. Angelo’s explosive temper.

That temper had gotten him into trouble before. In 1986, while living in Lebanon, New Hampshire, St. Angelo was arrested and charged for assaulting a man and damaging his vehicle. The man’s crime was he had previously dated St. Angelo’s new wife. This wife (whom I have decided not to name because everyone deserves some privacy) was in the vehicle with St. Angelo when he spotted the ex-boyfriend outside a fast food place. The man spotted St. Angelo heading for him and tried to leave, which enraged St. Angelo. He wanted a confrontation so he kicked and damaged the man’s door until he got him to open it. Other people saw this and called the police. The wife insisted she didn’t see anything. Although she never filed a complaint, people who were close to her have said they were alarmed by his controlling ways and suspected things were not good. The couple divorced and St. Angelo soon had a new woman in his life.

I am going to refer to this second wife as “K” rather than her name. K suffered such extreme abuse at the hands of St. Angelo that it greatly exacerbated her mental health issues. She has repeatedly been hospitalized for these issues and deserves some peace. In 1990, K and St. Angelo were both living in Lebanon, NH. Neighbors heard a violent assault and called the police. When the police arrived, they found St. Angelo gone and K with a bleeding face.

She admitted to police that “every day I pray not to get hit,” but at the same time, she cried, refusing to tell police the name of her boyfriend. He was arrested anyway and ordered to stay away from her, but repeatedly violated that. He insisted he “accidentally” struck her face with his watch. He told the police that he just had a bad temper. While he minimized his actions, the officer noted in his report that St. Angelo was “extremely argumentative.” He was ordered to join a counselling program. Not that it helped much. St. Angelo didn’t want to be helped. He just wanted what he wanted.

The happy times for John St. Angelo and Suzanne Parsons wouldn’t last very long. His business floundered and when K had another breakdown, the kids were added into the mix. In an effort to save their new marriage and make a fresh start, they moved to the DFW area in 2010 to be closer to Suzanne’s family.

suzanne-parsons

Abusers like to keep their victims away from support and their family and this move backfired on St. Angelo. He continued to bleed money. Suzanne thrived in the Fort Worth Real Estate market. She had her realtor’s license for 8 years and her warm, friendly personality made her a favorite at the ReMax on Heritage Trace in Fort Worth. Suzanne loved living near her family, but the happier she became, the angrier and more bitter St. Angelo became. She finally had enough and the couple separated, although she continued seeing her husband. May of 2013, they took a trip to Mexico and that is where things went horribly wrong.

After an evening of drinking, St. Angelo became angry and called Suzanne “a spoiled whore.” He began punching her. “Where are your brothers now, bitch? No one can save you here.” He then strangled her until she lost consciousness. Police were called to restrain him. When Suzanne arrived back in the airport, her daughter Jessica hardly recognized her mother. One eye was purple and swollen shut. She had severe bruising to the sides of her neck and petechial hemorrhaging on her face. Petechiae are tiny blood vessels that burst and are often a classic sign of manual strangulation. The restricted blood flow causes pressure to build until delicate capillaries rupture, resulting in red marks.

Suzanne immediately filed for a protective order in which she described this incident. She also wrote that he “breaks things, screams, and has threatened me.” She filed for divorce. In June, while St. Angelo was moving items from the house, he got into an angry confrontation with Suzanne’s brother. He hit her brother in the head and arm with the claw end of the hammer leaving bloody gashes. St. Angelo claimed it was in self-defense, that her brother had attacked him and he had to defend himself. Two of his children were there to back up his claim, but there were numerous witnesses unrelated to the parties involved who told police that Suzanne’s brother was down on the ground while St. Angelo was standing over him swinging the hammer. St. Angelo was arrested and later plead guilty to the charges.

Unfortunately, as so many abused women do, Suzanne let St. Angelo back into her life. On Christmas day, she went to his house to spend time with him, but when she tried to leave, he slapped her and dragged her back into the house by her hair. He made her promise to return and bring all her jewelry to him before he would let her leave.
At the same time, K was lodging complaints that St. Angelo was calling her non-stop and harassing her with text messages. He was doing the same to Suzanne and it became a problem at the ReMax office. Things were now so bad for St. Angelo financially that he was working as a handy man. Suzanne asked her office manager to find work for him and she did. He was good at construction, but he just couldn’t leave Suzanne alone. He would send threatening emails and texts one minute, then turn around and apologize and send something conciliatory.

December 28th was classic John St. Angelo. He wanted to talk to Suzanne about something, or more likely accuse her of something. He called, texted and emailed, but she was busy at work. Finally he sent a threatening email demanding she respond. She told him who he could contact about work questions and that he would have to wait until the next day to talk about anything personal. She was too busy to deal with him.

Suzanne was also unsettled. Records show that she had called Fort Worth Police Department that morning to report a possible prowler. She thought there was a man lurking outside her house, but when the police responded, they found no evidence of a man and left. Suzanne would later go outside and discover a window screen pried open and a fire that had been set outside her pool. The fire damaged property, but given its proximity to the house, it could have been far worse. The Fire Marshall responded and determined the cause of the fire to be arson. Someone poured gasoline on Suzanne’s patio and lit it on fire. The backyard was securely locked—unless you knew the trick of accessing the door that opened to the alley behind her house. She told police and the arson investigator that she was suspicious of St. Angelo. He had become fixated on the idea that she was dating again and he was furious.

The next day was a string of furious emails with insults and threats. St. Angelo referred to her as a gold-digger, ironic since she was the financially sound one, and a whore. This last was in response to her refusing to meet him for drinks. In his head, if she didn’t want him, she must have someone else. Never mind that they were divorced, and she could see anyone she wanted. He sent her an email promising to be “that thorn in your garden forever” and saying he hoped she would “expire and karma will be your payback.”

The next day, December 30th, co-workers would remember that Suzanne was very nervous. St. Angelo was present at the Remax office on Heritage Trace. He taken a pair of Suzanne’s glasses as “collateral” and was demanding money for her car. She had a check for him.

Suzanne’s co-workers heard her screaming after 4:00. They ran to her door, but it was locked. A co-worker ran for the master key. She opened it to find St. Angelo kneeling over Suzanne, stabbing her with a large butcher knife. Blood was everyone and Suzanne wasn’t moving. The co-worker pushed a chair at him to make him stop what he was doing. “Well, that’s done,” he said.

The two female co-workers fled. They both called 911 and left the building. A third co-worker ran to get help from a male co-worker. They came back to find the door had been re-locked. St. Angelo had left through a window. Suzanne was clearly dead. At trial, they were asked how they knew. Did they check for a pulse? They did not. There wasn’t anywhere to check.

Suzanne had been stabbed 23 times and her throat slit. The majority of the violence was to her head, face, torso and neck. She had one deep wound to her back and defensive wounds to her hands. She was missing a nail. Another nail was torn.

Police were immediately looking for St. Angelo. They went to his house and found the car he had been driving, but his other car was missing. K was called to come over. She brought St. Angelo’s sons who were able to tell police that guns were missing. K was so distraught, she had to be hospitalized. St. Angelo was nowhere to be found.

New Year’s Eve at around 11:00 a.m., a call came into Fort Worth 911. On the line was a woman who has remained unnamed in news reports. She told police that she had met St. Angelo a few months before when he had done some work on her house and that they had become friendly. He showed her a knife and said he had killed his ex-wife. According to her, he had been there all night. She told the 911 operator that they had been “praying” but that he was armed and was suicidal. Later, she would admit that he had spent the night alternately praying and terrorizing her.

John St. Angelo Arrested
Swat vehicle during stand off, Photo credit: Waco News Tribune

 

Police coordinated with SWAT. A five hour stand off followed. St. Angelo shot at officers from both the front and rear of the house. Negotiators tried to talk him out, but he refused. Officers finally shot tear gas in through the windows. They rushed the house as St. Angelo shot himself in the face. He managed to knock out one of his teeth. That was all. In the bathroom where he had barricaded himself, they found the tooth, the bloody knife, and a meth pipe. If St. Angelo was on methamphetamine, that might explain his loss of control. He certainly seemed like a man on a downward spiral. They also found the check Suzanne had promised him for the car. Incredibly, around everything else that happened, he had remembered to take the check with him.

book in

At the hospital, officers briefly spoke to St. Angelo. He told them “I loved that woman to death.” He made another claim, one that his defense attorney would offer up as a legal justification at trial.

He claimed to have killed Suzanne in self-defense. He told a SWAT negotiator that Suzanne came at him with a knife, so he took it away and stabbed her “15 times” in self-defense.

At trial, he testified that all their problems were Suzanne’s fault. It was her drinking that caused problems. It was her relationship with his children that caused problems. It was her spending that caused problems. Somehow, she became the violent one. Somehow, she caused his million-dollar business to fail. He said that she pulled out the knife and threatened to kill herself. He initially took the knife away from her to save her life, but she attacked him and he was forced to stab her to save himself. He said he only recalled stabbing her three times. Assistant District Attorney Allenna Bangs played the recording of his conversation with SWAT negotiators in which he admitted to 15 stab wounds, still a far cry from the actual 23, but he claimed not to recall saying that. He couldn’t recall slitting her throat either.

St. Angelo claimed that Suzanne treated him differently when he was a wealthy man, but had little use for him after his business failed.

The defense called St. Angelo’s son to try and bolster claims about what a great guy his dad was. Prosecutors didn’t cross-examine the child much. There wasn’t any point. St. Angelo’s family has suffered enough. St. Angelo tried to bring K around to his side as a witness. He called her until he was blocked from calling her number and then wrote her letters. He apologized for yelling at her, but told her God wanted her to forgive him and help him. She testified for the prosecution, although she minimized the abuse.

The jury rejected his claims and sentenced St. Angelo to life in prison. There was little to celebrate. Suzanne’s family was relieved, but that wouldn’t bring her back. That wouldn’t undo the years of harm to K or the children. As prosecutor Bangs said, “John St. Angelo terrorized the women in his life for 30 years and it culminated in Suzanne Parson’s death.”

Source Notes:

http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article16527941.html
http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article16221680.html
http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article16341110.html

https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/St-Angelo-Folo-SG-010114_Dallas-Fort-Worth-238398521.html
https://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/2015/03/26/fort-worth-man-found-guilty-of-killing-ex-wife-after-jury-rejects-his-claims-of-self-defense

Fort Worth Man On Trial For Ex-Wife’s Murder
http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/crime/article3850894.html
https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/second-court-of-appeals/2016/02-15-00107-cr.html
https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/SWAT-Surrounds-Fort-Worth-Home-on-Tip-of-Realtors-Killer-238273931.html

http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/crime/article16384868.html

 

 

 

Preacher Man: The Sins of Tommy Ray Kneeland

Courtroom
Kneeland clutching his Bible as he is led to the courtroom by Winkler County Deputy Sheriff Jack Speer for arraignment. Photo Credit: May 10, 1974 The Odessa American, staff photo by Eugene Porter

Tommy Ray Kneeland was an enthusiastic youth minister. He taught Sunday school and drove the church bus. He loved bowling and attending gospel concerts with his wife and two young children. But in his spare time? He also like to torture and murder young women. His little hobby came to a screeching halt in 1974 when of these young women survived.

 

Kneeland was born in Kermit, Texas in 1949. Kermit is the county seat of Winkler County in West Texas. It’s a typical Oil Boom city that flourished in the 50’s and 60’s. Tommy Ray Kneeland was born into this small, but thriving community. In 1970, he lived across the street from Nancy and Gene Mitchell and their twin three-year old daughters. Like so many people in Kermit, Kneeland’s family was heavily invested in the oil and gas industry.

Nancy Mitchell
Nancy Mitchell, Credit: Odessa American

September 15, 1970, Nancy Mitchell filled a prescription around 8 p.m. Her husband worked very late and she was often home alone in the evening. Shortly after arriving home from her trip to the pharmacy, she put the twins to bed and called her uncle. Her husband arrived home at 12:45 to find the children sleeping, but his wife gone. Her purse with cash and cigarettes was sitting there in easy view. The only thing missing was Nancy. Her clothing was found out on an isolated roadway. Her dress, underwear, bra, slip, and pantyhose were scattered, cut into pieces and shredded by a knife, but no blood.

June 4, 1971, less than a mile from the place her clothing was found, an oilfield worker found the badly decomposed body of a woman. Dental records confirmed this was the body of Nancy Mitchell. Determining a cause of death was difficult, but the medical examiner thought she had died of asphyxiation. Traces of plastic were also found. The location was an oil lease owned by Tommy Ray Kneeland’s father.

When Nancy Mitchell went missing, police had spoken to Tommy, but there was nothing to make them suspicious. He was a polite, well-groomed, church-going, young man. They barely even noticed when he moved to Euless immediately after the body was found. Meanwhile, Gene Mitchell was going through hell. Even though he had a rock solid alibi from having been at work, people looked at him funny. There were rumors that he had killed his wife. His three-year-old twins were too small to understand and cried inconsolably for their mother.

Kermit, Texas.png
Kermit, Texas circa 1970s. The “red I” to the right side is the pharmacy.

Euless, Texas in in the NE corner of Tarrant County. It’s the ‘E’ in the area known as HEB. Once in Euless, Kneeland found work as a carpet layer. He married a woman and they had two children. As always, he became very involved in a local church. Reverend Robert Owens of Hurst Christian Church was impressed with the enthusiastic youth minister and Sunday school teacher. He described Kneeland as outgoing and charismatic. The teens flocked to Kneeland who was so trusted he even drove the church bus.

A year after Kneeland moved to the DFW area, the bodies of two teens were found dead in Fort Worth. Friday, June 30, 1974, 17 year-old Jane Handy and 15 year-old Robert Gholson borrowed a 1961 white Ford Fairlaine from Jane’s father.

Ford Fairlaine.png

They told him they were headed to a party, but the pair really intended to drive all the way from Oklahoma to Dallas for a concert. It’s a three hour drive, but they didn’t get very far before the Fairlaine broke down near Ardmore, Oklahoma. The teens began hitchhiking. Both had run away before and weren’t afraid to brave the world on their own. Their first ride took them as far as Gainesville, Texas. That’s where they met Tommy Lee Kneeland. Kneeland often had to drive long distances for work. He told the kids he would take them to Hurst and that from there it would be easy to hitch a ride to Dallas. They happily climbed in with him.

Instead of taking them to Hurst, he drove them to a seclude area in the east of Fort Worth, a party spot for local bikers just off a popular trail. He bound their hands with wire coat hangers. Based on what we now know about his history, he always had a gun. I’m assuming this is how he was able to control two people. He wasn’t a large man, only standing 5 foot 7 with a slender build. Kneeland knocked Robert to the ground and began raping Jane. She fought for her life, thrashing and screaming for help. Frustrated, he tried to gag her, but then she got her hands free. She fought him hard. He pulled a knife and stabbed her six times in the chest and six times in the back. He then slashed her throat and in his fury began stabbing her face until it was obliterated.

He looked over where Robert had been laying, but the teenager was gone. He’d gotten to his feet and run for his life. Kneeland caught up with him on the tail and stabbed him just as he had Jane: six times in the back and six in the chest. He slit the boy’s throat, but didn’t take his rage out on his face.

The next morning, bikers found Robert’s body on the trail and called the police. It was only while searching the area for evidence that they located Jane. Because of the damage to her face, Jane wasn’t identified until police ran her prints. She hadn’t been reported missing yet due to her tendency to run away. It was after being picked up as a runaway that her prints ended up in the system.

Tarrant County Medical Examiner Felix Gwozdz described the wounds as extremely deep and violent, the result of an intense attack. Stranger attacks are the most difficult cases to solve and with no way to link the teens to Kneeland, the case went cold. It would remain that way until 1974.

bridge
Credit: Lee Switzer. Arlington-Bedford Road Bridge, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu;

April 23, 1974, 16 year-old Danita Cash went to pick up her brother near the old Arlington-Bedford Bridge which crosses a channel of the Trinity River. I’ve seen stories that her brother had gone there with friends for target practice and I’ve seen stories that the boys were fishing. Either way, Danita had gone to fetch her brother. The bridge is now closed, but in 1974, the area was heavily wooded and off the main path. Growing impatient with waiting, Danita honked her horn to get her brother’s attention. Like brothers so often do, he ignored her. A strange man responded, though and he asked if she needed help. She assured him she was fine and he left. She waited a bit for her brother, then honked again.

The man came back and this time he had a gun with him, a sawed-off, 12 gauge shotgun. He forced Danita to come with him, bound her hands with twisted wire and put carpet tape over her mouth. She desperately struggled to free herself. She kept trying to speak to him. He reached down to loosen the tape so he could hear what she had to say and that’s when he lost control of the truck. He veered off the road and into the mud. The man gunned his engine, but the wheels just dug in deeper. Incredibly, he let her go. He was afraid someone would stop to help and see Danita bound in his car. “Take off,” he told her. “I’ll kill you if you tell the police.”

She ran all the way back to her car and drove straight home to her mother who immediately called the police. The truck was gone by the time police made it to bridge, but they found a sanding disk of the type used by tile or carpet layers. It was believed the man had put it under a tire to get the traction needed to escape the mud. Danita had a good description of her kidnapper as well as his truck. He had a unique truck, a vintage 1957 pick-up with a distinctive toolbox. Soon police narrowed in on an unlikely suspect, a local youth minister and carpet layer. They put Kneeland’s picture in a photospread. Danita identified him easily.

In the stakeout that followed, police saw Kneeland ready his truck for painting.  Kneeland realized he was being watched and called the police himself. He said he wanted to come in and “clear things up.”  He came in to talk and soon confessed, not just to the kidnapping of Danita, either. He admitted to the unsolved murders of Jane Handy and Robert Gholson. Then he started talking about Nancy Mitchell from Kermit.

Kneeland admitting kidnapping his neighbor at gun point. He raped her, then put a plastic bag over her head to suffocate her, but she was taking too long to die. He tried injecting air into her arm, but Nancy stubbornly clung to life. Kneeland stabbed her repeatedly and slit her throat. He left her body on his father’s land and went back to life as normal.

Police were deeply suspicious that Kneeland was possibly responsible for the unsolved rape and murder of Benbrook teenager Carla Davis, but Kneeland never confessed to the crime and was never charged. The best break down of the Carla Davis case I’ve ever heard is the Texas-based podcast Gone Cold. It was this podcast where I first heard the name Tommy Ray Kneeland. I became fascinated with the story and began digging further. Episodes 4 and 5 break down the suspects. Episode 7 features an interview with Kneeland’s wife at around the 15 minute mark. I cannot recommend this series highly enough. Carla Davis deserves justice.

Kneeland’s wife insists that he never raised a hand against her. He was a good husband. She never worried when he was out that he would be unfaithful because he strongly disapproved of women who dressed provocatively or showed too much skin. He did come home frequently with blood on his clothes. She said he simply cut himself at work all the time and she washed the blood without thinking about it.  Kneeland has been a suspect in many other murders around the area. Given the opportunistic nature of his crimes, I believe he committed other crimes out there which we will never link to him.

Everyone was shocked when Kneeland was placed under arrest. His father insisted that he was always a good boy. His pastor went to visit the young minister in jail and referred to him as “one frightened boy.” Kermit and Fort Worth are very far apart. Kneeland was arraigned for the Fort Worth murders and the kidnapping, but then had to be transported across the state to answer for his crime against Nancy Mitchell. Gene Mitchell was relieved to have the crime solved, but that didn’t undo the years of hell he and his daughters had endured.

arraigned
Kneeland being arraigned before a Kermit Justice of the Peace. Photo credit: The Odessa American, 11 May 1974, Staff photo by Eugene Porter

In a plea agreement, Kneeland was sentenced to 10 years for kidnapping Danita Cash and two life sentences for the murders of Jane Handy and Robert Gholson.  He was sent back to Kermit for trial there. Because of the publicity, the case was transferred to another county. The offense Kneeland committed against Nancy were all stacked: Kidnapping, murder, abuse of corpse. The prosecution, Winkler County DA Mike Fostel asked the jury to sentence Kneeland to 270 years. The jury sentenced him to 550 years.

In a perfect world, that’s where the story would end, with Kneeland in prison. But the 1970s and 80s there was a movement away from incarceration. Prisons were overflowing and to ease the crowding, prisoners were paroled at unprecedented rates. It made sense to release those serving steep sentences for drug and property crimes, but a predator? Anyone could get three for one good time. September 16, 1987, just 12 years and 9 months after he had been incarcerated, Tommy Ray Kneeland was paroled.

Mike Fostel was shocked. Due to a glitch, the parole notifications had gone to the county where the prosecution had been transferred and not Winkler or Tarrant Counties. They didn’t have the chance to object. During his brief incarceration, Kneeland had been up for parole three times.

Kermit didn’t want Kneeland to return there but that was fine, because the city of Hico was ready to welcome Kneeland with open arms. Some family or friends had started a petition there to help him get parole. A local pastor had written letter to parole board talking about how his family would welcome Kneeland and he had a place to stay. He later claimed  he didn’t know what Kneeland was actually in prison for.

Kneeland re-married, this time to a woman with two children, was again active in church and started his own business. However in July 1994 he was stopped for expired registration and found to have two rifles in his truck including a loaded semi-auto under his seat. This was a violation of his parole.

Residents of Hico admitted to mixed feelings. Some insisted they were sure he was rehabilitated. They described him as a hard working family man, a good Christian. Of course, that’s how people described Kneeland before he started raping and killing. These people thought it too harsh to send Kneeland back to prison, but considering he was known to kidnap women at gunpoint, the violation is alarming. Other residents of Hico confessed to being relieved. Many said they didn’t know what he had been in prison for and were shocked.

Tommy Ray Kneeland is the classic example of how the appearances can deceive. Underneath the preacher man façade was a dark savagery only revealed by his terrible crimes. Thankfully, Kneeland is still housed in the Stiles Unit, never again to be released. The release of such dangerous men as Tommy Ray Kneeland and Kenneth McDuff caused Texas to once again overhaul parole laws, tightening them, but the moods of the public swing like a pendulum and I see a movement for compassion and rehabilitation. Those are lofty goals and while I agree with the sentiment, I hope we never again lose sight of the importance of keeping dangerous predators locked up.

 

Stiles
Stiles Unit, Jefferson County Texas

 

 

Sources Notes:

Researching an older case can be challenging. Here are some of the places I located information.

Kneeland’s appeal can be read here. It is a subscription service but you can pay per report if you are interested enough.

The Gone Cold podcast was an in valuable resource and I highly recommend it. You can listen to it on iTunes, Stitcher, or whatever pod catcher you prefer.

Most of my other resources were difficult to locate and require a subscription to Newspapers.com . If you do have a subscription, the best coverage was the Odessa American.

 

Bad Decisions: Stephen Barbee

Jayden Underwood was a typical first grader. He played soccer and he loved super heros. He wore glasses to help his big, brown eyes because his vision was poor. He was friendly, sweet, outgoing, and very excited about his new baby sister. Lisa Underwood had always been a single mom. Jayden’s father hadn’t been involved in his life and Lisa didn’t expect much more from her unborn child’s father.

Friends describe Lisa as hard-working. Whatever Lisa did, in love, work, or motherhood, she gave it her all. Lisa owned a restaurant, Boopa’s Bagel Deli, along with her best friend Holly Pils. Boopa was her nickname for Jayden so she had named her business after the most important person in her life.

Stephen Barbee and Lisa had dated on and off. They weren’t exclusive, but when she found out she was pregnant with a girl, she was thrilled at the idea of another child. Barbee wasn’t pleased at all.  Sheila Underwood, Lisa’s mother, was also less than thrilled with the situation, but she was extremely close to her only child and grandchild. Jayden spent almost every Friday night with his “Tita.”  Sheila decided to build a bigger house in anticipation of adding her granddaughter to those sleepovers.  Lisa tentatively named her  daughter Marleigh, although she told friends she wouldn’t be certain of the name until she met her daughter face to face. She kept the name to herself, refusing to disclose it.

 

stephen-barbee

Stephen Barbee had a real problem. Barbee had married just two months before and hadn’t told his wife about the baby.  If she found out, she would do the math and realize he was sleeping with Lisa and her at the same time. He just couldn’t allow this to happen. He was certain Lisa Underwood was going to ruin his life.

Barbee grew up in Azle, just north of Fort Worth. His mother worked at the school he attended and his father worked for Bell, the predecessor of Lockheed. Barbee was one of three children and his childhood was fairly normal until tragedy struck. His beloved older sister died at the age of 20. His brother also died when he reached the age 20 and Barbee became fixated on the notion that he wouldn’t live to see 21. He dropped out of sports and cramming in every bit of living that he could. Before, people had described him as fun-loving. Now they said he was just plain wild.  He began to get into trouble, but his mother was always right there for him, doing anything she could to smooth over problems for her only living child.

Barbee dropped out of school but settled on a GED. For a time, he seemed headed for disaster, but things improved for him over the years. He built up his own tree trimming business and was even a reserve police officer for the city of Blue Mound. He drove a Corvette and developed a reputation for splashing his money around and for always having women around him. There were a lot of women.

Barbee married one of his women,  Theresa Barbee. The relationship was volatile and there were allegations of abuse. Theresa could forgive a lot of things from her husband, but she couldn’t take the cheating. Seven years later they divorced, but they continued working together with the tree trimming business that they co-owned. Theresa moved on. She became involved with one of their employees, a man named Ronald Dodd who would become a good friend of Barbees. Dodd and moved in with her. Barbee also moved on.

During their marriage, Theresa and Stephen Barbee employed a whole crew of workers. She would often go into Boopa’s to pick up breakfast. After the divorce, Barbee took over this role and it was there that he met Lisa Underwood, the cute, bubbly blonde owner of this business. After he had been dating Lisa for about a year, he reconnected with an old friend who was also divorced: Trish, the woman he would marry. It seems that Lisa knew about Trish, but Trish did not know about Lisa. One night when Lisa showed up knocking on Barbee’s door, he brushed it off as a crazy ex-girlfriend. Baarbee and Trish were eating dinner that unknown to her had been dropped off by another of Barbee’s girlfriends. He would later laugh that he was juggling three of his “girls” at the same time that night. Lisa and Barbee did stop dating, but then she found out she was pregnant.

Barbee wanted nothing to do with Lisa  or the baby. He told her he wanted a family with Trish. Lisa told him she was certain he was the father and she was going to name him on the birth certificate. At the very least, she wanted her daughter to have a listed father. She also wanted his help with insurance because she was self-employed and her insurance was expensive.

Barbee became desperate to keep his wife from finding out and decided to go see Lisa the night of February 18th, 2005. She was seven and a half months pregnant at the time.

Around 3:00 on morning of the 19th, Denton County Deputy Sheriff David Brawner saw a man walking along the service road of Interstate Highway 35. It was cold outside, and it had been raining.  When he pulled his patrol car in behind him, the Deputy saw the man’s clothes were “very wet” and that he was “covered in mud.” He asked the man for identification, but the man claimed he’d left his wallet at his friend’s house. He gave the Deputy a fake name and date of birth. When the Deputy turned to speak with dispatch, the man bolted and ran. He chased the man, but lost him in the thick woods.

 

Boopa's inside

Holly Pils  and Sheila Underwood had planned a baby shower for February 19th. Lisa never had a shower when she was pregnant with Jayden. Now she would get to have a party with family and friends and open all those packages with little pink girl outfits. Of course the party would be at Boopa’s.

Holly called Lisa at 7:45 pm on the night of the 18th. Lisa and Jayden had both been fighting colds and Holly wanted to be sure they were still  on for the shower. Lisa assured her she was feeling better. Holly teased that if only Lisa would give her the first letter of they baby’s name, she could buy plates with initals on them. Lisa just laughed and told her it was a nice try.

lisa-underwood-and-son

Lisa was due at Boopa’s around 4 pm. Since it was raining heavily, friends saved her a spot in front so she could park right by the door. They decorated and then waited for Lisa, anxiously staring out the window.

They waited and waited, but Lisa never came.  When she didn’t answer her phone that morning, Holly and Sheila had been worried, but figured she might be sleeping in. When she didn’t appear for the shower, they were frantic. Lisa was never late. Finally Sheila decided to go to Lisa’s house. Holly began calling hospitals, just in case Lisa had been in an accident.

Sheila arrived to find that Lisa’s Dodge Durango was gone, She knew immediately something was wrong. Lisa and Jayden’s little dog was outside in the rain and he always stayed inside the house. Lisa would never have left him outside while she was gone and certainly not in that weather. Sheila had a key and let herself inside. Things didn’t look right. She called the police and waited.

Sheila and Holly re-entered the house with the police. Sheila noticed a strange place on the carpet. When she touched it, it was wet with soap and water. A coffee table had been moved to try and cover a stain. Holly noticed Jayden’s shoes and his glasses were still at the house. He wouldn’t leave without them. He had very poor vision and couldn’t see anything without his glasses. Something was terrible wrong.

The closer the police looked, the more they discovered bits of blood. There was blood everywhere that had been inexpertly cleaned. Traces of blood were on the entertainment center, the livingroom floor and the couch. Inside the garage, there was blood on the floor. Testing would later confirm this was Lisa’s blood. Lisa’s computer was checked. She had logged off around midnight on the 18th. The last site she had visited was birthplan.com.

When police interviewed family and friends after Lisa’s disappearance, they asked the usual questions including Is there anyone who might want to harm Lisa? One name came up over and over. Stephen Barbee

Two days later, Lisa’s  Dodge Durango was found  just a couple hundred yards from where Deputy Brawner had encountered the wet, muddy man. The front end of the car was submerged in a creek with the windows down and the hatchback up. Nearby were Lisa’s keys and her purse. Any hopes of finding Lisa and Jayden alive were rapidly fading.

Fort Worth police were being led by veteran detectives John McCaskill and Mike Carroll. They badly wanted to speak with Barbee. When they learned the Barbee had gone to Tyler on business with his wife, Trish, and his best friend, Ron Dodd, they made arrangements to meet with them there. McCaskill interviewed Dodd while Carroll interviewed Barbee. Trish and her kids cooled their heels out in the lobby of the Tyler police department.

Ron Dodd

Dodd

At first, Dodd played it cool. He told the police he had only seen Barbee with Lisa once and didn’t even realize she was pregnant. He admitted having been with Barbee on the night Lisa and Jayden vanished but he claimed they had spent the time working on a truck. When McCaskill pressed him, Dodd admitted being a little afraid of Barbee. He told the detective about a time Barbee was angry with Theresa and had threatened to put her in the wood chipper. Bit by bit, McCaskill pushed harder until he broke Dodd down. Finally, Dodd told a different story.

Dodd told McCaskill about picking Barbee up on the night of the 18th. Barbee confessed to Dodd that he had a problem. He said he had gotten a girl pregnant and Trish was going to leave him and “take me for everything I got.” Then he told Dodd, “I gotta get rid of the problem.” Dodd said he told Barbee that his choices were simple. Either get back with that girl and raise the kid, or don’t and stay with Trish. Barbee didn’t want to hear it.

Dodd said Barbee gave him directions to get to Lisa’s house, claiming he was going to “do the right thing, and step up to the plate.” Dodd assumed that meant Barbee was going to break up with his wife and be a father to the baby.

Dodd dropped Barbee off,at Lisa’s house. Just an hour later Barbee called him to say that ‘they’ were out riding around and ran out of gas. Dodd agreed to bring him gas.  He met Barbee up north of town, along the border of Tarrant and Denton counties. Barbee poured the gas into a blue, Dodge SUV.  When he lifted the gate to the hatchback and Dodd saw the bodies. He said nothing. Then Dodd took the can and drove off.

Barbee called Dodd again saying he had broken down and for asking Dodd  to come and pick him up. Dodd told the police that he drove to where Barbee said he was what he saw stopped him cold. He saw Barbee standing beside the rode, illuminated in the lights of Denton County Sheriff patrol vehicle talking to Deputy Brawner. Dodd was still on parole at the time and wanted nothing to do with any trouble. He drove on by. He pulled into a store and waited until he was called by Barbee who had seen him drive by earlier.

Dodd again picked Barbee up. Dodd says Barbee told him what he had done and apologized for bringing him into the mess. He said he had dumped the bodies just off the road from where Dodd had brought him the gas. Dodd claims Barbee threatened him and his family if he spoke to anyone, so Dodd just took him home and kept his mouth shut.

Meanwhile, Detective Mike Carroll was in a separate interview room with Barbee and he wasn’t talking. His version of events had him and Dodd working on his truck and driving it around in the rain and dark. When confronted about the incident with the Deputy, Barbee admitted getting out and walking. He said he gave the name of a friend he was mad at, and then he ran because the officer had no reason to hold him. His story didn’t make sense.

At one point, Carroll took a break to go to the restroom. Barbee asked to be allowed to go to the restroom as well. On the way, he saw Trish and her kids sleeping in the lobby and he began to cry. Carroll and Barbee had a conversation in the bathroom. Barbee broke down and told Carroll a completely different version of events. This version is far closer to the truth, although strongly colored by Barbee’s narcissism. They went back into the interview room to record this story.

Barbee admitted going to see Lisa. He said that after Dodd dropped him off, Lisa let him in. He said they were sitting down and talking about the baby. “She kept throwing up everything about insurance and child support and telling Trish.” Barbee claimed that he wanted to leave, but Lisa wouldn’t let him. She got mad and kicked him in the leg. He said he then punched her in the nose and they were “fist fighting.”

“What killed her?” Carroll asked.

“I don’t know.”

“The whole thing took place in the livingroom?”

Barbee confirmed that it did. “We was wrestling and I was holding her down.” He paused. “And she stopped moving. Then I knew I done something wrong.”

“Then you knew you did something wrong?” Carroll prompted him.

“I knew I had done something wrong ’cause she wasn’t moving. I guess I held her down too long. I just didn’t want her kicking me and stuff. I was trying to hold her.”

Lisa’s body told a different story. She fought for her life, fought for  Marleigh’s life. This was no mutual combat situation. Barbee had a bruise to his leg and scratches from his run through the woods after dumping her car. Lisa’s face was horribly bruised and battered. Her nose was broken. One eye was swollen shut. She had a broken rib and wrist. Her back had massive bruises that could have been caused by being forcibly held down for a long period of time, such as if someone were kneeling on her back and pressing her face down. She’d suffered a sever beating. Remember that she had been sick from  a cold and was extremely pregnant and awkward. This was no attempt to calm her down. This was rage, pure and simple.

Lisa died from “traumatic asphyxiation” due to a combination of congestion, pregnancy, and the covering of her face and mouth. With her mother dead, Marleigh slowly asphyxiated in her mother’s body.

Missing from Barbee’s story was Jayden. Carroll had to remind Barbee about the little boy. Then Barbee told him about how Jayden heard the murder of his mother. He came into the room screaming and “emotional.” Barbee insisted he just meant to make the boy quiet when he put his hand over Jayden’s mouth and nose. Again, he just held on too long. That murder was also accidental, according to Barbee. He had managed to “accidentally” suffocate three people in the space of a few minutes: Lisa, Marleigh, and Jayden.

Like Lisa’s body, Jayden’s showed signs of a beating. His face was bruised, an eye swollen shut and a large contusion against his head as if it had been struck against something. His lips and mouth were bloody from his face being pressed so hard.

Barbee claimed that he tried calling Dodd for help cleaning up, but he didn’t answer. Dodd was out to dinner with Theresa. Barbee had no transportation. He had to take Lisa’s car. He cleaned up as best he could, but there was so much blood. The carpet remained pinkish, so he moved a coffee table to cover things up. He dragged Lisa and Jayden out to her Dodge Durango and put them in the cargo area.

He headed north up I-35. Finally Dodd answered his phone and agreed to meet him, although according to Barbee, Dodd brought him not gas, but a shovel. Barbee described the location he had taken Lisa and Jayden’s bodies. He put them in a single hole together.

“I put them together because they needed to be together,” he said. “I dug ’em a little hole. Said a prayer.” He drove the car down a muddy track and abandoned it. He walked back along the rode, after calling Dodd to retrieve him. That’s where he had the incident with Deputy Brawner.

Barbee reminded Carroll that he didn’t want to hurt Lisa. She forced his hand. She was going to ruin him. He had to protect his family. All he wanted to do now was talk to Trish. Carroll agreed and the two were left alone together in the room, but the recording kept running.

His first words were about himself and what was going to happen to him. “I’m going to jail for a long time. My life is over,” Barbee said.

Trish asked him repeatedly what he had done. Did he get that woman pregnant? Did he kill her?

He responded that he didn’t know. Then he told s her that he didn’t mean to, that Lisa had been calling and threatening him for months. He had just gone to talk to her and she attacked him. He only held her down, but it had been for a little too long.  He told the story like was a tragedy and he was the victim.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.

“I was afraid you would leave me.”

“God Steve, was it worth it? Was it?”

He had no answer for that.

Trish answered for him. “It was not worth that. It wasn’t worth it, Steve.”

He hung his head. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“And then you got rid of her body. ”

“I didn’t want to lose you all.”

She still couldn’t accept that. “What did you think was going to happen?”

Unable to answer, he fell back on justifying his actions. “And then she started fighting me. She said she would ruin me. I didn’t mean for her to stop breathing. I just held her too long.”

She continued questioning him about Dodd’s involvement and what he had done, so Barbee turned the focus back on him, back to his plight.

“My life is over,” he said. “I’m going to die in prison. They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in prison. I’m going to die…I made a bad decision to go talk to her…All I’m asking is to have somebody who loves me.”

He went on to make her promise she believed him and would keep loving him. He said he was suicidal and couldn’t live if she left him.

Trish couldn’t let go of his reasoning. “Why couldn’t you just talk to me?” She had done the math. She knew he had been sleeping with her and Lisa at the same time, but she loved him. If he had come and admitted the truth to her, they could have worked it out.

He blamed her. He told her it was his deep love for her that prompted him to action. That’s right. Love made him kill Lisa, Marleigh, and Jayden.

Trish struggled with the magnitude of what her husband had done. She wondered aloud what she would tell her children, what she would tell his parents. Ever the narcissist, Barbee asked “Does this mean we’re breaking up?”

At that time, she promised him she wasn’t leaving. She sat down with Detective Carroll and recalled what Barbee had done the day after he murdered an entire family. He was completely normal. They went to the stables and played with the horses. They hung out with Trish’s children and watched movies. They went to some appointments they had scheduled. They had a great day. He didn’t seem the least bit worried or troubled, even though the news had begun reporting his ex-girlfriend was missing.

Police had their man and soon they would have the bodies of his victims. The day after those interviews, Barbee led them to a shallow grave in Denton.

Barbee may have confessed, but he would change his story several times. Sometimes he was innocent. Sometimes it was a version of the accident. Theresa Barbee, visited her ex-husband while he was in jail and he held up a piece of paper asking her to tell the police Dodd did it. She left crying and he removed her from his visitors list.

Theresa testified against Barbee, describing physical violence in the relationship. There was a time he beat her unconscious. She woke bleeding and dizzy from a concussion. Barbee was eating ice cream and watching TV. He made her drive herself to the hospital.  She wasn’t the only woman with a story about Barbee and his temper.

A woman named Marie Mendoza testified that Barbee would often come in to her business and flirt. He told her he was single and owned a tree trimming business. He surprised her by trimming her trees and then wanted a date. She told him she wasn’t interested in a relationship and offered to pay. Instead, Barbee was furious and screamed and cursed at her. She cut off all contact with him after that.

Barbee was convicted based on the overwhelming evidence and he was sentenced to death for killing multiple people in a single incident.  Although he was convicted in 2006, this was just the start of legal wrangling that would keep him still on death row today. His initial appeal was denied in 2008. In 2012, Barbee filed a writ of habeas corpus alleging secret deals between his defense attorney and the judge. That matter is a story in itself. This fight continued into Federal Court.  I included all of those links if you want to read the details. Multiple hearings were held until finally in 2017, the death penalty sentence was upheld, clearing the way for an execution date to be set for Barbee.

A sweet memorial exists at Boopa’s. Jayden’s bedroom door now stands in Boopa’s bearing his hand-written admonition “Do Not Enter” and decorated with super hero and cartoon stickers. A friend of Sheila Underwood’s was so moved that she wrote a book about a child name Jayden and his magical door. The book is still available on Amazon.

Jayden's door.jpg

We will never know the truth of what was in Stephen Barbee’s heart. Why did he really go there to Lisa’s house that night? Why did he go there so late? Why didn’t he call or drive over himself? Perhaps he went there intending to solve his problem permanently. He could have planned to have Dodd drop him off and then meet him with the shovel. It would be reasonable to think Jayden was with his grandmother and he would have had Lisa alone. Pregnant. Helpless. He might not have expected her to put up a fight. Or maybe he really did just intend to talk and didn’t form his intent to kill until he was there.

In an ironic twist, DNA testing revealed Barbee wasn’t the father of Marleigh. If only he had been honest with his wife, three people would be alive today and Sheila’s world would be whole.  Instead, memories are all Sheila Underwood has left. Her only child and her grandchildren are gone because one man couldn’t handle the consequences of his bad decisions.

Source Note: In researching this case, I relied on the original reports, transcripts, court documents, appellate opinions, and the following sources:

 Lethal Charmer by Patricia Springer, from Pinnacle Books, 2010.

The Lubbock Avalanche Journal

The StandDown Texas Project

The Fort Worth Star Telegram

My Life of Crime

lisa-underwood-and-son-1

 

 

 

 

 

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.