The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in the early to mid 1980s. I strongly recommend you read the first three parts of the narrative, Preview which sets the scene, and Stranger in the Dark and Cold Hit which discuss serial rapist and murderer Curtis Don Brown. Originally part three was intended to Juan Mesa Segundo, but we will return to his story later. Instead we are moving out into the suburbs which seemed safer than the city, but that veneer of civility was an illusion.
Looking at their senior pictures side by side, Wesley Wayne Miller and Retha Stratton are the perfect, couple, the American ideal. Although the two were not dating, they were friends. Retha was a popular, bubbly cheerleader at Castleberry High. Miller was captain of the football team, a three-sport athlete voted “Best All Around Student” in 1981, their senior year. Miller wrote in Retha’s yearbook, “I’d like to get to know you better. Your [sic] the best looking girl in our school and I hope to see a lot of you this summer, Love Always Wesley.”
Castleberry ISD is in River Oaks, a small suburb north of Fort Worth known as a bedroom community for blue-collar families and for the nearby Carswell Airforce Base. Seniors are always glad to escape the confines of school, but for the class of ’81, they were especially glad to leave. Since the start of that year, a rapist had stalked the senior girls.
January 23, 1981, Susan Davis, 16, was home alone when a man entered her room. “He walks in with a stocking overt his head, his face, no shirt on, jeans with, you know, his zipper open. And at that point I realized something really bad was going to happen.” Dangerous Reunion, 48 hours
Susan ran, but the man caught her and began threatening her. “Don’t scream or I’m going to hit you.” The man began punching her in her face. He ripped her panties off. At some point, however, instead of completing the rape, he fled. She never found out what spooked him.
River Oaks police took a report, but with little physical evidence, there wasn’t much else they could do– but they did tell Susan it was likely someone she knew. “I had to go back into cheerleading. And I was paranoid all the time about ‘Is this person in the stands watching me?’”
The record isn’t clear what led police to this conclusion. A masked intruder would make most people think this was an attack by a stranger, but from the very start, police thought it was someone who knew the victims. Was it the assailant’s familiarity with the house? The fact he struck at a time when she would be alone? Or did they know that just by playing the odds, they were likely to be right, because most sexual assaults aren’t committed by strangers. In the 1980’s, the terminology was “date rape” which is an unfortunate choice. Rape and sexual assault have nothing to do with a “date gone wrong.” They are predatory, deliberate acts of violence. Now, the preferred terminology is “non-stranger” sexual assault. See, research and studies by Dr. David Lizak
In 1979, clinical psychologist Nicholas Groth set out to categorize different types of rapists. After working with both victims and offenders, he set out three specific types. First is the power rapist who derives comfort and satisfaction from dominating his victim. The second type is the anger rapist, who rapist is driven by rage against a specific group, women or men, causing him to lash out with violence. The third sort is the sadistic rapist who receives sexual gratification by causing pain to the victim. The types blend and rapists are most often a mix of these different elements.
The man who assaulted Susan showed multiple types. He gave specific orders to her, demonstrating control, but then hurt her, even as she complied. He left without completing the attack, which could have been a lack of confidence which is often found in power rapists.
Fortunately, studies have shown that most men aren’t rapists. How then do we account for the high level of rapes committed? One in four women is a victim of sexual assault. The answer is that most rapists are serial offenders. Studies show they often begin in adolescence and continue throughout their lives. This pattern held true here. The River Oaks Rapist wasn’t done with his one aborted attempt.
Retha Stratton graduated in May along with close friends and fellow cheerleaders Amy Moody and Lisa Gabbert. Retha and Amy got an apartment together and Retha went to work doing data entry for the Ralston Purina company . Unknown to them, another young woman was raped in November.
L. V. (a pseudonym), 19, was home alone on November 11, 1981 in the nearby town of Saginaw, when she received several mysterious phone calls. Each time, a male voice asked for a person she didn’t know and she told him that no such person was there. She fell asleep and when she awoke, it was to a nude man with a stocking covering his face kneeling over her in the bed. He ripped the phone from the wall and told her he was going to rape her. She struggled, even though the man said he would kill her if she didn’t do what he told her to. He physically assaulted her for some time before finally leaving. She immediately ran to her parents’ room and called her boyfriend. Sagniaw police processed the scene and came up with the first solid bit of evidence: a fingerprint on the telephone and in her bedroom. There were semen stains in her room, but this is before DNA. She described the man as muscular but only around 5 foot, six inches tall.
Police had a fingerprint, but the person it belonged to wasn’t in they system and without a known person to compare it to, that wasn’t much help. But it was something. The attack didn’t make the news.
It never occurred to Retha and her friends that they could become victims. Then on December 7, the unthinkable happened. Lisa woke up to find a man in her house, “And when I looked over I saw that someone was standing in the doorway with a red ski mask and panty hose over the mask. And he leapt on me. And we struggled. There was some choking. And then he tore back the covers. Opened my robe. And we struggled some more. And so he proceeded to rape me.” Dangerous Reunion, CBS 48 hours
Once again, the River Oaks Rapist demonstrate knowledge of his victim and her specific living situation. He walked right past Lisa’s disabled mother, who couldn’t move or speak, as if she were not even there, as if he knew she couldn’t interfere or become a witness. The rapist reminded Lisa of someone. She told a rookie patrolman that the man was built just like Miller, especially his arms. She didn’t think it was Miller. It couldn’t be Miller, of course, but she wanted the police to know that the attacker had the same exact build.
Miller’s girlfriend, Roxy McDonnell lived just across the street from Lisa and the very next day, her younger sister became a victim of the River Oaks rapist. Again, the rapist struck when the girl was home alone and once again, he reminded her of someone. According to the CBS 48 hours:
“And we had just said to the dad, ‘Well, he’s built like Wesley. And has arms like Wesley’s.’ And he says, ‘Wesley, come here.’ And he said, ‘Let me see your arm.’ And he pulls his arm over. He said, ‘You mean it look just like this?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah,'” Lisa recalls. “And Wesley yanked his arm back and went upstairs. Without saying a word.”
Everyone was careful for a while. Shocked by the attack on their close friend, roommates Amy and Retha changed their locks, and didn’t come home alone, but gradually, they relaxed their guard. The River Oaks rapist stayed quiet for six weeks and life returned to normal for most people.
In 1982, Curtis Don Brown was still in prison for auto theft. Ted Bundy’s trials had faded from view. Instead recent news was the marriage of Lady Diana to Prince Charles, the identification of the AIDS virus, and the shooting of the Pope. The serial raps of teen girls in Texas suburbia was barely a blip on the local radar, much less the bigger news markets.
That would change on January 21, 1982. Amy came home to a scene of horror. A trail of blood led from the livingroom, down the hall into Retha’s room and back to the closet where her brutalized body lay partially in the closet as if she had fallen backwards. She had been stabbed 38 times with the majority of the wounds to her left breast. Her wrists had been slit and her bloody panties crammed into her mouth. She was nude from the waist down. The knife still protruded from her chest.
Locating the culprit wouldn’t take long. Miller’s pick up truck was spotted at Retha’s house around the time of the murder and he turned to his girlfriend, Roxy to help him hide the evidence. Claiming he had bloodied someone’s nose in a game of touch football, he handed her a pair of bloody jeans to wash. She took the jeans, but as soon as news of Retha’s murder broke, Roxy handed those jeans to the police. Police immediately began looking for Miller.
January 23rd, just two days after Retha’s murder, there was a sexual assault of a woman in Lake Worth. She received several phone calls from a male voice asking if “Ed” was there. The woman said there wasn’t a man in the house and hung up. Soon after, a young, athletic man around five foot nine inches and wearing a stocking over his head broke into the house and sexually assaulted her.
Miller was arrested later that day.
Within 48 hours, Miller was charged with Retha’s murder. He confessed to the Fort Worth detective C.D. Timmons, although he tried to lay much of the blame on Retha for her own murder. He told police that he went over to the house and Retha was “coming on to him.” He said they were kissing, but she refused to go further. Miller said this happened twice, that she would make sexual advances on him, but then back away. He said he lost his temper the second time and refused to stop “And we started fighting.” Next, he claimed Retha grabbed for a ‘ledge’ that was between the kitchen and the bedroom and a knife just fell to the floor. He thought she was maybe going to grab it, so he grabbed the knife instead and stabbed her. “I kind of lost my mind and I do not remember how many times I stabbed her . He said he hid her body in the closet and washed the knife, but then went back and slit her wrists to make sure she was dead. “I didn’t want her to tell on me,” he said. Then he thrust the knife into her chest and drove home.
As Retha’s heartbroken family and friends laid her body to rest, they at least had the relief of knowing that her killer wasn’t roaming free. What they couldn’t know, was that this was just the beginning of a decades long battle to keep Miller behind bars, a struggle that would make new laws and result in permanent changes to the way we treat sexually violent predators.
Next week, I will return with the next installment of the Hunting Grounds: Caging the Predator.
Information for this article came from the archives of numerous newspapers, chiefly the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , the Dallas Morning News, and AP stories. Additional information came directly from parole records and police reports.
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.
This new, dramatic evidence was first used in the United States in 1988 to convict a man named George Wesley of the rape and murder of Helen Kendrick, 79. The New York trial was a media show that put science on trial, not George Wesley. Science prevailed.
In the bustling new world of forensics, DNA was a game changer. Not since fingerprints had such a reliable source of identification been utilized. DNA was a fantastic tool when a victim pointed at her attacker. Eye witness identification can be problematic, but with DNA, there was a concrete answer. The innocent were exonerated. The guilty were convicted. But to compare the DNA found at a crime scene, you had to have a known suspect, someone to compare it to. Then came CODIS.
In 1994, the FBI began CODIS, an acronym for the Combined DNA Index System, a program of support for criminal justice DNA databases. The National DNA Index System or NDIS is the national level version of CODIS, containing the DNA profiles contributed by federal, state, and local participating forensic laboratories. For the first time, local police could take an unknown sample and have it compared against an enormous database of known offenders. They would also eventually be able to compare to other unknown offenders in an effort to identify serial predators.
The larger the database, the more effective. For CODIS to work, it needed samples. In 2004 Texas required all convicted felons entering the penitentiary to give DNA for CODIS. They immediately solved 14 murders. That same year they also solved 81 sexual assaults, 40 burglaries, and four robberies in Texas alone. In 2005, a new law required the system to go back and take samples of everyone who came in before April 2004. Even more cases were solved.
Cold cases continue to be solved through a mix of detective work and scientific advancement. It’s time to re-examine these killings from the 1980s. If anything, recent developments in the news have shown us that justice may be slow, but it can still arrive, even 40 plus years later.
Over the next several weeks, I will look at some of the known killers that stalked Fort Worth in the early 80s–Curtis Don Brown, Lucky Odom, Juan Mesa Segundo, Faryion Waldrip, Ricky Lee Green– and then at some of the still unsolved cases in an ongoing series, The Hunting Grounds. I’ll also discuss legal issues facing cold cases including the backlog of DNA testing and time limit statutes that prohibit prosecutions.
You can expect to see a new article in this series every other week, starting with Curtis Don Brown on May 14th. Brown was every woman’s nightmare, the stranger in the night, crawling in through the windows. He would be caught in a murder by fate mingled with accurate police instincts. Only years later would science reveal just how lucky police had gotten when they nabbed the man who went by the nickname “Bandit.”
*Content Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of child abuse and sexual assault. Pseudonyms have been used for all minors in the story except for the victim in order to protect their privacy.
Summer in Texas means long, sweltering days. On July 1, 2013, 7:30 meant day was just tipping over into evening. The heat had loosened its grip ever so slightly, but the dark was still an hour and a half away. A thirteen year-old girl sat in the computer room of her Saginaw, Texas home, when she heard the sound of tires squealing and looked up in time to see a red pick-up truck racing away from a crumpled gray tarp near the corner of Roundrock and Cindy. The tarp clearly wasn’t empty. Its contents were bundled with what she thought might be twine.
Two neighborhood kids were out riding their bikes. The squeal of tires had also attracted their attention and they rode over. Curious, one boy lifted the edge of the tarp, then hastily dropped it. The teen girl came out and she also lifted the tarp, enough to see the semi-nude body of a child. Her screams attracted the attention of her father. He didn’t believe her when she insisted there was a dead child in the street and lifted the tarp to see for himself. He wished he hadn’t. The small girl was wearing a pink flowered shirt and nothing else. In addition to the tarp, she had been stuffed into a black trash sack. Her hands and feet were bound with red duct tape. Although he couldn’t see it, there were four plastic Walmart sacks were placed over her head and secured with more of the red duct tape.
The first officer who responded opened the bundle which had been secured with a brown men’s belt. He tore away at the plastic around the child’s face as he frantically checked for a pulse. But he could tell then that she was dead, and had been for a while at least. She was cold to the touch. She also was wet. Her fingers and toes were pruned like she’d been in the bath too long.
As the Saginaw police secured the scene, several noted an unwelcome sight—Tyler Holder, 17. Holder had many brushes with Saginaw PD and Detective Robert Richardson especially. Holder paced, watching the police work. There was something in the intensity of the way he stared that drew the attention of multiple officers who noted it in their reports. But when officers began canvassing the assembled neighbors, trying to figure out just how and when the body had been dumped, Holder managed to slip away.
Holder had a reputation as the neighborhood thug. He wasn’t in school and he wasn’t working. Judging by his Facebook posts, he spent most of his time smoking pot and causing trouble. A lot of the trouble was petty. He damaged property. He stole things.
February 21, 2013, he called Saginaw police to report that his mother’s guns had been stolen. He claimed three men had broken in but he scared them away. Police responded to investigate and quickly determined Holder’s story was not plausible. He claimed that the men all ran together out a back door, but on examination, the door was blocked and only partially opened. There was no way three grown men could have run out abreast. Also, it had just rained and the ground was damp and muddy around the house, but there were no shoe prints anywhere. When confronted with evidence that events could not have happened the way he described, Holder shrugged it off without seeming upset. He called his mother, who was not home, and told her the guns were stolen but the police didn’t believe him. Then he calmly hung up.
At his former school and in the neighborhood, Holder had a reputation as a bully. He was large and awkward, making jokes about rape and violence and he was known to carry a knife. A neighborhood teen recalled a time her brothers built a snowman. Holder came out and destroyed it. In retaliation, one boy threw a snowball at Holder who responded by pulling a knife and threatening him.
In 2012, Holder burglarized the house of one of his former principals. He was confronted later by the man who told him to return the property and he wouldn’t make a police report. Holder showed up with a pillow case full of the man’s belongings. Just days before the murder, neighbors had report a rash of car burglaries. Some of them suspected Holder, but there wasn’t any proof. It just seemed like the sort of thing he would do.
The mother of Holder’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Christina, forbid him from coming over to the house. She didn’t really have a specific reason. She just knew he made her very uneasy. One former classmate told the Dallas Morning News, “He was the kid you were always really nice to because you didn’t know if he was going to come shoot up the school. He was an angry person.”
The source of Holder’s anger isn’t clear. His mother was was loving, but his father was absent. The reason depends on who you ask. His mother, Kimberly Holder, says that his father left the state as soon as she told him she was pregnant. The father, who now lives in Montana, claims he knew nothing about his son until he was served with child support paperwork in 2009. He claims he tried to get some sort of visitation, but was stone-walled and just gave up. Likewise, his maternal grandmother was involved, but his grandfather was estranged from the family. Holder and his mother lived with his grandfather and step-grandmother until a family dispute when Holder was five. Kimberly Holder moved out and they never spoke again.
There is no documented history of the type of abuse often seen in cases of a sexual sadist, no indications Holder was every physically or sexually abused. When asked at jail screenings, he denied having been abused by anyone. His family wasn’t wealthy, but he had a home, clothing, affection. At worst, he was a latch key kid, but that’s hardly a recipe for creating a predator. Yet from an early age, he rebelled against normal discipline.
He was a difficult child, always acting up in school. He publically disobeyed his mother, challenging her and cursing at her. In 5th grade, some parents stopped allowing him into their homes because he talked about inappropriate things like drugs and sex, things they didn’t want their children exposed to. He had trouble making and keeping friends.
By the time Holder was in middle school, the behavioral problems were severe enough that he was being sent to a juvenile justice alternative education school. Instead of allowing him to go there, his mother chose to withdraw him and home school her son. She said she was afraid of him being around other juvenile offenders, even in the controlled setting, but perhaps she was in denial about how deeply her son’s problems were rooted. She repeatedly refused counseling referrals, insisting that everything was fine, even as her son began running afoul of the juvenile justice system. He was referred to the juvenile courts, but those records are sealed. He was not sent to Texas Youth Commission for incarceration meaning his offenses were likely misdemeanor or non-violent offenses.
When Holder claimed that the house had been burglarized, His mother believed her son and even bought him a gun to protect himself if the house was broken into again. However, she also kept her own door locked at all times and kept her own gun in there, hidden in drawer. Perhaps she didn’t trust him all that much.
She worked long hours in Grand Prairie, quite a daily drive from Saginaw. She denied he was drinking or doing drugs, but all his Facebook posts look like this picture. They’re all selfies of him in various states of intoxication, most especially with marijuana. He also vented about his difficulties with his sometimes girlfriend, Christina. His mother described how he was usually asleep when she got up and left for work, and often left the house after she got home. Throughout, she has stubbornly clung to her insistence that he was fine.
His Facebook “likes” got a bit of media attention, but were fairly pedestrian for a teen. He liked metal music, horror movies, and violent video games. Adolescent fantasies are one thing, but there Tyler Holder had a very dark set of interests, one that might have been addressed if only his family had availed themselves of the offered counseling years before. This aspect of how he spent his time would not come to light until after his arrest. In addition to pot, theft, and video games, Holder filled his days with anonymous sex with strangers he met through Craigslist, both men and women. He also regularly surfed child pornography websites.
Holder’s grandmother thought he was doing fine as well. She lived in Decatur, but was in Saginaw visiting him the day before the murder and she had spent the night. On the morning of July 1st, she left while her grandson was still sleeping and bought food for the house and took her car for repairs. Holder stayed in bed until 2 p.m., which was apparently normal for him. He had lost his job at Sonic just the week before. None of his fast food jobs seem to have lasted very long. Employers described him as lazy and unreliable, plus there was always that something that set other people on edge about Tyler Holder, some wrongness in him.
He did have a few friends, most notably JR*. JR saw Holder the day of the murder, both in the morning and in the evening. When JR saw Holder after the discovery of the child’s body, Holder told him confidently that the police had found the body of Alanna Gallagher. Problem is, no one else knew that, not even her parents…because they hadn’t discovered she was missing yet.
While police were processing the scene at Roundrock and Cindy, Laura Gallagher flagged down a patrol car to say that she couldn’t find her daughter, Alanna Gallagher, 6. Alanna had last been seen around 2:30 pm. It was now 9:30 and completely dark. It wasn’t unusual for Alanna to roam the neighborhood alone. She was a common sight riding her purple scooter around. Everyone in the area knew her. She was an outgoing, friendly little girl who would often just show up, knocking on someone’s door wanting someone to come out and play.
The officer returned to the Gallagher’s house at 641 Babbling Brook. He noticed Holder pacing around up and down the sidewalk outside his house, which was 649 Babbling Brook, only two doors down. The officer stopped and asked Holder if he had seen anything unusual. Holder claimed to have been out fishing all day. He hadn’t been around.
Inside the Gallagher house, the officer was shown pictures of Alanna and heard about how she always wore a watch to make sure she was home by her 8:00 pm curfew. The officer swung into action, interviewing neighbors and searching records to discover any sex offenders who might live in the area. Laura Gallagher protested that she felt a little silly involving the police. Her daughter was probably just watching cartoons somewhere and had forgotten about the time. She thought Alanna had gone to with a neighbors’ twin four-year-old granddaughters, but when she went over, they hadn’t seen Alanna. The officer followed up with that neighbor anyway. The neighbor confirmed that she hadn’t seen Alanna since June 30th. She told police that Alanna and her older sister Mary* sometimes came over, but that Alanna would cry when it was time to go home. She never felt right about just letting Alanna walk alone own and would stand and watch her until she made it into her home.
Police checked at another house where Alanna often played. That neighbor confirmed that Alanna had come over to play with her grandchildren around 2 pm, but said the family was on their way out. Alanna insisted she would wait “right by their door” until they returned. She felt terrible leaving the child sitting outside her house, but there was nothing she could do. This was the last confirmed sighting of Alanna alive.
The Gallagher family received a great deal of attention, some for valid reasons and others because of their nontraditional lifestyle. They consider themselves polyamorous, meaning they are a family unit of more than two adults in a committed relationship. The family dynamics have very little to do with the case, other than to say there were three adults living in the house, two men and one woman and their style of parenting could best be called permissive. Karl Gallagher, Laura Gallagher, and their third partner, Miles McDaniel, had three children, Mary, 9, John*, the middle child, and Alanna, baby of the family at 6 years. John had some special needs and Mary, 9 was known to be maternal to her younger siblings. She checked on them every day while they were at school.`
The most troubling aspect was the lack of supervision in the household. Neighbors came forward to say that Alanna was always outside, playing by herself without her parents keeping track of her. She rode her purple scooter around, visiting everyone. Purple was Alanna’s favorite color. Likewise, the school reported that the family was not at all involved. The parents never attended school events. Indeed many of the teachers had never met the parents. The children didn’t participate in any clubs, sports or clubs. Teachers described Alanna as a happy, outgoing, and friendly child. She liked to wear dresses and wanted to be a princess. They found her especially needy, hungry for physical contact, always seeking hugs and praise. She clearly got herself ready for school. Her hair was not brushed and she wore mismatched clothing that was not age or size appropriate.
The same officer stopped by Laura Gallagher on July 1st remembered a previous incident with the family that occurred when Mary was 6. He received a call about a child playing unattended at a park. A family was concerned that the little girl was there for hours with no adult in sight.
The officer arrived and spoke with Mary, then tracked down her mother. Laura was irate when the officer insisted she come and pick up her daughter. She said that she frequently let daughter go play at the park to get out of the house and saw nothing wrong with her walking there. The officer pointed out how young the child was and that she had to cross streets with busy traffic and no sidewalks. He also tried to explain about child predators.
The small community of Saginaw might seem perfect, safe, but the police knew better, as did many of the long term residents. They were especially mindful of the risks because of the Opal Jo Jennings case in which she was snatched and murdered while playing outside her grandmother’s home. That case left deep scars on Saginaw. (For more details about that crime, see No Safe Place.) But Laura dismissed his concerns. She told the officer that such things don’t really happen as often as the news tries to make is sound.
The Gallaghers seemed to favor the concept of “free-range parenting” although they did not use the term. The idea is to encourage children to function independently with very little parental supervision.
July 1, 2013, the family first realized Alanna was missing at 6:30. Mary had made hotdogs for dinner. When Laura couldn’t find Alanna, she sent Mary out to look at the neighbors. She returned without her sister. No one knew where Alanna was. They ate dinner, then went to look again.
Laura and Mary drove around awhile, but they didn’t spot Alanna. Laura sent Karl a text. When he returned, Laura and Miles were playing World of Warcraft. They had decided just to wait for it to get dark and hope Alanna would come home. Karl and Laura made another trip around the neighborhood, but again, no Alanna. They went home and Karl made himself a dinner. The parents went around and knocked on doors at around 9-9:30 pm, according to neighbors. That’s when Laura spotted the police car and flagged him down.
A dispatcher put the two scenes together: a child missing, the body of a child found. She notified both sets of officers and soon the identity of the girl in the tarp was confirmed.
Saginaw police sought help from larger agencies including the FBI. They processed things methodically, but one name came up almost immediately. Tyler Holder was interviewed and he told the detective that he slept in until around 2 pm. He claimed he watched some TV shows and then left to look for a job. This was a different story than he had given the officer investigating Alanna’s disappearance. It also didn’t match the evidence police possessed that Holder’s car wasn’t seen driving away in the afternoon.
Police honed in on him as a suspect almost immediately, but they didn’t press. They could afford to be patient. Alanna’s autopsy report was gruesome reading. She had been sexually assaulted anally. Bruises to her face, arms and torso indicated further violence. The cause of death was suffocation due to the four plastic bags placed over her head and wrapped with duct tape. Her body was then submerged in water for a period, possibly in an attempt to cleanse her of biological evidence. This attempt was unsuccessful. DNA was obtained from anal swabs and from a belt. Also collected with Alanna’s body was a roll of toilet paper, crumpled and dirty that was inside the tarp. Her clothing wasn’t missing, but rolled up in the tarp with her body, however, her purple and pink watch wasn’t there. Alanna never took it off. Had the killer kept it for a souvenir?
Saginaw reeled from another brutal child murder, another little girl taken from close to home. Parents were afraid to let their children outside. A makeshift memorial sprang up on the street where her body had been found. Neighbors, friends, and complete strangers brought stuffed animals to remember her. As days turned into weeks, there was a vigil with purple balloons and a $10,000 reward for tips. Holder attended the vigil wearing a T-Shirt that read “WANTED.” Too keep the case in the public view, supporters started a purple ribbon campaign. DNA was taken from all the neighbors voluntarily. No one wanted to be the person who refused. Even Tyler Holder let them swab his cheek.
While the public demanded answers, police were close to being able to provide them. The cardboard center of the toilet paper roll was analyzed by FBI labs and was determined to belong to a batch shipped to Texas and sold in an Arlington Costco. Kimberly Holder had a membership to Costco. The police collected the trash put outside the Holder home. The bags matched the one Alanna’s body had been stuffed into, same brand. In the trash was red duct tape. Kimberly Holder had some work done on the house recently and a silver construction tarp had been spotted outside her home by a neighbor. That tarp was no longer there. Animal hairs were collected from Alanna’s body. Dog hairs, to be exact. The Holders had a dog of the right type to have left those hairs
All these small pieces were forming the picture of Alanna’s killer, like a puzzle being filled in, but what police really needed were results from the anal swab. DNA would complete the image.
July 19, 2013, Saginaw PD was surprised to receive another emergency on Babbling Brook Drive. This time it was a fire. They arrived to find that someone had set fire to memorial in front of the Gallagher’s home, and also to Karl Gallagher’s car. Believing it to be arson, the ATF brought out specially trained dogs who confirmed the presence of an accelerant. Who would be so cruel as to torment the family grieving the loss of a child? The family had a lot of detractors over the past few weeks, but police wondered if someone had been hateful enough to lash out at the family. The family hadn’t shied away from the publicity. They had been out front, begging for people to come forward with any information and defending their lifestyle, which had become the focus of so much criticism. The fire had spread from the car toward the house, damaging its exterior and placing the family in danger.
Around this time, Holder’s friend JR came forward with his mother. A few days after Alanna’s murder, Holder had given him a cell phone, saying he’d gotten a new one. JR asked if there was anything that needed deleted, but Holder said no. JR later found some alarming things on the phone. There were searches for “best child pornography” and photos of Holder in women’s underwear and naked with a garden hose inserted into his anus. There was also evidence of Holder’s Craigslist history with his anonymous hook-ups. JR cut off contact with Holder and deleted pictures, but he finally told his mother and she had insisted they bring the phone to the police.
Just one day after the arson, the police had what they needed. The DNA results were in and confirmed police suspicions. Both the anal swab and the men’s belt that had been used to bind the tarp were confirmed to belong to Holder. They drafted a search warrant for the Holder residence to look for:
In addition to the search warrant, police obtained an arrest warrant. Because they knew there were guns in the house, the FBI Safe Streets Task Force was tagged to take Holder into custody. Holder opened the door as if he were surrendering, but abruptly pulled his mother’s 9 mm from behind his back and shot 22 year Arlington Police veteran Charles Lodatto who was part of the FBI taskforce investigating the case. The bullet struck Lodatto in the groin, severing his femoral artery and lodging in his hip. The injury could have easily been fatal, but officers quickly applied a tourniquet to keep him from bleeding to death. He remained in ICU for some time, but trauma surgeon Dr. William Witham who treated Lodatto said their quick actions saved his life.
After he shot Lodatto, Holder was shot in the neck and immediately transported to the hospital. The scene was locked down due to the shooting and first processed as an active crime scene. The search warrant would not be executed until the following day. Serving the warrant filled in many of the missing pieces. They found the red duct tape, numerous used condoms, matching toilet paper rolls, latex gloves, garden hose lengths, and most damning, they found Alanna’s watch. The also found gas cans and evidence tying Holder to the arson at the Gallagher’s house.
They also found evidence that Holder had been planning on either “suicide by cop” or trying to run. On the nightstand by his bed, in a sealed envelope, he had left a letter for his mother that some interpreted as a suicide note. “Mom, I love you and I’m sorry, but I have to leave,” the note read. “I took your shot gun and your hand gun. I want you to know you are not responsible for this.” He tells her the he can no longer “hold back” the things going on in his head and how he wants her to live out her plans for them. “I love you so much. You were a great mom. You gave me everything I ever wanted. Don’t let this ruin the good memories of me and us together. I just wasn’t made for this world. Tell Granny and Bubba I love them. I will leave my car in a safe place in good shape. If I live I will write you.” The portions about leaving his car in a safe place indicates that he may have been more literal when saying “I have to leave.” He planned to run for it, but the police came for him before he had the chance.
July 31, Holder was well enough to have a conversation with detectives. He couldn’t speak due to a tracheotomy, but he could write his answers to questions. After being read his Miranda warnings, he mused about whether or not to speak with police. He both wanted a lawyer and wanted to talk right then. That wasn’t possible, but he wanted to prove he could be cooperative. At one point, Detective Richardson told him he did not expect a lawyer would want him to talk to the police about dumping the body. He once again told Holder it was his decision whether he wanted to talk. Holder responded by writing “I didn’t drop her.”
What followed was a nonsensical story about a man who looked just like Karl Gallagher, but wasn’t Karl Gallagher. Holder said the man, a stranger, showed up with Alanna. He was evasive about her condition, saying she was alive when she got there, but “she left dead.” He elaborated that she was injured and had been beaten. He claims this man brought her over and had sex with her there and killed her, but he didn’t witness it.
When the detective asked questions about Holder sexually assaulting Alanna, he played dumb, saying things like “I don’t know what you mean.” Detective Richardson then explained about the DNA. Holder admitted having sex with her after she was dead. He claims the stranger asked for the bags and duct tape. He said that she was bound and dead when he turned her onto her stomach and raped her anally.
His story, already unbelievable, took strange twists and turns. First, he claimed that he yelled at the man to stop beating her, that she was hurt all over and he tried to stop the man from having sex with her. Then he says that the man made him have sex with her, or told him things “that made sense at the time” but that he no longer remembered, things that convinced him to have sex with Alanna. Holder said he went to the restroom and when he came out, the man had left, carrying away the body of Alanna Gallagher.
The detective summarized for Holder: A stranger brought an injured child to you, and taped her up, convinced you to sexually assault her, then killed her and carried her body away. Holder confirmed that was his story. Even if the story wasn’t so ridiculous on its face, there was not a shred of evidence to suggest another person being involved. All the DNA, all the items found with Alanna, all the items left behind, everything tied her to Holder. Holder was charged with capital murder for Alanna’s death, attempted capital murder for shooting Charles Lodatto, and arson for starting the fire at the Gallagher’s house.
Holder’s trial was scheduled for October 2014, but in September, prosecutors announced a plea deal. A new Supreme Court decision ruled that mandatory life sentences for defendants younger than 18 were unconstitutional. Holder was 18 at the time of trial, but he had been 17 at the time he committed the crime. Afraid the case might fall into a legal loophole, prosecutors consulted with the family.
The charge of capital murder was reduced to plain murder. He still received a life sentence, but with the possibility of parole. In addition, he received 20 years for the arson and another 40 for trying to kill Charles Lodatto. That last sentence was stacked on the life sentence, meaning even if Holder received parole for the murder case, which he would be eligible for in 30 years, he would have to serve his time for the attempted capital. He would have to serve at least half that sentence. In essence, Holder would have to serve 50 years before he could even think about being released.
For the Gallagher family, this meant they would be spared a trial and further vilification in the press and social media, but it was a sad realization of how dangerous the world really was.
“Nobody thinks you’re down the street from someone developing into a monster,” Laura Gallagher said. “There’s not just our kids, but so many other kids we’d see out playing. And you think of all the times that all these kids were walking past that house, and you feel like it was a time bomb slowly building that we didn’t know about, and it went off on our baby.”
This is the third and final installment in my series on Ethan Couch. You can read the first installments here: Wrecked Part 1 and Part 2.
Ethan Couch was living a bachelor’s dream life. He had a job that required minimal work for good pay, a 4,000 square foot house with a pool, all the booze and girls he could ever want. Problem was, he was only 16 and that lifestyle came to a crashing halt, literally, on July 13, 2013. For most families, having your son placed on probation for four counts of Intoxication Manslaughter would be a huge wake up call. But then, we’ve already established that the Couches weren’t most families.
The crime and subsequent trial were understandably stressful on the family. Fred and Tonya’s on again, off again marriage was off and the couple divorced. Ethan was sent off for treatment, although not to the Newport Academy as the family and judge had intended. Instead, Ethan Couch was sent to Vernon, a state run hospital. The parents had been ordered by the judge to pay for Ethan’s treatment, a bill that ran up to $200,000, but somehow, that didn’t happen. They family claimed to have been bankrupted by the civil suits filed against them and the costs from defending Ethan. The judge amended her order for them to contribute $11,000 for his stay in Vernon from February to November of 2014.
The family managed to go almost a year beneath the media’s radar. Then in July 2014, Fred Couch couldn’t keep from boasting.
North Richland Hills Police were called to the scene of a disturbance. Fred Couch was simply a witness, but he made the investigating officers very nervous. The officers didn’t know what his involvement was and asked for ID. Fred wasn’t good at following their instructions and kept putting his hands in his pockets and being evasive. They asked him if he had any weapons and he responded that he had his “Lakeside Police Stuff” in the car. They questioned him further and he claimed to be a reserve officer. He flashed a badge for them and showed what appeared to be a TCLOSE license. However, one of the officers was well acquainted with the Lakeside Police Chief Lee Pitts and called him at a later time to confirm Fred really was an officer. The badge had looked off. It had a red center and the officer didn’t recall having seen that before. He was right. Fred wasn’t an officer, not for Lakeside or anywhere else. He had an old Volunteer Search and Rescue badge. Charges of Impersonating an Officer were filed and Fred entered a plea of Not Guilty. The part I find the strangest is that there was no reason for him to do this. He had nothing to gain, except for stroking his ego.
Fred’s case was still pending, when in January 2015, he was in a minor fender bender with Tonya. She was driving his truck and backed into a small car. Their truck hardly had any damage, but the car was extensively damaged. Fred and Tonya got into a verbal altercation with the woman they had backed into. Instead of giving their information, they got back into their truck and drove off. Witnesses had their license plate and it didn’t take police long to chase down the pair and charge Tonya with Leaving the Scene of an Accident. That case was soon dismissed. Tonya and Fred paid a large amount of what they said was “restitution” to the victim of that case. The amount was undisclosed, but immediately after the victim became uncooperative with prosecutors. The case was dismissed in September of that same year.
After his release from Vernon State Hospital, Ethan still wasn’t on the streets, but in a program in Amarillo known as Next Step. Ethan stayed in that program until February, 2015.
The Civil Suits
Ethan may have avoided jail time, but he hadn’t avoided another reckoning: civil lawsuits. A civil suit couldn’t put him behind bars as the survivors and families all wanted to see, but it could hit the Couch family where it hurt. Suits were filed by family members of all four victims and two of the passengers in Ethan Couch’s truck, including Sergio Molina who suffered a devastating injury requiring round the clock care.
Those suits all reached a settlement. But there was one more suit. This one was filed on behalf of Lucas McConnell, one of the boys injured in youth pastor Brian Jennings’ truck. McConnell suffered minor injuries to his face, head, and back, mostly related to the glass which shattered, but he also suffered emotional distress, seeing his friend and pastor killed in front of him.
He struggled to make sense of it. The slap on the wrist Ethan Couch received felt more like a slap in the face to Lucas. Lucas and his parents decided that holding the Couches accountable was more important than a monetary settlement. They weren’t interested in settling.
The accused can’t be forced to testify in a criminal proceeding, but civil is a different animal. Ethan and his parents were forced to answer questions in recorded depositions. Fred Couch’s business was also named in the suit because Ethan had been driving one of his father’s work trucks that night.
In the recordings, Tonya and Fred both try to paint themselves as responsible parents. Tonya acts baffled that Ethan was drinking, despite her having frequently witnessed it. Ethan’s girlfriend testified that she and Ethan had been drinking with Tonya just a week before the crash. Ethan’s older sister said that she confronted Tonya about Ethan’s drinking and driving, telling her mother she was very concerned. The last text Tonya sent Ethan before the crash was a reminder “just don’t drink and drive.”
Fred made claims of punishments he had doled out to Ethan that were shown to be false. He claimed to have forced Ethan to walk to work after the incident where he was caught peeing in a Dollar General parking lot. But nobody else recalls that punishment, including Ethan. Tonya also claimed that Ethan was disciplined, but couldn’t recall any specific instances or when the last time was.
Ethan said he didn’t recall the accident. He claimed to remember pulling out of the driveway and the next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital, handcuffed to the bed. Perhaps that was true or perhaps it was a convenient way to avoid discussing the accident. He admitted that his parents knew he was drinking. His mother even knew he was drinking that night. It was why she sent the text. He also admitted to a lot of drugs. “I’ve taken Valium, Hydrocodone, marijuana, cocaine, Xanax and I think I tried ecstasy once, pretty sure that was it.” He is calm, matter of fact in his recitation of events.
The McConnell family fought to make sure the deposition tapes were revealed and cooperated with a 20/20 special regarding the case. Afterwards, they were satisfied. They had turned the spotlight on the Couches and made them speak about it. October 9, 2015, they settled the case, but not for millions. They settled for attorney fees and $60,000 to be held in trust for Lucas as a college fund.
Run for the Border
Probation comes with conditions and one of the key ones for Ethan was that he wasn’t allowed to drink. First, he was underage and probationers are required to commit no new offenses. This means you have to follow the laws, which should be obvious. Second, part of Ethan’s ‘rehabilitation’ means a commitment to sobriety. Third, anyone on probation for an alcohol related offense isn’t allowed to drink.
In December 2015, a series of tweets directed to Burleson Police Department and the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office appeared to show Ethan living it up while playing beer pong. He hadn’t even been out of rehab for a year yet.
In response, Ethan Couch’s probation officer contacted him and ordered him to appear at the probation office. He had obviously been violating his probation. But instead of allowing him to face the consequences, Tonya and Fred Couch rushed in to once again rescue Ethan from himself. Tonya and Ethan made plans to flee.
The family was still far from destitute. Tonya withdrew $30,000 from the bank. The family threw a bizarre sort of ‘going away’ party for Ethan. Then Tonya and Ethan got into a pick up and disappeared.
Ethan didn’t appear at the probation office where he was scheduled to appear and submit to a drug test. Authorities began looking and soon realized Tonya was missing as well. The story went public rapidly and people assumed, rightly, that they had left the country. They had money and a head start. People wondered if they would ever be found. Surely they wouldn’t be stupid enough to poke their heads up. They wouldn’t be arrogant enough to lounge about at a tourist destination such as, say, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Actually, once across the border into Tijuana, Ethan and Tonya changed their appearances with a little cut and color, and then made for the seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta. Initially they stayed at the Los Tules resort, but an employee suggested a nearby neighborhood. Allegedly this was to make them more comfortable, but perhaps it was to make the staff more comfortable.
They weren’t the best guests. They insisted on paying cash instead of using a card. Resorts like to hold a card number to be sure they aren’t stiffed by people leaving in the night, or using services they never paid for. Ethan and Tonya refused to complete their paperwork the first night. They promised to complete the paperwork at a later date, but never did. Whenever asked their identities, they would simply respond “We’re from Texas.” Staff began referring to them as ‘the Texans.’
The staff informed them that the resort was booked up for Christmas, so they would need to leave soon. They kept to themselves, except for the night Ethan went to a ‘gentleman’s club’. Tonya went to bed while Ethan was out at a strip club. He racked up a a massive tab he couldn’t pay. He had run a tab at two bars, but after paying one, he couldn’t pay the other. The club manager and a waiter came to the resort and refused to leave until Tonya was woken up to come downstairs to pay her son’s $2,100 bill for alcohol and lap dances. She seemed annoyed at being woken, but didn’t say a word to him about it. At least, not in front of anyone else.
When the time came to leave, they asked if there had been any cancellations, but the staff suggested the move to the nearby neighborhood. It’s odd to me that they ran without a plan. What were they going to do? Did they think they could stay there forever? What would they do when the money ran out? It wasn’t going to last forever with massive bar tabs.
They were able to extend their stay and moved to another room, leaving behind a room filled with junk food wrappers, and Tonya’s gun. The staff had to call Ethan to come back and get it. After five days, they had to leave.
Meanwhile, back in Tarrant County, law enforcement was frantically looking for Ethan and Tonya Couch. A warrant had been issued for Ethan. Tonya was officially a ‘missing person’ although they were certain the pair were together. U.S. Marshalls had offered a $5,000 reward for a tip leading to the apprehension of Ethan. The break they were missing came when Ethan called home to talk to someone with his new cell phone. Law enforcement now had a cell number. They needed him to make another call for them to lock in on his location. A few days later he called for Dominos pizza.
The Couches had been gone for close to a month by that point, but once law enforcement knew where he was, they pulled in Jalisco State Police. Ethan and Tonya had overstayed their entry and were in Mexico illegally. After a week of surveillance, they were located in a neighborhood near the resort and arrested. Tonya’s hair was much shorter and Ethan had died his ginger hair and beard black. It wasn’t a good look for him. Tonya and Ethan lied about their identities, but they had no papers and were detained.
Tonya was quickly brought back to the U.S., while Ethan initially declared he would fight extradition. He had a good reason to fight, because time was his friend. Tarrant County prosecutors had already declared their intent to see Ethan transferred to an adult court for probation. To do that, they had to have a hearing with Ethan present, and it needed to happen before his 19th birthday, which would occur in just three months. The clock was ticking.
Ethan’s attorneys wanted him to be revoked as a juvenile, but after his 19th birthday. The maximum Ethan could be sentenced to under the juvenile law would be a term until his 19th birthday which would have passed at the time of sentencing. In other words, he would basically receive time served. He wouldn’t be to be transferred from juvenile to adult punishment because of this catch. The defense could only benefit from a delay.
But things had changed in Tarrant County since Ethan was put on probation. Judge Jean Boyd had abruptly announced her retirement. Her successor, Judge Tim Menikos would be making decisions about Ethan’s case. Tarrant County also had a new District Attorney and she wasn’t afraid to go after Ethan aggressively, perhaps even make new law. Judge Menikos indicated that he might entertain a motion to transfer without Ethan physically present if he voluntarily absented himself from the proceedings. If Ethan was transferred while still down in Mexico and failed to appear in adult court, the prosecution might then claim he was violating his probation and ask the judge to sentence him to prison time.
It was a strange dilemma, one legal scholars were already arguing over and neither side was sure what would happen. Ethan Couch decided to return to Texas.
Transferring Ethan wasn’t without risk for the prosecution. Because the violations to his probation occurred as a juvenile and prior to his transfer to adult court, the defense would insist he was beginning with a clean slate, a do-over. An adult court could do more to Ethan though. The judge could sentence Ethan to spend up to 180 days in jail as a condition of probation and face new, stricter conditions. If Ethan violated probation, he could receive 10 years in prison, possibly on each case if the judge could be persuaded to stack the sentences. That would mean 40 years in prison.
February 19, 2016, Judge Menikos heard the motion to transfer Ethan Couch to adult court. The defense team faced a dilemma. Fighting the transfer would mean a series of juvenile hearings to determine if Ethan had violated his probation. If the judge found that he had, which seemed pretty likely given the overwhelming evidence, the judge could sentence him to 10 years in juvenile and he could then be transferred to an adult court at the age of 19. They decided not to fight the transfer and to face adult court and Ethan Couch was officially transferred to an adult court just two months before his 19th birthday.
Four new adult cases were filed. When cases are filed, the computer system automatically arbitrarily assigns a court on a wheel system. Ethan’s cases were filed in Criminal District Court Number Two, placing his fate in the hands of Judge Wayne Salvant. You might remember him as the stern, no-nonsense judge from the Melvin Knox case which I covered in Slow Justice. Co-defendants are usually assigned to the same court for practical reasons.
Tonya Couch had been charged with Hindering Apprehension of a Fugitive and Money Laundering. The last may sound odd, but it basically means she invested money in a criminal enterprise, in this case the flight of Ethan Couch. Her case would also be heard by Judge Salvant. She was granted bond and ordered, among other things, to consume no alcohol and wear a GPS monitor.
Ethan was not granted bond because he had already fled once and he was already convicted of four felonies for which he was on probation. Probation gives a judge greater control over a person than someone who has merely been accused.
April 2016, Ethan Couch appeared before Judge Salvant to receive his adult terms of probation. Judge Salvant sentenced to Couch to 180 days on each case as a condition of probation, the maximum amount, on each case. The judge surprised many when he stacked the cases for a total of 720 days, or 2 years. Those days were conditions of probation which means they don’t count against a future sentence if his probation is revoked. He still has to serve his probation.
The defense fought the sentence. Among the legal maneuvering tried by Couch’s defense team, they filed a writ asking for Judge Wayne Salvant to be removed from Ethan’s case. This was denied February 2017 by the 2nd Court of Appeals. Ethan remained in jail.
Outside of the jail, life continued on. In December of 2016, Fred Couch went to trial and was convicted of Impersonating a Police Officer. He was sentenced to probation.
Tonya had difficulty complying with the terms of her bond release and had to appear before Judge Salvant several times in 2017 to respond to allegations of drinking and possessing a gun. The judge had ordered her not to drink, but he hadn’t ordered her not to possess alcoholic beverages and she was working as a bartender. He amended the conditions and released her back on bond.
Then early 2018, just before Ethan release date of April 2nd , Tonya Couch was arrested for testing postitive for prohibited substance. Ethan was released from the Tarrant County Jail with a list of new, strict conditions on top of the old conditions including a curfew and an interlock device.
Couch must submit to electronic monitoring which will track his location and ensure he’s at home each day between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
He must also wear a SCRAM alcohol monitor and submit to continually wearing substance abuse test patches as well as providing, on demand, hair, urine, blood or any other biological sample for substance abuse testing. All monitoring and testing will be done at Couch’s expense.
He must agree to take no medications not prescribed by a doctor and must notify his probation officer if any medications are prescribed.
Lastly, he is ordered to not operate any vehicle that is not equipped with a camera and ignition interlock device.
He was picked up in a black Tesla with dark tinted windows and whisked away. Neither he nor his parents had anything to say, but one interesting voice has spoken up on Ethan’s behalf. Tim Williams, a pastor and childhood best friend of Brian Jennings visited Ethan in jail multiple times. He says he counseled him and now believes that Ethan Couch has become remorseful and committed to change. But ultimately, the only person who can keep Ethan out of jail, is Ethan.
That’s where the saga comes to a rest for now. Tonya still remains in jail awaiting her trial. Ethan must now adjust to life outside of confinement. Perhaps it’s best to end this article by saying to be continued. . .
Megyn Kelly’s interview with Tim Williams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIN2KRH0xkM
Affluenza, a portmanteau of affluence and influenza, is a term used by critics of consumerism. It is thought to have been first used in 1954 but it gained legs as a concept with a 1997 PBS documentary of the same name and the subsequent book, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001, revised in 2005, 2014).–Wikipedia
Ethan Couch’s court team may not have originated the term, but he’s the poster child for “Affluenza.” Just google “affluenza teen” and his face pops up along with his crimes and punishment, or lack thereof. Most people can tell you that he’s the rich kid who got away with killing someone while driving drunk, but there’s a lot more to this story and I’m going to explore it in my first every two-part article.
Couch, a juvenile at the time, was sentenced to probation for killing four people in Intoxication Manslaughter, igniting a firestorm of criticism, controversy and intense scrutiny. What was it about this case that brought so much attention? Was it the absurd buzzwords? The perception of purchased justice? Or was it Ethan himself, the very picture of wealthy privilege? Was it his lack of remorse? The callous disregard for the lives he destroyed? Or was it the terrible nature of the crime?
Sunday, June 16, 2013 was Father’s Day, but not for Ethan Couch. The 16 year-old was out with his friends for a good time. At sixteen, he had moved out of his parent’s house and into a large home of his own. His father built houses and had built this one. The house was party central for kids. Couch and a group of other teens had already been drinking when they tried to buy more beer at a Burleson Albertson’s Grocery Store, but were refused for being underage. Undeterred, Couch stole two cases of beer from a Walmart. The party had to continue.
An hour later, just before midnight, Couch was behind the wheel of his father’s red Ford F-350, speeding down Burleson-Retta road, going 70 down the unlit, two-lane road in a 40 mph zone. Blood tests would later reveal his Blood Alcohol Concentration to be a .24, three times the legal limit for an adult. He also had Valium and marihuana in his system. He had left the party with a seven other teens and was heading for a store.
Just 400 yards away, four adults were grouped around a disabled car. Breanna Mitchell’s SUV had blown a tire and two women who lived nearby, Hollie Boyles, 52, and her daughter Shelby, 21, had come out to help. Breanna, 24, was a chef at a private club. It was her dream job even if it meant she was coming home late at night. The blown tire made her swerve off the road and hit a mailbox. She knocked on the Boyle’s door and called her mother, Marla. Marla was also Breanna’s best friend. She calmed her daughter and told her she was on her way to get her. “I love you, Mom. Please hurry,” Breanna urged.
In a driveway, two boys waited inside a car. Brian Jennings, 41, a youth minister had also stopped to help. He was on his way home from his son’s graduation and had been giving rides to two pre-teen boys. He left them inside his white, Silverado pick-up as he went to check on the women.
Couch lost control of the truck, veering of the roadway and slamming into Breanna’s SUV and then into Jenning’s truck with the boys inside. Momentum slung Jenning’s truck into the roadway where it stuck an oncoming car. Couch’s truck flipped before coming to rest against a tree. The group of four standing around Breanna’s SUV were flung 60 feet in the air. None of them survived the impact. In that one, alcohol-soaked moment, four people were dead.
Sergio Molina also made a mistake on July 13th. The 16-year-old was a bright, popular soccer player on the night he went to a party at his friend Ethan’s house. After playing beer pong and drinking shots, he got in Ethan Couch’s truck with a group of kids. Six fit inside the cab, but there wasn’t room for everyone. Molina and another boy climbed into the bed of the truck. Molina was thrown from the truck in the crash and suffered a devastating head injury. He cannot walk or talk and requires round the clock care.
After the crash, Molina’s family appealed to the Couches for assistance. Molina’s family wasn’t well off, not like the Couches. Molina didn’t have insurance and after a month, he was sent home from the hospital. There was no money for rehab or other care. They refused and told the family “call a lawyer.”
The family did call a lawyer, ultimately receiving a 2-million-dollar settlement. But as a Washington Post article (links in Source Notes) mentions, early treatment of a head injury is key. His mother was left to wonder what would have happened if he had been treated for longer than a month. She had to quit her job to care for her son who can only blink yes and no in response to questions.
The other boy in the bed of the pick-up, Solimon Mohmand, was severely injured, with internal injuries and broken bones. Both the pre-teen boys in Jenning’s truck were wearing seat belts at the time of impact and both survived. The door was jammed shut, forcing them to crawl out a window. Lucas McConnel, 12, suffered only minor physical injuries, but he witnessed something that would traumatize even the adults there. Bodies were everywhere, bleeding and moaning. Someone was screaming. He located the bloody body of Brian Jennings, his pastor and friend. The people in the oncoming car they had struck would also survive as would all seven passengers of Couch’s truck, but with varying degrees of injury.
Lucas McConnel, Photo credit: KXAS
Marla Mitchell was still on the phone with her daughter when she heard the sickening crunch of metal. Marla arrived to the accident scene and frantically ran in the direction of the wreckage. Couch staggered to her, slurring his words. “You don’t want to go that way. There’s nothing good happening over there.” She would later recall the chaos in the dark as she frantically looked for her daughter
Eric Boyles was stunned. How could his wife and daughter be gone, just like that? They had only stepped out into their own front yard.
THE TRIAL…PART 2
ABCNEWS article with links to the deposition recordings: http://abcnews.go.com/US/affluenza-dui-case-deposition-tapes-reveal-details-fatal/story?id=34505481
An excellent article from D magazine: https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2015/may/affluenza-the-worst-parents-ever-ethan-couch/
Few places are as empty as a church on Thursday. March 3, 2011, there were only two people working at Northpoint Baptist Church on Brown Blvd: Pastor Clint Dobson, 28 and church secretary Judy Elliot, 67. Clint Dobson had been a pastor at the church for three years. Young and enthusiastic, he was equally at home discussing the Office or Seinfield with the younger church members as he was talking over the deep spiritual concerns of the more senior members. It wasn’t unusual for people to appear at the church doors looking for help. Although the front door was kept locked, no one seeking help would be turned away.
We don’t know everything about what happened that day, but we do know that both Clint and Judy were at work by 8:30 that morning. Northpoint is a satellite church of First Baptist Arlington. The L-shaped building is shared by another small church. That church also had two people present. We know they didn’t hear anything unusual, but they did notice Judy Elliot’s car, a white Mitsubishi Galant, was gone sometime between noon and one.
We know that Judy’s husband became increasingly concerned when no one answered the phone at the church. He went to the church and discovered his wife’s car was missing and no one would answer the door. He called another church member who had a key. Through a window, the men believed they could see a pair of men’s shoes and immediately called the police around 4 pm.
Photo credit: WFAA
Photo credit: WFAA
Photo credit: NBCDFW
Photo Credit: Google Earth Image
They found a horrific scene. Both Clint Dobson and Judy Elliot were on the floor, hands and feet trussed up behind them. They were severely beaten and plastic bags had been tied over their heads with a black electrical cord and masking tape. The responding officer and Judy’s husband hurriedly opened the bags. Clint was deceased but Judy was still alive, although severely injured. Her jaw was broken and all her teeth had been knocked out. Her face was so swollen and disfigured, that her own husband could only identify her by her clothing. She was mumbling incoherently.
Clint had been deceased for an hour or more. The medical examiner would later testify that he survived a horrific beating in which he sustained 21 separate injuries, but the plastic bag had been placed so tightly over his head that he sucked in the plastic and slowly suffocated.
Judy was unable to help police. She hovered on the brink of death in ICU. While at the hospital, she coded twice and her injuries were so severe she needed a blood transfusion.
The office had clearly been ransacked. Judy’s purse and car were missing as was Clint’s phone and laptop. Police began tracking Judy Elliot’s credit cards. They learned her cards were used to buy items at The Parks, an Arlington Mall on the same day as the murder. Someone purchased jewelry and shoes. Surveillance video showed two men using the cards.
At the same time detectives were obtaining the surveillance footage, other officers were interviewing two women who had come forward. The women told Arlington Police that a pair of their acquaintances, had been laughing about the murder. The women said that when a news story came on the television regarding the murder of an Arlington pastor, both men made “inappropriate comments” and flashed items they claimed belonged to the pastor. The women further said that the men had been trying to rob people recently and that Nelson had new shoes and clothing. Police now had names and soon they had photo graphs to match up to the surveillance video. The person using Judy Elliot’s credit cards within hours of her near fatal beating was Stephen Lewayne Nelson.
Within hours of learning this information, Arlington PD arrested Anthony Gregory Springs, the man who was with Nelson. Springs had Clint’s cell phone and the keys to Judy Elliot’s car. He told police that he didn’t participate in the killing, but that Nelson had picked him up in the white Mitsubishi Gallant around 2 pm. Nelson told him he had killed a man and probably the woman as well. They went to the mall and Nelson bought items for them both with the credit cards. He said Nelson had given him Clint’s phone.
Springs actually had an alibi for the time of the murders. Police were able to confirm his alibi and cell phone records would later confirm he wasn’t in the area at the time of the robbery and murder. That isn’t to say Springs was any kind of saint. He has been in prison since this for another aggravated robbery. He was out there committing crimes, but he was no Stephen Nelson.
March 3, 2011 marked the intersection of two lives, two men on very different trajectories. Twenty-eight year old Clint Dobson was a man of faith and he believed in putting his faith into action. He was actively involved in trying to make the world a better place. He had fallen in love and married. He had gone to Seminary to become a pastor. Friends and family also remember him as someone who was warm, outgoing, with a great sense of humor. He once described his “super power” as being the “world’s best parallel parker.”
Twenty-four year old Stephen Nelson had just been released from an in-patient treatment program. He already had an impressive criminal history starting from the age of 13 years old. He served juvenile probations and had been sent to TYC. His most recent troubles were from May 2010 after he had strangled and pulled a knife on his then girlfriend. This wasn’t the first attempt at turning Nelson’s life around and he was good at tell the counselors what they wanted to hear. His counselor wrote that Nelson had made great strides in anger control and learning how to work for things instead of grabbing at “fast money.” Nelson wrote that he knew how to keep from going back to jail. He completed the anger control counseling days before the murder. He was still on probation for the violent assault.
Between the murder and the arrest, more witnesses came forward. At 1:45, just more than an hour after the murder, Nelson sold Clint’s laptop to a man at a tire shop. The next day when the news broke, the man brought the laptop in to the police. He had thought the man who sold him the computer was Clint because all the paperwork in the laptop bag had that name on it. Two women at a QT were approached by a heavily tattooed man with dollar signs on his eyelids who showed them a phone and said it came from “that dead preacher in Arlington.” Nelson has dollar signs tattooed on his eyelids.
A woman named Brittany Bursey came forward to say that Nelson, Springs, and her nephew showed up at her house in a white Mitsubishi Gallant the afternoon of the murder. Nelson was introduced to her as “Romeo.” Springs told her that the car was stolen and Nelson had cards. He was offering to buy free gas for everyone. When she questioned Nelson, he admitting that he had “hit a lick,” which is street slang for robbery. He told her that “somebody was strangled and somebody got beat half to death…I think I killed her, too.” She described his demeanor as “Nonchalant. He didn’t really show any emotion or any care about anything.”
That night, Nelson went clubbing with his girlfriend. She testified that he was normal that night, untroubled.
Police located Nelson at his mother’s home just blocks from the church. He barricaded himself inside, but police were able to talk him out.
Nelson might be contained in jail, but he wasn’t’ safe, not by a long shot. While in jail he broke light bulbs, flooded his cell, threatened jailers and assaulted one of them. He flew into a rage during a visit. He was found in possession of a shank, narcotics, and even razor blades. All of that pales in response to what he did to Johnathan Holden. Holden was incarcerated in the same cell block as Nelson. His crime was breaking into a car, most likely to sleep. Holden suffered from mental illness and often ended up arrested for petty crimes.
According to the other inmates, Nelson tricked Holden into helping him with a “fake suicide attempt” to get the guards attention. Holden stood in front of the cell bars and let Nelson loop a blanket around his neck. Instead of the fake attempt, Nelson strangled Holden. He held him there until his legs stopped kicking, then grabbed a broomstick and celebrated by performing a “Chuck Berry Dance” on top of a table by using the broomstick like a guitar.
Nelson would insist Holden had committed suicide, but his DNA was under Holden’s nails as he had tried to escape once he realized Nelson’s intentions.
Nelson testified at his own trial. He claimed that Springs and another man went inside and remained outside. They did the crime while he waited outside. But he was forced to admit that he went inside after the attack. When he was arrested, police found his bloody shoes in his mother’s house. He had stepped in Clint and Judy’s blood. It was splattered on his shoes and he left his tracks at the murder scene. He also left fingerprints inside the church office and some white, metal studs which came off his belt. The studs were good evidence that he had been part of a violent struggle, especially when phone forensics placed the men he accused at another location at the time of the crime.
Nelson tried to claim they were still alive and he just stepped around them to rob them. His attorney had to prompt him. “Did you feel bad about that?” He agreed that he did. He showed no emotion while discussing it. He couldn’t even fake the emotion in front of the jury. Unsurprisingly, he was found guilty in only 90 minutes. The evidence was overwhelming.
Upon being convicted, however, he showed emotion for the first time: rage. He was taken to the holdover cell behind he courtroom. He howled and screamed and managed to break the sprinkler system with his bare hands. The courtroom began flooding with black water as court personnel rushed to grab boxes of evidence off the ground and subdue Nelson. The day before his trial resumed, he was found to have razor blades in his possession.
At the punishment phase, the jury heard all about Nelson’s behavior in jail, including the murder of Holden. He wasn’t even safe behind bars.
Nelson’s attorneys claimed that he had never gotten the help he needed. He first acted out at the age of 3 when he set his mother’s bed on fire. They pointed out that his father was incarcerated most of Nelson’s life and was a negative influence. Nelson got into trouble with Oklahoma juvenile authorities at the age of 6. Ronnie Meeks, with the Office of Juvenile Affairs in Oklahoma, testified that Nelson finally ended up in the custody of Juvenile Affairs while they tried to rehabilitate him. Once, Nelson stole Meeks’ truck while he was being transported from one facility to another. Meeks remembered Nelson well. “That’s the thing I remember about Steven. I don’t remember ever seeing any remorse about anything.”
Nelson moved to Texas with his mother and siblings. Mary Kelleher, a psychologist and juvenile services supervisor, testified that Nelson’s criminal history in Texas dates to 2000 when he was 13. At 14 he was committed to the Texas Youth Commission. Even at that young age, he was unrepentant. When she asked him why he kept committing crimes, he just said that he was bored.
She also testified about his home life. His mother tried, but was very frustrated by Steven. She did everything she could. He had two siblings who turned out fine, but from an early age, Nelson seemed destined to a life of crime. The jury sentenced Nelson to die by lethal injection. He has exhausted all appeals and remains defiant, writing poetry from behind bars. I’ve read it and it isn’t bad poetry. I say that as a former English teacher. But it’s self-indulgent and narcissistic. Every poem is about him because that is how Steven Nelson sees the world.
Two men. One whose epitaph reads “He was generous of heart, constant of faith, and joyful of spirit.”
The other who took that joyful life. Unrepentant. Cold. Heartless.
SOURCE NOTES: Here are some of the public articles I relied on in my investigation. In addition I reviewed some of the primary sources such as reports and photographs which may be obtained with open records requests.
In the northeast corner of Tarrant County, tucked at the end of a rough roadway, there is a field of crosses, each cross remembering a life stolen by violent crime. Hours of labor have transformed that weed-choked field into Our Garden of Angels, a place of peace and remembrance with paths, benches, and a gurgling waterfall. Families gather there occasionally, just to be in a calm place where they don’t have to shoulder the burden of grief alone. There, they are among those who truly understand.
This unique memorial for murder victims began with a single cross to remember a beautiful, young woman named Amy Robinson.
Nineteen year old Amy Robinson had dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, but that hope was far away. She was doing well learning to live on her own and hold a job. Amy had been born with Turner’s syndrome, a chromosomal disorder which inhibits physical and mental growth. She was extremely petite, only four feet five inches and she had the mental capacity of a 14 year old. But she was learning how to live on her own and every day she rode her bicycle to her job sacking groceries for Kroger in Arlington, Texas. Amy was sweet and trusting. She was very social and didn’t like to be alone and had no reason to be suspicious when two of her co-workers stopped to offer her a ride on her way to work one day.
Robert Neville, Jr. and Michael Hall had both been fired by Kroger, but Amy didn’t know that. Two hours after she was supposed to be at work, her supervisor called to say Amy had never arrived. Alarmed, her family called police immediately. Police spoke with current and former co-workers. Neville admitted knowing her and even meeting her socially, but he denied having seen her in months.
Neville was someone Amy would never have trusted if only she’d known his background. He had prior convictions for burglary and had only been out of prison for 8 months. As a juvenile, he had been prosecuted for molesting younger children including an 11 year old girl, a 9 year old boy, and a 7 year old boy. He also had a history of abusing animals. When Neville was 14, he threw kittens off a roof. Two years later he tied a cat to a tree by its tail and repeatedly hit the cat with a pole. He had been fired for ridiculing a mentally challenged co-worker and had refused to sack groceries for minority shoppers. He had a fascination with white supremacy. That was the tie that bound Neville and Hall together.
Hall also didn’t like people of color. He was a follower, not a leader, and he was happy to let Neville take the lead. As they were drinking at a house belonging to Neville’s grandmother, Neville mentioned how he would like to go “just go out and kill somebody.” Hall suggested they purchase guns. They bought a pair of .22 caliber rifles and practiced shooting. They formed a plan to be serial killers and selected their first victim, a mentally impaired black man whom they worked with. Neville would later claim in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram interview that they had “a bet to see who could shoot and kill the most people between the two of us.” They particularly wanted to kill “blacks or Mexicans—anybody as long as they weren’t our color.”
On February 15, 1998, the duo made a decision. Upon checking the work schedules, they learned the black coworker wasn’t going to be at work that day, but Amy would be and she was part Native American. They found her riding her bike to work and offered her a ride which she accepted. These weren’t strangers to her and she didn’t know they had been fired. They promised her that they were going to take a ride and then they would drop her off. Instead of taking her to work, they drove her to a field in the Northeast corner of Tarrant County, an isolated place tucked off a rough, pitted road. Amy worried she would be late for work.
Neville stopped at the field, pretending to have a flat tire. Neville and Hall took their weapons out into the field while Amy sat in the car listening to the radio until Hall came back. He convinced her that she needed to go talk to Neville, that he was waiting for her over by a tree. Neville was waiting for Amy, and he was armed with a crossbow. He shot at her several times, grazing her hair with an arrow. She fled for the car but Hall shot her with a pellet gun in the leg. She cried from the pain as he began peppering her with pellets. Neville then brought up the .22 caliber rifle. They took turns shooting Amy. Neville shot her in the chest with the rifle and Hall shot her in the chest multiple times with the pellet gun.
She went to the ground, shaking and crying, then she called Neville by name. It was the last thing Amy would ever say. The pair became worried someone would overhear them so Neville shot Amy in the head to finish her. They had maneuvered her back into the field where she wouldn’t be readily visible from the road. They abandoned her body and left her bicycle with her.
Meanwhile, Amy’s family and friends were frantically looking for her. Her face stayed on the nightly news. It occurred to Hall and Neville that they might have missed a chance to rob Amy, so they went back to her body and took the small amount of cash from her pocket. They then used her body for target practice.
As so many narcissists do, Hall just had to brag about what they had done. He told his step-brother who went to the Arlington police. As police focused on Neville and Hall, they made for the border, but were arrested in Eagle Pass trying to cross into Mexico on March 3rd. Once detained, both men spent a lot of time boasting to reporters and investigators. They openly laughed about torturing Amy. Hall went so far as to imitate the sounds she was make and act out his shooting of her. He described how she begged to live, but died with Robert Neville’s name on her lips.
Robert Neville, Jr.
The interviews would come back to haunt them. Both men claimed diminished mental capacity as a defense, but the juries saw the videos of them laughing it up about torturing and killing Amy. The described her as “easy prey” and talked about how they wanted to be serial killers. Hall specifically mentioned that they chose Amy “because I didn’t have to put bruises on her to get her in the car.” He bragged about being the one to convince Amy that she was safe with them and even getting her to leave the car and walk over to Neville. He said she might have gotten away if he hadn’t been there to help Neville. Asked if he had any remorse, on the Fox 4 video that was played, he laughed and said “I wouldn’t want to be her. She had to take a lot of pain.” The juries sentenced both men to death.
Amy’s grandmother, Carolyn Barker wasn’t satisfied. For her, the media was too focused on the perpetrators and not on the victim. It seemed to her that Hall and Neville wanted to be famous. Every time the murder was covered, she had to look at their faces, hear their words, listen to everyone talk about their upbringings and mental status. What about Amy? Amy was the one who should be remembered.
Carolyn went to find the place in the weed-choked field where Amy had died. She says that part of her Native American beliefs are that a person’s spirit separates from the body and ascends to the afterlife at the place of death and that place becomes sacred. She marked that sacred spot with a cross. Amy had never liked being alone, and when other families in a grief support group expressed interest, she encouraged them to place their crosses beside Amy’s. This was no ordinary support group, but Families of Murdered Victims, and from there the unique memorial to crime victims was born.
Neville was executed February 8, 2006. Hall was executed February 15, 2011, thirteen years to the day from when he murdered Amy Robinson. Although it was financially and emotionally draining, Amy’s mother and sisters made the journey to see the executions. Her grandmother Carolyn did not, choosing instead to celebrate Amy’s life among her fellow angels. Her mother Tina said that she needed to see their final justice for herself. Both men expressed regret and apologized to the families.
Neville claimed to have become a Christian and told them he would see Amy on the other side and apologize to her and tell her how much her family loved and missed her. Hall also claimed to have found Christianity and said he wished he could make things right. Amy’s sisters weren’t interested in forgiving him. Amanda expressed that she believed he was not remorseful but playing for cameras right to the end. Ruth said she felt like a weight had been lifted from her and she was glad Hall died the same day Amy did. It felt right to her.
From the four original crosses, Amy’s field is now home to more than 160 crosses, tangible reminders of lives taken in violence. Carolyn Barker’s love for her granddaughter transformed her grief into something beautiful. She wanted Amy’s memory to live on and she has succeeded. The memorial has been named Our Garden of Angels. You can take a visual tour from their website and read more about some of the precious lives remembered there at http://ourgardenofangels.org/.
Hall v. State, 67 S.W.3d 870 (Tex.Crim.App. 2002). (Direct Appeal)
Hall v. Texas, 537 U.S. 802, 123 S.Ct. 70 (2002). (Remand)
Hall v. State, 160 S.W.3d 24 (Tex.Crim.App. 2004). (Direct Appeal After Remand)
Hall v. Quarterman, 534 F.3d 365 (5th Cir. 2008). (Habeas)