Garden of Angels: The Murder of Amy Robinson

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.

Amy-Robinson.jpg

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.

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.

cross

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/.

 

 

 

SOURCE NOTES:

http://ourgardenofangels.org/

http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/neville1011.htm

Neville’s Appeals: Neville v. Dretke, Not Reported in F.Supp.2d, 2004 WL 2049335 (N.D. Tex. 2004) (Habeas)
Neville v. Dretke, 423 F.3d 474 (5th Cir. 2005) (Habeas)

http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-5th-circuit/1209854.html

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.N/n1/neville-robert-james.htm

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)

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.H/images/h/hall_michael_wayne/06-70041-CV.pdf

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.H/h1/hall-michael-wayne.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Evil Lives Next Door: The Bathtub Killer

He looks harmless enough. Photos show a man with an earnest,  slightly nerdy face. He wasn’t an imposing figure, standing a mere 5 foot 9 with a slender build. He liked dogs, cooking, and fishing. He had no criminal record and held down a job. In the mid-1990’s he was working office jobs and living in Arlington, but he had done warehouse jobs and sometimes he drove a forklift. He was the sort of man you might notice, or you might not. There was nothing that stood out about him. But in 1996 and again in 1999, he caused waves of panic for women in the DFW area, because Dale Devon Scheanette was a serial rapist and a brutal killer.

Vu_cover
Christine Vu

25 year-old school teacher Christine Vu lived with her Fiancé, Thang Khuu at the Peartree Apartments in Arlington, Texas. On Tuesday,  September 17, 1996, Khuu got off work early and came home. He was surprised to find their apartment locked and dead-bolted from the inside. Thinking Christine might be in the bathroom, he went and smoked a cigarette and then came back, only to find the door still locked. He went to a payphone and called but there was no answer. He came back to try one more time, but found the door unlocked.

 

 

 

Vu_Bathroom
Vu’s bathroom

He went inside where he discovered a scene from his worst nightmares. Christine was naked, face down in the bathtub. Her hands and feet were bound with duct tape, with a strip of the tape connecting them down her back, as if she had been “hog-tied” with duct tape. Detective Ed Featherstone was assigned the case. Initially he was very suspicious of Khuu. After all, we know it’s usually someone close to the victim. Khuu was extremely cooperative and DNA from semen recovered from Vu’s body excluded him as the rapist and killer. In addition, police discovered a fingerprint off the deadbolt lock on the front door. Heartbreakingly, Thang Khuu was most likely sitting outside smoking a cigarette while his fiancée was being killed.

Vu_Door
Christine Vu’s door

Christine had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and drowned. The print on her door didn’t match anyone who had a reason to be in Christine’s apartment leading police to conclude that they might have that rarity, a stranger killing on their hands. Within a few months, this would be confirmed.

 

Prescott_cover
Wendie Prescott

Wendie Prescott also lived at the Peartree apartments while she saved her money to go to beauty school. Wendie was expected at a Christmas Eve shopping trip. Her family became concerned when she didn’t appear and didn’t answer repeated calls so her aunt and uncle went over to check on her. She was left exactly like Christine: naked, bound by duct tape, floating in her bathtub. Detective Tommy Lenoir was called to the scene but it didn’t take him more than a minute to know what he was seeing, the genesis of a serial killer. He immediately called Featherstone to tell him they had another one.

 

 

Prescott_Bathroom
Prescott bathroom

 

 

Not only were the two women killed in an identical way, but the apartments had identical floorplans and décor. Then there was another piece of evidence that confirmed it if there was any doubt. Once again, the killer left behind a print, this time in the dust on a TV stand. He also left behind DNA that would match back to Vu’s rapist and killer. Police were hopeful that the prints or DNA would lead to a suspect. Surely the killer was in the system. This couldn’t be a first crime.

Prescott_Fingerprint
Thumbprint left on Prescott’s TV Stand

Christmas morning at the Peartree apartments was chaos. Word spread rapidly and all the single women were breaking their leases and moving out. Family members had descended, loading up cars with possessions. It made getting statements or canvassing potential witnesses extremely difficult. The exodus also made it easy for the killer to move out without attracting attention.

To the police’s consternation, the DNA and prints led nowhere. The ran the prints through AFIS, the American Fingerprint Identification System and were surprised to get no hits. For months, police pursued promising suspects, obtaining DNA samples that they hoped would lead to a resolution, but again and again, they got no match. They did clear over 200 suspects. They held their breath, wondering when he would strike again, but nothing. Gradually, they began to breathe again. What had happened to him? Perhaps he moved away. Perhaps he had died. Whatever the reason, he seemed to be gone.

AKA_Sorority_House
AKA Sorority House, UTA

 

Chima_Before.JPG
Chima Benson

February 23, 1999, 22 year old Chima Benson was a senior at UTA. On that night, she went to sleep in the AKA sorority house. She awoke with a man on top of her. He put a gun to her head and he told her, “Do what I say, and I won’t kill you.” He raped her orally. Chima wasn’t the sort to give up easily and she bit him, hard enough that he would forever carry a scar. Unfortunately, this enraged him and he beat her so severely she would need two facial surgeries to repair the damage. He raped her and left her naked, incapacitated and bloody on the floor of her bedroom. Police got a DNA sample from the semen and one more clue. He wasn’t wearing a mask. Chima got a good look at his face. She has been outspoken about her ordeal, even discussing it while she was on the Big Brother TV show. She now works as a TV host.

Chima_Beaten
Survivor Chima Benson’s face

Detective Lenoir soon received a tip. He heard from Wendie Prescott’s best friend and the last person to see her alive that until recently, she had lived in the AKA Sorority house, in the very same room that was now Chima Benson’s. “That should have been me,” she said. She believed the killer might be her ex-boyfriend who had been stalking her. The tie between Peartree and the AKA house couldn’t be ignored. When the crime lab compared the DNA of Chima’s attacker with that of the Bathtub Killer, it was a match. He was back.

They were hopeful when comparing it to the boyfriend that the case would finally be solved, but he was excluded. The killer was still at large. But at least they now had a physical description of the man, as well has his fresh injury. They went back and began checking the DNA against other sexual assaults. They got another hit, a sexual assault from Grand Prairie. Then another.  It’s unusual for a killer to de-escalate from murder to rape instead of the reverse, but the Bathtub Killer had done just that. Forensics would tie him five rapes following the two murders. The killer had morphed into a serial rapist.

Victims included Adrienne Fields, who has also been outspoken as a minister for other victims. In the Source Notes, I’ve included a link to an interview with her.

Adrienne_Fields
Adrienne Fields

Adrienne had seen the story of the murders in 1996. She had a feeling of doom, so strong that she moved out of Arlington to Grand Prairie. Although she couldn’t explain it, she was sure that man on the news would come after her. She was right.  October 26, 1999, she woke up in the night to the sound of someone running. She sat up in time to see a man in a mask rushing at her. For two hours he sexually assaulted her.

During the ordeal that followed, he told her that the “The Devil kept making him do it.” and also “You’re not like the others.” She knew then that this was a serial rapist. He knew her name and other information, making it clear he had been stalking her. When he was done, he simply walked away. DNA testing confirmed that the Bathtub Killer had indeed attacked her. The fear would hold her prisoner. At night she roamed her house, checking locks on the doors and windows.  She didn’t sleep soundly until a year later when police would call her to say they had the rapist in custody.

As so often happens, it was an advance in science that dropped the final puzzle piece into place. The FBI had a new AFIS system: I-AFIS.  This system could rotate prints and locate points of comparison where none had been matched before. The best latent print was the dust print from Wendie Prescott’s TV Stand, so Sgt. Gary Kohn submitted that print. Two weeks later, he had a result, and a name: Dale Devon Scheanette. Scheanette had been recently arrested on a burglary charge. Crime Scene Officer Joel Stevenson examined the prints and confirmed they were a match. But what about the print from Christine Vu’s door? He  compared those, and again: match. Excited, the two men took the information to the detectives. They had a suspect.

Detective Lenoir quickly checked the name against the case book. Dale Scheanette had lived in Peartree Apartments during the murders. Nothing had ever stood out about him and at the time he had no criminal history. He hadn’t voluntarily donated DNA. Police quickly located Scheanette still living in Arlington. He denied ever having been in the victims’ apartments, but he couldn’t answer why his print would be in both locations. Once again, he refused to voluntarily give a DNA sample or to allow inspection of his penis for damage. But now police had the evidence needed for a Search Warrant to compel him. They found the scar to his penis and DNA matched. He was charged, indicted, and brought to trial in 2003.

There wasn’t much Scheanette’s defense team could do. J.R. Molina, lead attorney for his defense team summed it up saying, “We put on our defense that the evidence was insufficient, but we were fighting that science … fingerprints in the apartment, and they had DNA. That’s some pretty strong stuff.”

January 8th, 2003, sentence was pronounced on Dale Devon Scheanette. The rape victims all testified against him at the punishment phase. They told the jurors similar stories of rape, beatings and sodomy. They were threatened should they ever come forward. After what they suffered and the threats, it’s important to remember that these are only the known victims. It’s entirely credible that others suffered at this man’s hands, but were too afraid to report the crime.  The women formed tight bonds during that trial. They supported one another through the grueling process and hugged and cried when the jury sentenced Scheanette to death by lethal injection.

Scheanette never spoke about his crimes. Not to detectives, not to reporters. He never admitted guilt, so we will never know what was going on in his head.  Why did he de-escalate? How did he choose his victims? He remained a cipher.

He filed numerous appeals, all based on sufficiency of evidence and procedural matters. He didn’t assert actual innocence, but he didn’t offer an alternative explanation either. As his own attorney noted, there wasn’t much to say about the strong forensic evidence. He asked for pen pals on an anti-death penalty site. Again, he complained about capital punishment being wrong and how the system was flawed. The irony is thick there.

After he had exhausted the legal process, his sister wrote appeals on his behalf, but his time ran out on February 10, 2009. Members of Wendie Prescott’s family chose to attend. Christine Vu’s family did not. Scheanette ignored them all.  According to ClarkProsecutor.org, his last words were not a statement of love for his family or plea for forgiveness. “My only statement is that no cases ever tried have been error-free. Those are my words. No cases are error-free.”

I have mentioned my ambivalence to the death penalty before, but I think I can speak for women everywhere when I say I feel safer without that man in the world. We all fear the monster in the night, but it is hard to feel safe when you see him and realize that anyone could be a monster inside. You can’t tell by the face he wears. He could live anywhere. Even next door.

SOURCE NOTES;

From <https://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/37367103.html&gt;

19 years later, ‘bathtub killer’ survivor speaks – YouTube

https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Arlington-Bathtub-Killer-To-Be-Executed-Tuesday-Night.html

https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Bathtub-Killer-Executed.html

https://mylifeofcrime.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/monsters-among-us-d-scheanette/

http://murderpedia.org/male.S/s1/scheanette-dale-devon.htm

http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/scheanette1146.htm

Cold Case Files: Déjà vu, Season 4, Ep 15,

Scheanette v. State, 144 S.W.3d 503 (Tex.Crim.App.,2004) (Direct Appeal).
Scheanette v. Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, Not Reported in F.Supp.2d, 2005 WL 3147874 (N.D.Tex. 2005) (Pro Se).
Scheanette v. Quarterman, 482 F.3d 815 (5th Cir. 2007) (Habeas).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buried Alive: The Lisa Rene Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Byrd Lake beauty.png
Byrd Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl
Pearl Rene

Source Notes:

The Heat Mag: Remembering Lisa Rene

Neil Nick Rene’s Federal Charges

His sentence

Dallas News

Bruce Webster’s appeal

My Life of Crime Blog

Orlando Hall’s first appeal and second appeal

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

One Angry Man: The Tarrant County Courthouse Shooting

courthouse lighting

It doesn’t look like a crime scene. The old Tarrant County Courthouse stands guard over the Trinity River, marking the visual divide between historic old North Main, home to some of the best Tex-Mex you’ll ever eat, and South Main Street’s maze of government buildings that cozy up to Sundance Square with its newer, chic eateries and shopping. Built in 1895, the pink granite Grande Dame of the downtown scene was designed to resemble the Capitol Building in Austin with rotundas and a large dome. As newer courthouses were built to house criminal, civil and family courts, the plan was to demolish the old building and connect North and South Main. Fortunately, the old building was saved that fate. The clock tower on the dome still marks the hours. Now days, courts have all moved into the newer buildings, with the exception of one Justice of the Peace court. Instead the building houses the county clerk’s office, land records, and a county law library. But in 1992, it was still home to the 2nd Court of Appeals.

Chris Marshall, 41 was Chief of the Appellate Section of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office and he was there on July 1, 1992 to present a case later that morning. With Chris was a young appellate attorney, Steve Conder, 27.

A three judge panel was on the bench: Clyde Ashworth, John Hill, and David Farris. Dan Hollified, a criminal defense attorney stood at the podium, arguing a case before the panel.  Outside, on a window behind the judge’s bench, Tim McGinty, 41, a contract painter was perched on a hanging ladder.

John Edwards, 32, a civil trial attorney, entered the staircase around 10:00 am that morning. He was due in the court for a later case.

About that same time, Toby Goodman, a lawyer and state representative left the appellate courtroom. He went down the stairs and into the hallway.

Also present in the court room was another lawyer named George Lott who  sat in a conservative blue suit with his briefcase at his feet. At the time, Lott was no longer a practicing attorney, although no one in the room realized it. There were several who thought he looked familiar, but that’s the way it is in the legal community. You see the same faces over and over, some friends, many nodding acquaintances. The legal community in Tarrant County is relatively small for a county of more than a million people. The pool of litigators is even smaller, but cordial.

courthouse interior

Lott had been at the courthouse just the day before and the only person surprised to see him was the attorney who had represented Lott’s wife in their divorce, Douglas Wright.
As divorces went, Lott’s was exceptionally messy and difficult. Lott’s wife was also an attorney and was fearful of him. His anger and disdain for her, for the entire proceeding bled over into an enmity for her attorney. Wright’s father had been a judge and Lott made derogatory comments about him during the custody trial until Wright objected and Lott was ordered by judge Mary Ellen Hicks to refrain from discussing Wright’s father in front of the jury.

Lott represented himself. He had to because all three of his prior attorneys had resigned, unable to work with him. The jury awarded custody of the child to his mother. Lott was convinced of wrongdoing and collusion on the part of the judge, Wright and his ex-wife. More likely the jury was alarmed by his obvious anger and instability. In typical narcissist fashion, Lott blamed everyone else for this. The problem couldn’t be with him. Clearly, the judge was against him. There was a conspiracy and everyone was in on it. He was robbed of his “right” to his son.

Money wasn’t an object for Lott. He had inherited half a million dollars from his grandparents. He only practiced law from 1981 to 1988 where he voluntarily quit his practice and moved from Fort Worth to an Arlington apartment complex near I-20. It’s unclear what he did with his time. He owned a boat and was seen fishing or just walking around. He listed his occupation as “computer programmer” but does not seem to have been working for anyone.

Lott’s ex-wife moved to Illinois with their son. Lott traveled back and forth to visit the child until new allegations surfaced. The son, whose name I’ve chosen not to use here although it is in public documents, made an outcry of sexual abuse. The allegations– which included sodomizing the child with objects–were investigated. In another trial, Lott lost his visitation rights due to the abuse. An Illinois grand jury indicted him for Aggravated Sexual Assault of a child. That criminal trial was set for July 20 1992.

The week before the Tarrant County attack, Lott sent a threatening letter to prosecutors in Illinois and called the court clerk to complain that evidence was being withheld in his case. He called Bob Ray Sanders, a radio host at KLIF-AM and spoke for about 4 minutes. He rambled on about the courts and how they were all against him and how you couldn’t get justice in Tarrant County. He said “they cost me my life.”

He was a stranger to his neighbors. One neighbor, when interviewed about Lott said, “I’ve seen this guy hundreds of times, and he’s never said a word… He was really, really a strange guy. He was like a zombie. No one around here will have any buddy-buddy stories about him.”

courthouse lit

It was after the clock tower chimed 10:00 on July 1, 1992,  when Lott got to his feet and removed his Glock 17 9mm from his briefcase and began shooting. Judge Farris dove under the judges bench. Judges Ashworth and Hill were both shot. Ashworth was seriously wounded.

Dan Hollifield fell to the floor and crawled away. Later he said it was “just astounding to look around a see a man standing with his arm out, holding a gun.”

Chris Marshall was fatally wounded with several shots to the chest and Conder was injured. Lott emptied his gun, then he calmly reloaded and continued shooting.

McGinty, the contractor had just climbed down from his ladder perch for a break when bullets zinged through the window right where he had been. If he hadn’t grown thirsty on that hot July day, he would likely have been a sixth victim.

All over the courthouse, the shots echoed. One survivor later remarked that it sounded like fireworks going off inside the building. Next door to the Court of Appeals, Judge Weaver hid in his office restroom. A briefing clerk hid in his closet. Bookkeepers locked their doors. Some hid under desks.

Courthouse inside

Lott calmly finished shooting. Was he satisfied he had done enough damage to make his point? He went down the stairs where he encountered John Edwards, an attorney  for the prestigious firm Haynes and Boones where he specialized in corporate litigation. John had a wife and daughters.

Julie Level, an elections office employee heard John begging for his life and yelling for help. Without speaking, Lott executed John there in the stairwell.  He ran down the hall, past Toby Goodman, the attorney who had just finished his court business.

Lott exited the building, got in his van and drove around for a bit. Meanwhile, police swarmed the building. A massive manhunt was underway involving local police, the sheriff’s department, the FBI with helicopters and every means available, but it was unnecessary. Lott wanted to be known for his actions. He was making a statement.

At 4:15 pm, Lott walked into the lobby of WFAA,-TV in Dallas. He signed in with his own name and asked to speak with Tracy Rowlett. For years, Rowlett had been the face of the channel eight evening news.  There was always something warm, but professional about Rowlett that made him extremely popular.

Rowlett and an assignments manager interviewed Lott on camera for around thirty minutes. Lott calmly explained what he had done. In his mind, the Second Court of Appeals was wrong to deny him a new trial on his custody case.

“It’s a horrible, horrible thing I did today,” Lott said. “I have sinned and am certainly wrong, but someone needs to look into what happened to me…I basically went in the courtroom and sat for a while and then got up and shot apparently five people…I was shooting at the court, essentially, but other people got in the way or did things. You have to do a horrible, horrible thing to catch people’s attention.”

Lott was a classic narcissist. This was all about him. People just “got in the way.” It didn’t matter that he was destroying lives. Little girls would grow up without their father. Survivors would forever feel vulnerable. Lott had a point to make and that was all that mattered.

“He feels terribly wronged by the justice system,” Jim Owens a prosecutor from Illinois told the Dallas Observer. ”What happened today didn’t surprise any of us. In fact, I think it could have just as easily happened here.”

Lott explained to Rowlett that he had a  gun behind his back and more ammo in his sock. He calmly gave those items to Rowlett and surrendered to Dallas police.

Lot arrest

Tarrant County had 32 walk-through metal detectors, but they were all in storage. Spurred by courthouse violence that had occurred around the nation, the County Commissioners purchased the items, but never installed them because none of the courts specifically asked for them. One judge claimed she had been told that the personnel necessary to operate those detectors would be too expensive. There were armed bailiffs in the building, but not specifically in each courtroom. The bailiff closest to the attack never responded.

Courtrooms are safer now. You can’t get in without a thorough screening. Each courtroom has multiple armed bailiffs. There are panic buttons strategically placed around each courtroom. Court house staff regularly goes through “active shooter” training. None of those address the elephant in the room: how much damage can be done by one angry man with a gun.

George Lott represented himself at trial. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. He refused to appeal his sentence and was put to death eighteen months later in what remains the speediest execution in modern Texas history.

Lott book in

Mass killings aren’t new.

In 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother with a knife, then he went to the University of Texas and climbed the tower with a rifle. His rampage ended with sixteen dead and thirty-one injured.

Going back even farther, in 1949 Howard Unruh went through Camden, New Jersey in what would come to be known as the “Walk of Death.” Unruh walked through his neighborhood shooting everyone he saw. He murdered thirteen people that day including two children. His youngest victim was just two-years old.

Unruh is the first known mass gun crime in U.S. history, but before Unruh, there was Andrew Kehoe. Kehoe was a treasurer on the school board in Bath, Michigan. He was angry over taxes so May 18th, 1927, Kehoe rigged his farm and out-buildings to explode with his wife inside. He also rigged the school house. He parked outside and detonated the building killing most within, including the children. He then climbed back into his truck and blew up himself killing another six people who were in the blast radius. He killed 45 people and injured another 58.

Although the mass killings aren’t new, they seem to be occurring with greater frequency and with alarmingly large numbers. Gun violence has actually become rarer, but deadlier. While individual gun crimes are growing fewer, mass murder is on the rise.

Gun control sounds like a sensible solution, except how and where do you draw the lines and how do you put back the genie into the bottle? I grew up in rural Texas in a house where guns were a fact of life. My father was in law enforcement and always had guns. My husband and eldest son own guns. Everyone where I live hunts or has guns for protection. Coyotes are a real concern. A neighbor’s game camera recently showed a mountain lion.

Guns are everywhere. I’ve seen estimates ranging between three and four hundred million guns which are privately owned in America. How can we ban something that is everywhere? Every drug case I handle with large amounts of drugs? There are guns in those cars and most of the guns are stolen or already illegal. The bad guys will have guns. The Texas church shooter shouldn’t have been allowed to have a gun. He was already banned but all it took was someone not following through with paperwork and there he was, one angry man with a gun.

I don’t have an answer, but I join the voices of those frustrated by the violence.

Something has to change.

 

 

 

 

No Safe Place: The Kidnapping of Opal Jo Jennings

When I was a child living in a small, rural Texas town, the rule was be home by dark. Summers were long and hot. We ran around with the other children in the area, fishing in the creek and playing in yards up until the fireflies came out. They were our cue to hightail it home and eat dinner. I remember the kidnapping of Etan Patz. In 1979, six-year-old Etan vanished while walking the short distance to his school bus stop. The news was shocking, but after all, he was in Manhattan, a world away from our tiny town. Still, parents watched us as we waited for the school bus in the mornings.

October 1, 1993, we were rocked again by the kidnapping of Polly Klaas, taken from her own home during a slumber party. I was a law student at the time and followed the case closely. It was a parent’s worst nightmare, but that was California for you and we all knew nothing like that could happen here. But we did start locking our doors.

Amber Hagerman was much closer to home. She was snatched off her bike in Arlington, Texas in 1996. By that time I was a prosecutor toying with the idea of parenthood. Amber may have been in Texas, but she was in Arlington which was turning into a large city and she was riding through a grocery store parking lot. Parents kept their kids closer to home after that. No more riding bikes away from the house.

March 26, 1999, six-year-old Opal Jo Jennings was playing next to her grandparents’ house with her two-year-old cousin Austin and a four year old friend, Spencer. She was wearing her pink Barbie shoes. Pictures show a child with sparkling blue eyes, thick, dark hair, freckles, and a ready grin. As the children played outside, a man drove up in what Spencer would remember as a “purpledy-black” car. The man had a pony tail, facial blemishes, and wore a red baseball cap. He said “hi” and got out of the car. Without warning, he grabbed up Opal, punched her hard in the chest, threw her in the car and drove off. Spencer ran inside and immediately told the family. An Amber alert was issued.

Opal was originally from Arkansas, but she and her mother had been living with her grandparents in Saginaw at the time. Saginaw is a small North Texas community, around 10 miles north of Fort Worth, best known for its Train and Grain Festival. Three railroads converged in the agricultural community. At the time of Opal’s disappearance, there were around 10,000 residents. Saginaw wasn’t anything like the big city. This sort of thing didn’t just happen in Saginaw. If there was a crime, well, it was surely just the proximity to Fort Worth. Saginaw was a safe place.

saginaw

16 law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were involved in the search. Information flooded so the authorities began the daunting task of sorting through more than 2,500 tips. Volunteers were assembled to search the fields, but for months, there was nothing. Opal remained missing.

One of those many tips came from a Wise County probation officer. It was the break investigators had been praying for.

Richard “Ricky” Lee Franks was convicted in 1991 for molesting his brother’s 8-year-old daughter and had admitted sexually abusing another young female relative. Franks struggled with completing his seven year probation and it had to be extended. As part of the probation, he was evaluated for mental health. He was found to have a low IQ. The report by psychologist Darrell Horton classified Franks as “a pedophile with mild mental retardation.” He also wrote that Franks reported having sex with little girls on multiple occasions, but that sometimes he fantasized about his urges instead of acting on them.

Franks

On April 1, Franks’ probation officer noticed a change in him. This was Franks’ first meeting after the Opal Jo Jennings kidnapping. Franks showed up for the meeting with his ponytail cut off. His hair was now short. He was clean shaven. The probation officer remembered Franks previously wearing a red ball cap all the time. He never saw him with it again. He also knew that Franks drove a car similar to what was being described in the media. He called in a tip to the police line.

Weeks later, police got to that tip. When they arrived to meet with Franks, they noticed he drove a black Cougar, a glossy car that might be considered “purpledy-black” by a young child. They also learned that Franks’ brother had lived on the same street as Opal’s grandparents. Franks was familiar with the neighborhood. He had visited his brother not a hundred feet from the place Opal was taken. His brother moved in December 1998. It’s possible Franks had seen Opal and other children playing at the location.

A promising lead to be sure, but police didn’t have enough yet for an arrest warrant; However, Franks had a traffic warrant. Police picked him for that on August 17, 1999 around 8:30 pm. Instead of being taken to the police station, he was taken to the special crimes section of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office where he was met by Danny McCormick, an investigator with TCCDA who told him he would like to talk about the disappearance of Opal Jo Jennings. Franks agreed with everything they asked. He agreed to his car being searched and he agreed to a polygraph. He also waived his 5th amendment rights and agreed to talk with the investigators.

McCormick waited for the polygraph examiner, Eric Holden to arrive. This wasn’t wasted time. Although he didn’t question Franks during this time, McCormick was building a report with him. Holden arrived around 10:30 pm and it was show time. Before administering a polygraph, the examiner must first determine if the subject is voluntarily agreeing and if they are capable of taking the polygraph. They cannot be medicated or intoxicated. They can’t be suffering under a severe mental defect. The polygraph examiner needs to set a base line by asking questions with known answers. They need to be briefed about the case so they can formulate a few simple questions. The phrasing of these questions is key. Polygraphs are subjective and can be fooled if the subject is a sociopath who is skilled at deception, but also if the question is poorly worded.

By 2:00 am, Holden was ready to start the test. Half an hour later, it was concluded. The tested indicated deception by Franks. Holden and McCormick informed Franks of this and asked him to explain his story in more detail. Franks started talking. He talked for two and a half hours until he said he was tired. At that time, not all interrogations were recorded. Holden showed Franks five pages of notes he had taken and Franks wrote on the pages that this was correct. McCormick then typed up Franks’ statement. He was read it aloud and then read it to himself. They went over the confession step by step. Once satisfied, Franks signed it.

Franks was taken before a judge. On the way, he began having second thoughts and told officials that “words were put in his mouth and he hadn’t done the things contained in the statement.” McCormick asked Franks if the things Franks had told him to put in the statement were true and Franks then admitted that they were. While waiting outside the magistrate’s room, Franks again began recanting his confession, then he recanted the recantation.

I’m going to include the entire confession and let you read it for yourself. Warning: It is graphic and disturbing.

On March 26, 1999, I went to Saginaw Texas to see my brother, [Danny], when I saw Opel [sic] Jennings and two other kids (a boy and a girl) playing in a field beside a house. This was about 4:00PM in the afternoon or a little later. I was driving a Ford Cougar, and was by myself. I went by Danny’s house, saw the girls and a boy outside playing in the field.   I stopped to talk to them and Opel [sic] said, “where are you going?” I was in the car and Opel [sic] was talking to me through the fence, she asked where I was going, and I told her that I was going to see if my brother was home so I could go visit with him. I told Opel [sic], “If he’s not there, I’m going home.” She said, “they might be at work,” and I then asked her how she was doing and she said she was doing good in school. She said that she was getting good grades. She came up to the car on the driver’s side, the driver’s door was open, she came up to the door, gave me a hug, and shook my hand. I asked her if she was passing and she said “I hope so.” I then told her that if she was doing good in school, then she would. I said, “I hope you pass.” The other kids wanted her to hurry up so she could play with them. I said, “you need to get back and finish playing what you‘all are playing.” They were playing some kind of ball.

She reached in the car, I thought she was going to try and grab me, I didn’t know what she was going to try to do, so I pushed her back and said, “what are you trying to do, I’m not the one to be doing it with.” I didn’t want to do nothing that would get me in trouble, she was just a kid.   I don’t see myself doing nothing like that. I was afraid she was going to make a pass at me or get me to take her somewhere. She was wanting me to take her to the store, she went around the front of the car to get in the passenger side. I was afraid she wanted me to take her to have sex with her or something. I took her to the store, she got in the passenger side, the other two kids were outside playing. I told her I was going to bring her back so she could finish playing with the other two kids. I took her to the convenience store a block from the house, I sat in the car, and she got something to drink.

She bought a coke, then she came back to the car, she said “thank you for bringing me up here,” but I said, “I won’t do it again.” Opel [sic] tried to move over toward me, I didn’t know what she tried to do. She tried to grab me between the legs, she grabbed my dick.   She wanted me to fuck her, I told her no. She said “fuck me.” She tried to take her pants off, I told her “no.” She asked me why and I said “because I don’t do that.” She asked me why and I said, “because you’re too young and I could get in trouble for it.”

“She unzipped my pants, took my dick out, she had it in her hand, she went down like she was going to go down on it.” I pushed her back, I put my dick back in my pants. She was sitting beside me, when she went to bend over I pushed her back. I said “I’m not going to have sex with someone younger than I am.” I told her that she needed to get out of the car, this happened on the way back from the store. I took her to her house, and left her off the same place where I talked to her at. I don’t know if she went in the house or not.   I just wanted to get away from her. When I dropped her off, she gave me a hug, and I left, the other two kids were in the field playing.

Clearly this confession is problematic in many ways that makes me believe this is indeed Franks version of events and not one someone told him to say. The conversation he recounts between himself and the six-year-old child, talking over her worries about passing classes is ridiculous. The language and sexual activities he ascribes to her are likewise ridiculous. They are the fantasies that could only be imagined by someone who considers children sexually available. In my career, I’ve ready many statements and listened to many recorded confessions of child predators and this statement is sadly typical. Pedophiles describe children in adult terms. They talk about how the child wanted it, how the child was the initiator and how they, the adult, are simply a victim of this child who preyed upon their desires. The confessions frequently aren’t so much a confession—notice Franks doesn’t actually admit doing anything wrong—as they are a justification for the perpetrator’s action. He feels the need to account for Opal being seen with him, for her being in his car, without admitting to doing bad.

Because Opal’s body hadn’t been found, Franks was charged with her kidnapping. Frank’s brother, Rodney, went to see Opal’s grandmother and apologize for his brother. As he tearfully told the newspapers, “If my brother done this, I wanted to come and be with this family.”

At trial, Franks’ attorneys pointed to the lack of forensic evidence. Their stumbling block was that explicit and ridiculous ‘confession.’ They argued it was false and made much of Franks’ low IQ. Prosecutors brought numerous witnesses to rebut this. They showed Franks had graduated high school, married, and successfully held several jobs. They called Franks’ previous employer to the stand to talk about how he worked at the fried chicken joint taking orders and making change without needing a calculator. At the time of the offense, he was working as a motorcycle mechanic. Prosecutors also called Holden, the polygrapher to the stand. Holden described how he offered Franks a false scenario to see if he would agree to anything. Holden said Franks angrily disputed that scenario, objecting that he hadn’t done those things at all and again describing what he said he had done.

In jail while awaiting trial, Franks apparently liked to talk. Two different jailers and an inmate all testified about conversations with Franks here he told them his story about taking Opal to the store and dropping her off.

Another prisoner testified that Franks told him that he drove past the crime scene with his wife after the abduction—just to see how close the house was—and he thought that was why police had targeted him. This same inmate also testified that Franks later said he had stalked Opal for a year and went over “to get satisfied” by which the inmate assumed Franks meant to have sex with the child. Franks said he had to “take care of her” when the child wouldn’t stop screaming. This last inmate received a plea deal in exchange for his testimony and I find his story not particularly credible. It doesn’t match the story he told everyone else.

Ultimately, the jury convicted Franks and sentenced him to life in prison.

December 30, 2003, horseback riders found a skull just 10 miles from where Opal was abducted. DNA testing confirmed it belonged to Opal Jo Jennings. The cause of death was determined to be a blow to the head. A new search was launched. Searchers found more bone fragments and the remains Opal’s pink Barbie sneakers. For family members it was both painful and a relief. They could finally lay her their child to rest.

opal_grave

I was a young mother when Opal was taken. By that time, we finally understood that there are monsters in the world, walking with us, driving down our streets. These monsters can look like our neighbors, like police officers, like doctors, like anyone really. We could lock our doors, keep our children close, teach them about strangers, but there was no such thing as a place they couldn’t be touched. My children were raised knowing there was no safe place in the world. I mourn the loss of those innocent lives that taught us this hard lesson.

Opal_park