The Hunting Grounds, Part Three: The Devil you know

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.

 

Yearbook both

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.
Reatha

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.

Miller lie detector
Wesley Wayne Miller being transport to take a lie detector test following his arrest and confession. January 23, 1981. Photo courtesy of UTA digital archives

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.

Jan 26 Funeral
Retha’s family at her funeral, January 26, 1982, photo courtesy of UTA digital archives

 

Source Notes:

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.

Dangerous Reunion, CBS 48 hours: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/dangerous-reunion/

The research and studies of Dr. David Lizak, https://davidlisak.com/wp-content/uploads/pdf/RepeatRapeinUndetectedRapists.pdf

https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications/2018-10/Lisak-False-Reports-Moving-beyond.pdf

 

 

 

 

The Hunting Grounds, Part Two: Cold Hit

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 two parts of the narrative, Preview which sets the scene, and Stranger in the Dark which discusses how Brown was first caught.

 

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Sundance Square

 

If you don’t know who the Bass brothers are, then you ain’t from around here. Sundance Square, the thirty-five blocks of restaurants and shopping at the heart of downtown Fort Worth, is their creation. They oversee the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, pumping millions of dollars into the economy, but individually, the brothers have their own interests. Ed Bass is the odd, quirky brother, dedicated to the arts. In the early 80s, he had dreams of a downtown apartment in the heart of an arts district. Such a place didn’t exist, so he created one.

In 1983, Ed Bass founded Caravan of Dreams with Kathelin Hoffman. Named from 1001 Arabian Nights, it was part nightclub, part recording studio, part bar, with living quarters for Ed, staff and artists and a roof top desert garden–but the bread and butter, the life in Caravan of Dreams, was the live jazz nightclub. Terece Gregory, 29, had a love/hate relationship with the place. She worked there periodically as a waitress. She was fired. She was rehired. She was let go again. The club had a reputation as place where sex and drugs could be easily had. The early 80s were a time of excess and Terece enjoyed what life offered. Even after she had been let go by the club, she remained friendly with the staff and often hung out there. She was no wild party girl, though. Friends remember her as tidy and quiet. She was reserved but also social, preferring company to being alone. She liked reading and sewing.

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Caravan of Dreams

Just before the afternoon rush hour on May 29, 1985 a Fort Worth officer responded to an abandoned car call. The car was slightly blocking traffic at 5550 Bridge Street which runs parallel to I-30. He found a white and maroon Pontiac with both right side tires blown and a dent in the front. The car appeared to have struck a curb and come to a stop. He ran the registration, noted that it returned to a Patricia Gregory, and arranged for a tow.

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Terece Gregory

Meanwhile, Patricia Gregory was at the Fort Worth police department filing a missing persons report. She told police that she lived with her daughter who had gone out with her boyfriend, but didn’t come home. This wasn’t like her daughter at all. Terece would have called or come home by now. Shortly after moving to the Metroplex, Terece had become the victim of a sexual assault in Dallas. The man was only given probation and Terece was extremely vigilant when out after dark.

Terece had taken Patricia’s Pontiac in order to have a reliable car. Her own car was aging and she was always very nervous driving alone. Patricia gave police a photo and a description. Terece was 5 foot 10 with green eyes and curly brown hair. A grown woman who didn’t come home after a night partying with her boyfriend didn’t sound like much of a crime. Still, a detective dutifully began calling jails, hospitals, morgue, looking for Terece. Then someone ran the license plate and discovered the tow. The mild concern became real alarm.  To the detective’s trained eye, it looked like Terece had been “curbed”, that is, run off the road until her tires blew out and then kidnapped. She was only six blocks from home.

rockwood
Rockwood Golf Course Today

Sadly, the detective’s instinct would prove correct. May 30th, a young man went to his favorite fishing spot during his lunch hour. He often fished the Trinity at lunch, especially near the Rockwood Golf Course, but today, as he readied his equipment, he noticed something floating about 15 feet from shore. It appeared to be the body of a woman face down wearing a dark skirt and blouse with spaghetti straps. He hoped it was a mannequin, of course it wasn’t. It’s never a mannequin. He hooked the skirt with a line and pulled it close enough to determine it really was the body of a woman. Then he called the police.

1985 Star-Telegram no photog
Photo Credit: FW Star-Telegram; No photographer listed

This case was originally assigned to Detective J.D. Roberts. The case would remain his until the day he retired. Roberts, who just passed at the age of 89 on February 14, 2018, had a colorful career, but this was one case that frustrated him. Robbery was quickly ruled out. The woman had been dumped still wearing her watch and jewelry. Her cause of death was obvious, a gunshot wound to the face. Roberts was fairly certain he was looking at the corpse of Terece Gregory.

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Police at the scene

He reached out to the two people he most needed to speak with, her mother Patricia and boyfriend, J.D. Bartlett. Roberts showed Patricia the rings and watch and she began to cry. Bartlett agreed to do the identification so Patricia would be spared.

The autopsy confirmed that Terece had been sexually assaulted due to vaginal bruising and the presence of semen. The biological evidence was collected and stored, an act that would later mean everything to the case. Cause of death was a single gunshot wound from a .38 caliber weapon from intermediate range, not point blank, but not far. Her blood alcohol concentration showed her to be moderately intoxicated.

 

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Terece Gregory’s last photo

 

 

Roberts quickly determined that the last person to see Terece alive had been her boyfriend. Did he own a .38? Bartlett confirmed that he did. Terece and Bartlett met than night around six at Caravan of Dreams. They drank and visited with friends. One of Terece’s friends, bartender Michael McCreary, took a photo of her, her last photo. Her earrings and sandals were the only things missing from the night, but they were hook earrings, easily lost in the currents of the Trinity.

Terece and Bartlett left the nightclub and went to Sammy’s for dinner with friends.  One of the people they went with was a piano tuner. At Sammy’s, he spotted someone he knew, famed pianist Van Cliburn. Van Cliburn was interviewed by police and he remembered Terece as quiet an introspective.

It was approximately 2 am when Bartlett took Terece back to the parking lot at Caravan of Dreams where she had left her car. He said he walked her to her car, saw her get into it and pull out from 312 Houston Street. She turned left and he got in his car to drive the other way. Police were deeply suspicious of Bartlett. His criminal history wasn’t spotless and they were certain this case wasn’t related to all the other murders of young women. They even said so to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram repeatedly. Bartlett was asked to submit to a polygraph which he failed. To police, this solidified him as their primary suspect, but when they compared his weapons to the bullet from Terece’s body, it wasn’t a match.

Roberts exhausted every lead he had, but nothing moved the case. The case went dormant, but the one key to solving it was there all along, just waiting for science to catch up with nature. In 2005, CODIS spurred Fort Worth to finally create a cold case unit. The unit was actually a team of one, Detective Manny Reyes who worked out of a glorified closet, patiently sorting through jumbled boxes of cases and notes for cases with possible biological evidence.

The news came in an envelope. The DNA taken from Terece Gregory’s sexual assault kit had a match, a “cold hit.” Reading Curtis Don Brown’s file, several things jumped out. Terece’s car had been found on Bridge Street, just one block from the apartments where Brown’s last victim Jewell Woods lived. Like Jewell, Terece had encountered Brown in one location, but was taken and killed at another place and her body somewhat concealed. The cold hit had come just in time. Brown had been in prison for life, but after 19 years, he had just become eligible for parole. Thankfully, they had new charges filed before he was released.

Flush with the success, Det Reyes reached out to other departments. Based upon the similarities between Terece Gregory’s murder and other unsolved crimes from the same time period, he believed he had just identified a serial predator. He was correct.

One of the detectives he reached out to was Arlington Detective Jim Ford. When it came to submitting cold case profiles, there was one case at the top of Ford’s list, a case that had always haunted him: the murder of 18 year-old Sharyn Kills Back.

Sharyn-Killsback
Sharyn Kills Back

Sharyn Kills Back grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, she was the youngest girl of 9 siblings. Life on the reservation wasn’t easy and Sharyn wanted a chance to experience the world. At the age of sixteen, she had a chance to attend the Clearfield Job Corp Center in Utah where minority students could participate in a vocational education program.
At the completion, students were allowed to choose a location: California, Georgia, or Texas. Sharyn’s sister Blanche wanted her to choose California, but Sharyn chose Arlington, Texas. Her family couldn’t understand that choice, but Sharyn had met someone in the program. Barbara Bouknight was coming to Texas, so Sharyn would as well.

Portrayals in the media all describe the women as “roommates” and an episode of Swamp Murders goes so far as to suggest an upstairs neighbor might have been romantically involved with Sharyn. But reading the original reports and statements, everyone was very clear that Barbara and Sharyn were a couple. They were in love and lived openly as lesbians. Barbara and Sharyn were especially good friends with another couple in the same Meadowbrook Apartment complex, Josie and Richard. The two couples socialized frequently and soon Josie and Richard’s friends were also Sharyn and Barbara’s friends.

Sharyn was petite, but feisty. She was extremely outgoing and made friends everywhere. She was also enjoying life in a city, far different from her upbringing. Like many 18 year olds away from home for the first time, she drinking and going out almost every night. Sharyn and Barbara had been working at the Arlington location of Miracle Paint and Body Shop, but Sharyn had some sort of problem there and changed to a different location for the same business.

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Barbara is in the middle and Sharyn stands to her right, laughing.

Sharyn’s mother worried. She enjoyed the letters she got from her daughter, but Sharyn had no car and walked everywhere, including at night. She repeatedly warned her daughter that the city wasn’t safe, this wasn’t South Dakota. Sharyn dismissed her mother’s concerns. She was perfectly safe. Sure, the news was full of stories about women in Fort Worth going missing, but this was Arlington.

Arlington is halfway between Fort Worth and Dallas. It had always been part of a greenbelt between the D and the FW, but in the 80s, the urban sprawl had encroached from both sides and Arlington was rapidly transforming into a formidable city of its own.

March 15, 1985, Sharyn wanted to go out, while Barbara was tired after working all day. Sharyn, always persistent, initially convinced Barbara to go with her. They set off on foot after dark to meet friends while carrying a “boombox” or portable stereo. Think John Cuisack from “Say Anything.” Along the way, they began to quarrel. Barbara decided she’d had enough and announced she was going back to their apartment. Sharyn said she was still going to meet friends.  They parted and Barbara went down about a block along East Park Row. When she turned back, Sharyn was gone. She would never see her girlfriend alive again.

When Sharyn didn’t come home that night, Barbara first thought she was still angry from the argument and must be staying with friends, but a few phone calls on the 16th showed her this wasn’t the case. Police protocol at that time didn’t consider a person missing until 48 hours, so Sharyn wasn’t officially a missing person until the 17th. On the 17th, Barbara filed the missing persons report.

Sharyn’s family was also concerned. They’d just had a letter from her on the 14th that she was coming home for a visit in two weeks, however her uncle had a heart attack. Her sisters had been calling for her repeatedly to let her know and see if she could come home right away. Sharyn had always called right back, but now they only had silence.

 

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The storm drain where Sharyn was found.

March 23rd, Barbara saw a story on the news that chilled her to the core and she immediately called the police. A plumber working on new residence construction on Bandera drive stopped to throw some cardboard boxes into a storm drain, when he saw what looked like a shoulder and arm. He drew close enough to confirm there was a body and backed away to call the police.

 

The body of a young woman had been wedged down into the drain, rolled onto her side as if she were sleeping. It was necessary to remove the nearby manhole cover to retrieve her. Around her neck, a hemp rope had been tightly knotted. There was significant trauma to one side of her head as if she had been beaten and blood had pooled underneath her in the drain. While it was muddy and damp in there, she wasn’t lying in water. She was fully dressed which at first led investigators to believe she hadn’t been sexually assaulted. There was no ID on the woman, but she had several tattoos including the initials SKB on her hand.

 

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Crime Scene sketch

 

Barbara went to the police and identified the body of her girlfriend. She blamed herself. “Maybe she would still be alive today if only I had gone with her that day. I don’t think this guy would have gotten both of us if I were there.”

The injuries to Sharyn’s neck told a grim story. Her killer had knotted the ligature around her neck, yanked her around, leading her like an animal before strangling her with the two foot rope. Although 1985 technology wasn’t able to detect the presence of sperm, samples of everything, including cuttings from Sharyn’s underwear, were taken and preserved in a refrigerated setting.

Immediate suspicion was focused on the men who knew Sharyn, especially her friend Richard and an upstairs neighbor who went by the name Patrick at that time. Patrick was from Africa and had a wife who lived in another city. He was friendly with Sharyn according to Barbara. When police interviewed him, he claimed they had a few sexual encounters, but that was the extent of it. Other friends disputed his claim to have had a sexual relationship with Sharyn, saying she was only interested in lesbian relationships and was not bisexual. Regardless of the truth, that was his story. Police administered several polygraphs, and like Terece Gregory’s boyfriend, JD Bartlett, Patrick failed multiple polygraph exams. Police were extremely suspicious of him, but there was no actual evidence he was related to Sharyn’s murder.

Her family wanted to come to Texas, but were financially unable to afford it. They were forced to watch from South Dakota as the trail gradually went cold. Three years later, Sharyn’s mother passed away due to complications from diabetes. She would never see justice for her daughter. Sharyn’s father would all pass away, leaving her sisters and Barbara to wait and watch. For 19 years they held onto that hope.

In 2005, emboldened by the success in other cities, Arlington set to work on their old cases. Using vastly improved testing techniques, they identified biological material from Sharyn’s vaginal swabs and underwear and soon had a profile of the offender to submit to CODIS. Like Reyes, Jim Ford received an envelop with confirmation of the cold hit. Charges had already been filed on Brown for the murder of Terece Gregory. Ford was eager to add another murder charge for Sharyn, but there was one more step.

CODIS hits aren’t proof that can be used in court. Because they are remote matches, they can only be used as probable cause in order to take DNA. That means police needed to get a search warrant and swab Brown’s cheek for a DNA comparison to confirm the match.

Fort Worth detectives Johnson and Carroll went to see Brown in prison. First they spoke to several inmates familiar with him. Everyone they spoke to indicated Brown wasn’t a popular guy. He masturbated daily while others were around and was always focused on “perverted things.”  He was prone to starting fights. One inmate said Brown talked about killing women. He said Brown told him he was in prison because he met a woman at a bar, raped her and bashed her head in with a rock before dumping her body in the Trinity. He told of other claims Brown had made of killing a nurse with two children and beating a woman to death in Cleburne with a baseball bat. He also claimed to have killed a woman in River Oaks. The details sound like Brown was adding in bits and pieces from crimes he committed but confusing them.

Brown agreed to speak with them. He especially focused on Johnson, a female detective, staring at her breasts in a predatory manner. The detectives asked him about Jewell Woods. Brown said he was with some guys and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wouldn’t admit to killing her, but just kept saying that he pled guilty and they shouldn’t ask him about it. They moved onto Terece Gregory. Brown said that he didn’t know her, but “his memory wasn’t good.”

When police mentioned they had evidence linking him to her murder, he didn’t seem surprised at all. They told him they wanted to speak with him about all the unsolved murders of women in the area from that time. Again, he didn’t seem upset or surprised.  They managed to get him talking about Jewell Woods by showing him offense reports. He pointed out how he gone in through the window and for the first time admitted killing her.

He refused to speak about other cases. “You’re going to kill me,” he explained and added that he wanted to die a “natural death.” He was afraid of the death penalty. He shrugged off mentions about his DNA being found at crime scenes and remarked “DNA isn’t wrong.” He did indicate that he might be willing to cooperate if he was brought back to Fort Worth and taken to the various crime scenes and if the death penalty was off the table. Police probed more to see if he would give him a number of murders, telling him that they thought he was responsible for many more than the three, but he danced around their questions. As the detectives were leaving, he called out to them “What you’re thinking” about their being more murders,  “you’re not wrong,” he said.

Brown pled guilty to the murders of Terece Gregory and Sharyn Kills Back. He received two more life sentences stacked on top of the one he was already serving, guaranteeing he would spend the rest of his life in prison. Terece’s brother was angry at prosecutors for not seeking the death penalty, but Sharyn’s family was relieved not to have to live through a trial. “I wanted to shout out loud” her sister said on hearing the news. “I’m only sad our parents aren’t here to share it.”

curtis-brown-012Offender Profile: Curtis Don Brown, B/M DOB 8/2/58

Known victims:  white and Native American, ages 18, 28, and 51; Survivors: white and Hispanic, ages 29 and 30

MO: blunt force trauma, ligature strangulation, .38 gun, burglary through window, transporting victim to another location, sexual assault, disposing of body in or near water

Locations: Fort Worth/Houston Street, Pearl St., Bridge Street, Trinity River, Rockwood Golf Course; Arlington/East Park Row, Bandera

Timeline: Paroled 1983. Arrested May 29, 1986.

In two weeks, the Hunting Grounds will continue with another possible suspect for the unsolved Fort Worth homicides, Juan Mesa Segundo. The murder of Vanessa Villa, 11 shocked and horrified the community. Who would rape and murder a child in her own bedroom. It was the first murder case Detective Reyes worked and one he wouldn’t solve for decades.

 

The Source Notes:

http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/dfw/obituary.aspx?pid=188601268

https://tcadp.org/2009/01/08/death-penalty-news-texas-279/

http://justicefornativewomen.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-murder-of-sharyn-killsback-victim.html#!/2016/04/the-murder-of-sharyn-killsback-victim.html

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

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

SWAMP MURDERS: I almost didn’t include this in my sources because there are so many errors. First, Sharyn wasn’t found anywhere near a swamp. She wasn’t in water. It was a street and a storm drain. Second, I have an issue with the way they “scrub” her identity. The portrayal of her and of Barbara and of their relationship is extremely inaccurate and unfair to the women. Ultimately, I did include it because of the footage of Sharyn’s sisters talking about their memories of her.  It’s a PPV on YouTube.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Burglary is a gateway crime. Just as some recreational substance users will enjoy a few drinks and a little smoke without ever progressing to the so-called ‘hard’ drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine, so do some burglars remain just that. Burglars. For them, it’s about theft, stealing. Get in. Get the stuff. Get out. The most common time for burglaries is daytime, not night. Burglars don’t want to confront anyone. They hit when you’re at work or when you’re known to be out of town. They hit closed businesses. They just want your stuff. Money is the motivation.

These crimes are neither pure impulse not extensively planned, just a bit of each.
But for another sort of person, being in someone’s house becomes the ultimate rush. They become aware they’re violating a sacred space. They can do anything, touch anything. It’s power. They plan their crimes, stalking the location. They watch from a distance. They hunt–until just being inside isn’t enough anymore. They need more of the adrenaline and so they escalate. The stalking becomes as important as the execution. They need the illicit thrill. Behavior addiction is a real thing and once a burglar moves past the simple desires of a monetary motivation to an emotional one, barriers break down. The larger the violation, the more intense the rush. Add someone with the tendencies of a sexual sadist into the mix, and things get very dangerous.

Curtis Don Brown was such a man.

CBD

He already had a history of violent crime before he ever made his way to the streets of Fort Worth. December 13, 1976, Curtis Brown, 21 was a Marine assigned to Camp Pendleton in California when he committed his first known crime. Brown robbed a man by the Lucky Inn on Hawthorne Boulevard. He was spotted running past the location by police. A woman ran out after Brown, pointing and shouting that he had just robbed a man. Police gave chase, finally locating Brown lying on the floor of a tool shed. He was uncooperative, refusing to even identify himself.

Police went in to speak to the victim and found him seriously injured. He hadn’t responded quickly enough to suit Brown during the robbery. He’d fired a shot in the air and then savagely kicked in the victim’s face with his boots.   Police were able to locate Brown’s wallet in the tool shed where he was hiding, along with the victim’s wallet and a pistol. The robbery cost him his career as a Marine, but he didn’t spend much time in jail.

In November 26, 1978, Brown was staying in an Amarillo motel with his girlfriend, who knew him by the name James Ware, Jr., an alias he would frequently use along with another nickname: Bandit.  Brown left his girlfriend at the motel and went to a nearby small grocery store. On the way, he spotted an acquaintance named Hutchison and asked him for a ride. In the store, he robbed the clerk at gunpoint of $3,000. He ran back out of the store and jumped in Hutchison’s car. Hutchison noticed Brown had a sack and a pistol now. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had just happened.  He was afraid, so he drove Brown around until Brown was satisfied they hadn’t been followed and he jumped from the car.

Hutchison was only too happy to cooperate. He told police everything he knew about “Bandit.” Brown was arrested a couple months later in a stolen car. He pled guilty in 1979.  Brown was paroled in 1983 and came to Fort Worth where his mother was living. In 1983, there were a series of unsolved stranger rapes where a man came in through the window at night. July of 1984, Brown married a woman and had a daughter, but that did nothing to settle him down. He drank heavily, used cocaine and only worked sporadically at unskilled labor. That year, eight women went missing from the area near where Brown lived. Some would surface as bodies. Still others would never be found.

Hulen Place apts.png

June 20, 1985, Patricia Morales, 29, was home alone in her Hulen Place Apartment when she heard a sound at her bedroom window screen. Cautiously, she came into the room. The screen had been removed. The window hung open. Before she could turn around, a man grabbed her from behind, roughly demanding to know where her husband was. Hoping to scare the man away, she claimed her husband was in the apartment’s other bedroom. She told the man she had a little money. He could have it if he would just leave.

He forced her to come with him to the bedroom, then turned on her angrily when there was no one there. Taking her chance, she grabbed up a metal rod, striking him with it. She only made him angrier. He took the rod away from her and hit her several times. He put a pillow case over her head and forced her to lie on the floor while he ransacked the room. She reminded him about the money in her purse. She had been to the bank. Her cash was in an envelope. Again, she promised he could have her money if he would just leave.

He retrieved the money and went to the front door, dragging her with him. Patricia hadn’t been silent. She had screamed as she was being hit and a neighbor heard. The neighbor alerted the apartment’s armed security. He was at the front door as the man tried to leave. The man roughly pulled Patricia in front of him as a human shield and they backed into the apartment. Thankfully, the neighbor had also called Fort Worth Police Department. As they rolled into the parking lot, Patricia wrenched herself free from the man’s grip and ran screaming towards the police.

Police arrested the man and transported Patricia to the hospital where she would be treated for lacerations and broken bones. The man had a bank envelope with Patricia’s money in it and a pair of white, cotton gloves. Police identified him as Curtis Don Brown, a man with no criminal history in the city of Fort Worth. They assumed he was an over-eager burglar. Within hours, Brown had posted bond and was released. He gave a Houston Street address, just 8 miles from where Patricia lived.

Patricia didn’t know it at the time, but she had just survived an encounter with a serial killer, a man who had already killed twice at least, and would kill again.

February 24, 1986, Brown struck again, this time in Arlington.

Debra Hodges, 30 was sitting home alone, watching some TV before bed. It was close to midnight and she was ready to call it quits when a sound at her back window caught her attention. Looking out her patio door, she spotted a man crouched down trying to  remove her screen. He looked up at her and both were startled. The man turned and fled, jumping over a wooden fence, but not before she got a good look at him. As Debra was standing on her patio pointing things out to the Arlington officer who had responded to her call, they heard a commotion. Apartment security was chasing a man through the complex, telling him to stop. She was astonished to recognize the man by his clothing. “That’s him,” she exclaimed. The Arlington Officer joined in the chase and he and the security guard brought the man, soon identified as Curtis Don Brown, back for Debra to see.

Looking in his face, she had no doubts. “That’s the man.”

The security guard told the police that a woman had just pointed out Brown as a man who had been following her outside and ‘sexually harassed her’ in the laundry room to the point she became frightened. The woman left before the security officer got her information. The Arlington officer read Brown his rights and asked if he understood them. Brown cussed at him and said, “What rights?” He gave various stories about why he was in the apartment complex. The officer noted Brown’s boots. There had been boot prints in the soil of the flower beds outside Debra’s apartment. A man, one of substantial size, had stood there for some time, watching Debra through her window. Brown was 6’2, 200 pounds, and very muscular.

Brown was placed under arrest for attempted burglary. This time he spent three days in jail before posting bond and being released.

May 29, 1986, Fort Worth Officers Galloway and Dunn were working undercover in response to the increased crimes in the area. As the officers cruised the 6000 block of Brentwood Stair, just after midnight, a man emerged from the shadows. He kept away from the street lights, but they could see him. Sweating, nervous, he looked around sharply. Under his arm, wrapped in a towel, were two purses.

As the officers cruised past, the man made an effort to hide the purses, shifting them to his other arm and pulling down the towel. The officers circled, moving to a parking lot the man would pass by while they kept him in careful view. When the man was fifteen feet from the officers, they stepped out and showed badges. The man paused, and then took off running behind the Autumn Moon restaurant.

Dunn pursued while Galloway called for back-up. Dunn followed the man into an overgrown vacant lot in the 5600 block of Charlotte Street, just a block south of Brentwood Stair. Back-up was there within seconds, two more officers joined the chase. All four men were now chasing the man who still clutched the purses as he ran past the Amblewood Apartments, running parallel to a viaduct which stretched north and south. The viaduct was fifteen feet tall and twenty-five feet wide, it’s concrete walls slanted at a difficult angle, but the water underneath was just a trickle, the ground mossy and slick, and the man decided to use it to escape. Galloway caught the man’s leg just as he leapt for the edge. The man kicked and tried to pull free, but he was caught. His hands went to Galloway’s hip. He struggled with the officer for his gun. Instead he came away with the officer’s radio which he threw in the shallow water.

It took all four officers to subdue the man. They had to pry the purses from his hands, even as he fought them. He was reluctant to give them up. One of the purses was empty, but the other had a wallet and credit cards in them, all in the name Jewell T. Woods. A more careful search of the area would locate a black bra and a pair of women’s glasses, items that had fallen out of the purse.

They patted the man down and put him in the car, locating  a syringe of narcotics in the process. They read him his Miranda Warnings, which he waived and agreed to answer questions. He claimed to have taken the purses from three men outside the Circle K gas station. He said the men had accosted him with racial slurs so he kicked them in the necks and took their purses. These were clearly women’s purses and the police weren’t buying, especially as he refused to identify himself and continued making attempts to escape. As they put him the back, he commented, “This is the third one for me. I’ll be doing the bitch.”

Doing “the bitch” or “high bitch” refers to someone being punished as a habitual offender. If it is proven that an offender has had two sequential convictions for third degree or higher offenses that included a trip to the pen, punishment for the third offense is 25 years to life.  He wasn’t going to do anything to help them lock him away.

Woodstone AptsConcerned for the woman whose information was in the purse, they went to her home, the apartments at 6051 Bridge Street. They could see the screen had been pried off a window. Their knocks went unanswered. Afraid Jewell Woods, 51, might be injured inside, they tried the doorknob and found it open. Inside, the lights and television were on. A partially drunk glass of tea sat beside an evening chair with the evening paper and a pair of eyeglasses perched on the stuffed arms, as if someone had just stepped out. But there were also indications that this wasn’t what had happened. Clothing was strewn everywhere, including a pair of women’s panties in the entry way. Drawers had been pulled out. The door to the bathroom was damaged and appeared to have been kicked in.

Police knocked on doors. The next door neighbor said he had heard sounds of a commotion and Jewell’s dog yelping or whining just a half hour before midnight. At least, he thought it had been her dog. Now he wasn’t sure. There had also been some yelling, but he minded his own business. Jewell’s keys were in the stolen purse and her car was located in the parking lot, still locked. The dog, an Irish Setter named Emmy Lou, was also missing. Could she have stepped out to walk the dog? It didn’t seem likely she would walk out and leave the door unlocked, but there was no blood, no evidence of injury.

They contacted everyone they could think of based upon the information in her purse: her cousin, her uncle, her son, her many friends. Police then secured the scene, while leaving information for her to contact them upon returning home. That call never came. Instead, they heard from her employer the next morning when she didn’t show up for work. This was very out of character for the 51 year-old nurse. An immediate search began for Jewell.

Brown had been booked into jail for burglary and drugs. This time he gave his address as 3310 Pearl Street, his mother’s residence.

As word of the missing woman hummed across the grapevine, other residents of the apartment complex came forward to say they had witnessed a man who didn’t live there walking around at night. All of them described his clothing and said he was a tall, black male with a red shirt and red shorts. One woman saw him walking away with the items wrapped in a towel. The woman identified Curtis Brown from a photo spread. One man wasn’t sure, but he did place a question mark by Brown’s picture. He had seen the man from a balcony, but Jewell’s apartment was on the ground floor and he didn’t get a good look at the man’s face, however he was sure the man was wearing a red shirt and shorts. At the time of his arrest, Curtis Brown was wearing red shirt and shorts.

At the other end of the breezeway from Jewell’s apartment lived a woman named Becky. Becky complained to maintenance that night that the lights along their hall were all burnt out. The maintenance man who responded discovered the lights weren’t all burnt, nor were they malfunctioning. They’d all been unscrewed, making the breezeway dark. Detectives spoke with Becky. She was expecting her boyfriend, so when there was a knock on her door, she jerked it open. Instead of her boyfriend, there was tall, black male whom she didn’t know wearing a red shirt and shorts. He had a something in his hand covered by a towel. He stared at her for a minute. “Wrong door,” he said and walked away.

It was 11:30 am, just hours after police had left the apartment when they located her partially nude body in a stand of brush of a steeply slanted vacant lot just a short distance east of her apartment complex. She had been left face down, arms outstretched as if embracing the ground, wearing only a red and blue checkered shirt.

The soft ground told a story. Near the top of the slope there was a depression the size of Jewell’s head and a bloody rock. Drag marks led down to her body. The cause of death was obvious due to the damage done to her head. She had been beaten to death with that rock. There was bruising around the neck which indicated there had been some strangulation, but that was not fatal. The autopsy would confirm she had been sexually assaulted.

Brown’s movements could be tracked by his shoe prints. He left prints around the scene with diamond-shaped tread which matched his shoes. His clothing was examined and they found vegetation from the crime scene in his shorts. Blood on his shirt and underwear was type O, consistent with the victim.

Authorities believed he had come in through the front window. Jewell must have come into the room and seen him. She fled into the bathroom, but he broke in the door. They struggled and she broke free and ran, leaving the door open. He pursued her and caught her across the street where he raped her and killed her, then dragged her body farther from the road. He went back to steal, helping himself to two of her purses, one with her wallet and credit cards. As for the bra and eyeglasses, those were possibly trophies.

The Irish Setter, Emmy Lou, was found by a friend of Jewell’s and put in a kennel.

Murder in the course of committing sexual assault or burglary is a capital offense. The death penalty was on the table, but Brown agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. He also pled guilty to the burglaries.

Police were suspicious there were more crimes. They received information that Brown had been “robbing white women” for some time. He fenced the items he stole from these women with a drug dealer he was friendly with. The items were usually small, credit cards and jewelry items. They were also highly suspicious of a series of unsolved rapes that had occurred in 1983.

January 22, 1983, a black female, 36, living at 1502 East Canon woke up to find a man on top of her in the bed. He held his hand over her mouth and told her he would kill her if she didn’t cooperate. She was terrified, not just for herself, but for her young son. He sexually assaulted her. At one point, her son came out into the living room and saw the man on top of his mother. The man allowed him to go to the bathroom, then instructed the child to go back to bed. The boy saw the man, a black male, rifling through his mother’s purse. After the man left, the woman was afraid to leave the house. She showered around 4 am, then worked up her nerve to call the police. They arrived to see that the man had come in through the front window which had a broken lock. The screen had been pried open. Police spoke with the woman and the little boy who said he thought he recognized the man. He told police where he had seen the man before. January 25th, police spoke with the woman who said she had nothing to add. Police suspended the investigation that same day as unsolvable.

July 12, 1983,  white female, 33, residing at 708 Grainger awoke to a noise. A man was in the room with her. He was a slender black male and told her to cooperate or he would “cut her.” He covered her head with a blanket and sexually assaulted her.

November 9th, a black female living at 1023 E. Magnolia woke up with a man on top of her. He had a hand over her mouth. The man dragged her outside to her back yard where he sexually assaulted her. After the man left, she ran to a neighbor to call police. She described him as a black male, around the age of 25 with facial hair and a slight build. She had just moved to this house a month before from 1013 East Canon, just blocks from the first rape,  because her house there had been repeatedly burglarized.

There were other rapes, but they all had common threads, certain things that were done and said by the rapist that later led police to think they might have been the same man, a slender, black male with facial hair. In 1983, Brown was fresh from prison and far more slender than he was in 1986. Due to old statute of limitation laws, those rapes could not be prosecuted now and it’s doubtful the sexual assault kits were ever sent for testing, if they were even preserved.

Jewell Wood’s son was unhappy with plea bargain. He wanted to face the man in court. He wanted the death penalty. It was only later that he realized he was lucky to have a resolution. If Brown hadn’t been stopped fleeing from the scene, he too might have waited 19 years to know who killed his mother, because that’s how long it would take for Woods other crimes to come to light.

Curtis Brown’s Fort Worth crimes didn’t begin with Jewell Woods. It didn’t even begin with Patricia Morales. We can’t be sure exactly when it did start, but do know he had started killing by March 23, 1985.

April 2004 began the cold case revolution for Texas as the prison system began taking DNA from prisoners entering the system. That year alone they solved 14 murders and 81 sexual assaults. There was a renewed interest in old cases. Both Fort Worth and Arlington assigned a detective to pursue cold cases. In 2005 came a new mandate: test everyone in prison who came in before April 2004. Cold case detectives excitedly combed evidence records, looking for potential biological links.

Manny Reyes
Retired Fort Worth Homicide Detective Manny Reyes

For Fort Worth cold case detective Manny Reyes, that meant sorting through the city’s 764 “unsolvable homicide” files that had been boxed and stacked in a room in no particular order. Cases with preserved bio evidence were his first priority. He analyzed and cataloged cases, submitted the evidence for proper testing and sent profiles to CODIS for comparison. It was tedious work, but the results were undeniable. Within months, he got his first hit on a 19 year old murder to a man already sitting behind bars: Curtis Don Brown. That “cold hit” was just the start.

 

 

 

 

Next week, we will take a look at two very different women, Terece Gregory and Sharyn Killsback, two lives forever tied together by their violent end, and by the DNA that would unravel the mysteries of their deaths in part two of The Hunting Grounds: Cold Hit.

 

SOURCE NOTES:

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

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

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