According to Wikipedia, “The culture of domesticity (often shortened to “cult of domesticity”) or cult of true womanhood was a prevailing value system among the upper and middle classes during the nineteenth century in the United States and Great Britain. This value system emphasized new ideas of femininity, the woman’s role within the home and the dynamics of work and family.”
But also? The Cult of Domesticity is a super fun podcast. From their Facebook page,
“Two best friends, one podcast. Join us as we share discussions from 725 miles apart. Not an actual call-your-dad cult. Ashley and Courtney take turns telling each other true crime, history, or current events stories. However Ashley is in New Hampshire and Courtney is in Ohio. Check out our social media for the recipe of the week and additional information on our topics! We are on Itunes, Soundcloud, Google Play, Podbean, and Chorus.”
I first became aware of this podcast via Instagram where they are very active (@thecultofdomesticity) and decided to give it a try. I was instantly hooked. After true crime, history is my jam. This is a conversational podcast where the two hosts, Ashley and Courtney tell each other a story, just like the description says. It’s informal and chatty, definitely in the banter category. My one complaint with so many of these style podcasts is that they are culturally unaware. By that I mean that they don’t recognize history and literary references. They don’t recognize movie or television references older than ten years. It’s limiting. Not these ladies. Although they are young, they are still very aware of the world at large, particularly history. It’s like you put Wine and Crime and Stuff You Missed in History Class in a big blender with dash of the Food Network and it works.
There are occasional tech issues. Sometimes you get funky noises from the microphones but not so much as to put me off. I’m not one to sneer about production values. There is some awkward laughing and inside jokes, all of which lend to the charm. Simply put, the hosts are engaging. Their lengthy friendship is comfortable to hear and soon you feel like you’re part of the club.
You don’t have to start at the first, although the first episode. I jumped around as I binged earlier episodes and I didn’t find it disconcerting at all.
Ashley and Courtney were gracious enough to answer some interview questions for me.
Tell me how y’all named your podcast. When I first saw “Cult of Domesticity” I expected something more along the line of knitting or cooking, not crime and history.
Courtney: We actually called our dorm room the Cult of Domesticity as a joke. Ashley and I both enjoy cooking, baking, crafting, and all the domestic arts but that part of our friendship was folded into watching true crime documentaries, paranormal shows, and me telling Ashley about the weird history I had read about. So I think we are challenging the perception of domesticity where yes we can still do everything a 1950s house wife did but we choose to do it while watching dateline or a documentary.
Ashley: Also, it was something our mutual friends could identify with us pretty quickly, and they were the original target audience, because we are so awkward with people we don’t know.
I’d love to know about your process. How do you decided what topic to cover and how do you divide up the work?
Courtney: The topic process is easier for us to divide up because we tend not to tell each other what we are discussing, so the response is genuine. Personally, I have a giant spreadsheet divided into several topics so I won’t go down into a serial killer black hole or bore everyone with my abstract historical loves.
Ashley: I really like that Courtney is so organized with the spreadsheets and whatnot, because I do not usually operate that way. But it does help to keep us from focusing on any one thing too long, especially since we do tend to cover darker topics and that can be hard to listen to for weeks on end, let alone to research constantly.
Courtney: Dividing up the work has changed as we go along in the process. Initially, Ashley did all the editing which was a god send to me because I hate the sound of my voice. We have come up with a system where we edit our own episodes and if someone cannot edit that week then it is no difficulty for the other to do it. I tend to be the person posting on our social media and responding to emails right now because I have more time. However Ashley does all our amazing Instagram art and designed our logo.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a podcaster?
Ashley: I learned that I sniffle SO MUCH! Also, that podcasting is a lot more time-consuming than I originally thought it would be. But the community we’ve found, especially on Twitter, is so amazing, and it’s nice to have people who started around the same time we did to compare notes with.
Courtney: I love how supportive the podcasting community is. They have definitely helped us learn how to improve and grow our own podcast. Additionally, I have learned all of my vocal ticks and how allergic to my cats I am editing them out.
Tell me a little about yourselves away from podcasting.
Courtney: I just graduated with my masters in history where I studied the eighteenth-century British Empire. This is basically why I am the long winded one! So I am currently job hunting. When I am not podcasting or job hunting, I am often crafting, baking, or taking care of the many animals in my house. My favorite type of craft right now is knitting but I am learning to quilt and make candles.
Ashley: I always feel like I’m such a boring person now, because it feels like all I do is work. I finished my associate’s degree in paralegal studies last year, and the day after graduation I moved halfway across the country. Now I’m working in a pharmacy and it’s a huge difference but in a good way! When I’m not at work or doing podcast stuff, I’m either sleeping or reading. So there’s that.
Finally, which episode is your favorite and why?
Ashley: My favorite episode so far is probably Episode 7, our Halloween episode about the Salem Witch Trials. It’s a topic I’ve always been interested in, and the episode has a special place in my heart. There’s so much more I wish I had thought to include in that episode though, and so much more still to learn about what really happened. Also, Courtney’s reactions to my telling of the story make me laugh every time I think of them.
Courtney: Episode 16, the Kirtland Cult Murders, or Episode 20, Snake in the Bed, because they were interesting for very different reasons. The Kirtland cult murders has such a personal connection to me because I live ten minutes from the site and it impacted so many around me. Of course after we recorded my mom informed me that she went to school with the property owner’s daughter… things you wish you knew growing up. As for snake in the bed, I love the amazing story of Alexander the Great but Ashley and I had so much fun laughing over the ridiculous nature of his life.
So if you’re like me and love all things crime, history, and culinary, this podcast is definitely for you.
Cowtown Crime Verdict: A delicious treat
With the purity of hindsight, the warning signs are easy to see. John St. Angelo was always going to kill one of his wives. He was a loaded weapon, just waiting to go off, and when he finally did explode, all his rage and fury was directed at the newest ex-Mrs. St. Angelo, Suzanne Parsons. As prosecutor Allenna Bangs would later say, “She wanted to leave that house, and John St. Angelo didn’t want her to. But she did leave that house and didn’t come back. That was the beginning of the end for Suzanne Parsons. You just don’t leave a man like John St. Angelo until he’s ready for you to go.”
St. Angelo and Suzanne married in Florida in 2010. They had known each other for many years, but the romance was new. It was the third marriage for St. Angelo and the second for Suzanne. At first, everything was golden. Both were extremely successful, professional people and business owners. St. Angelo’s children from his second marriage often lived with them, something that added stress into the relationship. Another source of stress was St. Angelo’s explosive temper.
That temper had gotten him into trouble before. In 1986, while living in Lebanon, New Hampshire, St. Angelo was arrested and charged for assaulting a man and damaging his vehicle. The man’s crime was he had previously dated St. Angelo’s new wife. This wife (whom I have decided not to name because everyone deserves some privacy) was in the vehicle with St. Angelo when he spotted the ex-boyfriend outside a fast food place. The man spotted St. Angelo heading for him and tried to leave, which enraged St. Angelo. He wanted a confrontation so he kicked and damaged the man’s door until he got him to open it. Other people saw this and called the police. The wife insisted she didn’t see anything. Although she never filed a complaint, people who were close to her have said they were alarmed by his controlling ways and suspected things were not good. The couple divorced and St. Angelo soon had a new woman in his life.
I am going to refer to this second wife as “K” rather than her name. K suffered such extreme abuse at the hands of St. Angelo that it greatly exacerbated her mental health issues. She has repeatedly been hospitalized for these issues and deserves some peace. In 1990, K and St. Angelo were both living in Lebanon, NH. Neighbors heard a violent assault and called the police. When the police arrived, they found St. Angelo gone and K with a bleeding face.
She admitted to police that “every day I pray not to get hit,” but at the same time, she cried, refusing to tell police the name of her boyfriend. He was arrested anyway and ordered to stay away from her, but repeatedly violated that. He insisted he “accidentally” struck her face with his watch. He told the police that he just had a bad temper. While he minimized his actions, the officer noted in his report that St. Angelo was “extremely argumentative.” He was ordered to join a counselling program. Not that it helped much. St. Angelo didn’t want to be helped. He just wanted what he wanted.
The happy times for John St. Angelo and Suzanne Parsons wouldn’t last very long. His business floundered and when K had another breakdown, the kids were added into the mix. In an effort to save their new marriage and make a fresh start, they moved to the DFW area in 2010 to be closer to Suzanne’s family.
Abusers like to keep their victims away from support and their family and this move backfired on St. Angelo. He continued to bleed money. Suzanne thrived in the Fort Worth Real Estate market. She had her realtor’s license for 8 years and her warm, friendly personality made her a favorite at the ReMax on Heritage Trace in Fort Worth. Suzanne loved living near her family, but the happier she became, the angrier and more bitter St. Angelo became. She finally had enough and the couple separated, although she continued seeing her husband. May of 2013, they took a trip to Mexico and that is where things went horribly wrong.
After an evening of drinking, St. Angelo became angry and called Suzanne “a spoiled whore.” He began punching her. “Where are your brothers now, bitch? No one can save you here.” He then strangled her until she lost consciousness. Police were called to restrain him. When Suzanne arrived back in the airport, her daughter Jessica hardly recognized her mother. One eye was purple and swollen shut. She had severe bruising to the sides of her neck and petechial hemorrhaging on her face. Petechiae are tiny blood vessels that burst and are often a classic sign of manual strangulation. The restricted blood flow causes pressure to build until delicate capillaries rupture, resulting in red marks.
Suzanne immediately filed for a protective order in which she described this incident. She also wrote that he “breaks things, screams, and has threatened me.” She filed for divorce. In June, while St. Angelo was moving items from the house, he got into an angry confrontation with Suzanne’s brother. He hit her brother in the head and arm with the claw end of the hammer leaving bloody gashes. St. Angelo claimed it was in self-defense, that her brother had attacked him and he had to defend himself. Two of his children were there to back up his claim, but there were numerous witnesses unrelated to the parties involved who told police that Suzanne’s brother was down on the ground while St. Angelo was standing over him swinging the hammer. St. Angelo was arrested and later plead guilty to the charges.
Unfortunately, as so many abused women do, Suzanne let St. Angelo back into her life. On Christmas day, she went to his house to spend time with him, but when she tried to leave, he slapped her and dragged her back into the house by her hair. He made her promise to return and bring all her jewelry to him before he would let her leave.
At the same time, K was lodging complaints that St. Angelo was calling her non-stop and harassing her with text messages. He was doing the same to Suzanne and it became a problem at the ReMax office. Things were now so bad for St. Angelo financially that he was working as a handy man. Suzanne asked her office manager to find work for him and she did. He was good at construction, but he just couldn’t leave Suzanne alone. He would send threatening emails and texts one minute, then turn around and apologize and send something conciliatory.
December 28th was classic John St. Angelo. He wanted to talk to Suzanne about something, or more likely accuse her of something. He called, texted and emailed, but she was busy at work. Finally he sent a threatening email demanding she respond. She told him who he could contact about work questions and that he would have to wait until the next day to talk about anything personal. She was too busy to deal with him.
Suzanne was also unsettled. Records show that she had called Fort Worth Police Department that morning to report a possible prowler. She thought there was a man lurking outside her house, but when the police responded, they found no evidence of a man and left. Suzanne would later go outside and discover a window screen pried open and a fire that had been set outside her pool. The fire damaged property, but given its proximity to the house, it could have been far worse. The Fire Marshall responded and determined the cause of the fire to be arson. Someone poured gasoline on Suzanne’s patio and lit it on fire. The backyard was securely locked—unless you knew the trick of accessing the door that opened to the alley behind her house. She told police and the arson investigator that she was suspicious of St. Angelo. He had become fixated on the idea that she was dating again and he was furious.
The next day was a string of furious emails with insults and threats. St. Angelo referred to her as a gold-digger, ironic since she was the financially sound one, and a whore. This last was in response to her refusing to meet him for drinks. In his head, if she didn’t want him, she must have someone else. Never mind that they were divorced, and she could see anyone she wanted. He sent her an email promising to be “that thorn in your garden forever” and saying he hoped she would “expire and karma will be your payback.”
The next day, December 30th, co-workers would remember that Suzanne was very nervous. St. Angelo was present at the Remax office on Heritage Trace. He taken a pair of Suzanne’s glasses as “collateral” and was demanding money for her car. She had a check for him.
Suzanne’s co-workers heard her screaming after 4:00. They ran to her door, but it was locked. A co-worker ran for the master key. She opened it to find St. Angelo kneeling over Suzanne, stabbing her with a large butcher knife. Blood was everyone and Suzanne wasn’t moving. The co-worker pushed a chair at him to make him stop what he was doing. “Well, that’s done,” he said.
The two female co-workers fled. They both called 911 and left the building. A third co-worker ran to get help from a male co-worker. They came back to find the door had been re-locked. St. Angelo had left through a window. Suzanne was clearly dead. At trial, they were asked how they knew. Did they check for a pulse? They did not. There wasn’t anywhere to check.
Suzanne had been stabbed 23 times and her throat slit. The majority of the violence was to her head, face, torso and neck. She had one deep wound to her back and defensive wounds to her hands. She was missing a nail. Another nail was torn.
Police were immediately looking for St. Angelo. They went to his house and found the car he had been driving, but his other car was missing. K was called to come over. She brought St. Angelo’s sons who were able to tell police that guns were missing. K was so distraught, she had to be hospitalized. St. Angelo was nowhere to be found.
New Year’s Eve at around 11:00 a.m., a call came into Fort Worth 911. On the line was a woman who has remained unnamed in news reports. She told police that she had met St. Angelo a few months before when he had done some work on her house and that they had become friendly. He showed her a knife and said he had killed his ex-wife. According to her, he had been there all night. She told the 911 operator that they had been “praying” but that he was armed and was suicidal. Later, she would admit that he had spent the night alternately praying and terrorizing her.
Police coordinated with SWAT. A five hour stand off followed. St. Angelo shot at officers from both the front and rear of the house. Negotiators tried to talk him out, but he refused. Officers finally shot tear gas in through the windows. They rushed the house as St. Angelo shot himself in the face. He managed to knock out one of his teeth. That was all. In the bathroom where he had barricaded himself, they found the tooth, the bloody knife, and a meth pipe. If St. Angelo was on methamphetamine, that might explain his loss of control. He certainly seemed like a man on a downward spiral. They also found the check Suzanne had promised him for the car. Incredibly, around everything else that happened, he had remembered to take the check with him.
At the hospital, officers briefly spoke to St. Angelo. He told them “I loved that woman to death.” He made another claim, one that his defense attorney would offer up as a legal justification at trial.
He claimed to have killed Suzanne in self-defense. He told a SWAT negotiator that Suzanne came at him with a knife, so he took it away and stabbed her “15 times” in self-defense.
At trial, he testified that all their problems were Suzanne’s fault. It was her drinking that caused problems. It was her relationship with his children that caused problems. It was her spending that caused problems. Somehow, she became the violent one. Somehow, she caused his million-dollar business to fail. He said that she pulled out the knife and threatened to kill herself. He initially took the knife away from her to save her life, but she attacked him and he was forced to stab her to save himself. He said he only recalled stabbing her three times. Assistant District Attorney Allenna Bangs played the recording of his conversation with SWAT negotiators in which he admitted to 15 stab wounds, still a far cry from the actual 23, but he claimed not to recall saying that. He couldn’t recall slitting her throat either.
St. Angelo claimed that Suzanne treated him differently when he was a wealthy man, but had little use for him after his business failed.
The defense called St. Angelo’s son to try and bolster claims about what a great guy his dad was. Prosecutors didn’t cross-examine the child much. There wasn’t any point. St. Angelo’s family has suffered enough. St. Angelo tried to bring K around to his side as a witness. He called her until he was blocked from calling her number and then wrote her letters. He apologized for yelling at her, but told her God wanted her to forgive him and help him. She testified for the prosecution, although she minimized the abuse.
The jury rejected his claims and sentenced St. Angelo to life in prison. There was little to celebrate. Suzanne’s family was relieved, but that wouldn’t bring her back. That wouldn’t undo the years of harm to K or the children. As prosecutor Bangs said, “John St. Angelo terrorized the women in his life for 30 years and it culminated in Suzanne Parson’s death.”
Fort Worth Man On Trial For Ex-Wife’s Murder
I have a marked fondness for podcasts that don’t tell me stories I already know and lately I’ve been binging on non-American podcasts like this gem from down under. I haven’t known any of the crimes they have presented. . They don’t have a website, but they do have previous experience. Casey and Samantha previously hosted Just Another Murder Podcast which had a completely different format that was more humorous.
True Crime Story Time plays it straight. Unlike most podcasts with dual hosts, there is no banter. It’s a scripted show, but where this podcast shines is in the rich detail and exceptional narrative. They really do their research and both women have a gift for storytelling. They may be serious, but they aren’t boring. They trade off on the script, going back and forth without break. Because they are pros, the production quality is top notch.
Although the themes are mature, there is no strong language and I love the accents which help remind me that I’m not in Texas anymore. There is no padding which keeps the podcasts down around the thirty minute mark which is perfect for a lunch hour listen.
In particular, Darcey’s Story, Bonus Episode 3 really got to me. The story was horrifying and compelling. I might have cried a little and I am not a crier unless there is a dog involved, but that one really got me.
So, if you like serious, scripted true crime like Casefile or Minds of Madness, this is a great, shorter-length podcast.
Cowtown Crime Verdict: The perfect lunchtime bite
In the northeast corner of Tarrant County, tucked at the end of a rough roadway, there is a field of crosses, each cross remembering a life stolen by violent crime. Hours of labor have transformed that weed-choked field into Our Garden of Angels, a place of peace and remembrance with paths, benches, and a gurgling waterfall. Families gather there occasionally, just to be in a calm place where they don’t have to shoulder the burden of grief alone. There, they are among those who truly understand.
This unique memorial for murder victims began with a single cross to remember a beautiful, young woman named Amy Robinson.
Nineteen year old Amy Robinson had dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, but that hope was far away. She was doing well learning to live on her own and hold a job. Amy had been born with Turner’s syndrome, a chromosomal disorder which inhibits physical and mental growth. She was extremely petite, only four feet five inches and she had the mental capacity of a 14 year old. But she was learning how to live on her own and every day she rode her bicycle to her job sacking groceries for Kroger in Arlington, Texas. Amy was sweet and trusting. She was very social and didn’t like to be alone and had no reason to be suspicious when two of her co-workers stopped to offer her a ride on her way to work one day.
Robert Neville, Jr. and Michael Hall had both been fired by Kroger, but Amy didn’t know that. Two hours after she was supposed to be at work, her supervisor called to say Amy had never arrived. Alarmed, her family called police immediately. Police spoke with current and former co-workers. Neville admitted knowing her and even meeting her socially, but he denied having seen her in months.
Neville was someone Amy would never have trusted if only she’d known his background. He had prior convictions for burglary and had only been out of prison for 8 months. As a juvenile, he had been prosecuted for molesting younger children including an 11 year old girl, a 9 year old boy, and a 7 year old boy. He also had a history of abusing animals. When Neville was 14, he threw kittens off a roof. Two years later he tied a cat to a tree by its tail and repeatedly hit the cat with a pole. He had been fired for ridiculing a mentally challenged co-worker and had refused to sack groceries for minority shoppers. He had a fascination with white supremacy. That was the tie that bound Neville and Hall together.
Hall also didn’t like people of color. He was a follower, not a leader, and he was happy to let Neville take the lead. As they were drinking at a house belonging to Neville’s grandmother, Neville mentioned how he would like to go “just go out and kill somebody.” Hall suggested they purchase guns. They bought a pair of .22 caliber rifles and practiced shooting. They formed a plan to be serial killers and selected their first victim, a mentally impaired black man whom they worked with. Neville would later claim in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram interview that they had “a bet to see who could shoot and kill the most people between the two of us.” They particularly wanted to kill “blacks or Mexicans—anybody as long as they weren’t our color.”
On February 15, 1998, the duo made a decision. Upon checking the work schedules, they learned the black coworker wasn’t going to be at work that day, but Amy would be and she was part Native American. They found her riding her bike to work and offered her a ride which she accepted. These weren’t strangers to her and she didn’t know they had been fired. They promised her that they were going to take a ride and then they would drop her off. Instead of taking her to work, they drove her to a field in the Northeast corner of Tarrant County, an isolated place tucked off a rough, pitted road. Amy worried she would be late for work.
Neville stopped at the field, pretending to have a flat tire. Neville and Hall took their weapons out into the field while Amy sat in the car listening to the radio until Hall came back. He convinced her that she needed to go talk to Neville, that he was waiting for her over by a tree. Neville was waiting for Amy, and he was armed with a crossbow. He shot at her several times, grazing her hair with an arrow. She fled for the car but Hall shot her with a pellet gun in the leg. She cried from the pain as he began peppering her with pellets. Neville then brought up the .22 caliber rifle. They took turns shooting Amy. Neville shot her in the chest with the rifle and Hall shot her in the chest multiple times with the pellet gun.
She went to the ground, shaking and crying, then she called Neville by name. It was the last thing Amy would ever say. The pair became worried someone would overhear them so Neville shot Amy in the head to finish her. They had maneuvered her back into the field where she wouldn’t be readily visible from the road. They abandoned her body and left her bicycle with her.
Meanwhile, Amy’s family and friends were frantically looking for her. Her face stayed on the nightly news. It occurred to Hall and Neville that they might have missed a chance to rob Amy, so they went back to her body and took the small amount of cash from her pocket. They then used her body for target practice.
As so many narcissists do, Hall just had to brag about what they had done. He told his step-brother who went to the Arlington police. As police focused on Neville and Hall, they made for the border, but were arrested in Eagle Pass trying to cross into Mexico on March 3rd. Once detained, both men spent a lot of time boasting to reporters and investigators. They openly laughed about torturing Amy. Hall went so far as to imitate the sounds she was make and act out his shooting of her. He described how she begged to live, but died with Robert Neville’s name on her lips.
The interviews would come back to haunt them. Both men claimed diminished mental capacity as a defense, but the juries saw the videos of them laughing it up about torturing and killing Amy. The described her as “easy prey” and talked about how they wanted to be serial killers. Hall specifically mentioned that they chose Amy “because I didn’t have to put bruises on her to get her in the car.” He bragged about being the one to convince Amy that she was safe with them and even getting her to leave the car and walk over to Neville. He said she might have gotten away if he hadn’t been there to help Neville. Asked if he had any remorse, on the Fox 4 video that was played, he laughed and said “I wouldn’t want to be her. She had to take a lot of pain.” The juries sentenced both men to death.
Amy’s grandmother, Carolyn Barker wasn’t satisfied. For her, the media was too focused on the perpetrators and not on the victim. It seemed to her that Hall and Neville wanted to be famous. Every time the murder was covered, she had to look at their faces, hear their words, listen to everyone talk about their upbringings and mental status. What about Amy? Amy was the one who should be remembered.
Carolyn went to find the place in the weed-choked field where Amy had died. She says that part of her Native American beliefs are that a person’s spirit separates from the body and ascends to the afterlife at the place of death and that place becomes sacred. She marked that sacred spot with a cross. Amy had never liked being alone, and when other families in a grief support group expressed interest, she encouraged them to place their crosses beside Amy’s. This was no ordinary support group, but Families of Murdered Victims, and from there the unique memorial to crime victims was born.
Neville was executed February 8, 2006. Hall was executed February 15, 2011, thirteen years to the day from when he murdered Amy Robinson. Although it was financially and emotionally draining, Amy’s mother and sisters made the journey to see the executions. Her grandmother Carolyn did not, choosing instead to celebrate Amy’s life among her fellow angels. Her mother Tina said that she needed to see their final justice for herself. Both men expressed regret and apologized to the families.
Neville claimed to have become a Christian and told them he would see Amy on the other side and apologize to her and tell her how much her family loved and missed her. Hall also claimed to have found Christianity and said he wished he could make things right. Amy’s sisters weren’t interested in forgiving him. Amanda expressed that she believed he was not remorseful but playing for cameras right to the end. Ruth said she felt like a weight had been lifted from her and she was glad Hall died the same day Amy did. It felt right to her.
From the four original crosses, Amy’s field is now home to more than 160 crosses, tangible reminders of lives taken in violence. Carolyn Barker’s love for her granddaughter transformed her grief into something beautiful. She wanted Amy’s memory to live on and she has succeeded. The memorial has been named Our Garden of Angels. You can take a visual tour from their website and read more about some of the precious lives remembered there at http://ourgardenofangels.org/.
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)
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)
First, Happy Valentines Day. Nothing says love like an Old Testament, Polygamist, Doomsday Cult, right?
I spent 10 years in an Old Testament, Polygamist, Dooms Day Cult. If you want to learn more about the time I spent there, listen to the damn podcast! It was one hell of a ride and I soooooo look forward to telling all the grizzly details! Jump onboard, I promise you won’t be disappointed!!!!
That’s how Debby, one of the main hosts of “I Got the Hell Out” introduces herself and she does not lie. If you’re as fascinated with cults as I am, you won’t be disappointed at all. Her co-host is Laura. By day, Laura is a pharmacist, and by night, she’s a badass interviewer.
Laura leads Debby through aspects of her life in a doomsday cult. The unnamed cult is intriguing as the leader gradually twists recognizable fundamentalism into something more bizarre and oppressive. I learned about this podcast via Instagram before the first episode dropped and was immediately interested in the insider perspective of a cult.
Debby is flat out funny. She is like that one friend we all have who is irreverent, borderline crude, but so straightforward and honest that you simply must laugh with her. Laura does a great job of steering Debby back to topic and teasing out new facts. This could be a monologue, but Laura shapes it into a story. It’s hard to compare IGTHO to other podcasts because I can’t think of anyone else who has this sort of first person knowledge of their subject matter. Debby isn’t telling us about doomsday cults. She’s telling us about her life and it’s compelling.
The themes are mature and so is the language. This isn’t a podcast to put on with tender ears around, but that’s why God gave us headphones, right? Production values are good. There’s no distracting echo or background noises. There is some banter, but it’s minimal and related to the topic.
As a fun aspect, they invite listeners to send in their favorite alcoholic Kool-Aid beverage recipes and pick one to share each week so you can “drink the Kool-Aid” along with them.
If you want to give them a try, start at the beginning, because there is a story there. You will learn how Debby ended up in a cult, what kept her there, and just how she managed to get out. She’s one strong lady! You can find them all over social medial. Just go to the website igotthehellout.com and check out the links. You can email questions and Debby does her best to incorporate those into the show. They also have links to multiple interviews so have a listen and get to know Laura and Debby a bit better.
Cowtown Crime Verdict: Drink the Kool-Aid. It’s good for you.
It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking of the criminal justice system as a conglomerate being, a monolithic entity, a machine chewing up lives and spitting out justice. We have a visceral reaction to the idea of an impersonal system controlling our lives. Too often, we fail to realize is that just as a machine is made of parts, a system is made of people. Judges, police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, court clerks, jailers, bondsmen, are all just people. They are good people, bad people, parents with grown children and single millennials, they have dogs or maybe cats. You get the point. The system is just made up of people. People like me and people like Mark Hasse.
Mark Hasse dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice. He graduate from SMU Law School in 1981 and went straight to work for the Dallas District Attorney’s Office. Mark made a name for himself by taking on the toughest cases, specializing in organized crime. He left to go into private practice, working as a defense attorney but also moving into the areas of family law and aviation law. That last might seem like an odd fit, but Mark had a commercial pilot’s license. He loved flying and he loved planes. That love almost stole his life when he was critically injured in a 1995 plane crash. He also loved rescuing dogs. You might say Mark was married to the job. At least, there was never a spouse or kids in the picture, but he did have a large, loving family and he had nieces and nephews to spoil.
I doubt that was on his mind when he drove to work on January 31, 2013.
Criminal law had always held Mark’s heart. In 2010, he went back to work as a prosecutor, this time in Kaufman County. He moved there to work with newly elected District Attorney Mike McLelland as his Chief Felony Prosecutor. Kaufman County sits just east of Dallas. It’s mostly white and rural, and like so many similar places, the scourge of meth had sunk its teeth in deep. In recent years, Kaufman County experienced rapid growth as a bedroom community due to its proximity to Dallas, bringing with it big city problems. The meth trade in Texas is largely controlled by white supremacy gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood and Aryan Circle. With Mark’s experience prosecuting organized crime, he was a natural fit for aggressively pursuing those groups and soon developed a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense guy, the kind of prosecutor the skinheads didn’t want to mess with.
I doubt his reputation was on his mind when he parked behind the Kaufman County Courthouse just after 9:00 am.
He was probably thinking about that day. He was probably thinking about dockets, and witness meetings, and evidence exchanges. He was probably so focused on the minutiae that make up a typical day in the life of a prosecutor that he didn’t notice the man with the gun until he was right there on top of him. According to witnesses Lenda Bush and Kelley Blaine, Mark was walking, briefcase in hand, towards the courthouse when a masked man dressed all in black ran up to him brandishing a gun. The man shoved Mark who reflexively shoved back. The man pressed the gun to his neck. Mark raised both hands and pleaded for his life as the man shot him eight times, then jumped into the passenger side of a waiting car that sped away. Lenda Bush, a former police officer turned lawyer, gave chase to the vehicle. She was so shocked that she had difficulty dialing 911 and trying to follow the car which ultimately got away. There was no license plate on the car. She returned to the scene and gave Mark CPR until the ambulance arrived. He wouldn’t survive the trip to the hospital.
It was a hit in broad daylight just feet away from the courthouse.
Shock waves radiated through-out the criminal justice community. I heard about it within hours. My husband saw the murder on the news and called to tell me someone was assassinating District Attorneys. A sheriff’s deputy walked me to my car that day.
Within a week, there was a safety meeting at my office. We were advised to vary our times for arriving and leaving. Some people carried mace or alarm whistles. We walked in groups and had investigators escorting us. Everyone was sure that the ABT ( Aryan Brotherhood Texas) had finally gotten Mark. Who else would commit such a brazen hit? Which of us would be next?
As Mark was laid to rest and his family created a memorial fund for the children of Kaufman County, a massive manhunt was underway. FBI, the Texas Rangers, the Department of Public Safety, and the local sheriff’s department were all called in.
District Attorney Mike McLelland came out to give a press conference. He spoke to reporters with tears in his eyes. “I hope the people who did this are watching, because we are very confident that we are going to find you. We’re going to pull you out of whatever hole you’re in. We’re going to bring you back and let the people of Kaufman County prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
While everyone else was concerned with investigating the ABT, the local sheriff had another suspect in mind. He immediately went to interview a disgraced former Justice of the Peace, Eric Williams.
In 2012, Mark Hasse had prosecuted Williams for stealing computer equipment after he was caught on surveillance video taking the items. The incident cost Williams his political career and his legal one after his law license was suspended. Williams had been extremely angry and publically blamed Mark Hasse and Mike McLelland of a “political assassination.” He blamed them for ruining his life.
Williams answered the door with his arm in a sling and told Sheriff Byrnes that he’d recently had shoulder surgery. He had an alibi in his wife and, although suspicious, Byrnes had nothing else to tie Williams to the crime.
At the beginning of March, a member of the 211 Crew, a prison gang, shot and killed the director of the Colorado Bureau of Prison. It was a bold crime. He simply knocked on the front door and executed the man when he answered. The killer would die in a hail of bullets on the highway.
Our security measures at work tightened. They were coming for us. Everyone scrambled to hide our home addresses. We had frequent emails on how to keep safe. I know I looked over my shoulder when going to my car every night. There are reports that a Kaufman County judge had taken to wearing a bullet proof vest. McLelland went armed. It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.
Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia both had degrees in psychology. Cynthia told a friend that both were extremely concerned about Williams. They believed he was the type not to take humiliation well. Williams had been offered a plea to a misdemeanor for the thefts but he refused, confident he could represent himself and win. He was utterly humiliated by the felony conviction, even though he wasn’t sentenced to any jail time. Cynthia and Mark were both sure he was plotting some sort of revenge, even though he smiled to their faces. They had been worried even before the attacks started.
March 30, 2014, Cynthia answered a knock at the door. She would never have opened the door to Williams, but at seeing the policeman with a SWAT helmet on, she opened the door. Security had become a daily occurrence. But this was no police officer. Cynthia and Mike were shot repeatedly in extreme overkill. The first officer on the scene testified there was blood everywhere.
Once again media descended on Kaufman County. Williams didn’t shy away from the attention. He rode out on his Segway to give interviews. He told Jack Douglas of CBS-KTVT
“My heart goes out to all the families that have been affected by this tragedy. And especially to the people that work at the court house. I worked there for several years while I was going to law school and so I know that it’s a tight-knit family – that this is devastating to them,”
All of this was said with his trademark smirk. He might not have been smiling if he’d known police were narrowing in on him. They knew he had lied about the shoulder surgery. He’d also made a serious miscalculation.
The day after the McLelland’s were murdered, a man sent an email to Crime Stoppers. The message began “Do we have your attention now?” The email went on to say that unless certain judges resigned, the killings would continue. The caller knew specific information about the crimes, including the type of ammunition used.
They had surveillance video of a white Crown Victoria driving through the neighborhood at the time of the crime. What they needed were direct links. They went to see Williams and were surprised when he invited them in. He was arrogant enough to let them see his guns and sights. The information they gained that day allowed them to obtain a search warrant.
They found the title to a white Crown Victoria, guns, and numbers written down by the phone. Those were the ID numbers assigned to the Crime Stoppers emailer. That is how anonymous call-ins work. Computer forensics would show that immediately after his conviction, Williams began stalking Mark Hasse. He was also the mysterious emailer.
Once the dominoes began falling, they didn’t stop. A friend of Eric Williams called in a tip about a storage facility. Williams had asked the friend to rent the facility for him, but didn’t want it in his name. They quickly obtained a search warrant for the storage facility and when them lifted the door to the unit, there was the white Crown Victoria. There was also enough guns, body armor, and crossbows to outfit a swat unit.
Williams was arrested and with him, his accomplice, the woman who had driven him the get-away car when he gunned down Mark Hasse and again for the McLellands, his wife, Kim Williams.
Kim Williams would be the star witness against her husband. She testified that she was addicted to pain killers and was under her husband’s influence, but that she was a willing participant. “His anger was my anger.” She believed everything he told her.
Although she was testifying without a plea agreement, Kim was hoping for mercy in her sentence. She testified about the planning and execution of the crimes in chilling detail. She told the courtroom that her husband had always talked about killing people who he felt were conspiring against him. When he was going to trial, he warned her that they would tell lies about him. In particular, he told her they would put up a woman named Janice Gray, a former court coordinator he had dated before Kim. Gray might be going to testify that he had threatened to kill her when they broke up, but he assured Kim it was a lie. She says she believed him. He also was extremely angry with Judge Glen Ashworth whom he blamed for leading prosecutors to Janice Gray.
Williams had a hit list. His first target was intended to be Judge Ashworth. According to Kim Williams, her husband has started making napalm and storing it in pickle jars. He also bought a crossbow. These items were among those recovered from the storage facility. The plan was to go to Ashworth’s house following the Super Bowl. Ashworth lived just down the street, so it would be easy to go in and shoot him with the crossbow. Williams was then going to gore out his stomach and fill it with the napalm.
But Williams switched gears abruptly. He decided to kill Hasse first. He wanted to make a statement and gun Mark Hasse down outside the courthouse in view of everyone. Kim testified they were both very excited that morning. Williams dressed all in black with a ghoul mask.
She detailed the crimes, describing all the while how excited and happy Williams was. He was living his fantasy. He had decided to impersonate a police officer when they went to the McLellands’ and modeled the outfit for her like he was walking a runway. She sat outside as it sounded like the shooting went on forever. When he ran back out to the car, he told her he had to shoot Cynthia and additional time because she was moaning. He couldn’t leave a living witness, so he shot her in the top of the head. They celebrated that night with steaks on the grill and Williams made ready for the next people on his list, Judge Ashworth and County Court at Law Judge Erleigh Wiley, another person Williams believed had wronged him.
Rather than get involved in arguing whether Williams was justified in being angry about his prosecution, the special prosecutors tried him on the case involving the most innocent victim, Cynthia McLelland. Her only crime was being married to Mike. She was a beloved mother, grandmother, and a respected psychiatric nurse.
The jury only took an hour and forty minutes to convict Williams of killing Cynthia. He was sentenced to death. Kim Williams later pled guilty and was sentenced to 40 years.
Perhaps the only thing more shocking to those of us who make up “the system” than the murder of own was the identity of the murderer. He was also one of our own. It’s true in investigating murders that the killer is usually someone the victim knows. It’s always the spouse, the roommate, the ex-boyfriend. We fear the stranger when we should instead be looking closer to the smiling assassin next to us.
Source Notes: I relied on the following sources. I highly recommend the CBS 48 hours and the Kaufman Herald which were my two primary sources.
While researching this case, I discovered true crime author Katherine Casey has book about these murders coming out in March. I’m excited to read it.
Kaufman County Murder Trial: Day 3 Updates
Kim Williams Testifies In Kaufman Trial