He looks harmless enough. Photos show a man with an earnest, slightly nerdy face. He wasn’t an imposing figure, standing a mere 5 foot 9 with a slender build. He liked dogs, cooking, and fishing. He had no criminal record and held down a job. In the mid-1990’s he was working office jobs and living in Arlington, but he had done warehouse jobs and sometimes he drove a forklift. He was the sort of man you might notice, or you might not. There was nothing that stood out about him. But in 1996 and again in 1999, he caused waves of panic for women in the DFW area, because Dale Devon Scheanette was a serial rapist and a brutal killer.
25 year-old school teacher Christine Vu lived with her Fiancé, Thang Khuu at the Peartree Apartments in Arlington, Texas. On Tuesday, September 17, 1996, Khuu got off work early and came home. He was surprised to find their apartment locked and dead-bolted from the inside. Thinking Christine might be in the bathroom, he went and smoked a cigarette and then came back, only to find the door still locked. He went to a payphone and called but there was no answer. He came back to try one more time, but found the door unlocked.
He went inside where he discovered a scene from his worst nightmares. Christine was naked, face down in the bathtub. Her hands and feet were bound with duct tape, with a strip of the tape connecting them down her back, as if she had been “hog-tied” with duct tape. Detective Ed Featherstone was assigned the case. Initially he was very suspicious of Khuu. After all, we know it’s usually someone close to the victim. Khuu was extremely cooperative and DNA from semen recovered from Vu’s body excluded him as the rapist and killer. In addition, police discovered a fingerprint off the deadbolt lock on the front door. Heartbreakingly, Thang Khuu was most likely sitting outside smoking a cigarette while his fiancée was being killed.
Christine had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and drowned. The print on her door didn’t match anyone who had a reason to be in Christine’s apartment leading police to conclude that they might have that rarity, a stranger killing on their hands. Within a few months, this would be confirmed.
Wendie Prescott also lived at the Peartree apartments while she saved her money to go to beauty school. Wendie was expected at a Christmas Eve shopping trip. Her family became concerned when she didn’t appear and didn’t answer repeated calls so her aunt and uncle went over to check on her. She was left exactly like Christine: naked, bound by duct tape, floating in her bathtub. Detective Tommy Lenoir was called to the scene but it didn’t take him more than a minute to know what he was seeing, the genesis of a serial killer. He immediately called Featherstone to tell him they had another one.
Not only were the two women killed in an identical way, but the apartments had identical floorplans and décor. Then there was another piece of evidence that confirmed it if there was any doubt. Once again, the killer left behind a print, this time in the dust on a TV stand. He also left behind DNA that would match back to Vu’s rapist and killer. Police were hopeful that the prints or DNA would lead to a suspect. Surely the killer was in the system. This couldn’t be a first crime.
Christmas morning at the Peartree apartments was chaos. Word spread rapidly and all the single women were breaking their leases and moving out. Family members had descended, loading up cars with possessions. It made getting statements or canvassing potential witnesses extremely difficult. The exodus also made it easy for the killer to move out without attracting attention.
To the police’s consternation, the DNA and prints led nowhere. The ran the prints through AFIS, the American Fingerprint Identification System and were surprised to get no hits. For months, police pursued promising suspects, obtaining DNA samples that they hoped would lead to a resolution, but again and again, they got no match. They did clear over 200 suspects. They held their breath, wondering when he would strike again, but nothing. Gradually, they began to breathe again. What had happened to him? Perhaps he moved away. Perhaps he had died. Whatever the reason, he seemed to be gone.
February 23, 1999, 22 year old Chima Benson was a senior at UTA. On that night, she went to sleep in the AKA sorority house. She awoke with a man on top of her. He put a gun to her head and he told her, “Do what I say, and I won’t kill you.” He raped her orally. Chima wasn’t the sort to give up easily and she bit him, hard enough that he would forever carry a scar. Unfortunately, this enraged him and he beat her so severely she would need two facial surgeries to repair the damage. He raped her and left her naked, incapacitated and bloody on the floor of her bedroom. Police got a DNA sample from the semen and one more clue. He wasn’t wearing a mask. Chima got a good look at his face. She has been outspoken about her ordeal, even discussing it while she was on the Big Brother TV show. She now works as a TV host.
Detective Lenoir soon received a tip. He heard from Wendie Prescott’s best friend and the last person to see her alive that until recently, she had lived in the AKA Sorority house, in the very same room that was now Chima Benson’s. “That should have been me,” she said. She believed the killer might be her ex-boyfriend who had been stalking her. The tie between Peartree and the AKA house couldn’t be ignored. When the crime lab compared the DNA of Chima’s attacker with that of the Bathtub Killer, it was a match. He was back.
They were hopeful when comparing it to the boyfriend that the case would finally be solved, but he was excluded. The killer was still at large. But at least they now had a physical description of the man, as well has his fresh injury. They went back and began checking the DNA against other sexual assaults. They got another hit, a sexual assault from Grand Prairie. Then another. It’s unusual for a killer to de-escalate from murder to rape instead of the reverse, but the Bathtub Killer had done just that. Forensics would tie him five rapes following the two murders. The killer had morphed into a serial rapist.
Victims included Adrienne Fields, who has also been outspoken as a minister for other victims. In the Source Notes, I’ve included a link to an interview with her.
Adrienne had seen the story of the murders in 1996. She had a feeling of doom, so strong that she moved out of Arlington to Grand Prairie. Although she couldn’t explain it, she was sure that man on the news would come after her. She was right. October 26, 1999, she woke up in the night to the sound of someone running. She sat up in time to see a man in a mask rushing at her. For two hours he sexually assaulted her.
During the ordeal that followed, he told her that the “The Devil kept making him do it.” and also “You’re not like the others.” She knew then that this was a serial rapist. He knew her name and other information, making it clear he had been stalking her. When he was done, he simply walked away. DNA testing confirmed that the Bathtub Killer had indeed attacked her. The fear would hold her prisoner. At night she roamed her house, checking locks on the doors and windows. She didn’t sleep soundly until a year later when police would call her to say they had the rapist in custody.
As so often happens, it was an advance in science that dropped the final puzzle piece into place. The FBI had a new AFIS system: I-AFIS. This system could rotate prints and locate points of comparison where none had been matched before. The best latent print was the dust print from Wendie Prescott’s TV Stand, so Sgt. Gary Kohn submitted that print. Two weeks later, he had a result, and a name: Dale Devon Scheanette. Scheanette had been recently arrested on a burglary charge. Crime Scene Officer Joel Stevenson examined the prints and confirmed they were a match. But what about the print from Christine Vu’s door? He compared those, and again: match. Excited, the two men took the information to the detectives. They had a suspect.
Detective Lenoir quickly checked the name against the case book. Dale Scheanette had lived in Peartree Apartments during the murders. Nothing had ever stood out about him and at the time he had no criminal history. He hadn’t voluntarily donated DNA. Police quickly located Scheanette still living in Arlington. He denied ever having been in the victims’ apartments, but he couldn’t answer why his print would be in both locations. Once again, he refused to voluntarily give a DNA sample or to allow inspection of his penis for damage. But now police had the evidence needed for a Search Warrant to compel him. They found the scar to his penis and DNA matched. He was charged, indicted, and brought to trial in 2003.
There wasn’t much Scheanette’s defense team could do. J.R. Molina, lead attorney for his defense team summed it up saying, “We put on our defense that the evidence was insufficient, but we were fighting that science … fingerprints in the apartment, and they had DNA. That’s some pretty strong stuff.”
January 8th, 2003, sentence was pronounced on Dale Devon Scheanette. The rape victims all testified against him at the punishment phase. They told the jurors similar stories of rape, beatings and sodomy. They were threatened should they ever come forward. After what they suffered and the threats, it’s important to remember that these are only the known victims. It’s entirely credible that others suffered at this man’s hands, but were too afraid to report the crime. The women formed tight bonds during that trial. They supported one another through the grueling process and hugged and cried when the jury sentenced Scheanette to death by lethal injection.
Scheanette never spoke about his crimes. Not to detectives, not to reporters. He never admitted guilt, so we will never know what was going on in his head. Why did he de-escalate? How did he choose his victims? He remained a cipher.
He filed numerous appeals, all based on sufficiency of evidence and procedural matters. He didn’t assert actual innocence, but he didn’t offer an alternative explanation either. As his own attorney noted, there wasn’t much to say about the strong forensic evidence. He asked for pen pals on an anti-death penalty site. Again, he complained about capital punishment being wrong and how the system was flawed. The irony is thick there.
After he had exhausted the legal process, his sister wrote appeals on his behalf, but his time ran out on February 10, 2009. Members of Wendie Prescott’s family chose to attend. Christine Vu’s family did not. Scheanette ignored them all. According to ClarkProsecutor.org, his last words were not a statement of love for his family or plea for forgiveness. “My only statement is that no cases ever tried have been error-free. Those are my words. No cases are error-free.”
I have mentioned my ambivalence to the death penalty before, but I think I can speak for women everywhere when I say I feel safer without that man in the world. We all fear the monster in the night, but it is hard to feel safe when you see him and realize that anyone could be a monster inside. You can’t tell by the face he wears. He could live anywhere. Even next door.
19 years later, ‘bathtub killer’ survivor speaks – YouTube
Cold Case Files: Déjà vu, Season 4, Ep 15,
Scheanette v. State, 144 S.W.3d 503 (Tex.Crim.App.,2004) (Direct Appeal).
Scheanette v. Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, Not Reported in F.Supp.2d, 2005 WL 3147874 (N.D.Tex. 2005) (Pro Se).
Scheanette v. Quarterman, 482 F.3d 815 (5th Cir. 2007) (Habeas).