Childhood Interrupted: The Shakeisha Lloyd Story

The adults in Shakeisha Lloyd’s brief life failed her. It’s not that they didn’t love her. She was very loved. It’s not that they weren’t doing their best. They tried. But the truth is that they utterly failed to protect her resulting in her death at the age of ten, just a day after she completed 4th grade. Surviving family members remember her as a sweet, cheerful little girl who loved singing.

 

Shakeisha lived with her extended family in the historic Stop Six neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas. Stop Six is primarily an African-American community that was once the sixth stop on the Northern Texas Traction Company, a trolley line that ran between Fort Worth and Dallas. They’re best known as the home of the Dunbar Wildcats and their multiple basketball state championships under the guidance of legendary coach Robert Hughes. If she had survived, Shakeisha would have gone to school there. Instead, her mother met a man named Edward Lewis Lagrone.

Like so many inner city, blue collar communities, Stop Six was ravaged by drugs and gangs in the 80s and 90s like they were natural disasters that laid waste to families and the infrastructure. In 1985, Shakeisha’ s mother began dating Lagrone. Allegedly he made a living as a cook, but everyone knew Lagrone’s real job was as the local drug dealer. Crack had ferocious grip on Stop Six and Lagrone was deep in the culture. Pamela Lloyd only dated Lagrone for six months, but that was enough for him to ingratiate himself to the family. He would come by to visit with the children.

lagrone2
Edward Lewis Lagrone

No one questioned why a grown man would be so invested in the children of a woman he briefly dated. As for Pamela, she was struggling with her own addiction to crack and Lagrone was her supplier. She was willing to ignore everything else to keep him closer. There were eight people living in Shakeisha’s house. She had a older brother, Charles, a baby sister, her mother, her uncle Dempsey, and two elderly great aunts, seventy-six-year-old Carolina “Caola” Lloyd and eighty-three-year-old Zenobia Anderson. Other family members were frequently there. Shakeisha was especially close to another great aunt and uncle, Beverly and Billy Lloyd. Their daughter Kendra was the exact same age as Shakeisha. Kendra was her cousin and her best friend in the world.

In spite of there being so many people around, we know Lagrone had plenty of alone time with little Shakeisha. In 1991, Pamela noticed physical changes in her daughter that concerned her. She was gaining weight and her breasts were growing. One night after her bath, Shakeisha told Pamela, “Mommy, something is moving around inside of me.” Pamela took her daughter to the hospital for an examination and learned that her 10 year child was 17 weeks pregnant.

Shakeisha admitted to her mother that Lagrone had been raping her for two years and that he said he would kill her if she told. She could remember nine different times she had been raped by Lagrone, but it’s hard to know how much occurred. Child predators spend time getting close to a child and gaining their trust. The goal is to have access, but to also ensure that the child doesn’t tell. The process of gradually escalating intimacy and control is called “grooming” and frequently includes lavishing attention on lonely children.

The predator starts out with little things, kissing or cuddling before moving into fondling and ultimately full intercourse. Threats and guilt are used to maintain control of the child. The child victims are often conflicted. How can someone make them feel so good and yet so bad at the same time? They believe from all the attention that this person must love them. If they tell about the bad parts, they’re harming this person who loves them. As with any confession, the longer they silent, the harder it becomes to tell. They become afraid that no one will believe them.  Shakeisha had told no one. Not even her cousin.

Pamela wanted to do the right thing. She reported him to the police. But she also contacted Lagrone. At first he denied “messing with” Shakeisha and hung up on her. But later he called back and apologized. He said he was sorry for what he had done and that he would take care of the baby. She told him she was pressing charges.

The next day, she instructed Shakeisha to call Lagrone’s beeper, fearing that he might not call her back, but he would call Shakeisha. He did call back and she told him Shakeisha need to have an abortion which would cost $895. He said he would pay.
May 29th was the end of the school year. Shakeisha should have been looking forward to the summer and 5th grade. She should have been riding her bike or playing with Barbies. She should have been giggling with Kendra and dancing around singing as she loved to do. Instead, her mother was negotiating with Shakeisha’s rapist to pay for her abortion. Lagrone offered Pamela $1,000 to pay for the abortion and another $500 just for her. All she had to do was withdraw her complaint. He told her he would be by on Thursday with the money.

Pamela didn’t withdraw the complaint. She was trying to do the right thing by her daughter. She had brought this man into their lives and allowed him access to her children. She was going to protect her daughter now. But communicating with Lagrone would prove a fatal mistake. She should have known better. She really should have.

Lagrone was more than just a drug dealer. He had already been to prison before. Lagrone was already a convicted murderer.

Lagrone1

On October 6, 1976, Lagrone shot and killed a man named Michael Anthony Jones in a dispute. He was sentenced to 20 years. While on parole for this offense, he began dating Pamela. In 1990, he has several pending arrests for dealing drugs and was facing more prison time. He was also under investigation for a double homicide committed in December of 1990. Someone broke into an apartment with a shotgun and killed a Clifton Demerson, 39 and Mary Demerson Daniel, 40. According to police, a note in Mary’s possession implicated Lagrone.

This was the man Pamela let into the lives of her family, her vulnerable children and fragile elderly women. She wasn’t bothered by Lagrone being on parole. At the time, she was newly paroled herself after serving time for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. She was deep into her addiction. Her uncle Billy Lloyd warned her about Lagrone. Everyone knew he was a dangerous man. But Pamela just knew that he brought her drugs. She would later comment that she thought he was great with children because he bought lots of presents to the children of the people he sold drugs to. He lavished attention and gifts on the kids of parents whose minds were clouded with drugs.

Although he was a convicted murderer who had threatened to kill the child victim of his new sexual assault charge, Lagrone hadn’t yet been arrested. Arlington Police Department were aware he lived in their city and had the warrant, but they just hadn’t gotten around to it yet citing “a heavy caseload.”

After the conversation where Pamela refused to drop the charges, Lagrone had his new girlfriend Anetta Daniel go with him to the Winchester Gun Store. He couldn’t legally buy a gun, but he gave her the money to purchase a double-barrel, pistol-grip, slide-action Winchester shotgun. She brought the gun out to him and he put it in the trunk of his car.

The next day was May 30, 1991. Pamela woke up around 4:00 am and went to get a drink of water. She was startled by a banging on the door demanding to be let in. Shakeisha’s brother later said he recognized the voice and begged him not to answer the door, but Dempsey Lloyd opened the door to find Lagrone standing there. Dempsey asked Lagrone what he wanted at that hour. In response, Lagrone shot him. Dempsey grappled with Lagrone for the shotgun, but he was weakening quickly.

Lagrone wrestled the shotgun away and went into the first bedroom. There he found Caola Lloyd. Caola was suffering from terminal cancer and was blind and mostly deaf. Lagrone executed the elderly woman with a single shot.

From there he went into the kitchen where he found Zenobia Andersons washing out some clothing. He also executed her with a single shot.

“Run, Mama” Shakeisha cried out. She and Charles were also running for cover, but first Shakeisha stopped to hide her 19 month old baby sister. This altruistic act probably cost her life as Lagrone caught up with her. Ten year-old Shakeisha threw up her hands to shield herself. When Lagrone shot, the bullet traveled through her hands, dismembering fingers and slammed into her cheek, exiting her jaw on the opposite side. He then placed the gun to the back of her neck and pulled the trigger a second time.

On the way out, he leveled the gun again at Dempsey. Dempsey begged for his life, but Lagrone shot him again anyway. Incredibly, Dempsey survived to identify Lagrone as the shooter. Pamela and Charles would also identify him. He was arrested almost immediately. Although there were three living victims and extensive forensics, Lagrone would deny he was the shooter. He also denied being the man who had impregnated Shakeisha, but unlike Lagrone, DNA doesn’t lie. He was the father.

 

At trial, Lagrone put a witness who testified that another person was bragging about the murder. Lagrone’s grown son Erik Williams, AKA Omar Anderson. His son wasn’t the most credible witness, having shot three men in three incidents, one of whom had died. That’s right. Just five months after the Lloyd family murders, Lagrone’s son also killed a man. At the time he testified for his father, he was a known gang member and drug dealer who was under indictment for murder. The jury rejected his testimony in favor of more credible evidence.

After the conviction, the jury heard more about Lagrone’s past including the drug dealing and the previous murder. They also heard testimony from two sisters, both aged fifteen at the time who had been abducted at gunpoint by Lagrone who sexually assaulted and terrorized them in 1986. He threatened them before releasing them and they didn’t tell until he safely behind bars.

The jury sentenced Lagrone to death in just 25 minutes. The violence and drugs didn’t stop there. They continued stalking this community and this family. Lagrone’s son is now serving a life sentence for the murder he was convicted of. Pamela’s addiction was too big to ignore. After Shakeisha’s murder, it only increased. She married the father of her baby girl, but he was also a violent man. In 1997 she shot and killed her husband Gene Tutt. She said it was self-defense. A plea agreement of five years was agreed on in 1999. This meant she was incarcerated on February 12, 2004, date Edward Lewis Lagrone was finally set for execution.

Charles also couldn’t be there. He, too, had fallen prey to the scourge of drugs, dying of an overdose at the age of 22. Shakeisha’s beloved aunt and uncle Beverly and Billy attended the execution as did Kendra, now 24. Lagrone was defiant to the end, refusing to admit responsibility and refusing to apologize. Kendra wept bitterly in front of reporters. She said she didn’t want to hate another person, but he had raped and killed her best friend. She was disappointed that he couldn’t at least apologize. Her father, Billy expressed relief that Lagrone would never again harm another person.
Pamela said before her release that she now accepted responsibility for her role and was ready for a change. She was ready to step away from drugs and men who had dragged her down. Upon release, she left the state and now resides in Missouri. I hope she has found her way.

When I look at the picture of Shakeisha, I’m filled with rage. She deserved better from the adults in her life. Her face is so innocent, so joyous. What a waste of a sweet, precious life.

Source Notes: The following are all sources I have used in this article, particularly murderpedia and clarkprosecutor, both of which list numerous other sources they relied on.

http://murderpedia.org/male.L/l1/lagrone-edward-lewis.htm
http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/lagrone896.htm
http://txexecutions.org/reports/318.asp
http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/02/02-10976.0.wpd.pdf
https://texasattorneygeneral.gov/oagnews/release.php?id=366
https://groups.google.com/forum/#!msg/alt.thebird.copwatch/Z1WrIvhIvB0/AZVH8Di2b90J
http://caselaw.findlaw.com/tx-court-of-criminal-appeals/1323216.html
https://www.myplainview.com/news/article/Convicted-killer-of-10-year-old-he-impregnated-8770534.php

Deadly Affection: The Suzanne Parsons Story

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.”

john-st-angelo

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.

suzanne-parsons

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.

John St. Angelo Arrested
Swat vehicle during stand off, Photo credit: Waco News Tribune

 

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.

book in

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.”

Source Notes:

http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article16527941.html
http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article16221680.html
http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article16341110.html

https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/St-Angelo-Folo-SG-010114_Dallas-Fort-Worth-238398521.html
https://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/2015/03/26/fort-worth-man-found-guilty-of-killing-ex-wife-after-jury-rejects-his-claims-of-self-defense

Fort Worth Man On Trial For Ex-Wife’s Murder
http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/crime/article3850894.html
https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/second-court-of-appeals/2016/02-15-00107-cr.html
https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/SWAT-Surrounds-Fort-Worth-Home-on-Tip-of-Realtors-Killer-238273931.html

http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/crime/article16384868.html

 

 

 

Betty Lou’s Wishing Well: The True Story of a Texas Black Widow

 

Betty Lou
Betty Lou was prettier when smiling

 

On August 6, 1983, Betty Lou Beets reported her sixth husband, Jimmy Don Beets missing from their home in Gun Barrel City, Texas. Jimmy Don was beloved in the community. He was a big, loveable bear of a man, a Dallas firefighter and a laidback cowboy. Betty Lou told investigators her husband had left the house to go fishing the day before and she hadn’t seen him since. An immediate search was launched, but with no results.

 

Six days later, Jimmy Don’s boat washed up near the Redwood Beach Marina on Cedar Creek Lake. Liz Smith, the owner of the marina spotted the green boat bobbing in the water. Two of her customers went out to check on the drifting vessel and spotted Jimmy Don Beets fishing license. Parks and Wildlife personnel spent weeks dragging the lake, looking for Jimmy Don’s body. His heart medication and glasses were also found in the boat and it was assumed he had trouble and had fallen overboard.

 

Gun Barrel City sits on the edge of Cedar Creek Lake, a man-made lake just sixty miles south of Dallas. The 34,000 acre lake is a popular get away spot, close enough to commute to Dallas daily, or a place to retire. It offers a small town lakeside feel, but with all the amenities of a big city just within reach. It was here that Jimmy Don planned to retire from the Dallas Fire Department. The location seemed perfect for him. Jimmy Don was an avid fisherman and Betty Lou already had a trailer on the lake, surrounded by a dense forest of pine and oaks.

The small community rallied to support Betty Lou. How unlucky could one woman be? Her last husband had just gone off and abandoned her and now another husband had vanished. Betty Lou was holding up awfully well, but everyone grieves differently, right? Perhaps she was just stoic.

Privately, though, people were already beginning to ask questions. Bodies just didn’t disappear in this man-made lake. Then there was the matter of Betty Lou’s attitude. A chaplain from the Dallas Fire Department went to visit with Betty Lou during this difficult time and he was taken aback when she immediately began asking if her husband had life insurance and how much she could get.

Betty Lou never had trouble attracting men. She married her first husband in 1952 at the age of 15. She’d had a hard upbringing. Born in 1937 to a pair of young sharecroppers, she was raised in a small pine cabin in Virginia without electricity or running water. Her mother suffered from mental illness and spent long periods of time hospitalized. Her father was a heavy drinker. A bought with measles left Betty Lou’s hearing severely damaged. Due to her mother’s illness, she spent her teen years caring for her younger siblings. Like so many girls of her time, she escaped her parents’ household by marrying in order to set up a house of her own. She was just 15 and Robert was just 18, but early on they seemed happy enough.

Betty Lou and Robert Branson would remain married for 17 years before divorcing. It would be her longest marriage. Betty Lou and Robert had six children together including her daughter Shirley, and son Robert “Robby” Branson II. Accounts suggest that neither spouse was exactly faithful. Betty Lou often escaped the drudgery of being a young mother and housewife to go honky-tonking. At one point, the couple moved to Mesquite, Texas to try and start over and save their marriage, but it didn’t work. Robert worked long hours and soon Betty Lou slipped off to drink and dance while her eldest daughters watched the other children.

Still, she was devastated when Branson left her for another woman and she began drinking heavily. Robert didn’t always pay her child support.  This was the first time she had ever been truly on her own and it was hard. Eldest daughter Faye repeated her mother’s choices and moved out at 15 to get married. Taking this as her cue to lighten the load, Betty shipped out the other children. She sent a daughter and Robby to live with their father. Although she promised them it was a temporary visit, she wouldn’t see them again for five years. Another daughter went to live with Faye. Shirley went to stay with friends. The only child she kept was three year old Bobby.

Just a year later, she would remarry. Her marriage to Billy Lane was short, but violent. There is little doubt that he abused Betty and left her bruised, but the two couldn’t seem to stay away. They would break up and reconcile over and over.  While they were apart, Betty Lou took malicious pleasure in tormenting Billy. She would go to the same clubs he was at and slow dance with other men while staring at her estranged husband. The marriage ended when Betty shot him twice.

Betty Lou claimed that Billy had forced his way into her house. (source: Buried Memories, by Irene Pence)

“That’s when I reached behind my back and got my gun. He didn’t act afraid. Maybe he thought I was bluffing. He took another step toward me, so I fired at him. Can’t remember how many times, but I kept firing until I saw him stagger out the back door.”

Billy’s teenaged daughter told a different story. She said that Betty Lou, who was living apart from Billy at the time, called and asked Billy to come over. Billy told police he came over in response to this invitation but the two argued, as always. He said he was leaving when she suddenly started firing. This scenario seems likely since he was shot twice in the back. One of the bullets caused so much nerve damage he was never able to walk properly again. He was lucky to have survived. Betty was charged with attempted murder.

Incredibly, the charges would be dropped down to a misdemeanor when Billy told the authorities he had threatened her during a fight. Of course, friends noted that Betty Lou was Billy’s angel while he was in the hospital. She was as loving and sorry as she could be. Betty Lou and Billy would marry again, but that reconciliation wouldn’t last longer than a month.  Once the charges were reduced, she had what she wanted. I suppose that technically makes Lane husband number two and husband number three. Either way, he was lucky to survive marriage to Betty Lou. Other men wouldn’t be so lucky.

Six years later, Betty Lou married her third husband (or fourth, depending on how you’re counting), Ronnie Threlkold. She had taken Bobby and moved off once again for a fresh start. This time she’d gone to Little Rock, Arkansas.  This marriage was also marked with violence on both sides. Ronnie slapped Betty Lou and she retaliated by slashing the tires on his truck. She also went after him with a tire iron during an argument. She moved back to Texas and Ronnie came with her.  Betty was insanely jealous and accused Ronnie of sleeping around with everyone, including her grown daughters. Ronnie finally had enough and packed up to return to Arkansas.  As he was packing his car, he heard the sound of an engine gunning, the only warning he had as Betty Lou tried to run Ronnie over. He dove out of the way in the nick of time, cowering between two parked cars as she sprayed him with gravel.

Less than a year after divorcing Ronnie, Betty married Doyle “Wayne” Baker. Betty Lou had a type and Wayne fit it to a ‘T’. He was tall and tan with dark hair and eyes. His work as a roofer kept him fit. Wayne was a hard worker, but he was also a hard drinker and just seven weeks after they married, Betty Lou and Wayne separated. They divorced, but the divorce was as short-lived as their first marriage. Betty was seriously injured in a car accident. As she recovered, Wayne came back with hat in hand, begging for another chance. They remarried. For Betty Lou, a new start always required a new location. Doyle’s boss owned a place on Cedar Creek Lake and the two had spent a lot of time down there. Betty Lou bought a half-acre lot down in Gun Barrel City and Wayne bought the trailer, a nice spot right on the lake.

The happiness didn’t last. One October evening, Betty Lou confided in a couple of her children that Wayne had slapped her and hit her. Her children immediately jumped to her defense and told her to divorce him, but Betty said she would handle it in her own way. The children were all shocked. They like Wayne. He had been nothing but nice to them and they had never seen him mistreat their mother. But they also knew how she was. Betty Lou could be sweet or she could be mean as a cornered rat snake, depending on her mood. Wayne was known to get in the occasional bar fight. Maybe he really did hit their mother.

Betty and Shirley sat outside with a quickly assembled bonfire. Shirley asked her mother what she was going to do about Wayne. “I’m going to kill him,” Betty Lou  replied. Shocked, Shirley at first thought her mother might be joking, but soon realized she was serious. She desperately tried to convince her mother to get another divorce, but Betty Lou wasn’t having it. Wayne owned the trailer, she explained to Shirley. Betty Lou just owned the land and she wasn’t about to start over again. Wayne had to go and she had been planning it for a while.

Betty Lou pointed out a hole in the backyard area. She had cajoled some e construction workers to dig for her so she could put in a barbecue pit. She told Shirley that Wayne was going to go in that hole and she would build her patio on top. That night, Betty Lou sent Bobby to stay at a friend’s house. The next morning, she called Shirley to say that the deed was done and she needed Shirley’s help to drag Wayne into the hole, but not until the cover of darkness.  Betty Lou also called Wayne’s boss to say Wayne wouldn’t be coming into work. She claimed they’d had a fight and he stormed off to buy cigarettes and hadn’t come back.

Wayne’s boss was shocked. They had a big job planned that day and Wayne was really responsible. That wasn’t like him at all. After three days without his best employee, the boss went by Wayne and Betty Lou’s trailer. He was surprised to see Wayne’s new truck and assumed that meant he had returned. Of course, Wayne wasn’t seen again, but Betty remembered to pick up his last check from the roofing company. Wayne’s boss was sure something was wrong with the situation. A man just doesn’t go off and leave his brand new truck, but he had no proof. Betty Lou filed for divorce claiming desertion. She sold the truck and settled down to live in her trailer, but she was never without a man for long.

Two years later, she would be married again, this time to Jimmy Don Beets.

beets-jimmy-don

Jimmy Don was financially well off. He owned his own house and he had a boat on Cedar Creek Lake. The two met at the Cedar Club, a smoky bar where Betty Lou was a waitress. After a day at work, Jimmy Don liked to stop by for a beer and some company.  He was a native Texan and liked his women curvy, blonde and bubbly and was quickly smitten with the waitress. Betty Lou like her men tall, dark, and financially well off. Jimmy Don fit the bill.

He had his own place at a neighboring lakeside community, Glen Oaks. It was a three bedroom and entirely paid for. Jimmy Don had been smart with his money. He also owned a nineteen foot Glastron fishing boat and tidy life insurance policy. The one downside with his house was that he had no lake access there. He had to use a friend’s dock. Betty Lou’s place was right on the lake, so it was only natural that he moved in with her.

He had a grown son and rented the place to his family. Jamie, the son, and Betty Lou hated one another on sight and the relationship only got worse from there. One day the house mysteriously burned down. It might have been saved, but somehow the water had been turned off. Good thing Jimmy Don had insurance on the place.

It was around this time that Jimmy Don’s niece discovered a new life insurance policy in her uncle’s name. She thought it was odd because he already had a good life insurance policy through the City of Dallas. Also, the policy information all went to Betty Lou’s daughter in Mesquite. She asked her uncle and he was surprised and told her to cancel it. When he confronted Betty Lou, she played it off as a misunderstanding.

Betty Lou was proud of her trailer. She was always neat as a pin, but she kept after Jimmy Don to help her with beautification projects. The first thing she wanted was a shed and she was very particular about where it should be. She wanted it built over a cement block patio. Jimmy Don agreed that a shed would be useful but he didn’t think the location was right. Why, he could see where the land had sunk in a bit under the patio, but she would not be deterred. She wanted a shed and she wanted it right there. Always indulgent, Jimmy Don built the shed just where she had wanted it.

Next Betty Lou wanted a wishing well. Jimmy Don had rebuilt his Glen Oaks house after it burned and he agreed to build the wishing well for her out of leftover brick. With the help of her son Robby, he spent three days building a four-foot-tall wishing well intended to be a planter. It was a dirty, sweaty job under the broiling August sun, but as Jimmy Don reportedly told Robby, “Whatever Betty wants, Betty gets.” (Source: Buried Memories).

Spinning her web like the black widow she was, Betty Lou put the next part of her plan into motion. Once again, she enlisted one of her children as her partner in crime. First she went to Shirley and explained her plan. Shirley was furious. “You promised me would never kill anyone again!” She refused to help. Apparently, she was okay with her mother killing one husband, but a second one? That was a husband too many.

“I’m going to kill, Jimmy Don,” she announced to Robby. He was shocked. Jimmy Don was the nicest of his mother’s husband’s to date, but she brushed aside his concerns. After a lifetime of living hand to mouth, Betty Lou was ready to cash in. Jimmy Don had plenty of assets and life insurance. She instructed Robby to take his brother and stay gone for several hours. He was to come home alone. She would take care of the killing, but petite as she was, she needed help getting the body out of the house.

Betty took her .38 and went into the bedroom where her husband lay sleeping. She shot him twice, once in the chest and again in the head. First she wrapped him in the bedspread and then she pulled a blue sleeping bag out of the closet. It was a mate to the one she and Shirley had wrapped Doyle Wayne Barker in. She called her daughter and told her she had done it. Again she wanted Shirley to come over and help, but Shirley refused. It was late and Shirley was a newlywed. Betty Lou was on her own until Robby came home.

With his help, they took the body out to the freshly complete wishing well and dumped him inside. Shirley did show up very early the next morning, while it was still dark out, and she asked her husband to stay in the car while she went inside. She came out later and only said that her mother and Jimmy Don had been fighting and he had gone off to Dallas, but everything was going to be okay. That didn’t sound like Jimmy Don. He wasn’t the kind to storm off. His truck was still there as well. Her husband knew something was up, but he kept his mouth shut. Where Betty Lou was involved, it was better not to ask questions.

Later that morning, Betty Lou filled her wishing well with peat moss and flowers. She’d had them in the shed, just ready to go. She instructed Robby to get Jimmy Don’s boat and help her stage the drowning. They placed the fishing license, pills, and glasses and then pushed the boat out. The boat was docked at the back of the property away from prying eyes.

Betty Lou was less than happy to hear that she was expected to wait seven years for her missing husband to be declared dead. She wanted Jimmy Don’s money now. She started looking around for ways to get her hands on his money. What followed was a struggle over the estate between Betty Lou and Jimmy Don’s son, Jamie. She put Jamie’s things out of the Glen Oaks house and tried to sell it without his knowledge. He had to get an attorney to take out a restraining order against her to keep her from selling off items of the estate. She still managed to forge Jimmy Don’s name to the boat title and sell it. She also faked a power-of-attorney form giving her the ability to dispose of his possessions. One day she was seen fiddling with the air conditioning unit of the Glen Oaks house. A little while later, the house burned to the ground for the second time. Firefighters determined the cause to arson.

Robby didn’t have his mother’s ability to stay quiet about his crimes. He told his common-law wife and his grandmother. Likewise, Shirley told their sister Phyllis about Mama’s crimes.

Never long without a man, Betty Lou took up with a new one. His name was Ray Bone and he was a bad, bad man. Ray had done time in the penitentiary for murder. He was known to be just plain mean. All of Betty Lou’s kids were a little scared of him. When rumors hit his ears about the husbands in the yard, a couple of Ray’s friends payed some visits to Robby’s common-law wife and other acquaintances. They never spoke about the rumors again.

Insurance companies don’t like to pay up when there are allegations of arson. Betty Lou was furious when they refused and she rushed off to her attorney. First she couldn’t collect the death benefits, then she couldn’t collect the fire insurance. Her attorney was a man named E. Ray Andrews. E. Ray suggested she seek a “Determination of Death” to speed up the process. She filed for a death certificate, swearing before a judge that there were no other heirs. March of 1985, the judge declared Jimmy Don Beets deceased and granted Betty Lou’s request to be named administrator of his estate, clearing the way for her to inherit everything, the life insurance money, the widow’s pension, and the house.

Just before she got her hands on it all, something happened.

Rose
Rick Rose

 

That something was a Henderson County Sheriff’s Deputy named Rick Rose (1947-2015). In March of 1985, a jail informant was brought to his attention. This informant was charged with a drug case, but he had information to trade. Rose was skeptical. It would have to be something good. The informant offered to tell him who had killed Jimmy Don Beets. Well, that had Rose’s attention. It seems Ray Bone hadn’t been the only man in Betty Lou’s life. She’d had a one-night stand with a man while drunk out of her mind and blabbed about the dead husband in her wishing well. She even told the man that she had her husband build the wishing well before she killed them and that her son helped her dispose of the body.

Ray Bone’s attempt to put a lid on the rumors had failed. Even a conspiracy of two can fail. Shirley had talked to her sister Phyllis. Phyllis talked to a friend and that friend called Crime Stoppers. Rick Rose was now hearing the same story from multiple sources.

Meanwhile, Jamie had gotten wind of his step-mother’s antics. He filed a protest to have the “Determination of Death” set aside for a new trial because she had failed to include all the heirs. Betty Lou’s windfall would be delayed just a tiny bit longer.

Police were narrowing in on Betty Lou, but just before they could serve a search warrant for her trailer, it burned. Like the house on Glen Oaks, this was arson. Undeterred, police went out the next day to search the property. They tipped the wishing well over and dug it out. Inside was the blue sleeping bag containing the mortal remains of Jimmy Don Beets.

 

The trailer was burned, but not entirely. Police recovered 19 guns, including a .38. There were matching  projectiles from a .38 located inside the sleeping bag. Taking down the shed was a tougher prospect but finally they were able to get underneath and there they discovered yet another blue sleeping bag, with yet another husband. Doyle Wayne Barker was no longer missing.

 

Barker's resting place (2)
Doyle Wayne Barker’s grave; Photo from Henderson County Sheriff’s Department

 

An arrest warrant was issued for Betty Lou Beets. Surprisingly, a tip about her leaving town came from Ray Bone. He called Rose to let him know they were leaving his house in Mansfield. He told them exactly where they would be when. Mansfield Police Department was called in. They set up on a bridge and swooped in. Inside the truck were numerous guns, ammo, and Betty Lou’s clothing and jewelry.

The trial itself was a circus. Black widows make for great press and Betty Lou was blonde and pretty. Robby and Shirley both testified against her. Incredibly, she blamed them for the murders. She claimed she’d had nothing to do with the murders. Her story–at that time–was that Jimmy Don was very drunk. He and Robby started fighting and she heard the shot from the bedroom.  She testified that she had helped her son hide the body in the wishing well, but she denied knowing that Wayne was also buried on the property.

The jury didn’t buy it. They convicted Betty Lou of murder for remuneration, that is for killing for financial gain, and sentenced her to death. Throughout the numerous appeals, Betty Lou would tell many different stories. She became “born again” and bonded with her notorious cellmates including  pick-axe killer, Karla Faye Tucker and Darlie Routier.

In 1990, an execution date was set. Betty Lou’s attorneys peppered appellate courts with complaints. They claimed she was incompetent at the time of trial. They claimed she’d had a series of head injuries which caused her behavior. They claimed her father sexually abused her–the first time she had ever made such a claim–and that the memories had been repressed until now. They claimed all of her husbands had brutalized her, beating and raping her daily. Experts hired by the defense diagnosed her as suffering from Batter Woman’s Syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, two things which were very much in the news at the time.

Media picked up the story and somehow the woman who had never admitted her crimes was suddenly a woman who desperately shot her husband in the midst of a beating. There was never any evidence to support this. One picture surfaced showing Betty Lou with a black eye and a bruise on her chin. Her hair and appearance likely place this as from the time she was married to Billy Lane who was known to have struck Betty Lou. She now said “What my husbands began, the State is going to finish.”

Betty Lou in Prison
photos from deathpenaltyinfo.org

 

You couldn’t escape the interviews. She was all over the media. In her pictures, she looked frail or elderly, but the steel was still there. The stories became more and more elaborate. She claimed to have been raped, dragged out in a field, strangled and left to die. She was even featured on Good Morning America.

Her appeals finally ran out. February 24, 2000 Betty Lou Beets was taken to Huntsville, Texas for her date with needle. Protesters stood outside, crying and holding up that picture of Betty Lou with the black eye. She had no final words.

The Texas Council on Family Violence declared:

 

“Beet’s life is a chronicle of virtually uninterrupted physical, sexual and emotional abuse. She was severely abused as a child and was battered by multiple husbands. Beets suffers from severe learning disabilities and a hearing impairment she has had since early childhood. She also suffers from organic brain damage caused by repeated blows at the hands of abusive men.”

 

The Council has done good work and I know they had the best intentions, but their pity was misplaced. Men who kill multiple women get called serial killers. Women get called Black Widows, but don’t let the cute moniker fool you. She may have only killed two husbands, but not for lack of trying. I’ve no doubt that her hard life shaped the woman she became, but many people have rough lives. They don’t think that entitles them to murder other people for personal gain. Betty Lou Beets learned early on that anything she wanted in the world, she would have to take. She took that to extremes and sadly Doyle Wayne Barker and Jimmy Don Beets paid the price.

 

 

SOURCE NOTES:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Lou_Beets
https://www.thoughtco.com/the-crimes-of-betty-lou-beets-971313
http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/beets616.htm
Beets v. State, 767 S.W.2d 711 (Tex.Cr.App. 1987) (Direct Appeal). https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/2451426/beets-v-state/
Beets v. Scott, 65 F.3d 1258 (5th Cir. 1995) (Habeas) . https://www.casemine.com/judgement/us/5914bd42add7b049347a1423

Beets v. Collins, 986 F.2d 1478 (5th Cir. 1993) (Habeas). http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-5th-circuit/1321322.html
http://murderpedia.org/female.B/b/beets-betty-lou-photos.htm
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/texas-executes-betty-lou-beets/

Betty Lou Beets


https://krazykillers.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/black-widow-betty-beets-begged-bush-for-benevolence/
https://krazykillers.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/black-widow-betty-beets-begged-bush-for-benevolence/
https://www.bing.com/search?q=betty+beets+family+photos&FO
https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Texas+Betty+Lou+Beets&&view=detail&mid=0AFA4CE7BDDF44503F940AFA4CE7BDDF44503F94&FOR
Buried Memories, by Irene Pence, 2008, Penguin Random House

http://maamodt.asp.radford.edu/Psyc%20405/serial%20killers/Beets,%20Betty%20Lou%20_spring%202007_.pdf

 

 

Bad Decisions: Stephen Barbee

Jayden Underwood was a typical first grader. He played soccer and he loved super heros. He wore glasses to help his big, brown eyes because his vision was poor. He was friendly, sweet, outgoing, and very excited about his new baby sister. Lisa Underwood had always been a single mom. Jayden’s father hadn’t been involved in his life and Lisa didn’t expect much more from her unborn child’s father.

Friends describe Lisa as hard-working. Whatever Lisa did, in love, work, or motherhood, she gave it her all. Lisa owned a restaurant, Boopa’s Bagel Deli, along with her best friend Holly Pils. Boopa was her nickname for Jayden so she had named her business after the most important person in her life.

Stephen Barbee and Lisa had dated on and off. They weren’t exclusive, but when she found out she was pregnant with a girl, she was thrilled at the idea of another child. Barbee wasn’t pleased at all.  Sheila Underwood, Lisa’s mother, was also less than thrilled with the situation, but she was extremely close to her only child and grandchild. Jayden spent almost every Friday night with his “Tita.”  Sheila decided to build a bigger house in anticipation of adding her granddaughter to those sleepovers.  Lisa tentatively named her  daughter Marleigh, although she told friends she wouldn’t be certain of the name until she met her daughter face to face. She kept the name to herself, refusing to disclose it.

 

stephen-barbee

Stephen Barbee had a real problem. Barbee had married just two months before and hadn’t told his wife about the baby.  If she found out, she would do the math and realize he was sleeping with Lisa and her at the same time. He just couldn’t allow this to happen. He was certain Lisa Underwood was going to ruin his life.

Barbee grew up in Azle, just north of Fort Worth. His mother worked at the school he attended and his father worked for Bell, the predecessor of Lockheed. Barbee was one of three children and his childhood was fairly normal until tragedy struck. His beloved older sister died at the age of 20. His brother also died when he reached the age 20 and Barbee became fixated on the notion that he wouldn’t live to see 21. He dropped out of sports and cramming in every bit of living that he could. Before, people had described him as fun-loving. Now they said he was just plain wild.  He began to get into trouble, but his mother was always right there for him, doing anything she could to smooth over problems for her only living child.

Barbee dropped out of school but settled on a GED. For a time, he seemed headed for disaster, but things improved for him over the years. He built up his own tree trimming business and was even a reserve police officer for the city of Blue Mound. He drove a Corvette and developed a reputation for splashing his money around and for always having women around him. There were a lot of women.

Barbee married one of his women,  Theresa Barbee. The relationship was volatile and there were allegations of abuse. Theresa could forgive a lot of things from her husband, but she couldn’t take the cheating. Seven years later they divorced, but they continued working together with the tree trimming business that they co-owned. Theresa moved on. She became involved with one of their employees, a man named Ronald Dodd who would become a good friend of Barbees. Dodd and moved in with her. Barbee also moved on.

During their marriage, Theresa and Stephen Barbee employed a whole crew of workers. She would often go into Boopa’s to pick up breakfast. After the divorce, Barbee took over this role and it was there that he met Lisa Underwood, the cute, bubbly blonde owner of this business. After he had been dating Lisa for about a year, he reconnected with an old friend who was also divorced: Trish, the woman he would marry. It seems that Lisa knew about Trish, but Trish did not know about Lisa. One night when Lisa showed up knocking on Barbee’s door, he brushed it off as a crazy ex-girlfriend. Baarbee and Trish were eating dinner that unknown to her had been dropped off by another of Barbee’s girlfriends. He would later laugh that he was juggling three of his “girls” at the same time that night. Lisa and Barbee did stop dating, but then she found out she was pregnant.

Barbee wanted nothing to do with Lisa  or the baby. He told her he wanted a family with Trish. Lisa told him she was certain he was the father and she was going to name him on the birth certificate. At the very least, she wanted her daughter to have a listed father. She also wanted his help with insurance because she was self-employed and her insurance was expensive.

Barbee became desperate to keep his wife from finding out and decided to go see Lisa the night of February 18th, 2005. She was seven and a half months pregnant at the time.

Around 3:00 on morning of the 19th, Denton County Deputy Sheriff David Brawner saw a man walking along the service road of Interstate Highway 35. It was cold outside, and it had been raining.  When he pulled his patrol car in behind him, the Deputy saw the man’s clothes were “very wet” and that he was “covered in mud.” He asked the man for identification, but the man claimed he’d left his wallet at his friend’s house. He gave the Deputy a fake name and date of birth. When the Deputy turned to speak with dispatch, the man bolted and ran. He chased the man, but lost him in the thick woods.

 

Boopa's inside

Holly Pils  and Sheila Underwood had planned a baby shower for February 19th. Lisa never had a shower when she was pregnant with Jayden. Now she would get to have a party with family and friends and open all those packages with little pink girl outfits. Of course the party would be at Boopa’s.

Holly called Lisa at 7:45 pm on the night of the 18th. Lisa and Jayden had both been fighting colds and Holly wanted to be sure they were still  on for the shower. Lisa assured her she was feeling better. Holly teased that if only Lisa would give her the first letter of they baby’s name, she could buy plates with initals on them. Lisa just laughed and told her it was a nice try.

lisa-underwood-and-son

Lisa was due at Boopa’s around 4 pm. Since it was raining heavily, friends saved her a spot in front so she could park right by the door. They decorated and then waited for Lisa, anxiously staring out the window.

They waited and waited, but Lisa never came.  When she didn’t answer her phone that morning, Holly and Sheila had been worried, but figured she might be sleeping in. When she didn’t appear for the shower, they were frantic. Lisa was never late. Finally Sheila decided to go to Lisa’s house. Holly began calling hospitals, just in case Lisa had been in an accident.

Sheila arrived to find that Lisa’s Dodge Durango was gone, She knew immediately something was wrong. Lisa and Jayden’s little dog was outside in the rain and he always stayed inside the house. Lisa would never have left him outside while she was gone and certainly not in that weather. Sheila had a key and let herself inside. Things didn’t look right. She called the police and waited.

Sheila and Holly re-entered the house with the police. Sheila noticed a strange place on the carpet. When she touched it, it was wet with soap and water. A coffee table had been moved to try and cover a stain. Holly noticed Jayden’s shoes and his glasses were still at the house. He wouldn’t leave without them. He had very poor vision and couldn’t see anything without his glasses. Something was terrible wrong.

The closer the police looked, the more they discovered bits of blood. There was blood everywhere that had been inexpertly cleaned. Traces of blood were on the entertainment center, the livingroom floor and the couch. Inside the garage, there was blood on the floor. Testing would later confirm this was Lisa’s blood. Lisa’s computer was checked. She had logged off around midnight on the 18th. The last site she had visited was birthplan.com.

When police interviewed family and friends after Lisa’s disappearance, they asked the usual questions including Is there anyone who might want to harm Lisa? One name came up over and over. Stephen Barbee

Two days later, Lisa’s  Dodge Durango was found  just a couple hundred yards from where Deputy Brawner had encountered the wet, muddy man. The front end of the car was submerged in a creek with the windows down and the hatchback up. Nearby were Lisa’s keys and her purse. Any hopes of finding Lisa and Jayden alive were rapidly fading.

Fort Worth police were being led by veteran detectives John McCaskill and Mike Carroll. They badly wanted to speak with Barbee. When they learned the Barbee had gone to Tyler on business with his wife, Trish, and his best friend, Ron Dodd, they made arrangements to meet with them there. McCaskill interviewed Dodd while Carroll interviewed Barbee. Trish and her kids cooled their heels out in the lobby of the Tyler police department.

Ron Dodd

Dodd

At first, Dodd played it cool. He told the police he had only seen Barbee with Lisa once and didn’t even realize she was pregnant. He admitted having been with Barbee on the night Lisa and Jayden vanished but he claimed they had spent the time working on a truck. When McCaskill pressed him, Dodd admitted being a little afraid of Barbee. He told the detective about a time Barbee was angry with Theresa and had threatened to put her in the wood chipper. Bit by bit, McCaskill pushed harder until he broke Dodd down. Finally, Dodd told a different story.

Dodd told McCaskill about picking Barbee up on the night of the 18th. Barbee confessed to Dodd that he had a problem. He said he had gotten a girl pregnant and Trish was going to leave him and “take me for everything I got.” Then he told Dodd, “I gotta get rid of the problem.” Dodd said he told Barbee that his choices were simple. Either get back with that girl and raise the kid, or don’t and stay with Trish. Barbee didn’t want to hear it.

Dodd said Barbee gave him directions to get to Lisa’s house, claiming he was going to “do the right thing, and step up to the plate.” Dodd assumed that meant Barbee was going to break up with his wife and be a father to the baby.

Dodd dropped Barbee off,at Lisa’s house. Just an hour later Barbee called him to say that ‘they’ were out riding around and ran out of gas. Dodd agreed to bring him gas.  He met Barbee up north of town, along the border of Tarrant and Denton counties. Barbee poured the gas into a blue, Dodge SUV.  When he lifted the gate to the hatchback and Dodd saw the bodies. He said nothing. Then Dodd took the can and drove off.

Barbee called Dodd again saying he had broken down and for asking Dodd  to come and pick him up. Dodd told the police that he drove to where Barbee said he was what he saw stopped him cold. He saw Barbee standing beside the rode, illuminated in the lights of Denton County Sheriff patrol vehicle talking to Deputy Brawner. Dodd was still on parole at the time and wanted nothing to do with any trouble. He drove on by. He pulled into a store and waited until he was called by Barbee who had seen him drive by earlier.

Dodd again picked Barbee up. Dodd says Barbee told him what he had done and apologized for bringing him into the mess. He said he had dumped the bodies just off the road from where Dodd had brought him the gas. Dodd claims Barbee threatened him and his family if he spoke to anyone, so Dodd just took him home and kept his mouth shut.

Meanwhile, Detective Mike Carroll was in a separate interview room with Barbee and he wasn’t talking. His version of events had him and Dodd working on his truck and driving it around in the rain and dark. When confronted about the incident with the Deputy, Barbee admitted getting out and walking. He said he gave the name of a friend he was mad at, and then he ran because the officer had no reason to hold him. His story didn’t make sense.

At one point, Carroll took a break to go to the restroom. Barbee asked to be allowed to go to the restroom as well. On the way, he saw Trish and her kids sleeping in the lobby and he began to cry. Carroll and Barbee had a conversation in the bathroom. Barbee broke down and told Carroll a completely different version of events. This version is far closer to the truth, although strongly colored by Barbee’s narcissism. They went back into the interview room to record this story.

Barbee admitted going to see Lisa. He said that after Dodd dropped him off, Lisa let him in. He said they were sitting down and talking about the baby. “She kept throwing up everything about insurance and child support and telling Trish.” Barbee claimed that he wanted to leave, but Lisa wouldn’t let him. She got mad and kicked him in the leg. He said he then punched her in the nose and they were “fist fighting.”

“What killed her?” Carroll asked.

“I don’t know.”

“The whole thing took place in the livingroom?”

Barbee confirmed that it did. “We was wrestling and I was holding her down.” He paused. “And she stopped moving. Then I knew I done something wrong.”

“Then you knew you did something wrong?” Carroll prompted him.

“I knew I had done something wrong ’cause she wasn’t moving. I guess I held her down too long. I just didn’t want her kicking me and stuff. I was trying to hold her.”

Lisa’s body told a different story. She fought for her life, fought for  Marleigh’s life. This was no mutual combat situation. Barbee had a bruise to his leg and scratches from his run through the woods after dumping her car. Lisa’s face was horribly bruised and battered. Her nose was broken. One eye was swollen shut. She had a broken rib and wrist. Her back had massive bruises that could have been caused by being forcibly held down for a long period of time, such as if someone were kneeling on her back and pressing her face down. She’d suffered a sever beating. Remember that she had been sick from  a cold and was extremely pregnant and awkward. This was no attempt to calm her down. This was rage, pure and simple.

Lisa died from “traumatic asphyxiation” due to a combination of congestion, pregnancy, and the covering of her face and mouth. With her mother dead, Marleigh slowly asphyxiated in her mother’s body.

Missing from Barbee’s story was Jayden. Carroll had to remind Barbee about the little boy. Then Barbee told him about how Jayden heard the murder of his mother. He came into the room screaming and “emotional.” Barbee insisted he just meant to make the boy quiet when he put his hand over Jayden’s mouth and nose. Again, he just held on too long. That murder was also accidental, according to Barbee. He had managed to “accidentally” suffocate three people in the space of a few minutes: Lisa, Marleigh, and Jayden.

Like Lisa’s body, Jayden’s showed signs of a beating. His face was bruised, an eye swollen shut and a large contusion against his head as if it had been struck against something. His lips and mouth were bloody from his face being pressed so hard.

Barbee claimed that he tried calling Dodd for help cleaning up, but he didn’t answer. Dodd was out to dinner with Theresa. Barbee had no transportation. He had to take Lisa’s car. He cleaned up as best he could, but there was so much blood. The carpet remained pinkish, so he moved a coffee table to cover things up. He dragged Lisa and Jayden out to her Dodge Durango and put them in the cargo area.

He headed north up I-35. Finally Dodd answered his phone and agreed to meet him, although according to Barbee, Dodd brought him not gas, but a shovel. Barbee described the location he had taken Lisa and Jayden’s bodies. He put them in a single hole together.

“I put them together because they needed to be together,” he said. “I dug ’em a little hole. Said a prayer.” He drove the car down a muddy track and abandoned it. He walked back along the rode, after calling Dodd to retrieve him. That’s where he had the incident with Deputy Brawner.

Barbee reminded Carroll that he didn’t want to hurt Lisa. She forced his hand. She was going to ruin him. He had to protect his family. All he wanted to do now was talk to Trish. Carroll agreed and the two were left alone together in the room, but the recording kept running.

His first words were about himself and what was going to happen to him. “I’m going to jail for a long time. My life is over,” Barbee said.

Trish asked him repeatedly what he had done. Did he get that woman pregnant? Did he kill her?

He responded that he didn’t know. Then he told s her that he didn’t mean to, that Lisa had been calling and threatening him for months. He had just gone to talk to her and she attacked him. He only held her down, but it had been for a little too long.  He told the story like was a tragedy and he was the victim.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.

“I was afraid you would leave me.”

“God Steve, was it worth it? Was it?”

He had no answer for that.

Trish answered for him. “It was not worth that. It wasn’t worth it, Steve.”

He hung his head. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“And then you got rid of her body. ”

“I didn’t want to lose you all.”

She still couldn’t accept that. “What did you think was going to happen?”

Unable to answer, he fell back on justifying his actions. “And then she started fighting me. She said she would ruin me. I didn’t mean for her to stop breathing. I just held her too long.”

She continued questioning him about Dodd’s involvement and what he had done, so Barbee turned the focus back on him, back to his plight.

“My life is over,” he said. “I’m going to die in prison. They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in prison. I’m going to die…I made a bad decision to go talk to her…All I’m asking is to have somebody who loves me.”

He went on to make her promise she believed him and would keep loving him. He said he was suicidal and couldn’t live if she left him.

Trish couldn’t let go of his reasoning. “Why couldn’t you just talk to me?” She had done the math. She knew he had been sleeping with her and Lisa at the same time, but she loved him. If he had come and admitted the truth to her, they could have worked it out.

He blamed her. He told her it was his deep love for her that prompted him to action. That’s right. Love made him kill Lisa, Marleigh, and Jayden.

Trish struggled with the magnitude of what her husband had done. She wondered aloud what she would tell her children, what she would tell his parents. Ever the narcissist, Barbee asked “Does this mean we’re breaking up?”

At that time, she promised him she wasn’t leaving. She sat down with Detective Carroll and recalled what Barbee had done the day after he murdered an entire family. He was completely normal. They went to the stables and played with the horses. They hung out with Trish’s children and watched movies. They went to some appointments they had scheduled. They had a great day. He didn’t seem the least bit worried or troubled, even though the news had begun reporting his ex-girlfriend was missing.

Police had their man and soon they would have the bodies of his victims. The day after those interviews, Barbee led them to a shallow grave in Denton.

Barbee may have confessed, but he would change his story several times. Sometimes he was innocent. Sometimes it was a version of the accident. Theresa Barbee, visited her ex-husband while he was in jail and he held up a piece of paper asking her to tell the police Dodd did it. She left crying and he removed her from his visitors list.

Theresa testified against Barbee, describing physical violence in the relationship. There was a time he beat her unconscious. She woke bleeding and dizzy from a concussion. Barbee was eating ice cream and watching TV. He made her drive herself to the hospital.  She wasn’t the only woman with a story about Barbee and his temper.

A woman named Marie Mendoza testified that Barbee would often come in to her business and flirt. He told her he was single and owned a tree trimming business. He surprised her by trimming her trees and then wanted a date. She told him she wasn’t interested in a relationship and offered to pay. Instead, Barbee was furious and screamed and cursed at her. She cut off all contact with him after that.

Barbee was convicted based on the overwhelming evidence and he was sentenced to death for killing multiple people in a single incident.  Although he was convicted in 2006, this was just the start of legal wrangling that would keep him still on death row today. His initial appeal was denied in 2008. In 2012, Barbee filed a writ of habeas corpus alleging secret deals between his defense attorney and the judge. That matter is a story in itself. This fight continued into Federal Court.  I included all of those links if you want to read the details. Multiple hearings were held until finally in 2017, the death penalty sentence was upheld, clearing the way for an execution date to be set for Barbee.

A sweet memorial exists at Boopa’s. Jayden’s bedroom door now stands in Boopa’s bearing his hand-written admonition “Do Not Enter” and decorated with super hero and cartoon stickers. A friend of Sheila Underwood’s was so moved that she wrote a book about a child name Jayden and his magical door. The book is still available on Amazon.

Jayden's door.jpg

We will never know the truth of what was in Stephen Barbee’s heart. Why did he really go there to Lisa’s house that night? Why did he go there so late? Why didn’t he call or drive over himself? Perhaps he went there intending to solve his problem permanently. He could have planned to have Dodd drop him off and then meet him with the shovel. It would be reasonable to think Jayden was with his grandmother and he would have had Lisa alone. Pregnant. Helpless. He might not have expected her to put up a fight. Or maybe he really did just intend to talk and didn’t form his intent to kill until he was there.

In an ironic twist, DNA testing revealed Barbee wasn’t the father of Marleigh. If only he had been honest with his wife, three people would be alive today and Sheila’s world would be whole.  Instead, memories are all Sheila Underwood has left. Her only child and her grandchildren are gone because one man couldn’t handle the consequences of his bad decisions.

Source Note: In researching this case, I relied on the original reports, transcripts, court documents, appellate opinions, and the following sources:

 Lethal Charmer by Patricia Springer, from Pinnacle Books, 2010.

The Lubbock Avalanche Journal

The StandDown Texas Project

The Fort Worth Star Telegram

My Life of Crime

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Picture Perfect: John Battaglia

Trigger warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of domestic violence and the deaths of children.


To the outside world, Mary Jean Pearle was living the perfect life. Her charming, handsome husband of seven years made a good living as a CPA. She was an antique dealer living in one the wealthiest enclaves in Texas with two beautiful daughters. But behind the walls of her fashionable Highland Park home, her life was turning into a private hell.

She had noticed flashes of John Battaglia’s temper early in the relationship. He could be fun and giving, but those sparks of temper worried Mary Jean. Battaglia became verbally abusive. She was encouraged to “work it out” by well-meaning family and friends. How could she throw away her perfect family?

Mary Jean tried harder. She suggested counselling, but Battaglia refused. The vicious verbal tirades lasted longer and longer, until he would rant at her for up to 20 minutes, calling her every name in the book.In an interview with Deborah Roberts of ABC News Mary Jean detailed the incident that convinced her to leave.

“He got real close, and his eyes were bulging out, and veins, and the whole thing, and he said ‘I’ll knock your fucking head off, bitch…And I said, ‘John you need to step back.’ And he got about an inch closer. So he’s about an inch from my face and he screamed it again at me, and so I stood up and I turned to the bathroom, and I walked in there, picked up the phone, called 911.”

She left. But as victims of domestic violence know, leaving doesn’t make you safer. Statistics show that leaving is actually the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship. The intensity of the assaults ramps up as does the stalking and controlling behavior. 60% of dating violence and a quarter of all murders of women occur after the abused partner has left.

Leaving didn’t protect Mary Jean Pearle. Christmas 1999, Battaglia arrived to visit with the girls. Although the girls had witnessed the abuse their father heaped on their mother, he had never raised a hand to the girls and had full visitation. At some point during that Christmas day, Battaglia became angry. Pearle would later recall, “I saw him coming, and so I just grabbed my head and I fell onto Liberty’s mattress, and I covered my head. He was just pounding on me as hard as a man can pound on, on the back of my head. And I’m screaming ‘Call 911! Call 911!’”

He beat Mary Jean with his fists, pulled her hair, threw her to the floor and kicked her. All the while, the girls were crying and begging him to stop. Although she was black and blue, Mary Jean refused to let paramedics take her to the hospital. She insisted on cooking Christmas dinner for the family and trying to pretend everything was okay.

Battaglia plead guilty to Assault Causing Bodily Injury, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. He was placed on two years’ probation. He was forbidden to have contact with Mary Jean and for 30 days he was not allowed to visit the girls. Then the visitations were resumed.

Family

Mary Jean felt protected. She still worried Battaglia might harm her but “I really thought it was only directed at me. I never thought he’d hurt the children.”  In fact, a study of ‘intimate partner homicides’ found that 20% of the victims were not the abused partners themselves but other family members, neighbors, friends, or first responders. Abusers often use children as a means to control their partners, treating them as hostages to the adult drama.

At the time she married John Battaglia, Mary Jean was unaware of his dark past. She knew he had been married before. He only told Mary Jean that there had been ‘an argument’ between him and his prior wife, but the truth was so much worse. Battaglia was extremely abusive and violent with his first wife, Michelle.
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Once, while arguing in the car with Michelle, he tried to get at a gun. He was violent with her son from a previous marriage and even hit Michelle while she was holding their infant daughter, Kristy, causing her to drop the baby. After she left him, he stalked her. He made false credit reports. He called her employer and showed up at her work. He tapped her phone. He showed up at her home, banging on doors and windows in spite of a protective order forbidding him to be there. Although Michelle made reports, there weren’t stalking laws at the time and there was little the police could or would do.

One night, she woke with him standing over her, knife in hand, wanting to have sex. She refused and to her relief, he left. January 1987, He chased her on the highway and tried to force her car off the road.

He called one of the partners at the law firm where Michelle was an attorney and claimed she was “having an affair with another partner and he would go public if she didn’t drop the charges.” The law firm took steps to make sure he didn’t have access to their office. He went to jail and for a while, he seemed calmer. But that was a false image. While picking up Kristy, he again assaulted Michelle and she again pressed charges.

He showed up one day as she was picking her son up from elementary school. He told her that “if he was going to jail, might as well be worth it.” He beat her unconscious, dislocated her jaw and broke her nose. Then he threatened to do the same to her seven year old son. Michelle left the state to escape him.
When Easter of 2001 rolled around, Faith Battaglia was 9 and Liberty Battaglia was six. Faith, who resembled her father loved playing soccer and the violin. Liberty, who favored Mary Jean in appearance, wanted to be a ballerina.

girls
Mary Jean sent an Easter gift to Kristy, the daughter from Battaglia’s first marriage. Battaglia was livid. He left a message on her answering machine. “Mary Jean, the next time you give my daughter $50 why don’t you tell her how you screwed her out of her college fund, you fucking pig. How does that feel, pig?” Contacting her was a violation of his probation. In addition, Battaglia had failed a drug test. A warrant was issued and on May 2, 2001, he was told by a police officer that he needed to turn himself in. It was the day of his scheduled visitation.

The girls didn’t want to go. While making plans over the phone, Battaglia told the girls they weren’t going out to dinner. He told them he was too sad to eat because he was going to jail. Liberty hid under the bed, but Mary Jean assured her it would be okay. To keep Battaglia away from her house, they always met at neutral locations to exchange the children. Mary Jean took her daughters to a local shopping center, kissed them and sent them off with their father for the last time.

Sometime during that day, Battaglia called Michelle, his ex-wife and left a message on her phone that Mary Jean should lose her girls.

That evening, Battaglia called Mary Jean’s mother to tell her that the girls wanted to talk to Mary Jean. When she got the message from her mother, Mary Jean called him. He put Faith on the phoned and ordered her to “Ask her.”
Faith asked “Mommy, why do you want Daddy to go to jail?”

She told Battaglia not to do that to the girls. Then she heard Faith screaming, “No Daddy. No Daddy. Please don’t do it.”

Gunshots.

Silence.

She immediately called the police who broke in and found the girls in a pool of blood. Faith was shot three times and Liberty, four. Both girls had been shot in the back, severing their spines and rendering them helpless for the fatal shot, a contact gunshot to the back of the head. Detectives took seven guns from the home that night because they didn’t know which weapon had been used to kill the girls.

Battaglia had murdered his daughters and then left the scene. He went to a bar to use the phone. From there, he left a message on Mary Jean’s answering machine: “Goodnight my little babies. I hope you’re resting in a different place. I love you, and I wish that you had nothing to do with your mother. She was evil and vicious, and stupid. You will be free of her. I love you very dearly. You were brave girls. Very brave. Liberty, you were oh so brave. I love you so much. Bye.”

He then went to a tattoo parlor to memorialize his girls with two roses tattooed on his upper left arm, one for each girl. When he left the parlor, four officers moved in to arrest him. There was a loaded gun in the truck and he fought the officers.

 

At trial, the jury deliberated for 19 minutes before convicting Battaglia. He blamed the murders on being bi-polar, but after the jury heard from his first wife and learned about his history of violence, he was sentenced to death almost exactly one year from the death of his girls. His father continued to support him. Mary Jean told him she hoped he “burned in hell.”

But that was 2002. Today, Liberty would be 22 and Faith would be 25 if only they had a chance to be something more than an object used to hurt their mother.

Battaglia jail

Battaglia still sits on death row. He has continually fought his conviction and his sentence. He has had an execution date set multiple times and each time has been able to earn a stay to determine if he is competent enough to be executed.
He is set for execution February 1, 2018.

If you are in an abusive situation, there is help. Call 1-877-701-SAFE (7233) for help. The crisis line is answered 24 hours a day. Laws have changed an there is more we can do than ever before. If you want to help, go to Safehaven.org and click the donate button.