The Hunting Grounds: A Preview

Fort Worth was a dangerous place to be a woman in the early 80s. They were vanishing, dying and being attacked in unprecedented numbers for the area.  The women were white, black, Hispanic and native American. They were shot, strangled, and bludgeoned. They lived everywhere from the working class streets of south side to more genteel ones of TCU. They were moms, professionals, secretaries, nurses, teenagers. The only constant was the seeming randomness.

There might not be one obvious pattern, but it was clear that a predator had made Fort Worth his hunting grounds. Although they denied it at the time, Fort Worth Police Department had formed a task force that grew to 40 officers. For years they aggressively pursued thousands of leads. Interviews, polygraphs, and the limited forensics available at the time were used to sift thorough suspects and look for connections between victims, but when a predator chooses a stranger at random, the links can be impossible to find.

Some cases would be solved, both by luck and dogged police work. Others would linger, unsolved, cold, leaving families without answers and victims without justice. For those cases that did reach a resolution, a startling picture emerged. There wasn’t a single predator hunting Fort Worth. There were multiple predators, and the women of Fort Worth were their prey.

The killings abruptly stopped, leaving the unsolved cases as a horrific footnote to the decade of big hair, dance pop, and neon lycra. As time moved on, so did the police. There were always new investigations, fresh murders that were raw and immediate in their demands, stretching attention further and further from the those earlier crimes that cooled and then went cold.

But the victims were never forgotten. Certainly not by their families and friends. For them, the cases were always painful, a wound that couldn’t heal. Police remembered as well, but what could they do? They needed evidence that didn’t exist, or rather, they needed a way to read the evidence they did have. In many cases, there was biological evidence just sitting there, taunting them with an identity so close, but locked in the genomes and alleles of his DNA. For the cases to progress, something would have to change.

DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, the genetic blueprints of all living organisms, was first uncovered in 1869 by a Swiss physician and biologist,  Friedrich Miescher. Miescher found nucleic acid left behind in surgical bandages. It would take more than a century for science to unlock the secrets hiding in our cells and longer still for forensics to develop a means of creating and comparing profiles.

British geneticist Sir Alex Jeffreys is credited with developing the first means of DNA profiling and proving that no two people had the same DNA–except identical twins. In 1988, Colin Pitchfork became the first man linked and then prosecuted for the rape and murder of  two British schoolgirls using DNA evidence. (If you’re interested in learning more about the case, I highly recommend Joseph Wambaugh’s THE BLOODING.)

This new, dramatic evidence was first used in the United States in 1988 to convict a man named George Wesley of the rape and murder of  Helen Kendrick, 79. The New York trial was a media show that put science on trial, not George Wesley. Science prevailed.

In the bustling new world of forensics, DNA was a game changer. Not since fingerprints had such a reliable source of identification been utilized. DNA was a fantastic tool when a victim pointed at her attacker. Eye witness identification can be problematic, but with DNA, there was a concrete answer. The innocent were exonerated. The guilty were convicted. But to compare the DNA found at a crime scene, you had to have a known suspect, someone to compare it to. Then came CODIS.

In 1994, the FBI began CODIS, an acronym for the Combined DNA Index System, a   program of support for criminal justice DNA databases.  The National DNA Index System or NDIS is the national level version of CODIS, containing the DNA profiles contributed by federal, state, and local participating forensic laboratories. For the first time, local police could take an unknown sample and have it compared against an enormous database of known offenders. They would also eventually be able to compare to other unknown offenders in an effort to identify serial predators.

The larger the database, the more effective. For CODIS to work, it needed samples. In 2004 Texas required all convicted felons entering the penitentiary to give DNA for CODIS. They immediately solved 14 murders. That same year they also solved 81 sexual assaults, 40 burglaries, and four robberies in Texas alone. In 2005, a new law required the system to go back and take samples of everyone who came in before April 2004. Even more cases were solved.

vtwi.org
Fort Worth Skyline in background, circa 1984; Photo credit: VTWI.org

 

Cold cases continue to be solved through a mix of detective work and scientific advancement. It’s time to re-examine these killings from the 1980s. If anything, recent developments in the news have shown us that justice may be slow, but it can still arrive, even 40 plus years later.

Over the next several weeks, I will look at some of the known killers that stalked Fort Worth in the early 80s–Curtis Don Brown, Lucky Odom, Juan Mesa Segundo, Faryion Waldrip, Ricky Lee Green– and then at some of the still unsolved cases in an ongoing series, The Hunting Grounds.  I’ll also discuss legal issues facing cold cases including the backlog of DNA testing and time limit statutes that prohibit prosecutions.

You can expect to see a new article in this series every other week, starting with Curtis Don Brown on May 14th. Brown was every woman’s nightmare, the stranger in the night, crawling in through the windows. He would be caught in a murder by fate mingled with accurate police instincts. Only years later would science reveal just how lucky police had gotten when they nabbed the man who went by the nickname “Bandit.”

 

Then
Curtis Don Brown, AKA “Bandit” coming May 14th.

 

SOURCE NOTES:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/july-marks-the-25th-anniversary-of-the-first-use-of-dna-evidence-to-convict-a-killer-10509877/

https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1917&dat=19890221&id=cXIhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=fogFAAAAIBAJ&pg=1056,5467847&hl=en

 

 

 

 

Why True Crime?

Or more particularly, why murder? Not why do people do it. If you’re looking for superb investigative journalistic writing, this is not that blog. What I mean is, why write about deaths, obsess over the details, rehash famous murders—why talk about it at all? Why even have famous murders? Shouldn’t we want to forget the horrible things done to our fellow humans? Instead we seem to revel in them.

I’m not talking about the people who venerate serial killers to rock star status. There is something deeply disturbing to me about celebrating the evil and washing away the victims like grit from the path. I’m talking about the fascination ordinary people have with evil and what prompts someone to commit the ultimate taboo.

Perhaps these stories serve as cautionary tales. Lock your doors. Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t get into cars with strangers. Follow all the rules so you can stay safe. But do they make us more careful or just paranoid?

Maybe it’s all an elaborate revenge fantasy. Point the finger. Find the evil and root it out. Take back our world so that we can leave the house alone, with the door standing open, and get into the car with anyone we please.

I don’t have any answers. Again, not that blog. I just know that I can’t look away.
For me, my true crime roots stretch back to my childhood. I was a weird child. I learned to read early and so I read everything I could get my hands on. By Kindergarten I was happily devouring chapter books. From there it was Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew. Mysteries were an obvious choice because that was my mother’s addiction.

My mother was an R.N. and my father was a police officer. Our dinner conversations were unfiltered and that knowledge, that interest seeped into my brain. Yesterday’s surgery and today’s fatal accident were all fair game for discussion. Over the years, my prurient interest was fed and watered with both fictional and true crime.

When I went to law school, the one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to practice criminal law. I was aware how flawed the system was and I had seen the deep groove marks it left in peoples’ lives. The person most likely to be shot by a police officer’s gun is the police officer. They have high rates of PTSD and suicide. More officers die each year by suicide than gunfire or traffic accidents combined. When you see the results of crime not as an interested bystander but as a participant in the process, you don’t get the option of looking away. There is no case too horrible or disturbing for you to read that report or look at those photos or meet that survivor. It’s your job. It becomes part of your life.

As you are probably guessing, the one area of law I wasn’t going to practice has been my life for the last quarter of the century. I can’t really explain it other than I tried criminal law one time and I was hooked. There have been times I really wanted to look away, but I just can’t. Staying the course, seeing things through feels like victory. I can make a difference as a prosecutor. I can advocate for victims. I can help keep dangerous predators off the street. I can also temper justice with mercy and my righteous anger must always remain bound by fair play.

So there are images I still see when I close my eyes. There are families and victims who have left marks on my heart.

I’m not sure if I’m doing this to purge the bad or share the good or just as an intellectual exercise, but separate from my work, I’m still just plain fascinated by murder and death. If you’re still reading this, welcome to Cowtown Crime. I’m going to be blogging about true crimes that occurred in the DFW or surrounding areas. I can’t promise a new post every week. I’m trying to work and pretend to have a life as well. I think monthly or bi-monthly is a more realistic goal, but we will see how it rolls.

I hope anyone who reads this will take a moment to drop me a comment and tell me how you came to be a true crime addict. Feel free to reach out by email to cowtowncrimeblog@gmail.com and be sure to let me know if I can share any of your email content (names and addresses redacted, of course.)

Starting next week I’ll be blogging about one of those crimes I couldn’t look away from, a crime with devastating consequences that spread far beyond the initial violence, like ripples in a pond—the machete murder at White Rock Lake.