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.
Photo credit: TCU Magazine
Photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram
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.
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.
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.
Pamela Lloyd Tutt
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.
WARNING: This article contains graphic and upsetting descriptions of human and animal mutilations. There are some photos of animal skulls and maggots. I chose not to use the crime scene photos because of their horrific nature, but at the end I will link to an episode of Forensic Files which does show the photos. Use your own discretion.
We know a lot these days about what makes a serial killer. There are always outliers, but we know they often have horrific childhoods, particularly early childhood. Jason Eric Massey was born January 7, 1973 to parents with severe substance abuse issues. His father abandoned them immediately. His mother was young alcoholic and abusive. The birth of her first child didn’t affect her lifestyle. She would leave her toddler son in the car while she went into clubs. Two years later, she added a daughter. She beat them severely with a wooden paddle or a belt for any minor infraction. She kept the food in her room. If she found them sneaking in after food, she’d beat them. She moved constantly, staying just a step ahead of landlords looking for payment. At times they were homeless, living in her car. Jason and his siblings would show up at school as thin, hungry, dirty children with unexplained bruises.
Then there were the men. His mother brought a constant stream of men into their lives, often leaving the children alone with these men. It’s not surprising that one of them sexually assaulted Massey. By 9 years of age, Massey was bigger and stronger enough to take out his intense anger on those smaller than he was. He savagely beat a younger child with a tree branch. He also moved on to animal torture.
In the 1970s and 80s, there was a lot of discussion about what came to be known as the McDonald’s Triad, a purported predictor of homicide and sexual sadism. The Triad was animal cruelty, bed wetting, and arson. We now know that those are not predictors of violence, but rather indicators of extreme child abuse. They’re still huge, red warning flags because severe childhood abuse is one of the known contributing factors in serial killers.
Shortly after the beating of the younger child, Massey strangled and mutilated a cat. For the rest of his life, he would engaged in animal torture and murder. He was moving into his preteen years and the mutilation and torture would become twisted into his sexual fantasies. By fourteen, he was drinking and taking drugs and fantasizing about demons and power. He developed a fascination with fires and started numerous small ones.
In high school, he became obsessed with a girl who didn’t return his feelings. Massey had no notion of normal relationships. He began stalking the girl, calling her house. He killed her dog and painted the blood on her car. He had branched out from just cats to dogs and also cows, keeping their skulls as trophies.
It’s believed that around this time he started keeping a journal. His mother found it when he was 18 and had her son committed. If the entries were anything like his later ones, it’s no wonder. Unfortunately, he was soon released and immediately began again with the animal mutilations. He frequently talked about killing young girls, writing about them in the same way he described his animal killings, but people who knew him blew off the talk as self-aggrandizement. Sure he idolized Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Henry Lee Lucas, but that didn’t mean Massey was a serial killer.
But he wanted to be one.
In fact, that was his plan. He wanted to be the most famous serial killer of all time, so he practiced on animals, keeping his trophies in a cooler, and he plotted and planned until he found his first victim. In 1993, Massey met 13 year old Christina Benjamin. Christina innocently flirted back with Massey. He was smitten with her. July of that year, Massey told his friend Christopher Nowlin that he had met a girl and was in love. He said he wanted to kill her, carve her up like one of his animals. He was stopped by police for a traffic offense. In the car he had knives and the body of a dead cat with a rope tied around his neck.
July 23, 1993, James King heard a sound late at night, a car beeping its horn. He looked outside and saw his 14 year old son Brian run out to talk to the driver of a tan car. James went to the restroom. When he returned, the car was gone and he assumed Brian had gone with him. It wasn’t until the next morning that he realized his 13 year old step-daughter Christina was gone as well. James King and his wife Donna Benjamin waited to see if the kids would return because at that time, police didn’t worry about missing teenagers. They would “turn up.” When Brian and Christina stayed gone for a full day, James and Donna reported them missing.
July 28th, Police responded to a call of animal cruelty in Telico, Texas in Ellis County. Ellis is located just below Dallas. It’s the bottom right of the counties which ring Tarrant and Dallas, and the US Census counts it as part of the DFW Metroplex statistically. Ellis is largely still rural, but in 1993, it was especially so. On that date, the Ellis County Sheriff Department arrived to find a mutilated calf behind a pizza restaurant. A young, blond male had been seen running away and he left behind his car, a tan sedan that was towed. At the time, they had no clue it might be related to the disappearance of two teens.
July 29th, just a day later, there was another shocking discovery in Telico. Next to a remote highway, work crews found the nude body of a young girl. She had been shot with a .22 pitsol, stabbed, decapitated and her hands removed. Both head and hands were missing. Her body had been shockingly mutilated. She was disemboweled, her body transected by long incisions like an autopsy that exposed her orgrans. Her thighs and genitals had long, intricate carvings. Her nipples had been cut off. The extensive injuries made identification difficult. The usual methods of dental records or fingerprints were unavailable.
Not far, a second body was discovered. 14 year-old Brian had been shot twice in the back of the head with a .22 pistol. His body was fully clothed and not mutilated. In Brian’s wallet was his library card. The sheriff’s department contacted his father who told them that his son was missing. Then asked about Christina. Was she the girl with him? It seemed likely. Donna and James told the police that Christina had recently broken a foot. X-ray records confirmed the fractures of Christina and the Telico Jane Doe matched.
In addition, there was long, blonde hair caught on nearby barbed wire that was consistent with Christina’s. DNA would later provide the more definitive confirmation. Due to the small size and rural nature of Ellis County, Dallas County Crime Lab provided assistance. At the crime scene, they discovered a blond hair on Brian King’s leg that did not match him or Christina. Stuck to his sneaker was a single tan fiber belonging to the interior of a Japanese-make vehicle.
Meanwhile, police were processing the tan Subaru seized during the calf mutilation investigation. Inside they found three blood stains. In the trunk was a blood stained leaf. There was a roll of duct tape with blood on it, a hammer and a hatchet, and a receipt for .22 ammo. A bracelet had been dropped by the blond man running from the scene of the calf mutilaion with the name JASON on it. He might as well have left a big neon sign behind.
Almost immediately, police received an annonymous call that they should look at Jason Massey. Considering he went around talking about how he wanted to murder and mutilate young girls, it’s not shocking. They heard he had been seen the day of the murders at a local car wash vacuuming his tan Subaru. When the story broke on the news, the owner remembered Massey being there and called police who seized the contents of the carwash vacuum. In them, they found an appointment card from Massey’s probation officer and multiple strands of Christina’s hair in a bloody red bandana.
To be certain which day the murders had occurred, they turned to a forensic entomologist. He examined the maggots and hatched some of his own in order to give an accurate age of the larvae found on the bodies. By doing this, he could deciseively say Christina and Brian had been deceased for two days. They were killed the same night they left in a tan car.
Police learned that Massey’s cousin owned a .22 caliber pistol that Massey had “borrowed.” Multiple people had seen Massey with the gun. The Walmart clerk who had sold the bullets, two knives, and handcuffs to Massey was able to ID him. At Massey’s house, police found the handcuffs, knife box, and newspaper articles he had cut out about the crime.
The fiber on Brian’s shoe matched the interior of Massey’s car. The blood on the car seats was tested and confirmed to come from Brian and Christine. Forensics and witness interviews painted a grim picture of the crime. Christine had agreed to sneak out and meet Massey. Perhaps she was nervous enough to ask her brother to come with them.
Perhaps she thought Brian could protect her from Massey. Instead, Massey drove them to a secluded location and shot Brian twice in the back of the head while still sitting in the car. Christine jumped out and tried to run, but Massey caught her and brought her back. There was no evidence of sexual assault. That isn’t where he got his pleasure. He shot her and dragged her back, then stabbed her multiple times. The gunshot did not kill her. It’s not known which of the other injuries were fatal. She was likely dead before the worst of the mutilations occurred.
Massey smirked during his arrest. He relished the media frenzy that followed, basking in the attention. There was a mountain of evidence, but in tiny pieces. Put together, the pieces made a whole picture, but conviction wasn’t a sure thing. It was a circumstantial case, even if the circumstances were damning. Then during the trial, a bombshell. A hunter in the woods stumbled upon a rusty cooler. Opening it revealed Massey’s trophy case. In the cooler were 31 skulls of animals, and a set of four spiral notebooks. These notebooks bore the title “Slayer’s Book of Death” and they were the ramblings, the fantasies, the plans and recollections of Jason Massey. It was his blueprint for murder and mutilation. He detailed his crimes against animals. He particularly liked strangling them and decapitating them so he could keep the skulls. Massey wrote that killing gave him an “adrenaline rush, a high, a turn on, a love to mutilate.”
Massey wrote of his admiration for famous killers, particularly Bundy, Manson, and Lucas. He aspired to be even more, the most famous serial killer of all time. He set a goal of 700 victims in 20 years, working out how many people he would have to kill a month to hit his total. He named girls he wanted to add to the list. The journal starts with his fantasies of rape, torture, mutilation, and cannibalism, but then moves into specific planning.” Massey wrote that he wanted “to grab society by the throat and shake ’em with terror until they’re awake and realize what’s up so they will remember who I am, when and why I came their way.”
Both sides only had a single day to process the new evidence. For the state, it was exactly what they needed, a glimpse into the mind of a wannabe serial killer. For the defense, it was devastating. The jury only needed 15 minutes to convict Massey of capital murder. After the verdict, the jury learned more about Massey’s background and his crimes against animals and robberies. He was sentenced to death.
Massey was executed April 3, 2001. As so many before and after him, he claimed to have found religion. Maybe he had. He grew from a boy to a man on death row. He expressed remorse and I can only hope it was genuine. He apologized to the families of Christine and Brian. He told them that “she didn’t suffer as much as you think” and said that he had thrown her hands and head in the Trinity River. He apologized to his family and said he was relieved his journey was at an end. “Tonight I dance in the streets of gold. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Would Massey have become a serial killer? He certainly had all the makings. Horrific childhood. Severe substance abuse. Animal mutilation. Fire starting. Sadistic sexual fantasies. At the trial, several experts testified that there isn’t a known treatment for such a strong case of anti-social personality disorder. As a society, all we can do is warehouse them or put them down like rabid dogs for our own safety. Maybe someday we will progress enough that we can do something meaningful to stop the process. The warning signs were there. If we can’t unmake the monster we have to stop him from being created. Otherwise, innocents like Christina and Brian suffer, just two kids who never had the chance to grow up because wannabe serial killer.
In the northeast corner of Tarrant County, tucked at the end of a rough roadway, there is a field of crosses, each cross remembering a life stolen by violent crime. Hours of labor have transformed that weed-choked field into Our Garden of Angels, a place of peace and remembrance with paths, benches, and a gurgling waterfall. Families gather there occasionally, just to be in a calm place where they don’t have to shoulder the burden of grief alone. There, they are among those who truly understand.
This unique memorial for murder victims began with a single cross to remember a beautiful, young woman named Amy Robinson.
Nineteen year old Amy Robinson had dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, but that hope was far away. She was doing well learning to live on her own and hold a job. Amy had been born with Turner’s syndrome, a chromosomal disorder which inhibits physical and mental growth. She was extremely petite, only four feet five inches and she had the mental capacity of a 14 year old. But she was learning how to live on her own and every day she rode her bicycle to her job sacking groceries for Kroger in Arlington, Texas. Amy was sweet and trusting. She was very social and didn’t like to be alone and had no reason to be suspicious when two of her co-workers stopped to offer her a ride on her way to work one day.
Robert Neville, Jr. and Michael Hall had both been fired by Kroger, but Amy didn’t know that. Two hours after she was supposed to be at work, her supervisor called to say Amy had never arrived. Alarmed, her family called police immediately. Police spoke with current and former co-workers. Neville admitted knowing her and even meeting her socially, but he denied having seen her in months.
Neville was someone Amy would never have trusted if only she’d known his background. He had prior convictions for burglary and had only been out of prison for 8 months. As a juvenile, he had been prosecuted for molesting younger children including an 11 year old girl, a 9 year old boy, and a 7 year old boy. He also had a history of abusing animals. When Neville was 14, he threw kittens off a roof. Two years later he tied a cat to a tree by its tail and repeatedly hit the cat with a pole. He had been fired for ridiculing a mentally challenged co-worker and had refused to sack groceries for minority shoppers. He had a fascination with white supremacy. That was the tie that bound Neville and Hall together.
Hall also didn’t like people of color. He was a follower, not a leader, and he was happy to let Neville take the lead. As they were drinking at a house belonging to Neville’s grandmother, Neville mentioned how he would like to go “just go out and kill somebody.” Hall suggested they purchase guns. They bought a pair of .22 caliber rifles and practiced shooting. They formed a plan to be serial killers and selected their first victim, a mentally impaired black man whom they worked with. Neville would later claim in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram interview that they had “a bet to see who could shoot and kill the most people between the two of us.” They particularly wanted to kill “blacks or Mexicans—anybody as long as they weren’t our color.”
On February 15, 1998, the duo made a decision. Upon checking the work schedules, they learned the black coworker wasn’t going to be at work that day, but Amy would be and she was part Native American. They found her riding her bike to work and offered her a ride which she accepted. These weren’t strangers to her and she didn’t know they had been fired. They promised her that they were going to take a ride and then they would drop her off. Instead of taking her to work, they drove her to a field in the Northeast corner of Tarrant County, an isolated place tucked off a rough, pitted road. Amy worried she would be late for work.
Neville stopped at the field, pretending to have a flat tire. Neville and Hall took their weapons out into the field while Amy sat in the car listening to the radio until Hall came back. He convinced her that she needed to go talk to Neville, that he was waiting for her over by a tree. Neville was waiting for Amy, and he was armed with a crossbow. He shot at her several times, grazing her hair with an arrow. She fled for the car but Hall shot her with a pellet gun in the leg. She cried from the pain as he began peppering her with pellets. Neville then brought up the .22 caliber rifle. They took turns shooting Amy. Neville shot her in the chest with the rifle and Hall shot her in the chest multiple times with the pellet gun.
She went to the ground, shaking and crying, then she called Neville by name. It was the last thing Amy would ever say. The pair became worried someone would overhear them so Neville shot Amy in the head to finish her. They had maneuvered her back into the field where she wouldn’t be readily visible from the road. They abandoned her body and left her bicycle with her.
Meanwhile, Amy’s family and friends were frantically looking for her. Her face stayed on the nightly news. It occurred to Hall and Neville that they might have missed a chance to rob Amy, so they went back to her body and took the small amount of cash from her pocket. They then used her body for target practice.
As so many narcissists do, Hall just had to brag about what they had done. He told his step-brother who went to the Arlington police. As police focused on Neville and Hall, they made for the border, but were arrested in Eagle Pass trying to cross into Mexico on March 3rd. Once detained, both men spent a lot of time boasting to reporters and investigators. They openly laughed about torturing Amy. Hall went so far as to imitate the sounds she was make and act out his shooting of her. He described how she begged to live, but died with Robert Neville’s name on her lips.
Robert Neville, Jr.
The interviews would come back to haunt them. Both men claimed diminished mental capacity as a defense, but the juries saw the videos of them laughing it up about torturing and killing Amy. The described her as “easy prey” and talked about how they wanted to be serial killers. Hall specifically mentioned that they chose Amy “because I didn’t have to put bruises on her to get her in the car.” He bragged about being the one to convince Amy that she was safe with them and even getting her to leave the car and walk over to Neville. He said she might have gotten away if he hadn’t been there to help Neville. Asked if he had any remorse, on the Fox 4 video that was played, he laughed and said “I wouldn’t want to be her. She had to take a lot of pain.” The juries sentenced both men to death.
Amy’s grandmother, Carolyn Barker wasn’t satisfied. For her, the media was too focused on the perpetrators and not on the victim. It seemed to her that Hall and Neville wanted to be famous. Every time the murder was covered, she had to look at their faces, hear their words, listen to everyone talk about their upbringings and mental status. What about Amy? Amy was the one who should be remembered.
Carolyn went to find the place in the weed-choked field where Amy had died. She says that part of her Native American beliefs are that a person’s spirit separates from the body and ascends to the afterlife at the place of death and that place becomes sacred. She marked that sacred spot with a cross. Amy had never liked being alone, and when other families in a grief support group expressed interest, she encouraged them to place their crosses beside Amy’s. This was no ordinary support group, but Families of Murdered Victims, and from there the unique memorial to crime victims was born.
Neville was executed February 8, 2006. Hall was executed February 15, 2011, thirteen years to the day from when he murdered Amy Robinson. Although it was financially and emotionally draining, Amy’s mother and sisters made the journey to see the executions. Her grandmother Carolyn did not, choosing instead to celebrate Amy’s life among her fellow angels. Her mother Tina said that she needed to see their final justice for herself. Both men expressed regret and apologized to the families.
Neville claimed to have become a Christian and told them he would see Amy on the other side and apologize to her and tell her how much her family loved and missed her. Hall also claimed to have found Christianity and said he wished he could make things right. Amy’s sisters weren’t interested in forgiving him. Amanda expressed that she believed he was not remorseful but playing for cameras right to the end. Ruth said she felt like a weight had been lifted from her and she was glad Hall died the same day Amy did. It felt right to her.
From the four original crosses, Amy’s field is now home to more than 160 crosses, tangible reminders of lives taken in violence. Carolyn Barker’s love for her granddaughter transformed her grief into something beautiful. She wanted Amy’s memory to live on and she has succeeded. The memorial has been named Our Garden of Angels. You can take a visual tour from their website and read more about some of the precious lives remembered there at http://ourgardenofangels.org/.
Hall v. State, 67 S.W.3d 870 (Tex.Crim.App. 2002). (Direct Appeal)
Hall v. Texas, 537 U.S. 802, 123 S.Ct. 70 (2002). (Remand)
Hall v. State, 160 S.W.3d 24 (Tex.Crim.App. 2004). (Direct Appeal After Remand)
Hall v. Quarterman, 534 F.3d 365 (5th Cir. 2008). (Habeas)
It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking of the criminal justice system as a conglomerate being, a monolithic entity, a machine chewing up lives and spitting out justice. We have a visceral reaction to the idea of an impersonal system controlling our lives. Too often, we fail to realize is that just as a machine is made of parts, a system is made of people. Judges, police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, court clerks, jailers, bondsmen, are all just people. They are good people, bad people, parents with grown children and single millennials, they have dogs or maybe cats. You get the point. The system is just made up of people. People like me and people like Mark Hasse.
Mark Hasse dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice. He graduate from SMU Law School in 1981 and went straight to work for the Dallas District Attorney’s Office. Mark made a name for himself by taking on the toughest cases, specializing in organized crime. He left to go into private practice, working as a defense attorney but also moving into the areas of family law and aviation law. That last might seem like an odd fit, but Mark had a commercial pilot’s license. He loved flying and he loved planes. That love almost stole his life when he was critically injured in a 1995 plane crash. He also loved rescuing dogs. You might say Mark was married to the job. At least, there was never a spouse or kids in the picture, but he did have a large, loving family and he had nieces and nephews to spoil.
I doubt that was on his mind when he drove to work on January 31, 2013.
Criminal law had always held Mark’s heart. In 2010, he went back to work as a prosecutor, this time in Kaufman County. He moved there to work with newly elected District Attorney Mike McLelland as his Chief Felony Prosecutor. Kaufman County sits just east of Dallas. It’s mostly white and rural, and like so many similar places, the scourge of meth had sunk its teeth in deep. In recent years, Kaufman County experienced rapid growth as a bedroom community due to its proximity to Dallas, bringing with it big city problems. The meth trade in Texas is largely controlled by white supremacy gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood and Aryan Circle. With Mark’s experience prosecuting organized crime, he was a natural fit for aggressively pursuing those groups and soon developed a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense guy, the kind of prosecutor the skinheads didn’t want to mess with.
I doubt his reputation was on his mind when he parked behind the Kaufman County Courthouse just after 9:00 am.
He was probably thinking about that day. He was probably thinking about dockets, and witness meetings, and evidence exchanges. He was probably so focused on the minutiae that make up a typical day in the life of a prosecutor that he didn’t notice the man with the gun until he was right there on top of him. According to witnesses Lenda Bush and Kelley Blaine, Mark was walking, briefcase in hand, towards the courthouse when a masked man dressed all in black ran up to him brandishing a gun. The man shoved Mark who reflexively shoved back. The man pressed the gun to his neck. Mark raised both hands and pleaded for his life as the man shot him eight times, then jumped into the passenger side of a waiting car that sped away. Lenda Bush, a former police officer turned lawyer, gave chase to the vehicle. She was so shocked that she had difficulty dialing 911 and trying to follow the car which ultimately got away. There was no license plate on the car. She returned to the scene and gave Mark CPR until the ambulance arrived. He wouldn’t survive the trip to the hospital.
It was a hit in broad daylight just feet away from the courthouse.
Shock waves radiated through-out the criminal justice community. I heard about it within hours. My husband saw the murder on the news and called to tell me someone was assassinating District Attorneys. A sheriff’s deputy walked me to my car that day.
Within a week, there was a safety meeting at my office. We were advised to vary our times for arriving and leaving. Some people carried mace or alarm whistles. We walked in groups and had investigators escorting us. Everyone was sure that the ABT ( Aryan Brotherhood Texas) had finally gotten Mark. Who else would commit such a brazen hit? Which of us would be next?
As Mark was laid to rest and his family created a memorial fund for the children of Kaufman County, a massive manhunt was underway. FBI, the Texas Rangers, the Department of Public Safety, and the local sheriff’s department were all called in.
District Attorney Mike McLelland came out to give a press conference. He spoke to reporters with tears in his eyes. “I hope the people who did this are watching, because we are very confident that we are going to find you. We’re going to pull you out of whatever hole you’re in. We’re going to bring you back and let the people of Kaufman County prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
While everyone else was concerned with investigating the ABT, the local sheriff had another suspect in mind. He immediately went to interview a disgraced former Justice of the Peace, Eric Williams.
In 2012, Mark Hasse had prosecuted Williams for stealing computer equipment after he was caught on surveillance video taking the items. The incident cost Williams his political career and his legal one after his law license was suspended. Williams had been extremely angry and publically blamed Mark Hasse and Mike McLelland of a “political assassination.” He blamed them for ruining his life.
Williams removing equipment on surveillance
Williams answered the door with his arm in a sling and told Sheriff Byrnes that he’d recently had shoulder surgery. He had an alibi in his wife and, although suspicious, Byrnes had nothing else to tie Williams to the crime.
At the beginning of March, a member of the 211 Crew, a prison gang, shot and killed the director of the Colorado Bureau of Prison. It was a bold crime. He simply knocked on the front door and executed the man when he answered. The killer would die in a hail of bullets on the highway.
Our security measures at work tightened. They were coming for us. Everyone scrambled to hide our home addresses. We had frequent emails on how to keep safe. I know I looked over my shoulder when going to my car every night. There are reports that a Kaufman County judge had taken to wearing a bullet proof vest. McLelland went armed. It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.
Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia both had degrees in psychology. Cynthia told a friend that both were extremely concerned about Williams. They believed he was the type not to take humiliation well. Williams had been offered a plea to a misdemeanor for the thefts but he refused, confident he could represent himself and win. He was utterly humiliated by the felony conviction, even though he wasn’t sentenced to any jail time. Cynthia and Mark were both sure he was plotting some sort of revenge, even though he smiled to their faces. They had been worried even before the attacks started.
March 30, 2014, Cynthia answered a knock at the door. She would never have opened the door to Williams, but at seeing the policeman with a SWAT helmet on, she opened the door. Security had become a daily occurrence. But this was no police officer. Cynthia and Mike were shot repeatedly in extreme overkill. The first officer on the scene testified there was blood everywhere.
Investigators exit the home of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland near Forney, Texas April 1, 2013. Authorities have launched a massive investigation into the weekend killings of McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, which occurred months after an assistant prosecutor was shot dead in the same county. REUTERS/Tim Sharp (UNITED STATES – Tags: CRIME LAW) – RTXY54D
Once again media descended on Kaufman County. Williams didn’t shy away from the attention. He rode out on his Segway to give interviews. He told Jack Douglas of CBS-KTVT
“My heart goes out to all the families that have been affected by this tragedy. And especially to the people that work at the court house. I worked there for several years while I was going to law school and so I know that it’s a tight-knit family – that this is devastating to them,”
All of this was said with his trademark smirk. He might not have been smiling if he’d known police were narrowing in on him. They knew he had lied about the shoulder surgery. He’d also made a serious miscalculation.
The day after the McLelland’s were murdered, a man sent an email to Crime Stoppers. The message began “Do we have your attention now?” The email went on to say that unless certain judges resigned, the killings would continue. The caller knew specific information about the crimes, including the type of ammunition used.
They had surveillance video of a white Crown Victoria driving through the neighborhood at the time of the crime. What they needed were direct links. They went to see Williams and were surprised when he invited them in. He was arrogant enough to let them see his guns and sights. The information they gained that day allowed them to obtain a search warrant.
They found the title to a white Crown Victoria, guns, and numbers written down by the phone. Those were the ID numbers assigned to the Crime Stoppers emailer. That is how anonymous call-ins work. Computer forensics would show that immediately after his conviction, Williams began stalking Mark Hasse. He was also the mysterious emailer.
Once the dominoes began falling, they didn’t stop. A friend of Eric Williams called in a tip about a storage facility. Williams had asked the friend to rent the facility for him, but didn’t want it in his name. They quickly obtained a search warrant for the storage facility and when them lifted the door to the unit, there was the white Crown Victoria. There was also enough guns, body armor, and crossbows to outfit a swat unit.
Williams was arrested and with him, his accomplice, the woman who had driven him the get-away car when he gunned down Mark Hasse and again for the McLellands, his wife, Kim Williams.
Kim Williams would be the star witness against her husband. She testified that she was addicted to pain killers and was under her husband’s influence, but that she was a willing participant. “His anger was my anger.” She believed everything he told her.
Although she was testifying without a plea agreement, Kim was hoping for mercy in her sentence. She testified about the planning and execution of the crimes in chilling detail. She told the courtroom that her husband had always talked about killing people who he felt were conspiring against him. When he was going to trial, he warned her that they would tell lies about him. In particular, he told her they would put up a woman named Janice Gray, a former court coordinator he had dated before Kim. Gray might be going to testify that he had threatened to kill her when they broke up, but he assured Kim it was a lie. She says she believed him. He also was extremely angry with Judge Glen Ashworth whom he blamed for leading prosecutors to Janice Gray.
Williams had a hit list. His first target was intended to be Judge Ashworth. According to Kim Williams, her husband has started making napalm and storing it in pickle jars. He also bought a crossbow. These items were among those recovered from the storage facility. The plan was to go to Ashworth’s house following the Super Bowl. Ashworth lived just down the street, so it would be easy to go in and shoot him with the crossbow. Williams was then going to gore out his stomach and fill it with the napalm.
But Williams switched gears abruptly. He decided to kill Hasse first. He wanted to make a statement and gun Mark Hasse down outside the courthouse in view of everyone. Kim testified they were both very excited that morning. Williams dressed all in black with a ghoul mask.
She detailed the crimes, describing all the while how excited and happy Williams was. He was living his fantasy. He had decided to impersonate a police officer when they went to the McLellands’ and modeled the outfit for her like he was walking a runway. She sat outside as it sounded like the shooting went on forever. When he ran back out to the car, he told her he had to shoot Cynthia and additional time because she was moaning. He couldn’t leave a living witness, so he shot her in the top of the head. They celebrated that night with steaks on the grill and Williams made ready for the next people on his list, Judge Ashworth and County Court at Law Judge Erleigh Wiley, another person Williams believed had wronged him.
Rather than get involved in arguing whether Williams was justified in being angry about his prosecution, the special prosecutors tried him on the case involving the most innocent victim, Cynthia McLelland. Her only crime was being married to Mike. She was a beloved mother, grandmother, and a respected psychiatric nurse.
The jury only took an hour and forty minutes to convict Williams of killing Cynthia. He was sentenced to death. Kim Williams later pled guilty and was sentenced to 40 years.
Perhaps the only thing more shocking to those of us who make up “the system” than the murder of own was the identity of the murderer. He was also one of our own. It’s true in investigating murders that the killer is usually someone the victim knows. It’s always the spouse, the roommate, the ex-boyfriend. We fear the stranger when we should instead be looking closer to the smiling assassin next to us.
Source Notes: I relied on the following sources. I highly recommend the CBS 48 hours and the Kaufman Herald which were my two primary sources.
Kneeland clutching his Bible as he is led to the courtroom by Winkler County Deputy Sheriff Jack Speer for arraignment. Photo Credit: May 10, 1974 The Odessa American, staff photo by Eugene PorterTommy Ray Kneeland was an enthusiastic youth minister. He taught Sunday school and drove the church bus. He loved bowling and attending gospel concerts with his wife and two young children. But in his spare time? He also like to torture and murder young women. His little hobby came to a screeching halt in 1974 when of these young women survived.
Kneeland was born in Kermit, Texas in 1949. Kermit is the county seat of Winkler County in West Texas. It’s a typical Oil Boom city that flourished in the 50’s and 60’s. Tommy Ray Kneeland was born into this small, but thriving community. In 1970, he lived across the street from Nancy and Gene Mitchell and their twin three-year old daughters. Like so many people in Kermit, Kneeland’s family was heavily invested in the oil and gas industry.
September 15, 1970, Nancy Mitchell filled a prescription around 8 p.m. Her husband worked very late and she was often home alone in the evening. Shortly after arriving home from her trip to the pharmacy, she put the twins to bed and called her uncle. Her husband arrived home at 12:45 to find the children sleeping, but his wife gone. Her purse with cash and cigarettes was sitting there in easy view. The only thing missing was Nancy. Her clothing was found out on an isolated roadway. Her dress, underwear, bra, slip, and pantyhose were scattered, cut into pieces and shredded by a knife, but no blood.
June 4, 1971, less than a mile from the place her clothing was found, an oilfield worker found the badly decomposed body of a woman. Dental records confirmed this was the body of Nancy Mitchell. Determining a cause of death was difficult, but the medical examiner thought she had died of asphyxiation. Traces of plastic were also found. The location was an oil lease owned by Tommy Ray Kneeland’s father.
When Nancy Mitchell went missing, police had spoken to Tommy, but there was nothing to make them suspicious. He was a polite, well-groomed, church-going, young man. They barely even noticed when he moved to Euless immediately after the body was found. Meanwhile, Gene Mitchell was going through hell. Even though he had a rock solid alibi from having been at work, people looked at him funny. There were rumors that he had killed his wife. His three-year-old twins were too small to understand and cried inconsolably for their mother.
Euless, Texas in in the NE corner of Tarrant County. It’s the ‘E’ in the area known as HEB. Once in Euless, Kneeland found work as a carpet layer. He married a woman and they had two children. As always, he became very involved in a local church. Reverend Robert Owens of Hurst Christian Church was impressed with the enthusiastic youth minister and Sunday school teacher. He described Kneeland as outgoing and charismatic. The teens flocked to Kneeland who was so trusted he even drove the church bus.
A year after Kneeland moved to the DFW area, the bodies of two teens were found dead in Fort Worth. Friday, June 30, 1974, 17 year-old Jane Handy and 15 year-old Robert Gholson borrowed a 1961 white Ford Fairlaine from Jane’s father.
They told him they were headed to a party, but the pair really intended to drive all the way from Oklahoma to Dallas for a concert. It’s a three hour drive, but they didn’t get very far before the Fairlaine broke down near Ardmore, Oklahoma. The teens began hitchhiking. Both had run away before and weren’t afraid to brave the world on their own. Their first ride took them as far as Gainesville, Texas. That’s where they met Tommy Lee Kneeland. Kneeland often had to drive long distances for work. He told the kids he would take them to Hurst and that from there it would be easy to hitch a ride to Dallas. They happily climbed in with him.
Instead of taking them to Hurst, he drove them to a seclude area in the east of Fort Worth, a party spot for local bikers just off a popular trail. He bound their hands with wire coat hangers. Based on what we now know about his history, he always had a gun. I’m assuming this is how he was able to control two people. He wasn’t a large man, only standing 5 foot 7 with a slender build. Kneeland knocked Robert to the ground and began raping Jane. She fought for her life, thrashing and screaming for help. Frustrated, he tried to gag her, but then she got her hands free. She fought him hard. He pulled a knife and stabbed her six times in the chest and six times in the back. He then slashed her throat and in his fury began stabbing her face until it was obliterated.
He looked over where Robert had been laying, but the teenager was gone. He’d gotten to his feet and run for his life. Kneeland caught up with him on the tail and stabbed him just as he had Jane: six times in the back and six in the chest. He slit the boy’s throat, but didn’t take his rage out on his face.
The next morning, bikers found Robert’s body on the trail and called the police. It was only while searching the area for evidence that they located Jane. Because of the damage to her face, Jane wasn’t identified until police ran her prints. She hadn’t been reported missing yet due to her tendency to run away. It was after being picked up as a runaway that her prints ended up in the system.
Tarrant County Medical Examiner Felix Gwozdz described the wounds as extremely deep and violent, the result of an intense attack. Stranger attacks are the most difficult cases to solve and with no way to link the teens to Kneeland, the case went cold. It would remain that way until 1974.
April 23, 1974, 16 year-old Danita Cash went to pick up her brother near the old Arlington-Bedford Bridge which crosses a channel of the Trinity River. I’ve seen stories that her brother had gone there with friends for target practice and I’ve seen stories that the boys were fishing. Either way, Danita had gone to fetch her brother. The bridge is now closed, but in 1974, the area was heavily wooded and off the main path. Growing impatient with waiting, Danita honked her horn to get her brother’s attention. Like brothers so often do, he ignored her. A strange man responded, though and he asked if she needed help. She assured him she was fine and he left. She waited a bit for her brother, then honked again.
The man came back and this time he had a gun with him, a sawed-off, 12 gauge shotgun. He forced Danita to come with him, bound her hands with twisted wire and put carpet tape over her mouth. She desperately struggled to free herself. She kept trying to speak to him. He reached down to loosen the tape so he could hear what she had to say and that’s when he lost control of the truck. He veered off the road and into the mud. The man gunned his engine, but the wheels just dug in deeper. Incredibly, he let her go. He was afraid someone would stop to help and see Danita bound in his car. “Take off,” he told her. “I’ll kill you if you tell the police.”
She ran all the way back to her car and drove straight home to her mother who immediately called the police. The truck was gone by the time police made it to bridge, but they found a sanding disk of the type used by tile or carpet layers. It was believed the man had put it under a tire to get the traction needed to escape the mud. Danita had a good description of her kidnapper as well as his truck. He had a unique truck, a vintage 1957 pick-up with a distinctive toolbox. Soon police narrowed in on an unlikely suspect, a local youth minister and carpet layer. They put Kneeland’s picture in a photospread. Danita identified him easily.
In the stakeout that followed, police saw Kneeland ready his truck for painting. Kneeland realized he was being watched and called the police himself. He said he wanted to come in and “clear things up.” He came in to talk and soon confessed, not just to the kidnapping of Danita, either. He admitted to the unsolved murders of Jane Handy and Robert Gholson. Then he started talking about Nancy Mitchell from Kermit.
Kneeland admitting kidnapping his neighbor at gun point. He raped her, then put a plastic bag over her head to suffocate her, but she was taking too long to die. He tried injecting air into her arm, but Nancy stubbornly clung to life. Kneeland stabbed her repeatedly and slit her throat. He left her body on his father’s land and went back to life as normal.
Police were deeply suspicious that Kneeland was possibly responsible for the unsolved rape and murder of Benbrook teenager Carla Walker, but Kneeland never confessed to the crime and was never charged. The best break down of the Carla Walker case I’ve ever heard is the Texas-based podcast Gone Cold. It was this podcast where I first heard the name Tommy Ray Kneeland. I became fascinated with the story and began digging further. Episodes 4 and 5 break down the suspects. Episode 7 features an interview with Kneeland’s wife at around the 15 minute mark. I cannot recommend this series highly enough. Carla Walker deserves justice.
Kneeland’s wife insists that he never raised a hand against her. He was a good husband. She never worried when he was out that he would be unfaithful because he strongly disapproved of women who dressed provocatively or showed too much skin. He did come home frequently with blood on his clothes. She said he simply cut himself at work all the time and she washed the blood without thinking about it. Kneeland has been a suspect in many other murders around the area. Given the opportunistic nature of his crimes, I believe he committed other crimes out there which we will never link to him.
Everyone was shocked when Kneeland was placed under arrest. His father insisted that he was always a good boy. His pastor went to visit the young minister in jail and referred to him as “one frightened boy.” Kermit and Fort Worth are very far apart. Kneeland was arraigned for the Fort Worth murders and the kidnapping, but then had to be transported across the state to answer for his crime against Nancy Mitchell. Gene Mitchell was relieved to have the crime solved, but that didn’t undo the years of hell he and his daughters had endured.
In a plea agreement, Kneeland was sentenced to 10 years for kidnapping Danita Cash and two life sentences for the murders of Jane Handy and Robert Gholson. He was sent back to Kermit for trial there. Because of the publicity, the case was transferred to another county. The offense Kneeland committed against Nancy were all stacked: Kidnapping, murder, abuse of corpse. The prosecution, Winkler County DA Mike Fostel asked the jury to sentence Kneeland to 270 years. The jury sentenced him to 550 years.
In a perfect world, that’s where the story would end, with Kneeland in prison. But the 1970s and 80s there was a movement away from incarceration. Prisons were overflowing and to ease the crowding, prisoners were paroled at unprecedented rates. It made sense to release those serving steep sentences for drug and property crimes, but a predator? Anyone could get three for one good time. September 16, 1987, just 12 years and 9 months after he had been incarcerated, Tommy Ray Kneeland was paroled.
Mike Fostel was shocked. Due to a glitch, the parole notifications had gone to the county where the prosecution had been transferred and not Winkler or Tarrant Counties. They didn’t have the chance to object. During his brief incarceration, Kneeland had been up for parole three times.
Kermit didn’t want Kneeland to return there but that was fine, because the city of Hico was ready to welcome Kneeland with open arms. Some family or friends had started a petition there to help him get parole. A local pastor had written letter to parole board talking about how his family would welcome Kneeland and he had a place to stay. He later claimed he didn’t know what Kneeland was actually in prison for.
Kneeland re-married, this time to a woman with two children, was again active in church and started his own business. However in July 1994 he was stopped for expired registration and found to have two rifles in his truck including a loaded semi-auto under his seat. This was a violation of his parole.
Residents of Hico admitted to mixed feelings. Some insisted they were sure he was rehabilitated. They described him as a hard working family man, a good Christian. Of course, that’s how people described Kneeland before he started raping and killing. These people thought it too harsh to send Kneeland back to prison, but considering he was known to kidnap women at gunpoint, the violation is alarming. Other residents of Hico confessed to being relieved. Many said they didn’t know what he had been in prison for and were shocked.
Tommy Ray Kneeland is the classic example of how the appearances can deceive. Underneath the preacher man façade was a dark savagery only revealed by his terrible crimes. Thankfully, Kneeland is still housed in the Stiles Unit, never again to be released. The release of such dangerous men as Tommy Ray Kneeland and Kenneth McDuff caused Texas to once again overhaul parole laws, tightening them, but the moods of the public swing like a pendulum and I see a movement for compassion and rehabilitation. Those are lofty goals and while I agree with the sentiment, I hope we never again lose sight of the importance of keeping dangerous predators locked up.
Researching an older case can be challenging. Here are some of the places I located information.
Kneeland’s appeal can be read here. It is a subscription service but you can pay per report if you are interested enough.
The Gone Cold podcast was an invaluable resource and I highly recommend it. You can listen to it on iTunes, Stitcher, or whatever pod catcher you prefer.
Most of my other resources were difficult to locate and require a subscription to Newspapers.com . If you do have a subscription, the best coverage was the Odessa American.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Donald Bryan Rodgers is forever a 14 year-old boy, forever smiling back from a photo looking dapper with his bow tie. For Donald it’s forever August 7, 1973. That’s where his future came to an end at his best friend’s home–and at the end of his best friend’s gun.
Donnie, as he was called by his family, was one of six kids growing up in Southeast Fort Worth in the Rolling Hills neighborhood. The siblings ranged in age from 22 to 3 years old. The Rodgers were strict, but loving. The family was tight-knit. He was especially close to his father. Donnie and his father, Jeff had their own side business, scrapping. Jeff worked for a newspaper and later as a maintenance worker at a hospital. Donnie would sometimes go to those jobs with his father as well. Mom was a nurse. She was also the disciplinarian. The children all had duties around the house.
Rolling Hills was considered a very safe neighborhood. The children could walk to their friends’ houses or ride bikes.
Melvin Knox also lived nearby with his parents and his sister, Sheila, just about ten minutes from Donnie’s house. The Knox family owned a grocery store. Unlike Donnie, Melvin had been in trouble before. At 15, he already had a reputation for a bad temper. When he was 13, he pointed a shotgun at a boy with whom he’d had an earlier argument. An adult neighbor saw this and intervened. This was just before Melvin and his parents moved to Rolling Hills.
But whatever their different lives, the boys met and were instant friends in the way kids can be. That August evening, they were playing basketball when the rest of Melvin’s family left for church at 7:00 pm. When the family returned at 8:30, they found the livingroom a mess. The glass patio door had been smashed in with a big rock, The TV was knocked over. Melvin was nowhere to be found.
The family searched frantically for the boys. In the bathroom, 12 year-old Sheila Knox discovered a grisly sight. A young boy was sprawled, his body partially propped in the corner between the shower and the toilet. Blood was everywhere. The shower door was shattered from the shot and the blood splatter on the wall indicated this was where the boy had been shot. His face had been destroyed by a gunshot wound. The damage was so severe, at first Sheila thought it was Melvin’s body. Inexplicably, there was also a knife sticking from the boy’s chest and multiple stab wounds.
The police were immediately called. Moment’s later, Melvin showed back up with his Uncle Emmit. Melvin told the police that Donnie went inside to go to the restroom. While he was in there, Melvin stayed outside. He said he heard glass shatter, walked around the back to see what was going on and then heard a gunshot. He said he ran, jumped the back fence and ran to his Uncle’s house two miles away. He said he didn’t go inside at all.
The scene was process by David Whisenhunt, he noticed several odd things. He located wadding to a 16 gauge shot gun next to the body. In the master bedroom closet was a Mossberg 16 gauge. Due to the smell, he knew that gun had been recently fired. Why would the murder weapon have been put back in the closet? The knife in Donnie’s chest was also from the house. Someone would have to break into to home, get the family’s shotgun, shoot Donnie, and then put the weapon away. Then they would have to go into the kitchen, grab a knife, and repeatedly stab Donnie. It didn’t make any sense.
The TV, which was in front of the sliding glass door had been knocked over, but curiously there was no glass underneath it, indicating the TV was knocked over before the glass door was shattered. The TV wasn’t damaged from the fall, almost as if it had been gently laid down. Nothing was taken from the house.
A neighbor, Chris Guinn, who was outside in his yard heard a loud noise followed by glass shattering, and saw Melvin running away. This didn’t match Melvin’s sequence of events. And in a neighborhood full of houses, why would he run two miles to his uncle’s house?
Then there was what had happened the day before. Melvin had been playing basketball with another boy named Ricky. They went inside and for some reason, Melvin pointed a shotgun at him. He told Ricky that his father had given him the gun for his birthday. Ricky pushed the barrel of the gun away and told Melvin to stop, that he shouldn’t play with guns. In response, Melvin pulled the trigger. Ricky heard the click. Melvin laughed it off, but he later faced charges for this incident.
But would he face charges in Donnie’s death? His story didn’t add up and the scene appeared to be staged to look like a burglary. Had he repeated his actions of pointing a gun at a friend only this time it was loaded?
Dr. Feliks Gwozdz, Tarrant County’s legendary medical examiner performed the autopsy. In his report, he noted an entry wound to the right of the victim’s face and an exit wound to the left side. He also observed nine stab wounds, seven to the chest. One of these stab wounds went into Donnie’s heart. Dr. Gwozdz ruled it a homicide and listed the cause of death as “Shock and hemorrhage due to shotgun wound of head and multiple stab wounds to the chest.”
15 year-old Melvin was charged as a juvenile by an Assistant District Attorney named Billy Mills. Four months later, Mills made the determination he didn’t believe there was enough evidence and he dismissed the case.
Donnie’s family, engulfed in a blur of shock and grief, assumed Melvin was still being prosecuted. They weren’t vengeful people. They weren’t clamoring at the court house everyday. Sure, there wasn’t anything on the news, but then Melvin was a juvenile so in their minds, that explained it. It’s unknown if Donnie’s parents were ever told. If they were told, they didn’t let Donnie’s siblings know.
It would be decades before anyone looked at the case again.
That’s not to say that nothing was happening. You might think Melvin would have learned a hard lesson about violence and playing with guns. You might think he would have been scared straight, but that’s the farthest thing from the truth. Over the next forty years, Melvin was in constant trouble with the law.
His juvenile records are not public record, but from the moment he was a legal adult, his record shows that Melvin never changed. His crimes include burglaries, thefts, and drugs–lots of drugs. Melvin wasn’t just a user, he was a dealer and did several stints in prison for dealing. In 1999, he was sent to prison for Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon for threatening a couple with a shotgun. Once out of prison, he resumed his career as a drug dealer.
Meanwhile, Donnie’s eldest sister, Carolyn became curious about what had happened to her brother’s killer. Their parents were deceased. She couldn’t ask them. The original detectives were also deceased. She tried to find information online and even through calling the police department, but she couldn’t find anything. She brought her concerns to Jeff Jr, but he was sure things had been handled. Why dredge up the pain again?
Carolyn was persistent so Jeff, a juvenile probation officer, agreed to check into the matter. To his surprise, he discovered Melvin had never faced charges. Jeff contacted the cold case detective, Mike McCormack who agreed to dig into the case.
Cold cases are always difficult and a 40 year old case, especially so. Many of the original witnesses were now deceased. Further complicating matters, the physical evidence was missing. Gone was the shot gun, Melvin’s clothing, and the knife. The property room has moved several times and a great deal of old evidence has been lost. He had the old testing, but that was all he had to go on. There would be no new testing.
All he could do was retrace the steps of the investigation and that meant re-interviewing the witnesses. The first person McCormack went to speak with, was Melvin Knox.
Melvin hadn’t gone far. He was still living in an apartment building owned by his parents. He agreed to speak with McCormack. The story Melvin told was essentially the same except for one very important detail. He claimed to have seen the intruder. This didn’t match any of his previous versions. That would have been a crucial detail, one everyone would have jumped on if he had ever mentioned it. Melvin claimed to have heard the crash of the glass and the gun blast. He went and looked inside and saw a white man in his 20’s carrying a shotgun. The man pointed the gun at Melvin who ran away to his uncle’s house.
McCormack interview Melvin’s Uncle Emmit. He confirmed for McCormack that Melvin had never said anything about seeing the intruder. He said that Melvin arrived looking sweaty and borderline hysterical. Melvin said that an intruder broke into his house and killed Donnie. McCormack was instantly struck by this recollection. Melvin had insisted he never went inside. How did he know Donnie was dead in the bathroom?
McCormack then interviewed Ruth Knox, Melvin’s mother. She told a different story than police had ever been told. She said that the day after the offense Melvin admitted to her that he and Donnie were playing basketball and Donnie asked to use the restroom. After a couple of minutes the Melvin went inside and noticed Donnie was playing with his little brother’s toy in the bathroom. Melvin claimed that he told Donnie to put the toy down but he refused. Melvin was angered by this so he got the shotgun, pointed it at his friend and pulled the trigger. He said he did not know the gun was loaded. Ruth told McCormack that she and her husband loaded the gun that night due to criminal activity in the neighborhood. She was evasive about why she hadn’t told police before. She claimed Melvin didn’t remember the stabbing part.
That was the break McCormack needed. He arrested and interviewed Melvin again and this time he confronted him with his mother’s statement.
Melvin confessed shooting Donnie. He said the two were just playing with guns and his gun went off. First he said they both pointed guns at each other. He said Donnie pulled the trigger and it clicked. He said he then pulled the trigger and heard a boom and remembered nothing more. Under more questioning, Melvin admitted he lied about Donnie having a gun. He said he just meant to scare him when he pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger. He did not know it was loaded.
He first denied knowing about the knife or that the Donnie was stabbed. McCormack asked Melvin if he stabbed Donnie because he was afraid he would tell on him. Melvin said “probably so” but again claimed he did not remember the details. In other words, Melvin shot Donnie, possibly on accident, but then didn’t seek help for his friend. Instead he silenced the only witness to the crime. He stabbed his best friend repeatedly until he was dead. Then he left the knife in his chest, staged a burglary, and ran off to save himself.
McCormack had his man and he had new evidence, but there were still obstacles to overcome. Although Melvin was now a 59 year old man, he had committed the crime as a juvenile and therefore that was the law that applied. The case was assigned to Assistant Criminal District Attorney Matt Smid. Smid presented evidence before a juvenile court on August 16, 2016 in a hotly contested hearing. The judge granted Smid’s request and certified Melvin Knox to proceed. Smid then presented the case again to a grand jury and secured an indictment.
Melvin Knox would proceed to trial, but a conviction was not assured. The original evidence was lost. Five witnesses were now deceased including the original detectives. After much discussion Donnie’s siblings, Smid made Melvin an offer. Ten years in exchange for a plea of guilty to Murder. He reasoned that with Melvin’s age and the issues in the case, they would take what they could get.
Astonishingly, Melvin rejected the officer. He was facing five years to life, but he wanted probation. Probation was never on the table. Under current law, that wouldn’t be an option, but Melvin was subject to what the sentencing laws were when the crime was committed. In 1973, people could get probation for Murder.
Both sides were preparing for trial, when Melvin made a startling announcement just two weeks before trial. He was going to plead guilty.
Pleading guilty without an agreed punishment is called an “open plea.” Melvin was going to throw himself on the mercy of the court, or rather, on the mercy of Judge Wayne Salvant. Judge Salvant is a no-nonsense former marine. He is not afraid of high profile cases. Ethan Couch, also known “the Affulenza teen” now has his adult cases pending before Judge Salvant. It was big gamble on Melvin’s part.
The prosecution went first laying out for the court what happened August 7, 1973 and all of Melvin’s lies and crimes. Hearing all of life laid bare must have made Melvin nervous because at a break, his attorney approached Smid and asked if he could have the ten year sentence. Smid refused. The case would be placed in the Judge’s hands.
Melvin testified before Judge Salvant that he didn’t know the shotgun was loaded when he pointed it and pulled the trigger. He admitted getting the knife out of the kitchen drawer but then insisted he didn’t remember stabbing Donnie or staging the house to look like a burglary. He said he took care of his parents and that he volunteered at church. Then he asked for probation.
Judge Salvant wasn’t having any of it. “Do you think you deserve probation for all you’ve done? You committed a heinous crime, you tried to cover it up, then in the past 40 years, you’ve basically been a criminal. Let’s just face it, you have. So probation is not even an issue, not for this court.” Salvant then goes on to note that Donald Rodgers has been dead for over 40 years and so that is Melvin’s sentence. 40 years.
“No matter what I do today nothing’s going to bring Mr. Rodgers back, but that family deserves justice,” Salvant said. “They do. They’ve waited a long time for it.”
UPDATE: A NOTE ABOUT SOURCES: Today I was contacted by a member of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who was concerned that I did not acknowledge one of their reporters as a source for information in this article. I had linked to one of this reporter’s articles in the paragraph proceeding this one, however, I never specifically mentioned that I did read the series of articles and did use them as one of my primary sources. In addition I read the police reports for myself and attended the punishment hearing of Melvin Knox in person because I was so interested in this case.
The articles by FWST Reporter Deanna Boyd, and a subsequent podcast about the case– also by Ms. Boyd– are much more in-depth than I could possibly manage here. I am indeed indebted to her for the amount of work she put into covering this case and I wish to acknowledge this. I am not a professional journalist, just someone with a deep interest in true crime. If this story interests you, I encourage you to read the FWST article for yourself here. This article contains a link to the podcast as well. Out of the Cold, Ms. Boyd’s podcast detail many other cold cases other than just this one and the interviews with family members are memorable.
It doesn’t look like a crime scene. The old Tarrant County Courthouse stands guard over the Trinity River, marking the visual divide between historic old North Main, home to some of the best Tex-Mex you’ll ever eat, and South Main Street’s maze of government buildings that cozy up to Sundance Square with its newer, chic eateries and shopping. Built in 1895, the pink granite Grande Dame of the downtown scene was designed to resemble the Capitol Building in Austin with rotundas and a large dome. As newer courthouses were built to house criminal, civil and family courts, the plan was to demolish the old building and connect North and South Main. Fortunately, the old building was saved that fate. The clock tower on the dome still marks the hours. Now days, courts have all moved into the newer buildings, with the exception of one Justice of the Peace court. Instead the building houses the county clerk’s office, land records, and a county law library. But in 1992, it was still home to the 2nd Court of Appeals.
Chris Marshall, 41 was Chief of the Appellate Section of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office and he was there on July 1, 1992 to present a case later that morning. With Chris was a young appellate attorney, Steve Conder, 27.
A three judge panel was on the bench: Clyde Ashworth, John Hill, and David Farris. Dan Hollified, a criminal defense attorney stood at the podium, arguing a case before the panel. Outside, on a window behind the judge’s bench, Tim McGinty, 41, a contract painter was perched on a hanging ladder.
John Edwards, 32, a civil trial attorney, entered the staircase around 10:00 am that morning. He was due in the court for a later case.
About that same time, Toby Goodman, a lawyer and state representative left the appellate courtroom. He went down the stairs and into the hallway.
Also present in the court room was another lawyer named George Lott who sat in a conservative blue suit with his briefcase at his feet. At the time, Lott was no longer a practicing attorney, although no one in the room realized it. There were several who thought he looked familiar, but that’s the way it is in the legal community. You see the same faces over and over, some friends, many nodding acquaintances. The legal community in Tarrant County is relatively small for a county of more than a million people. The pool of litigators is even smaller, but cordial.
Lott had been at the courthouse just the day before and the only person surprised to see him was the attorney who had represented Lott’s wife in their divorce, Douglas Wright.
As divorces went, Lott’s was exceptionally messy and difficult. Lott’s wife was also an attorney and was fearful of him. His anger and disdain for her, for the entire proceeding bled over into an enmity for her attorney. Wright’s father had been a judge and Lott made derogatory comments about him during the custody trial until Wright objected and Lott was ordered by judge Mary Ellen Hicks to refrain from discussing Wright’s father in front of the jury.
Lott represented himself. He had to because all three of his prior attorneys had resigned, unable to work with him. The jury awarded custody of the child to his mother. Lott was convinced of wrongdoing and collusion on the part of the judge, Wright and his ex-wife. More likely the jury was alarmed by his obvious anger and instability. In typical narcissist fashion, Lott blamed everyone else for this. The problem couldn’t be with him. Clearly, the judge was against him. There was a conspiracy and everyone was in on it. He was robbed of his “right” to his son.
Money wasn’t an object for Lott. He had inherited half a million dollars from his grandparents. He only practiced law from 1981 to 1988 where he voluntarily quit his practice and moved from Fort Worth to an Arlington apartment complex near I-20. It’s unclear what he did with his time. He owned a boat and was seen fishing or just walking around. He listed his occupation as “computer programmer” but does not seem to have been working for anyone.
Lott’s ex-wife moved to Illinois with their son. Lott traveled back and forth to visit the child until new allegations surfaced. The son, whose name I’ve chosen not to use here although it is in public documents, made an outcry of sexual abuse. The allegations– which included sodomizing the child with objects–were investigated. In another trial, Lott lost his visitation rights due to the abuse. An Illinois grand jury indicted him for Aggravated Sexual Assault of a child. That criminal trial was set for July 20 1992.
The week before the Tarrant County attack, Lott sent a threatening letter to prosecutors in Illinois and called the court clerk to complain that evidence was being withheld in his case. He called Bob Ray Sanders, a radio host at KLIF-AM and spoke for about 4 minutes. He rambled on about the courts and how they were all against him and how you couldn’t get justice in Tarrant County. He said “they cost me my life.”
He was a stranger to his neighbors. One neighbor, when interviewed about Lott said, “I’ve seen this guy hundreds of times, and he’s never said a word… He was really, really a strange guy. He was like a zombie. No one around here will have any buddy-buddy stories about him.”
It was after the clock tower chimed 10:00 on July 1, 1992, when Lott got to his feet and removed his Glock 17 9mm from his briefcase and began shooting. Judge Farris dove under the judges bench. Judges Ashworth and Hill were both shot. Ashworth was seriously wounded.
Dan Hollifield fell to the floor and crawled away. Later he said it was “just astounding to look around a see a man standing with his arm out, holding a gun.”
Chris Marshall was fatally wounded with several shots to the chest and Conder was injured. Lott emptied his gun, then he calmly reloaded and continued shooting.
McGinty, the contractor had just climbed down from his ladder perch for a break when bullets zinged through the window right where he had been. If he hadn’t grown thirsty on that hot July day, he would likely have been a sixth victim.
All over the courthouse, the shots echoed. One survivor later remarked that it sounded like fireworks going off inside the building. Next door to the Court of Appeals, Judge Weaver hid in his office restroom. A briefing clerk hid in his closet. Bookkeepers locked their doors. Some hid under desks.
Lott calmly finished shooting. Was he satisfied he had done enough damage to make his point? He went down the stairs where he encountered John Edwards, an attorney for the prestigious firm Haynes and Boones where he specialized in corporate litigation. John had a wife and daughters.
Julie Level, an elections office employee heard John begging for his life and yelling for help. Without speaking, Lott executed John there in the stairwell. He ran down the hall, past Toby Goodman, the attorney who had just finished his court business.
Lott exited the building, got in his van and drove around for a bit. Meanwhile, police swarmed the building. A massive manhunt was underway involving local police, the sheriff’s department, the FBI with helicopters and every means available, but it was unnecessary. Lott wanted to be known for his actions. He was making a statement.
At 4:15 pm, Lott walked into the lobby of WFAA,-TV in Dallas. He signed in with his own name and asked to speak with Tracy Rowlett. For years, Rowlett had been the face of the channel eight evening news. There was always something warm, but professional about Rowlett that made him extremely popular.
Rowlett and an assignments manager interviewed Lott on camera for around thirty minutes. Lott calmly explained what he had done. In his mind, the Second Court of Appeals was wrong to deny him a new trial on his custody case.
“It’s a horrible, horrible thing I did today,” Lott said. “I have sinned and am certainly wrong, but someone needs to look into what happened to me…I basically went in the courtroom and sat for a while and then got up and shot apparently five people…I was shooting at the court, essentially, but other people got in the way or did things. You have to do a horrible, horrible thing to catch people’s attention.”
Lott was a classic narcissist. This was all about him. People just “got in the way.” It didn’t matter that he was destroying lives. Little girls would grow up without their father. Survivors would forever feel vulnerable. Lott had a point to make and that was all that mattered.
“He feels terribly wronged by the justice system,” Jim Owens a prosecutor from Illinois told the Dallas Observer. ”What happened today didn’t surprise any of us. In fact, I think it could have just as easily happened here.”
Lott explained to Rowlett that he had a gun behind his back and more ammo in his sock. He calmly gave those items to Rowlett and surrendered to Dallas police.
Tarrant County had 32 walk-through metal detectors, but they were all in storage. Spurred by courthouse violence that had occurred around the nation, the County Commissioners purchased the items, but never installed them because none of the courts specifically asked for them. One judge claimed she had been told that the personnel necessary to operate those detectors would be too expensive. There were armed bailiffs in the building, but not specifically in each courtroom. The bailiff closest to the attack never responded.
Courtrooms are safer now. You can’t get in without a thorough screening. Each courtroom has multiple armed bailiffs. There are panic buttons strategically placed around each courtroom. Court house staff regularly goes through “active shooter” training. None of those address the elephant in the room: how much damage can be done by one angry man with a gun.
George Lott represented himself at trial. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. He refused to appeal his sentence and was put to death eighteen months later in what remains the speediest execution in modern Texas history.
Mass killings aren’t new.
In 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother with a knife, then he went to the University of Texas and climbed the tower with a rifle. His rampage ended with sixteen dead and thirty-one injured.
Going back even farther, in 1949 Howard Unruh went through Camden, New Jersey in what would come to be known as the “Walk of Death.” Unruh walked through his neighborhood shooting everyone he saw. He murdered thirteen people that day including two children. His youngest victim was just two-years old.
Unruh is the first known mass gun crime in U.S. history, but before Unruh, there was Andrew Kehoe. Kehoe was a treasurer on the school board in Bath, Michigan. He was angry over taxes so May 18th, 1927, Kehoe rigged his farm and out-buildings to explode with his wife inside. He also rigged the school house. He parked outside and detonated the building killing most within, including the children. He then climbed back into his truck and blew up himself killing another six people who were in the blast radius. He killed 45 people and injured another 58.
Although the mass killings aren’t new, they seem to be occurring with greater frequency and with alarmingly large numbers. Gun violence has actually become rarer, but deadlier. While individual gun crimes are growing fewer, mass murder is on the rise.
Gun control sounds like a sensible solution, except how and where do you draw the lines and how do you put back the genie into the bottle? I grew up in rural Texas in a house where guns were a fact of life. My father was in law enforcement and always had guns. My husband and eldest son own guns. Everyone where I live hunts or has guns for protection. Coyotes are a real concern. A neighbor’s game camera recently showed a mountain lion.
Guns are everywhere. I’ve seen estimates ranging between three and four hundred million guns which are privately owned in America. How can we ban something that is everywhere? Every drug case I handle with large amounts of drugs? There are guns in those cars and most of the guns are stolen or already illegal. The bad guys will have guns. The Texas church shooter shouldn’t have been allowed to have a gun. He was already banned but all it took was someone not following through with paperwork and there he was, one angry man with a gun.
I don’t have an answer, but I join the voices of those frustrated by the violence.