The Hunting Grounds, Part Two: Cold Hit

The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in the early to mid 1980s. I strongly recommend you read the first two parts of the narrative, Preview which sets the scene, and Stranger in the Dark which discusses how Brown was first caught.

 

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Sundance Square

 

If you don’t know who the Bass brothers are, then you ain’t from around here. Sundance Square, the thirty-five blocks of restaurants and shopping at the heart of downtown Fort Worth, is their creation. They oversee the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, pumping millions of dollars into the economy, but individually, the brothers have their own interests. Ed Bass is the odd, quirky brother, dedicated to the arts. In the early 80s, he had dreams of a downtown apartment in the heart of an arts district. Such a place didn’t exist, so he created one.

In 1983, Ed Bass founded Caravan of Dreams with Kathelin Hoffman. Named from 1001 Arabian Nights, it was part nightclub, part recording studio, part bar, with living quarters for Ed, staff and artists and a roof top desert garden–but the bread and butter, the life in Caravan of Dreams, was the live jazz nightclub. Terece Gregory, 29, had a love/hate relationship with the place. She worked there periodically as a waitress. She was fired. She was rehired. She was let go again. The club had a reputation as place where sex and drugs could be easily had. The early 80s were a time of excess and Terece enjoyed what life offered. Even after she had been let go by the club, she remained friendly with the staff and often hung out there. She was no wild party girl, though. Friends remember her as tidy and quiet. She was reserved but also social, preferring company to being alone. She liked reading and sewing.

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Caravan of Dreams

Just before the afternoon rush hour on May 29, 1985 a Fort Worth officer responded to an abandoned car call. The car was slightly blocking traffic at 5550 Bridge Street which runs parallel to I-30. He found a white and maroon Pontiac with both right side tires blown and a dent in the front. The car appeared to have struck a curb and come to a stop. He ran the registration, noted that it returned to a Patricia Gregory, and arranged for a tow.

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Terece Gregory

Meanwhile, Patricia Gregory was at the Fort Worth police department filing a missing persons report. She told police that she lived with her daughter who had gone out with her boyfriend, but didn’t come home. This wasn’t like her daughter at all. Terece would have called or come home by now. Shortly after moving to the Metroplex, Terece had become the victim of a sexual assault in Dallas. The man was only given probation and Terece was extremely vigilant when out after dark.

Terece had taken Patricia’s Pontiac in order to have a reliable car. Her own car was aging and she was always very nervous driving alone. Patricia gave police a photo and a description. Terece was 5 foot 10 with green eyes and curly brown hair. A grown woman who didn’t come home after a night partying with her boyfriend didn’t sound like much of a crime. Still, a detective dutifully began calling jails, hospitals, morgue, looking for Terece. Then someone ran the license plate and discovered the tow. The mild concern became real alarm.  To the detective’s trained eye, it looked like Terece had been “curbed”, that is, run off the road until her tires blew out and then kidnapped. She was only six blocks from home.

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Rockwood Golf Course Today

Sadly, the detective’s instinct would prove correct. May 30th, a young man went to his favorite fishing spot during his lunch hour. He often fished the Trinity at lunch, especially near the Rockwood Golf Course, but today, as he readied his equipment, he noticed something floating about 15 feet from shore. It appeared to be the body of a woman face down wearing a dark skirt and blouse with spaghetti straps. He hoped it was a mannequin, of course it wasn’t. It’s never a mannequin. He hooked the skirt with a line and pulled it close enough to determine it really was the body of a woman. Then he called the police.

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Photo Credit: FW Star-Telegram; No photographer listed

This case was originally assigned to Detective J.D. Roberts. The case would remain his until the day he retired. Roberts, who just passed at the age of 89 on February 14, 2018, had a colorful career, but this was one case that frustrated him. Robbery was quickly ruled out. The woman had been dumped still wearing her watch and jewelry. Her cause of death was obvious, a gunshot wound to the face. Roberts was fairly certain he was looking at the corpse of Terece Gregory.

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Police at the scene

He reached out to the two people he most needed to speak with, her mother Patricia and boyfriend, J.D. Bartlett. Roberts showed Patricia the rings and watch and she began to cry. Bartlett agreed to do the identification so Patricia would be spared.

The autopsy confirmed that Terece had been sexually assaulted due to vaginal bruising and the presence of semen. The biological evidence was collected and stored, an act that would later mean everything to the case. Cause of death was a single gunshot wound from a .38 caliber weapon from intermediate range, not point blank, but not far. Her blood alcohol concentration showed her to be moderately intoxicated.

 

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Terece Gregory’s last photo

 

 

Roberts quickly determined that the last person to see Terece alive had been her boyfriend. Did he own a .38? Bartlett confirmed that he did. Terece and Bartlett met than night around six at Caravan of Dreams. They drank and visited with friends. One of Terece’s friends, bartender Michael McCreary, took a photo of her, her last photo. Her earrings and sandals were the only things missing from the night, but they were hook earrings, easily lost in the currents of the Trinity.

Terece and Bartlett left the nightclub and went to Sammy’s for dinner with friends.  One of the people they went with was a piano tuner. At Sammy’s, he spotted someone he knew, famed pianist Van Cliburn. Van Cliburn was interviewed by police and he remembered Terece as quiet an introspective.

It was approximately 2 am when Bartlett took Terece back to the parking lot at Caravan of Dreams where she had left her car. He said he walked her to her car, saw her get into it and pull out from 312 Houston Street. She turned left and he got in his car to drive the other way. Police were deeply suspicious of Bartlett. His criminal history wasn’t spotless and they were certain this case wasn’t related to all the other murders of young women. They even said so to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram repeatedly. Bartlett was asked to submit to a polygraph which he failed. To police, this solidified him as their primary suspect, but when they compared his weapons to the bullet from Terece’s body, it wasn’t a match.

Roberts exhausted every lead he had, but nothing moved the case. The case went dormant, but the one key to solving it was there all along, just waiting for science to catch up with nature. In 2005, CODIS spurred Fort Worth to finally create a cold case unit. The unit was actually a team of one, Detective Manny Reyes who worked out of a glorified closet, patiently sorting through jumbled boxes of cases and notes for cases with possible biological evidence.

The news came in an envelope. The DNA taken from Terece Gregory’s sexual assault kit had a match, a “cold hit.” Reading Curtis Don Brown’s file, several things jumped out. Terece’s car had been found on Bridge Street, just one block from the apartments where Brown’s last victim Jewell Woods lived. Like Jewell, Terece had encountered Brown in one location, but was taken and killed at another place and her body somewhat concealed. The cold hit had come just in time. Brown had been in prison for life, but after 19 years, he had just become eligible for parole. Thankfully, they had new charges filed before he was released.

Flush with the success, Det Reyes reached out to other departments. Based upon the similarities between Terece Gregory’s murder and other unsolved crimes from the same time period, he believed he had just identified a serial predator. He was correct.

One of the detectives he reached out to was Arlington Detective Jim Ford. When it came to submitting cold case profiles, there was one case at the top of Ford’s list, a case that had always haunted him: the murder of 18 year-old Sharyn Kills Back.

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Sharyn Kills Back

Sharyn Kills Back grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, she was the youngest girl of 9 siblings. Life on the reservation wasn’t easy and Sharyn wanted a chance to experience the world. At the age of sixteen, she had a chance to attend the Clearfield Job Corp Center in Utah where minority students could participate in a vocational education program.
At the completion, students were allowed to choose a location: California, Georgia, or Texas. Sharyn’s sister Blanche wanted her to choose California, but Sharyn chose Arlington, Texas. Her family couldn’t understand that choice, but Sharyn had met someone in the program. Barbara Bouknight was coming to Texas, so Sharyn would as well.

Portrayals in the media all describe the women as “roommates” and an episode of Swamp Murders goes so far as to suggest an upstairs neighbor might have been romantically involved with Sharyn. But reading the original reports and statements, everyone was very clear that Barbara and Sharyn were a couple. They were in love and lived openly as lesbians. Barbara and Sharyn were especially good friends with another couple in the same Meadowbrook Apartment complex, Josie and Richard. The two couples socialized frequently and soon Josie and Richard’s friends were also Sharyn and Barbara’s friends.

Sharyn was petite, but feisty. She was extremely outgoing and made friends everywhere. She was also enjoying life in a city, far different from her upbringing. Like many 18 year olds away from home for the first time, she drinking and going out almost every night. Sharyn and Barbara had been working at the Arlington location of Miracle Paint and Body Shop, but Sharyn had some sort of problem there and changed to a different location for the same business.

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Barbara is in the middle and Sharyn stands to her right, laughing.

Sharyn’s mother worried. She enjoyed the letters she got from her daughter, but Sharyn had no car and walked everywhere, including at night. She repeatedly warned her daughter that the city wasn’t safe, this wasn’t South Dakota. Sharyn dismissed her mother’s concerns. She was perfectly safe. Sure, the news was full of stories about women in Fort Worth going missing, but this was Arlington.

Arlington is halfway between Fort Worth and Dallas. It had always been part of a greenbelt between the D and the FW, but in the 80s, the urban sprawl had encroached from both sides and Arlington was rapidly transforming into a formidable city of its own.

March 15, 1985, Sharyn wanted to go out, while Barbara was tired after working all day. Sharyn, always persistent, initially convinced Barbara to go with her. They set off on foot after dark to meet friends while carrying a “boombox” or portable stereo. Think John Cuisack from “Say Anything.” Along the way, they began to quarrel. Barbara decided she’d had enough and announced she was going back to their apartment. Sharyn said she was still going to meet friends.  They parted and Barbara went down about a block along East Park Row. When she turned back, Sharyn was gone. She would never see her girlfriend alive again.

When Sharyn didn’t come home that night, Barbara first thought she was still angry from the argument and must be staying with friends, but a few phone calls on the 16th showed her this wasn’t the case. Police protocol at that time didn’t consider a person missing until 48 hours, so Sharyn wasn’t officially a missing person until the 17th. On the 17th, Barbara filed the missing persons report.

Sharyn’s family was also concerned. They’d just had a letter from her on the 14th that she was coming home for a visit in two weeks, however her uncle had a heart attack. Her sisters had been calling for her repeatedly to let her know and see if she could come home right away. Sharyn had always called right back, but now they only had silence.

 

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The storm drain where Sharyn was found.

March 23rd, Barbara saw a story on the news that chilled her to the core and she immediately called the police. A plumber working on new residence construction on Bandera drive stopped to throw some cardboard boxes into a storm drain, when he saw what looked like a shoulder and arm. He drew close enough to confirm there was a body and backed away to call the police.

 

The body of a young woman had been wedged down into the drain, rolled onto her side as if she were sleeping. It was necessary to remove the nearby manhole cover to retrieve her. Around her neck, a hemp rope had been tightly knotted. There was significant trauma to one side of her head as if she had been beaten and blood had pooled underneath her in the drain. While it was muddy and damp in there, she wasn’t lying in water. She was fully dressed which at first led investigators to believe she hadn’t been sexually assaulted. There was no ID on the woman, but she had several tattoos including the initials SKB on her hand.

 

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Crime Scene sketch

 

Barbara went to the police and identified the body of her girlfriend. She blamed herself. “Maybe she would still be alive today if only I had gone with her that day. I don’t think this guy would have gotten both of us if I were there.”

The injuries to Sharyn’s neck told a grim story. Her killer had knotted the ligature around her neck, yanked her around, leading her like an animal before strangling her with the two foot rope. Although 1985 technology wasn’t able to detect the presence of sperm, samples of everything, including cuttings from Sharyn’s underwear, were taken and preserved in a refrigerated setting.

Immediate suspicion was focused on the men who knew Sharyn, especially her friend Richard and an upstairs neighbor who went by the name Patrick at that time. Patrick was from Africa and had a wife who lived in another city. He was friendly with Sharyn according to Barbara. When police interviewed him, he claimed they had a few sexual encounters, but that was the extent of it. Other friends disputed his claim to have had a sexual relationship with Sharyn, saying she was only interested in lesbian relationships and was not bisexual. Regardless of the truth, that was his story. Police administered several polygraphs, and like Terece Gregory’s boyfriend, JD Bartlett, Patrick failed multiple polygraph exams. Police were extremely suspicious of him, but there was no actual evidence he was related to Sharyn’s murder.

Her family wanted to come to Texas, but were financially unable to afford it. They were forced to watch from South Dakota as the trail gradually went cold. Three years later, Sharyn’s mother passed away due to complications from diabetes. She would never see justice for her daughter. Sharyn’s father would all pass away, leaving her sisters and Barbara to wait and watch. For 19 years they held onto that hope.

In 2005, emboldened by the success in other cities, Arlington set to work on their old cases. Using vastly improved testing techniques, they identified biological material from Sharyn’s vaginal swabs and underwear and soon had a profile of the offender to submit to CODIS. Like Reyes, Jim Ford received an envelop with confirmation of the cold hit. Charges had already been filed on Brown for the murder of Terece Gregory. Ford was eager to add another murder charge for Sharyn, but there was one more step.

CODIS hits aren’t proof that can be used in court. Because they are remote matches, they can only be used as probable cause in order to take DNA. That means police needed to get a search warrant and swab Brown’s cheek for a DNA comparison to confirm the match.

Fort Worth detectives Johnson and Carroll went to see Brown in prison. First they spoke to several inmates familiar with him. Everyone they spoke to indicated Brown wasn’t a popular guy. He masturbated daily while others were around and was always focused on “perverted things.”  He was prone to starting fights. One inmate said Brown talked about killing women. He said Brown told him he was in prison because he met a woman at a bar, raped her and bashed her head in with a rock before dumping her body in the Trinity. He told of other claims Brown had made of killing a nurse with two children and beating a woman to death in Cleburne with a baseball bat. He also claimed to have killed a woman in River Oaks. The details sound like Brown was adding in bits and pieces from crimes he committed but confusing them.

Brown agreed to speak with them. He especially focused on Johnson, a female detective, staring at her breasts in a predatory manner. The detectives asked him about Jewell Woods. Brown said he was with some guys and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wouldn’t admit to killing her, but just kept saying that he pled guilty and they shouldn’t ask him about it. They moved onto Terece Gregory. Brown said that he didn’t know her, but “his memory wasn’t good.”

When police mentioned they had evidence linking him to her murder, he didn’t seem surprised at all. They told him they wanted to speak with him about all the unsolved murders of women in the area from that time. Again, he didn’t seem upset or surprised.  They managed to get him talking about Jewell Woods by showing him offense reports. He pointed out how he gone in through the window and for the first time admitted killing her.

He refused to speak about other cases. “You’re going to kill me,” he explained and added that he wanted to die a “natural death.” He was afraid of the death penalty. He shrugged off mentions about his DNA being found at crime scenes and remarked “DNA isn’t wrong.” He did indicate that he might be willing to cooperate if he was brought back to Fort Worth and taken to the various crime scenes and if the death penalty was off the table. Police probed more to see if he would give him a number of murders, telling him that they thought he was responsible for many more than the three, but he danced around their questions. As the detectives were leaving, he called out to them “What you’re thinking” about their being more murders,  “you’re not wrong,” he said.

Brown pled guilty to the murders of Terece Gregory and Sharyn Kills Back. He received two more life sentences stacked on top of the one he was already serving, guaranteeing he would spend the rest of his life in prison. Terece’s brother was angry at prosecutors for not seeking the death penalty, but Sharyn’s family was relieved not to have to live through a trial. “I wanted to shout out loud” her sister said on hearing the news. “I’m only sad our parents aren’t here to share it.”

curtis-brown-012Offender Profile: Curtis Don Brown, B/M DOB 8/2/58

Known victims:  white and Native American, ages 18, 28, and 51; Survivors: white and Hispanic, ages 29 and 30

MO: blunt force trauma, ligature strangulation, .38 gun, burglary through window, transporting victim to another location, sexual assault, disposing of body in or near water

Locations: Fort Worth/Houston Street, Pearl St., Bridge Street, Trinity River, Rockwood Golf Course; Arlington/East Park Row, Bandera

Timeline: Paroled 1983. Arrested May 29, 1986.

In two weeks, the Hunting Grounds will continue with another possible suspect for the unsolved Fort Worth homicides, Juan Mesa Segundo. The murder of Vanessa Villa, 11 shocked and horrified the community. Who would rape and murder a child in her own bedroom. It was the first murder case Detective Reyes worked and one he wouldn’t solve for decades.

 

The Source Notes:

http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/dfw/obituary.aspx?pid=188601268

https://tcadp.org/2009/01/08/death-penalty-news-texas-279/

http://justicefornativewomen.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-murder-of-sharyn-killsback-victim.html#!/2016/04/the-murder-of-sharyn-killsback-victim.html

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.B/b/brown-curtis-don.htm

Additional information can be obtained from Star-Telegram archives at the Fort Worth Public Library and through Open Records requests for primary sources.

SWAMP MURDERS: I almost didn’t include this in my sources because there are so many errors. First, Sharyn wasn’t found anywhere near a swamp. She wasn’t in water. It was a street and a storm drain. Second, I have an issue with the way they “scrub” her identity. The portrayal of her and of Barbara and of their relationship is extremely inaccurate and unfair to the women. Ultimately, I did include it because of the footage of Sharyn’s sisters talking about their memories of her.  It’s a PPV on YouTube.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Garden of Angels: The Murder of Amy Robinson

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.

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Nineteen year old Amy Robinson had dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, but that hope was far away. She was doing well learning to live on her own and hold a job. Amy had been born with Turner’s syndrome, a chromosomal disorder which inhibits physical and mental growth. She was extremely petite, only four feet five inches and she had the mental capacity of a 14 year old. But she was learning how to live on her own and every day she rode her bicycle to her job sacking groceries for Kroger in Arlington, Texas. Amy was sweet and trusting. She was very social and didn’t like to be alone and had no reason to be suspicious when two of her co-workers stopped to offer her a ride on her way to work one day.

Robert Neville, Jr. and Michael Hall had both been fired by Kroger, but Amy didn’t know that. Two hours after she was supposed to be at work, her supervisor called to say Amy had never arrived. Alarmed, her family called police immediately. Police spoke with current and former co-workers. Neville admitted knowing her and even meeting her socially, but he denied having seen her in months.

Neville was someone Amy would never have trusted if only she’d known his background. He had prior convictions for burglary and had only been out of prison for 8 months. As a juvenile, he had been prosecuted for molesting younger children including an 11 year old girl, a 9 year old boy, and a 7 year old boy. He also had a history of abusing animals. When Neville was 14, he threw kittens off a roof. Two years later he tied a cat to a tree by its tail and repeatedly hit the cat with a pole. He had been fired for ridiculing a mentally challenged co-worker and had refused to sack groceries for minority shoppers. He had a fascination with white supremacy. That was the tie that bound Neville and Hall together.

Hall also didn’t like people of color. He was a follower, not a leader, and he was happy to let Neville take the lead. As they were drinking at a house belonging to Neville’s grandmother, Neville mentioned how he would like to go “just go out and kill somebody.” Hall suggested they purchase guns. They bought a pair of .22 caliber rifles and practiced shooting. They formed a plan to be serial killers and selected their first victim, a mentally impaired black man whom they worked with. Neville would later claim in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram interview that they had “a bet to see who could shoot and kill the most people between the two of us.” They particularly wanted to kill “blacks or Mexicans—anybody as long as they weren’t our color.”

On February 15, 1998, the duo made a decision. Upon checking the work schedules, they learned the black coworker wasn’t going to be at work that day, but Amy would be and she was part Native American. They found her riding her bike to work and offered her a ride which she accepted. These weren’t strangers to her and she didn’t know they had been fired. They promised her that they were going to take a ride and then they would drop her off. Instead of taking her to work, they drove her to a field in the Northeast corner of Tarrant County, an isolated place tucked off a rough, pitted road. Amy worried she would be late for work.

Neville stopped at the field, pretending to have a flat tire. Neville and Hall took their weapons out into the field while Amy sat in the car listening to the radio until Hall came back. He convinced her that she needed to go talk to Neville, that he was waiting for her over by a tree. Neville was waiting for Amy, and he was armed with a crossbow. He shot at her several times, grazing her hair with an arrow. She fled for the car but Hall shot her with a pellet gun in the leg. She cried from the pain as he began peppering her with pellets. Neville then brought up the .22 caliber rifle. They took turns shooting Amy. Neville shot her in the chest with the rifle and Hall shot her in the chest multiple times with the pellet gun.

She went to the ground, shaking and crying, then she called Neville by name. It was the last thing Amy would ever say. The pair became worried someone would overhear them so Neville shot Amy in the head to finish her. They had maneuvered her back into the field where she wouldn’t be readily visible from the road. They abandoned her body and left her bicycle with her.

Meanwhile, Amy’s family and friends were frantically looking for her. Her face stayed on the nightly news. It occurred to Hall and Neville that they might have missed a chance to rob Amy, so they went back to her body and took the small amount of cash from her pocket. They then used her body for target practice.

As so many narcissists do, Hall just had to brag about what they had done. He told his step-brother who went to the Arlington police. As police focused on Neville and Hall, they made for the border, but were arrested in Eagle Pass trying to cross into Mexico on March 3rd. Once detained, both men spent a lot of time boasting to reporters and investigators. They openly laughed about torturing Amy. Hall went so far as to imitate the sounds she was make and act out his shooting of her. He described how she begged to live, but died with Robert Neville’s name on her lips.

The interviews would come back to haunt them. Both men claimed diminished mental capacity as a defense, but the juries saw the videos of them laughing it up about torturing and killing Amy. The described her as “easy prey” and talked about how they wanted to be serial killers. Hall specifically mentioned that they chose Amy “because I didn’t have to put bruises on her to get her in the car.”  He bragged about being the one to convince Amy that she was safe with them and even getting her to leave the car and walk over to Neville. He said she might have gotten away if he hadn’t been there to help Neville.  Asked if he had any remorse, on the Fox 4 video that was played, he laughed and said “I wouldn’t want to be her. She had to take a lot of pain.”  The juries sentenced both men to death.

Amy’s grandmother, Carolyn Barker wasn’t satisfied. For her, the media was too focused on the perpetrators and not on the victim. It seemed to her that Hall and Neville wanted to be famous. Every time the murder was covered, she had to look at their faces, hear their words, listen to everyone talk about their upbringings and mental status. What about Amy? Amy was the one who should be remembered.

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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/.

 

 

 

SOURCE NOTES:

http://ourgardenofangels.org/

http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/neville1011.htm

Neville’s Appeals: Neville v. Dretke, Not Reported in F.Supp.2d, 2004 WL 2049335 (N.D. Tex. 2004) (Habeas)
Neville v. Dretke, 423 F.3d 474 (5th Cir. 2005) (Habeas)

http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-5th-circuit/1209854.html

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.N/n1/neville-robert-james.htm

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)

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.H/images/h/hall_michael_wayne/06-70041-CV.pdf

http://www.murderpedia.org/male.H/h1/hall-michael-wayne.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preacher Man: The Sins of Tommy Ray Kneeland

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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 Porter

Tommy 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.

Nancy Mitchell
Nancy Mitchell, Credit: Odessa American

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.

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Kermit, Texas circa 1970s. The “red I” to the right side is the pharmacy.

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.

Ford Fairlaine.png

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.

bridge
Credit: Lee Switzer. Arlington-Bedford Road Bridge, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu;

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 Davis, but Kneeland never confessed to the crime and was never charged. The best break down of the Carla Davis 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 Davis 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.

arraigned
Kneeland being arraigned before a Kermit Justice of the Peace. Photo credit: The Odessa American, 11 May 1974, Staff photo by Eugene Porter

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.

 

Stiles
Stiles Unit, Jefferson County Texas

 

 

Sources Notes:

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 in valuable 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.

 

Buried Alive: The Lisa Rene Story

The 911 call came in just after 8 pm on September 24, 1994.  “There are three men trying to get in. They say they’re with the FBI. I think they have the wrong house.”

Sixteen year-old Lisa Rene was home alone. The straight A student had come from the Virgin Islands to live in Arlington, Texas with her older sister Pearl. Lisa wanted to be a doctor and so she was spending the night studying for finals.

Lisa’s brothers were also temporarily living with her and Pearl. Neil Nick Rene and Stanfield Vitalis had been arrested for dealing drugs and evicted from their apartment. The brothers insisted that it wasn’t true. It was a misunderstanding. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They had trusted the wrong people.

Actually, Nick and Stanfield were the wrong people and they had run afoul of even worse people.

{left to right: Neil Nick Rene and Stanfield Vitalis}

 

 

If you were buying pot in Pine Bluff, Arkansas back in the early 1990’s, odds are you were doing business with one of three men: Bruce Webster, Orlando Hall, or Marvin Holloway. The three imported their weed from the DFW with the help of Steven Beckley. Beckley lived in Irving and was acquainted with Nick and Stanfield.

Typically, Beckley would purchase large quantities of the weed and transport it to Arkansas where it would be stored in Marvin Holloway’s house. Beckley introduced Hall to Nick and Stanfield as two local dealers who could get him what he wanted. Hall paid the brothers $4,700 to score 9,000 pounds of pot for them.

The brothers missed their delivery date. Hall tracked them down by phone and the brothers claimed to have been robbed. They said they had been car jacked and the people took the money and the brothers car. Suspicious, Hall and Beckley tracked the brothers to the Arlington apartment they shared with their sisters. They saw the brothers were still driving the car they claimed to have been stolen. Beckley and Hall then knew they had been double-crossed. They called Webster who flew to DFW.

On the night of the 24th, they went to get there revenge. Hall, his younger brother Demetrious, and Webster, and Beckley drove a gold Cadillac belonging to the Halls’ elder sister. They went armed with guns, a baseball bat, duct tape, and gasoline. The plan was to pour gasoline on the brothers and force them to return the money or they would be set on fire.

Webster and Demetrious Hall went to the front door. They beat on the door claiming to be FBI, but there was no answer. They went around to the back and that’s when they saw Lisa.

Lisa panicked when the men were beating on the door. She called her sister. Pearl told her she was on her way, but instructed Lisa to call 911. On the 911 call, you can hear the men in the background, beating on the door. Lisa tried to describe what she could see and told the operator, “They’re trying to break down my door. Hurry up.”

On the recording, there is the sound of breaking glass as Demetrious broke in the through the sliding door. Lisa screams and you can hear a man say, “Who you on the phone with?”

The phone disconnected. The police arrived before Pearl.  The FBI were immediately alerted. At the time, it wasn’t known they would end up with jurisdiction, but because the men claimed to be FBI, they were contacted. FBI knew there was no involvement on their part because the men were all African American and at the time, there was only one African American agent in the district. Because he was called, he responded to the scene and remained as the lead on the case.

The brothers had gone to Houston for a concert. Upon learning of the drug dealing allegations, police wanted to speak with them immediately. Pearl gave them the Stanfield’s cell number. Over the phone, the brothers denied being involved with drugs or having anyone who might be after them. A neighbor had reported a gold Cadillac being parked outside the apartment, so police asked the brothers if they knew anyone with a car like that. Again, the brothers denied knowing anything.

Later that same night, the brothers called the police back. They claimed that after driving back from Houston, they just happened to go to Irving instead of going home and just happened to drive around and just happened to see a gold Cadillac exactly like the one described outside their house. They gave police an address.

Police went and knocked on the door. A woman answered and allowed police to look around. It was Demetrious and Orlando Hall’s sister. She told them she didn’t know anything about a kidnapping and that the Cadillac was hers. Her husband told police that he was suspicious one of her brothers might have taken it out because they had attended a barbecue there just a day before and could easily have taken one of the spare keys. They had just arrived home after being out that night.  They wouldn’t know if it had been moved. Police took a look around, but didn’t have a search warrant. They couldn’t do the sort of thorough search they would have liked.

One officer noted a bat in a child’s bedroom. The little boy sat up and was reassured that everything was okay. Another officer peeked up into the attic area. It was dark and he looked around with his flashlight but didn’t see anything.

The police ran the criminal histories of the Hall brothers and learned they had drug arrests and lived in El Dorado, Arkansas, near Pine Bluff. When they called Arkansas, local police knew all about the Hall brothers. They were big trouble. Orlando had a warrant out for violating his parole.

Nick and Stanfield finally broke down and told police about their drug buy gone wrong. They never had any intention of returning with the marijuana and had used the cash to pay for their current legal troubles. They denied knowing who the men were, but did give up Steven Beckley. Investigators were focusing in on their suspects. Demetrious Hall was found at his father’s house and Steven Beckley was found at a friend’s house. Both men were arrested, but neither one was talking–at first.

Gradually Beckley began to speak, offering bits of information at a time,  and a horrifying story emerged. The men had dragged the terrified 16 year old out of the apartment and forced her into the car at gunpoint. As they sped down the road, they passed police responding to the call. Lisa was on the floorboard. They drove to the Irving location and changed from the borrowed Cadillac to Beckley’s car. They drove around looking for a spot to hide out for a while. During this time, Orlando Hall forced Lisa to perform oral sex on him.

They changed their mind about staying in Arlington, so they dropped Hall back at his sister’s house. He hid in the attic while police searched the location. Webster, Beckley, and Demetrious drove back to Pine Bluff. They took turns raping Lisa. Once in Pine Bluff, they rented a motel room, tied her to a chair, and again took turns raping her. Hall flew in the next day to join them. They put Lisa in the bathroom to keep her out of sight and kept a hood over her head.

Beckley told the police that was the last place he had seen Lisa and that she was probably still at the motel with “B-Love”. Hopeful of still finding Lisa alive, the police and FBI moved in on the Arkansas motel, only to find no one there. Lisa had now been gone for four days. The manager remembered the men and remembered they had a girl with them. She heard “B-Love” instruct the others to “get the bitch back in the car” when Lisa tried to get out. The manager didn’t call police at the time. It wasn’t that kind of motel. Instead, she asked the security guard to check them out. The guard knocked on the door. When it was opened, he didn’t see a woman or anything unusual and had no reason to do anything but leave. He was, however, able to confirm that “B-Love” was Bruce Webster and he had been at the motel with the Hall brothers. He also gave a description of Webster’s car.

Although the room had been cleaned, investigators found Lisa’s finger and palm prints behind the toilet in the bathroom where she had been kept.

Beckley hadn’t been honest with the officers. The men had decided the security guard was too nosy and moved to another motel. Demetrious stayed behind to clean up. Orlando Hall decided Lisa knew too much and they were done with her anyway. On the morning of September 26th, Webster and Hall went to Byrd Lake Park and dug a grave.

It was dark when they returned with Lisa and the idiots couldn’t find the grave, so they took the poor girl back to the motel. The next day Orlando Hall, Bruce Webster, and Stephen Beckley took Lisa back to the park. They again put a hood over her head and took her to the grave site, guiding her by her shoulders. They positioned her with her back to the grave and threw a sheet over her. Then Hall hit her over the head with a shovel.

Lisa screamed and ran. Beckley caught her and tackled her. He hit her in the head with the shovel once, before handing it back to Hall. Hall and Webster took turns hitting her in the head with the shovel. They left marks against one of the trees from their swings. She was gagged, dragged back to the grave, stripped, and doused in gasoline. The autopsy would show that she was still alive when they buried her.

Investigators had tracked the Webster and Hall to the second motel after finding the first one abandoned. When Webster drove up to the motel, he was arrested. Police found guns and marijuana, but no Lisa. Hall later surrendered, and the rest of the story unraveled. They were too late. Webster agreed to take them to Lisa’s grave.

On October 3rd, Lisa’s body was recovered. She had defensive wounds to her hands from trying to shield her head and deep lacerations from where the shovel had struck her, but the cause of death was suffocation. She had been buried alive.

 

Byrd Lake beauty.png
Byrd Lake

 

Because the kidnapping happened in Arlington, Texas and the murder happened in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the U.S. Attorney’s Office picked up the charges against the men.

Demetrius Hall pled guilty to kidnapping and provided evidence against his brother and Webster. He received 25 years in federal prison.

Steven Beckley also pled guilty to kidnapping and received 30 years in prison. He testified against the others.

Marvin Holloway, who had assisted in the planning and provided the funding received 15 years for his role. He is no longer in prison.

Orlando Hall was tried and sentenced to death. He was the first person to be sentenced under the new Federal Death Penalty. He still sits on death row.

Bruce Webster was also sentenced to death. He has continually appealed his case claiming to be intellectually disabled with a low IQ. He likewise still sits on death row. The Federal Government hasn’t executed anyone since 2003. For those interested in the process, I’ve included links to the appeals in Source Notes. I think this appeal highlights the problems with correlating IQ testing to intellectual disability. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s law which set an IQ of 70 as an absolute dividing line. In the opinion, the Court noted that there is a margin of error and it’s more appropriate to look at other factors to determine if someone fully appreciates the consequences of their actions. IQ tests are geared more towards testing academic functioning.

Webster’s mental capacity was a highly contested issue in his trial. The defense pointed to Webster’s Social Security status. That’s right. He had filed for–and received–disability payments while running a vicious drug ring. The prosecution presented witnesses to talk about his adaptive ability, noting how he was reading up on law and taking notes in preparation for his case.

I’m conflicted about the death penalty. I have never tried a case where the death penalty was on the table and I’m not sure how I would feel if I were asked to do so. It’s irrevocable. I have never walked into court with a case I didn’t believe in with all my heart, but errors can be made. We know this. Then there are cases like this.  Cases like this are why we have the death penalty. If these monsters don’t deserve to die, who does? It’s time for the federal government to begin executions again.

As for Lisa’s brothers, little has changed. They were sent to prison for a very small sentence, just five years, perhaps out of respect for the tragedy the family had suffered, but they learned nothing and have been in and out of prison. Neil Nick Rene was convicted for leading a massive drug trafficking ring funneling drugs from the Virgin Islands to the DFW area. He received 12 and a half years for his role.

No victim ever deserves to be murdered, but Arlington Detective John Stanton would call Lisa Rene “probably the most innocent victim” whose case he ever worked. Lisa’s fate is a reminder that we cannot truly render justice. We can punish. We can remove killers from society to protect future victims. But we cannot make whole. We can’t fix the damage already done.

At Orlando Hall’s sentencing, Pearl Rene was interviewed by reporters. “I thought I would feel better, but I really don’t. The only thing that would feel better is if Lisa was here today. And she’s not coming back.”

 

Pearl
Pearl Rene

 

Source Notes:

The Heat Mag: Remembering Lisa Rene

Neil Nick Rene’s Federal Charges

His sentence

Dallas News

Bruce Webster’s appeal

My Life of Crime Blog

Orlando Hall’s first appeal and second appeal

The FBI Files: The Search for Lisa Rene,  also on YouTube. I highly recommend it. There are interviews with the investigators.
 

No Safe Place: The Kidnapping of Opal Jo Jennings

When I was a child living in a small, rural Texas town, the rule was be home by dark. Summers were long and hot. We ran around with the other children in the area, fishing in the creek and playing in yards up until the fireflies came out. They were our cue to hightail it home and eat dinner. I remember the kidnapping of Etan Patz. In 1979, six-year-old Etan vanished while walking the short distance to his school bus stop. The news was shocking, but after all, he was in Manhattan, a world away from our tiny town. Still, parents watched us as we waited for the school bus in the mornings.

October 1, 1993, we were rocked again by the kidnapping of Polly Klaas, taken from her own home during a slumber party. I was a law student at the time and followed the case closely. It was a parent’s worst nightmare, but that was California for you and we all knew nothing like that could happen here. But we did start locking our doors.

Amber Hagerman was much closer to home. She was snatched off her bike in Arlington, Texas in 1996. By that time I was a prosecutor toying with the idea of parenthood. Amber may have been in Texas, but she was in Arlington which was turning into a large city and she was riding through a grocery store parking lot. Parents kept their kids closer to home after that. No more riding bikes away from the house.

March 26, 1999, six-year-old Opal Jo Jennings was playing next to her grandparents’ house with her two-year-old cousin Austin and a four year old friend, Spencer. She was wearing her pink Barbie shoes. Pictures show a child with sparkling blue eyes, thick, dark hair, freckles, and a ready grin. As the children played outside, a man drove up in what Spencer would remember as a “purpledy-black” car. The man had a pony tail, facial blemishes, and wore a red baseball cap. He said “hi” and got out of the car. Without warning, he grabbed up Opal, punched her hard in the chest, threw her in the car and drove off. Spencer ran inside and immediately told the family. An Amber alert was issued.

Opal was originally from Arkansas, but she and her mother had been living with her grandparents in Saginaw at the time. Saginaw is a small North Texas community, around 10 miles north of Fort Worth, best known for its Train and Grain Festival. Three railroads converged in the agricultural community. At the time of Opal’s disappearance, there were around 10,000 residents. Saginaw wasn’t anything like the big city. This sort of thing didn’t just happen in Saginaw. If there was a crime, well, it was surely just the proximity to Fort Worth. Saginaw was a safe place.

saginaw

16 law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were involved in the search. Information flooded so the authorities began the daunting task of sorting through more than 2,500 tips. Volunteers were assembled to search the fields, but for months, there was nothing. Opal remained missing.

One of those many tips came from a Wise County probation officer. It was the break investigators had been praying for.

Richard “Ricky” Lee Franks was convicted in 1991 for molesting his brother’s 8-year-old daughter and had admitted sexually abusing another young female relative. Franks struggled with completing his seven year probation and it had to be extended. As part of the probation, he was evaluated for mental health. He was found to have a low IQ. The report by psychologist Darrell Horton classified Franks as “a pedophile with mild mental retardation.” He also wrote that Franks reported having sex with little girls on multiple occasions, but that sometimes he fantasized about his urges instead of acting on them.

Franks

On April 1, Franks’ probation officer noticed a change in him. This was Franks’ first meeting after the Opal Jo Jennings kidnapping. Franks showed up for the meeting with his ponytail cut off. His hair was now short. He was clean shaven. The probation officer remembered Franks previously wearing a red ball cap all the time. He never saw him with it again. He also knew that Franks drove a car similar to what was being described in the media. He called in a tip to the police line.

Weeks later, police got to that tip. When they arrived to meet with Franks, they noticed he drove a black Cougar, a glossy car that might be considered “purpledy-black” by a young child. They also learned that Franks’ brother had lived on the same street as Opal’s grandparents. Franks was familiar with the neighborhood. He had visited his brother not a hundred feet from the place Opal was taken. His brother moved in December 1998. It’s possible Franks had seen Opal and other children playing at the location.

A promising lead to be sure, but police didn’t have enough yet for an arrest warrant; However, Franks had a traffic warrant. Police picked him for that on August 17, 1999 around 8:30 pm. Instead of being taken to the police station, he was taken to the special crimes section of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office where he was met by Danny McCormick, an investigator with TCCDA who told him he would like to talk about the disappearance of Opal Jo Jennings. Franks agreed with everything they asked. He agreed to his car being searched and he agreed to a polygraph. He also waived his 5th amendment rights and agreed to talk with the investigators.

McCormick waited for the polygraph examiner, Eric Holden to arrive. This wasn’t wasted time. Although he didn’t question Franks during this time, McCormick was building a report with him. Holden arrived around 10:30 pm and it was show time. Before administering a polygraph, the examiner must first determine if the subject is voluntarily agreeing and if they are capable of taking the polygraph. They cannot be medicated or intoxicated. They can’t be suffering under a severe mental defect. The polygraph examiner needs to set a base line by asking questions with known answers. They need to be briefed about the case so they can formulate a few simple questions. The phrasing of these questions is key. Polygraphs are subjective and can be fooled if the subject is a sociopath who is skilled at deception, but also if the question is poorly worded.

By 2:00 am, Holden was ready to start the test. Half an hour later, it was concluded. The tested indicated deception by Franks. Holden and McCormick informed Franks of this and asked him to explain his story in more detail. Franks started talking. He talked for two and a half hours until he said he was tired. At that time, not all interrogations were recorded. Holden showed Franks five pages of notes he had taken and Franks wrote on the pages that this was correct. McCormick then typed up Franks’ statement. He was read it aloud and then read it to himself. They went over the confession step by step. Once satisfied, Franks signed it.

Franks was taken before a judge. On the way, he began having second thoughts and told officials that “words were put in his mouth and he hadn’t done the things contained in the statement.” McCormick asked Franks if the things Franks had told him to put in the statement were true and Franks then admitted that they were. While waiting outside the magistrate’s room, Franks again began recanting his confession, then he recanted the recantation.

I’m going to include the entire confession and let you read it for yourself. Warning: It is graphic and disturbing.

On March 26, 1999, I went to Saginaw Texas to see my brother, [Danny], when I saw Opel [sic] Jennings and two other kids (a boy and a girl) playing in a field beside a house. This was about 4:00PM in the afternoon or a little later. I was driving a Ford Cougar, and was by myself. I went by Danny’s house, saw the girls and a boy outside playing in the field.   I stopped to talk to them and Opel [sic] said, “where are you going?” I was in the car and Opel [sic] was talking to me through the fence, she asked where I was going, and I told her that I was going to see if my brother was home so I could go visit with him. I told Opel [sic], “If he’s not there, I’m going home.” She said, “they might be at work,” and I then asked her how she was doing and she said she was doing good in school. She said that she was getting good grades. She came up to the car on the driver’s side, the driver’s door was open, she came up to the door, gave me a hug, and shook my hand. I asked her if she was passing and she said “I hope so.” I then told her that if she was doing good in school, then she would. I said, “I hope you pass.” The other kids wanted her to hurry up so she could play with them. I said, “you need to get back and finish playing what you‘all are playing.” They were playing some kind of ball.

She reached in the car, I thought she was going to try and grab me, I didn’t know what she was going to try to do, so I pushed her back and said, “what are you trying to do, I’m not the one to be doing it with.” I didn’t want to do nothing that would get me in trouble, she was just a kid.   I don’t see myself doing nothing like that. I was afraid she was going to make a pass at me or get me to take her somewhere. She was wanting me to take her to the store, she went around the front of the car to get in the passenger side. I was afraid she wanted me to take her to have sex with her or something. I took her to the store, she got in the passenger side, the other two kids were outside playing. I told her I was going to bring her back so she could finish playing with the other two kids. I took her to the convenience store a block from the house, I sat in the car, and she got something to drink.

She bought a coke, then she came back to the car, she said “thank you for bringing me up here,” but I said, “I won’t do it again.” Opel [sic] tried to move over toward me, I didn’t know what she tried to do. She tried to grab me between the legs, she grabbed my dick.   She wanted me to fuck her, I told her no. She said “fuck me.” She tried to take her pants off, I told her “no.” She asked me why and I said “because I don’t do that.” She asked me why and I said, “because you’re too young and I could get in trouble for it.”

“She unzipped my pants, took my dick out, she had it in her hand, she went down like she was going to go down on it.” I pushed her back, I put my dick back in my pants. She was sitting beside me, when she went to bend over I pushed her back. I said “I’m not going to have sex with someone younger than I am.” I told her that she needed to get out of the car, this happened on the way back from the store. I took her to her house, and left her off the same place where I talked to her at. I don’t know if she went in the house or not.   I just wanted to get away from her. When I dropped her off, she gave me a hug, and I left, the other two kids were in the field playing.

Clearly this confession is problematic in many ways that makes me believe this is indeed Franks version of events and not one someone told him to say. The conversation he recounts between himself and the six-year-old child, talking over her worries about passing classes is ridiculous. The language and sexual activities he ascribes to her are likewise ridiculous. They are the fantasies that could only be imagined by someone who considers children sexually available. In my career, I’ve ready many statements and listened to many recorded confessions of child predators and this statement is sadly typical. Pedophiles describe children in adult terms. They talk about how the child wanted it, how the child was the initiator and how they, the adult, are simply a victim of this child who preyed upon their desires. The confessions frequently aren’t so much a confession—notice Franks doesn’t actually admit doing anything wrong—as they are a justification for the perpetrator’s action. He feels the need to account for Opal being seen with him, for her being in his car, without admitting to doing bad.

Because Opal’s body hadn’t been found, Franks was charged with her kidnapping. Frank’s brother, Rodney, went to see Opal’s grandmother and apologize for his brother. As he tearfully told the newspapers, “If my brother done this, I wanted to come and be with this family.”

At trial, Franks’ attorneys pointed to the lack of forensic evidence. Their stumbling block was that explicit and ridiculous ‘confession.’ They argued it was false and made much of Franks’ low IQ. Prosecutors brought numerous witnesses to rebut this. They showed Franks had graduated high school, married, and successfully held several jobs. They called Franks’ previous employer to the stand to talk about how he worked at the fried chicken joint taking orders and making change without needing a calculator. At the time of the offense, he was working as a motorcycle mechanic. Prosecutors also called Holden, the polygrapher to the stand. Holden described how he offered Franks a false scenario to see if he would agree to anything. Holden said Franks angrily disputed that scenario, objecting that he hadn’t done those things at all and again describing what he said he had done.

In jail while awaiting trial, Franks apparently liked to talk. Two different jailers and an inmate all testified about conversations with Franks here he told them his story about taking Opal to the store and dropping her off.

Another prisoner testified that Franks told him that he drove past the crime scene with his wife after the abduction—just to see how close the house was—and he thought that was why police had targeted him. This same inmate also testified that Franks later said he had stalked Opal for a year and went over “to get satisfied” by which the inmate assumed Franks meant to have sex with the child. Franks said he had to “take care of her” when the child wouldn’t stop screaming. This last inmate received a plea deal in exchange for his testimony and I find his story not particularly credible. It doesn’t match the story he told everyone else.

Ultimately, the jury convicted Franks and sentenced him to life in prison.

December 30, 2003, horseback riders found a skull just 10 miles from where Opal was abducted. DNA testing confirmed it belonged to Opal Jo Jennings. The cause of death was determined to be a blow to the head. A new search was launched. Searchers found more bone fragments and the remains Opal’s pink Barbie sneakers. For family members it was both painful and a relief. They could finally lay her their child to rest.

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I was a young mother when Opal was taken. By that time, we finally understood that there are monsters in the world, walking with us, driving down our streets. These monsters can look like our neighbors, like police officers, like doctors, like anyone really. We could lock our doors, keep our children close, teach them about strangers, but there was no such thing as a place they couldn’t be touched. My children were raised knowing there was no safe place in the world. I mourn the loss of those innocent lives that taught us this hard lesson.

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