Case Updates

It’s hard to believe the blog is over a year old now. A big thank you to everyone who has read and commented. I have some new features in the works including a Patreon. The Patreon won’t go live until there is enough content ready for it to be worth something. I would like to help defray the costs of the blog, but I feel I should have more to offer before I do. This blog, however, will always remain free.

As time passes, some of the cases need updates, because these stories are never really done.

Johnson at trial
Johnson at trial, Photo courtesy of WFAA trial coverage

The very first case I covered was Ripples in a Pond about the White Rock Lake machete murder. October 12, 2015, Thomas Johnson brutally murdered runner Dave Stevens. Due to his schizophrenia, Johnson was found incompetent to stand trial. Incompetence is different than insanity. Competency relates to the current ability of an accused to understand the charges against him and assist in his own defense. Because his mental illness had its hooks in so deep, Johnson didn’t regain competency for some time, but he was finally declared competent in 2018. He went to trial this March, entering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.


Insanity relates to the mental status of a defendant at the time he committed the offense. Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Chapter 46C  and Penal Code Chapter 8 cover Insanity as a defense. To use this special plea, the defendant must admit having committed the offense, but must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that at the time of  the crime, as a result of severe mental disease or defect, the accused did not know that his conduct was wrong.

It was undisputed that Johnson committed the crime and that he suffered from a severe mental disease–but  did he know that his conduct was wrong? The prosecution offered evidence that Johnson immediately went to call 911 and told them he had committed capital murder. The defense did not call any witnesses. They were hampered by Johnson’s decision on to testify and his own decision during trial that he would not agree that he was insane. It only took the jury a half hour to convict him. He was sentenced to life.

FatherWith tears in his eyes, Johnson’s own father told WFAA, Channel 8 news that it was the best result. His son had resisted all attempts to help him and refused his medication when allowed to be free. The only choice, for his safety and everyone else’s, was to “keep him away from other people.”


Lisa and Jayden
Lisa Underwood and Jayden

When I covered the Stephen Barbee case, he had just exhausted his appeals after receiving a death sentence for murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend and her son who was only seven. For more details, see Bad Decisions. Barbee now has a date with the execution chamber, October 2, 2019. The only thing which would change that is a stay of execution which is not likely. His conviction was after the advent of the modern DNA era. Everything was thoroughly tested, he confessed, and he led police to the bodies. There have not been any suggestions he suffers from a mental defect of disease. I do not expect to see a stay of execution.


ReneBuried Alive remains one of the most heart-breaking stories I have covered. I remember when it happened. I was a young prosecutor and the brutality of Lisa Rene’s murder shocked me. It still shocks me. Three of the men who kidnapped, raped, and kill Lisa made plea deals to testify against the two men who were sentenced to death: Orlando Hall and Bruce Webster. At trial, Webster’s  attorney offered evidence that Webster had a terrible childhood filled with abuse and that he was mentally challenged.  Webster’s appellate attorneys uncovered new evidence that convinced the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals  to vacate the death sentence and remand the case for a new sentencing.  Prosecutors are still deciding how to handle this ruling.

Jalisco State Attorney General's OfficeIn the future I will update Wrecked, story of the “Affluenza Teen.” At this point, it’s still on-going. His mother, Tonya Couch is scheduled for trial this fall on charges she knowingly hindered his apprehension by taking him to Mexico before he could be arrested for violating his probation. I’m going to wait until after her trial for that update.


I’m going to take a break from the Hunting Grounds series for a couple weeks before returning to it. Instead I’m delving into a case that combines two of my favorite subjects: high school football, and true crime: the robbery spree that saw members of Dallas Carter’s state winning football team go forward not to college greatness, but to prison.


Execution Date Set For Fort Worth Man Stephen Barbee Who Killed Pregnant Ex-Girlfriend, Her 7-Year-Old Son






Slayer’s Book of Death: Diary of Wannabe Serial Killer


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.

Jason Eric Massey

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.

Brian King and Christina Benjamin


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.


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.


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.


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





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)

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)

Click to access 06-70041-CV.pdf







Something’s Not Right: A Review

From their Website:

Something’s Not Right was born in early 2017, when Thashana and Olivia started discussing the possibility of doing a long form podcast to explore a mysterious death. Finding information on that case proved more daunting than they thought, so they decided to set it aside and begin telling other stories.

The podcast premiered on March 6, 2017, and featured the story of the unsolved 1967 murder of 12-year-old Nashvillian, Kathy Jones. Thashana and Olivia were both able to quickly find information on a lot of murders both solved and unsolved in Nashville and other cities in Tennessee, but they knew that wouldn’t be the only topic they would cover.

Something’s Not Right has a heavy focus on true crime, but the show features other stories that are in some way strange, disturbing, or creepy. While the hosts favor stories in their home state of Tennessee, they are also branching out to tell listeners stories from other locations as well.

My Take: This podcast is firmly in the crime-comedy category with bantering hosts telling stories about true crime and ghosts. They also have “Little Somethings” which are minisodes where they answer fan questions about everything from movies to the paranormal. The hosts, Olivia Lind and Thashana McQuiston are a large part of the charm. Lind plays straight man to McQuiston’s comic foil, a part McQuiston is suited for with her husky, Southern twang.

Make no mistake, these ladies are performers and I’m not gonna lie, they make me laugh at inappropriate things on a regular basis. The show is very much in the vein of My Favorite Murder or Wine and Crime. There is a lot of profanity, so if the F-bomb bothers you, this is not the podcast for you. Their catch phrase is “Boners happen.” You were warned.

The production quality is decent. Sometimes McQuiston is participating over the phone and you can tell by the hollow sound. Fortunately, they don’t suffer a loss of chemistry, and remain audible even when not in the same room.

I’ve developed a fondness for regional crime podcasts. Too many of the national podcasts tend to tread the same soil. While I love a good serial killer discussion,  some variety is a welcome change.  Being based in Tennessee, the hosts are covering crimes which I’m not familiar with. Some of these cases are a wild ride in the way only redneck and hillbilly murders can make be. I say that as a proud redneck.

This isn’t one of those podcasts where you have to listen in any sort of order. If you want a taste, dive right in with episode 33, Paul Farrar to hear about an insane murder you’ll never forget.  You can’t make that stuff up. From rednecks to  blue bloods, this podcast covers it all. If you like your crime with a heavy dose of WTF, this is the podcast for you.

Cowtown Crime Verdict: Guilty Pleasure




Ripples in a Pond: The White Rock Lake Machete Murder



A pebble thrown into a still pond does not sink without a trace. It causes a circular ripple with an expanding radius. As anyone who has faced a math quiz can tell you, the greater the mass of the rock, the more water displaced and the bigger the radius will grow. A murder is the same, a single act that spreads its zone of impact in an ever widening ripple. Unlike that still pond, those touched will never be the same again.

October 12, 2015 started like any other Monday for Dave Stevens. Dave had been a passionate runner since he was a child and had completed 11 marathons. He was training for the Dallas Marathon just a few weeks away. Sometimes he ran with Patti, but on this day he was alone.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Dave ran 10 miles on the White Rock Creek Trail, part of the Dallas Trail System that winds through neighborhoods and parks including Valley View, Anderson Bonner, Orbiter, and Harry Moss. The trail is a favorite of runners and bikers because it’s not overly crowded and fairly flat.

He set off that day at 7 am, just before the sun would rise. He parked at the Valley View trail entrance and set off. Everything was as it always was on his morning run, until Dave passed through Harry Moss Park, and into the dark place underneath the Walnut Hill overpass.

Thomas Linze Johnson was also in a dark place.

Just three years earlier, Johnson’s future had seemed bright. He was a star running back at Dallas Skyline High School. Intensely recruited, ESPN ranked Johnson as the number three receiver in the entire nation. He initially committed to Texas, but changed his commitment to Texas A&M. In 2012, he played ten games for the Aggies, catching 30 balls for 339 yards.


On November 10, 2012, 15th ranked A&M defeated Number 1 ranked Alabama. Johnson caught several passes from eventual Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel (aka Johnny Football). But after that game, instead of savoring the triumphant moment, he became very upset.

According to his college roommate, Johnson had become reclusive, spending hours alone reading his Bible and smoking marijuana. His father says Johnson admitted smoking K2, a potent synthetic marijuana. Others would say he had become obsessed with the movie The Book of Eli and compared himself to Denzel Washington’s character, a nomad in a post-apocalyptic world who hears a voice giving him an important task to complete.

The next day he missed practice. When he missed a second practice, coaches began looking for him and contacted his mother who had no idea where he was. For three days his whereabouts were a mystery until he was found walking down a road back in Dallas. He had simply walked away from college and football, carrying a knapsack of Bibles and an engagement ring he had bought for his girlfriend. He never went back.

Johnson spent three days in a court ordered psychiatric facility where there was finally a clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia. Upon release, he refused all treatment. Over the next two years of Johnson’s life, he struggled with both mental health and substance abuse. His family was at a loss for how to help him when he became delusional and resistant to treatment.

According to a September 22, 2016 ESPN article, his relationship with his mother proved problematic. She could be both a help and a hindrance to him getting the help he needed. His mother rejected the diagnosis saying to ESPN reporters “they threw around schizophrenia. I don’t know. I don’t know much about it…I think it was something else going on that was mind-altering. In some form or fashion, his mind had been altered.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), schizophrenia generally starts anywhere between the ages of 16 to 30 years old, but the most common time for men is late adolescence to early adult hood. When people think of schizophrenia, they think of the most obvious and dramatic symptoms such hallucinations and delusions, but schizophrenia is so much more. It’s an entire cornucopia of symptoms including thought disorders and cognitive disorders.

People with schizophrenia often display what is called “flat affect” meaning a lack of facial expression and vocal tone. You can definitely see this in pictures of Thomas Johnson after the onset of his illness. He doesn’t even face the camera, just staring off at nothing. In fact, those suffering from schizophrenia often experience diminished enjoyment in things. They have difficulty beginning and finishing normal tasks. They develop trouble focusing and an inability to pay attention. Memory and decision making can be severely impacted. And yes, there are often the hallucinations and delusions, the symptoms everyone knows, the symptoms that can lead to a complete break from reality.

In 2014, Johnson broke into his aunt’s home, stole money and her minivan. He drove down to College Station with the intention of reclaiming is old life. He mumbled to himself and walked in circles until he was asked to leave. His aunt, who said he had been causing problems for some time, pressed charges, although she later agreed to drop them if he completed a diversion program. Johnson continued having troubles, violating the rules of the program, and was placed on probation. He wasn’t compliant with his probation and a motion to revoke was filed by prosecutors for numerous violations including smoking pot.

There were people who tried to help Johnson, people who loved him. He lived with a family from his church for a while, but walked away from them just before meeting with a psychiatrist. Everyone in the family seems to have a story to tell about Johnson and the voices in his head. Everyone wanted to help him be better, but either they were in denial or didn’t know how or their efforts were met with too much resistance.

Nothing seemed to halt his downward spiral and by October 10, 2015, Johnson was on the verge of being homeless and very angry. He had cursed at his mother and she told him that if he was going to treat her that way, he needed to get out, so he took a knife, and he left.

October 12th, at 7:32 a.m., a man called 911 from the White Rock Creek Trail. He reported seeing a “large crazed man” wearing a hoodie by the tennis courts. Something about Johnson made this witness nervous enough that he took out his pepper spray, just in case. He said during the call that Johnson was following a jogger who noticed and began running faster.

At 7:55, a bike rider, identified by NBC Dallas-Fort Worth only as “Brandon,” came upon a scene which is the stuff of nightmares. He saw a man who looked like he was hacking at the ground, almost like he was chopping wood, but as Brandon got closer he could tell that the man had a machete and what he was hitting was a person, face down on the ground. He saw the man strike six or seven blows.

“It was apparent to me by the time I got close that there was nothing that could be done for that person. I heard a little bit of a yell from behind. I assume it was the guy with the machete yelling to stop. I just kept going and I just kept going.”

Johnson, then covered in blood, left the machete in Dave Stevens head and calmly walked to the equestrian center. He saw a man named Jason Hagen there and asked to borrow his phone which he used to place a chilling 911 call. “There’s a man laying down with a sword in his head.”

He went back to wait for the police by Dave Steven’s body. He told the first officer who arrived, “I just committed capital murder.” The officer asked Johnson what he meant and he replied, “It’s like when you don’t wake up.”

The shocking news of a murder on the White Rock Creek Trail broke almost immediately, but Dave didn’t run carrying his wallet or a cell phone and there are so many places along the trail to park a car. No one knew which car was his. His face was almost obliterated and unrecognizable. Police had no idea who he was.

Patti Stevens knew something was wrong when her husband didn’t come home from his job as an engineer at GE, but she didn’t listen to the news. She started looking for Dave and even drove to the lake where his SUV was parked and checked the lots where he typically parked until she found the SUV. Then she started calling the police. It was almost a full day before the connection was made and her worst nightmare was realized.
Patti and Dave met at Michigan State and by all accounts it was one of those storybook romances. They were best friends. Soulmates.

In 1989 they moved to Dallas and bought their dream home. Friends and family describe Dave as someone who was competitive within himself, but gentle, thoughtful, polite. A guy with a dry sense of humor. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Patti described her husband as a “sweet” man who gave her “everything I wanted.” She told the reporter “I’ll just say, Dave was the love of my life. And I’m lost without him.”

Patti kept it together through the funeral. Six days after she drove family to the airport, her neighbors became concerned when they didn’t see her. Police finally broke into the house. They found Patti’s body on the floor of the garage, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. She had left pictures of her and Dave on her kitchen table and a scrawled note. The voices in Thomas Johnson’s head had claimed another victim.

Sadly, there is no satisfaction, no tidy resolution in this case. Dave and Patti Stevens—two ordinary people with no connection to the darkness inside Thomas Johnson’s head—are dead thanks to a chance meeting. Thomas Johnson is also beyond reach. In April 2016, Johnson was found incompetent to stand trial. He has remained that way in spite of treatment and has been housed in a mental health care facility.

This brief burst of violence has left continuing ripples. Family and friends are left to struggle with the questions of what might have been, what they might have done. If only someone had realized the tragic outcome of Johnson’s downward spiral. If only someone had recognized Patti’s despair and hopelessness. The church family who welcomed Johnson into their home have tried to visit him repeatedly, only to be turned away. He has refused to see anyone, not even his court appointed lawyer. He won’t take the hands stretching towards him. He remains locked in his mind which is more of a prison than bars could ever be. Biology has already handed Thomas Johnson a life sentence.

And let’s not forget the others marked by this day, random strangers caught in the ripples. Brandon who will never be able forget the horror of seeing a man with a machete. That first 911 caller who was afraid enough to take out his pepper spray. Jason Hagen who was approached by a bloody man demanding use of his phone. Let’s not forget those first responders, forced to bear witness to the worst humanity has to offer.

Let’s not forget the secondary responders, the prosecutors, mental health professionals, jurors, people forced to face the crime scene photos and deal with wreckage left behind.
Unlike so many murders, this story isn’t about good and evil. There are no villains or heroes in this tale. Just a very broken man with a machete who in a matter of minutes sent out ripples into the world that are still spreading.

If you have a loved one, family or friend, experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek help. There are so many national and local resources available that take mere minutes to locate. If you are in the DFW area, you can reach MHMR by calling or texting 817-335-3022 or 1-800-866-2465 (Toll free) or 817-569-4488 (TTY-TDD number for Hearing Impaired. Help is available 24/7. You’re not alone.

** UPDATE ** This story has been updated. Click the link to read the latest news.