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.
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.
With 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.”
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.
Buried 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.
In 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.
The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in in the 1980s. I strongly recommend you start from the beginning of the narrative. Preview sets the scene, followed by Stranger in the Dark and Cold Hit which discusses the creation of CODIS and the first Fort Worth Cold Case Unit. The Devil you Know and Caging the Predator address the issue of serial rapists who escalate to murder, and the first killer confined under the Sexually Violent Predator Act. This post is a continuation of A Friend of the Family.
An 11 year-old child in her own bed. A black sex worker at a truck stop. A young, Hispanic mother running errands in her neighborhood. A woman from out of town on her way back to the bus station. The four have nothing in common, except they all knew the same man, and he would eventually kill them. He would also get away with it for more than a decade.
Although many people had fled their Northside neighborhood after the 1986 murder of Vanessa Villa (See A Friend of the Family), Melissa Badillo and her sister Sylvia Sanchez had stayed. September 1994, Melissa left her five month old daughter with Sylvia and went out to run errands. She was never seen alive again. Melissa’s half-nude body was found in in a park near Riverside. She had been raped and manually strangled. Among those who came by the house to pay respects was the elder brother of Melissa’s best friend, Juan “Johnny” Segundo. His family had lived nearby for years. The case remained unsolved and a heart-broken Sylvia raised Melissa’s daughter with only stories and a picture to keep her memory alive.
Like so many in the 1980s, Francis Williams was a casualty of the crack epidemic. Her addiction led her into sex work to survive. November 15, 1994, her nude body was found face down in a drainage ditch just blocks from a truck stop. Although the area was frequented by sex workers, it wasn’t where Francis normally worked. She was known to walk the Lancaster/Rosedale area downtown. She had been raped and manually strangled. In an odd twist, someone had spray-painted the letters “KKK” in white on her buttocks. Police weren’t sure if this was really a racially motivated crime or just a false clue intended to lead them off path. Perhaps it was a sick joke. There was no way to know if that desecration had even come from the killer or from someone who spotted her body.
Because of her lifestyle, Francis hadn’t been reported missing. She was frequently in and out of jails and moved around. Police identified her by her fingerprints. Her mother Emma and her two sisters had seen her just two days prior. Francis had gotten out of jail that Sunday morning and come by. They were able to tell the police that she had recently been seen around town with a Hispanic man, driving a red truck. They didn’t know his name.
During this same time, Dallas PD was working on two sex worker manual strangulations where victim was left in similar circumstances, in a ditch, half dressed. Police were focused on the sex worker angle and spoke to many of the truck drivers and women who knew Francis. The men all pointed fingers at one other. One claimed to have heard someone bragging about having killed a sex worker and painted her. One claimed to have knowledge that Francis had stolen from a drug dealer.
The police weren’t the only ones who focused on Francis being a sex worker. Unlike the sensitive reporting by Melody McDonald and Deanna Boyd who told Vanessa’s story, Francis’ murder was reported on by a male reporter and the headlines were very different. “POLICE SAY BODY THAT OF PROSTITUTE” screams the headline and underneath, “Officer says records show woman had 51 citations.” Most of the article is about the problem of prostitution in the area, how truck driver’s won’t park their trucks down there because women are always knocking on the doors. There is nothing about Francis as a person, as someone who had a family who loved her. Her criminal history is all convictions for prostitution and drug possession. She didn’t have a history of theft or violence or even dealing drugs. She didn’t harm anyone. She was just a woman struggling with addiction, trying to survive.
Thankfully, police records show that they took the murder investigation seriously. They worked all the angles. On Wednesday, November 16, a truck driver saw someone throw a garbage bag out. He looked and found it was full of female clothes and a wig. He decided he should call the police. Interviews with other sex workers who knew Francis well told police they had last seen her on n on E. Lancaster, an area she was known to work. She was seen by a friend standing behind the Windsor Hotel. Like so many murders in this time, there were two many suspects and not enough evidence and Francis’ murder was added to the list of unsolved cases.
Maria Navarro wasn’t a local. She came to Fort Worth from Corpus Christi to visit friends and maybe get a new start. A mother of three, she left her children in the car of her own mother, but she didn’t abandon them. She wrote numerous letters and called regularly. Maria had her own demons, particularly cocaine. She visited her friends and made new ones, even a boyfriend that she considered serious. Her husband and the father of her children had died the year before and substance abuse had been her coping mechanism, but Maria was hopeful. An argument with another woman turned into a fistfight and Maria found herself in jail. While there, she wrote letters to her boyfriend and family about her intent to rededicate herself to starting fresh. She pled guilty, served her time and was released. Her boyfriend had a more casual view of their relationship. He liked Maria, but didn’t want anything serious. But he cared and offered to pay for a bus ticket home to Corpus Christi.
Maria was thrilled. She called her mother on June 16th and told her she was coming home and even made arrangements to pick up her children. This was her new life, her fresh start. She also called her sister and gave her the same message. She was going home. When Maria didn’t show up as planned, her mother worried. She called police up in Fort Worth and reported her daughter missing. Maria’s boyfriend didn’t hear from her again and assumed she had gotten on the bus and moved on with her life. Maria’s friend she had stayed with at the Skyline Motel didn’t see her for several days and was surprised that Maria left all her things. She worried, but decided Maria just wanted to go home that badly.
June 17, 1995, children found Maria’s body in Buck Sansom Park. They were there to play baseball when they found her body in the bushes. There was “insect activity” that drew their attention, most likely flies at that time of year. She was nude from the waist down, wearing only a tank top and sandals. She had been raped and manually strangled. Like Francis, Maria was identified by fingerprints from her recent trip to jail. Police then matched her name to the missing persons report filed by her mother. Maria’s friend was able to describe some unique tattoos and jewelry which further confirmed the identity of the body. At the time, police were convinced her murder was related to that of a sex worker named Patricia Apodoca who was murdered the same day.
They questioned everyone, but could find no links between Maria and Patricia. Maria was not involved with sex work and although some people knew both women, there was no indication they knew one another. Patricia’s murder remains unsolved, or if it was solved, I was unable to find any record of it. Police took a hard look at Maria’s boyfriend, but he passed several polygraphs and seemed truly distraught. Her mother and sister took on the task of raising Maria’s three children. The family was impoverished, unable to raised the funds for a headstone leaving Maria Navarro in an unmarked grave.
September 4, 1995, Juan Mesa Segundo pled guilty to his third DWI which made the charge a felony. He was sentenced to 5 years in TDC (Texas Department of Corrections). His brother recalled picking him up in 2000 when he was released. He said his brother seemed to have aged since last seen. He took his brother home to live with him in Keene Texas. While in Keene, Segundo converted to Seventh Day Adventist and married a Filipino woman. For five years, Segundo lived under the radar.
Then, in 2004 Texas required all convicted offenders to submit DNA to CODIS. In 2005, the state ordered all incarcerated felony offenders to be added to the system even if their convictions predated 2004. (See Preview for the use of DNA in prosecutions and use of CODIS to solve crimes). Detective Manny Reyes evaluated cold cases for biological evidence and submitted them to CODIS for possible DNA matches. Among the first cases Reyes sent was the very first murder case he worked: Vanessa Villa. The eleven year-old’s murder had haunted him and for 19 years he remained in contact with the family. Other cases with biological evidence were Frances Williams and Maria Navarro. At the time, criminologists didn’t think they had enough DNA in Melissa Badillo’s case.
The envelopes he got in return looked like any other mail, but they contained life changing information. He had an answer for Vanessa’s killer. The semen on her sheets and body belonged to a Juan Mesa Segundo. He had a name, an identity for the faceless monster. A warrant was quickly drafted. Vanessa’s family was shocked. They had lost track of “Johnny” Segundo over the years but he was a friend of the family. They had allowed him into their home.
Detectives quickly learned Segundo was not in custody. He was living in Johnson County which is just to the south of Tarrant County. The moved in an arrested him. In what would become a hallmark of his incarceration, Segundo denied knowing anything. He even claimed not to know who Vanessa was. Under pressure, he finally admitted knowing the family and having been in the home, but still denied knowing the child whose funeral he attended.
More envelopes came and Segundo’s DNA was matched to both Francis Williams’ and Maria Navarro’s murders. Detectives were shocked because they had never linked the crimes. Detective Boetcher, who had worked Francis’ case went to see her mother in person and let her know the killer was in custody. Segundo’s photo was shown to many sex workers from the area and they recognized his face as someone who had been around. They didn’t know his name, but multiple women picked his face out of photospreads as someone from the area. He was a local guy, mild-mannered, soft-spoken. The monster had been in disguise.
Melissa Badillo’s sister was shocked by the arrest and convinced he had something to do with her sister’s murder. He was someone they knew well. “We came from the same barrio,” she said.
In spite of the DNA matches, Segundo’s new church and community rallied around him. His wife and other church members visited him almost daily, convinced of his innocence. When jailors search Segundo’s cell, they found weapons, a toothbrush sharpened to a deadly point and other items, including two photos of young girls around 8-13 years of age. One of the church members who had visited him regularly admitted he had asked for photos of her daughter, a girl near the same age as Vanessa. He told her he wanted to draw a picture of her daughter for her as a gift. Under questioning, she admitted he didn’t ask for pictures of son. He had never drawn the picture of her daughter but she insisted there was no harm in having the picture. The identity of the other girl was never found.
In 2006, Segundo went to trial for Vanessa’s murder. His lawyers did what they could to suggest the DNA was contaminated, but the jury convicted him. Everyone knew the real issue was whether he would receive the death penalty. The jury was told about his other crimes, the two known murders, the burglaries with intent so commit sexual assault, the long history of alcoholism.
The defense presented evidence of a difficult, chaotic childhood. The family had been very impoverished and the kids were shuffled around to different homes including an orphanage before moving to Fort Worth with an alcoholic mother and an abusive step-father. One of Segundo’s brothers testified that he suffered a severe head injury as a toddler. Segundo’s church members and family all said he was changed man. He had been out of prison for five years and–to their knowledge–hadn’t offended on anyone. Of course, they didn’t realize he was raping and killing back in the 80s and 90s. They said he was sober now and a productive citizen. He was active in the church.
A neurologist, Dr. Hopewell testified that Segundo had an “extensive history of inhalant and alcohol abuse coupled with his head injury and difficult childhood caused him to be memory impaired although not ‘mentally retarded’. She tested Segundo’s IQ at 75, and that he had “very poor” insight, “poor” judgment, and “significant difficulty” with executive functioning.
The prosecution had more evidence that had never been made public before the trial. A 21 year-old woman who testified that Segundo dated her mother when she was very young, about 5. He molested her and forced her to perform oral sex on him.
I’m sorry to say that I’m actually related to this monster and if it weren’t for my father. He probably would’ve killed my mother & I. My mom stated she was surprised he didn’t kill us we lived in the same household as he did at one time. He hated my mom & was jealous of my birth. I have been reading on these victims and I am very sorry for your tragic e ENTs. Needless to say I do understand what you are going through. I too was a victim of molestation from a step family member. And do recall them two got along very well. I came forward and saved lives. I do wonder sometimes why didn’t he just end it with me cause I live with that pain for the rest of my life. I hope he is put down soon he’s a waste of society. There’s no way he will make it out here alive. May God wrap his arms tightly around these victims and their families. Justice is only halfway served while he sits awake with no remorse. Take him god & make this world a better place. God bless
They jury weighed the cost of what he had done and sentenced Segundo to death.
In 2010, a criminologist with the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office realized that DNA had progressed enough that they could now test scrapings that came from under Melissa Badillo’s nails. She had fought her attacker. DNA confirmed that her attacker had been Juan Mesa Segundo. Because Segundo was already on Death Row, he was never formally charged with Melissa’s death.
Segundo was scheduled to die in 2018, but he was granted a stay based upon his claim that he is intellectually disabled. The case is now in limbo pending further investigation of his mental status. At the same time the Fort Worth Star-Telegram printed heartbreaking interviews with Vanessa and Melissa’s families, describing how their lives had been damaged by Segundo.
Segundo has refused to speak about the crimes. Even family members close to him say he has never spoken to them. Whatever he knows, he is keeping it hidden inside, just as he keeps everything about his true, monstrous self hidden behind the disguise of a family friend.
Next Week I will update some stories previously covered, including a conviction, a stay of execution, and a new date with the death chamber.
The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in in the early to mid 1980s. I strongly recommend you read the first four parts of the narrative. Preview sets the scene, followed by Part One, Stranger in the Dark and Part Two: Cold Hit which discuss serial killer Curtis Brown and how the advances in science uncovered his crimes. This article is a continuation of Part Three: The Devil You Know.
Identifying the killer of Retha Stratton was the easy part. Within 48 hours of her murder, he was behind bars, but keeping him there would become a struggle. The typical time lapse from arrest to trial is on average a year in Tarrant County, but only 10 months after his arrest, Wesley Wayne Miller was on trial. Due to the intense publicity, the trial was moved to Ector County. There almost wasn’t a trial. Concerned with the lack of physical evidence as the trial date loomed, prosecutor Steve Chaney offered a plea of 35 years just one week before the trial to Miller’s defense team, attorneys Jack Strickland and Bill Lane.
Miller did not accept immediately and the plea offer was nixed by then District Attorney Tim Curry. Judge Gordon Gray intervened, saying Miller must be afforded the opportunity to accept or reject the offer before it could be withdrawn. He told the attorneys that he would honor the 35 year offer if Miller was inclined. He was not. The case would go to trial.
On one side were the citizens of River Oaks who firmly supported the Stratton family, sister Rona, parents A.J. and Doris. On the other, sat Miller’s parents Morris and Carol who believed in their son’s innocence. Carol repeatedly told the media that her son had been ‘tricked by the police’ into confessing. She did not believe he was responsible for the murder or the two sexual assaults he had been charged with.
He was charged with the rape of L.V., the 19 year old Saginaw woman after fingerprints at the scene were linked to Miller. He was a stranger and there was no legitimate reason for his prints to be in her house. He was also charged with rape of D.O. after a shoe print was determined to belong to a size 7 1/2 Kinney sneaker, a shoe Miller owned. She was one of the women who said her attacker ‘was built just like Miller.’ Miller was never charged in the other cases. Again, this was pre-DNA and there wasn’t any physical evidence. The cases discussed in The Devil You Know were all linked by identical M.O.: the victim was home alone, receiving mysterious calls and hang ups, they were attacked in their bedrooms by a man with dark hair, very muscular body but short, around 5 foot 9 inches, who wore a stocking over his head and said the same things to them and forced them to perform identical acts. The victims all had similar appearances and ages. Police had no doubt Miller was the rapist, but there just wasn’t the evidence to charge him in all the cases.
In fact, the judge ruled that evidence of the serial rapes was not admissible, and not just at the guilt or innocence phase. It wasn’t coming in at all, not even when deciding punishment. After a two week trial, the jury deliberated for five hours before finding Miller guilty. His attorneys fought hard on his behalf, doing what they were supposed to do. They challenged the voluntariness of Miller’s confession, but Retha’s family and friends were all smiles, holding hands as the verdict was read, sure this part of their nightmare was at an end. The punishment phase was short. Without the rapes to talk about, there was nothing else the prosecution could bring up to show Miller belonged behind bars. At that time, anyone not previously convicted of a felony was eligible for probation, even for murder. There was nothing else in Miller’s past they could argue. He had no issues with drugs or alcohol, no other crimes, no problems in school. He was the smiling, all American athlete, voted “Best All Around Student” of his class just the year before.
Not allowing the jury to know about the sexual assaults left them with only Miller’s version of events, his statement where he painted Retha as a “tease” who provoked him to violence with her actions. We will never know what truly caused Miller to escalate to murder, but a more likely scenario is that he broke in to rape Retha, but she recognized him and her killed her to shut her up. Her jammed her underwear in her mouth to make her be quiet, then stabbed her 38 times before slitting her wrists to make sure she would never tell his secrets. The facts were brutal, and they were all the prosecution had.
Steve Chaney argued for life in prison. Jack Strickland begged for probation, portraying his client as a scared kid. The jury compromised on 25 years. Both sets of parents burst into tears. As Strickland went over to comfort Miller’s parents, the judge remarked “That’s a win, Jack.” Privately, Strickland and Lane agreed. Everyone knew it was a light sentence. Tim Curry publicly promised Miller would be tried for the rape cases and Chaney assured the family that it would be more than seven years before Miller became eligible for parole. Because Miller had been convicted of a crime involving a deadly weapon, he would have to serve what was called ‘agg time’ meaning he would serve at least a third of his sentence before he became eligible for parole.
There was a clerical error at the Texas Department of Corrections. Even though an affirmative deadly weapon finding was listed on the judgment and sentence, Miller wasn’t listed as a an “agg” offender in their system. Due to prison overcrowding, the actual time served was often brief. Miller came up for parole in just two years.
At the time, victims weren’t notified and the parole hearing came and went without Retha Stratton’s family being aware, but Miller would come up for parole on a yearly basis and keeping Miller, and other sexually violent predators would become the life’s work of Retha’s sister, Rona Stratton, and her friend Lisa Gabbert, also a victim of Miller’s serial rape spree.
For years, they flooded the parole board with letters, petitions, even graphic photos of the crime scene, anything to remind them of what Miller had done. Instead of taking the rape cases to trial as promised, Tim Curry’s office allowed Miller to plead to one case, with a charge of Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault. The punishment was 20 years to run concurrent with time he was already serving. He would receive no additional time. Even worse, the clock was ticking because eventually Miller would be eligible for mandatory release.
Mandatory release is exactly what it sounds like. All prisoners were allowed to accrue “good time.” If Miller behaved himself in prison, he must be released when his years served plus good time equaled a specific number. For Miller, that came in 1991.
Rona and Lisa didn’t stop fighting. They fought Miller’s release back into the same community where he had lived. The idea of running into him at the local store, knowing he walked the same streets was unacceptable. He would not be allowed to return to Tarrant County. TDC had trouble finding a county willing to accept Miller. Each time after the public learned of Miller’s potential release to their community, the outcry forced them to find another location until Miller was quietly placed in Wichita Falls. Rona Stratton compared Miller to the New Jersey garbage barge that couldn’t find a place to dock. “Nobody wants this guy and I don’t blame ’em.”
Miller was finally free, but that wouldn’t last long. June 7, 1992, in Wichita Falls, Laura Barnard had done some late grocery shopping. It was 11:00 p.m. when she parked in front of her home to unload her car. She noticed a stranger, a man with long, dark hair standing near a white truck across the street. There was something in the way he stared at her that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She stared back and then man got into the truck, but as she came back out for another load of groceries, there he was again. Again she stared back, wanting the man to know she had seen him. Again, he acted as though he was leaving. She turned back to the car and as she was lowering the trunk, she heard footsteps. Startled, she looked up in time to see him charging at her, running full speed. She dropped the paper towels in her hands and ran into the house, calling for her husband.
They went outside to look. At first they didn’t see anything, but then she felt the stare and pointed him out. He was trying to hide behind a tree. “That’s him.” Both got a good look at Miller as he walked briskly away. They also got the license plate of his white truck. The truck was registered to his father, Morris. Miller was tried and convicted for Attempted Assault, and he was sent back to prison.
Rona and Lisa thought Miller would now serve the rest of his sentence, but five years later he was released again–sort of. This time he was required to spend most of his day in the Tarrant County jail, only being released for short periods with a GPS monitor on. Miller was escorted to counseling and job interviews. As a condition, the parole board ordered Miller to complete a Sex Offender Treatment Program. Miller refused. His attorney, Jeffrey Gooch called a press conference where he complained about his client’s treatment. He claimed that Miller had not technically been convicted of a sexual offense and therefore the parole board had overstepped their bounds.
Miller had pled guilty to that Burglary with intent to commit a sexual offense, so the requirement stuck. He had only thought he was getting a good deal, but it came back to bite him with a vengeance.
Senator Mike Moncrief declared “He will be the most monitored man in Texas.” Everyone was tense, waiting to see what would happen next. What happened, was that Miller refused to participate. The parole board revoked his release and he was sent back to prison for his refusal to participate in a Sex Offender Treatment Program. For the next six years, this would be the pattern. Each time he was given parole, he was immediately revoked for his stubborn refusal to agree to the rules, most particularly treatment. He seemed content to wait out his sentence. He would be released in 2007 with his entire sentence done. There would be no rules to follow, no monitoring, no counseling. Miller would be free.
But Rona Stratton and Lisa Gabbert had one more card to play, Title 11 of the Texas Health and Safety Code, also known as Civil Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators. Civil Commitment is a response to public frustration over the danger of repeat offenders. It’s a way to confine those with a high risk of recidivism after the completion of their criminal sentences and force them into treatment and monitoring. The first such legislation was in Washington in 1990. Texas passed Title 11 in 1999 with Rona Stratton and Lisa Gabbert as passionate advocates. Twenty states have Civil Commitment legislation which has been extremely controversial because they allow indefinite confinement for people deemed predatory through a “mental abnormality or personality disorder”. For a thorough discussion of the issues, see Kansas v. Hendricks in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legislation providing there are sufficient procedural safeguards and that such legislation is for public safety and not merely punitive or Miller’s appeal from his Civil Commitment proceedings which challenged the Texas statute.
The Title 11 of the Texas Health and Safety Code begins with a legislative statement:
The legislature finds that a small but extremely dangerous group of sexually violent predators exists and that those predators have a behavioral abnormality that is not amenable to traditional mental illness treatment modalities and that makes the predators likely to engage in repeated predatory acts of sexual violence.
The law requires a person be a repeat sexually violent offender, meaning the person must be convicted of two or more offenses deemed “sexually violent.” Miller claimed not to be a sex offender but he had pled guilty to the Burglary with intent to commit sexual assault. That was one conviction, but Murder does not qualify unless it is found to have been sexually motivated. That specific language was added to the statute in 2005 as Miller’s release date drew near. Again, Retha’s sister was instrumental in seeing that legislation passed.
The procedure for declaring someone a Sexually Violent Predator is as follows. When a potentially eligible person grows close to release, they are referred for an evaluation by a multidisciplinary team for psychopathy and ‘behavioral abnormalities.’ If the committee decides the person meets definition of Sexually Violent Predator, they issue a petition to commit him. A jury trial follows in which both the state and the person are represented by counsel. The program is overseen by the Texas Civil Commitment Office.
In Miller’s case, the jury would have to hear the facts of Retha’s murder and make a determination if the crime was sexually motivated. The family would have to endure another trial. No murderer had yet to be committed as a sexually violent predator. The statute had only been used for pedophiles.
In 2006, Miller was sent for evaluation. He didn’t have many of the normal risk factors. No violent family history. No substance abuse. His refusal to admit guilt and refusal to participate in treatment could be used against him. He also refused to cooperate with the evaluation, insisting that he didn’t remember the actual murder. But the main evidence would be Retha’s crime and the other sexual assaults. Several of the women would finally have their chance to testify. It would be their only day in court, their only opportunity to confront Miller about what he had done. They sat in the courtroom where he could see them, even as the prosecutor showed the jury graphic photos of Retha’s body.
On Miller’s side was his father, brother, and an aunt. His mother had passed after a battle with Alzheimer’s. Morris Miller testified on his son’s behalf. “No matter what he’s done, he’s still my son. And I’ll love him forever. I feel like Wes has paid his debt to society. I believe he should get out, not one day more than the 25 year sentence at the most.”
The state offered the testimony of Dr. Kenneth Price, a forensic psychologist who labeled Miller a “sexual psychopath” and offered his opinion that he was likely to offend again.
After hearing about Miller’s full history, this jury took less than two hours to declare Miller a sexually violent predator. Upon release, he would be civilly committed with a long list of rules to follow and intense supervision. He would be ordered to undergo treatment. If Miller ever wanted to be released, he would have to attend treatment.
In 2007, Miller was released from TDC and required to live in a secure facility. He first went to another facility but was moved to live in Tarrant County’s Cold Springs Unit. He should have where he couldn’t prey on anyone else. After all, he had a long list rules and constant supervision. Although he was 46 at the time, he somehow began a romance with a female jailer who was only 21.
She wasn’t supposed to have contact with him. Any contact with Miller had with woman had to be approved by Miller’s supervising officer. But they could see each other, especially when she parked her truck so that he could past and see it. They would smile and wave at each other. The contact escalated to passing messages and sneaking conversations on the intercom. At the time she was still 20 and dazzled by this man everyone told her to stay away from because he was dangerous. They worked out a system to circumvent his phone privileges and the relationship began in earnest. When they were caught in the relationship, he was arrested and charged with violating his Civil Commitment. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He is still serving that sentence, but after that he will return to Civil Commitment, still unrepentant, still uncooperative. He has refused to discuss his crimes. But if he ever convinces the Texas Civil Commitment Office that he has been rehabilitated enough for release, you can be sure that Rona Stratton will be watching.
Next week, The Hunting Grounds will finally discuss one of the most notorious serial killers from Fort Worth, Juan Meza Segunda.
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 three parts of the narrative, Preview which sets the scene, and Stranger in the Dark and Cold Hit which discuss serial rapist and murderer Curtis Don Brown. Originally part three was intended to Juan Mesa Segundo, but we will return to his story later. Instead we are moving out into the suburbs which seemed safer than the city, but that veneer of civility was an illusion.
Looking at their senior pictures side by side, Wesley Wayne Miller and Retha Stratton are the perfect, couple, the American ideal. Although the two were not dating, they were friends. Retha was a popular, bubbly cheerleader at Castleberry High. Miller was captain of the football team, a three-sport athlete voted “Best All Around Student” in 1981, their senior year. Miller wrote in Retha’s yearbook, “I’d like to get to know you better. Your [sic] the best looking girl in our school and I hope to see a lot of you this summer, Love Always Wesley.”
Castleberry ISD is in River Oaks, a small suburb north of Fort Worth known as a bedroom community for blue-collar families and for the nearby Carswell Airforce Base. Seniors are always glad to escape the confines of school, but for the class of ’81, they were especially glad to leave. Since the start of that year, a rapist had stalked the senior girls.
January 23, 1981, Susan Davis, 16, was home alone when a man entered her room. “He walks in with a stocking overt his head, his face, no shirt on, jeans with, you know, his zipper open. And at that point I realized something really bad was going to happen.” Dangerous Reunion, 48 hours
Susan ran, but the man caught her and began threatening her. “Don’t scream or I’m going to hit you.” The man began punching her in her face. He ripped her panties off. At some point, however, instead of completing the rape, he fled. She never found out what spooked him.
River Oaks police took a report, but with little physical evidence, there wasn’t much else they could do– but they did tell Susan it was likely someone she knew. “I had to go back into cheerleading. And I was paranoid all the time about ‘Is this person in the stands watching me?’”
The record isn’t clear what led police to this conclusion. A masked intruder would make most people think this was an attack by a stranger, but from the very start, police thought it was someone who knew the victims. Was it the assailant’s familiarity with the house? The fact he struck at a time when she would be alone? Or did they know that just by playing the odds, they were likely to be right, because most sexual assaults aren’t committed by strangers. In the 1980’s, the terminology was “date rape” which is an unfortunate choice. Rape and sexual assault have nothing to do with a “date gone wrong.” They are predatory, deliberate acts of violence. Now, the preferred terminology is “non-stranger” sexual assault. See, research and studies by Dr. David Lizak
In 1979, clinical psychologist Nicholas Groth set out to categorize different types of rapists. After working with both victims and offenders, he set out three specific types. First is the power rapist who derives comfort and satisfaction from dominating his victim. The second type is the anger rapist, who rapist is driven by rage against a specific group, women or men, causing him to lash out with violence. The third sort is the sadistic rapist who receives sexual gratification by causing pain to the victim. The types blend and rapists are most often a mix of these different elements.
The man who assaulted Susan showed multiple types. He gave specific orders to her, demonstrating control, but then hurt her, even as she complied. He left without completing the attack, which could have been a lack of confidence which is often found in power rapists.
Fortunately, studies have shown that most men aren’t rapists. How then do we account for the high level of rapes committed? One in four women is a victim of sexual assault. The answer is that most rapists are serial offenders. Studies show they often begin in adolescence and continue throughout their lives. This pattern held true here. The River Oaks Rapist wasn’t done with his one aborted attempt.
Retha Stratton graduated in May along with close friends and fellow cheerleaders Amy Moody and Lisa Gabbert. Retha and Amy got an apartment together and Retha went to work doing data entry for the Ralston Purina company . Unknown to them, another young woman was raped in November.
L. V. (a pseudonym), 19, was home alone on November 11, 1981 in the nearby town of Saginaw, when she received several mysterious phone calls. Each time, a male voice asked for a person she didn’t know and she told him that no such person was there. She fell asleep and when she awoke, it was to a nude man with a stocking covering his face kneeling over her in the bed. He ripped the phone from the wall and told her he was going to rape her. She struggled, even though the man said he would kill her if she didn’t do what he told her to. He physically assaulted her for some time before finally leaving. She immediately ran to her parents’ room and called her boyfriend. Sagniaw police processed the scene and came up with the first solid bit of evidence: a fingerprint on the telephone and in her bedroom. There were semen stains in her room, but this is before DNA. She described the man as muscular but only around 5 foot, six inches tall.
Police had a fingerprint, but the person it belonged to wasn’t in they system and without a known person to compare it to, that wasn’t much help. But it was something. The attack didn’t make the news.
It never occurred to Retha and her friends that they could become victims. Then on December 7, the unthinkable happened. Lisa woke up to find a man in her house, “And when I looked over I saw that someone was standing in the doorway with a red ski mask and panty hose over the mask. And he leapt on me. And we struggled. There was some choking. And then he tore back the covers. Opened my robe. And we struggled some more. And so he proceeded to rape me.” Dangerous Reunion, CBS 48 hours
Once again, the River Oaks Rapist demonstrate knowledge of his victim and her specific living situation. He walked right past Lisa’s disabled mother, who couldn’t move or speak, as if she were not even there, as if he knew she couldn’t interfere or become a witness. The rapist reminded Lisa of someone. She told a rookie patrolman that the man was built just like Miller, especially his arms. She didn’t think it was Miller. It couldn’t be Miller, of course, but she wanted the police to know that the attacker had the same exact build.
Miller’s girlfriend, Roxy McDonnell lived just across the street from Lisa and the very next day, her younger sister became a victim of the River Oaks rapist. Again, the rapist struck when the girl was home alone and once again, he reminded her of someone. According to the CBS 48 hours:
“And we had just said to the dad, ‘Well, he’s built like Wesley. And has arms like Wesley’s.’ And he says, ‘Wesley, come here.’ And he said, ‘Let me see your arm.’ And he pulls his arm over. He said, ‘You mean it look just like this?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah,'” Lisa recalls. “And Wesley yanked his arm back and went upstairs. Without saying a word.”
Everyone was careful for a while. Shocked by the attack on their close friend, roommates Amy and Retha changed their locks, and didn’t come home alone, but gradually, they relaxed their guard. The River Oaks rapist stayed quiet for six weeks and life returned to normal for most people.
In 1982, Curtis Don Brown was still in prison for auto theft. Ted Bundy’s trials had faded from view. Instead recent news was the marriage of Lady Diana to Prince Charles, the identification of the AIDS virus, and the shooting of the Pope. The serial raps of teen girls in Texas suburbia was barely a blip on the local radar, much less the bigger news markets.
That would change on January 21, 1982. Amy came home to a scene of horror. A trail of blood led from the livingroom, down the hall into Retha’s room and back to the closet where her brutalized body lay partially in the closet as if she had fallen backwards. She had been stabbed 38 times with the majority of the wounds to her left breast. Her wrists had been slit and her bloody panties crammed into her mouth. She was nude from the waist down. The knife still protruded from her chest.
Locating the culprit wouldn’t take long. Miller’s pick up truck was spotted at Retha’s house around the time of the murder and he turned to his girlfriend, Roxy to help him hide the evidence. Claiming he had bloodied someone’s nose in a game of touch football, he handed her a pair of bloody jeans to wash. She took the jeans, but as soon as news of Retha’s murder broke, Roxy handed those jeans to the police. Police immediately began looking for Miller.
January 23rd, just two days after Retha’s murder, there was a sexual assault of a woman in Lake Worth. She received several phone calls from a male voice asking if “Ed” was there. The woman said there wasn’t a man in the house and hung up. Soon after, a young, athletic man around five foot nine inches and wearing a stocking over his head broke into the house and sexually assaulted her.
Miller was arrested later that day.
Within 48 hours, Miller was charged with Retha’s murder. He confessed to the Fort Worth detective C.D. Timmons, although he tried to lay much of the blame on Retha for her own murder. He told police that he went over to the house and Retha was “coming on to him.” He said they were kissing, but she refused to go further. Miller said this happened twice, that she would make sexual advances on him, but then back away. He said he lost his temper the second time and refused to stop “And we started fighting.” Next, he claimed Retha grabbed for a ‘ledge’ that was between the kitchen and the bedroom and a knife just fell to the floor. He thought she was maybe going to grab it, so he grabbed the knife instead and stabbed her. “I kind of lost my mind and I do not remember how many times I stabbed her . He said he hid her body in the closet and washed the knife, but then went back and slit her wrists to make sure she was dead. “I didn’t want her to tell on me,” he said. Then he thrust the knife into her chest and drove home.
As Retha’s heartbroken family and friends laid her body to rest, they at least had the relief of knowing that her killer wasn’t roaming free. What they couldn’t know, was that this was just the beginning of a decades long battle to keep Miller behind bars, a struggle that would make new laws and result in permanent changes to the way we treat sexually violent predators.
Next week, I will return with the next installment of the Hunting Grounds: Caging the Predator.
Information for this article came from the archives of numerous newspapers, chiefly the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , the Dallas Morning News, and AP stories. Additional information came directly from parole records and police reports.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Offender 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.
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.
Burglary is a gateway crime. Just as some recreational substance users will enjoy a few drinks and a little smoke without ever progressing to the so-called ‘hard’ drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine, so do some burglars remain just that. Burglars. For them, it’s about theft, stealing. Get in. Get the stuff. Get out. The most common time for burglaries is daytime, not night. Burglars don’t want to confront anyone. They hit when you’re at work or when you’re known to be out of town. They hit closed businesses. They just want your stuff. Money is the motivation.
These crimes are neither pure impulse not extensively planned, just a bit of each.
But for another sort of person, being in someone’s house becomes the ultimate rush. They become aware they’re violating a sacred space. They can do anything, touch anything. It’s power. They plan their crimes, stalking the location. They watch from a distance. They hunt–until just being inside isn’t enough anymore. They need more of the adrenaline and so they escalate. The stalking becomes as important as the execution. They need the illicit thrill. Behavior addiction is a real thing and once a burglar moves past the simple desires of a monetary motivation to an emotional one, barriers break down. The larger the violation, the more intense the rush. Add someone with the tendencies of a sexual sadist into the mix, and things get very dangerous.
Curtis Don Brown was such a man.
He already had a history of violent crime before he ever made his way to the streets of Fort Worth. December 13, 1976, Curtis Brown, 21 was a Marine assigned to Camp Pendleton in California when he committed his first known crime. Brown robbed a man by the Lucky Inn on Hawthorne Boulevard. He was spotted running past the location by police. A woman ran out after Brown, pointing and shouting that he had just robbed a man. Police gave chase, finally locating Brown lying on the floor of a tool shed. He was uncooperative, refusing to even identify himself.
Police went in to speak to the victim and found him seriously injured. He hadn’t responded quickly enough to suit Brown during the robbery. He’d fired a shot in the air and then savagely kicked in the victim’s face with his boots. Police were able to locate Brown’s wallet in the tool shed where he was hiding, along with the victim’s wallet and a pistol. The robbery cost him his career as a Marine, but he didn’t spend much time in jail.
In November 26, 1978, Brown was staying in an Amarillo motel with his girlfriend, who knew him by the name James Ware, Jr., an alias he would frequently use along with another nickname: Bandit. Brown left his girlfriend at the motel and went to a nearby small grocery store. On the way, he spotted an acquaintance named Hutchison and asked him for a ride. In the store, he robbed the clerk at gunpoint of $3,000. He ran back out of the store and jumped in Hutchison’s car. Hutchison noticed Brown had a sack and a pistol now. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had just happened. He was afraid, so he drove Brown around until Brown was satisfied they hadn’t been followed and he jumped from the car.
Hutchison was only too happy to cooperate. He told police everything he knew about “Bandit.” Brown was arrested a couple months later in a stolen car. He pled guilty in 1979. Brown was paroled in 1983 and came to Fort Worth where his mother was living. In 1983, there were a series of unsolved stranger rapes where a man came in through the window at night. July of 1984, Brown married a woman and had a daughter, but that did nothing to settle him down. He drank heavily, used cocaine and only worked sporadically at unskilled labor. That year, eight women went missing from the area near where Brown lived. Some would surface as bodies. Still others would never be found.
June 20, 1985, Patricia Morales, 29, was home alone in her Hulen Place Apartment when she heard a sound at her bedroom window screen. Cautiously, she came into the room. The screen had been removed. The window hung open. Before she could turn around, a man grabbed her from behind, roughly demanding to know where her husband was. Hoping to scare the man away, she claimed her husband was in the apartment’s other bedroom. She told the man she had a little money. He could have it if he would just leave.
He forced her to come with him to the bedroom, then turned on her angrily when there was no one there. Taking her chance, she grabbed up a metal rod, striking him with it. She only made him angrier. He took the rod away from her and hit her several times. He put a pillow case over her head and forced her to lie on the floor while he ransacked the room. She reminded him about the money in her purse. She had been to the bank. Her cash was in an envelope. Again, she promised he could have her money if he would just leave.
He retrieved the money and went to the front door, dragging her with him. Patricia hadn’t been silent. She had screamed as she was being hit and a neighbor heard. The neighbor alerted the apartment’s armed security. He was at the front door as the man tried to leave. The man roughly pulled Patricia in front of him as a human shield and they backed into the apartment. Thankfully, the neighbor had also called Fort Worth Police Department. As they rolled into the parking lot, Patricia wrenched herself free from the man’s grip and ran screaming towards the police.
Police arrested the man and transported Patricia to the hospital where she would be treated for lacerations and broken bones. The man had a bank envelope with Patricia’s money in it and a pair of white, cotton gloves. Police identified him as Curtis Don Brown, a man with no criminal history in the city of Fort Worth. They assumed he was an over-eager burglar. Within hours, Brown had posted bond and was released. He gave a Houston Street address, just 8 miles from where Patricia lived.
Patricia didn’t know it at the time, but she had just survived an encounter with a serial killer, a man who had already killed twice at least, and would kill again.
February 24, 1986, Brown struck again, this time in Arlington.
Debra Hodges, 30 was sitting home alone, watching some TV before bed. It was close to midnight and she was ready to call it quits when a sound at her back window caught her attention. Looking out her patio door, she spotted a man crouched down trying to remove her screen. He looked up at her and both were startled. The man turned and fled, jumping over a wooden fence, but not before she got a good look at him. As Debra was standing on her patio pointing things out to the Arlington officer who had responded to her call, they heard a commotion. Apartment security was chasing a man through the complex, telling him to stop. She was astonished to recognize the man by his clothing. “That’s him,” she exclaimed. The Arlington Officer joined in the chase and he and the security guard brought the man, soon identified as Curtis Don Brown, back for Debra to see.
Looking in his face, she had no doubts. “That’s the man.”
The security guard told the police that a woman had just pointed out Brown as a man who had been following her outside and ‘sexually harassed her’ in the laundry room to the point she became frightened. The woman left before the security officer got her information. The Arlington officer read Brown his rights and asked if he understood them. Brown cussed at him and said, “What rights?” He gave various stories about why he was in the apartment complex. The officer noted Brown’s boots. There had been boot prints in the soil of the flower beds outside Debra’s apartment. A man, one of substantial size, had stood there for some time, watching Debra through her window. Brown was 6’2, 200 pounds, and very muscular.
Brown was placed under arrest for attempted burglary. This time he spent three days in jail before posting bond and being released.
May 29, 1986, Fort Worth Officers Galloway and Dunn were working undercover in response to the increased crimes in the area. As the officers cruised the 6000 block of Brentwood Stair, just after midnight, a man emerged from the shadows. He kept away from the street lights, but they could see him. Sweating, nervous, he looked around sharply. Under his arm, wrapped in a towel, were two purses.
As the officers cruised past, the man made an effort to hide the purses, shifting them to his other arm and pulling down the towel. The officers circled, moving to a parking lot the man would pass by while they kept him in careful view. When the man was fifteen feet from the officers, they stepped out and showed badges. The man paused, and then took off running behind the Autumn Moon restaurant.
Dunn pursued while Galloway called for back-up. Dunn followed the man into an overgrown vacant lot in the 5600 block of Charlotte Street, just a block south of Brentwood Stair. Back-up was there within seconds, two more officers joined the chase. All four men were now chasing the man who still clutched the purses as he ran past the Amblewood Apartments, running parallel to a viaduct which stretched north and south. The viaduct was fifteen feet tall and twenty-five feet wide, it’s concrete walls slanted at a difficult angle, but the water underneath was just a trickle, the ground mossy and slick, and the man decided to use it to escape. Galloway caught the man’s leg just as he leapt for the edge. The man kicked and tried to pull free, but he was caught. His hands went to Galloway’s hip. He struggled with the officer for his gun. Instead he came away with the officer’s radio which he threw in the shallow water.
It took all four officers to subdue the man. They had to pry the purses from his hands, even as he fought them. He was reluctant to give them up. One of the purses was empty, but the other had a wallet and credit cards in them, all in the name Jewell T. Woods. A more careful search of the area would locate a black bra and a pair of women’s glasses, items that had fallen out of the purse.
They patted the man down and put him in the car, locating a syringe of narcotics in the process. They read him his Miranda Warnings, which he waived and agreed to answer questions. He claimed to have taken the purses from three men outside the Circle K gas station. He said the men had accosted him with racial slurs so he kicked them in the necks and took their purses. These were clearly women’s purses and the police weren’t buying, especially as he refused to identify himself and continued making attempts to escape. As they put him the back, he commented, “This is the third one for me. I’ll be doing the bitch.”
Doing “the bitch” or “high bitch” refers to someone being punished as a habitual offender. If it is proven that an offender has had two sequential convictions for third degree or higher offenses that included a trip to the pen, punishment for the third offense is 25 years to life. He wasn’t going to do anything to help them lock him away.
Concerned for the woman whose information was in the purse, they went to her home, the apartments at 6051 Bridge Street. They could see the screen had been pried off a window. Their knocks went unanswered. Afraid Jewell Woods, 51, might be injured inside, they tried the doorknob and found it open. Inside, the lights and television were on. A partially drunk glass of tea sat beside an evening chair with the evening paper and a pair of eyeglasses perched on the stuffed arms, as if someone had just stepped out. But there were also indications that this wasn’t what had happened. Clothing was strewn everywhere, including a pair of women’s panties in the entry way. Drawers had been pulled out. The door to the bathroom was damaged and appeared to have been kicked in.
Police knocked on doors. The next door neighbor said he had heard sounds of a commotion and Jewell’s dog yelping or whining just a half hour before midnight. At least, he thought it had been her dog. Now he wasn’t sure. There had also been some yelling, but he minded his own business. Jewell’s keys were in the stolen purse and her car was located in the parking lot, still locked. The dog, an Irish Setter named Emmy Lou, was also missing. Could she have stepped out to walk the dog? It didn’t seem likely she would walk out and leave the door unlocked, but there was no blood, no evidence of injury.
They contacted everyone they could think of based upon the information in her purse: her cousin, her uncle, her son, her many friends. Police then secured the scene, while leaving information for her to contact them upon returning home. That call never came. Instead, they heard from her employer the next morning when she didn’t show up for work. This was very out of character for the 51 year-old nurse. An immediate search began for Jewell.
Brown had been booked into jail for burglary and drugs. This time he gave his address as 3310 Pearl Street, his mother’s residence.
As word of the missing woman hummed across the grapevine, other residents of the apartment complex came forward to say they had witnessed a man who didn’t live there walking around at night. All of them described his clothing and said he was a tall, black male with a red shirt and red shorts. One woman saw him walking away with the items wrapped in a towel. The woman identified Curtis Brown from a photo spread. One man wasn’t sure, but he did place a question mark by Brown’s picture. He had seen the man from a balcony, but Jewell’s apartment was on the ground floor and he didn’t get a good look at the man’s face, however he was sure the man was wearing a red shirt and shorts. At the time of his arrest, Curtis Brown was wearing red shirt and shorts.
At the other end of the breezeway from Jewell’s apartment lived a woman named Becky. Becky complained to maintenance that night that the lights along their hall were all burnt out. The maintenance man who responded discovered the lights weren’t all burnt, nor were they malfunctioning. They’d all been unscrewed, making the breezeway dark. Detectives spoke with Becky. She was expecting her boyfriend, so when there was a knock on her door, she jerked it open. Instead of her boyfriend, there was tall, black male whom she didn’t know wearing a red shirt and shorts. He had a something in his hand covered by a towel. He stared at her for a minute. “Wrong door,” he said and walked away.
It was 11:30 am, just hours after police had left the apartment when they located her partially nude body in a stand of brush of a steeply slanted vacant lot just a short distance east of her apartment complex. She had been left face down, arms outstretched as if embracing the ground, wearing only a red and blue checkered shirt.
The soft ground told a story. Near the top of the slope there was a depression the size of Jewell’s head and a bloody rock. Drag marks led down to her body. The cause of death was obvious due to the damage done to her head. She had been beaten to death with that rock. There was bruising around the neck which indicated there had been some strangulation, but that was not fatal. The autopsy would confirm she had been sexually assaulted.
Brown’s movements could be tracked by his shoe prints. He left prints around the scene with diamond-shaped tread which matched his shoes. His clothing was examined and they found vegetation from the crime scene in his shorts. Blood on his shirt and underwear was type O, consistent with the victim.
Authorities believed he had come in through the front window. Jewell must have come into the room and seen him. She fled into the bathroom, but he broke in the door. They struggled and she broke free and ran, leaving the door open. He pursued her and caught her across the street where he raped her and killed her, then dragged her body farther from the road. He went back to steal, helping himself to two of her purses, one with her wallet and credit cards. As for the bra and eyeglasses, those were possibly trophies.
The Irish Setter, Emmy Lou, was found by a friend of Jewell’s and put in a kennel.
Murder in the course of committing sexual assault or burglary is a capital offense. The death penalty was on the table, but Brown agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. He also pled guilty to the burglaries.
Police were suspicious there were more crimes. They received information that Brown had been “robbing white women” for some time. He fenced the items he stole from these women with a drug dealer he was friendly with. The items were usually small, credit cards and jewelry items. They were also highly suspicious of a series of unsolved rapes that had occurred in 1983.
January 22, 1983, a black female, 36, living at 1502 East Canon woke up to find a man on top of her in the bed. He held his hand over her mouth and told her he would kill her if she didn’t cooperate. She was terrified, not just for herself, but for her young son. He sexually assaulted her. At one point, her son came out into the living room and saw the man on top of his mother. The man allowed him to go to the bathroom, then instructed the child to go back to bed. The boy saw the man, a black male, rifling through his mother’s purse. After the man left, the woman was afraid to leave the house. She showered around 4 am, then worked up her nerve to call the police. They arrived to see that the man had come in through the front window which had a broken lock. The screen had been pried open. Police spoke with the woman and the little boy who said he thought he recognized the man. He told police where he had seen the man before. January 25th, police spoke with the woman who said she had nothing to add. Police suspended the investigation that same day as unsolvable.
July 12, 1983, white female, 33, residing at 708 Grainger awoke to a noise. A man was in the room with her. He was a slender black male and told her to cooperate or he would “cut her.” He covered her head with a blanket and sexually assaulted her.
November 9th, a black female living at 1023 E. Magnolia woke up with a man on top of her. He had a hand over her mouth. The man dragged her outside to her back yard where he sexually assaulted her. After the man left, she ran to a neighbor to call police. She described him as a black male, around the age of 25 with facial hair and a slight build. She had just moved to this house a month before from 1013 East Canon, just blocks from the first rape, because her house there had been repeatedly burglarized.
There were other rapes, but they all had common threads, certain things that were done and said by the rapist that later led police to think they might have been the same man, a slender, black male with facial hair. In 1983, Brown was fresh from prison and far more slender than he was in 1986. Due to old statute of limitation laws, those rapes could not be prosecuted now and it’s doubtful the sexual assault kits were ever sent for testing, if they were even preserved.
Jewell Wood’s son was unhappy with plea bargain. He wanted to face the man in court. He wanted the death penalty. It was only later that he realized he was lucky to have a resolution. If Brown hadn’t been stopped fleeing from the scene, he too might have waited 19 years to know who killed his mother, because that’s how long it would take for Woods other crimes to come to light.
Curtis Brown’s Fort Worth crimes didn’t begin with Jewell Woods. It didn’t even begin with Patricia Morales. We can’t be sure exactly when it did start, but do know he had started killing by March 23, 1985.
April 2004 began the cold case revolution for Texas as the prison system began taking DNA from prisoners entering the system. That year alone they solved 14 murders and 81 sexual assaults. There was a renewed interest in old cases. Both Fort Worth and Arlington assigned a detective to pursue cold cases. In 2005 came a new mandate: test everyone in prison who came in before April 2004. Cold case detectives excitedly combed evidence records, looking for potential biological links.
For Fort Worth cold case detective Manny Reyes, that meant sorting through the city’s 764 “unsolvable homicide” files that had been boxed and stacked in a room in no particular order. Cases with preserved bio evidence were his first priority. He analyzed and cataloged cases, submitted the evidence for proper testing and sent profiles to CODIS for comparison. It was tedious work, but the results were undeniable. Within months, he got his first hit on a 19 year old murder to a man already sitting behind bars: Curtis Don Brown. That “cold hit” was just the start.
Next week, we will take a look at two very different women, Terece Gregory and Sharyn Killsback, two lives forever tied together by their violent end, and by the DNA that would unravel the mysteries of their deaths in part two of The Hunting Grounds: Cold Hit.
Fort Worth was a dangerous place to be a woman in the early 80s. They were vanishing, dying and being attacked in unprecedented numbers for the area. The women were white, black, Hispanic and native American. They were shot, strangled, and bludgeoned. They lived everywhere from the working class streets of south side to more genteel ones of TCU. They were moms, professionals, secretaries, nurses, teenagers. The only constant was the seeming randomness.
There might not be one obvious pattern, but it was clear that a predator had made Fort Worth his hunting grounds. Although they denied it at the time, Fort Worth Police Department had formed a task force that grew to 40 officers. For years they aggressively pursued thousands of leads. Interviews, polygraphs, and the limited forensics available at the time were used to sift thorough suspects and look for connections between victims, but when a predator chooses a stranger at random, the links can be impossible to find.
Some cases would be solved, both by luck and dogged police work. Others would linger, unsolved, cold, leaving families without answers and victims without justice. For those cases that did reach a resolution, a startling picture emerged. There wasn’t a single predator hunting Fort Worth. There were multiple predators, and the women of Fort Worth were their prey.
The killings abruptly stopped, leaving the unsolved cases as a horrific footnote to the decade of big hair, dance pop, and neon lycra. As time moved on, so did the police. There were always new investigations, fresh murders that were raw and immediate in their demands, stretching attention further and further from the those earlier crimes that cooled and then went cold.
But the victims were never forgotten. Certainly not by their families and friends. For them, the cases were always painful, a wound that couldn’t heal. Police remembered as well, but what could they do? They needed evidence that didn’t exist, or rather, they needed a way to read the evidence they did have. In many cases, there was biological evidence just sitting there, taunting them with an identity so close, but locked in the genomes and alleles of his DNA. For the cases to progress, something would have to change.
DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, the genetic blueprints of all living organisms, was first uncovered in 1869 by a Swiss physician and biologist, Friedrich Miescher. Miescher found nucleic acid left behind in surgical bandages. It would take more than a century for science to unlock the secrets hiding in our cells and longer still for forensics to develop a means of creating and comparing profiles.
This new, dramatic evidence was first used in the United States in 1988 to convict a man named George Wesley of the rape and murder of Helen Kendrick, 79. The New York trial was a media show that put science on trial, not George Wesley. Science prevailed.
In the bustling new world of forensics, DNA was a game changer. Not since fingerprints had such a reliable source of identification been utilized. DNA was a fantastic tool when a victim pointed at her attacker. Eye witness identification can be problematic, but with DNA, there was a concrete answer. The innocent were exonerated. The guilty were convicted. But to compare the DNA found at a crime scene, you had to have a known suspect, someone to compare it to. Then came CODIS.
In 1994, the FBI began CODIS, an acronym for the Combined DNA Index System, a program of support for criminal justice DNA databases. The National DNA Index System or NDIS is the national level version of CODIS, containing the DNA profiles contributed by federal, state, and local participating forensic laboratories. For the first time, local police could take an unknown sample and have it compared against an enormous database of known offenders. They would also eventually be able to compare to other unknown offenders in an effort to identify serial predators.
The larger the database, the more effective. For CODIS to work, it needed samples. In 2004 Texas required all convicted felons entering the penitentiary to give DNA for CODIS. They immediately solved 14 murders. That same year they also solved 81 sexual assaults, 40 burglaries, and four robberies in Texas alone. In 2005, a new law required the system to go back and take samples of everyone who came in before April 2004. Even more cases were solved.
Cold cases continue to be solved through a mix of detective work and scientific advancement. It’s time to re-examine these killings from the 1980s. If anything, recent developments in the news have shown us that justice may be slow, but it can still arrive, even 40 plus years later.
Over the next several weeks, I will look at some of the known killers that stalked Fort Worth in the early 80s–Curtis Don Brown, Lucky Odom, Juan Mesa Segundo, Faryion Waldrip, Ricky Lee Green– and then at some of the still unsolved cases in an ongoing series, The Hunting Grounds. I’ll also discuss legal issues facing cold cases including the backlog of DNA testing and time limit statutes that prohibit prosecutions.
You can expect to see a new article in this series every other week, starting with Curtis Don Brown on May 14th. Brown was every woman’s nightmare, the stranger in the night, crawling in through the windows. He would be caught in a murder by fate mingled with accurate police instincts. Only years later would science reveal just how lucky police had gotten when they nabbed the man who went by the nickname “Bandit.”
The adults in Shakeisha Lloyd’s brief life failed her. It’s not that they didn’t love her. She was very loved. It’s not that they weren’t doing their best. They tried. But the truth is that they utterly failed to protect her resulting in her death at the age of ten, just a day after she completed 4th grade. Surviving family members remember her as a sweet, cheerful little girl who loved singing.
Photo credit: TCU Magazine
Photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Shakeisha lived with her extended family in the historic Stop Six neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas. Stop Six is primarily an African-American community that was once the sixth stop on the Northern Texas Traction Company, a trolley line that ran between Fort Worth and Dallas. They’re best known as the home of the Dunbar Wildcats and their multiple basketball state championships under the guidance of legendary coach Robert Hughes. If she had survived, Shakeisha would have gone to school there. Instead, her mother met a man named Edward Lewis Lagrone.
Like so many inner city, blue collar communities, Stop Six was ravaged by drugs and gangs in the 80s and 90s like they were natural disasters that laid waste to families and the infrastructure. In 1985, Shakeisha’ s mother began dating Lagrone. Allegedly he made a living as a cook, but everyone knew Lagrone’s real job was as the local drug dealer. Crack had ferocious grip on Stop Six and Lagrone was deep in the culture. Pamela Lloyd only dated Lagrone for six months, but that was enough for him to ingratiate himself to the family. He would come by to visit with the children.
No one questioned why a grown man would be so invested in the children of a woman he briefly dated. As for Pamela, she was struggling with her own addiction to crack and Lagrone was her supplier. She was willing to ignore everything else to keep him closer. There were eight people living in Shakeisha’s house. She had a older brother, Charles, a baby sister, her mother, her uncle Dempsey, and two elderly great aunts, seventy-six-year-old Carolina “Caola” Lloyd and eighty-three-year-old Zenobia Anderson. Other family members were frequently there. Shakeisha was especially close to another great aunt and uncle, Beverly and Billy Lloyd. Their daughter Kendra was the exact same age as Shakeisha. Kendra was her cousin and her best friend in the world.
In spite of there being so many people around, we know Lagrone had plenty of alone time with little Shakeisha. In 1991, Pamela noticed physical changes in her daughter that concerned her. She was gaining weight and her breasts were growing. One night after her bath, Shakeisha told Pamela, “Mommy, something is moving around inside of me.” Pamela took her daughter to the hospital for an examination and learned that her 10 year child was 17 weeks pregnant.
Shakeisha admitted to her mother that Lagrone had been raping her for two years and that he said he would kill her if she told. She could remember nine different times she had been raped by Lagrone, but it’s hard to know how much occurred. Child predators spend time getting close to a child and gaining their trust. The goal is to have access, but to also ensure that the child doesn’t tell. The process of gradually escalating intimacy and control is called “grooming” and frequently includes lavishing attention on lonely children.
The predator starts out with little things, kissing or cuddling before moving into fondling and ultimately full intercourse. Threats and guilt are used to maintain control of the child. The child victims are often conflicted. How can someone make them feel so good and yet so bad at the same time? They believe from all the attention that this person must love them. If they tell about the bad parts, they’re harming this person who loves them. As with any confession, the longer they silent, the harder it becomes to tell. They become afraid that no one will believe them. Shakeisha had told no one. Not even her cousin.
Pamela wanted to do the right thing. She reported him to the police. But she also contacted Lagrone. At first he denied “messing with” Shakeisha and hung up on her. But later he called back and apologized. He said he was sorry for what he had done and that he would take care of the baby. She told him she was pressing charges.
The next day, she instructed Shakeisha to call Lagrone’s beeper, fearing that he might not call her back, but he would call Shakeisha. He did call back and she told him Shakeisha need to have an abortion which would cost $895. He said he would pay.
May 29th was the end of the school year. Shakeisha should have been looking forward to the summer and 5th grade. She should have been riding her bike or playing with Barbies. She should have been giggling with Kendra and dancing around singing as she loved to do. Instead, her mother was negotiating with Shakeisha’s rapist to pay for her abortion. Lagrone offered Pamela $1,000 to pay for the abortion and another $500 just for her. All she had to do was withdraw her complaint. He told her he would be by on Thursday with the money.
Pamela didn’t withdraw the complaint. She was trying to do the right thing by her daughter. She had brought this man into their lives and allowed him access to her children. She was going to protect her daughter now. But communicating with Lagrone would prove a fatal mistake. She should have known better. She really should have.
Lagrone was more than just a drug dealer. He had already been to prison before. Lagrone was already a convicted murderer.
On October 6, 1976, Lagrone shot and killed a man named Michael Anthony Jones in a dispute. He was sentenced to 20 years. While on parole for this offense, he began dating Pamela. In 1990, he has several pending arrests for dealing drugs and was facing more prison time. He was also under investigation for a double homicide committed in December of 1990. Someone broke into an apartment with a shotgun and killed a Clifton Demerson, 39 and Mary Demerson Daniel, 40. According to police, a note in Mary’s possession implicated Lagrone.
This was the man Pamela let into the lives of her family, her vulnerable children and fragile elderly women. She wasn’t bothered by Lagrone being on parole. At the time, she was newly paroled herself after serving time for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. She was deep into her addiction. Her uncle Billy Lloyd warned her about Lagrone. Everyone knew he was a dangerous man. But Pamela just knew that he brought her drugs. She would later comment that she thought he was great with children because he bought lots of presents to the children of the people he sold drugs to. He lavished attention and gifts on the kids of parents whose minds were clouded with drugs.
Although he was a convicted murderer who had threatened to kill the child victim of his new sexual assault charge, Lagrone hadn’t yet been arrested. Arlington Police Department were aware he lived in their city and had the warrant, but they just hadn’t gotten around to it yet citing “a heavy caseload.”
After the conversation where Pamela refused to drop the charges, Lagrone had his new girlfriend Anetta Daniel go with him to the Winchester Gun Store. He couldn’t legally buy a gun, but he gave her the money to purchase a double-barrel, pistol-grip, slide-action Winchester shotgun. She brought the gun out to him and he put it in the trunk of his car.
The next day was May 30, 1991. Pamela woke up around 4:00 am and went to get a drink of water. She was startled by a banging on the door demanding to be let in. Shakeisha’s brother later said he recognized the voice and begged him not to answer the door, but Dempsey Lloyd opened the door to find Lagrone standing there. Dempsey asked Lagrone what he wanted at that hour. In response, Lagrone shot him. Dempsey grappled with Lagrone for the shotgun, but he was weakening quickly.
Lagrone wrestled the shotgun away and went into the first bedroom. There he found Caola Lloyd. Caola was suffering from terminal cancer and was blind and mostly deaf. Lagrone executed the elderly woman with a single shot.
From there he went into the kitchen where he found Zenobia Andersons washing out some clothing. He also executed her with a single shot.
“Run, Mama” Shakeisha cried out. She and Charles were also running for cover, but first Shakeisha stopped to hide her 19 month old baby sister. This altruistic act probably cost her life as Lagrone caught up with her. Ten year-old Shakeisha threw up her hands to shield herself. When Lagrone shot, the bullet traveled through her hands, dismembering fingers and slammed into her cheek, exiting her jaw on the opposite side. He then placed the gun to the back of her neck and pulled the trigger a second time.
On the way out, he leveled the gun again at Dempsey. Dempsey begged for his life, but Lagrone shot him again anyway. Incredibly, Dempsey survived to identify Lagrone as the shooter. Pamela and Charles would also identify him. He was arrested almost immediately. Although there were three living victims and extensive forensics, Lagrone would deny he was the shooter. He also denied being the man who had impregnated Shakeisha, but unlike Lagrone, DNA doesn’t lie. He was the father.
Pamela Lloyd Tutt
At trial, Lagrone put a witness who testified that another person was bragging about the murder. Lagrone’s grown son Erik Williams, AKA Omar Anderson. His son wasn’t the most credible witness, having shot three men in three incidents, one of whom had died. That’s right. Just five months after the Lloyd family murders, Lagrone’s son also killed a man. At the time he testified for his father, he was a known gang member and drug dealer who was under indictment for murder. The jury rejected his testimony in favor of more credible evidence.
After the conviction, the jury heard more about Lagrone’s past including the drug dealing and the previous murder. They also heard testimony from two sisters, both aged fifteen at the time who had been abducted at gunpoint by Lagrone who sexually assaulted and terrorized them in 1986. He threatened them before releasing them and they didn’t tell until he safely behind bars.
The jury sentenced Lagrone to death in just 25 minutes. The violence and drugs didn’t stop there. They continued stalking this community and this family. Lagrone’s son is now serving a life sentence for the murder he was convicted of. Pamela’s addiction was too big to ignore. After Shakeisha’s murder, it only increased. She married the father of her baby girl, but he was also a violent man. In 1997 she shot and killed her husband Gene Tutt. She said it was self-defense. A plea agreement of five years was agreed on in 1999. This meant she was incarcerated on February 12, 2004, date Edward Lewis Lagrone was finally set for execution.
Charles also couldn’t be there. He, too, had fallen prey to the scourge of drugs, dying of an overdose at the age of 22. Shakeisha’s beloved aunt and uncle Beverly and Billy attended the execution as did Kendra, now 24. Lagrone was defiant to the end, refusing to admit responsibility and refusing to apologize. Kendra wept bitterly in front of reporters. She said she didn’t want to hate another person, but he had raped and killed her best friend. She was disappointed that he couldn’t at least apologize. Her father, Billy expressed relief that Lagrone would never again harm another person.
Pamela said before her release that she now accepted responsibility for her role and was ready for a change. She was ready to step away from drugs and men who had dragged her down. Upon release, she left the state and now resides in Missouri. I hope she has found her way.
When I look at the picture of Shakeisha, I’m filled with rage. She deserved better from the adults in her life. Her face is so innocent, so joyous. What a waste of a sweet, precious life.
Source Notes: The following are all sources I have used in this article, particularly murderpedia and clarkprosecutor, both of which list numerous other sources they relied on.
*Content Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of child abuse and sexual assault. Pseudonyms have been used for all minors in the story except for the victim in order to protect their privacy.
Summer in Texas means long, sweltering days. On July 1, 2013, 7:30 meant day was just tipping over into evening. The heat had loosened its grip ever so slightly, but the dark was still an hour and a half away. A thirteen year-old girl sat in the computer room of her Saginaw, Texas home, when she heard the sound of tires squealing and looked up in time to see a red pick-up truck racing away from a crumpled gray tarp near the corner of Roundrock and Cindy. The tarp clearly wasn’t empty. Its contents were bundled with what she thought might be twine.
Two neighborhood kids were out riding their bikes. The squeal of tires had also attracted their attention and they rode over. Curious, one boy lifted the edge of the tarp, then hastily dropped it. The teen girl came out and she also lifted the tarp, enough to see the semi-nude body of a child. Her screams attracted the attention of her father. He didn’t believe her when she insisted there was a dead child in the street and lifted the tarp to see for himself. He wished he hadn’t. The small girl was wearing a pink flowered shirt and nothing else. In addition to the tarp, she had been stuffed into a black trash sack. Her hands and feet were bound with red duct tape. Although he couldn’t see it, there were four plastic Walmart sacks were placed over her head and secured with more of the red duct tape.
The first officer who responded opened the bundle which had been secured with a brown men’s belt. He tore away at the plastic around the child’s face as he frantically checked for a pulse. But he could tell then that she was dead, and had been for a while at least. She was cold to the touch. She also was wet. Her fingers and toes were pruned like she’d been in the bath too long.
As the Saginaw police secured the scene, several noted an unwelcome sight—Tyler Holder, 17. Holder had many brushes with Saginaw PD and Detective Robert Richardson especially. Holder paced, watching the police work. There was something in the intensity of the way he stared that drew the attention of multiple officers who noted it in their reports. But when officers began canvassing the assembled neighbors, trying to figure out just how and when the body had been dumped, Holder managed to slip away.
Holder had a reputation as the neighborhood thug. He wasn’t in school and he wasn’t working. Judging by his Facebook posts, he spent most of his time smoking pot and causing trouble. A lot of the trouble was petty. He damaged property. He stole things.
February 21, 2013, he called Saginaw police to report that his mother’s guns had been stolen. He claimed three men had broken in but he scared them away. Police responded to investigate and quickly determined Holder’s story was not plausible. He claimed that the men all ran together out a back door, but on examination, the door was blocked and only partially opened. There was no way three grown men could have run out abreast. Also, it had just rained and the ground was damp and muddy around the house, but there were no shoe prints anywhere. When confronted with evidence that events could not have happened the way he described, Holder shrugged it off without seeming upset. He called his mother, who was not home, and told her the guns were stolen but the police didn’t believe him. Then he calmly hung up.
At his former school and in the neighborhood, Holder had a reputation as a bully. He was large and awkward, making jokes about rape and violence and he was known to carry a knife. A neighborhood teen recalled a time her brothers built a snowman. Holder came out and destroyed it. In retaliation, one boy threw a snowball at Holder who responded by pulling a knife and threatening him.
In 2012, Holder burglarized the house of one of his former principals. He was confronted later by the man who told him to return the property and he wouldn’t make a police report. Holder showed up with a pillow case full of the man’s belongings. Just days before the murder, neighbors had report a rash of car burglaries. Some of them suspected Holder, but there wasn’t any proof. It just seemed like the sort of thing he would do.
The mother of Holder’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Christina, forbid him from coming over to the house. She didn’t really have a specific reason. She just knew he made her very uneasy. One former classmate told the Dallas Morning News, “He was the kid you were always really nice to because you didn’t know if he was going to come shoot up the school. He was an angry person.”
The source of Holder’s anger isn’t clear. His mother was was loving, but his father was absent. The reason depends on who you ask. His mother, Kimberly Holder, says that his father left the state as soon as she told him she was pregnant. The father, who now lives in Montana, claims he knew nothing about his son until he was served with child support paperwork in 2009. He claims he tried to get some sort of visitation, but was stone-walled and just gave up. Likewise, his maternal grandmother was involved, but his grandfather was estranged from the family. Holder and his mother lived with his grandfather and step-grandmother until a family dispute when Holder was five. Kimberly Holder moved out and they never spoke again.
There is no documented history of the type of abuse often seen in cases of a sexual sadist, no indications Holder was every physically or sexually abused. When asked at jail screenings, he denied having been abused by anyone. His family wasn’t wealthy, but he had a home, clothing, affection. At worst, he was a latch key kid, but that’s hardly a recipe for creating a predator. Yet from an early age, he rebelled against normal discipline.
He was a difficult child, always acting up in school. He publically disobeyed his mother, challenging her and cursing at her. In 5th grade, some parents stopped allowing him into their homes because he talked about inappropriate things like drugs and sex, things they didn’t want their children exposed to. He had trouble making and keeping friends.
By the time Holder was in middle school, the behavioral problems were severe enough that he was being sent to a juvenile justice alternative education school. Instead of allowing him to go there, his mother chose to withdraw him and home school her son. She said she was afraid of him being around other juvenile offenders, even in the controlled setting, but perhaps she was in denial about how deeply her son’s problems were rooted. She repeatedly refused counseling referrals, insisting that everything was fine, even as her son began running afoul of the juvenile justice system. He was referred to the juvenile courts, but those records are sealed. He was not sent to Texas Youth Commission for incarceration meaning his offenses were likely misdemeanor or non-violent offenses.
When Holder claimed that the house had been burglarized, His mother believed her son and even bought him a gun to protect himself if the house was broken into again. However, she also kept her own door locked at all times and kept her own gun in there, hidden in drawer. Perhaps she didn’t trust him all that much.
She worked long hours in Grand Prairie, quite a daily drive from Saginaw. She denied he was drinking or doing drugs, but all his Facebook posts look like this picture. They’re all selfies of him in various states of intoxication, most especially with marijuana. He also vented about his difficulties with his sometimes girlfriend, Christina. His mother described how he was usually asleep when she got up and left for work, and often left the house after she got home. Throughout, she has stubbornly clung to her insistence that he was fine.
His Facebook “likes” got a bit of media attention, but were fairly pedestrian for a teen. He liked metal music, horror movies, and violent video games. Adolescent fantasies are one thing, but there Tyler Holder had a very dark set of interests, one that might have been addressed if only his family had availed themselves of the offered counseling years before. This aspect of how he spent his time would not come to light until after his arrest. In addition to pot, theft, and video games, Holder filled his days with anonymous sex with strangers he met through Craigslist, both men and women. He also regularly surfed child pornography websites.
Holder’s grandmother thought he was doing fine as well. She lived in Decatur, but was in Saginaw visiting him the day before the murder and she had spent the night. On the morning of July 1st, she left while her grandson was still sleeping and bought food for the house and took her car for repairs. Holder stayed in bed until 2 p.m., which was apparently normal for him. He had lost his job at Sonic just the week before. None of his fast food jobs seem to have lasted very long. Employers described him as lazy and unreliable, plus there was always that something that set other people on edge about Tyler Holder, some wrongness in him.
He did have a few friends, most notably JR*. JR saw Holder the day of the murder, both in the morning and in the evening. When JR saw Holder after the discovery of the child’s body, Holder told him confidently that the police had found the body of Alanna Gallagher. Problem is, no one else knew that, not even her parents…because they hadn’t discovered she was missing yet.
While police were processing the scene at Roundrock and Cindy, Laura Gallagher flagged down a patrol car to say that she couldn’t find her daughter, Alanna Gallagher, 6. Alanna had last been seen around 2:30 pm. It was now 9:30 and completely dark. It wasn’t unusual for Alanna to roam the neighborhood alone. She was a common sight riding her purple scooter around. Everyone in the area knew her. She was an outgoing, friendly little girl who would often just show up, knocking on someone’s door wanting someone to come out and play.
The officer returned to the Gallagher’s house at 641 Babbling Brook. He noticed Holder pacing around up and down the sidewalk outside his house, which was 649 Babbling Brook, only two doors down. The officer stopped and asked Holder if he had seen anything unusual. Holder claimed to have been out fishing all day. He hadn’t been around.
Inside the Gallagher house, the officer was shown pictures of Alanna and heard about how she always wore a watch to make sure she was home by her 8:00 pm curfew. The officer swung into action, interviewing neighbors and searching records to discover any sex offenders who might live in the area. Laura Gallagher protested that she felt a little silly involving the police. Her daughter was probably just watching cartoons somewhere and had forgotten about the time. She thought Alanna had gone to with a neighbors’ twin four-year-old granddaughters, but when she went over, they hadn’t seen Alanna. The officer followed up with that neighbor anyway. The neighbor confirmed that she hadn’t seen Alanna since June 30th. She told police that Alanna and her older sister Mary* sometimes came over, but that Alanna would cry when it was time to go home. She never felt right about just letting Alanna walk alone own and would stand and watch her until she made it into her home.
Police checked at another house where Alanna often played. That neighbor confirmed that Alanna had come over to play with her grandchildren around 2 pm, but said the family was on their way out. Alanna insisted she would wait “right by their door” until they returned. She felt terrible leaving the child sitting outside her house, but there was nothing she could do. This was the last confirmed sighting of Alanna alive.
The Gallagher family received a great deal of attention, some for valid reasons and others because of their nontraditional lifestyle. They consider themselves polyamorous, meaning they are a family unit of more than two adults in a committed relationship. The family dynamics have very little to do with the case, other than to say there were three adults living in the house, two men and one woman and their style of parenting could best be called permissive. Karl Gallagher, Laura Gallagher, and their third partner, Miles McDaniel, had three children, Mary, 9, John*, the middle child, and Alanna, baby of the family at 6 years. John had some special needs and Mary, 9 was known to be maternal to her younger siblings. She checked on them every day while they were at school.`
The most troubling aspect was the lack of supervision in the household. Neighbors came forward to say that Alanna was always outside, playing by herself without her parents keeping track of her. She rode her purple scooter around, visiting everyone. Purple was Alanna’s favorite color. Likewise, the school reported that the family was not at all involved. The parents never attended school events. Indeed many of the teachers had never met the parents. The children didn’t participate in any clubs, sports or clubs. Teachers described Alanna as a happy, outgoing, and friendly child. She liked to wear dresses and wanted to be a princess. They found her especially needy, hungry for physical contact, always seeking hugs and praise. She clearly got herself ready for school. Her hair was not brushed and she wore mismatched clothing that was not age or size appropriate.
The same officer stopped by Laura Gallagher on July 1st remembered a previous incident with the family that occurred when Mary was 6. He received a call about a child playing unattended at a park. A family was concerned that the little girl was there for hours with no adult in sight.
The officer arrived and spoke with Mary, then tracked down her mother. Laura was irate when the officer insisted she come and pick up her daughter. She said that she frequently let daughter go play at the park to get out of the house and saw nothing wrong with her walking there. The officer pointed out how young the child was and that she had to cross streets with busy traffic and no sidewalks. He also tried to explain about child predators.
The small community of Saginaw might seem perfect, safe, but the police knew better, as did many of the long term residents. They were especially mindful of the risks because of the Opal Jo Jennings case in which she was snatched and murdered while playing outside her grandmother’s home. That case left deep scars on Saginaw. (For more details about that crime, see No Safe Place.) But Laura dismissed his concerns. She told the officer that such things don’t really happen as often as the news tries to make is sound.
The Gallaghers seemed to favor the concept of “free-range parenting” although they did not use the term. The idea is to encourage children to function independently with very little parental supervision.
July 1, 2013, the family first realized Alanna was missing at 6:30. Mary had made hotdogs for dinner. When Laura couldn’t find Alanna, she sent Mary out to look at the neighbors. She returned without her sister. No one knew where Alanna was. They ate dinner, then went to look again.
Laura and Mary drove around awhile, but they didn’t spot Alanna. Laura sent Karl a text. When he returned, Laura and Miles were playing World of Warcraft. They had decided just to wait for it to get dark and hope Alanna would come home. Karl and Laura made another trip around the neighborhood, but again, no Alanna. They went home and Karl made himself a dinner. The parents went around and knocked on doors at around 9-9:30 pm, according to neighbors. That’s when Laura spotted the police car and flagged him down.
A dispatcher put the two scenes together: a child missing, the body of a child found. She notified both sets of officers and soon the identity of the girl in the tarp was confirmed.
Saginaw police sought help from larger agencies including the FBI. They processed things methodically, but one name came up almost immediately. Tyler Holder was interviewed and he told the detective that he slept in until around 2 pm. He claimed he watched some TV shows and then left to look for a job. This was a different story than he had given the officer investigating Alanna’s disappearance. It also didn’t match the evidence police possessed that Holder’s car wasn’t seen driving away in the afternoon.
Police honed in on him as a suspect almost immediately, but they didn’t press. They could afford to be patient. Alanna’s autopsy report was gruesome reading. She had been sexually assaulted anally. Bruises to her face, arms and torso indicated further violence. The cause of death was suffocation due to the four plastic bags placed over her head and wrapped with duct tape. Her body was then submerged in water for a period, possibly in an attempt to cleanse her of biological evidence. This attempt was unsuccessful. DNA was obtained from anal swabs and from a belt. Also collected with Alanna’s body was a roll of toilet paper, crumpled and dirty that was inside the tarp. Her clothing wasn’t missing, but rolled up in the tarp with her body, however, her purple and pink watch wasn’t there. Alanna never took it off. Had the killer kept it for a souvenir?
Saginaw reeled from another brutal child murder, another little girl taken from close to home. Parents were afraid to let their children outside. A makeshift memorial sprang up on the street where her body had been found. Neighbors, friends, and complete strangers brought stuffed animals to remember her. As days turned into weeks, there was a vigil with purple balloons and a $10,000 reward for tips. Holder attended the vigil wearing a T-Shirt that read “WANTED.” Too keep the case in the public view, supporters started a purple ribbon campaign. DNA was taken from all the neighbors voluntarily. No one wanted to be the person who refused. Even Tyler Holder let them swab his cheek.
While the public demanded answers, police were close to being able to provide them. The cardboard center of the toilet paper roll was analyzed by FBI labs and was determined to belong to a batch shipped to Texas and sold in an Arlington Costco. Kimberly Holder had a membership to Costco. The police collected the trash put outside the Holder home. The bags matched the one Alanna’s body had been stuffed into, same brand. In the trash was red duct tape. Kimberly Holder had some work done on the house recently and a silver construction tarp had been spotted outside her home by a neighbor. That tarp was no longer there. Animal hairs were collected from Alanna’s body. Dog hairs, to be exact. The Holders had a dog of the right type to have left those hairs
All these small pieces were forming the picture of Alanna’s killer, like a puzzle being filled in, but what police really needed were results from the anal swab. DNA would complete the image.
July 19, 2013, Saginaw PD was surprised to receive another emergency on Babbling Brook Drive. This time it was a fire. They arrived to find that someone had set fire to memorial in front of the Gallagher’s home, and also to Karl Gallagher’s car. Believing it to be arson, the ATF brought out specially trained dogs who confirmed the presence of an accelerant. Who would be so cruel as to torment the family grieving the loss of a child? The family had a lot of detractors over the past few weeks, but police wondered if someone had been hateful enough to lash out at the family. The family hadn’t shied away from the publicity. They had been out front, begging for people to come forward with any information and defending their lifestyle, which had become the focus of so much criticism. The fire had spread from the car toward the house, damaging its exterior and placing the family in danger.
Around this time, Holder’s friend JR came forward with his mother. A few days after Alanna’s murder, Holder had given him a cell phone, saying he’d gotten a new one. JR asked if there was anything that needed deleted, but Holder said no. JR later found some alarming things on the phone. There were searches for “best child pornography” and photos of Holder in women’s underwear and naked with a garden hose inserted into his anus. There was also evidence of Holder’s Craigslist history with his anonymous hook-ups. JR cut off contact with Holder and deleted pictures, but he finally told his mother and she had insisted they bring the phone to the police.
Just one day after the arson, the police had what they needed. The DNA results were in and confirmed police suspicions. Both the anal swab and the men’s belt that had been used to bind the tarp were confirmed to belong to Holder. They drafted a search warrant for the Holder residence to look for:
In addition to the search warrant, police obtained an arrest warrant. Because they knew there were guns in the house, the FBI Safe Streets Task Force was tagged to take Holder into custody. Holder opened the door as if he were surrendering, but abruptly pulled his mother’s 9 mm from behind his back and shot 22 year Arlington Police veteran Charles Lodatto who was part of the FBI taskforce investigating the case. The bullet struck Lodatto in the groin, severing his femoral artery and lodging in his hip. The injury could have easily been fatal, but officers quickly applied a tourniquet to keep him from bleeding to death. He remained in ICU for some time, but trauma surgeon Dr. William Witham who treated Lodatto said their quick actions saved his life.
After he shot Lodatto, Holder was shot in the neck and immediately transported to the hospital. The scene was locked down due to the shooting and first processed as an active crime scene. The search warrant would not be executed until the following day. Serving the warrant filled in many of the missing pieces. They found the red duct tape, numerous used condoms, matching toilet paper rolls, latex gloves, garden hose lengths, and most damning, they found Alanna’s watch. The also found gas cans and evidence tying Holder to the arson at the Gallagher’s house.
They also found evidence that Holder had been planning on either “suicide by cop” or trying to run. On the nightstand by his bed, in a sealed envelope, he had left a letter for his mother that some interpreted as a suicide note. “Mom, I love you and I’m sorry, but I have to leave,” the note read. “I took your shot gun and your hand gun. I want you to know you are not responsible for this.” He tells her the he can no longer “hold back” the things going on in his head and how he wants her to live out her plans for them. “I love you so much. You were a great mom. You gave me everything I ever wanted. Don’t let this ruin the good memories of me and us together. I just wasn’t made for this world. Tell Granny and Bubba I love them. I will leave my car in a safe place in good shape. If I live I will write you.” The portions about leaving his car in a safe place indicates that he may have been more literal when saying “I have to leave.” He planned to run for it, but the police came for him before he had the chance.
July 31, Holder was well enough to have a conversation with detectives. He couldn’t speak due to a tracheotomy, but he could write his answers to questions. After being read his Miranda warnings, he mused about whether or not to speak with police. He both wanted a lawyer and wanted to talk right then. That wasn’t possible, but he wanted to prove he could be cooperative. At one point, Detective Richardson told him he did not expect a lawyer would want him to talk to the police about dumping the body. He once again told Holder it was his decision whether he wanted to talk. Holder responded by writing “I didn’t drop her.”
What followed was a nonsensical story about a man who looked just like Karl Gallagher, but wasn’t Karl Gallagher. Holder said the man, a stranger, showed up with Alanna. He was evasive about her condition, saying she was alive when she got there, but “she left dead.” He elaborated that she was injured and had been beaten. He claims this man brought her over and had sex with her there and killed her, but he didn’t witness it.
When the detective asked questions about Holder sexually assaulting Alanna, he played dumb, saying things like “I don’t know what you mean.” Detective Richardson then explained about the DNA. Holder admitted having sex with her after she was dead. He claims the stranger asked for the bags and duct tape. He said that she was bound and dead when he turned her onto her stomach and raped her anally.
His story, already unbelievable, took strange twists and turns. First, he claimed that he yelled at the man to stop beating her, that she was hurt all over and he tried to stop the man from having sex with her. Then he says that the man made him have sex with her, or told him things “that made sense at the time” but that he no longer remembered, things that convinced him to have sex with Alanna. Holder said he went to the restroom and when he came out, the man had left, carrying away the body of Alanna Gallagher.
The detective summarized for Holder: A stranger brought an injured child to you, and taped her up, convinced you to sexually assault her, then killed her and carried her body away. Holder confirmed that was his story. Even if the story wasn’t so ridiculous on its face, there was not a shred of evidence to suggest another person being involved. All the DNA, all the items found with Alanna, all the items left behind, everything tied her to Holder. Holder was charged with capital murder for Alanna’s death, attempted capital murder for shooting Charles Lodatto, and arson for starting the fire at the Gallagher’s house.
Holder’s trial was scheduled for October 2014, but in September, prosecutors announced a plea deal. A new Supreme Court decision ruled that mandatory life sentences for defendants younger than 18 were unconstitutional. Holder was 18 at the time of trial, but he had been 17 at the time he committed the crime. Afraid the case might fall into a legal loophole, prosecutors consulted with the family.
The charge of capital murder was reduced to plain murder. He still received a life sentence, but with the possibility of parole. In addition, he received 20 years for the arson and another 40 for trying to kill Charles Lodatto. That last sentence was stacked on the life sentence, meaning even if Holder received parole for the murder case, which he would be eligible for in 30 years, he would have to serve his time for the attempted capital. He would have to serve at least half that sentence. In essence, Holder would have to serve 50 years before he could even think about being released.
For the Gallagher family, this meant they would be spared a trial and further vilification in the press and social media, but it was a sad realization of how dangerous the world really was.
“Nobody thinks you’re down the street from someone developing into a monster,” Laura Gallagher said. “There’s not just our kids, but so many other kids we’d see out playing. And you think of all the times that all these kids were walking past that house, and you feel like it was a time bomb slowly building that we didn’t know about, and it went off on our baby.”
This is the third and final installment in my series on Ethan Couch. You can read the first installments here: Wrecked Part 1 and Part 2.
Ethan Couch was living a bachelor’s dream life. He had a job that required minimal work for good pay, a 4,000 square foot house with a pool, all the booze and girls he could ever want. Problem was, he was only 16 and that lifestyle came to a crashing halt, literally, on July 13, 2013. For most families, having your son placed on probation for four counts of Intoxication Manslaughter would be a huge wake up call. But then, we’ve already established that the Couches weren’t most families.
The crime and subsequent trial were understandably stressful on the family. Fred and Tonya’s on again, off again marriage was off and the couple divorced. Ethan was sent off for treatment, although not to the Newport Academy as the family and judge had intended. Instead, Ethan Couch was sent to Vernon, a state run hospital. The parents had been ordered by the judge to pay for Ethan’s treatment, a bill that ran up to $200,000, but somehow, that didn’t happen. They family claimed to have been bankrupted by the civil suits filed against them and the costs from defending Ethan. The judge amended her order for them to contribute $11,000 for his stay in Vernon from February to November of 2014.
The family managed to go almost a year beneath the media’s radar. Then in July 2014, Fred Couch couldn’t keep from boasting.
North Richland Hills Police were called to the scene of a disturbance. Fred Couch was simply a witness, but he made the investigating officers very nervous. The officers didn’t know what his involvement was and asked for ID. Fred wasn’t good at following their instructions and kept putting his hands in his pockets and being evasive. They asked him if he had any weapons and he responded that he had his “Lakeside Police Stuff” in the car. They questioned him further and he claimed to be a reserve officer. He flashed a badge for them and showed what appeared to be a TCLOSE license. However, one of the officers was well acquainted with the Lakeside Police Chief Lee Pitts and called him at a later time to confirm Fred really was an officer. The badge had looked off. It had a red center and the officer didn’t recall having seen that before. He was right. Fred wasn’t an officer, not for Lakeside or anywhere else. He had an old Volunteer Search and Rescue badge. Charges of Impersonating an Officer were filed and Fred entered a plea of Not Guilty. The part I find the strangest is that there was no reason for him to do this. He had nothing to gain, except for stroking his ego.
Fred’s case was still pending, when in January 2015, he was in a minor fender bender with Tonya. She was driving his truck and backed into a small car. Their truck hardly had any damage, but the car was extensively damaged. Fred and Tonya got into a verbal altercation with the woman they had backed into. Instead of giving their information, they got back into their truck and drove off. Witnesses had their license plate and it didn’t take police long to chase down the pair and charge Tonya with Leaving the Scene of an Accident. That case was soon dismissed. Tonya and Fred paid a large amount of what they said was “restitution” to the victim of that case. The amount was undisclosed, but immediately after the victim became uncooperative with prosecutors. The case was dismissed in September of that same year.
After his release from Vernon State Hospital, Ethan still wasn’t on the streets, but in a program in Amarillo known as Next Step. Ethan stayed in that program until February, 2015.
The Civil Suits
Ethan may have avoided jail time, but he hadn’t avoided another reckoning: civil lawsuits. A civil suit couldn’t put him behind bars as the survivors and families all wanted to see, but it could hit the Couch family where it hurt. Suits were filed by family members of all four victims and two of the passengers in Ethan Couch’s truck, including Sergio Molina who suffered a devastating injury requiring round the clock care.
Those suits all reached a settlement. But there was one more suit. This one was filed on behalf of Lucas McConnell, one of the boys injured in youth pastor Brian Jennings’ truck. McConnell suffered minor injuries to his face, head, and back, mostly related to the glass which shattered, but he also suffered emotional distress, seeing his friend and pastor killed in front of him.
He struggled to make sense of it. The slap on the wrist Ethan Couch received felt more like a slap in the face to Lucas. Lucas and his parents decided that holding the Couches accountable was more important than a monetary settlement. They weren’t interested in settling.
The accused can’t be forced to testify in a criminal proceeding, but civil is a different animal. Ethan and his parents were forced to answer questions in recorded depositions. Fred Couch’s business was also named in the suit because Ethan had been driving one of his father’s work trucks that night.
In the recordings, Tonya and Fred both try to paint themselves as responsible parents. Tonya acts baffled that Ethan was drinking, despite her having frequently witnessed it. Ethan’s girlfriend testified that she and Ethan had been drinking with Tonya just a week before the crash. Ethan’s older sister said that she confronted Tonya about Ethan’s drinking and driving, telling her mother she was very concerned. The last text Tonya sent Ethan before the crash was a reminder “just don’t drink and drive.”
Fred made claims of punishments he had doled out to Ethan that were shown to be false. He claimed to have forced Ethan to walk to work after the incident where he was caught peeing in a Dollar General parking lot. But nobody else recalls that punishment, including Ethan. Tonya also claimed that Ethan was disciplined, but couldn’t recall any specific instances or when the last time was.
Ethan said he didn’t recall the accident. He claimed to remember pulling out of the driveway and the next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital, handcuffed to the bed. Perhaps that was true or perhaps it was a convenient way to avoid discussing the accident. He admitted that his parents knew he was drinking. His mother even knew he was drinking that night. It was why she sent the text. He also admitted to a lot of drugs. “I’ve taken Valium, Hydrocodone, marijuana, cocaine, Xanax and I think I tried ecstasy once, pretty sure that was it.” He is calm, matter of fact in his recitation of events.
The McConnell family fought to make sure the deposition tapes were revealed and cooperated with a 20/20 special regarding the case. Afterwards, they were satisfied. They had turned the spotlight on the Couches and made them speak about it. October 9, 2015, they settled the case, but not for millions. They settled for attorney fees and $60,000 to be held in trust for Lucas as a college fund.
Run for the Border
Probation comes with conditions and one of the key ones for Ethan was that he wasn’t allowed to drink. First, he was underage and probationers are required to commit no new offenses. This means you have to follow the laws, which should be obvious. Second, part of Ethan’s ‘rehabilitation’ means a commitment to sobriety. Third, anyone on probation for an alcohol related offense isn’t allowed to drink.
In December 2015, a series of tweets directed to Burleson Police Department and the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office appeared to show Ethan living it up while playing beer pong. He hadn’t even been out of rehab for a year yet.
In response, Ethan Couch’s probation officer contacted him and ordered him to appear at the probation office. He had obviously been violating his probation. But instead of allowing him to face the consequences, Tonya and Fred Couch rushed in to once again rescue Ethan from himself. Tonya and Ethan made plans to flee.
The family was still far from destitute. Tonya withdrew $30,000 from the bank. The family threw a bizarre sort of ‘going away’ party for Ethan. Then Tonya and Ethan got into a pick up and disappeared.
Ethan didn’t appear at the probation office where he was scheduled to appear and submit to a drug test. Authorities began looking and soon realized Tonya was missing as well. The story went public rapidly and people assumed, rightly, that they had left the country. They had money and a head start. People wondered if they would ever be found. Surely they wouldn’t be stupid enough to poke their heads up. They wouldn’t be arrogant enough to lounge about at a tourist destination such as, say, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Actually, once across the border into Tijuana, Ethan and Tonya changed their appearances with a little cut and color, and then made for the seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta. Initially they stayed at the Los Tules resort, but an employee suggested a nearby neighborhood. Allegedly this was to make them more comfortable, but perhaps it was to make the staff more comfortable.
They weren’t the best guests. They insisted on paying cash instead of using a card. Resorts like to hold a card number to be sure they aren’t stiffed by people leaving in the night, or using services they never paid for. Ethan and Tonya refused to complete their paperwork the first night. They promised to complete the paperwork at a later date, but never did. Whenever asked their identities, they would simply respond “We’re from Texas.” Staff began referring to them as ‘the Texans.’
The staff informed them that the resort was booked up for Christmas, so they would need to leave soon. They kept to themselves, except for the night Ethan went to a ‘gentleman’s club’. Tonya went to bed while Ethan was out at a strip club. He racked up a a massive tab he couldn’t pay. He had run a tab at two bars, but after paying one, he couldn’t pay the other. The club manager and a waiter came to the resort and refused to leave until Tonya was woken up to come downstairs to pay her son’s $2,100 bill for alcohol and lap dances. She seemed annoyed at being woken, but didn’t say a word to him about it. At least, not in front of anyone else.
When the time came to leave, they asked if there had been any cancellations, but the staff suggested the move to the nearby neighborhood. It’s odd to me that they ran without a plan. What were they going to do? Did they think they could stay there forever? What would they do when the money ran out? It wasn’t going to last forever with massive bar tabs.
They were able to extend their stay and moved to another room, leaving behind a room filled with junk food wrappers, and Tonya’s gun. The staff had to call Ethan to come back and get it. After five days, they had to leave.
Meanwhile, back in Tarrant County, law enforcement was frantically looking for Ethan and Tonya Couch. A warrant had been issued for Ethan. Tonya was officially a ‘missing person’ although they were certain the pair were together. U.S. Marshalls had offered a $5,000 reward for a tip leading to the apprehension of Ethan. The break they were missing came when Ethan called home to talk to someone with his new cell phone. Law enforcement now had a cell number. They needed him to make another call for them to lock in on his location. A few days later he called for Dominos pizza.
The Couches had been gone for close to a month by that point, but once law enforcement knew where he was, they pulled in Jalisco State Police. Ethan and Tonya had overstayed their entry and were in Mexico illegally. After a week of surveillance, they were located in a neighborhood near the resort and arrested. Tonya’s hair was much shorter and Ethan had died his ginger hair and beard black. It wasn’t a good look for him. Tonya and Ethan lied about their identities, but they had no papers and were detained.
Tonya was quickly brought back to the U.S., while Ethan initially declared he would fight extradition. He had a good reason to fight, because time was his friend. Tarrant County prosecutors had already declared their intent to see Ethan transferred to an adult court for probation. To do that, they had to have a hearing with Ethan present, and it needed to happen before his 19th birthday, which would occur in just three months. The clock was ticking.
Ethan’s attorneys wanted him to be revoked as a juvenile, but after his 19th birthday. The maximum Ethan could be sentenced to under the juvenile law would be a term until his 19th birthday which would have passed at the time of sentencing. In other words, he would basically receive time served. He wouldn’t be to be transferred from juvenile to adult punishment because of this catch. The defense could only benefit from a delay.
But things had changed in Tarrant County since Ethan was put on probation. Judge Jean Boyd had abruptly announced her retirement. Her successor, Judge Tim Menikos would be making decisions about Ethan’s case. Tarrant County also had a new District Attorney and she wasn’t afraid to go after Ethan aggressively, perhaps even make new law. Judge Menikos indicated that he might entertain a motion to transfer without Ethan physically present if he voluntarily absented himself from the proceedings. If Ethan was transferred while still down in Mexico and failed to appear in adult court, the prosecution might then claim he was violating his probation and ask the judge to sentence him to prison time.
It was a strange dilemma, one legal scholars were already arguing over and neither side was sure what would happen. Ethan Couch decided to return to Texas.
Transferring Ethan wasn’t without risk for the prosecution. Because the violations to his probation occurred as a juvenile and prior to his transfer to adult court, the defense would insist he was beginning with a clean slate, a do-over. An adult court could do more to Ethan though. The judge could sentence Ethan to spend up to 180 days in jail as a condition of probation and face new, stricter conditions. If Ethan violated probation, he could receive 10 years in prison, possibly on each case if the judge could be persuaded to stack the sentences. That would mean 40 years in prison.
February 19, 2016, Judge Menikos heard the motion to transfer Ethan Couch to adult court. The defense team faced a dilemma. Fighting the transfer would mean a series of juvenile hearings to determine if Ethan had violated his probation. If the judge found that he had, which seemed pretty likely given the overwhelming evidence, the judge could sentence him to 10 years in juvenile and he could then be transferred to an adult court at the age of 19. They decided not to fight the transfer and to face adult court and Ethan Couch was officially transferred to an adult court just two months before his 19th birthday.
Four new adult cases were filed. When cases are filed, the computer system automatically arbitrarily assigns a court on a wheel system. Ethan’s cases were filed in Criminal District Court Number Two, placing his fate in the hands of Judge Wayne Salvant. You might remember him as the stern, no-nonsense judge from the Melvin Knox case which I covered in Slow Justice. Co-defendants are usually assigned to the same court for practical reasons.
Tonya Couch had been charged with Hindering Apprehension of a Fugitive and Money Laundering. The last may sound odd, but it basically means she invested money in a criminal enterprise, in this case the flight of Ethan Couch. Her case would also be heard by Judge Salvant. She was granted bond and ordered, among other things, to consume no alcohol and wear a GPS monitor.
Ethan was not granted bond because he had already fled once and he was already convicted of four felonies for which he was on probation. Probation gives a judge greater control over a person than someone who has merely been accused.
April 2016, Ethan Couch appeared before Judge Salvant to receive his adult terms of probation. Judge Salvant sentenced to Couch to 180 days on each case as a condition of probation, the maximum amount, on each case. The judge surprised many when he stacked the cases for a total of 720 days, or 2 years. Those days were conditions of probation which means they don’t count against a future sentence if his probation is revoked. He still has to serve his probation.
The defense fought the sentence. Among the legal maneuvering tried by Couch’s defense team, they filed a writ asking for Judge Wayne Salvant to be removed from Ethan’s case. This was denied February 2017 by the 2nd Court of Appeals. Ethan remained in jail.
Outside of the jail, life continued on. In December of 2016, Fred Couch went to trial and was convicted of Impersonating a Police Officer. He was sentenced to probation.
Tonya had difficulty complying with the terms of her bond release and had to appear before Judge Salvant several times in 2017 to respond to allegations of drinking and possessing a gun. The judge had ordered her not to drink, but he hadn’t ordered her not to possess alcoholic beverages and she was working as a bartender. He amended the conditions and released her back on bond.
Then early 2018, just before Ethan release date of April 2nd , Tonya Couch was arrested for testing postitive for prohibited substance. Ethan was released from the Tarrant County Jail with a list of new, strict conditions on top of the old conditions including a curfew and an interlock device.
Couch must submit to electronic monitoring which will track his location and ensure he’s at home each day between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
He must also wear a SCRAM alcohol monitor and submit to continually wearing substance abuse test patches as well as providing, on demand, hair, urine, blood or any other biological sample for substance abuse testing. All monitoring and testing will be done at Couch’s expense.
He must agree to take no medications not prescribed by a doctor and must notify his probation officer if any medications are prescribed.
Lastly, he is ordered to not operate any vehicle that is not equipped with a camera and ignition interlock device.
He was picked up in a black Tesla with dark tinted windows and whisked away. Neither he nor his parents had anything to say, but one interesting voice has spoken up on Ethan’s behalf. Tim Williams, a pastor and childhood best friend of Brian Jennings visited Ethan in jail multiple times. He says he counseled him and now believes that Ethan Couch has become remorseful and committed to change. But ultimately, the only person who can keep Ethan out of jail, is Ethan.
That’s where the saga comes to a rest for now. Tonya still remains in jail awaiting her trial. Ethan must now adjust to life outside of confinement. Perhaps it’s best to end this article by saying to be continued. . .
Megyn Kelly’s interview with Tim Williams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIN2KRH0xkM