Affluenza, a portmanteau of affluence and influenza, is a term used by critics of consumerism. It is thought to have been first used in 1954 but it gained legs as a concept with a 1997 PBS documentary of the same name and the subsequent book, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001, revised in 2005, 2014).–Wikipedia
Ethan Couch’s court team may not have originated the term, but he’s the poster child for “Affluenza.” Just google “affluenza teen” and his face pops up along with his crimes and punishment, or lack thereof. Most people can tell you that he’s the rich kid who got away with killing someone while driving drunk, but there’s a lot more to this story and I’m going to explore it in my first every two-part article.
Couch, a juvenile at the time, was sentenced to probation for killing four people in Intoxication Manslaughter, igniting a firestorm of criticism, controversy and intense scrutiny. What was it about this case that brought so much attention? Was it the absurd buzzwords? The perception of purchased justice? Or was it Ethan himself, the very picture of wealthy privilege? Was it his lack of remorse? The callous disregard for the lives he destroyed? Or was it the terrible nature of the crime?
Sunday, June 16, 2013 was Father’s Day, but not for Ethan Couch. The 16 year-old was out with his friends for a good time. At sixteen, he had moved out of his parent’s house and into a large home of his own. His father built houses and had built this one. The house was party central for kids. Couch and a group of other teens had already been drinking when they tried to buy more beer at a Burleson Albertson’s Grocery Store, but were refused for being underage. Undeterred, Couch stole two cases of beer from a Walmart. The party had to continue.
An hour later, just before midnight, Couch was behind the wheel of his father’s red Ford F-350, speeding down Burleson-Retta road, going 70 down the unlit, two-lane road in a 40 mph zone. Blood tests would later reveal his Blood Alcohol Concentration to be a .24, three times the legal limit for an adult. He also had Valium and marihuana in his system. He had left the party with a seven other teens and was heading for a store.
Just 400 yards away, four adults were grouped around a disabled car. Breanna Mitchell’s SUV had blown a tire and two women who lived nearby, Hollie Boyles, 52, and her daughter Shelby, 21, had come out to help. Breanna, 24, was a chef at a private club. It was her dream job even if it meant she was coming home late at night. The blown tire made her swerve off the road and hit a mailbox. She knocked on the Boyle’s door and called her mother, Marla. Marla was also Breanna’s best friend. She calmed her daughter and told her she was on her way to get her. “I love you, Mom. Please hurry,” Breanna urged.
In a driveway, two boys waited inside a car. Brian Jennings, 41, a youth minister had also stopped to help. He was on his way home from his son’s graduation and had been giving rides to two pre-teen boys. He left them inside his white, Silverado pick-up as he went to check on the women.
Couch lost control of the truck, veering of the roadway and slamming into Breanna’s SUV and then into Jenning’s truck with the boys inside. Momentum slung Jenning’s truck into the roadway where it stuck an oncoming car. Couch’s truck flipped before coming to rest against a tree. The group of four standing around Breanna’s SUV were flung 60 feet in the air. None of them survived the impact. In that one, alcohol-soaked moment, four people were dead.
Sergio Molina also made a mistake on July 13th. The 16-year-old was a bright, popular soccer player on the night he went to a party at his friend Ethan’s house. After playing beer pong and drinking shots, he got in Ethan Couch’s truck with a group of kids. Six fit inside the cab, but there wasn’t room for everyone. Molina and another boy climbed into the bed of the truck. Molina was thrown from the truck in the crash and suffered a devastating head injury. He cannot walk or talk and requires round the clock care.
After the crash, Molina’s family appealed to the Couches for assistance. Molina’s family wasn’t well off, not like the Couches. Molina didn’t have insurance and after a month, he was sent home from the hospital. There was no money for rehab or other care. They refused and told the family “call a lawyer.”
The family did call a lawyer, ultimately receiving a 2-million-dollar settlement. But as a Washington Post article (links in Source Notes) mentions, early treatment of a head injury is key. His mother was left to wonder what would have happened if he had been treated for longer than a month. She had to quit her job to care for her son who can only blink yes and no in response to questions.
The other boy in the bed of the pick-up, Solimon Mohmand, was severely injured, with internal injuries and broken bones. Both the pre-teen boys in Jenning’s truck were wearing seat belts at the time of impact and both survived. The door was jammed shut, forcing them to crawl out a window. Lucas McConnel, 12, suffered only minor physical injuries, but he witnessed something that would traumatize even the adults there. Bodies were everywhere, bleeding and moaning. Someone was screaming. He located the bloody body of Brian Jennings, his pastor and friend. The people in the oncoming car they had struck would also survive as would all seven passengers of Couch’s truck, but with varying degrees of injury.
Lucas McConnel, Photo credit: KXAS
Marla Mitchell was still on the phone with her daughter when she heard the sickening crunch of metal. Marla arrived to the accident scene and frantically ran in the direction of the wreckage. Couch staggered to her, slurring his words. “You don’t want to go that way. There’s nothing good happening over there.” She would later recall the chaos in the dark as she frantically looked for her daughter
Eric Boyles was stunned. How could his wife and daughter be gone, just like that? They had only stepped out into their own front yard.
THE TRIAL…PART 2
ABCNEWS article with links to the deposition recordings: http://abcnews.go.com/US/affluenza-dui-case-deposition-tapes-reveal-details-fatal/story?id=34505481
An excellent article from D magazine: https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2015/may/affluenza-the-worst-parents-ever-ethan-couch/
WARNING: This article contains graphic and upsetting descriptions of human and animal mutilations. There are some photos of animal skulls and maggots. I chose not to use the crime scene photos because of their horrific nature, but at the end I will link to an episode of Forensic Files which does show the photos. Use your own discretion.
We know a lot these days about what makes a serial killer. There are always outliers, but we know they often have horrific childhoods, particularly early childhood. Jason Eric Massey was born January 7, 1973 to parents with severe substance abuse issues. His father abandoned them immediately. His mother was young alcoholic and abusive. The birth of her first child didn’t affect her lifestyle. She would leave her toddler son in the car while she went into clubs. Two years later, she added a daughter. She beat them severely with a wooden paddle or a belt for any minor infraction. She kept the food in her room. If she found them sneaking in after food, she’d beat them. She moved constantly, staying just a step ahead of landlords looking for payment. At times they were homeless, living in her car. Jason and his siblings would show up at school as thin, hungry, dirty children with unexplained bruises.
Then there were the men. His mother brought a constant stream of men into their lives, often leaving the children alone with these men. It’s not surprising that one of them sexually assaulted Massey. By 9 years of age, Massey was bigger and stronger enough to take out his intense anger on those smaller than he was. He savagely beat a younger child with a tree branch. He also moved on to animal torture.
In the 1970s and 80s, there was a lot of discussion about what came to be known as the McDonald’s Triad, a purported predictor of homicide and sexual sadism. The Triad was animal cruelty, bed wetting, and arson. We now know that those are not predictors of violence, but rather indicators of extreme child abuse. They’re still huge, red warning flags because severe childhood abuse is one of the known contributing factors in serial killers.
Shortly after the beating of the younger child, Massey strangled and mutilated a cat. For the rest of his life, he would engaged in animal torture and murder. He was moving into his preteen years and the mutilation and torture would become twisted into his sexual fantasies. By fourteen, he was drinking and taking drugs and fantasizing about demons and power. He developed a fascination with fires and started numerous small ones.
In high school, he became obsessed with a girl who didn’t return his feelings. Massey had no notion of normal relationships. He began stalking the girl, calling her house. He killed her dog and painted the blood on her car. He had branched out from just cats to dogs and also cows, keeping their skulls as trophies.
It’s believed that around this time he started keeping a journal. His mother found it when he was 18 and had her son committed. If the entries were anything like his later ones, it’s no wonder. Unfortunately, he was soon released and immediately began again with the animal mutilations. He frequently talked about killing young girls, writing about them in the same way he described his animal killings, but people who knew him blew off the talk as self-aggrandizement. Sure he idolized Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Henry Lee Lucas, but that didn’t mean Massey was a serial killer.
But he wanted to be one.
In fact, that was his plan. He wanted to be the famous serial killer of all time, so he practiced on animals, keeping his trophies in a cooler, and he plotted and planned until he found his first victim. In 1993, Massey met 13 year old Christina Benjamin. Christina innocently flirted back with Massey. He was smitten with her. July of that year, Massey told his friend Christopher Nowlin that he had met a girl and was in love. He said he wanted to kill her, carve her up like one of his animals. He was stopped by police for a traffic offense. In the car he had knives and the body of a dead cat with a rope tied around his neck.
July 23, 1993, James King hear a sound late at night, a car beeping its horn. He looked outside and saw his 14 year old son Brian run out to talk to the driver of a tan car. James went to the restroom. When he returned, the car was gone and he assumed Brian had gone with him. It wasn’t until the next morning that he realized his 13 year old step-daughter Christina was gone as well. James King and his wife Donna Benjamin waited to see if the kids would return because at that time, police didn’t worry about missing teenagers. They would “turn up.” When Brian and Christina stayed gone for a full day, James and Donna reported them missing.
July 28th, Police responded to a call of animal cruelty in Telico, Texas in Ellis County. Ellis is located just below Dallas. It’s the bottom right of the counties which ring Tarrant and Dallas, and the US Census counts it as part of the DFW Metroplex statistically. Ellis is largely still rural, but in 1993, it was especially so. On that date, the Ellis County Sheriff Department arrived to find a mutilated calf behind a pizza restaurant. A young, blond male had been seen running away and he left behind his car, a tan sedan that was towed. At the time, they had no clue it might be related to the disappearance of two teens.
July 29th, just a day later, there was another shocking discovery in Telico. Next to a remote highway, work crews found the nude body of a young girl. She had been shot with a .22 pitsol, stabbed, decapitated and her hands removed. Both head and hands were missing. Her body had been shockingly mutilated. She was disemboweled, her body transected by long incisions like an autopsy that exposed her orgrans. Her thighs and genitals had long, intricate carvings. Her nipples had been cut off. The extensive injuries made identification difficult. The usual methods of dental records or fingerprints were unavailable.
Not far, a second body was discovered. 14 year-old Brian had been shot twice in the back of the head with a .22 pistol. His body was fully clothed and not mutilated. In Brian’s wallet was his library card. The sheriff’s department contacted his father who told them that his son was missing. Then asked about Christina. Was she the girl with him? It seemed likely. Donna and James told the police that Christina had recently broken a foot. X-ray records confirmed the fractures of Christina and the Telico Jane Doe matched.
In addition, there was long, blonde hair caught on nearby barbed wire that was consistent with Christina’s. DNA would later provide the more definitive confirmation. Due to the small size and rural nature of Ellis County, Dallas County Crime Lab provided assistance. At the crime scene, they discovered a blond hair on Brian King’s leg that did not match him or Christina. Stuck to his sneaker was a single tan fiber belonging to the interior of a Japanese-make vehicle.
Meanwhile, police were processing the tan Subaru seized during the calf mutilation investigation. Inside they found three blood stains. In the trunk was a blood stained leaf. There was a roll of duct tape with blood on it, a hammer and a hatchet, a receipt for .22 ammo. A bracelet was dropped by the blond man running from the scene of the calf mutilaion with the name JASON on it. He might as well have left a big neon sign behind.
Almost immediately, police received an annonymous call that they should look at Jason Massey. Considering he went around talking about how he wanted to murder and mutilate young girls, it’s not shocking. They heard he had been seen the day of the murders at a local car wash vacuuming his tan Subaru. When the story broke on the news, the owner remembered Massey being there and called police who seized the contents of the carwash vacuum. In them, they found an appointment card from Massey’s probation officer and multiple strands of Christina’s hair in a bloody red bandana.
To be certain which day the murders had occurred, they turned to a forensic entomologist. He examined the maggots and hatched some of his own in order to give an accurate age of the larvae found on the bodies. By doing this, he could deciseively say Christina and Brian had been deceased for two days. They were killed the same night they left in a tan car.
Police learned that Massey’s cousin owned a .22 caliber pistol that Massey had “borrowed.” Multiple people had seen Massey with the gun. The Walmart clerk who had sold the bullets, two knives, and handcuffs to Massey was able to ID him. At Massey’s house, police found the handcuffs, knife box, and newspaper articles he had cut out about the crime.
The fiber on Brian’s shoe matched the interior of Massey’s car. The blood on the car seats was tested and confirmed to come from Brian and Christine. Forensics and witness interviews painted a grim picture of the crime. Christine had agreed to sneak out and meet Massey. Perhaps she was nervous enough to ask her brother to come with them.
Perhaps she thought Brian could protect her from Massey. Instead, Massey drove them to a secluded location and shot Brian twice in the back of the head while still sitting in the car. Christine jumped out and tried to run, but Massey caught her and brought her back. There was no evidence of sexual assault. That isn’t where he got his pleasure. He shot her and dragged her back, then stabbed her multiple times. The gunshot did not kill her. It’s not known which of the other injuries were fatal. She was likely dead before the worst of the mutilations occurred.
Massey smirked during his arrest. He relished the media frenzy that followed, basking in the attention. There was a mountain of evidence, but in tiny pieces. Put together, the pieces made a whole picture, but conviction wasn’t a sure thing. It was a circumstantial case, even if the circumstances were damning. Then during the trial, a bombshell. A hunter in the woods stumbled upon a rusty cooler. Opening it revealed Massey’s trophy case. In the cooler were 31 skulls of animals, and a set of four spiral notebooks. These notebooks bore the title “Slayer’s Book of Death” and they were the ramblings, the fantasies, the plans and recollections of Jason Massey. It was his blueprint for murder and mutilation. He detailed his crimes against animals. He particularly liked strangling them and decapitating them so he could keep the skulls. Massey wrote that killing gave him an “adrenaline rush, a high, a turn on, a love to mutilate.”
Massey wrote of his admiration for famous killers, particularly Bundy, Manson, and Lucas. He aspired to be even more, the most famous serial killer of all time. He set a goal of 700 victims in 20 years, working out how many people he would have to kill a month to hit his total. He named girls he wanted to add to the list. The journal starts with his fantasies of rape, torture, mutilation, and cannibalism, but then moves into specific planning.” Massey wrote that he wanted “to grab society by the throat and shake ’em with terror until they’re awake and realize what’s up so they will remember who I am, when and why I came their way.”
Both sides only had a single day to process the new evidence. For the state, it was exactly what they needed, a glimpse into the mind of a wannabe serial killer. For the defense, it was devastating. The jury only needed 15 minutes to convict Massey of capital murder. After the verdict, the jury learned more about Massey’s background and his crimes against animals and robberies. He was sentenced to death.
Massey was executed April 3, 2001. As so many before and after him, he claimed to have found religion. Maybe he had. He grew from a boy to a man on death row. He expressed remorse and I can only hope it was genuine. He apologized to the families of Christine and Brian. He told them that “she didn’t suffer as much as you think” and said that he had thrown her hands and head in the Trinity River. He apologized to his family and said he was relieved his journey was at an end. “Tonight I dance in the streets of gold. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Would Massey have become a serial killer? He certainly had all the makings. Horrific childhood. Severe substance abuse. Animal mutilation. Fire starting. Sadistic sexual fantasies. At the trial, several experts testified that there isn’t a known treatment for such a strong case of anti-social personality disorder. As a society, all we can do is warehouse them or put them down like rabid dogs for our own safety. Maybe someday we will progress enough that we can do something meaningful to stop the process. The warning signs were there. If we can’t unmake the monster we have to stop him from being created. Otherwise, innocents like Christina and Brian suffer, just two kids who never had the chance to grow up because wannabe serial killer.
Few places are as empty as a church on Thursday. March 3, 2011, there were only two people working at Northpoint Baptist Church on Brown Blvd: Pastor Clint Dobson, 28 and church secretary Judy Elliot, 67. Clint Dobson had been a pastor at the church for three years. Young and enthusiastic, he was equally at home discussing the Office or Seinfield with the younger church members as he was talking over the deep spiritual concerns of the more senior members. It wasn’t unusual for people to appear at the church doors looking for help. Although the front door was kept locked, no one seeking help would be turned away.
We don’t know everything about what happened that day, but we do know that both Clint and Judy were at work by 8:30 that morning. Northpoint is a satellite church of First Baptist Arlington. The L-shaped building is shared by another small church. That church also had two people present. We know they didn’t hear anything unusual, but they did notice Judy Elliot’s car, a white Mitsubishi Galant, was gone sometime between noon and one.
We know that Judy’s husband became increasingly concerned when no one answered the phone at the church. He went to the church and discovered his wife’s car was missing and no one would answer the door. He called another church member who had a key. Through a window, the men believed they could see a pair of men’s shoes and immediately called the police around 4 pm.
Photo credit: WFAA
Photo credit: WFAA
Photo credit: NBCDFW
Photo Credit: Google Earth Image
They found a horrific scene. Both Clint Dobson and Judy Elliot were on the floor, hands and feet trussed up behind them. They were severely beaten and plastic bags had been tied over their heads with a black electrical cord and masking tape. The responding officer and Judy’s husband hurriedly opened the bags. Clint was deceased but Judy was still alive, although severely injured. Her jaw was broken and all her teeth had been knocked out. Her face was so swollen and disfigured, that her own husband could only identify her by her clothing. She was mumbling incoherently.
Clint had been deceased for an hour or more. The medical examiner would later testify that he survived a horrific beating in which he sustained 21 separate injuries, but the plastic bag had been placed so tightly over his head that he sucked in the plastic and slowly suffocated.
Judy was unable to help police. She hovered on the brink of death in ICU. While at the hospital, she coded twice and her injuries were so severe she needed a blood transfusion.
The office had clearly been ransacked. Judy’s purse and car were missing as was Clint’s phone and laptop. Police began tracking Judy Elliot’s credit cards. They learned her cards were used to buy items at The Parks, an Arlington Mall on the same day as the murder. Someone purchased jewelry and shoes. Surveillance video showed two men using the cards.
At the same time detectives were obtaining the surveillance footage, other officers were interviewing two women who had come forward. The women told Arlington Police that a pair of their acquaintances, had been laughing about the murder. The women said that when a news story came on the television regarding the murder of an Arlington pastor, both men made “inappropriate comments” and flashed items they claimed belonged to the pastor. The women further said that the men had been trying to rob people recently and that Nelson had new shoes and clothing. Police now had names and soon they had photo graphs to match up to the surveillance video. The person using Judy Elliot’s credit cards within hours of her near fatal beating was Stephen Lewayne Nelson.
Within hours of learning this information, Arlington PD arrested Anthony Gregory Springs, the man who was with Nelson. Springs had Clint’s cell phone and the keys to Judy Elliot’s car. He told police that he didn’t participate in the killing, but that Nelson had picked him up in the white Mitsubishi Gallant around 2 pm. Nelson told him he had killed a man and probably the woman as well. They went to the mall and Nelson bought items for them both with the credit cards. He said Nelson had given him Clint’s phone.
Springs actually had an alibi for the time of the murders. Police were able to confirm his alibi and cell phone records would later confirm he wasn’t in the area at the time of the robbery and murder. That isn’t to say Springs was any kind of saint. He has been in prison since this for another aggravated robbery. He was out there committing crimes, but he was no Stephen Nelson.
March 3, 2011 marked the intersection of two lives, two men on very different trajectories. Twenty-eight year old Clint Dobson was a man of faith and he believed in putting his faith into action. He was actively involved in trying to make the world a better place. He had fallen in love and married. He had gone to Seminary to become a pastor. Friends and family also remember him as someone who was warm, outgoing, with a great sense of humor. He once described his “super power” as being the “world’s best parallel parker.”
Twenty-four year old Stephen Nelson had just been released from an in-patient treatment program. He already had an impressive criminal history starting from the age of 13 years old. He served juvenile probations and had been sent to TYC. His most recent troubles were from May 2010 after he had strangled and pulled a knife on his then girlfriend. This wasn’t the first attempt at turning Nelson’s life around and he was good at tell the counselors what they wanted to hear. His counselor wrote that Nelson had made great strides in anger control and learning how to work for things instead of grabbing at “fast money.” Nelson wrote that he knew how to keep from going back to jail. He completed the anger control counseling days before the murder. He was still on probation for the violent assault.
Between the murder and the arrest, more witnesses came forward. At 1:45, just more than an hour after the murder, Nelson sold Clint’s laptop to a man at a tire shop. The next day when the news broke, the man brought the laptop in to the police. He had thought the man who sold him the computer was Clint because all the paperwork in the laptop bag had that name on it. Two women at a QT were approached by a heavily tattooed man with dollar signs on his eyelids who showed them a phone and said it came from “that dead preacher in Arlington.” Nelson has dollar signs tattooed on his eyelids.
A woman named Brittany Bursey came forward to say that Nelson, Springs, and her nephew showed up at her house in a white Mitsubishi Gallant the afternoon of the murder. Nelson was introduced to her as “Romeo.” Springs told her that the car was stolen and Nelson had cards. He was offering to buy free gas for everyone. When she questioned Nelson, he admitting that he had “hit a lick,” which is street slang for robbery. He told her that “somebody was strangled and somebody got beat half to death…I think I killed her, too.” She described his demeanor as “Nonchalant. He didn’t really show any emotion or any care about anything.”
That night, Nelson went clubbing with his girlfriend. She testified that he was normal that night, untroubled.
Police located Nelson at his mother’s home just blocks from the church. He barricaded himself inside, but police were able to talk him out.
Nelson might be contained in jail, but he wasn’t’ safe, not by a long shot. While in jail he broke light bulbs, flooded his cell, threatened jailers and assaulted one of them. He flew into a rage during a visit. He was found in possession of a shank, narcotics, and even razor blades. All of that pales in response to what he did to Johnathan Holden. Holden was incarcerated in the same cell block as Nelson. His crime was breaking into a car, most likely to sleep. Holden suffered from mental illness and often ended up arrested for petty crimes.
According to the other inmates, Nelson tricked Holden into helping him with a “fake suicide attempt” to get the guards attention. Holden stood in front of the cell bars and let Nelson loop a blanket around his neck. Instead of the fake attempt, Nelson strangled Holden. He held him there until his legs stopped kicking, then grabbed a broomstick and celebrated by performing a “Chuck Berry Dance” on top of a table by using the broomstick like a guitar.
Nelson would insist Holden had committed suicide, but his DNA was under Holden’s nails as he had tried to escape once he realized Nelson’s intentions.
Nelson testified at his own trial. He claimed that Springs and another man went inside and remained outside. They did the crime while he waited outside. But he was forced to admit that he went inside after the attack. When he was arrested, police found his bloody shoes in his mother’s house. He had stepped in Clint and Judy’s blood. It was splattered on his shoes and he left his tracks at the murder scene. He also left fingerprints inside the church office and some white, metal studs which came off his belt. The studs were good evidence that he had been part of a violent struggle, especially when phone forensics placed the men he accused at another location at the time of the crime.
Nelson tried to claim they were still alive and he just stepped around them to rob them. His attorney had to prompt him. “Did you feel bad about that?” He agreed that he did. He showed no emotion while discussing it. He couldn’t even fake the emotion in front of the jury. Unsurprisingly, he was found guilty in only 90 minutes. The evidence was overwhelming.
Upon being convicted, however, he showed emotion for the first time: rage. He was taken to the holdover cell behind he courtroom. He howled and screamed and managed to break the sprinkler system with his bare hands. The courtroom began flooding with black water as court personnel rushed to grab boxes of evidence off the ground and subdue Nelson. The day before his trial resumed, he was found to have razor blades in his possession.
At the punishment phase, the jury heard all about Nelson’s behavior in jail, including the murder of Holden. He wasn’t even safe behind bars.
Nelson’s attorneys claimed that he had never gotten the help he needed. He first acted out at the age of 3 when he set his mother’s bed on fire. They pointed out that his father was incarcerated most of Nelson’s life and was a negative influence. Nelson got into trouble with Oklahoma juvenile authorities at the age of 6. Ronnie Meeks, with the Office of Juvenile Affairs in Oklahoma, testified that Nelson finally ended up in the custody of Juvenile Affairs while they tried to rehabilitate him. Once, Nelson stole Meeks’ truck while he was being transported from one facility to another. Meeks remembered Nelson well. “That’s the thing I remember about Steven. I don’t remember ever seeing any remorse about anything.”
Nelson moved to Texas with his mother and siblings. Mary Kelleher, a psychologist and juvenile services supervisor, testified that Nelson’s criminal history in Texas dates to 2000 when he was 13. At 14 he was committed to the Texas Youth Commission. Even at that young age, he was unrepentant. When she asked him why he kept committing crimes, he just said that he was bored.
She also testified about his home life. His mother tried, but was very frustrated by Steven. She did everything she could. He had two siblings who turned out fine, but from an early age, Nelson seemed destined to a life of crime. The jury sentenced Nelson to die by lethal injection. He has exhausted all appeals and remains defiant, writing poetry from behind bars. I’ve read it and it isn’t bad poetry. I say that as a former English teacher. But it’s self-indulgent and narcissistic. Every poem is about him because that is how Steven Nelson sees the world.
Two men. One whose epitaph reads “He was generous of heart, constant of faith, and joyful of spirit.”
The other who took that joyful life. Unrepentant. Cold. Heartless.
SOURCE NOTES: Here are some of the public articles I relied on in my investigation. In addition I reviewed some of the primary sources such as reports and photographs which may be obtained with open records requests.
With the purity of hindsight, the warning signs are easy to see. John St. Angelo was always going to kill one of his wives. He was a loaded weapon, just waiting to go off, and when he finally did explode, all his rage and fury was directed at the newest ex-Mrs. St. Angelo, Suzanne Parsons. As prosecutor Allenna Bangs would later say, “She wanted to leave that house, and John St. Angelo didn’t want her to. But she did leave that house and didn’t come back. That was the beginning of the end for Suzanne Parsons. You just don’t leave a man like John St. Angelo until he’s ready for you to go.”
St. Angelo and Suzanne married in Florida in 2010. They had known each other for many years, but the romance was new. It was the third marriage for St. Angelo and the second for Suzanne. At first, everything was golden. Both were extremely successful, professional people and business owners. St. Angelo’s children from his second marriage often lived with them, something that added stress into the relationship. Another source of stress was St. Angelo’s explosive temper.
That temper had gotten him into trouble before. In 1986, while living in Lebanon, New Hampshire, St. Angelo was arrested and charged for assaulting a man and damaging his vehicle. The man’s crime was he had previously dated St. Angelo’s new wife. This wife (whom I have decided not to name because everyone deserves some privacy) was in the vehicle with St. Angelo when he spotted the ex-boyfriend outside a fast food place. The man spotted St. Angelo heading for him and tried to leave, which enraged St. Angelo. He wanted a confrontation so he kicked and damaged the man’s door until he got him to open it. Other people saw this and called the police. The wife insisted she didn’t see anything. Although she never filed a complaint, people who were close to her have said they were alarmed by his controlling ways and suspected things were not good. The couple divorced and St. Angelo soon had a new woman in his life.
I am going to refer to this second wife as “K” rather than her name. K suffered such extreme abuse at the hands of St. Angelo that it greatly exacerbated her mental health issues. She has repeatedly been hospitalized for these issues and deserves some peace. In 1990, K and St. Angelo were both living in Lebanon, NH. Neighbors heard a violent assault and called the police. When the police arrived, they found St. Angelo gone and K with a bleeding face.
She admitted to police that “every day I pray not to get hit,” but at the same time, she cried, refusing to tell police the name of her boyfriend. He was arrested anyway and ordered to stay away from her, but repeatedly violated that. He insisted he “accidentally” struck her face with his watch. He told the police that he just had a bad temper. While he minimized his actions, the officer noted in his report that St. Angelo was “extremely argumentative.” He was ordered to join a counselling program. Not that it helped much. St. Angelo didn’t want to be helped. He just wanted what he wanted.
The happy times for John St. Angelo and Suzanne Parsons wouldn’t last very long. His business floundered and when K had another breakdown, the kids were added into the mix. In an effort to save their new marriage and make a fresh start, they moved to the DFW area in 2010 to be closer to Suzanne’s family.
Abusers like to keep their victims away from support and their family and this move backfired on St. Angelo. He continued to bleed money. Suzanne thrived in the Fort Worth Real Estate market. She had her realtor’s license for 8 years and her warm, friendly personality made her a favorite at the ReMax on Heritage Trace in Fort Worth. Suzanne loved living near her family, but the happier she became, the angrier and more bitter St. Angelo became. She finally had enough and the couple separated, although she continued seeing her husband. May of 2013, they took a trip to Mexico and that is where things went horribly wrong.
After an evening of drinking, St. Angelo became angry and called Suzanne “a spoiled whore.” He began punching her. “Where are your brothers now, bitch? No one can save you here.” He then strangled her until she lost consciousness. Police were called to restrain him. When Suzanne arrived back in the airport, her daughter Jessica hardly recognized her mother. One eye was purple and swollen shut. She had severe bruising to the sides of her neck and petechial hemorrhaging on her face. Petechiae are tiny blood vessels that burst and are often a classic sign of manual strangulation. The restricted blood flow causes pressure to build until delicate capillaries rupture, resulting in red marks.
Suzanne immediately filed for a protective order in which she described this incident. She also wrote that he “breaks things, screams, and has threatened me.” She filed for divorce. In June, while St. Angelo was moving items from the house, he got into an angry confrontation with Suzanne’s brother. He hit her brother in the head and arm with the claw end of the hammer leaving bloody gashes. St. Angelo claimed it was in self-defense, that her brother had attacked him and he had to defend himself. Two of his children were there to back up his claim, but there were numerous witnesses unrelated to the parties involved who told police that Suzanne’s brother was down on the ground while St. Angelo was standing over him swinging the hammer. St. Angelo was arrested and later plead guilty to the charges.
Unfortunately, as so many abused women do, Suzanne let St. Angelo back into her life. On Christmas day, she went to his house to spend time with him, but when she tried to leave, he slapped her and dragged her back into the house by her hair. He made her promise to return and bring all her jewelry to him before he would let her leave.
At the same time, K was lodging complaints that St. Angelo was calling her non-stop and harassing her with text messages. He was doing the same to Suzanne and it became a problem at the ReMax office. Things were now so bad for St. Angelo financially that he was working as a handy man. Suzanne asked her office manager to find work for him and she did. He was good at construction, but he just couldn’t leave Suzanne alone. He would send threatening emails and texts one minute, then turn around and apologize and send something conciliatory.
December 28th was classic John St. Angelo. He wanted to talk to Suzanne about something, or more likely accuse her of something. He called, texted and emailed, but she was busy at work. Finally he sent a threatening email demanding she respond. She told him who he could contact about work questions and that he would have to wait until the next day to talk about anything personal. She was too busy to deal with him.
Suzanne was also unsettled. Records show that she had called Fort Worth Police Department that morning to report a possible prowler. She thought there was a man lurking outside her house, but when the police responded, they found no evidence of a man and left. Suzanne would later go outside and discover a window screen pried open and a fire that had been set outside her pool. The fire damaged property, but given its proximity to the house, it could have been far worse. The Fire Marshall responded and determined the cause of the fire to be arson. Someone poured gasoline on Suzanne’s patio and lit it on fire. The backyard was securely locked—unless you knew the trick of accessing the door that opened to the alley behind her house. She told police and the arson investigator that she was suspicious of St. Angelo. He had become fixated on the idea that she was dating again and he was furious.
The next day was a string of furious emails with insults and threats. St. Angelo referred to her as a gold-digger, ironic since she was the financially sound one, and a whore. This last was in response to her refusing to meet him for drinks. In his head, if she didn’t want him, she must have someone else. Never mind that they were divorced, and she could see anyone she wanted. He sent her an email promising to be “that thorn in your garden forever” and saying he hoped she would “expire and karma will be your payback.”
The next day, December 30th, co-workers would remember that Suzanne was very nervous. St. Angelo was present at the Remax office on Heritage Trace. He taken a pair of Suzanne’s glasses as “collateral” and was demanding money for her car. She had a check for him.
Suzanne’s co-workers heard her screaming after 4:00. They ran to her door, but it was locked. A co-worker ran for the master key. She opened it to find St. Angelo kneeling over Suzanne, stabbing her with a large butcher knife. Blood was everyone and Suzanne wasn’t moving. The co-worker pushed a chair at him to make him stop what he was doing. “Well, that’s done,” he said.
The two female co-workers fled. They both called 911 and left the building. A third co-worker ran to get help from a male co-worker. They came back to find the door had been re-locked. St. Angelo had left through a window. Suzanne was clearly dead. At trial, they were asked how they knew. Did they check for a pulse? They did not. There wasn’t anywhere to check.
Suzanne had been stabbed 23 times and her throat slit. The majority of the violence was to her head, face, torso and neck. She had one deep wound to her back and defensive wounds to her hands. She was missing a nail. Another nail was torn.
Photo credit: NBC DFW
Photo credit: NBC DFW
Police were immediately looking for St. Angelo. They went to his house and found the car he had been driving, but his other car was missing. K was called to come over. She brought St. Angelo’s sons who were able to tell police that guns were missing. K was so distraught, she had to be hospitalized. St. Angelo was nowhere to be found.
New Year’s Eve at around 11:00 a.m., a call came into Fort Worth 911. On the line was a woman who has remained unnamed in news reports. She told police that she had met St. Angelo a few months before when he had done some work on her house and that they had become friendly. He showed her a knife and said he had killed his ex-wife. According to her, he had been there all night. She told the 911 operator that they had been “praying” but that he was armed and was suicidal. Later, she would admit that he had spent the night alternately praying and terrorizing her.
Police coordinated with SWAT. A five hour stand off followed. St. Angelo shot at officers from both the front and rear of the house. Negotiators tried to talk him out, but he refused. Officers finally shot tear gas in through the windows. They rushed the house as St. Angelo shot himself in the face. He managed to knock out one of his teeth. That was all. In the bathroom where he had barricaded himself, they found the tooth, the bloody knife, and a meth pipe. If St. Angelo was on methamphetamine, that might explain his loss of control. He certainly seemed like a man on a downward spiral. They also found the check Suzanne had promised him for the car. Incredibly, around everything else that happened, he had remembered to take the check with him.
At the hospital, officers briefly spoke to St. Angelo. He told them “I loved that woman to death.” He made another claim, one that his defense attorney would offer up as a legal justification at trial.
He claimed to have killed Suzanne in self-defense. He told a SWAT negotiator that Suzanne came at him with a knife, so he took it away and stabbed her “15 times” in self-defense.
At trial, he testified that all their problems were Suzanne’s fault. It was her drinking that caused problems. It was her relationship with his children that caused problems. It was her spending that caused problems. Somehow, she became the violent one. Somehow, she caused his million-dollar business to fail. He said that she pulled out the knife and threatened to kill herself. He initially took the knife away from her to save her life, but she attacked him and he was forced to stab her to save himself. He said he only recalled stabbing her three times. Assistant District Attorney Allenna Bangs played the recording of his conversation with SWAT negotiators in which he admitted to 15 stab wounds, still a far cry from the actual 23, but he claimed not to recall saying that. He couldn’t recall slitting her throat either.
St. Angelo claimed that Suzanne treated him differently when he was a wealthy man, but had little use for him after his business failed.
The defense called St. Angelo’s son to try and bolster claims about what a great guy his dad was. Prosecutors didn’t cross-examine the child much. There wasn’t any point. St. Angelo’s family has suffered enough. St. Angelo tried to bring K around to his side as a witness. He called her until he was blocked from calling her number and then wrote her letters. He apologized for yelling at her, but told her God wanted her to forgive him and help him. She testified for the prosecution, although she minimized the abuse.
The jury rejected his claims and sentenced St. Angelo to life in prison. There was little to celebrate. Suzanne’s family was relieved, but that wouldn’t bring her back. That wouldn’t undo the years of harm to K or the children. As prosecutor Bangs said, “John St. Angelo terrorized the women in his life for 30 years and it culminated in Suzanne Parson’s death.”
In the northeast corner of Tarrant County, tucked at the end of a rough roadway, there is a field of crosses, each cross remembering a life stolen by violent crime. Hours of labor have transformed that weed-choked field into Our Garden of Angels, a place of peace and remembrance with paths, benches, and a gurgling waterfall. Families gather there occasionally, just to be in a calm place where they don’t have to shoulder the burden of grief alone. There, they are among those who truly understand.
This unique memorial for murder victims began with a single cross to remember a beautiful, young woman named Amy Robinson.
Nineteen year old Amy Robinson had dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, but that hope was far away. She was doing well learning to live on her own and hold a job. Amy had been born with Turner’s syndrome, a chromosomal disorder which inhibits physical and mental growth. She was extremely petite, only four feet five inches and she had the mental capacity of a 14 year old. But she was learning how to live on her own and every day she rode her bicycle to her job sacking groceries for Kroger in Arlington, Texas. Amy was sweet and trusting. She was very social and didn’t like to be alone and had no reason to be suspicious when two of her co-workers stopped to offer her a ride on her way to work one day.
Robert Neville, Jr. and Michael Hall had both been fired by Kroger, but Amy didn’t know that. Two hours after she was supposed to be at work, her supervisor called to say Amy had never arrived. Alarmed, her family called police immediately. Police spoke with current and former co-workers. Neville admitted knowing her and even meeting her socially, but he denied having seen her in months.
Neville was someone Amy would never have trusted if only she’d known his background. He had prior convictions for burglary and had only been out of prison for 8 months. As a juvenile, he had been prosecuted for molesting younger children including an 11 year old girl, a 9 year old boy, and a 7 year old boy. He also had a history of abusing animals. When Neville was 14, he threw kittens off a roof. Two years later he tied a cat to a tree by its tail and repeatedly hit the cat with a pole. He had been fired for ridiculing a mentally challenged co-worker and had refused to sack groceries for minority shoppers. He had a fascination with white supremacy. That was the tie that bound Neville and Hall together.
Hall also didn’t like people of color. He was a follower, not a leader, and he was happy to let Neville take the lead. As they were drinking at a house belonging to Neville’s grandmother, Neville mentioned how he would like to go “just go out and kill somebody.” Hall suggested they purchase guns. They bought a pair of .22 caliber rifles and practiced shooting. They formed a plan to be serial killers and selected their first victim, a mentally impaired black man whom they worked with. Neville would later claim in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram interview that they had “a bet to see who could shoot and kill the most people between the two of us.” They particularly wanted to kill “blacks or Mexicans—anybody as long as they weren’t our color.”
On February 15, 1998, the duo made a decision. Upon checking the work schedules, they learned the black coworker wasn’t going to be at work that day, but Amy would be and she was part Native American. They found her riding her bike to work and offered her a ride which she accepted. These weren’t strangers to her and she didn’t know they had been fired. They promised her that they were going to take a ride and then they would drop her off. Instead of taking her to work, they drove her to a field in the Northeast corner of Tarrant County, an isolated place tucked off a rough, pitted road. Amy worried she would be late for work.
Neville stopped at the field, pretending to have a flat tire. Neville and Hall took their weapons out into the field while Amy sat in the car listening to the radio until Hall came back. He convinced her that she needed to go talk to Neville, that he was waiting for her over by a tree. Neville was waiting for Amy, and he was armed with a crossbow. He shot at her several times, grazing her hair with an arrow. She fled for the car but Hall shot her with a pellet gun in the leg. She cried from the pain as he began peppering her with pellets. Neville then brought up the .22 caliber rifle. They took turns shooting Amy. Neville shot her in the chest with the rifle and Hall shot her in the chest multiple times with the pellet gun.
She went to the ground, shaking and crying, then she called Neville by name. It was the last thing Amy would ever say. The pair became worried someone would overhear them so Neville shot Amy in the head to finish her. They had maneuvered her back into the field where she wouldn’t be readily visible from the road. They abandoned her body and left her bicycle with her.
Meanwhile, Amy’s family and friends were frantically looking for her. Her face stayed on the nightly news. It occurred to Hall and Neville that they might have missed a chance to rob Amy, so they went back to her body and took the small amount of cash from her pocket. They then used her body for target practice.
As so many narcissists do, Hall just had to brag about what they had done. He told his step-brother who went to the Arlington police. As police focused on Neville and Hall, they made for the border, but were arrested in Eagle Pass trying to cross into Mexico on March 3rd. Once detained, both men spent a lot of time boasting to reporters and investigators. They openly laughed about torturing Amy. Hall went so far as to imitate the sounds she was make and act out his shooting of her. He described how she begged to live, but died with Robert Neville’s name on her lips.
Robert Neville, Jr.
The interviews would come back to haunt them. Both men claimed diminished mental capacity as a defense, but the juries saw the videos of them laughing it up about torturing and killing Amy. The described her as “easy prey” and talked about how they wanted to be serial killers. Hall specifically mentioned that they chose Amy “because I didn’t have to put bruises on her to get her in the car.” He bragged about being the one to convince Amy that she was safe with them and even getting her to leave the car and walk over to Neville. He said she might have gotten away if he hadn’t been there to help Neville. Asked if he had any remorse, on the Fox 4 video that was played, he laughed and said “I wouldn’t want to be her. She had to take a lot of pain.” The juries sentenced both men to death.
Amy’s grandmother, Carolyn Barker wasn’t satisfied. For her, the media was too focused on the perpetrators and not on the victim. It seemed to her that Hall and Neville wanted to be famous. Every time the murder was covered, she had to look at their faces, hear their words, listen to everyone talk about their upbringings and mental status. What about Amy? Amy was the one who should be remembered.
Carolyn went to find the place in the weed-choked field where Amy had died. She says that part of her Native American beliefs are that a person’s spirit separates from the body and ascends to the afterlife at the place of death and that place becomes sacred. She marked that sacred spot with a cross. Amy had never liked being alone, and when other families in a grief support group expressed interest, she encouraged them to place their crosses beside Amy’s. This was no ordinary support group, but Families of Murdered Victims, and from there the unique memorial to crime victims was born.
Neville was executed February 8, 2006. Hall was executed February 15, 2011, thirteen years to the day from when he murdered Amy Robinson. Although it was financially and emotionally draining, Amy’s mother and sisters made the journey to see the executions. Her grandmother Carolyn did not, choosing instead to celebrate Amy’s life among her fellow angels. Her mother Tina said that she needed to see their final justice for herself. Both men expressed regret and apologized to the families.
Neville claimed to have become a Christian and told them he would see Amy on the other side and apologize to her and tell her how much her family loved and missed her. Hall also claimed to have found Christianity and said he wished he could make things right. Amy’s sisters weren’t interested in forgiving him. Amanda expressed that she believed he was not remorseful but playing for cameras right to the end. Ruth said she felt like a weight had been lifted from her and she was glad Hall died the same day Amy did. It felt right to her.
From the four original crosses, Amy’s field is now home to more than 160 crosses, tangible reminders of lives taken in violence. Carolyn Barker’s love for her granddaughter transformed her grief into something beautiful. She wanted Amy’s memory to live on and she has succeeded. The memorial has been named Our Garden of Angels. You can take a visual tour from their website and read more about some of the precious lives remembered there at http://ourgardenofangels.org/.
Hall v. State, 67 S.W.3d 870 (Tex.Crim.App. 2002). (Direct Appeal)
Hall v. Texas, 537 U.S. 802, 123 S.Ct. 70 (2002). (Remand)
Hall v. State, 160 S.W.3d 24 (Tex.Crim.App. 2004). (Direct Appeal After Remand)
Hall v. Quarterman, 534 F.3d 365 (5th Cir. 2008). (Habeas)
It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking of the criminal justice system as a conglomerate being, a monolithic entity, a machine chewing up lives and spitting out justice. We have a visceral reaction to the idea of an impersonal system controlling our lives. Too often, we fail to realize is that just as a machine is made of parts, a system is made of people. Judges, police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, court clerks, jailers, bondsmen, are all just people. They are good people, bad people, parents with grown children and single millennials, they have dogs or maybe cats. You get the point. The system is just made up of people. People like me and people like Mark Hasse.
Mark Hasse dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice. He graduate from SMU Law School in 1981 and went straight to work for the Dallas District Attorney’s Office. Mark made a name for himself by taking on the toughest cases, specializing in organized crime. He left to go into private practice, working as a defense attorney but also moving into the areas of family law and aviation law. That last might seem like an odd fit, but Mark had a commercial pilot’s license. He loved flying and he loved planes. That love almost stole his life when he was critically injured in a 1995 plane crash. He also loved rescuing dogs. You might say Mark was married to the job. At least, there was never a spouse or kids in the picture, but he did have a large, loving family and he had nieces and nephews to spoil.
I doubt that was on his mind when he drove to work on January 31, 2013.
Criminal law had always held Mark’s heart. In 2010, he went back to work as a prosecutor, this time in Kaufman County. He moved there to work with newly elected District Attorney Mike McLelland as his Chief Felony Prosecutor. Kaufman County sits just east of Dallas. It’s mostly white and rural, and like so many similar places, the scourge of meth had sunk its teeth in deep. In recent years, Kaufman County experienced rapid growth as a bedroom community due to its proximity to Dallas, bringing with it big city problems. The meth trade in Texas is largely controlled by white supremacy gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood and Aryan Circle. With Mark’s experience prosecuting organized crime, he was a natural fit for aggressively pursuing those groups and soon developed a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense guy, the kind of prosecutor the skinheads didn’t want to mess with.
I doubt his reputation was on his mind when he parked behind the Kaufman County Courthouse just after 9:00 am.
He was probably thinking about that day. He was probably thinking about dockets, and witness meetings, and evidence exchanges. He was probably so focused on the minutiae that make up a typical day in the life of a prosecutor that he didn’t notice the man with the gun until he was right there on top of him. According to witnesses Lenda Bush and Kelley Blaine, Mark was walking, briefcase in hand, towards the courthouse when a masked man dressed all in black ran up to him brandishing a gun. The man shoved Mark who reflexively shoved back. The man pressed the gun to his neck. Mark raised both hands and pleaded for his life as the man shot him eight times, then jumped into the passenger side of a waiting car that sped away. Lenda Bush, a former police officer turned lawyer, gave chase to the vehicle. She was so shocked that she had difficulty dialing 911 and trying to follow the car which ultimately got away. There was no license plate on the car. She returned to the scene and gave Mark CPR until the ambulance arrived. He wouldn’t survive the trip to the hospital.
It was a hit in broad daylight just feet away from the courthouse.
Shock waves radiated through-out the criminal justice community. I heard about it within hours. My husband saw the murder on the news and called to tell me someone was assassinating District Attorneys. A sheriff’s deputy walked me to my car that day.
Within a week, there was a safety meeting at my office. We were advised to vary our times for arriving and leaving. Some people carried mace or alarm whistles. We walked in groups and had investigators escorting us. Everyone was sure that the ABT ( Aryan Brotherhood Texas) had finally gotten Mark. Who else would commit such a brazen hit? Which of us would be next?
As Mark was laid to rest and his family created a memorial fund for the children of Kaufman County, a massive manhunt was underway. FBI, the Texas Rangers, the Department of Public Safety, and the local sheriff’s department were all called in.
District Attorney Mike McLelland came out to give a press conference. He spoke to reporters with tears in his eyes. “I hope the people who did this are watching, because we are very confident that we are going to find you. We’re going to pull you out of whatever hole you’re in. We’re going to bring you back and let the people of Kaufman County prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
While everyone else was concerned with investigating the ABT, the local sheriff had another suspect in mind. He immediately went to interview a disgraced former Justice of the Peace, Eric Williams.
In 2012, Mark Hasse had prosecuted Williams for stealing computer equipment after he was caught on surveillance video taking the items. The incident cost Williams his political career and his legal one after his law license was suspended. Williams had been extremely angry and publically blamed Mark Hasse and Mike McLelland of a “political assassination.” He blamed them for ruining his life.
Williams removing equipment on surveillance
Williams answered the door with his arm in a sling and told Sheriff Byrnes that he’d recently had shoulder surgery. He had an alibi in his wife and, although suspicious, Byrnes had nothing else to tie Williams to the crime.
At the beginning of March, a member of the 211 Crew, a prison gang, shot and killed the director of the Colorado Bureau of Prison. It was a bold crime. He simply knocked on the front door and executed the man when he answered. The killer would die in a hail of bullets on the highway.
Our security measures at work tightened. They were coming for us. Everyone scrambled to hide our home addresses. We had frequent emails on how to keep safe. I know I looked over my shoulder when going to my car every night. There are reports that a Kaufman County judge had taken to wearing a bullet proof vest. McLelland went armed. It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.
Mike McLelland and his wife Cynthia both had degrees in psychology. Cynthia told a friend that both were extremely concerned about Williams. They believed he was the type not to take humiliation well. Williams had been offered a plea to a misdemeanor for the thefts but he refused, confident he could represent himself and win. He was utterly humiliated by the felony conviction, even though he wasn’t sentenced to any jail time. Cynthia and Mark were both sure he was plotting some sort of revenge, even though he smiled to their faces. They had been worried even before the attacks started.
March 30, 2014, Cynthia answered a knock at the door. She would never have opened the door to Williams, but at seeing the policeman with a SWAT helmet on, she opened the door. Security had become a daily occurrence. But this was no police officer. Cynthia and Mike were shot repeatedly in extreme overkill. The first officer on the scene testified there was blood everywhere.
Investigators exit the home of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland near Forney, Texas April 1, 2013. Authorities have launched a massive investigation into the weekend killings of McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, which occurred months after an assistant prosecutor was shot dead in the same county. REUTERS/Tim Sharp (UNITED STATES – Tags: CRIME LAW) – RTXY54D
Once again media descended on Kaufman County. Williams didn’t shy away from the attention. He rode out on his Segway to give interviews. He told Jack Douglas of CBS-KTVT
“My heart goes out to all the families that have been affected by this tragedy. And especially to the people that work at the court house. I worked there for several years while I was going to law school and so I know that it’s a tight-knit family – that this is devastating to them,”
All of this was said with his trademark smirk. He might not have been smiling if he’d known police were narrowing in on him. They knew he had lied about the shoulder surgery. He’d also made a serious miscalculation.
The day after the McLelland’s were murdered, a man sent an email to Crime Stoppers. The message began “Do we have your attention now?” The email went on to say that unless certain judges resigned, the killings would continue. The caller knew specific information about the crimes, including the type of ammunition used.
They had surveillance video of a white Crown Victoria driving through the neighborhood at the time of the crime. What they needed were direct links. They went to see Williams and were surprised when he invited them in. He was arrogant enough to let them see his guns and sights. The information they gained that day allowed them to obtain a search warrant.
They found the title to a white Crown Victoria, guns, and numbers written down by the phone. Those were the ID numbers assigned to the Crime Stoppers emailer. That is how anonymous call-ins work. Computer forensics would show that immediately after his conviction, Williams began stalking Mark Hasse. He was also the mysterious emailer.
Once the dominoes began falling, they didn’t stop. A friend of Eric Williams called in a tip about a storage facility. Williams had asked the friend to rent the facility for him, but didn’t want it in his name. They quickly obtained a search warrant for the storage facility and when them lifted the door to the unit, there was the white Crown Victoria. There was also enough guns, body armor, and crossbows to outfit a swat unit.
Williams was arrested and with him, his accomplice, the woman who had driven him the get-away car when he gunned down Mark Hasse and again for the McLellands, his wife, Kim Williams.
Kim Williams would be the star witness against her husband. She testified that she was addicted to pain killers and was under her husband’s influence, but that she was a willing participant. “His anger was my anger.” She believed everything he told her.
Although she was testifying without a plea agreement, Kim was hoping for mercy in her sentence. She testified about the planning and execution of the crimes in chilling detail. She told the courtroom that her husband had always talked about killing people who he felt were conspiring against him. When he was going to trial, he warned her that they would tell lies about him. In particular, he told her they would put up a woman named Janice Gray, a former court coordinator he had dated before Kim. Gray might be going to testify that he had threatened to kill her when they broke up, but he assured Kim it was a lie. She says she believed him. He also was extremely angry with Judge Glen Ashworth whom he blamed for leading prosecutors to Janice Gray.
Williams had a hit list. His first target was intended to be Judge Ashworth. According to Kim Williams, her husband has started making napalm and storing it in pickle jars. He also bought a crossbow. These items were among those recovered from the storage facility. The plan was to go to Ashworth’s house following the Super Bowl. Ashworth lived just down the street, so it would be easy to go in and shoot him with the crossbow. Williams was then going to gore out his stomach and fill it with the napalm.
But Williams switched gears abruptly. He decided to kill Hasse first. He wanted to make a statement and gun Mark Hasse down outside the courthouse in view of everyone. Kim testified they were both very excited that morning. Williams dressed all in black with a ghoul mask.
She detailed the crimes, describing all the while how excited and happy Williams was. He was living his fantasy. He had decided to impersonate a police officer when they went to the McLellands’ and modeled the outfit for her like he was walking a runway. She sat outside as it sounded like the shooting went on forever. When he ran back out to the car, he told her he had to shoot Cynthia and additional time because she was moaning. He couldn’t leave a living witness, so he shot her in the top of the head. They celebrated that night with steaks on the grill and Williams made ready for the next people on his list, Judge Ashworth and County Court at Law Judge Erleigh Wiley, another person Williams believed had wronged him.
Rather than get involved in arguing whether Williams was justified in being angry about his prosecution, the special prosecutors tried him on the case involving the most innocent victim, Cynthia McLelland. Her only crime was being married to Mike. She was a beloved mother, grandmother, and a respected psychiatric nurse.
The jury only took an hour and forty minutes to convict Williams of killing Cynthia. He was sentenced to death. Kim Williams later pled guilty and was sentenced to 40 years.
Perhaps the only thing more shocking to those of us who make up “the system” than the murder of own was the identity of the murderer. He was also one of our own. It’s true in investigating murders that the killer is usually someone the victim knows. It’s always the spouse, the roommate, the ex-boyfriend. We fear the stranger when we should instead be looking closer to the smiling assassin next to us.
Source Notes: I relied on the following sources. I highly recommend the CBS 48 hours and the Kaufman Herald which were my two primary sources.
Kneeland clutching his Bible as he is led to the courtroom by Winkler County Deputy Sheriff Jack Speer for arraignment. Photo Credit: May 10, 1974 The Odessa American, staff photo by Eugene PorterTommy Ray Kneeland was an enthusiastic youth minister. He taught Sunday school and drove the church bus. He loved bowling and attending gospel concerts with his wife and two young children. But in his spare time? He also like to torture and murder young women. His little hobby came to a screeching halt in 1974 when of these young women survived.
Kneeland was born in Kermit, Texas in 1949. Kermit is the county seat of Winkler County in West Texas. It’s a typical Oil Boom city that flourished in the 50’s and 60’s. Tommy Ray Kneeland was born into this small, but thriving community. In 1970, he lived across the street from Nancy and Gene Mitchell and their twin three-year old daughters. Like so many people in Kermit, Kneeland’s family was heavily invested in the oil and gas industry.
September 15, 1970, Nancy Mitchell filled a prescription around 8 p.m. Her husband worked very late and she was often home alone in the evening. Shortly after arriving home from her trip to the pharmacy, she put the twins to bed and called her uncle. Her husband arrived home at 12:45 to find the children sleeping, but his wife gone. Her purse with cash and cigarettes was sitting there in easy view. The only thing missing was Nancy. Her clothing was found out on an isolated roadway. Her dress, underwear, bra, slip, and pantyhose were scattered, cut into pieces and shredded by a knife, but no blood.
June 4, 1971, less than a mile from the place her clothing was found, an oilfield worker found the badly decomposed body of a woman. Dental records confirmed this was the body of Nancy Mitchell. Determining a cause of death was difficult, but the medical examiner thought she had died of asphyxiation. Traces of plastic were also found. The location was an oil lease owned by Tommy Ray Kneeland’s father.
When Nancy Mitchell went missing, police had spoken to Tommy, but there was nothing to make them suspicious. He was a polite, well-groomed, church-going, young man. They barely even noticed when he moved to Euless immediately after the body was found. Meanwhile, Gene Mitchell was going through hell. Even though he had a rock solid alibi from having been at work, people looked at him funny. There were rumors that he had killed his wife. His three-year-old twins were too small to understand and cried inconsolably for their mother.
Euless, Texas in in the NE corner of Tarrant County. It’s the ‘E’ in the area known as HEB. Once in Euless, Kneeland found work as a carpet layer. He married a woman and they had two children. As always, he became very involved in a local church. Reverend Robert Owens of Hurst Christian Church was impressed with the enthusiastic youth minister and Sunday school teacher. He described Kneeland as outgoing and charismatic. The teens flocked to Kneeland who was so trusted he even drove the church bus.
A year after Kneeland moved to the DFW area, the bodies of two teens were found dead in Fort Worth. Friday, June 30, 1974, 17 year-old Jane Handy and 15 year-old Robert Gholson borrowed a 1961 white Ford Fairlaine from Jane’s father.
They told him they were headed to a party, but the pair really intended to drive all the way from Oklahoma to Dallas for a concert. It’s a three hour drive, but they didn’t get very far before the Fairlaine broke down near Ardmore, Oklahoma. The teens began hitchhiking. Both had run away before and weren’t afraid to brave the world on their own. Their first ride took them as far as Gainesville, Texas. That’s where they met Tommy Lee Kneeland. Kneeland often had to drive long distances for work. He told the kids he would take them to Hurst and that from there it would be easy to hitch a ride to Dallas. They happily climbed in with him.
Instead of taking them to Hurst, he drove them to a seclude area in the east of Fort Worth, a party spot for local bikers just off a popular trail. He bound their hands with wire coat hangers. Based on what we now know about his history, he always had a gun. I’m assuming this is how he was able to control two people. He wasn’t a large man, only standing 5 foot 7 with a slender build. Kneeland knocked Robert to the ground and began raping Jane. She fought for her life, thrashing and screaming for help. Frustrated, he tried to gag her, but then she got her hands free. She fought him hard. He pulled a knife and stabbed her six times in the chest and six times in the back. He then slashed her throat and in his fury began stabbing her face until it was obliterated.
He looked over where Robert had been laying, but the teenager was gone. He’d gotten to his feet and run for his life. Kneeland caught up with him on the tail and stabbed him just as he had Jane: six times in the back and six in the chest. He slit the boy’s throat, but didn’t take his rage out on his face.
The next morning, bikers found Robert’s body on the trail and called the police. It was only while searching the area for evidence that they located Jane. Because of the damage to her face, Jane wasn’t identified until police ran her prints. She hadn’t been reported missing yet due to her tendency to run away. It was after being picked up as a runaway that her prints ended up in the system.
Tarrant County Medical Examiner Felix Gwozdz described the wounds as extremely deep and violent, the result of an intense attack. Stranger attacks are the most difficult cases to solve and with no way to link the teens to Kneeland, the case went cold. It would remain that way until 1974.
April 23, 1974, 16 year-old Danita Cash went to pick up her brother near the old Arlington-Bedford Bridge which crosses a channel of the Trinity River. I’ve seen stories that her brother had gone there with friends for target practice and I’ve seen stories that the boys were fishing. Either way, Danita had gone to fetch her brother. The bridge is now closed, but in 1974, the area was heavily wooded and off the main path. Growing impatient with waiting, Danita honked her horn to get her brother’s attention. Like brothers so often do, he ignored her. A strange man responded, though and he asked if she needed help. She assured him she was fine and he left. She waited a bit for her brother, then honked again.
The man came back and this time he had a gun with him, a sawed-off, 12 gauge shotgun. He forced Danita to come with him, bound her hands with twisted wire and put carpet tape over her mouth. She desperately struggled to free herself. She kept trying to speak to him. He reached down to loosen the tape so he could hear what she had to say and that’s when he lost control of the truck. He veered off the road and into the mud. The man gunned his engine, but the wheels just dug in deeper. Incredibly, he let her go. He was afraid someone would stop to help and see Danita bound in his car. “Take off,” he told her. “I’ll kill you if you tell the police.”
She ran all the way back to her car and drove straight home to her mother who immediately called the police. The truck was gone by the time police made it to bridge, but they found a sanding disk of the type used by tile or carpet layers. It was believed the man had put it under a tire to get the traction needed to escape the mud. Danita had a good description of her kidnapper as well as his truck. He had a unique truck, a vintage 1957 pick-up with a distinctive toolbox. Soon police narrowed in on an unlikely suspect, a local youth minister and carpet layer. They put Kneeland’s picture in a photospread. Danita identified him easily.
In the stakeout that followed, police saw Kneeland ready his truck for painting. Kneeland realized he was being watched and called the police himself. He said he wanted to come in and “clear things up.” He came in to talk and soon confessed, not just to the kidnapping of Danita, either. He admitted to the unsolved murders of Jane Handy and Robert Gholson. Then he started talking about Nancy Mitchell from Kermit.
Kneeland admitting kidnapping his neighbor at gun point. He raped her, then put a plastic bag over her head to suffocate her, but she was taking too long to die. He tried injecting air into her arm, but Nancy stubbornly clung to life. Kneeland stabbed her repeatedly and slit her throat. He left her body on his father’s land and went back to life as normal.
Police were deeply suspicious that Kneeland was possibly responsible for the unsolved rape and murder of Benbrook teenager Carla Walker, but Kneeland never confessed to the crime and was never charged. The best break down of the Carla Walker case I’ve ever heard is the Texas-based podcast Gone Cold. It was this podcast where I first heard the name Tommy Ray Kneeland. I became fascinated with the story and began digging further. Episodes 4 and 5 break down the suspects. Episode 7 features an interview with Kneeland’s wife at around the 15 minute mark. I cannot recommend this series highly enough. Carla Walker deserves justice.
Kneeland’s wife insists that he never raised a hand against her. He was a good husband. She never worried when he was out that he would be unfaithful because he strongly disapproved of women who dressed provocatively or showed too much skin. He did come home frequently with blood on his clothes. She said he simply cut himself at work all the time and she washed the blood without thinking about it. Kneeland has been a suspect in many other murders around the area. Given the opportunistic nature of his crimes, I believe he committed other crimes out there which we will never link to him.
Everyone was shocked when Kneeland was placed under arrest. His father insisted that he was always a good boy. His pastor went to visit the young minister in jail and referred to him as “one frightened boy.” Kermit and Fort Worth are very far apart. Kneeland was arraigned for the Fort Worth murders and the kidnapping, but then had to be transported across the state to answer for his crime against Nancy Mitchell. Gene Mitchell was relieved to have the crime solved, but that didn’t undo the years of hell he and his daughters had endured.
In a plea agreement, Kneeland was sentenced to 10 years for kidnapping Danita Cash and two life sentences for the murders of Jane Handy and Robert Gholson. He was sent back to Kermit for trial there. Because of the publicity, the case was transferred to another county. The offense Kneeland committed against Nancy were all stacked: Kidnapping, murder, abuse of corpse. The prosecution, Winkler County DA Mike Fostel asked the jury to sentence Kneeland to 270 years. The jury sentenced him to 550 years.
In a perfect world, that’s where the story would end, with Kneeland in prison. But the 1970s and 80s there was a movement away from incarceration. Prisons were overflowing and to ease the crowding, prisoners were paroled at unprecedented rates. It made sense to release those serving steep sentences for drug and property crimes, but a predator? Anyone could get three for one good time. September 16, 1987, just 12 years and 9 months after he had been incarcerated, Tommy Ray Kneeland was paroled.
Mike Fostel was shocked. Due to a glitch, the parole notifications had gone to the county where the prosecution had been transferred and not Winkler or Tarrant Counties. They didn’t have the chance to object. During his brief incarceration, Kneeland had been up for parole three times.
Kermit didn’t want Kneeland to return there but that was fine, because the city of Hico was ready to welcome Kneeland with open arms. Some family or friends had started a petition there to help him get parole. A local pastor had written letter to parole board talking about how his family would welcome Kneeland and he had a place to stay. He later claimed he didn’t know what Kneeland was actually in prison for.
Kneeland re-married, this time to a woman with two children, was again active in church and started his own business. However in July 1994 he was stopped for expired registration and found to have two rifles in his truck including a loaded semi-auto under his seat. This was a violation of his parole.
Residents of Hico admitted to mixed feelings. Some insisted they were sure he was rehabilitated. They described him as a hard working family man, a good Christian. Of course, that’s how people described Kneeland before he started raping and killing. These people thought it too harsh to send Kneeland back to prison, but considering he was known to kidnap women at gunpoint, the violation is alarming. Other residents of Hico confessed to being relieved. Many said they didn’t know what he had been in prison for and were shocked.
Tommy Ray Kneeland is the classic example of how the appearances can deceive. Underneath the preacher man façade was a dark savagery only revealed by his terrible crimes. Thankfully, Kneeland is still housed in the Stiles Unit, never again to be released. The release of such dangerous men as Tommy Ray Kneeland and Kenneth McDuff caused Texas to once again overhaul parole laws, tightening them, but the moods of the public swing like a pendulum and I see a movement for compassion and rehabilitation. Those are lofty goals and while I agree with the sentiment, I hope we never again lose sight of the importance of keeping dangerous predators locked up.
Researching an older case can be challenging. Here are some of the places I located information.
Kneeland’s appeal can be read here. It is a subscription service but you can pay per report if you are interested enough.
The Gone Cold podcast was an invaluable resource and I highly recommend it. You can listen to it on iTunes, Stitcher, or whatever pod catcher you prefer.
Most of my other resources were difficult to locate and require a subscription to Newspapers.com . If you do have a subscription, the best coverage was the Odessa American.