Preacher Man: The Sins of Tommy Ray Kneeland

Courtroom
Kneeland clutching his Bible as he is led to the courtroom by Winkler County Deputy Sheriff Jack Speer for arraignment. Photo Credit: May 10, 1974 The Odessa American, staff photo by Eugene Porter

Tommy Ray Kneeland was an enthusiastic youth minister. He taught Sunday school and drove the church bus. He loved bowling and attending gospel concerts with his wife and two young children. But in his spare time? He also like to torture and murder young women. His little hobby came to a screeching halt in 1974 when of these young women survived.

 

Kneeland was born in Kermit, Texas in 1949. Kermit is the county seat of Winkler County in West Texas. It’s a typical Oil Boom city that flourished in the 50’s and 60’s. Tommy Ray Kneeland was born into this small, but thriving community. In 1970, he lived across the street from Nancy and Gene Mitchell and their twin three-year old daughters. Like so many people in Kermit, Kneeland’s family was heavily invested in the oil and gas industry.

Nancy Mitchell
Nancy Mitchell, Credit: Odessa American

September 15, 1970, Nancy Mitchell filled a prescription around 8 p.m. Her husband worked very late and she was often home alone in the evening. Shortly after arriving home from her trip to the pharmacy, she put the twins to bed and called her uncle. Her husband arrived home at 12:45 to find the children sleeping, but his wife gone. Her purse with cash and cigarettes was sitting there in easy view. The only thing missing was Nancy. Her clothing was found out on an isolated roadway. Her dress, underwear, bra, slip, and pantyhose were scattered, cut into pieces and shredded by a knife, but no blood.

June 4, 1971, less than a mile from the place her clothing was found, an oilfield worker found the badly decomposed body of a woman. Dental records confirmed this was the body of Nancy Mitchell. Determining a cause of death was difficult, but the medical examiner thought she had died of asphyxiation. Traces of plastic were also found. The location was an oil lease owned by Tommy Ray Kneeland’s father.

When Nancy Mitchell went missing, police had spoken to Tommy, but there was nothing to make them suspicious. He was a polite, well-groomed, church-going, young man. They barely even noticed when he moved to Euless immediately after the body was found. Meanwhile, Gene Mitchell was going through hell. Even though he had a rock solid alibi from having been at work, people looked at him funny. There were rumors that he had killed his wife. His three-year-old twins were too small to understand and cried inconsolably for their mother.

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

Euless, Texas in in the NE corner of Tarrant County. It’s the ‘E’ in the area known as HEB. Once in Euless, Kneeland found work as a carpet layer. He married a woman and they had two children. As always, he became very involved in a local church. Reverend Robert Owens of Hurst Christian Church was impressed with the enthusiastic youth minister and Sunday school teacher. He described Kneeland as outgoing and charismatic. The teens flocked to Kneeland who was so trusted he even drove the church bus.

A year after Kneeland moved to the DFW area, the bodies of two teens were found dead in Fort Worth. Friday, June 30, 1974, 17 year-old Jane Handy and 15 year-old Robert Gholson borrowed a 1961 white Ford Fairlaine from Jane’s father.

Ford Fairlaine.png

They told him they were headed to a party, but the pair really intended to drive all the way from Oklahoma to Dallas for a concert. It’s a three hour drive, but they didn’t get very far before the Fairlaine broke down near Ardmore, Oklahoma. The teens began hitchhiking. Both had run away before and weren’t afraid to brave the world on their own. Their first ride took them as far as Gainesville, Texas. That’s where they met Tommy Lee Kneeland. Kneeland often had to drive long distances for work. He told the kids he would take them to Hurst and that from there it would be easy to hitch a ride to Dallas. They happily climbed in with him.

Instead of taking them to Hurst, he drove them to a seclude area in the east of Fort Worth, a party spot for local bikers just off a popular trail. He bound their hands with wire coat hangers. Based on what we now know about his history, he always had a gun. I’m assuming this is how he was able to control two people. He wasn’t a large man, only standing 5 foot 7 with a slender build. Kneeland knocked Robert to the ground and began raping Jane. She fought for her life, thrashing and screaming for help. Frustrated, he tried to gag her, but then she got her hands free. She fought him hard. He pulled a knife and stabbed her six times in the chest and six times in the back. He then slashed her throat and in his fury began stabbing her face until it was obliterated.

He looked over where Robert had been laying, but the teenager was gone. He’d gotten to his feet and run for his life. Kneeland caught up with him on the tail and stabbed him just as he had Jane: six times in the back and six in the chest. He slit the boy’s throat, but didn’t take his rage out on his face.

The next morning, bikers found Robert’s body on the trail and called the police. It was only while searching the area for evidence that they located Jane. Because of the damage to her face, Jane wasn’t identified until police ran her prints. She hadn’t been reported missing yet due to her tendency to run away. It was after being picked up as a runaway that her prints ended up in the system.

Tarrant County Medical Examiner Felix Gwozdz described the wounds as extremely deep and violent, the result of an intense attack. Stranger attacks are the most difficult cases to solve and with no way to link the teens to Kneeland, the case went cold. It would remain that way until 1974.

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

April 23, 1974, 16 year-old Danita Cash went to pick up her brother near the old Arlington-Bedford Bridge which crosses a channel of the Trinity River. I’ve seen stories that her brother had gone there with friends for target practice and I’ve seen stories that the boys were fishing. Either way, Danita had gone to fetch her brother. The bridge is now closed, but in 1974, the area was heavily wooded and off the main path. Growing impatient with waiting, Danita honked her horn to get her brother’s attention. Like brothers so often do, he ignored her. A strange man responded, though and he asked if she needed help. She assured him she was fine and he left. She waited a bit for her brother, then honked again.

The man came back and this time he had a gun with him, a sawed-off, 12 gauge shotgun. He forced Danita to come with him, bound her hands with twisted wire and put carpet tape over her mouth. She desperately struggled to free herself. She kept trying to speak to him. He reached down to loosen the tape so he could hear what she had to say and that’s when he lost control of the truck. He veered off the road and into the mud. The man gunned his engine, but the wheels just dug in deeper. Incredibly, he let her go. He was afraid someone would stop to help and see Danita bound in his car. “Take off,” he told her. “I’ll kill you if you tell the police.”

She ran all the way back to her car and drove straight home to her mother who immediately called the police. The truck was gone by the time police made it to bridge, but they found a sanding disk of the type used by tile or carpet layers. It was believed the man had put it under a tire to get the traction needed to escape the mud. Danita had a good description of her kidnapper as well as his truck. He had a unique truck, a vintage 1957 pick-up with a distinctive toolbox. Soon police narrowed in on an unlikely suspect, a local youth minister and carpet layer. They put Kneeland’s picture in a photospread. Danita identified him easily.

In the stakeout that followed, police saw Kneeland ready his truck for painting.  Kneeland realized he was being watched and called the police himself. He said he wanted to come in and “clear things up.”  He came in to talk and soon confessed, not just to the kidnapping of Danita, either. He admitted to the unsolved murders of Jane Handy and Robert Gholson. Then he started talking about Nancy Mitchell from Kermit.

Kneeland admitting kidnapping his neighbor at gun point. He raped her, then put a plastic bag over her head to suffocate her, but she was taking too long to die. He tried injecting air into her arm, but Nancy stubbornly clung to life. Kneeland stabbed her repeatedly and slit her throat. He left her body on his father’s land and went back to life as normal.

Police were deeply suspicious that Kneeland was possibly responsible for the unsolved rape and murder of Benbrook teenager Carla Davis, but Kneeland never confessed to the crime and was never charged. The best break down of the Carla Davis case I’ve ever heard is the Texas-based podcast Gone Cold. It was this podcast where I first heard the name Tommy Ray Kneeland. I became fascinated with the story and began digging further. Episodes 4 and 5 break down the suspects. Episode 7 features an interview with Kneeland’s wife at around the 15 minute mark. I cannot recommend this series highly enough. Carla Davis deserves justice.

Kneeland’s wife insists that he never raised a hand against her. He was a good husband. She never worried when he was out that he would be unfaithful because he strongly disapproved of women who dressed provocatively or showed too much skin. He did come home frequently with blood on his clothes. She said he simply cut himself at work all the time and she washed the blood without thinking about it.  Kneeland has been a suspect in many other murders around the area. Given the opportunistic nature of his crimes, I believe he committed other crimes out there which we will never link to him.

Everyone was shocked when Kneeland was placed under arrest. His father insisted that he was always a good boy. His pastor went to visit the young minister in jail and referred to him as “one frightened boy.” Kermit and Fort Worth are very far apart. Kneeland was arraigned for the Fort Worth murders and the kidnapping, but then had to be transported across the state to answer for his crime against Nancy Mitchell. Gene Mitchell was relieved to have the crime solved, but that didn’t undo the years of hell he and his daughters had endured.

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

In a plea agreement, Kneeland was sentenced to 10 years for kidnapping Danita Cash and two life sentences for the murders of Jane Handy and Robert Gholson.  He was sent back to Kermit for trial there. Because of the publicity, the case was transferred to another county. The offense Kneeland committed against Nancy were all stacked: Kidnapping, murder, abuse of corpse. The prosecution, Winkler County DA Mike Fostel asked the jury to sentence Kneeland to 270 years. The jury sentenced him to 550 years.

In a perfect world, that’s where the story would end, with Kneeland in prison. But the 1970s and 80s there was a movement away from incarceration. Prisons were overflowing and to ease the crowding, prisoners were paroled at unprecedented rates. It made sense to release those serving steep sentences for drug and property crimes, but a predator? Anyone could get three for one good time. September 16, 1987, just 12 years and 9 months after he had been incarcerated, Tommy Ray Kneeland was paroled.

Mike Fostel was shocked. Due to a glitch, the parole notifications had gone to the county where the prosecution had been transferred and not Winkler or Tarrant Counties. They didn’t have the chance to object. During his brief incarceration, Kneeland had been up for parole three times.

Kermit didn’t want Kneeland to return there but that was fine, because the city of Hico was ready to welcome Kneeland with open arms. Some family or friends had started a petition there to help him get parole. A local pastor had written letter to parole board talking about how his family would welcome Kneeland and he had a place to stay. He later claimed  he didn’t know what Kneeland was actually in prison for.

Kneeland re-married, this time to a woman with two children, was again active in church and started his own business. However in July 1994 he was stopped for expired registration and found to have two rifles in his truck including a loaded semi-auto under his seat. This was a violation of his parole.

Residents of Hico admitted to mixed feelings. Some insisted they were sure he was rehabilitated. They described him as a hard working family man, a good Christian. Of course, that’s how people described Kneeland before he started raping and killing. These people thought it too harsh to send Kneeland back to prison, but considering he was known to kidnap women at gunpoint, the violation is alarming. Other residents of Hico confessed to being relieved. Many said they didn’t know what he had been in prison for and were shocked.

Tommy Ray Kneeland is the classic example of how the appearances can deceive. Underneath the preacher man façade was a dark savagery only revealed by his terrible crimes. Thankfully, Kneeland is still housed in the Stiles Unit, never again to be released. The release of such dangerous men as Tommy Ray Kneeland and Kenneth McDuff caused Texas to once again overhaul parole laws, tightening them, but the moods of the public swing like a pendulum and I see a movement for compassion and rehabilitation. Those are lofty goals and while I agree with the sentiment, I hope we never again lose sight of the importance of keeping dangerous predators locked up.

 

Stiles
Stiles Unit, Jefferson County Texas

 

 

Sources Notes:

Researching an older case can be challenging. Here are some of the places I located information.

Kneeland’s appeal can be read here. It is a subscription service but you can pay per report if you are interested enough.

The Gone Cold podcast was an in valuable resource and I highly recommend it. You can listen to it on iTunes, Stitcher, or whatever pod catcher you prefer.

Most of my other resources were difficult to locate and require a subscription to Newspapers.com . If you do have a subscription, the best coverage was the Odessa American.